Birthing a shamanic healing drum

A drum is alive and has a spirit. When I make a drum I am responsible for this being and this being is responsible for me. My own drum is a physical piece of evidence of my own sacred marriage with spirit. She – my drum – helps me to make divination, heal, unmake, release, bind, separate. Together the spirits and I create and destroy. In Tuva they say a shaman is nothing without a drum. 

Not all drums are meant for shamanic healing. Drums have many roles in many different hands. In my understanding of shamanhood if you hold and use a drum it is for shamanic healing. One has a sacred contract with the spirits which you are showing to the world by your use of the drum.

For the past twenty-two years, I undertake a process with people which I call ‘drum birthing’. This process is about bringing that which is Spirit as instructed or guided by our spirit helpers into this reality. For this, I use natural materials of timber and animal skin; the Land; midwives; community; shamanic journeying; an animist belief that All is alive and has a Spirit and all is connected. Drum-birthing is about doing the best we can to bring into being a healing drum which is as individual and beautiful as the person birthing. The drum is awakened and blessed when brought into the world.

My relationship with drum began soon after I participated in a Shaman’s journey- basic workshop with Jonathan Horowitz and Heimo Lappalainen in 1991. These two were, at that time, teaching for Foundation for Shamanic Studies in Scandinavia/Finland. They were my introduction to shamanic journeying and my first drumming experience with them is still strong in my heart. It set my feet straight on the shamanic/animistic path I still walk; but, that is a whole other story for another time. Back then Remo synthetic drums were very much in use in Finland: no matter if -30C or +30C, they sounded. 

My Remo drum was sweet to play; sweet to listen too, sweet to sing with, and sweet to work with. This was the drum which travelled to Tuva (Tyva) in 1994 when I made my first visit there to return Heimo’s ashes and attempt to continue a joint project there with some of the Xam/Xamnar (shamans) and stone carvers. This journey also became the turning point for my walk with Spirit and an.initiation into Tuvan worldview and healing through song and drum. 

There I learned about drums, shamanic healing (for lack of a better word) from my Tuvan teachers. I deepened into how a drum is alive, has a spirit, and the relationship between Shaman and drum being an active and intimate relationship, such as a marriage between two persons.

When one of my Tuvan Xamnar teachers Tözhü Teshit Lopsanovna (1912-1999) took my Remo drum and covered it with a white gauze clothe so that our spirit helpers would not get mixed up or transfer to each other I understood on a completely new level the respect and honouring of Spirit of the Drum.

I felt I was home. For Singing has always been present in my life since childhood. ut the drum took me – and my song – to a new, much deeper place. So, I learned to work with my drum, and my voice and they spread like a swollen river into my healing work and daily life. 

In Tuva I heard stories about as well as witnessed the power of drums through use: power to create and destroy; power to cause harm and heal; to chase away illness; to bring in blessings through the power of voice and the drum combined. My judaeo-christian, holy-roller, esoteric, classical voice and music therapy, church-singing upbringing moved aside willingly! 

I have heard lots of stories about shamans and their drums and read old stories, recorded by anthropologists and ethnographers. Many of these spoke of shaman’s drums falling from the sky, or of them being made by the shaman’s community. Sometimes a drum was found in the forest; sometimes it took years to be made  – each part being collected, or made, over a shaman’s whole apprenticeship which may take years.

Carrying a healing drum is a responsibility. It is as if you have a child to raise, yet you are also the child yourself and the drum is your parent. It is a responsibility, a commitment, one which is ‘until death do you part.’

Traditionally, in Tuva, a shaman would have only one drum and they would use it for their whole lifetime. I do not have many shaman drums: one is my partner, another is for others to use. It is much work to keep them fed and alive.

In the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm there are some old Sámi shaman’s drums, and if you look closely at them, you will see some of them have been repaired: a few stitches to close a tear here, a small patch of reindeer skin to cover a hole there. I project perhaps in assuming they were cared for and loved! In Tuva it was the same: one drum to one shaman.

