Marie Skłodowska-Curie
Global Fellowship 2019

THETRANCE – Transnational Healing: Therapeutic Trajectories in Spiritual Trance 

Researcher: Dr Emily Pierini 

EU Funding. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 895395.

Partner institutions. Sapienza University of Rome, Department of History, Anthropology, Religions, Art, and Performing Arts (Prof. Pino Schirripa; Prof. Alessandro Lupo); Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil, Department of Social Anthropology (Prof. Alberto Groisman; Prof. Vânia Zikan Cardoso); and University of Oxford, Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology (Prof. Ramon Sarró). 

Collaborations. Prof. Roger Canals, University of Barcelona, Spain, advisor for the visual ethnography section. 

CRIA, Centro em Rede de Investigação em Antropologia, Lisbon, Portugal (Dr Anna Fedele).

Project duration: 2020-2023

The Project. THETRANCE is an anthropological study investigating therapeutic spiritual trance in a transnational perspective. It analyses how people learn and narrate about spiritual trance, with what kinds of consistencies and differences across cultures, and how trance-based healing practices may be relevant for therapeutic purposes.

Through an approach that combines social and medical anthropology, and the anthropology of religion, drawing parallels with research in psychology and psychiatry, THETRANCE focuses upon specific cases of people learning spiritual trance for therapeutic purposes, for physical and mental health and to recover from substance addictions. The methodology is grounded in a multi-sited comparative ethnographic research in temples of the Spiritualist Christian Order Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn) in Brazil, the United States, and Europe. Firstly, it examines the transnational mobility of practices and concepts related to spiritual healing and trance. Secondly, it compares the use of trance-based healing practices in people’s therapeutic trajectories between spirituality and biomedicine in North and South America, and Europe. And thirdly, it investigates the role of religious/spiritual learning in patients' well-being.

THETRANCE is innovative in combining the analysis of therapeutic trajectories between spirituality and biomedicine with the focus upon the process of learning spiritual trance through a transnational perspective. In doing so, it unsettles the pathological reductions of spiritual trance to understand how these experiences are rather used therapeutically.

Project PI: Emily Pierini

Assistant Professor in Anthropology at Sapienza University of Rome. She has been a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at Sapienza, visiting Professor at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, and Affiliate of the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Bristol with a research on spirit mediumship in Brazilian Spiritualist Christian Order Vale do Amanhecer, which received the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Sutasoma Award. She has conducted ethnographic research in the temples of the Vale do Amanhecer (Brazil and Europe),

Her work addresses spirit mediumship and possession, embodied knowledge, healing, religious experience and learning, body and self, emotions and senses, and transnational religions. Author of the book Jaguars of the Dawn: Spirit Mediumship in the Brazilian Vale do Amanhecer (2020, Berghahn), co-editor of Other Worlds, Other bodies: Embodied Epistemologies and Ethnographies of Healing (2023, Berghahn).
She is the coordinator of the ‘HEAL - Network for the Ethnography of Healing’.



Project publications

Edited book

Emily Pierini, Alberto Groisman, Diana Espírito Santo (eds) 2023, Other Worlds, Other Bodies: Embodied Ethnographies and Epistemologies of Healing, New York; Oxford, Berghahn.

When approaching the multiplicity of the spiritual experiences of healing, ethnographers are often presented with ideas of the existence of “other” worlds that may intersect with the so-called “material” or “physical” worlds. This book proposes a sensory ethnography of healing with a focus on ethnographic knowing as embedded in an embodied epistemology of healing. Epistemological embodiment signals that personal scholarly experience of the “unknown”—be it in the form of trance, or as the embodiment of an “other”—shapes the concepts of healing, body, trance, self, and matter by which ethnographers craft out analysis.


