Wednesday, September 3, 2014
Shamanism in Siberia: Excerpts from - Aboriginal Shamanism: A Study in Social Anthropology (1914)
Book Review: Shamanism in
Excerpts from - Aboriginal Shamanism: A Study in Social Anthropology by M.A.
Czaplicka (originally 1914 – Kindle Edition 2009)
This is an old study and includes the work of many Russian and European anthropologists and ethnologists who studied the different ethnic groups in
Siberia and their ways of life with
respect to shamanism. About a dozen or more tribes are studied over the vast
region of Siberia. It is remarked that even
though details differ, that the whole range of northern Asian mythology seems
fairly similar and likely connected. These were foraging peoples in the past. This
book collects many interesting accounts of shamanism of the various tribes by
the scientific observers.
Here the author distinguishes Paleo-Siberian beliefs and practices from those of Neo-Siberians. Paleo-shamans were more like family shamans while neo-shamans are more like professional shamans. Later beliefs like Christianity, and to a lesser extent Buddhism in a few areas, influenced the development of Neo-shamanism. He notes that while many shamanists were registered at the time as Catholics or Buddhists, that they were actually much more dedicated to shamanist beliefs.
Some tribes favored female shamans. Others favored male ones. Shamans were often said to be chosen by the spirits themselves. Psychic experiences, mental instability, and illness are also typical features of those called to be shamans. If a calling has been identified the strange gift can be developed through training in ascetic disciplines like fasting, ecstatic behavior, fatigue, physical pain, or other induced hypersensitivity. Long periods of slumber or unconsciousness have been associated with a shamanic state in Siberian and other Asian cultures. For some of these cultures to be called to be a shaman is both blessing and curse. The call may come unexpectedly after a long illness or a traumatic event, even for older people, though some say the older people do not hear the shamanic call. A shaman engages with the unseen world and interprets such engagement for others, particularly to heal their afflictions.
Some shamans also employed tricks like ventriloquism and stage magic phenomena to tell their tales and work their healing mojo. One might see this as placebo, a real psycho-somatic effect of incorporating the “sham” in shamanism. Methods like blowing and sucking out harmful spirits might also been seen as symbolic placebo-enhancing gestures.
Most shamans of the varying tribes have guardian spirits, often multiple ones of different types, corresponding to soul components. Among the Yakut, animal guardian spirits of wolf, bear, or dog are considered unfortunate for these are insatiable. Bull, stallion, elk, or black boar are considered better. These Yakut animal guardians are called yekyua, or “mother-animal” and are considered hard to detect by others. As in much of totemism, there is a taboo against killing a member of the species that is one’s mother-animal. The amagyat is one’s spirit protector from the celestial world. Also among the Yakut there are said to be mischievous spirits called kaliany that may cause the shaman to imitate indecent gestures. The Yakut distinguish white shamans and black shamans with each having their sur (a type of soul) educated in different ways. A shaman’s initiation among the Yakut may involve a vow of renunciation of normal life to a life in service to the spirits as well as an animal sacrifice where the shaman is sprinkled with blood. Among the Buryat the west Tengeris train a white shaman and the east Tengeris train a black shaman. The candidate is chosen on the basis of tendencies to meditate, to prefer solitude, and to experience long periods of unconsciousness. Training takes several years. The Buryat also have sacrificial ceremonies for shamanic initiation. One involves cutting a birch tree and planting it in the yurta, extending through the smoke hole. This represents the path to the celestial world. The candidate climbs the tree, goes through the hole and onto the roof and summons the spirits in a loud voice. Among the Samoyed and Ostyak one description of initiation involved the candidate being first instructed about the inhabitants of the Samoyed spirit world then being blindfolded and beaten on the back of the head by one elder shaman and on the shoulders by another, until “his eyes were dazzled as with too much light, and he saw demons dancing on his arms and feet.” The author notes that Russian Lapland was in ancient times known as a great school of shamanism (nyoda) as it was among the Scandinavians where the Saami shamans were held in high regard.
Paleo-shamans in these tribes have multiple functions such as priest, medicine-man, and prophet. In some tribes they tend to specialize but in others to generalize. Often lesser shamans, sometimes called sorcerers, and/or the master of the house would take on some of these duties such as making offerings and so forth. Among the Koryak, family shamanism revolves around the hearth and the shaman sticks to one group of people. Professional shamans work with different groups of people and communal shamans are a transition between family and professional shamans. Among the Chukchee there are said to be three classes of professional shamans: ecstatic shamans, shaman-prophets, and incantation shamans. Their duties overlap but these are the specializations.