There is a rich tradition of making shamanic healing drums and our consumer-led/immediate gratification traditions simply lack such. The journey to reclaim part of the Finnish tradition is when our drum-birthing began in Finland.

THE CALL TO BIRTH DRUMS

   It was back in the 1990s that my dear friend Jaana Kouri and I were given a similar dream: helping people make their own drums (handcraft) and birthing their own drums with sacred Spirit.

   Our inspiration came during a workshop which I had organised on behalf of Annette Høst. Her teachings were of the Nordic Seiđr (2) focusing on women’s cycles and renewing old earth wisdom.

Jaana and I both received a teaching from the spirits of the land about reclaiming past knowledge and re-inspiring our own culture. We both realised that language, stories and the ways of drum making were the paths we should tread to bring this vision forwards. 

How could we in this day and age of cultural appropriation, consumerism and competition be välittäjä? As välittäjä we are the brokers, the bargainer, the negotiator between Spirit and the people; the go-betweens and ultimately the ones who help facilitate the physical act of creating and birthing shamanic healing drums as guided by direct intervention with one’s own spirit teachers?

A few years ago Jaana returned the word of academia (Spirit-led!) to focus on her university path whilst I continued with the drum-birthing process. Tanja Kangas co-leads now for she was apprenticed to this work (Jaana and myself) for twelve years. One day I will stop doing this, stop being a midwife in the ‘birthing’ of drums and for now Tanja and I work with people together.

RECLAIMING AND RE-INSPIRING

To reclaim and re-inspire Jaana and I made journeys to our spirit teachers, we sat with Mother Earth, the Sea, Lakes, ponds asking for vision and guidance. Our mutual interest in language, stories, songs, handcraft and a living connection with spirit helpers brought in the vision. 

Giving birth speaks of being pregnant – you can’t give birth without a pregnancy first. It speaks of fecundity, of being fertile, and of bringing ‘that which is hidden’ into being.

Think of the process of making a baby: a seed, semen, and a receptacle – the womb – are required.

With the making of physical babies, we all have a fairly clear vision of what each of those things are, yes? But even then, we do not know really what we are birthing; what kind of being, what child will arrive? We may have our dreams and expectations, but we also have uncertainty.

All birth is like this, whether it is a physical baby, a painting, a piece of music, a new business or a healing drum.

It all begins with that seed, a dream, a desire, a passion for a voice to communicate with.

For some this is a dream of a drum for healing others, for others it is a different dream. Some people go away at the end of the process with a drum that has a totally different intention than doing healing work for other people or places – perhaps the drum is about them healing themselves.

A person will be pregnant with their drum and this forms a link to a central part way to honour our past traditions in Finland: the tradition of sauna.

Sauna is found all over the world by different names and with varying customs and physical forms. Sweatlodges of the First Nations of Turtle Island seem to be the most known form borrowed by other peoples. In Finland they have been a sacred central part of the culture for a very, very long time.

It is said that sauna is the first building (made of logs/ turf/ peat/ holes in the earth/ skins) constructed when arriving to a place. It was the first living quarters whilst building a house. Sauna was the place for giving birth and even up until the 1970s there were still people being born in them. It is the place for doing healing, for doing magical charm work, for bathing and also washing the dead. It is a holy place, with its own sacred rules, and has many different guardian-like spirits.

This is the place where transformation and alchemy are visible within fire heating stones and water poured on them to create steam. Sauna is the place where we climb the ‘hill of pain,’ it is the place for our prayers to be given and also answered; the place for our physical healing to be resolved; for our hurt hearts to be soothed; for purification; celebration; initiation and weeping the pain of change. It is, for us, a womb.

In Finnish, we also speak of the seppä  – the smith – who is found in the old rune-songs and stories of Karelia (1). Seppä is the transformer, working with stone and metal, fire, heat, steam, water and air. They get “hot” from which some traditions speak of as what the “tietäjä”, Finnish for “one who Knows” does when going between the worlds. 

So having our sauna womb available during the birthing we are able to honour our ancestors. We reclaimed the seppä and getting hot into our work. We reclaimed its use in our drum birthing.