“This book makes some highly original and extraordinarily important contributions to anthropology and religious studies that will appeal to a wide readership across these disciplines, from students and specialists of healing and spiritualism to those with an interest in scholarly theories and methods of illuminating the unknown.” • Katherine Swancutt, King's College London

“This volume is an illustration of the productive and exciting developments in the field of the anthropology of religion, in particular to what concerns health and healing practices, covering novel approaches and territories that experimentally transcend the classic formulations and interpretations on "spirit possession".” • Ruy Llera Blanes, University of Gothenburg


Pierini, Emily, 2023, Trance-Formative Therapeutic Experiences: Moving and Being Moved by Spiritual Healing Across the Atlantic, AM Antropologia Medica 24(56): 119-139.

ABSTRACT: Spirit mediumship and possession are often conceptualized as being individual psychic phenomena or marginal practices belonging to some distant otherness, or even reduced to some kinds of pathological categories. However, besides spreading through transnational religions they are increasingly embedded in a growing network of therapeutic practices operating besides the biomedical field. One of such instances is the transnational spread of the Brazilian Christian Spiritualism of the Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn) and the development of what mediums describe as “mediumistic trance”. By examining the experiences of people with chronic disease and anxiety learning spirit mediumship across the Atlantic between Brazil, the US, and Europe, I will show how the mediums’ narratives of their therapeutic itineraries highlight a two-fold movement: through different therapeutic domains; and through the phenomenology of mediumistic trance, which is more sensorial, imaginal, and affective engendering multi-sensory therapeutic images arising from this experience. I therefore propose the notion of “trance-formative therapeutic experiences” to analyse how mediumistic trance is learned for therapeutic purposes fostering a transformation.


Book Chapters

Pierini, E., A. Groisman, D. Espírito Santo 2023 ‘Introduction. Embodied Epistemologies of Healing’. In E. Pierini, A. Groisman, D. Espírito Santo, eds, Other Worlds, Other Bodies: Embodied Ethnographies and Epistemologies of Healing, New York; Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 175—192.

ABSTRACT: This Introduction, written by the three editors of the volume, argues for a phenomenologically participative stance on the part of the anthropologist of spirit possession and mediation. We begin with a critique of homogeneous notions of both “person” and “spirit” in possession studies, asking how an immersive participative observation method on the part of scholars can both contribute to an understanding and raise questions about the anthropological enterprise itself. We argue that we need to think and feel through alterity with embodied understandings or imagery or metaphors that open up, rather close, or resolve inquiry. The idea of “extraordinary experiences” itself needs to be rethought, perhaps into one that recognizes that scholars, too, are intrinsic to the incipient and temporal movement of all social forms. We then argue that transformative engagements with the field can signal ways that personal scholarly experience of the “unknown” shapes the concepts by which we craft out analysis. We reflect, in particular, upon a concept of 'epistemological embodiment', or, on how these experiences may impact our conceptions of knowing and of how this knowing is produced. In particular, we formulate a framework that points to how our own conceptual and epistemological understandings of the field are embedded within our own bodily experiences, arrangements, trajectories, and serendipities.

Pierini et al. 2023 Introduction-Embodied Epistemologies of Healing.pdf

Pierini, Emily. ‘Ways of Knowing and Healing: Mediumistic and Ethnographic Epiphanies in the Vale do Amanhecer’, 2023. In E. Pierini, A. Groisman, D. Espírito Santo, Other Worlds, Other Bodies: Embodied Ethnographies and Epistemologies of Healing, New York; Oxford: Berghahn, pp. 175—192.

ABSTRACT: This chapter addresses the entanglements between tangible and intangible worlds in the practice of healing through spirit mediumship in the Brazilian Spiritualism of the Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of the Dawn). The process of learning this practice is hereby approached as learning a way of knowing, in which the spiritual experience of other worlds and other selves is materialized through bodies, spiritual substances and visions are made tangible, and people are made aware of their own selves as extended beyond the physical body. In my analysis of this process of learning, I propose to move beyond the idea of propositional knowledge to embrace the dimension of feeling and affection, where knowledge is generated through experience as engagement with a field of relations between humans and spirits. This human-spirit ecology of substances is what defines healing in the Vale do Amanhecer. Along with the experiences of mediums, I also consider my own experience as ethnographer engaged in this process of learning a way of knowing through the body, expanding perception in a field of interactions and co-presence with other selves (human and non-human), materializing the intangible in and through my own body, which becomes a zone of encounter and transition between worlds where ethnographic knowledge is engendered relationally and through bodily experience.

