Floater structures in the visual arts of modern and present-day shamans
By Floco Tausin
This article is based on the assumption that prehistoric shamanic rituals include the perception, interpretation and depiction of what we today call ‘eye floaters’ (muscae volitantes). It is suggested that, together with other shamanic symbols, floaters continue to be experienced and depicted in later shamanic societies up to the present day. The present article supports this thesis from the examples of modern Siberian and contemporary Tukano shamans. A closer look at their visual arts reveals geometric structures and characteristics that are typical of eye floaters.
Introduction: Eye Floaters
Many people experience mobile and scattered semi-transparent dots and strands in the visual field, best perceived in bright light conditions (figure 1). They float according to eye movements, which makes them hard to focus on.
Figure 1: “Shining structure floaters”: Semi-transparent, mobile dots and strings in the visual field. Source: author.
In ophthalmology, these dots and strands are called eye floaters or vitreous floaters, also known as muscae volitantes (Latin: “flying flies”). They are explained as idiopathic (i.e. without pathological cause) opacities in the gel between the lens and the retina (vitreous humor) due to the age-related liquefaction (synchysis) and the collapse of the collagen-hyaluronic structure of the vitreous (syneresis) (Sendrowski/Bronstein 2010). In a number of articles, I set these “shining structure floaters”, as I call them, apart from different looking other types of floaters. I argue that, unlike real idiopathic or pathological deposits in the vitreous, shining structure floaters – which are most commonly seen by individuals – may not be vitreous opacities at all. Instead, they can be understood as entoptic (i.e. from within the visual system) geometric light phenomena similar to phosphenes and form constants (Tausin 2010). Phosphenes and form constants are subjective patterns of light, generated by the nervous system and perceived in extraordinary states of consciousness. Such patterns are often seen by mystics and shamans during meditation or ecstatic practices, from the Upper Paleolithic to the present day (Dowson/Lewis-Williams 1988; cf. Tausin 2010). My point is that in-depth observation of shining structure floaters reveals distinctive structural features that rather correspond to the nervous system than to vitreous opacities (Tausin 2011a). The two most striking structural features are the twofold dualism – core and surround structure, as well as the two contrasting types of spheres – and, as a result of a prolonged observation, the transition from a relaxed state of big and transparent spheres and strings to a concentrated state of small spheres and strings filled with intense light. Furthermore, shining structure floaters may improve in size and luminosity during meditation and other altered states of consciousness (Tausin 2009a, 2009b). This has led me to the conclusion that while eye floaters may be seen in everyday states of consciousness, they change according to inner states and are, therefore, a spiritually relevant phenomenon (cf. Tausin 2011b). It is reasonable, then, to consider the possibility that floaters have been observed along with other entoptic phenomena by shamans and mystics. To support this hypothesis, I suggest in this article that floater structures are widely spread in the visual arts of modern and present-day shamans of Siberia and South America.
“Shaman” is probably a Tungus term for special men and women of Siberia and Central Asia whose work is essential for the health and religious life of a community. Before a woman or a man starts to work as a shaman, he or she typically undergoes a time of illness and insanity. During that time, his ability for vision and ecstasy becomes evident. An older and more experienced shaman accepts him as a pupil and introduces him into ecstasy techniques and the traditional knowledge about plants, animals and spirits. After years of training, the shaman to-be undergoes an initiation ritual during which he may experience the dismemberment of his body by spirits and demons – he dies as an ordinary human being and is reborn as a shaman. Initiated shamans put themselves in trance, e.g. by drumming, dance, singing, and taking hallucinogenic plants. In trance state, their souls leave their bodies and – with the help of animal spirits – fly up to the heavens or descend to the underworld, both of which are connected to the mundane world through a central axis (cosmic mountain, World Tree). In this other world, they negotiate with spirits and gods, obtain knowledge about the future or the whereabouts of lost objects or wild game. In the service of their communities, they also travel to the other world to heal the sick or accompany and protect the deceased’s souls on their last journey (Stutley 2003; Eliade 1957; 1987).
Floater Structures in Shamanic Art
In illiterate shamanic societies, visual arts are an important means of expression. The paintings, carvings and engravings on walls, weapons, decorations and musical instruments, reflect the indigenous’ notions about the cosmic, natural and social order. It is striking that a significant proportion of this art consists of abstract geometric patterns, dots, lines, spirals, grids, polygons etc. Western archaeologists and anthropologists have interpreted or identified entoptic phenomena or phosphenes to be the source of these forms (Roach 1998; Clottes/Lewis-Williams 1997; Bednarik et al. 1990; Dowson/Lewis-Williams 1988; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975). Some follow the thesis of Dowson/Lewis-Williams (1988) that the shamans’ trance experience is a visionary multi-stage transition from abstract to figurative or iconic perceptions; entoptic phenomena appear in the first stage (figure 2).