BIRTH IS OF WATER AND FIRE

We speak of ‘birthing’ because it is about being in the borderlands between ‘spirit and matter,’ it is about being on the edge – having one foot in each realm.

People need to generate a connection between their own spirit helpers, and the spirits of nature in order to bring forth a healing drum. How can we connect, and receive guidance from our helpers, and bring this information into this reality?

We are the välittäjä; the go-between, the hollow-bone, the conduit for the spirits to work through us when doing healing work. We immerse ourselves in the energy of Creator-Luoja: creation and destruction, cooperating with spirits of nature-Luonto, our own nature-luonto, spirit helpers, and with one another, to take creative seeds and plant them continuously in our womb-kohtu (any human!) weaving knots of our new fate-kohtalo and meet ourselves-kohdata into this new path. This is sacrum of birthing a sacred healing drum.

For a full week we guide a small group given over to birthing a shamanic healing drum. This was our compromise with tradition and modern life.

At the beginning, Tanja and I set up an altar in the centre of our work space created from our first journey to the spirits. We make that journey to learn about the coming week together, to learn about our time and journey with the other people gathered.

We ask for strength and for power for the week ahead, we give thanks for those arriving, we seek vision of what is coming forward and for blessing – and all this is then laid out on the altar as a reminder to us. This gives birth to our red thread for the week. 

CONNECTION WITH THE GREATEST OF MOTHERS 

Having people gather in circle for an extended period of time allows us to guide each person into a deep connection with the spirits of nature, the spirits of elements, and with their own spirit helpers. Their spirits guide every aspect of putting the drum together.

There are many teaching stories about places of power and the the World Tree or Centre of the World. People would go to find their ‘power place’ in nature for the birthing process. This is a place where they feel a connection to the ‘World Tree,’ the sacred ‘centre of everything’.

The idea of the World Tree is found all over the world, and is often seen in paintings on the front of a shaman’s drum; as well as sometimes being found represented on the inside of a drum – the part that faces the shaman, the spirit or god side.  

Sometimes they will get instructions that the world tree needs to be brought into their drum physically. Perhaps it is the part they hold, or woven in or drawn in. 

This connecting power place is where each person will constantly. Sometimes it is the place they will spend a night sitting out with nature to seek an answer (3).

We have sacred practises for each part of the drums construction: the frame, the skin, the lacings and the finished drum’s decoration.

There are sacred ways to choose the skin and the wood board which will become the frame, as there are for bending that board, and for joining the head and tail of the board to make the round drum frame, and also for attaching the skin.

All of these are done with the constant contact of a person’s spirit helpers, with song, and with their partner kätilö or midwife, and if needed Tanja or myself – and all with contact with their power place, out in nature, 

When people come and ask how or what to do, we ask them if they have asked their helpers. The mantra of the week is “Go ask your spirit helpers before you come to us.” 

We have different practises to help people in this, help them be in contact with their spirit helpers. In that way, people learn to walk in this physical world and in the spirit world actively – both at the same time – weaving the two worlds together to aid the birthing process. Nothing is ever pre-ordained! Birthers learn to follow the clues their helpers give and this is key to birthing a healing shaman’s drum. Often one of the most difficult teachings for some is just allowing this red thread to form and following it. We do our best to support and assist so that the visions are brought into this reality.

We give examples of this sacred weaving in language and story – both from Finland and Tuva – as a way to help explain the different parts of the drum and the basic way all the parts are put together. A central part is connecting to our mother Earth and the energy of the cauldron, the iron pot full of possibility, full of flame, full of creation energy. This is where the raw energy arises and it is not from the arms! Physically, we refer to it as vitun voima and reclaim the old meaning in Finnish: the energy from the hips, womb, cervix, the hundreds of ligaments and muscles in and around the female genitalia. Yes, men can connect with this energy also and perhaps this is where “ergi” actually originates (4). Some folk try and use their arm strength with no connection to their womb space and the results are torn skins, frames that crack when they wouldn’t have, even getting more tired and frustrated. This is the region of birthing power. 

