Geographic Distributions and Sociocultural Correlates

In the study cited above, Bourguignon (1973) found that 90% of sample societies had institutionalized Trance

(or altered state of consciousness) and/or Possession Trance in a sacred context. That is to say, Trance states interpreted as due to possession, or interpreted in some other way, are here grouped together. For the remaining 10%, evidence on the subject was unavailable or inadequate. There were significant differences among ethnographic regions in the utilization of trance states: they ranged from a high of 97% of societies in Native North America, to 94% each in the Insular Pacific and East Eurasia, 84% in South America, 83% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and to a low of 80% in the Circum-Mediterranean region. A belief in spirit possession was found in 74% of the world sample. Again, there was wide variation between world regions, ranging from 88% of the societies of the Insular Pacific and East Eurasia, to 81% of Sub-Saharan societies, 80% in the Circum-Mediterranean, to 65% in South America, and finally North America with a low of 52%. Here we are counting both societies that either have a possession belief linked to trance states and those where possession refers to some other change in the host. With regard to possession beliefs, one might say that the New World is indeed a world apart.

Possession Trance is significantly correlated with Sub-Saharan Africa, where it appears in 45% of societies. By contrast, non-Possession Trance is highly correlated with North America, where it is found in 72% of sample societies. In addition, both Possession Trance and Trance are found in 20% of African societies. In North America, both are found in 21% of societies. In other words, while the most prominent form of sacred altered state of consciousness in North America is Visionary Trance, in Africa it is Possession Trance. Visionary Trance is more likely to be found among men, Possession Trance among women.

Belief in spirit possession is also widespread (Bourguignon, 1976). It appears in 74% of sample societies. Because of the difference between the near universality of institutionalized trance and the much lower incidence of possession beliefs, as well as other evidence, such as the widespread existence of nonsacred forms of trance, it may be argued that trance has its roots in human physiology, whereas possession beliefs, which are highly variable, are cultural phenomena. The human capacity for trancing (or dissociation) thus may be seen as raw material for cultural utilization.

It may be noted that Possession Trance involves the enactment of multiple roles by human actors. This is more likely to be the case in complex societies, where there exists a varied repertory of roles for individuals. It is then not surprising that correlations were found between the presence of Possession Trance and four variables showing degrees of societal complexity: estimated population size over 100,000; present or recent presence of slavery; permanent or semi-permanent settlements; and a jurisdictional hierarchy above the local level. Societies with Trance only were significantly less likely to have these characteristics. Societies having both Trance and Possession Trance were found to be intermediary between the other two types or to be the most complex of all. These correlations have been confirmed by restudies by other scholars (Shaara & Strathern, 1992; Winkelman, 1992).

Where both Possession Trance and non-Possession Trance are found in the same society, it is often the case that they involve different types of persons and different contexts. The same applies to Possession and Possession Trance. For example, among the Azande (Evans-Pritchard, 1937) there is a belief in possession: certain people—mostly men—have a witchcraft creature residing in their bodies which they can activate to cause harm to others. There are also "witch doctors," most of whom also are men. They take "medicines which give them power to see the unseen and to resist great fatigue" (Evans-Pritchard, 1937, p.178). It is not known whether these "medicines" are pharmacologically active. They are taken in conjunction with drumming, singing, and active dancing during which the witch doctors achieve a state of dissociation in which they prophecy, and identify witches. That is, there exists a ritual Trance state among the Azande, which is not linked to a belief in possession. However, Possession Trance did exist among the Azande, for Evans-Pritchard (1962) tells us that they also had women ghost diviners who went into trance and were possessed.

In a study of a sample of African societies, Greenbaum (1973) has found support for a hypothesis suggesting a relationship between the presence of Possession Trance and societal rigidity.

Winkelman (1992), focusing his attention on various types of "trance-based healers"—that is, healers employing trance states—offers a four-fold classification: Shaman; shaman/healer; healer; medium. These four types are found linked to levels of societal complexity.

The difference between Sub-Saharan Africa and Native North America suggests some explanatory hypotheses: the ethnographic record of these two regions shows major differences in the predominant economy (hunting and gathering vs. agriculture), small versus large population size, simple versus complex political structures, etc. as well as the differential participation of men and women in religious rituals. In an early cross-cultural statistical study, D'Andrade (1961) studied the use of dreams (and visionary trances—the two are not clearly distinguished in the literature) to seek and control supernatural powers. He found that about 80% of hunting and fishing societies use dreams in this way and only 20% of societies that depend on agriculture and animal husbandry do. But hunting and fishing was the predominant type of economy in native North America and relatively rare in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, the seekers were primarily men. D'Andrade (1961, p. 326) speaks of "anxiety about being isolated and under pressure to be self-reliant" and suggests that this may create "an involvement with a type of fantasy about magical helpers." That the vision quest takes place at a time in the lives of young men when they needed to become independent and self-reliant in societies where self-reliance and independence were necessary for the male role, is also noteworthy. On the other hand, in the agricultural, sedentary societies of Africa, Possession Trance, practiced in groups, addressed the concerns of women with striking frequency. They often involve diagnoses of problems, by means of divination, concern for long-term relationship with spirits, as well as the opportunity to act out various roles. When women are possessed by powerful male spirits, these may be their spirit husbands.

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Essentials of Human Physiology

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