The author notes that among the neo-shamans the dualism likely introduced by Asiatic religions like Buddhism, and especially Christianity, is more of a feature so that there are more white than black shamans. Black and white have been subtly associated with evil and good. In the past and still then among the Yakut, there were as many or more black shamans, those who work more with the lower world than the bright world. They are given a higher respect. Although not mentioned some of the ancient western Siberians could also have been influenced by Indo-Aryan or Indo-Iranian peoples from the steppes and the Altai regions and north and eastward. There may have been some influence of Zoroastrian or even proto-Vedic peoples.
According to Troschanski, the white shamans probably derived from the heads of families who mainly performed family priestly functions but did not work much with the evil spirits. The Gilyak and other paleo-Siberians do not distinguish between white and black shamans. Troschanski also suggests that the black shamans were originally women. His main evidence to suggest this is that women are more given to emotion than men (which may not at all be true) and that Yakut women were said to be affected by a nervous disease, a form of the so-called “Arctic hysteria.” Some women became white shamans as well, sometimes due to the husband being away so that the woman became the family shaman. His other evidence equating women to black shamanism is that among the most primitive Kamchadal there were only women shamans and they practiced black shamanism which included summoning evil spirits. Another interesting observation is that the terms for female shaman are very similar in several Mongolian, central Asian, and Siberian tribes while those for male shamans are different. This suggests that female shamans came first though this is not proven. Male shamans even exhibit female dress at times and are bound by a few similar taboos as women. Troschanski thought that male black shamans came about gradually by being the smiths for female black shamans and through their contact with the magical iron eventually became shamans. Smiths were hereditary and always strongly associated with shamans and magical power. Spirits are thought to fear the smiths’ iron and bellows. Among the Buryat, Tengerists like the Mongol Genghis Khan, white and black shamans seem to be more associated with good and evil, each serving different Tengeri. Lapps and Samoyed do not distinguish white and black shamans. The Votyak have classes of permanent and temporary shamans, mostly white. Yakut shamans are said to be mostly black.
Shaman’s accessories include the drum, the large coat with noisy metal pieces sown on, a mask or other form of face veil, the hat, a girdle with clanking metal pieces, and a copper or metal breastplate. The Tungus shamans wear an apron adorned with iron. Much of this costumery is used by the neo-shamans but less so by paleo-shamans, says the author. The Buryat use horse-staves and say it is a bad omen if the tree is killed when cutting them so care is taken. Shaman’s instruments are consecrated and subjected to strict ceremonial rules and taboos. The Chukchee, considered paleo-shamans, do not use special clothing. They often shamanize in the dark indoors in a stifling hot environment. The authors distinguish a southern-style drum, oval in shape. The Asiatic Eskimo, Koryak, and Chukchee have wooden handles attached to drums and the drum is struck from below by a stick. The Koryak shamans do not have drums but use those of their constituent families. The metal pieces, fringework, and other accessories utilized by paleo-shamans such as the Koryaks and Gilyaks are thought to be in imitation of Tungus shamans. Some shamans even have special embroidered stockings.
“The Yukaghir word for drum is yalgil, which means “lake,” that is, the lake into which the shaman dives in order to descend into the shadow-world.”
Linguistics suggest that the ceremonial drum is older than the ceremonial coat. The copper plate on the Yakut or Tungus shaman’s coat represents the amagyat – a strong personal protective power – and can only be made by a 9th generation (or more) smith. The amagyat may also be regarded as a family spirit of shaman families that re-incarnates within the clan. Often it dwells in symbolic form somewhere on the shaman’s coat. Some shamans use stringed instruments and jaw harps as well but these are likely newer additions. The Turkic, Kyrgis, and Finnish bards also used stringed instruments to help sing their tales. The author notes that some Altai drums have animals drawn on them and resemble drums of North American Indians. Southern Siberian drums often have a line through the middle separating drawings representing the upper and lower worlds. Among the Lapps, women are forbidden to touch or use the drums. Such taboos seem to vary quite a bit among the different tribes.
