While shamanistic cultures vary remarkably throughout the world, most share the more or less universal themes of the ability to enter deep trances, journey into spirit worlds, and to negotiate with or control spirits. Most ancient lore from ancient pagan and shamanistic cultures contains mythical conceptions of a vertical world tree, mountain, or axis. The tree or world axis has multiple levels which vary in number from one tradition to the next, but the most common number of planes is seven. Like the seven planetary spheres of Hermeticism or the postulated seven planes discussed by both Theosophists and modern astral projection writers, each level represents a different spiritual dimension.
The journeying in the spirit worlds is done by inducing a trance and projecting consciousness into these dimensions, where the shaman may travel up the pole structure to higher realms of spirits, or down to the cthonic realms where the spirits of the dead are often believed to dwell. This process, of course, is the same thing as the practice of astral projection. After the projection of the astral body, the shaman can change his shape— usually into the same kind of beasts who accompany them as familiars. Sometimes these familiar spirits are attached to their clannic bloodlines, including by astral marriages between humans and spirits, in which the human shaman became adopted by the spirit's clan. When the tribe was threatened with dangers to the harvest or hunting grounds, the shaman would travel into the spirit worlds to communicate with the spirits to discover why this was the case. Sometimes the shaman and his spirits were also charged with battling other tribes and repelling their magick.
Shamanistic Astral Projection Techniques
Shamanistic cultures often used extreme techniques to induce the altered states of consciousness necessary for the projection of the astral body or the induction of astral travel in the mind's eye. Conditioning the mind to enter a deep autohypnotic theta trance state is all that is actually required to accomplish all of these feats, but because the conditioning process usually takes months of disciplined practice to fully awaken reliable astral perceptions and sensory faculties, these mechanisms remained hidden or obscured to the many ancient cultures who lacked this knowledge.
Rites of Initiation
In Germanic mythology Odin said to have wounded himself with a sphere and hung himself on tree for nine nights to enter deep trance from which he recovered the mysterious runes from the darkness of the underworld. Such trials of endurance are common in shamanistic cultures, and often take the form of a vision quest in which one goes without nourishment or sleep for many days and nights, until they receive a vision from gods or spirits.
Many tribes also formed initiation rites to determine who would be allowed to practice shamanism. In some cultures a young person seeking to become a shaman would have to prove themselves worthy by undergoing severe trials such as fire walking, brutal physical abuse, starvation and the ingestion of large amounts of toxins, and other extreme tests of physical and mental endurance. Success or failure was interpreted as a measure of the shaman's pre-existing relationship with the spirits. In some cases this may have been done out of a belief in the eugenic principle of survival of the fittest.
In later times the priestcraft of various religions (virtually all of whom had their own roots in some form of pagan shamanism) exploited the framework of such "initiatory" traditions out of a desire to make the practice of magick exclusive to their own caste. In many such cases the "insiders" probably knew full well that intensive autohypnosis was the actual operative technique that enables astral projection and nearly all other forms of magickal practice, including the perception of spirits.
Trance and Hallucinogenic Drugs
The extreme trance-induction methods used by many shamanistic cultures often took a pronounced toll on the shaman's physical and mental health, particularly in instances involving the long-term use of toxins or hallucinogens. Unsurprisingly, herbs, mushrooms, or other hallucinogens were linked with the spirits and the powers of the gods since they capable of inducing astral projection and opening the mind to the perception of the astral dimensions (spirit worlds).
Unfortunately, most hallucinogenic substances do this by disabling or obliterating the body's natural energetic defense systems, which ordinarily act as an automatic defense screening out harmful astral influences, including vexatious spirits. The damage is usually (though not always) temporary if the substances are used infrequently, but as modern clairvoyants with second sight can affirm, the use of strong drugs substantially damages the human energy field.
A similar weakening of the energy field takes place from drinking large amounts of alcohol, although its use in moderation was generally less dangerous than hallucinogens or toxins. Many ancient cultures with some knowledge of the distillation of alcohol considered it a gift from the spirits since (used in moderation) it is conducive to the mental and physical relaxation needed to enter a hypnotic trance state. The ancient Greeks considered wine a gift from the gods, and at one point considered it so sacred that it was not to be used for any purpose other than the induction of an altered state during religious rites.
Trance, Rhythm and Brainwave Entrainment
Not all cultures relied on the extreme techniques described above, and many used music in addition to or instead of trials of endurance. Germanic wizards and witches apparently made use of rhythmic tapping to induce the deep hypnotic state necessary to astral project or access information in astral dimensions. Rhythmic music or drumming changes the brainwaves in a similar way as modern brainwave entrainment using binaural beats or isochronic tones. Rhythmic repetitive chanting, singing or repetition of mantras is also extremely conducive to the process, since the subconscious mind receives affirmation embodying the intentions of the shaman. This is more or less the same technique popularized in the 1980s by Michael Harner in The Way of the Shaman, in which Harner combined the trance induction with simple visualizations of entering caves or tunnels. Harner himself had been initiated into several Amerindian shamanistic traditions involving both ingestion of powerful hallucinogens and other more extreme physical trials, but prudently introduced a basic self-hypnotic method that could be used by ordinary readers of his book.