image: Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, Mooney. page 933. Public domain (link).
James Mooney (1861 - 1921) preserved, as best as he could do so, the Ghost-Dance movement of the late 1800s in his careful and thorough description of its extent, its teachings, and most importantly the dance itself.
Mooney traveled extensively among the tribes who participated most, from the Arapaho and Sioux in the Great Plains all the way out across the Rockies, among the Paiute where the Ghost-Dance originated, and into California, where it reached all the way to the edge of the Pacific.
The specific details of the political conditions of the time are very important history, with many lessons to teach us: for example, it seems very important to ask why the powers of the US government were so anxious to suppress a movement whose main features included peaceful dancing, singing, and the achievement of a state of trance or ecstasy in which participants reported seeing and speaking with departed loved ones.
However, in addition to the extremely important circumstances of the particular situation of what was happening to the Native Americans during the years that the Ghost-Dance movement arose, and the extent to which it was a response to the injustices and violations that had been perpetrated against them by the agents of the US government and which had finally reached a point of culmination, the first-hand descriptions and careful historical background which Mooney compiled about the dance itself provides important insight into the broader phenomenon of "trance conditions" in general, a phenomenon which in fact has been part of nearly every culture on our planet, stretching back millennia and reaching forward to the present day.
Mooney's account, entitled The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, which was published as part of the US Bureau of Ethnology annual report in 1894 and which is still available today under the slightly-revised title of The Ghost-Dance Religion and Wounded Knee, consists of around 450 pages of detailed description. Obviously, it contains so much detail and valuable information that only a very small amount can be examined within the scope of this short post. Some of the subject matter which Mooney covers has been explored in previous posts, such as this one.
Here, only a few important details will be examined for some of their implications, especially as they fit into the broader subject of what we might call ecstatic experience, or contact with the hidden realm, or entry into trance conditions. It should be noted that Mooney himself devoted a section of his study to the similarities of the trance-states achieved during the Ghost-Dance and other accounts from history, including the case of Joan of Arc, the practice of dervish or Sema ecstatic whirling and dancing, and accounts from ancient times including some hints in the Bible (and several others). Many of the common features among such ecstatic practice across cultures and across centuries are very striking, which is no doubt part of the reason Mooney decided to discuss these commonalities in his text.
- Mooney describes the features of the dance itself in great detail, as well as the actual methods used to induce the trance state, particularly in the pages numbered 922 - 927. An online edition of Mooney's text is linked above (here is the link again) and it is well worth reading the description with care. Be sure to use the page numbers "printed" on the facsimile pages themselves, from the original book: the page numbers of the "online edition" do not match up, in this particular case (page 922 in the original text matches up with electronic page 352, for instance). The image above shows participants in trance-state: Mooney explains that some go rigid while still standing, some slump into half-standing positions which they hold for some time and which would be extremely unlikely for anyone who is actually conscious to be able to hold, and all of them eventually "fall heavily to the ground, unconscious and motionless," as seen in the image at top.
- Mooney notes that he observed some examples of "humbug" behavior (persons pretending to go into the ecstatic state, possibly because they thought that by pretending to be experience the trance they might actually induce themselves to go into the trance), but that in the great majority of the cases he observed the ecstatic state was "unquestionably genuine and beyond the control of the subjects" (926).
- By far the majority of the visions experienced and reported by participants, from tribes located at great distances from one another and even by a young East coast visitor who declared he wanted to experience the trance for himself (Paul Boynton, page 923), involved contact with departed relatives. This is remarkably similar to the first-hand accounts related by literally thousands of modern near-death experience survivors, a phenomenon examined in great detail in the excellent book Science and the Near-Death Experience, by Chris Carter (discussed in this previous blog post).
- In some of the variations of the Ghost-Dance movement, participants were specifically told that they would be encountering "maternal ancestors" (see descriptions on pages 812 and following, in the original "book" pagination). This seems to have some resonance with the ayahuasca experiences described by Graham Hancock in the lecture linked in this previous post.