Jochelson described meeting travelling Koryak shamans and asking one to show proof of his knowledge. Shamans, he noted, seem not to be specially respected among the Koryak. He noted the shaman drumming and chanting softly in the dark of the dwelling and imitating the sounds of the wild animals, moving around flawlessly and quietly in the dark, and being an expert in ventriloquism so that it was hard to tell where he was. After the performance he appeared lying flat and exhausted on his mat and declared that the sickness of the village had departed. Curiously, he also noted the shaman saying that the spirits had called on him to cut himself with a knife so he borrowed a knife from Jochelson and appeared to thrust it in his chest to the hilt but Jochelson noticed that he turned it down just before – a stage magic-type trick. He also had blood spots, likely pre-made. Apparently this is a common shaman’s trick in several tribes. This shows the power of the shaman to dazzle and charm with his personality and faux magical ability. Thus shamans can be skilled actors. This may aid the placebo effect for the viewers who tend to believe in his magical powers.
The Chukchee inhale a narcotic tobacco that they apparently learned to do from Tungus shamans. They utilize random non-sensical chanting and the use of a chorus form others as encouragement – probably not too dissimilar from the glossolalia of evangelical ‘holy-ghosters.’ The chorus is often the shaman’s assistants. When spirits appear the voice of the shaman often changes. He or she may also imitate the sounds of nature, wind, insects, and animals. Spirits may speak in different dialects or even their own language. Yakut ceremonies may include invocations of sacred animals (ie. the horse of the steppes), the sun and the moon, fire and such, in the form of a liturgy. After this the shaman may be possessed by spirits and become very active while participants check his wild and ecstatic behavior by holding him with leather thongs or he may give up his drum and dance madly. Later a sacrifice is offered to the spirits. This may be a blood sacrifice or bloodless or symbolic. There are several accounts given. In one Samoyed ceremony there is a rhythmic tangling of bells followed by dancing and strange body movements and a presumed continuous dialogue with the spirits. Stories of Altai shamans describe them whirling madly around in circles, collecting spirits in their drum by beating it while holding it in the air, and making the sound of horse hooves to indicate he was embarking to the lower world ruled by Erlik, the god of darkness. This is a dangerous journey which the shaman mimes as he enters and encounters Erlik.
Shamanism and sex is next explored. Among the Kamchadal, women predominantly have the shaman’s gift. Among the Yukaghir, Koryak, and Chukchee tribes, women and men were shamans in equal numbers. The Samoyed of Turukhan, the Tungus of Baikal, the Ostyak, Buryat, and Yakut also had women and men shamans. Apparently, in several tribes there are myths that teach that shamanism was first bestowed on women. Among many tribes the similar name of a female shaman – utygan and several variations – calls to mind the hearth goddess, Etegun eke, or mother-earth. The word is also connected to constellations, particularly the bears, and these constellations are also protectors of family hearth and associated with the earth goddess. One might also consider that the seidr mages (volvas) of Norse lore were women and may have been influenced by Saami noadi shamans. Siberian women did not have an exalted position in their societies, but mostly an inferior one. Shamanism was said to be based on abilities. Women involved in childbirth generally were/are said to lose their shamanistic abilities at this time. Male shamans frequently wear female garments when shamanizing. Apparently, there are varying levels of transvestitism in these tribes, from “change of dress” to “change of sex” and rarely to males living fully as a female and being married to another male – sometimes in addition to a female wife. These transgendered “transformed” shamans are said to be chosen by the spirits (particularly female spirits) for this. Such shamans may be feared and so left alone. Harassment of them likely has more to do with modern attitudes influenced by Christianity. There are quite a few Siberian communities where the female shaman is not permitted to touch or play the drum. No explanation is given as to why. There appear to be no androgynous deities among the paleo-Siberians but among the neo-Siberians of Altai there is the Supreme Being as “mother and father of the man.” Shamans are considered a third class, distinguished from male and female, though they share some taboos. Among shamans, the woman acquires certain attributes of the man and vice versa. There is a dark side to feminization of men in
and especially Native America as when captives, the cowardly, and the infirm
were dressed as women to show their degraded status. Such may have been rare
There is a section on gods, spirits, and the soul. Among the Chukchee there were vairgit, or beings worthy of sacrifice. The midday sun and the polar star were male deities and the dawn and dusk were “wife-companions.” The sun, moon, and stars were vairgit as well. The pole star is the main star vairgit. Observers have compared these mythos to that of the Native American (Algonquian) Manitou. Deities are often local as well. Reindeer are deified were they occur and are herded as are the walrus and other sea creatures among maritime Siberians such as the Asiatic Eskimo. Among the lower world spirits (kelet) the Chukchee have those that cause death and disease, bloodthirsty cannibals that attack warriors, and those spirits the shamans call for aid. There are elemental beings like those of the winds. The prevailing wind is their chief. There are also house and tent spirits. Some spirits have assistants, often a raven or half-raven. Hallucinogenic mushrooms are associated with a whole tribe of spirits. Animal to human, spirit to human, and vice versa – shapeshifting - is a big part of lore. There are also legendary monsters like the killer whale – which it is taboo to kill among Arctic peoples. Giant polar bears are another. The mammoth was considered the reindeer of the kelet, according to the Chukchee. Some mammoth carcasses were found intact frozen in the tundra and the meat was eaten – up to the 18th century. There is taboo against removing the tusks for ivory. Kelet may steal souls but a powerful shaman may also steal souls of kelet. The Chukchee posit multiple worlds one above the other, 5, 7, or 9 with access through a hole under the pole star. There are other worlds as well such as one under the sea.
