Shamanic Drums: Symbols and Meanings

The most important instrument used by shamans to go into trance and communicate with supernatural beings is the drum. Shamanic drums are usually made by stretching the skin of some animals such as goat, deer or cattle over a wooden frame. After the skin is fixed, various symbolic figures with different meanings and functions are drawn on it. Through these figures, it is believed that the shaman can direct energy in the desired direction and embark on journeys between realms.

How Should the Symbols on Shamanic Drums Be Interpreted?

To comprehend the meaning of symbols on shamanic drums, it is essential to first understand the role of archetypal elements. Carl Jung’s concept of archetype is associated with universal symbols found in the collective unconscious. Shamanic symbols are considered a reflection of these universal archetypes. Therefore, folklorists and anthropologists often utilize archetypal analyses to explain and interpret the inner meanings of symbols.

Considering the cultural context of shamanic symbols allows these symbols to be evaluated from a broader perspective. Because culture holds important clues about how symbols are interpreted, how they are used, and how they are integrated into the collective consciousness of the society. Therefore, researchers examine how symbols gain meaning within the mythology, traditions and rituals of a particular culture before making interpretations.

Therefore, the symbols on shamanic drums require interdisciplinary research in the fields of cultural anthropology, mythology, art history, sociology, and folklore before being evaluated as a whole. During the interpretation phase, ethnocentric prejudices should be strictly avoided.

Animal Figures

The most commonly encountered symbol type on shamanic drums is animal figures. Each animal is considered a powerful guide due to its unique qualities and abilities. Shamans may imitate these animals on their drums and seek assistance from them during trance, believing in their guidance.

For example, a shaman who goes into a trance with the intention of finding the location of a hidden object or foreseeing the future may seek to harness the powers of an eagle, a keen-eyed animal, by mimicking its characteristics.

Some of the most commonly encountered animal figures on shamanic drums are as follows:

Bear

The bear is often featured in shamanism as a symbol of strength, courage, protection and introspection. Shamans protect both themselves and their communities by using the bear’s energy. Likewise, they help people cope with challenges and discover their talents.

Bears are known for their long winter sleeps. People associate this state with introspection and rebirth. In this regard, the bear symbol may also represent shamans’ quest to journey into their inner world and find the courage to illuminate their dark areas.

Snake

The most important element in snake symbolism is the ability of snakes to shed their skin and renew themselves. This feature has made the snake a symbol of immortality, transformation and rebirth.

Another important element in snake symbolism is their deadly nature. Snakes take on a destructive role by biting and poisoning people. Therefore, shamans may use snake figures not only as symbols of transformation and rebirth, but also for destruction and to penetrate forbidden realms and access secret knowledge.

Deer

Deer is a symbol of grace, kindness, agility and intuition in many cultures. By embracing the grace and agility of the deer, shamans guide people to find their inner balance and live in harmony with nature. The deer also symbolizes the shaman’s ability to perceive danger, avoid danger, and move quickly and gracefully between different realms.

Eagle

The oldest examples of eagle symbolism can be found in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Roman civilizations. In these civilizations, the eagle was considered the messenger, protector, and guardian of the gods. Similarly, in shamanism, it is seen as a symbol of freedom, power, and sovereignty.

The eagle is often associated with elements of the sky. Particularly among Turkic communities, shamans reach the 16th celestial layer where Ülgen resides with the help of the life tree and eagle. Therefore, the figure of the eagle is commonly used in Turkic shamanic drums.

Wolf

Wolves are associated with courage, loyalty, leadership, and freedom in some cultures, while in others, they are linked to cruelty, greed, loneliness, and fear. As a result, wolf figures in shamanic drums can carry significantly different meanings depending on the cultural context.

Goat

The goat is one of the first domesticated animals. It has provided humans with various benefits such as milk, meat, leather, wool and fertilizer. The goat is also an animal that can easily adapt to the geographical and climatic conditions where humans live, survive in challenging circumstances, and thrive on minimal sustenance. Therefore, the goat has become a symbol of positive qualities like productivity, abundance, intelligence, courage, independence, freedom and sacrifice in many cultures.