- In most places that the Ghost-Dance was practiced, men or women who went into the trance state were left alone and not disturbed (even dogs were shooed away from the Ghost-Dance sites, so that they would not go up to a participant who had entered the trance). However, Mooney relates that in one particular place -- among a group which were called the Cohonino (some letters written at the time, which Mooney includes in his text, spell it Cojonino) and who are described in a contemporary account as living in the region of Cataract Creek (which runs through the Havasupai Reservation) Mooney remarks upon the observation that there, the medicine-men wait for some period of time deemed sufficient and then revive those who go into the trance-state. Of this distinctive detail, Mooney states: "Resuscitation by the medicine-men, as here mentioned, is something unknown among the prairie tribes, where the unconscious subject is allowed to lie undisturbed on the ground until the senses return the natureal way" (814).
- This detail about having the attending shamans revive the trance participant is remarkably similar to the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts, which Dr. Jeremy Naydler has convincingly argued appear to describe a ritual in which the king falls into a trance state and has out-of-body visions. In the Pyramid Texts, there are distinctive lines which command the king to return to the body, and to wake up, saying "You are not dead!" These texts have been interpreted within the consensus academic view which see the pyramids as tombs and the Pyramid Texts as descriptions of an imagined afterlife journey as being "wishful thinking" (the living are wishfully saying that the king is not dead, even though in fact he is dead, according to that consensus view). However, Dr. Naydler argues that the Pyramid Texts are more satisfactorily understood as describing a ritual of shamanic journeying, and that the specific texts in question are "revival" or "resuscitation" texts, in which a formal "call to return" is issued to bring back the traveler. See more on this subject here.
- The same Cohonino ritual of inducing the trance described above involves climbing a pole towards the top, where the tail-feathers of a hawk or eagle (or the entire tail) are affixed. Climbing a tree is a shamanic practice around the world, and it is also manifest in many of the ancient mythologies of the world, all of which I believe can be shown to be shamanic in nature. One clear example of mounting a tree in order to gain vision into the other world is found in the famous "sacrifice of Odin," described here. That post also notes some very clear similarities between the ascent of Odin on the World-Tree and the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross (which itself is often referred to as "the Tree" in the Biblical scriptures).
- Finally (for this particular examination of the Ghost-Dance -- more in the future), it is significant to note that the Ghost-Dance is all about contact with the spirit world, and that the motion of the dance itself is specifically and consciously described as being imitative of the motions of the heavenly bodies through the sky (see Mooney's description, page 920, where the motion of the dancers is described as being "from right to left, following the course of the sun"). The connection between the motions of the heavens and the spirit realm which is invisible but always close at hand (in fact, it permeates and even generates all that is here in the material realm, according to some accounts), is thus clearly established in the Ghost-Dance, just as in so many other sacred traditions in human history.
Although there is abundant evidence that the knowledge of techniques for entering the ecstatic state and making contact with the unseen world was once common to all cultures of the world, I believe that there is also very specific evidence that the worldview which we might today label as "shamanic" and "ecstatic" was deliberately stamped out in Europe (especially western Europe) by the people behind the rise of literalist Christianity.
Note that this fact does not necessarily mean that those responsible for the campaigns to stamp it out in the western Roman Empire (which, after the dissolution of the Roman Empire, became simply "western Europe") did not themselves believe in the importance of the shamanic or the ecstatic! One possibility is that they knew very well the fact that our universe is in fact composed of what we might call a spirit realm plus a material realm, and that they knew very well the power of such techniques for contacting the spirit realm, and wanted to keep those techniques for themselves while denying them to everyone else (see for instance the previous post entitled "The Cobra-Kai sucker punch . . .").
Such a theory would explain the campaign against shamanic drumming (and even against shamanic drums) which can be documented as lasting for centuries in some places, as discussed in this previous post.
Such a theory would explain the "War against Consciousness" that Graham Hancock described in his famous TED talk (a talk which elicited strong protests from some who opposed his message, perhaps because they are devotees of the "ideology of materialism," or perhaps because they actually are not materialists but actually oppose contact with the spirit realm for other reasons).
And such a theory might also explain the violent opposition to the Ghost-Dance exhibited by the US government, which itself might be seen as descended from and representative of that western European tradition stretching back to the Roman Empire, and the historic opposition to the shamanic worldview. This violent opposition, of course, led directly to the horrific massacre perpetrated by soldiers of the US government at Wounded Knee in December of 1890.