Using a single headed frame drum to beat a repeated rhythm in an attempt to connect to the spirit world is something which has been done for many hundreds if not thousands of years in many cultures all around the world. In fact, recent archaeological discoveries in Greenland identified the remains of two drums of the Saqqaq people, which date back 4500 years. These were almost identical in height, thickness and cross-section to those collected by a Danish Polar explorer by the name of Knud Rasmussen who collected drums from the Inuit in the 1920s.
Going further back in history, just outside the village of Mezhyrich in the Ukraine, a farmer dug up the remains of a mammoth skull drum, painted with patterns in red ochre and dating back some 15000 years. Naturally this is not a frame drum but because of the inferred shamanic connection it felt important to include this. There are also reports that I have been unable to substantiate of an even older elephant skin drum, which is believed to be 37000 years old. Either way, what we do know is that some of the earliest instruments used by humanity are identifiable as drums. There is a known depiction of a drum painted in a shrine room in what is now modern day Turkey, which dates back to 5600 BCE. It is believed that this was a matriarchal society and that the drum was sacred to the Goddess.
However, though these may very well be the oldest physical evidence that we have of drums which were of a shamanic nature, this is far from the same as saying that frame drums are no older than this! The main reason for this is that even if drums are not easily identifiable in older rock art, this does not mean that they are not simply misidentified or overlooked, as there are often circular depictions which could be interpreted as drums. In addition, drums in many shamanic cultures are perceived as embodying spirits which take on animal forms and would hence be painted or carved in animal form.
In the past 2000 years, there is evidence that shamanic drums have been used (and are often still in use) within indigenous communities globally, in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. Amongst the undefeated and unconquered Mapuche people of modern day Chile and Argentina, the Kultrun drum has been in use since before written records and is still very much in use today. This is a single headed drum, which is normally made from the Foyé (Canelo) tree, and the skin is secured in place over a wooden bowl. Some of the main reasons that this specific wood is used are its medicinal and symbolic qualities such as its hermaphroditic flowers (mirroring the often hermaphroditic energy of Mapuche Machi healers). This type of bowl drum remains the drum of choice amongst Mapuche communities today for shamanic drumming, possibly due to the circumference being smaller, making them more portable, as well as issues with producing strong hoops using no glue (a bowl is the logical next shape which can be carved directly from a burl in the tree or from the trunk itself). This bowl style of shamanic drum was also common amongst the Sami people of Northern Europe, who still use this style of drum, albeit less frequently now that drum hoops are easier to procure.
In Europe and central Asia, historically, images of priestesses drumming can be identified in the art and writings of many pre-Christian cultures such as the Sumerians, Minoans, Greeks and Romans. So much so, that there is some debate on whether the drum as a sacred instrument was exclusively in the hands of our female ancestors. Indeed, the connection between the beat of a drum and the heartbeat within us all is so strong that the Romans identified the drum as being the sacred instrument of Cybele, mother Goddess; a statue of whom stands in the very centre of the city I grew up in and perhaps connected to my own journey with the drum. Cybele, identified as the mother Goddess, was also connected with wild music, wine and ecstatic trance. Although the worship of ancient Greek and Roman deities has almost totally disappeared, many drum remains have been discovered by archaeologists showing that these were of importance throughout the classical time period. It does not take a huge leap of faith to see these reflected in modern day folk use of drums, such as the bodhrán in Ireland.
The single headed frame drum is often associated with Native American cultures, probably due to the effect of Hollywood and the countless spaghetti westerns that were churned out in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It must be made really clear that although drums were and are an integral part of many tribal traditions in the North Americas, drums of this type were by no means restricted to this part of the world. It is shocking to think about how our perceptions are shaped by the media! In fact, the Eastern European tradition of shamanism was always very powerful, so much so that under the Soviet Union shamanism was banned as a potential threat to the state and many practitioners were either sent to the gulags or killed outright. Additionally, shamanic artefacts were forbidden and many drums were collected and destroyed. It is against this background that we encounter the use of ribbons instead of a beater to play a drum, for this was much quieter and less likely to result in discovery and arrest. In a different world, perhaps the names of tribes such as the Nenets, Evenks, Nganasan and Selkup would be as familiar as those of the Lakota, Cherokee and the Navajo.