We speak of ‘bones’ – the drum’s frame; and of ‘skin;’ and of ‘laces’. These are all parts of our fate and we are tied to our fate by our laces, and all of these come forth from water. 

As I said before, ‘the birth is of water and fire,’ but first of all, people have to ‘find the bones.’ when we were born we all swam in the birth waters of our mothers, and we swim in the birth waters once again as part of the birthing process of our drums.

We arrange a sacred walk with that specific intention – a walk to find the bones. People set off into the forest, down wild paths, and at the end of the walk they come to the birthwaters, just like in the pregnant belly.

We almost always have a body of water for the bones – the wooden frame boards – where they float.

So, people undress, and they go into the birthwaters of the bones and find, or choose, one of the boards within them.

They swim, paddle or float with their bones, until they feel ready to arise, dress and return to the land, bringing their boards with them.

Bending the wooden board to form the drum frame is a communal event, it requires a team effort, it is not a job that is meant to be completed by oneself. Bending is when the baby first starts to be born and everyone in the circle are supporters of this. Bending is when the frame – the bones – of the shaman are joined. Shapes vary and speak to the red thread of their birth story. We have never lost a baby! 

The skin is the face we show to the world. The inside, with its fat and fascia perhaps still present, is part of the god-side: the side the shaman speaks and sings with, where the secrets are kept. We arrange the choosing of skins so it is directly connected to Spirit and their spirit helpers. Stretching the skin and attaching it to the bones is pair work between birther and midwife. 

 In Tuva, one shamanic song sings of ‘tying the laces of a shaman destiny.’ When we work with the drum’s laces – the part that ties the drum skin to the drum frame – they tie us to the World Tree, which we hold in our hand as we play the drum. When we work with our laces, we tie our fate. Singing their birth song, their power songs strengthens them during this all day and sometimes into the night, process.

I find that communal drum birthing requires learning about boundaries. Imagine ten people scattered around in a large area outdoors – some sitting close to each other, others set apart. Some are singing to their frames as they whittle, saw and smooth them, while others are quieter than quiet. Some people talk to their frames; some sit and rattle their rattles whilst holding their frame.

Some people have never held a sharp knife before, or used a hand drill which does not run on electricity.

Some people disappear, going to their power place to find out what is next in the process to work the frame.

Some people tell others to leave them alone, and some learn to ask others for help – which might be one of the hardest things for them to do. And when asked, some learn to say “No”, and remain focused on their own process – not being available to solve everyone’s problems.

And then, sometimes, when they are at almost the end of putting their drum together they come to understand – or get told by the spirits – that their drum is not for healing other people, it is for healing themselves. The spirit of the drum decides and it lets the person know.

All the shamanic journeys people make are important, and all of them reveal a side of the spirit of their drum which is important for them to understand (or begin too).

The final journey everyone makes is to meet the spirit of their drum. This is probably the part of the whole process I cannot emphasise the importance of enough. It is vitally important to know the spirit of your drum, who they are, how to honour them; how are they to be worked with; for what reason and when; what offerings do you need to give to them; can other people hold them or are they for your hands only?

They say in Tuva that if one doesn’t take care of – doesn’t honour a drum – it can turn around and bite you. What that means, is that one needs to care, co-operate and use a drum respectfully, because the drum is alive, and so, if you are not careful, it can turn around and do you harm – prevent good things happening to you. Interesting is that löylyy can do the same!

And then, finally, we come to the important task of waking up and blessing the newly made drum. We join in community – all of us in circle – and we put on our finery and we make ceremony.

Each year the ceremony differs because each year we contact our spirit helpers and ask about the blessing ceremony. As each group of people have been different, so the ceremony has been different.

We ask, “what was the ‘red thread’ during the week?” ‘What events, nature spirits or phrases around the dinner table are important for the ceremony with this circle?”; “What should it look like?”; “Who wants to be present, remembered, honoured?”

