Throughout human history, mystics and shamans have used trances to heal, seek knowledge, and gain insight beyond our conscious capabilities. Shamans used (and still use) trances to conduct healing work that the more scientifically-minded would recognize as psychotherapy from very ancient times, and to interact between the spirit and physical worlds. In ancient Greece, pilgrims visited the Temple of Epidaurus for “dream incubation” and healing sleep, in which dreams were interpreted much in the way that modern psychoanalysts do (though omens were also read.) Mystics in most of the world’s major religious traditions, including Yoga, Sufism, Buddhism, Islam, Shamanism, Native Spirituality, Aboriginal traditions of Australia, and medieval and American Christianity, used trances to seek divine insight and religious communion and ecstasy, which you can find in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, St. Theresa, St. Francis of Assisi, Crazy Horse, and modern writers Carlos Castaneda, Lynn Andrews, and Stuart Wilde.
Trances used for divination (deliberately accessing extrasensory abilities such as seeing the future or clairvoyance) have an ancient history. Most of the cultures of the ancient classical world speak of sibyls; or prophetesses whom leaders and generals would consult before waging war or making major political decisions. Oracles (serving a similar role) have also been significant in most ancient cultures, including ancient Greece, China, India, Mesoamerica, Nigeria, Hawaii, and Celtic Europe, where Druids and Ovates served that function. The völva of Norse cultures were very like the sibyls or the frenzied Oracles of Delphi, and the Nechung Oracle continues to serve a significant function in the religion and government of Tibet. All of these seers would achieve either a meditative or ecstatic trance state to deliver their words of wisdom.
Military trances also have a long history. The berserkers of the Norse (the Vikings) were famed for their rage-driven madness, their apparently superhuman strength and immunity to pain, and similar trance states are described in the writings of the Romans referring to the blue woad-painted Pictish warriors, and in the description of the Celtic “warp-spasm” that Cuchulain was legendary for. Muslim “assassins” in the age of the Crusades were actually called “Hashishin,” named for the hash oil that they reputedly smoked to achieve their legendary determination and precision in combat. From as early as the 16th century, “march music” was used to entrain an army into a “battle trance;” marching and attacking as one and feeling little pain or fear.
Modern psychology and hypnotherapy draw upon the work of Mesmer and Milton Erikson to utilize hypnotherapy to treat a wide variety of neuroses, obsessions, addictions and anxiety disorders. Modern shamans and mediums use trances much as they always have; to communicate between the spiritual and physical worlds. Mystics all over the world continue to use trances to achieve astounding feats such as levitation, piercing, scourging, hibernation and walking on hot coals. And modern Witches, channels and mediums use trances to call spirits and gods into their bodies to communicate with us.
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