Project Events

  • Workshop 2021, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Brazil
  • Workshop 2022, University of Oxford, UK
  • Workshop 2023, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy
  • International Conference 2023, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy

2021 Workshop in Brazil

13-14 December 2021 Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (THETRANCE Partner University), online sessions open to the public

Day 1 Roundtables

Questions for the roundtable discussion between anthropologists, psychologists, and spiritual healing practitioners in Brazil:

• How do mediumistic trance practices inform therapeutic experiences and health?

• How can we promote dialogues and communication between people who work in different fields of knowledge such as the sciences, humanities and religions?

• What kind of categories can intervene in the dialogue between different fields of knowledge?

Watch the recordings on YouTube:

Watch the recordings on YouTube:

Day 2 Visual Ethnography Session

This workshop session brings together two ethnographic films focusing upon trance and healing rituals in a transnational perspective: Maria Líonza’s rituals in Venezuela and Spain filmed by Roger Canals, and Caboclos Nkisis worship between Cuba and Brazil filmed by Ana Stela Cunha. 

While addressing spiritual trance transnationally, these films raise a key theoretical issue of ethnographic film (and anthropology in general): how are the filmmaker’s body and technological devices the ethnographer uses during research involved within the ritual, thus, transforming it? And how may this subjectivity be reflected in the film during the editing process? 

As filmmakers we know that we do not only film reality, but we transform it by filming it. So, how can our presence alter the development of the ritual? Can (or should) cinema intervene in the healing process (especially if it has a transnational dimension)? In this regard, filming the manifestation of spirits in rituals often poses some ethical questions, such as: How do we get permission to film from human and non-human agents intervening in the ritual? And how do we visualize this "pact" with others in the film? In methodological terms, both films have had to face technical challenges, such as filming when there is a lack of light, or when participants use substances that can damage technical devices. These challenges will be discussed during the session. 

This workshop aims to offer a multi-perspective view upon trance and healing in visual ethnography by examining both its practice and the conceptual and ethical issues it addresses.

Watch the recordings on YouTube:


2022 Workshop at the University of Oxford

17-18 June 2022, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, University of Oxford

Conference and Workshop 2023
at Sapienza University of Rome

Project Conference Presentations

12/11/2020  THETRANCE presented by Emily Pierini at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil, during the Colóquio do Núcleo Transes, Round-table discussion on 'Ethnographies of Incorporation in Spiritual Healing'. Watch it on the HEAL YouTube Channel (Portuguese)

11/03/2021 'Substances of Healing: Embodied Knowing between Addiction and Spiritual Trance' presented by Emily Pierini at the IUAES Congress in Croatia (virtual conference)
25/03/2021 Project presentation 'Transnational Therapeutic Trajectories and Mediumistic Trance in the Vale do Amanhecer' in the seminar on 'Religions in the Hospital: Integrating Spirituality and Medicine in Healing Practices', University of Turin, Italy

05/05/2021 'Substance and Evanescence: Transe and Incorporation in Spiritual Healing', Inaugural Lecture of the Postgraduate Programme in Social Anthropology at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil. Approaches to the study of spirit mediumship, trance and possession, European Spiritualism and media technologies of the 19th century, spiritual healing in the Vale do Amanhecer, and the ethnographer's embodied ways of knowing. 