Figure 2: From entoptic images to symbols to iconic forms in the shamanic trance experience (Source Clottes/Lewis-Williams 1997).
As indicated above, contemporary literature does not include shining structure floaters as a type of subjective visual phenomena experienced during shamanic trance. The following images give reason to reconsider that possibility more thoroughly. They show typical forms and structures of floaters on ritual objects and designs of Central Asian and South American shamans.
To perform the rituals, the shaman needs some paraphernalia. The most important object is the drum whose rhythms induce altered states of consciousness in the shaman and her clients. The symbolism associated with the drum is complex, sometimes secret, and includes many archaic elements. Most drums are decorated, often depicting cosmic regions and associated phenomena – celestial bodies, plants, animals, humans, spirits and gods (Oppitz 2007; Stutley 2003; Stolz 1988; Eliade 1957).
Figure 3: Sami drum (Oppitz 2007: 44).
The oldest known Sami (Lapp) drums reach back to the 18th century. It was the time, when the Sami, being the last indigenous people of Europe, were actively converted to Christianity. Sami shamans divided the space (the cosmos) into several layers or organized four segments around a center. The drum on figure 3 combines these two practices of spatial organization. Between anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, there are some dotted circles, interpreted by scholars (and contemporary shamans?) as celestial bodies. The smaller ones are stars, the big one in the center represents the sun radiating four rays.
Figure 4: Altaic drum of the Altai Kizi (Stolz 1988: 164).
The big shaman drums of the Siberian Altai region typically depict a human figure across the skin, the “Lord of the Drum”. All three cosmic layers – heaven, earth and underworld – are pervaded by dots. The limbs of the Lord (rainbow, central axis) are represented by tubes with dots. As in the case of the Sami, the dots on this Altai drum are said to be stars.
Figure 5: Drum of the South Siberian Tubular (Altai) (Oppitz 2007: 78).
The upper heavenly world on the drum on figure 5 is depicted as a firmament, limited by a curved double line with some dots. Dots (stars) fill the space between the eight claviforms. The lower part of the firmament is limited by a zigzag line (the earth’s mountains). Below the mountains, the drum skin shows an underworld scenery: animals, mythic creatures, a human being, as well as an empty and a dotted circle – a symbolic representation of moon and sun.
Figure 6: Drum of the Mongol Soyot (Tuvin) (Oppitz 2007: 63).
This drum from Northern Mongolia depicts the mythic central axis as a conifer, connecting all three cosmic spheres. The distinct rings or dotted circles to the deers’ (or reindeers’) left and right represent stars, or the “mottling of the reindeer calf” (Oppitz 2007).
Decorations on the shamans’ costumes also convey metaphysical ideas and symbols. For example, the Yakuts usually decorate their shaman costumes with numerous and heavy metal pieces like the big perforated disks that are attached on the back of the costumes (figure 7).
Figure 7: Backside of a Yakut shaman costume made from reindeer leather (East Siberia), around 1900 (Stolz 1988).
One of these disks symbolizes an ice hole, the entrance into the underworld. The other is the sun of the shaman. A third disk without hole is interpreted as the moon. The core-surround structure of these perforated disks resembles the representation of celestial bodies on the shaman drums. They are magical heavenly bodies that are required by the shaman to illuminate his path in the darkness of the underworld (Eliade 1957; Stutley 2003; Stolz 1988).
Figure 8: Toli: sun disk and mirror (Kasten 2009).
At their initiation, Turko Mongolian shamans in Central Asia, particularly the Siberian Buriats are given so-called toli, metal disks from bronze or copper. They are hanged around the neck or attached to the caftan. According to the legend, toli are crafted by heavenly smiths, they “flew down” from the heaven as a gift from the “shining” gods. They are venerated as sun disks or as mirrors that show the past, present and future. Shamans use them to foretell, to protect themsleves from evil spirits or to accommodate helping spirits. Some of these toli are elaborately painted, others are metal disks with some concentric rings or no decorations at all (Kasten 2009; Stutley 2003).
In order to heal, foretell or lead the deceased, the shaman must be able to leave his body and undertake a visionary journey to the other world. If these visions are the result of altered states of consciousness, they typically consist of abstract geometric structures and figurative scenes. Tukano societies of the Colombian Amazon region are an example of how visionary abstract floater structures enter the indigenous interpretation of world and cosmos.
