In order to prove that Textiles are associated with shamanism, my next task is to show how they are related to the multi-tiered cosmos. So far, we've seen how weaving itself can be an induction method to altered states of consciousness (ASC) and how ASC and entoptic images are precursors to a belief in a multi-tiered cosmos (underworld/this world/world of spirits), which is the basis of shamanism and (arguably) all later spiritual practices. We've also seen that entoptic images are ubiquitous in textiles from all over the world. Some may argue that since entoptic imagery is a product of the human nervous system, this does not necessarily indicate that the weavers engaged in any type of ASC or spiritual activity. And they'd be right! Of particular contention is the link between shamanism and phosphenes/entoptics. Bednarik points out that although all humans use phosphenes daily, "that does not make us shamans!" (Bednarik 1990, 79). But if we can see depictions of a multi-tiered cosmos (the result of ASC and entoptic experience), we come that much closer to making an association between textile production and shamanism.

Tai Daeng Shaman doing his thing.

I wrote my masters thesis on the association of Neolithic passage graves with a multi-tiered cosmos. There is a LOT of scholarship on that topic. Perhaps the best known are Lewis-Williams and his various partners, who basically introduced the concept of cave art as expressions of ASC, or at least set the bar on this type of research. Lewis-Williams dealt mostly with San cave art in Africa, but spoke on other types of art as well. Lewis Williams and Pearce (2005, 279) argued that Neolithic passage graves are an iconographic replica of the tiered cosmos. The world of the living is represented by a forecourt at the entrance to the tomb, where ceremonies could be viewed by the larger community. Most of the public would never venture past the entrance stone demarcating the boundary between outside/inside. Passages were perceived as routes between the realms of the cosmos, through which the decedent, accompanied by celebrants, would travel to the land of the dead. The chambers, with deposits of human remains, may have been perceived as the land of the dead (Lewis-Williams and Pearce 2005, 268). This perception was enhanced by the placement of spirals, depictions of the vortex, at the entrance to the passage.

Newgrange Passage Grave, Neolithic, Co. Meath, Ireland (profile view at top, plan view at bottom). The entrance and forecourt (a paved area in front of the entrance) represents the world of the living, the passage is the vortex between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the inner chamber is the world of the spirits/ancestors (that's where the human remains were deposited).


The entrance stone at Newgrange. This lies across the doorway to the passage (the vortex to the world of the dead).

How a Multi-tiered Cosmos is Depicted

An association with ASC can be proven by the presence of motifs relating to the three stages of ASC (see last post). Since the three stages of ASC are associated with the multi-tiered cosmos, the locations of the cosmos should be clearly observable on the artwork. The world of the living and the world of the dead should be there, joined by a passage or tunnel. In many (or most) cases, the tunnel should be accessible only to the shaman/celebrant, as it may considered too risky for laypeople to make the journey.

All this is open to debate. I'm just condensing it here and presenting my own beliefs (based on personal research and field work). As stated above, in the case of passage graves, the depiction is in the architecture itself. A forecourt (world of the living) is separated from the chamber (the world of the dead, where they keep the human remains) by a tunnel. In passage graves that contain art, the tunnel and entrance are universally decorated with spirals. In addition, cultural beliefs and practices SURROUNDING the production of textiles may reflect the different cosmic realms.  

Tai Daeng Textiles

I'm going to start with the Tai Daeng textiles from Laos. Tai Daeng means "Red Tai," a reference to the people's ancestral homeland in Muang Daeng, Vietnam. The "Red" may refer to the Red River, the red waistbands on women's traditional skirts, or the red funeral blouses (!!!). They are acclaimed as master weavers, using cotton and silk materials and employing simple frame looms. This is generally a shamanic society and their textiles often depict ancestors and the spirit world or afterworld. Nagas and Siho are frequent motifs. A Naga is an ancestor spirit, a magical serpent who resides in the underwater kingdom of Badan. They are shapeshifters, able to assume the form of other animals, including humans. They are benevolent toward earth creatures when respected, but can inflict illness and disaster when displeased. Siho is a half bird/half elephant figure. Siho could represent the meeting of sky and earth or spirit world and everyday world.

Shamans communicate with the spirits and ancestors in times of need. They use the information derived from that communication to heal people and otherwise benefit the living community. Tai Daeng shamans wear 9 or 7 layers of clothing during ceremonies. Cloths with relevant motifs are draped or hung around the altar. The Naga keeps the spirits in order, and so is a common motif on ceremonial textiles. 

Detail of a phaa sabai cloth with nagas used in healing ceremonies made by Tai Daeng weavers from Hua Phan, Laos (textile). Nested/concentric motifs may represent vortices.


Nagas carrying spirit/ancestor figures.

 Nagas and spirit figure. Could that six-pointed star represent a vortex?


Here's a great article with a lot of detail on these textiles and their production: Fibre2fabric

From Above the Fray: here

We have been particularly drawn to several weaving villages in Houaphon Province in northeast Laos where the Tai Daeng people devotedly adhere to a tradition of weaving uniquely complex and intricate shaman cloths and healing cloths. The dyes are all-natural, created from the bark, wood, roots, leaves and bugs of the jungle; the silk is locally cultivated. The weavers have spent a lifetime learning the art of weaving these near-flawless sophisticated creations on locally-designed floor looms, and a single shaman cloth may take an individual weaver four months just to weave. The results are stunningly beautiful and make unique opera-quality shawls and wall art.


