The Power of Chanting

Terra Harmatuk opened with the following cross-cultural insights. Many believe that the first cosmic manifestation in the beginning of time was vibration, whether sound, breath, or light, and that this primal vibration, differentiating into sounds, or rhythmic breathing, formed the basis for all that has followed. In today’s renaissance of the healing arts, many ancient ideas are emerging, seen in a new light, dealing with the physical and psychological effects of sound, vibration, and music.

Chanting is an ancient and universal form of creating energy. The earliest chants were carried down through oral tradition by the indigenous people of an area. Chants are often the repeating of sacred texts or the names of the divine, which can connect the faithful to their roots. Buddhists, for many centuries, have repeated their mantras, sitting in their temples, repeating the mantras two thousand, three thousand times a day. Repetition over time gives the words power.

Sanskrit, called “the language of the gods,” is more than 4000 years old, making it one of the world’s oldest languages. Almost all Hindu and early Buddhist scriptures were written in Sanskrit, which remains the language used in their ceremonies and chanting. The oral tradition of the Vedas consists of chanting the Vedic mantras. Often considered the oldest unbroken oral tradition in existence, the fixation of the sacred texts dates to roughly the time of Homer (early Iron Age).

The ancient scriptures of Zoroastrianism are considered meditative instruments to enlightenment. Their poetic form is a very ancient one, traced back (through Norse parallels) to Indo-European times. For perhaps 8000 years, their sacred words have been maintained.

Native Americans use chanting, often with dancing and drumming, in preparation for various activities and ceremonies such as curative and healing rituals, planting and harvesting, hunting, weather work, rites of initiations and funerals, and prior to battle. Many songs are not written down or recorded because of their sacred nature; the song could perhaps lose its power and spirit.

The Abrahamic religions have a long history of chanting. The Jewish people preserve the sacred songs that they have inherited from the prophets of Bnei Yisrael (“The Twelve Tribes” or “The Children of Israel”). Roman Catholics repeat the “Hail Mary” and other prayers. The written Gregorian chant was fully compiled by the 12th century and is considered one of the earliest written manuscripts of chant. Muslims, who for ages have recited the Qur’an every day for many hours, still continue to repeat the verses of their sacred book. Protestants use an Anglican chant, a form of Plain Song.

Some people say chanting is a primitive way of altering the consciousness and raising psychic power or energy. For other people, chanting connects the individual with the Divine. The sound of chanting moves with a spiraling energy from the cosmos, giving life and vitality to mankind. It is a profound way to shift consciousness because the vibration in sound directly affects the nervous system. A profound sense of peace and a deepening of the meditative state are obtained when one merges the mind with the sound. A person can chant alone, silently or aloud, as a meditation. Alternately, chanting with other people helps to create a group mind that is focused on the same intention. It is the repetition of the chant that gives it power.

One need not be religious for chanting to be meaningful and beneficial. Chants are used by soldiers, sports teams and fans, political and social rallies and protests, and even children learning recitations. Speaking positive affirmations over and over are a form of chant. Chanting can become quite personal when we create chants that are meaningful to us or to those with whom we share our chants. We can create personal affirmations to enrich our lives, to heal, and to empower us as women.

Yassin Sarr-Fox introduced our first chanter, Samar Samara. Samar is a high school principal in Palestine and is here to study for a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. Samar chanted the opening chapter of the Qur’an, which is chanted by Muslims every day. (This performance and the ones that followed are impossible to render here, one of the reasons you should attend the meetings rather than just read the minutes!) Samar explained that the purpose of chanting is to have a slow and deliberate rendition that allows believers to understand the meaning of every word and what Allah wants of children and adults. Samar followed this with the English translation of the passages she had chanted.

Then Yassin introduced Suzanne Sharifaei, who is a Baha’i, originally from Iran. Suzanne is in the United States because of the severe religious persecution of Baha’i adherents in her own country. With her eyes closed, Suzanne chanted two prayers in Farsi, the first for martyrs and their families, and the second a petition. She explained that chanting is more appealing than speaking; listeners are more likely to listen, and the chanter is more likely to continue for a longer period of time. In the Baha’i religion, chanting can be done alone or in a group and is practiced from youth through old age.  Suzanne said she enjoys chanting because it makes her feel close to God.