Figure 9: A Barasana (Tukano) draws rows of dotted circles in the sand (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978, 1987).
The Tukano cosmos is rich in myths and metaphors revolving around important themes like ecology and reproduction. These themes are believed to be governed by deeper abstract principles like “life energy” or “fertility” that are realized by the natives through a disciplined and modest way of life which brings about a transformation of body and mind. In their rituals, Tukano shamans (payé) use hallucinogenics like Banisteriopsis (yagé/yajé, ayahuasca, caapi) or Virola (vihó) to visualize these mythic themes and principles. Austrian Anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff investigated the hallucinatory experience through participation and observation (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975, 1978, 1987, 1997). He distinguishes a first and a second phase in that ritual, according to the main characteristics of the vision – which essentially resembles the three-staged scheme by Dowson and Lewis-Williams (1988), as mentioned above (figure 2): While the first phase of the Tukano hallucinatory experience is characterized by entoptic phenomena (phosphenes), the visions of figurative scenes are prevalent in the second. The second phase is experienced by the Tukanos as a deeply emotional and sometimes terrifying journey to the mythic space-time. In contrast, the geometric phenomena of the first phase are experienced as pleasant. Tukano shamans distinguish up to thirty different geometric patterns like circles, rings, chains, grids, zigzags etc. and compare them to natural phenomena like drops, rays, wheels, flowers, snail shells and the like. These natural objects are, at the same time, connected to the societies’ important mythic themes like male/female-dualisms, fertility, exogamy, incest, impregnation and others. Thus, entoptic phenomena are visualized in order to legitimate and remind the corresponding mythic and social laws.
Figure 10: Tukano Biá’s (Tatuyo group) vision “after three cups of yajé”: The big central cross represents a vagina, the circles in it are the “flavor of semen” (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978).
Figure 11: Muhipu’s vision, interpreted as drops of semen (center) between female flowers (top) and male sun-arcs (top and bottom) (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978).
Some of these forms are dots and dotted or concentric circles, isolated or arranged in rows. To the Tukanos, they symbolize the abstract concept of impregnation, or life-giving force through the male principle respectively. At the same time, they indicate concrete phenomena like drops of rain or semen that are associated with the male principle. Another meaning is the “cosmic flow” or galaxy, expressed as vertical parallel rows of small dots, running wavelike. For Tukano shamans, it is the primary location to reach on their ecstatic flights.
Figure 12: Detail of a longhouse wall decorated with designs based on hallucinatory yajé-experiences (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1997).
Figure 13: Wall painting from a Bará Maloca (longhouse), Pirá-paraná (Vaupés, Colombia) (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975).
It is reasonable to assume with Reichel-Dolmatoff that entoptic phenomena also provide the motifs for much of the indigenous art of other shamanic societies of the Amazon region and perhaps beyond. Figure 14, for example, is drawn by a shaman of the Amazonian Jívaro group (Ecuador). It is inspired by an ecstatic visionary experience under the influence of natema. Natema is both, a hallucinogenic beverage from the leaves of Banisteriopsis, and the name of the spirit of that plant.
Figure 14: “Golden spheres”, seen by a Jívaro shaman (Harner 1973).
The picture shows the shaman standing in the middle of rows of golden or shining spheres. The huge butterfly to his left represents the shaman’s helping spirit. The whirling spheres are associated with the “spirit of natema”.
Figure 15: “Pulsations” by Pable Amaringo (Amaringo/Luna 1999).
Another example are the “Ayahuasca visions” of Peruvian shaman and artist Pablo Amaringo (1938-2009). The artist was deeply inspired by the hallucinogenic beverage Ayahuasca. He captured his own visions in colorful and dynamic images like “Pulsations” (figure 15), where he brings together traditional shamanic knowledge and modern physiology: During a ayahuasca ceremony, a group of vegalistas (herbalists) calls the queen Pulsarium Coya. This mythic woman grants the herbalists the power to diagnose illness by pulsing their patients – a practice that connects the pulse with the brain. Thus, the layers of colored lines, moving wavelike across the picture and consisting of concentric circles, represent both, the pulse and brain waves of different types of human and superhuman beings.
Discussion: Shining structure floaters in shamanic art?