Then Tanja and I sit together and weave our answers together, and in this way, we honour our helpers, the spirits of the place where we are, the ancestors, the group and all the drum spirits.

We feel we honour the making of the drums in the best way possible, and I also think we work in quite a traditional way, considering the times we live in. A week is good, but ten days would be even better.

We need more drum carriers – we need more healing drums. All the drums people make with us are healing drums, and some – but not all – of these are shaman’s drums too.

To do shamanic healing work is to be grounded, rooted in the earth, with your hands in the heavens, and with a constant flow going between here and there and bringing it back to your people.

This flow directs your hands to create. It is one of the ways for the spirits too manifest; it is a way to bring new ways into the world, new inventions even. The sacred is present when we call it in, be aware of its presence in every action, as every act is a prayer, and every drum is a voice of prayer, when we play it.

Making a drum is a journey into the raw energy of the creative. It is the energy of passion, of joyful lust, of heat and of fire. It is a joining in with that creative spark, and keeping it smouldering so that it is ever present in our lives.

When we work and eat in community there is always much laughter and tears about how everything in drum-birthing is a reflection of life – basic, life-making and life-giving fecund sensual sexual nutrition-giving and taking LIFE!

Touching the sacred is focusing the energy of our ordinary reality time with the time continuum of our spirit helpers, mixed with a heaping of intention, so as to produce a flow which is so focused, that the time of ordinary reality disappears, and we are then enveloped in Their time.

Having a baby is a pretty proud moment; it is amazement, it is awe inspiring, it is an essence of profundity. Birthing a sacred drum is the same.

Many different folk join in and many have on their mind: to make a shaman’s drum – and some of them do, and some of them don’t for something else wanted to be born to them. Sounds like a natural pregnancy!

People often tell me afterwards that it was the hardest, and most wonderful thing, they had ever done. They tell me that they are in love with their drums.

We had a group of theatre people come and make drums once – playwrights and actors – people who wanted to make drums to help them better understand the energy of creativity involved, maybe have a drum that could be used in their performance. They were surprised at how each drum was so alive and with a spirit and some said straight: I am not to be used for performances, make another! The week time gave them a better sense of the project they were working on

One woman made a drum which was for a child. Her birth story was all about healing and working with children in the schools. Then she came along a second time and a drum was born for mourning and lamenting of her dead grandchild.

Another found out why her drum was born with five sides: the summation of the teachings she received from her helpers gave her literally a layered upon layer teaching five-sided shield of service to Land and community. And she was determined that her drum would be round when she was bending her bones! A beautiful drum to see and hear with teachings in every second of her working with her baby.

Birthing a drum is finding out that the inside is the outside, that the outside is the inside. It is about finding out who is leading whom and who is following and when. It is walking together between the worlds and bringing forth. 



NOTES:
1. K(C)arelia is the geographical region lying on borders of Finland and Russia and may include Fenno-Ingrians. The Karelians are an indigenous group with their own language and culture. During the second world war a great portion of Karelians, over 500,000, were refugees to Finland and the new borders forced upon Finland. Many did not leave the region and so, remain on the Russian side. The Finnish Folk Archives contain rune-songs (poetic like), charm songs, healing songs (the longest over 300 lines), laments. 

2. Visit http://shamanism.dk/closetonature.htm and also other writings on Seiđr/Staff/Song by Annette Høst. 

3. Sitting out in nature for vision: ulko-istuiminen. Old tradition. In Finnish we often say “menee metsään” or “go to the forest” because that is where the wisdom, comfort, guidance, healing happens. And then we are “metsään peitto” or “under the blanket of forest” which might mean that anything can happen so beware! One might just transform!

4. Ergi. I agree whole-heartedly with Annette on this- refer to her article above! My understanding and experience of Ergi is of ecstatic, perhaps a sexual/sensual/erotic, life-full explosion and implosion and giving into it for use in magic, healing. We need more men and women who know how to direct this energy for healing Land and community and not into sexual acts or ego-led, money-led power grabbing.

This article was first printed in Sacred Hoop, 2019 http://www.sacredhoop.org

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