 Weaver with Shaman Cloth

Two species of silkworm are native to Laos (Bombyx mori and Philosymia riccini). They are often cultivated beneath the stilted houses in northern Laos. Each worm will excrete more than 300 m of silk when it makes it's cocoon. Wow. The silkworm cocoons are boiled to process the silk and the worms themselves eaten as a delicacy. The production of silk has many rules and taboos. For example, showing fear in the presence of the worms is taboo. The worms will die if a person reflects fear in front of them. It is a custom to wear three silk threads (one red, one white, one black) that have been blessed by a shaman around the neck to keep bad spirits away.

Natural dyes are created from different items. Khang is an insect wax used for dying. Pregnant and menstruating women are prevented from preparing the dye solution, which must be done in isolation. Indigo dye contains a male spirit that must be kept in the pot or the dye will die. A white cotton thread is tied around the neck of the dying pot and a knife is left on the pot lid to keep it sealed and prevent spirits from entering or leaving the solution. Weavers also leave a knife on the warp yarns if they haven’t finished attaching the yarns to the loom to prevent spirits from tangling the yarns. It seems as if the weavers must go to great lengths to prevent the spirits from messing up their weaving. Perhaps there is a belief that the spirits desire to maintain control over the passage between the realms... hmmmm..... an ethnographic study of the beliefs behind these practices would be interesting.

Here's a myth quoted directly from Fibre2fabric:

A local myth tells the story of a family that reared silk worms. The mother gave a long silk yarn to her husband who made the yarn into a fishing net. He in turn gave the net to his daughter who went off to go fishing. After a short time the daughter noticed something in the net, it was a small Naga. The Naga pleaded with the girl to set him free, the daughter did so and was rewarded with an invitation to visit the Naga Kingdom under the water. After much hesitation she went with the Naga, his parents were so grateful to the girl for saving their son’s life. When she left the Naga World she was given some white and yellow ginger. On returning to her village she re-counted the story to her family and when she showed them the ginger, it had magically turned into silver and gold. The family was now rich.

These myths and beliefs reflect the association of silk with the spirit world. The silk net enabled the girl to communicate with the spirit Naga, who lives under the water (world of the spirits). This communication facilitated the enrichment of the family/community in the world of the living. The girl acted as the shaman in this case. She was from a family that cultivated silkworms. The silkworms provided the silk that enabled the girl to communicate with the spirit world.

The importance of the silk cannot be overstated here. The worm itself seems to be imbued with symbolism as well. The worm is nurtured carefully by the community/family. The worm weaves the cocoon from its own silk. Think about the spiral pattern of the cocoon. The silk goes around and around the worm. The worm enters a sleep-state (dream state?). In this state, the worm is killed ceremonially, and enters the world of the dead. The worm is eaten by the community/family. The silk is used to facilitate cosmic travel. So the worm travels between the worlds. Could the worm symbolize the shaman? The silk itself is the tunnel through which the worm travels to the afterlife. The worm is then eaten by the living community, effectively re-entering the world of the living. The silk is then woven into ceremonial cloths by the weaver.

Here's What I'm Thinking:


World of the Living

World of the Dead




Naga (spirits, ancestors)

Shaman, Silkworm Weaver



Badan/Underwater Kingdom

Boat, Cocoon, Silk Net, Silk Threads, Textile


Elephant, Boat (?)

Naga, Siho, Ancestors

Textile, Cocoon, Silk Net, Silk Threads, Silkworm, Boat, Birds


Here's a youtube video showing the different sections of a textile, set to a shaman singing a funeral chant. This is absolutely fascinating.


Here is the text below the video:

In this video you can see a closeup of different sections of a Tai Daeng Funeral Shaman Textile that is set to a sound track of a Tai Daeng Funeral Shaman chanting at a ceremony in Vientiane, Laos. The figure on the elephant and the naga boat by the base of the elephant's trunk can be interpreted as two ways the shaman can be seen guiding the spirit of the dead person on their journey to heaven.

Clearly we have several cosmic realms associated with this textile. This is pretty cool.

Images Associated with the Various Stages of ASC

Stage 1 - Entoptics

Spirals, chevrons, triangles, repeated motifs, negative images, diamonds.

Stage 2: Entoptics taking on iconic forms

 Geometric shapes emerging as human and animal figures.

Vortex: spirals, concentric circles representing a tunnel

  Sets of spirals converging and intensifying toward the center of the cloth.

Stage 3: Motifs become more depictive, culturally biased

Ancestor on back of Siho. Siho composed of spirals!

Meanders, triangles, serpentine lines chevrons, repeated lines, become a Siho pregnant with a Naga! 


This could not be any more convincing!
There is a saying in Laos: “Weaving cloth is weaving nagas.” Clearly, the production of Tai Daeng textiles is associated with intercosmic travel. They are used ceremonially by shamans and other practitioners for funerals and healings. Their production is regulated with ceremony, taboos and rules. There are clear indications of the three stages of ASC depicted within the textiles. They are covered with depictions of intercosmic travel. They are associated with death and the ability of the shaman to accompany the deceased to the world of the dead and then safely return to the world of the living. They are associated with healing. The weaver is highly respected within the society. Hooray!