The Koryak seem to have veered toward monotheism, probably influenced by the Russians. They deified thunder, dawn, and the raven as Big Raven. Some of the Koryak words look similar to Finnish ones to me. Big Raven is sent by the Supreme Being to order human affairs. Big Raven also appears among the American Pacific tribes. Some myths are similar as well which may suggest multiple crossings back and forth by sea or even from the Bering land bridge time. One is the story of the raven (not Big Raven) swallowing the sun. Many of the Koryak tales include Big Raven, even as a dimwit, compared to his wife Miti and others. Some are told for amusement. He is also a hero in stories as he battles the evil spirits. The Koryak depict five worlds: two below and two above. The Supreme Being inhabits the highest then the cloud people. Below our world – the middle one – are the world of the spirits and lowest is the world of the shades of the dead. Now only shamans can traverse the worlds but in the ancient time of Big Raven, ordinary people could. In death accounts one states that the spirits pull the higher soul out of the body and free it to rise to the upper world. Lower spirits may take possession of the lower soul or one of them. Multiple soul components seem to be a feature of most shamanic and ancient peoples.
Kutkhu is the Supreme Being of the Kamchadal. Raven (Kutq) was said to be the creator. The Kamchadal had been Christianized somewhat and refer to the Christian god as Kutkhu also. They venerated the wolf and the bear and would not pronounce their names. They did fire sacrifices over fox and sable holes.
The Gilyak venerate Ytsigy as highest benevolent deity and Kurn as the universe and highest anthropomorphic deity. Animals are considered to be like humans with social clans. Mountains, sea, and fire deities are more important than the sky, sun, and moon gods for they are more accessible. Gilyaks offer sacrifices on the principle of exchange and carry sacrificial items with them. For example, one does not offer fish to the god of the sea but may offer tea leaves. They use certain plant roots also. There are also bloody sacrifices by strangulation, particularly of a dog. Dog sacrifices are fairly common in
Siberia and in Native America. Clansmen who have died by
fire or drowning or killed by bears become clan-gods and sacrifices are made to
them. They say shamans have four main souls, rich men two, and ordinary men
one. All also have a lesser soul, residing like an egg in the main soul. At the
death of the body, by evil spirits, the soul goes to a specific land in a
human-like form where a rich man becomes poor and vice versa. After this the
soul goes into successively smaller forms – such as a bird, then a gnat, then a
speck of dust. The lesser soul lives on in the favorite dog of the deceased
where it is cared for well.
The Ainu tribe from
Japan, worship the Supreme Being as
Kotan Kara Kamui. Mo acha, “uncle of
peace,” is benevolent to humans. His elder brother is an evil deity who brings
bad weather and wrecks boats. There ia a goddess of the sun and a god of the
moon although a few consider the sun male and the moon female. The Milky Way,
as the crooked river of the gods is where the gods like to fish. There is a
goddess of fire who judges humans on their deeds. Apparently, they are strong
believers in judgment after death and a life review trial attended by the
goddess of fire is a feature. The souls of humans are said to live beyond in a
way similar to the Ainu tribe. The ghosts of deceased women are especially
feared. Souls go first to the underworld where they are judged. Some say women
have no souls so are not allowed to pray but one early researcher thinks this
is because the men fear that they will petition the gods about how ill the men
treat them! Others have disagreed, saying the status of Ainu women is better
than in any other Siberian tribe. Chamberlain noted that modern Ainu were
influenced by Japanese Buddhist ideas. The Japanese Buddhists were influenced
by Indian ideas.
