Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia

Book Review: Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia by Kira Van Deusen (University of Washington Press 2004)

Here is another well-done book with the intention of learning, sharing, and preserving a traditional culture that is threatened by modernity and in this case also by the cultural genocide of the Soviet years. The areas covered are the Republics of Khakassia and Tuva in southern Russia just west of Lake Baikal. Tuva borders Mongolia and is mostly indigenous Tuvans who practice Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. Khakassia, on the other hand is only 10% native Khakassian – so mostly Russian and Christianity is more prominent there (and of course less tolerant to shamanism). In Tuva the Buddhists and Shamanistic peoples coexist and cooperate fairly well and there is definitely some overlap in their view and practices. The area is characterized by the steppes – rich grasslands to feed the herds of the once nomadic peoples and also various mountains that are forested. There are kurgans, burial chambers of ancient warrior-chiefs made by the Indo-Iranian Tagar (similar to the Scythians) around 200-300 B.C. They are characterized by standing stones brought from afar – not unlike Stonehenge – that were buried most of the way with pyramid shaped hills in the middle. They also had an astronomical function – often oriented to the summer solstice sunrise. The modern shamans use the kurgans as sacred ceremonial sites not too much unlike our Pagans going to Serpent Mound. In fact, many of the modern shamans there are well-educated and some had to work hard to preserve traditional ways during the Soviet period where practice of shamanism was ridiculed and punished – and still is to some extent. Only recently have people begun to more strongly reconnect to these traditions.

There are explanations of the various practices, divinations, offerings to spirits, and taboos held by these people. There are various sacred trees, often larch and fir, where two kinds of tree grow from one root – called tel yiash – where offerings are made, usually near mountain passes. The mountain spirits are thought to be powerful and dangerous and to be propitiated and there are many stories about them. There is a divination method done with 41 pebbles – collected from as many different areas as possible. There is another done with the shoulder blade of an animal charred in a fire. The use of magic bronze mirrors called kuzungu is widespread by shamans . The mirrors are the same as the ones used in Tibet – called mekong – and those in China. Many have Chinese letters or symbols on the back. There are many stories about how these mirrors are acquired magically and the old ones used by shamans are said to often disappear inexplicably. (Incidentally my wife got one of these at the junk store the other day). The mirrors are mainly used for diagnosis but also for direct healing. Fans are also used. The author conjectures that fanning became used more often than drumming during the communist years when shamanism had to be practiced in secret. White and blue ribbons can be used.

This book has quite a few stories throughout. Apparently there are also epics told by professional storytellers – who are closely related to shamans – that can last several days and are often accompanied by bowed instruments or a zither called chatkhan. The earliest forms of the epics may recall pre-Turkic times when the Indo-Iranians and Scythians venerated female as well as male warriors and the earth goddess Umai was more important. The Turks came in the 600s and were powerful until the Mongol invasions in the 1200s. The prominence of the Sky realm or Upper World is said to have increased with the more patriarchal Turks. The author says that rites of Turkic peoples are more sky-oriented than other Siberian peoples. Ulgen and Kudai are ancient deities of the Upper World “who date back to the story of the ducks who created the world by diving to bring up mud from the bottom of the sea.” One of the ducks turned into Ulgen. It is interesting I think since ducks are able to penetrate worlds – sky, land, and under water. Another Sky God prominent in stories is Kurbustu-khan – whose name the author suggests may be a form of the Zoroastrian, Ahura Mazda – though she does not elaborate on that. The dragon is also an Upper Realm deity, much like the Sky Dragon (Nam Druk) of Tibet. It is said that in the summer the dragon lives in the sky and in winter it is asleep under the earth. The Lower World is ruled by Erlik-khan and is said to be a dangerous place. Crossing a river on a narrow bridge is the motif of entering the Lower World. Metals are said to come from the Lower World and the blacksmith is associated with it. They say that time stops in the Upper World and moves backwards in the Lower World. The earth goddess Umai is associated also with our Middle Realm and is sometimes seen as a little old woman living in a small dirt hut. She may stretch back to the Paleolithic. Her home is also the sacred mountain caves. These were said to be places of transformation, combining the energies of all three worlds – being high in the mountains. The white-haired old man, Ak-Sakal, an Upper World deity, is also often met in caves. There is also evidence of Paleolithic use of the caves.

There is a little info on yurt symbolism – the hearth in the center is associated with the Lower world and there are stories where a safe place to hide is behind the hearth. “A shaman often describes beginning a visionary journey by going out through the smoke hole.”

