The other side of the drum: a view from inside


This article was presented at the International Conference of Uku Masing and the Culture of Indigenous People, October 15.–17. 1999 in Raikküla Basic School, Lipa, Estonia. Here it is shortened, because during the presentation I showed a series of pictures on the process of drum making and corresponding texts which are absent here.

This is in a way a lesson in experimental and practical anthropology. At the same time it is a vision of the sacred friendship between the shaman and drum.

Both a drum and a boat are very important things or symbols in shamanism. They are both the shaman's vehicles. A shaman makes a journey with a drum. For the shaman the sound of the drumbeat is often the sound of the hooves of her spirit helpers. When a shaman says that she is "flying", "dancing" or "riding", it is not a metaphor for a poetic expression but believed to be a real action. The shaman's worldview is animistic. Everything is alive. Everything has a spirit.

While shamans most commonly undertake the journey to the spirit world alone, an unusually elaborate version occurs among the Coast Salish Indians of the western part of Washington State, USA. There the shamans had the practice of making a journey as a group. To do this, they formed a "spirit canoe" or "spirit boat" to undertake a journey whose purpose was to regain the guardian spirit of their patient from the Lower World. In Finnish folk tradition there is a boat with which the dead use to cross the river of Death, Tuonela. It is the same when a shaman calls the drum a "boat". Anna-Leena Siikala has written more about these mythical images in her book about Finnish shamanism (currently in Finnish, eng. translation forthcoming C.H-S).

As the Lakota medicine man Lame-Deer has said about the pipe, I say now about the Drum: it is not just a thing; it is alive.

J. Halifax writes that the centre of the world, the Axis mundi or world axis, is the threshold place between space and spacelessness, between multiplicity and unity, between mortality and immortality. It is said of this cosmic centre that it is everywhere. And yet peoples of all times and places have found and created finite representations. A drum can be seen as such. Eliade has noted that the peak of the Cosmic Mountain is not only the highest point on earth, but the earth's navel, the origin of creation. The Cosmic Mountain allows the seer a vantage point of contact between heaven and earth. The World Tree, like the Cosmic Mountain, both intersect the three realms of existence: the Underworld or Lower World is penetrated by the roots of the Tree and is in the belly of the Mountain; the Middle World is transected by both; and the crown of the World Tree and the summit of the holy mountain are both received by the heavenly realm, the Upper World. Among the Evenk of Siberia, a birch tree is placed at the centre of the shaman's ceremonial tent, enabling the shaman to descend to the Underworld or ascend to the Upper World, which are places where the spirits dwell.

Among the traditional Finno-Ugrian societies people made contact with the dead using a tree as an intermediary. In the same way the spirit of a hunted bear returned to it's heavenly home. We also have had here crosstrees, birth and death trees, lucky trees, guardian trees and more. These old Finnish words are not so easy to translate but they all tell something about the very strong spiritual relationship between the trees and human people. There were and still are some trees which are tied with a person's or family's destiny or fate (nimikkopuita). There are still in Finland and Estonia trees which have been said to be healing trees.

In days long past, in traditional Finno-Ugric hunting-gathering societies there has perhaps been a special way to find a suitable tree for a drum frame. It may that the shaman had already chosen or looked for the right tree during his many trips in the forest or even in his childhood. The drum maker, usually the shaman went to the woods in the wintertime to fell the tree. According to Tapani Hietalahti the best shingle would be chosen from a tree which grew between a swamp and a cliff. The log was split in fourths, from which one part became the frame. The shaman then set fire to the stump and modelled his drum frame around the burning trunk. The shaman spent several days alone in the woods, building the drum according to his spirit world helpers' advice and contact. It became a part of the shaman's initiation.

When you are building a drum, you are continually face to face with the spirit world. Everything which happens during this process of many days is meaning-filled. You have to be sensitive with all your senses open. You are in close contact with the elements of Life: fire, water, earth and air. According to the Senecas of North America if you want to give birth to anything alive, there should be present the feminine and masculine principles. In many mythologies, the raw sun and domesticated fire are one in essence and are of the father. Earth is mother. This is the hieros gamos, holy marriage.

Fire must be asked to burn and the air to blow. The Powers should be friendly and sympathetic. In Finnish folk poetry we have a beautiful lullaby for fire: Tuuditan tulisoroista, liekin lasta liekuttelen.... When you are making a drum, you are to be in all places at one time. You are the midwife and the child-bearer in labour. When the drum is ready the roles are exchanged: the drum is the midwife to give birth to the shaman in the spirit world again and again always returning to this ordinary world. The drum is as a gate as is the vulva and womb.