Watch the Inaugural Lecture on YouTube:

02/06/2021 'Embodied Knowing: Healing through Mediumistic Trance in Brazil' presented by Emily Pierini at the European Network for Psychological Anthropology Conference 2021, Helsinki, Finland (online)

10/06/2021 'Transnational Spiritual Healing in the Vale do Amanhecer' presented by Emily Pierini at the Ethnography and Qualitative Research Conference 2021, Trento, Italy (online)

03/08/2021 WORKSHOP: Religion At Home: Reconfiguring Healing Spaces During Pandemic Times 

Convenors: Joana Bahia (Universidade Estadual de Rio de Janeiro), Emily Pierini (Sapienza University of Rome), Giovanna Capponi (Musée du quai Branly / University of Roehampton). 
Discussants: Alberto Groisman and Vânia Cardoso (Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina) 
Hosted by Universidade do Estado de Rio de Janeiro (Online)


This workshop analyzes how religious practices are developed at home through the use of material affordances and through the creation of “sacred spaces” within the domestic environment. While the use and assemblage of religious objects is encouraged or prescribed in some religions (dedicated rooms or cabinets, domestic altars, prayer mats, etc.), the closure of religious and healing centres in many countries during the Covid-19 pandemic has fostered the reconfiguration of home spaces to accommodate religious practices. Ideas of bodily and space protection, contamination and cleansing are reframed through the entanglements of spiritual and biomedical indications, informing the relations between tangible and intangible substances, objects and images. Practices of healing may be subjective or global, involve distant or self-healing in new spaces and with new materials, or they may be synchronised with other practitioners, even transnationally.

02/09/2021 'Trajetórias Terapêuticas Transnacionais: O Vale do Amanhecer na Europa' presented by Emily Pierini at the ABRE2021 Congress (Associação de Brasilianistas na Europa), Prague (Online). 

23/09/2021 'Experience as a Path to Consilience? Healing and Mediumistic Trance in Brazilian Spiritism' presented by Emily Pierini at the III Congress of the Italian Society of Cultural Anthropology at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy

11/11/2021 'Substances, Healing and Multisensory Imagery in Brazilian Mediumistic Trance', Invited Lecture by Emily Pierini at the Autumn School 'Dialogues with Magic', Saka, Estonia (Online)

05/11/2021 'Healing, Transnationalism and the Transhistorical Self of the Vale do Amanhecer', paper presented by Emily Pierini at the Virtual Conference 'Spiritual Historicities: Exploring micro-historical practices and alternative temporal directions in contemporary religiosities', Pontificia University Catolica de Chile (Online)

07/12/2021 'Trance-formative therapeutic experiences in the Vale do Amanhecer', invited lecture by Emily Pierini at the combined Brazil Seminar, Columbia University Seminar on Studies of Religion, and Context and Methods in the Social Science Seminar, Columbia University, New York.

30/05/2022 'Trance-formative therapeutic itineraries in the Vale do Amanhecer' seminar by Emily Pierini at the CRIA WebiNar de Antropologia da Religião, Universidade de Lisboa.

26/07/2022 'Trance-formative experiences: Spiritual healing across the Atlantic', paper presented by Emily Pierini at the EASA2022 Conference, Queen University of Belfast, UK.

02/09/2022 'A transnacionalização das curas espirituais do Vale do Amanhecer', seminar given by Emily Pierini at the Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Brazil.

 23/06/2023 'Trance-formative therapeutic experiences: mediumship, multi-sensory images, and therapeutic pluralism', paper presented by Emily Pierini at the 'Spirituality, Wellbeing and Risks Symposium', Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia, Online.

17/06/2023 Book launch Other Worlds, Other Bodies: Embodied Ethnographies and Epistemologies of Healing  edited by E. Pierini, A. Groisman, D. Espírito Santo (Berghahn 2023), University of Kyoto, Japan.

14/09/2023 'Healing correspondences: Spirit mediums and health professionals in the Vale do Amanhecer', paper presented by Emily Pierini at the International Conference ‘Sapienza in Trance: Healing, Cooperation, and Imagination (MSCA-THETRANCE Final conference), Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. Hybrid.

This website is part of the project THETRANCE that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 895395