In my book Making Shamanic Drums I aim to try and continue the rich tradition of single headed frame drum construction, with a specific focus on shamanism. I made my first drum under the expert guidance of a Swiss Shaman, Irene Zumsteg, a healer and wise woman of considerable standing who has dedicated a significant portion of her life’s work to the birthing of shamanic drums in a holistic and ethical manner. Irene lives in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, up in the mountains surrounded by the gentle hum of bees and the fleeting dances of deer. Birthing a drum with Irene was a life-changing event for me as I went into a two-day workshop convinced that I was NOT going to be able to birth a drum that would look or sound good. I left the workshop in a daze, sorer than I had ever been before and completely astounded by what had happened. I had spent two days in a state of trance, singing, chanting, drumming, laughing and crying … and the drum that I birthed remains one of the most significant drums in my life to this day. I had journeyed to the spirit of the drum and seen the drum that I needed to create; a healing tool which was to outlive me, which was open for all to use in a spirit of peace and love and something that was well and truly alive.
However this first drum birthing process was so intense that it seemed clear to me that this was a one-off, a piece of work that was so deep and moving that there was no way I could replicate it again in my life. In fact, it was several years before I felt called to make another drum and work with Spirit in this way. When it next happened, it was a totally different experience, as I sought to use the off-cuts that I had saved and dried to birth a much smaller shamanic drum. This second drum was not meant to be a copy of the first, it was birthed in a different way and I was entirely spirit led in the assembly.
Just as the first drum had revealed itself to be a drum that was open for others to play, focused on healing and on celebrating the joy of life, this second drum was clearly a drum for the dead and dying. It was created with the specific intention of allowing the drummer to reach through the veil and accompany the living on their last journey, as well as to allow the dead to move on to exactly where they were meant to be. This drum remains hidden from view for most people, a very private and personal drum that has such a specific use attached to it that it has never been taken to any of the hundreds of drumming circles that I have held over the years.
Following the birthing of this second drum, there was a clear message from Spirit that I needed to work, hand in hand with Spirit, in the birthing of shamanic drums and I was fortuitously provided with a number of perfectly prepared hoops and rawhide with which to do so by Irene. I discovered that each drum needed to be birthed in a very specific way, guided by the spirits in ensuring that the beauty and power of each drum was just the way it needed to be. But this was still not enough.
My journey led me to seeking out ‘green’ hides, which are untreated fresh hides that need to be worked in order to turn them into either rawhide or tanned hide. There seemed to be a lot of information out there on how to tan hides but virtually nothing on how to turn green hides into rawhide, which was vital for shamanic drum-making. With this in mind, I have spent years working largely through trial and error to come up with a method that seems to work for me and I hope that my book helps to further spread knowledge which our ancestors may have had, but which our 21st century culture seems to have almost lost.
I believe that for us to triumph as a species we have to realise that there is space for us all to do the work we are meant to do and that there is no limit to what we can achieve. We need to focus on sustainable ways of living within our planet’s means and ensuring the use of the entirety of any animal that is killed is a part of this. With so many billions of people, animals and plants on the planet, wastage is simply not an option and any approach which allows us to tread gently on the earth is welcomed and embraced.
Vegan, ‘Plant Spirit Drums’
I first started experimenting on making ‘mushroom drums’ because radical vegans sent me hate mail as I make skin drums. My skin drums are made from a waste-product of forest management as we do not have enough predators to cull our deer populations. These skins often get incinerated otherwise and I believe using them is better and more respectful than destroying them. However, I realised that unless you went synthetic, there really was nothing out there that was truly vegan and so I started, on the basis that this probably could not be done but it would be fun to try! I remember asking a vegan friend what they expected me to use, dandelion root and cabbage? I will confess that I have actually tried using dandelion and cabbage in my mix (the cabbage gave off a foul smell and I had to give up quite quickly as I was in danger of a full-scale riot from my family).
Sadly, I deleted the messages as at the time I felt that they served no purpose. Now, I wish I could contact those anonymous people, to let them know that they inspired me to try and create something, that their anger may have been misdirected but has led to a whole new world of possibilities.
Currently I have upped my mushroom growing in the cellar in order to make more prototype mushroom drums, which I am now calling Plant Spirit Drums, partially because it also honours the other ingredients that go into each one. It’s a bit mad down there, as each mixture is unique and I harvest them when I think they are ready and it’s all a huge experiment!
I have 12 tubs in the house and each one has a different mix of mushroom mycelium and food for the mycelium to feed on as this has an impact on the strength of the finished material. When they reach a thickness of around 2cm, I take them out and dry them and then try to use them. So far, the ‘winning mix’ is very encouraging and 4 of the tubs are the same mix in order to see if this is the best.