Terra shared that the sounds, tones, and vibrations of Suzanne’s chanting took her breath away. Then she introduced Francine Berg, who has been cantor at Temple Society of Concord for 31 years. When Francine was young and making her bat mitzvah, she wasn’t allowed to read to the congregation from the Torah because she is female, so today reading aloud at Shabbat is extremely special to her. Francine explained that the melody of chants makes the text clearer and the words easier to remember. The form is half musical and half declamatory. Francine chanted the declaration of faith from Deuteronomy that is posted on the doorframes in Jewish homes—the Sh’ma. 

Finally, Terra introduced Marie Summerwood, a Dianic Wiccan priestess, green witch, and voice of sacredness for the earth. Marie knows that women’s voices together can create a container of sound to unite women and empower them. She finds that chanting is restorative to the nervous system; it is calming, and it helps harmonize her self with the vibration that she comes from. She is a student of the spiral, finding in the cycles of life all the beauty of the return that most religions promise. She sees in it a recognition of the truth of life demonstrated by everything from subatomic particles to the galaxies, all of which are spinning.  Evolution and intelligence are all about making choices. Marie works to reclaim secular sacredness, which talks about holding sacred that which is our source.  This requires taking care of ourselves and the earth. Marie chants to connect herself to Spirit. She asked us to put one hand on the top of our head and drone together; many were amazed by the vibrations we could feel.

Marie has had experiences of chanting with individuals who had suffered brain trauma. Chanting seems to be profoundly calming to everyone. One Alzheimer’s patient was able to come up with lyrics to songs even though her speaking words were mostly lost; when her disease progressed to a point where she was beyond words, she was still able to harmonize with the songs they were singing together.

Marie learns from all cultures, embracing the sacredness of female energy. That energy visits her when she invites it. Marie led us in a song, “Weaving the Web of Life,” and then turned it into a two-part round.


Ann Port observed that all four chanters had sung in a minor key. Marie and Francine agreed, saying that minor keys are more emotional. Marie added that when she writes songs for children, they are always in a major key.

Judy Antoine asked if silent prayer is also chanted. All the chanters said yes. Samar added that women often chant silently because women have not always been allowed to be heard. Children are taught to chant both at home and in school, even listening to chants on CDs and on TV. They are ready to answer the call to prayer from the mosque and ready to thank God all the time. Judy recalled that hearing the call five times a day is very moving, and she missed it when she returned home from visiting her daughter in Saudi Arabia.

Renee-Noelle Felice pointed out that in Exodus, Miriam is the one who sings after the parting of the seas. Francine agreed, but she added that Miriam would not have been allowed to sing in some of today’s temples.

Chanting is universal. Jews chant in Hebrew, Muslims in Arabic, but Baha’is chant in their local language. Margaret Hart pointed out that Yogic practitioners chant in Sanskrit, and that the chanter can get lost in the syllables. When Margaret’s meditation master passed on, his followers performed a 30-day chant (in shifts). It is common to repeat a chant 108 times in a day, a repetition that works on the nervous system.

Marie was asked about wailing or keening, an intimate expression of grief that she has done with many women. She explained that wailing helps move grief through the nervous system. She demonstrated with a single note that varied with emotion, and she asked everyone to join her. (Again, you had to be there!) Marie pointed out that a person might be medicated for having a lot of grief, but that another approach to dealing with persistent sadness can be this wailing work, which can help facilitate the flow of the emotions. Saro explained that wailing is crucial in Chinese culture, where crying aloud is accepted and having paid wailers has become a status symbol. This is in contrast to the American attitude of stoicism, of holding in grief. 

Yassin pointed out the importance of cross-cultural education and of raising awareness about different cultural practices. She said that misunderstandings can occur when people don’t know why others do what they do. She gave the example of her friend’s neighbor who called the police when he heard chanting coming from her friend’s apartment. Yassin said this is an especially unfortunate part of the immigrant experience; that is, that practices people take for granted are misinterpreted by the culturally unaware. Yassin said that her friend’s daughter no longer wants to chant because she is afraid their neighbors will call the police again. This is an example of how children of immigrants are in danger of losing their culture because of the intolerance of cultural differences.

Marie helped us close our meeting with a chant.  We all stood in a circle, taking sidewise steps and turning around to the following words:

Dance in a circle of women,
Make a web of my life,
Hold me as I spiral and spin,
Making a web of my life.