There are numerous examples of abstract geometric motifs in modern and contemporary shamanic visual arts. Amongst them are patterns that resemble floater structures. While there is evidence that at least some of them are inspired by the direct perception of entoptic phenomena during ritually altered states of consciousness, there is no direct proof that “shining structure floaters” are amongst them. There is, however, good reason to assume that the thesis is accurate, as the following facts and reflections will indicate:
- The most obvious point is the visual forms. There are dots, rings, dotted or concentric circles, curved or snake-like lines or tubes, empty or filled with dots and circles. These forms may vary with regard to the size, color and transparency of core and surround; some even lack the “twofold dualism” (core-surround-structure, contrasting types of floater spheres). These variations might be explained by different states of concentration (see introduction).
- The shamans’ interpretation of these forms include mythic ideas about the cosmos, the world, their particular society, and the individuals. It is striking that the floater patterns are associated with the shamanic journey: The “heavenly bodies” on the Siberian shaman drums provide orientation during the shaman’s flight to the heaven (figures 3-6). The metal disks attached to the costumes are entrances to the other world and lights to illuminate the path leading there (figure 7). The godly “mirrors” (toli) accommodate spirits leading and accompanying the shaman on his journey (figure 8). The floater patterns seen in ecstatic visions are the direct visual expression of the journey to the other world. The same applies to the shining structure floaters that are experienced by the seers as “landmarks” on their inner visual path and considered as entrances into an unknown other world (Tausin 2009).
- An important objection to the idea that shining structure floaters are a part of shamans’ visionary experiences and art is the fact that many of the rituals including altered states of consciousness take place at night. While form constants and phosphenes are easily seen at night, shining structure floaters need a certain degree of brightness to be visible. They are best seen at daylight. In my opinion, it is still possible that floaters are part of the shamans’ visions, for the two following reasons:
- Shining structure floater dots and strings are also seen at night, if there is some source of light, e.g. a torch or fire.
- According to the seers, the perception of the shining structure primarily depends on the state of inner light or energy, or state of consciousness respectively (Tausin 2009), whereas outer light stimulates consciousness and therefore illuminates the consciousness structure (floaters). Thus, provided that the seers’ consciousness state is accordingly intense, floaters can be seen in the dark. My own observation points to a continuity between floaters and the colored specks called ‘phosphenes’. The latter may function as visual memories (“afterimages”) of the intensively shining, concentrated floater spheres seen at daylight; the colored clouds around the dots may be interpreted as the floaters’ energy fields or aura. This suggests that the typical shining floater structures – the twofold dualism – become visible for the ritually intensified shaman, even when on a night flight.
To conclude, the shamanic visual arts shown here indicate that some well-known type of so-called “eye floaters” is, in fact, not a vitreous opacity but a universal entoptic phenomenon. Seen by shamans during altered states of consciousness, shining structure floaters refer to important human disciplines like myth, healing and spirituality. This insight may be an important contribution to Western ophthalmology in its strive to better understand and differentiate entoptic phenomena. And it may prove beneficial for individuals suffering from the floater type mentioned here – while some find reassurance of the harmlessness of shining structure floaters, others find the prelude to an exciting journey to the other world.
The pictures are taken from image hosting websites, from scientific publications (online and print) and/or from my own collection (FT). Either they are licensed under a Creative Commons license, or their copyright is expired, or they are used according to the copyright law doctrine of ‘Zitatrecht’, ‘fair dealing’ or ‘fair use’.
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The name Floco Tausin is a pseudonym. The author is a graduate of the Faculty of the Humanities at the University of Bern, Switzerland. In theory and practice he is engaged in the research of subjective visual phenomena in connection with altered states of consciousness and the development of consciousness. In 2009, he published the mystical story “Mouches Volantes” about the spiritual dimension of eye floaters.
‘Mouches Volantes. Eye Floaters as Shining Structure of Consciousness’.
(Spiritual Fiction. ISBN: 978-3033003378. Paperback, 15.2 x 22.9 cm / 6 x 9 inches, 368 pages).
Floco Tausin tells the story about his time of learning with spiritual teacher and seer Nestor, taking place in the hilly region of Emmental, Switzerland. The mystic teachings focus on the widely known but underestimated dots and strands floating in our field of vision, known as eye floaters or mouches volantes. Whereas in ophthalmology, floaters are considered a harmless vitreous opacity, the author gradually learns about them to see and reveals the first emergence of the shining structure formed by our consciousness.
»Mouches Volantes« explores the topic of eye floaters in a much wider sense than the usual medical explanations. It merges scientific research, esoteric philosophy and practical consciousness development, and observes the spiritual meaning and everyday life implications of these dots and strands.
»Mouches Volantes« – a mystical story about the closest thing in the world.