Lots of people ask about what mycelium I use and the answer for the winning mix so far, is Reishi, or Ling Zhi (Ganoderma Lucidum). This is a really powerful medicinal mushroom that is also very strong. When the mycelium dries it seems to be robust enough to really compare quite favourably to rawhide. Curiously, Ling Zhi is recognised as the mushroom of immortality in China. It grows on hardwoods like Oak, in Asia, as well as all over Europe including on the trees behind my home in the Black Forest. This mushroom has been a plant spirit ally for humans for thousands of years. It is also known as the ‘Spirit Plant’, ‘Immortality Mushroom’, ‘10000 years mushroom’ or ‘varnished conk’, the latter because of its shiny appearance.
Medicinally it is an immunomodulator and is considered to be effective treatment for a variety of disorders. Obviously consult your doctor before taking it, as it could interact with other medication but it is well worth researching if you are unwell (there are some references below). I have taken it on and off for years, for a number of different ailments, and perhaps this is why I decided to try growing pads of Reishi mycelium for plant spirit drums.
On the Spirit side, this mushroom has worked with humans and been revered since before written records. It is said to enhance spiritual perception and lengthen life to that of the ‘immortal fairies’. It is NOT psychotropic. I often get comments about how my mycological interest must mean I am ‘into’ magic mushrooms. Well, Reishi is a magic mushroom in the sense that it helps to bring about a deep connection with spirit and has so many healing properties, but it isn’t hallucinogenic!
Perhaps I was originally naive to expect poor results when I started trying to make a mushroom based drum, with a mushroom as powerful as this I should have expected to be blown away! The largest plant spirit drum prototype is now 41cm diameter and is quite astounding in tone and power (Picture enclosed). A fellow shamanic practitioner came and said that to him it felt like it was truly alive, which in a sense it is, as the mycelium could potentially be reactivated if it was made moist enough for a period of time.
I don’t know if I will ever commercially sell plant spirit drums, although this is looking increasingly like a possibility. What I do know is that these drums have given me a powerful connection with the spirit of the mushroom, that the journey of discovery has been a worthy use of my time, and that my soul sings when I engage in this work.
Adam X. Hearn is a shamanic practitioner, drum-maker and PhD researcher in energy, currently living in the border area of Germany, France and Switzerland. He was first initiated into shamanic practice by a Yachag healer of the Kitchwa people in the Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador. He trained with The Sacred Trust in the UK in core shamanism and also has an MA in Medical Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) London. Adam has worked with many indigenous peoples from around the world, including the Mapuche, Kogi, Aymara, Maya, Kitchwa, Cofan and Secoya. Adam is a lay herbalist, forager and mycologist who was a guest speaker at the Medicinal Mushroom conference in the UK. He has run numerous drum birthing workshops and drumming circles, many in the UNESCO world heritage village of Avebury, Wiltshire in what he refers to as a ‘Sacred Landscape’ as well as internationally. Adam creates sacred drums at auspicious times which are uniquely tailored to the individual.
If you want to order a print copy of Making Shamanic Drums direct from the author, or commission your own shamanic drum please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page Real Shaman Drums. where Adam posts updated information about his Plant Spirit Drums.
Adam also has a video of him playing his Plant Spirit Shamanic Drum on YouTube.
A review of Making Shamanic Drums, a very complete illustrated guide on how you can do doing exactly what it says in the title, can be read on Shamanism Books.
The original of this article featured in Issue 45 of Indie Shaman magazine, published in July 2020. This blog feature has been updated with information about the author’s vegan Plant Spirit Drums.
- El-Mckkany, S. rt al. Anti-Hiv-1 and anti-Hiv-1-protease Substances from Ganoderma lucidium. Photochemistry 49(1998) 1651-1657
- Iwatsuky, K. etal. Lucidenic Acids P and Q Methyl Lucidenate P. and other Terpenoids from the Fungus Ganoderma Lucidum and their inhibitor effects on Epstein-Barr Virus Activation. J. National Prod66. 12(2003)1582-1585.
- Min, B.S. et al. Triterpines from the Spores of Ganoderma lucidum and their Cytotoxology Against Meth Acid and LLCT Tumor Cells. Chem. Charm. Bull. (Tokyo)48. 79(2000)1226-1033
- Powell, Martin. Medicinal Mushrooms . eBook Partnership, 2014.
- The Mushroom Table – UK suppliers of biodynamic mushrooms including some grow kits.
- The Wildside of Life – Fred the foragers page. He introduced me to mycology and runs the UK medicinal mushroom conference.
- Rehmannia Dean Thomas. The Benevolent Consciousness of Reishi Mushroom: Spiritual Perception, Enhanced Immunity and the Energy of the Heart (21 July 2017) in La Yoga.