George Kennan - Siberian Shamanism - The Wandering Koraks
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Tent Life in Siberia – George Kennan
The reasons for the great difference between the settled and the Wandering Koraks are various. In the first place, the former live in fixed villages, which are visited very frequently by the Russian traders; and through these traders and Russian peasants they have received many of the worst vices of civilisation without any of its virtues.
To this must be added the demoralising influence of American whalers, who have given the settled Koraks rum and cursed them with horrible diseases, which are only aggravated by their diet and mode of life. They have learned from the Russians to lie, cheat, and steal; and from whalers to drink rum and be licentious.
Besides all these vices, they eat the intoxicating Siberian toadstool in inordinate quantities, and this habit alone will in time debase and brutalise any body of men to the last degree. From nearly all these demoralising influences the Wandering Koraks are removed by the very nature of their life.
After the conclusion of the ceremony we removed to an adjacent tent, and were surprised, as we came out into the open air, to see three or four Koraks shouting and reeling about in an advanced stage of intoxication-celebrating, I suppose, the happy event which had just transpired.
I knew that there was not a drop of alcoholic liquor in all northern Kamchatka, nor, so far as I knew, anything from which it could be made, and it was a mystery to me how they had succeeded in becoming so suddenly, thoroughly, hopelessly, undeniably drunk.
Even Ross Browne's beloved Washoe, with its "howling wilderness" saloons, could not have turned out more creditable specimens of intoxicated humanity than those before us. The exciting agent, whatever it might be, was certainly as quick in its operation, and as effective in its results, as any "tanglefoot" or "bottled lightning" known to modern civilisation.
Upon inquiry we learned to our astonishment that they had been eating a species of the plant vulgarly known as toadstool. There is a peculiar fungus of this class in Siberia, known to the natives as "muk-a-moor," and as it possesses active intoxicating properties, it is used as a stimulant by nearly all the Siberian tribes. [Footnote: Agaricus muscarius or fly-agaric.]
Taken in large quantities it is a violent narcotic poison; but in small doses it produces all the effects of alcoholic liquor. Its habitual use, however, completely shatters the nervous system, and its sale by Russian traders to the natives has consequently been made a penal offence by Russian law. In spite of all prohibitions, the trade is still secretly carried on, and I have seen twenty dollars' worth of furs bought with a single fungus.
The Koraks would gather it for themselves, but it requires the shelter of timber for its growth, and is not to be found on the barren steppes over which they wander; so that they are obliged for the most part to buy it, at enormous prices, from the Russian traders. It may sound strangely to American ears, but the invitation which a convivial Korak extends to his passing friend is not, "Come in and have a drink" but, "Won't you come in and take a toadstool?" Not a very alluring proposal perhaps to a civilised toper, but one which has a magical effect upon a dissipated Korak.
As the supply of these toadstools is by no means equal to the demand, Korak ingenuity has been greatly exercised in the endeavour to economise the precious stimulant, and make it go as far as possible. Sometimes, in the course of human events, it becomes imperatively necessary that a whole band shall get drunk together, and they have only one toadstool to do it with. For a description of the manner in which this band gets drunk collectively and individually upon one fungus, and keeps drunk for a week the curious reader is referred to Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, Letter 32. It is but just to say, however, that this horrible practice is almost entirely confined to the settled Koraks of Penzhinsk Gulf - the lowest, most degraded portion of the whole tribe. It may prevail to a limited extent among the wandering natives, but I never heard of more than one such instance outside of the Penzhinsk Gulf settlements.