The Turkic tribes given are the Yakut and the Altai. Urun-Aiy-Toyon, the “white lord,” is the chief benevolent deity of the Yakut. He may be a god of light, or the sun. There is a cosmology of worlds based on the Yakut clan system. The word “Urun” suggest to me a possible cognate to “
Ur” as Uranus, Varuna,
Ahura Mazda among Indo-Iranian and/or Indo-Aryan tribes. Ahura Mazda is a god
of light and Uranus/Varuna is a sky god. An-Alay-Khotun is the benevolent earth
goddess. These upper world gods are well known but only the shamans know the
secrets and names of the lower world gods. The Yakut also employ a secret
language and substitute Russian names to protect them from dangerous spirits,
particularly during travel. Yakut cosmology sees good spirits in the east and
south and evil ones in the north and west. Yakut soul division is tyn, life/breath, kut, physical soul, and sur, psychic soul. The kut is also
divided. Sur is connected to the head and has no shadow. Kut is connected to
the abdomen and has three shadows. Kut is devoured by spirits at death or may
remain near the body for a few days and then depart for the underworld. The
Altains have similar soul divisions. They have a benevolent nupper world god
Yulgen and a malevolent lower world god Erlik. There are also gods of each clan
and family. A saying among the Altains is that “Yulgen and Erlik have one
door,” which means they have an understanding and work in cahoots to influence
and correct humans. The universe is part horizontal and part vertical to the
Altains. There are five or six soul components with several overlapping those
of the Yakut.
The Buryat are a Mongolic tribe. They are Tengerists like the Khans of Mongolia. They are polytheistic. There are 55 benevolent white Tengeri from the west and 44 mischievous black Tengeri from the east. The Tengeri, often associated with natural and atmospheric forces, are thought to have originally been one tribe that split up due to a quarrel so that some say the white Tengeri are older. There are clans of lesser spirits, both helpful and antagonistic as well. There is the old gray-haired man Daban-Sagan-Noyon and his white-haired wife Delent-Sagan-Khatun who are honored after the autumn harvest. Invocation of the good spirits and offerings to them are practiced. Smiths are even divided into white/west and east/black. Bojintoy was the first white smith and he had nine sons (all became smiths) and one daughter. The souls of great shamans are called zayans, and become protectors of men. Sometimes their bodies were burned or put in coffins and placed on a tree in the mountains – thus they became local deities and were called “old people of the mountain.” The author notes that the bear plays no part in Buryat ceremony as it does in every other Siberian tribe. Soul components are three and similar to those of the Turkic tribes. The lower soul is captured by Erlik Khan to bring to the underworld. The souls of women who have died childless are thought to be one-eyed and wicked and no offerings are made to them. They are said to haunt houses, are easy to banish, but can be harmful to small children. Wicked women who died a violent death are thought of in a similar way.
The Finnic tribes of north-western
include the Ugrian-Ostyak, Vogul, and Samoyed. The Vogul benevolent god is
Yanykli-Torilin. There is a higher creator god, never revealed to humans,
Kors-Torum, and an evil god, Khul. Kors-Torum sends his son Yanykh-Torum, who
shines like gold, to check on humans. The son commands his brother Sakhil-Torum,
who dwells in the dark clouds, to respond to the wishes of humans. Sakhil-Torum
drives reindeer who are endowed with mammoth tusks. The Samoyed chief god is
Nini, or Ileumbarte. He rules heaven and earth but never descends to earth. Num
rules atmospheric phenomena and is said to be indifferent to humans. Kul is the
chief spirit of darkness. Deity representatives and fetishes are made of wood,
metal, and bone. Humans are composed of three parts according to the Finnic
tribes: body, shadow, and soul. The soul after death passes to an infant of the
same clan or to another clan if necessary but never to an animal. The shadow
goes to the cold underworld then turns to a black beetle and then to dust.
There is a section with descriptions of ceremonies. The Maritime Chukchee and Asiatic Eskimo have similar ceremonies. The Ainu have a great bear festival, once common to all the Paleo-Siberians. The Turkic tribes have both blood and bloodless sacrificial ceremonies. The Yakut have spring and autumn festivals. The Altains do multi-day ritual that includes a horse sacrifice where the shaman ascends a birch tree through the yurta and chases the soul of the sacrificed horse while riding a goose (in imitation) before the actual sacrifice of the horse. During the rite, the kam (shaman) collects spirits in his tambourine and fumigates with juniper. This is a sacrifice to Bai-Yulgen where the shaman ascends the various levels of heaven according to his ability. The Mongol tribes also sacrificed horses in late summer in a ritual that was observed by Marco Polo and is thought to be very old.
This book was interesting as an account of practices recorded before too modern times. Later, the Soviets restricted the shaman’s practices, persecuting and ridiculing them, which forced them to go underground and take up new forms. The book is mostly a survey of accounts and practices recorded by various anthropologists and friends of the tribes.