There is a discussion of the constituents of the soul. “Khakassians describe khut as the life-force that comes into the body at birth from the milk lake.” There is clan and tribal khut as well. The sur is the soul that is connected to the physical body. Tyn is the breath which comes from the wind said to be attached by a thread when it leaves the body. Chula is equated with the astral body and is called ‘fire of the eyes” – said to sometimes leave the body at night and wander and can bring back information. Sagys is reason which is said to stay near the body after death for a time. Sune is a soul part that stays a year after death then becomes a spirit called uzut in another world. There is also a clan soul said to live in a sacred clan tree. Several of these souls by can be stolen by spirits and retrieved by shamans. Soul parts are also associated with body parts, even chakras.

There are many types of spirits. Often they are spirits of place such as mountain spirits. Yellow mountain spirits are helpful, while black ones are dangerous. Spirits can appear as beautiful women, men, and some as ancient red warriors on horseback reminiscent of the Scythians. There are evil spirits called albys, sometimes appearing as a long-haired woman with no back (innards exposed). There is another evil one called shulbus with one eye on the forehead and a bog brass nose. There are spirits of illness and many other types too. A shaman’s gift can often come from a particular class of spirits. There is also mention and stories about the classic shaman’s illness, or soul crisis. There are fetish figures called eeren who represent helping spirits of which the shaman has many.

The epics and stories are very often magical stories of shamans crossing worlds. One famous character is Oskus-ool, an orphan (not unlike the orphan-heroes of the Celtic epics) who encounters and marries the daughter of Kurbustu-khan of the Sky Realm. There are many stories where clever women are the heroines as in the Khakass epic Altyn-Aryg. Many stories and tales involve hunters, as hunting as well as herding was a traditional pastime. Hunters are often in the mountains and so encounter spirits. They are sometimes protected by their implements as women are protected, as in many cultures, by their sewing implements. There are other stories about the power and origins of musical instruments which are used in the telling of stories. It is said that the foremost audience in storytelling are the spirits themselves and that there are spirits who follow the stories and attack if they are not told correctly or finished – although as everywhere there are many versions of stories.

Methods to enter trance involve the stringed instruments, dancing in the shamans costume which has bells and metal, pictures of spirit helpers, and things like feathers and antlers which are said to connect the worlds. Overtone chanting and throat singing are used extensively. There are several types of this from the low type used by the Tibetans to higher pitched types. We once heard a demonstration of various types given by touring Mongolian musicians. The jaw harp is a journey instrument as is the drum, often large and able to produce many sounds, not purely monotonous as most people think, but with subtle variations in timbre. It is said that the drum is the shaman’s horse that carries him or her to other realms. Juniper is often burned (as in Tibet and Native America). The shoor, or flute is also used (I have a CD of a Mongolian I met who played the nose-flute, now quite rare I guess). As in many cultures there are incomprehensible spirit languages tapped into. The author mentions, I think importantly, that people of a similar culture often have similar visions during altered states. Music is considered to be healing, particularly for psychological maladies. There is also a long-standing tradition of
shamanic poetry and a few are recounted in this book – one about a hunter who kills an old mountain goat to make a shaman’s drum. The poem acts as a consecration of the drum. Animal sacrifice is also a practice – particularly as offering to the mountain spirits. There is a type (which sounds rather cruel to me) where the animal – usually sheep – is cut and one reaches in and cuts off the aorta. More to my liking there is the practice of bloodless sacrifice where an animal is set free as an offering.

Contemporary stories, poems, and even shamanic practices often take on new forms.There are stories now about reconnecting with and healing the relationship to the earth damaged by industrialism and technological progress. Shamans now have clinics and practice things like shamanic massage. There are shamans and Buddhist lamas that practice psychic-types of energy healing. Psychological healing is needed as the suicide rate is high among the indigenous populations. It is even said that there are certain spirits that can make a person hang himself. There are shaman’s associations which may keep charlatans in check. Many are well-educated and influenced by other ideas varying from Theosophy (after all Madame Blavatsky was Russian) and Russian Mysticism, and New Age shamanic culture. There is brief mention also of the lore of the mystical land of Shambhala (Belovodia in Russian) – a Buddhist legend that says there is an enlightened (and yet militaristic) realm in this area. Apparently there is also an Altai legend of a similar realm beyond the mountain ranges.

Really this was an awesome book.

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