Fire burns the wood which heats the water-filled kettle which transforms to steam. Halifax says that the shaman's mastery of fire is related to the mastery of ecstasy. The contact with conditions of excessive cold or extreme heat indicates that the shaman has gone beyond the ordinary human condition and is now a participant in the sacred world. Fire, symbolic of Life, allied with the concept of control and superiority is a representation of an agent of transmutation. It is a medium into which forms vanish and from which they are born. The drum making as such reminds the shaman of his work to change his state of consciousness to be able to make a journey to the spirit world and return with healing.

The shingle of a tree must be bent to become a drum frame. It has to submit to the maker. A shaman has to submit to her fate to be a healer. During the bending, the maker talks to the shingle and at the same time to the spirit of that tree or to the becoming spirit of the drum. This bending has to be done very quickly. Strike while the iron is hot. Bend while the shingle is wet. Water inside the shingle runs toward the outer side of the shingle away from the hot fire. The wood is soft and bends to be a circle or oval. Halifax writes that the opening between realms is frequently represented as a hole, like the birth gate, that is the threshold between womb and consciousness.

Mother Earth's heartbeat. The most frequent model for a drum is oval. It is the best model also for sound and resonance. Drumming produces changes in the nervous system. When you beat a drum you may hear behind the beat an other voice, the song of the drum. Harner writes that these sound waves have an effect on the human brain so that it expands or deepens consciousness. A shaman alters her state of consciousness toward ecstasy, during which the shaman makes her journey. In the USA there have been studies on drumming and EEG of shamans during an altered same state of consciousness and found that it is the same EEG of the earth. The Native Americans have also said that when you are drumming you unite with the heartbeat of Mother Earth.

During one drum making process we found a good mould for the drum: an old wheel of a cart. Very often we talk about "improvisation" or "creativity" not thinking where it comes from. During the ritual drum making process I took it as a note or advice from the spirits. It is a talk which you should answer by following through with the innovation. At the best, the handcraft is a very intense dialog with the spirits. It is at those moments the objects are real in both worlds: in everyday reality and spiritual reality. Then it is a holy or sacred act-ritual.

Time changes to be something else. The drum begins to tell you when it's ready to work as a being with it's own will. Time and timelessness, eternity. There in the other side of the drum, in the shaman's world of the spirits the time is different. And the shaman is in both these worlds at the same time.

These reborn trees, these drum frames are sisters and they belong to the same circle of power. Sun is the heavenly model. Sun and air are drying the frames. In the process of drum making there is present also a mother- and father drum, drums which have been made earlier and which carry the tradition of friendship between human being and spirits.

Making beautiful or decorating the drum is caring for drum and self. I make my drums as I am a child of the East Sea coast, from where my forefathers have made wooden boats upon the water. They used tar to paint the boats. I do the same to the drum frame, honouring my forefathers and at the same time the place in which the drum is built. It is to listen to the spirit of the place.

The drum's surface is made from reindeer skin. Normally, a drum maker might choose her skin while it was still running. The skin has to be wet when it is tightened around the frame. Wet is soft and pliable. When dry it becomes stone hard. The skin is from an animal and reminds the shaman of his power animal and other animal helpers. The skin is tightened around the wooden frame with strips of skin. The tightening begins from the main directions: north, south, east and west. The shaman asks every direction to come and bless her drum. In Finno-Ugric drums there is often a wooden handle. This handle has been seen to represent the World Tree. After the drum dries, the shaman might paint her drum. The drum speaks when it is time for that.

Finally, a piece of poem from Kalevala, which describes how Väinämöinen was walking in the field and heard a birch tree crying it's fate. After listening to it's cry, Väinämöinen decides to build kantele (trad. Finnish stringed instrument).

Siitä vanha Väinämöinen
Then old Väinämöinen

Koivun soitoksi kuvasi.
Instrument of birch fashioned

Veistel kesäisen päivän,
Carved on a summer's day,

Kalkutteli kanteletta
A harp he carved

Nenässä utuisen niemen,
At the tip of a misty headland,

Päässä saaren terhenisen.
At the end of a veiled island.

Veisti kopan kantelett,
Carved the body of the harp,

Emäpuun iloa uutta,
Heartwood's new joy,

Kopan koivusta lujast,
Body from steadfast birch,

Emäpuun visaperästä...
Heartwood's hard-backed gnarl...

(Kalevala 168–177)

Jaana Kouri
translated by Christiana Harle-Silvennoinen



  • Eliade, Mircea 1964. Shamanism. Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. London.
  • Halifax, Joan 1994. Shaman: the Wounded Healer. Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.
  • Harner, Michael 1986. The Way of the Shaman: A Guide to Power and Healing. USA. Kovalainen, Ritva & Sanni, Seppo Perferia Publications, Oulu.
  • Siikala, Anna-Leena 1994. Suomalainen šamanismi; mielikuvien historiaa. Suomen Kirjallisuuden seuran toimituksia 565.
  • Sommarstöm, Bo 1987.Ethnoastonomical Perspectives on Saami Religion in Tore Ahlbäck (ed.) Saami Religion. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis XII. Stockholm, Sweden.