Fish

While not as common, one of the animal figures occasionally seen in shamanic drums is the fish. The fish is often viewed as a symbol of abundance, prosperity and fertility. It is also considered a sacred and mystical animal in many religions. The ability of fish to swim in the darkest depths of the ocean has led to their association with invisible or hidden realms.

Nature Figures

Another type of symbol frequently seen on shamanic drums is nature figures. In shamanism, nature is often regarded as the source and manifestation of the divine.

In many communities where shamanism is prevalent, animistic or animatistic beliefs are also encountered.

Some of the most commonly encountered nature figures on shamanic drums are as follows:

Tree

The tree is a symbol of life, growth, rebirth and stability. In shamanic traditions, trees serve as a bridge between the earthly and heavenly realms. Shamans harness this quality of trees to journey into different realms.

Trees are also associated with wisdom, experience and spirituality. Especially, large and ancient trees are perceived as wise elders. The branches of a tree symbolize different paths, opportunities and choices in life, while the roots represent the connection with ancestors and traditions.

River

Rivers are often associated with movement, change and cleansing. River figures on shaman drums can also be seen as a symbol of a spiritual journey through time. Rivers represent shamans’ transition to the spiritual world, their rebirth and purification processes.

Mountain

Because of their height, mountains are associated with power, superiority, and resilience in many cultures. The steep slopes of mountains symbolize the challenges faced by the human spirit and the determination to overcome these challenges. Reaching the top is used as a metaphor for personal success and inner enlightenment.

Mountains, one of the figures frequently seen on shamanic drums, have a special importance both physically and symbolically. In shamanism, mountains are considered sacred as they are natural structures closest to the sky. Therefore, the peaks of mountains are recognized as important ritual places for shamans seeking spiritual experiences and supernatural communication.

Moon and Sun

The moon is a frequently encountered symbol in shamanic drums. It is often associated with renewal, transformation and inner enlightenment. In shamanic beliefs, the phases of the moon represent the cyclical rhythm of nature and the continuity of life.

The sun, on the other hand, is depicted in shamanic drums as the source of power, vitality and life energy. For shamans, the sun is a symbol of universal knowledge and enlightenment. During rituals conducted in the brightness of the day, the sun is seen as a force bringing healing and abundance to the community.

Stars

Stars, as guiding lights in the dark nights, are often associated with hope and spiritual guidance. In some shamanic traditions, stars are considered ancestral spirits or divine beings. It is believed that stars accompany shamans during spiritual journeys.

Geometric Shapes and Figurative Drawings

The third type of symbols on shamanic drums are geometric shapes and figurative drawings. These symbols are often abstract and simple but have deep and complex meanings.

Triangles

The triangle, which is a frequently used pattern in shamanic drums, is generally associated with unity and balance. However, in different cultures, triangles can have very different specific meanings. Each corner of the triangle typically represents a broader concept, often interconnected. For example:

Quadrilateral

Quadrilaterals in shamanic drums, much like triangles, can have various meanings in different cultures. Interpretation and analysis are often based on the form of the figure or the number of corners, similar to other geometric shapes. In this context, quadrilaterals and plus signs are commonly associated with four directions, four elements (fire, water, earth, and air), or the four seasons.

Spirals

Spirals represent an infinite loop. Therefore, they are often associated with concepts such as the expansion of the universe, cyclical understanding of time, or transformation and development. This transformation and development can be both personal and social.

Circles

Circles are symbols of unity and infinity. They represent reality, wholeness, perfection and the endless cycle, just like spirals. Since the circle has no beginning or end due to its inherent form, it is also associated with the universe or god.

Stairs

Stairs are symbols of ascent, descent, transition and beginning. The steps on the stairs often represent the shaman’s journey between different levels of reality and stages of spiritual development.

 
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