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Observations placeholder

M A Czaplicka - Siberian magic



Type of Spiritual Experience


Quite long but fascinating

A description of the experience

Shamanism in Siberia - excerpts from Aboriginal Siberia by M. A. CZAPLICKA [1914]
The description of this ceremony, as given by Mikhailowski is compiled from the works of the missionary Wierbicki and the well-known linguist and traveller, Radloff.

The ceremony lasts for two or three days, or rather, evenings, the first evening being occupied by the preparatory ritual. A spot is chosen in a thicket of birch-trees in a meadow, and there the kam (shaman) erects a decorative yurta. In this is planted a young birch, crowned with a flag, and having its lower branches lopped off, and nine notches cut in its trunk to represent steps (tapty).

The yurta is surrounded by a penfold, and by the entrance to this is set a birch-stick with a noose of horsehair. A holder of the head (Bash-tutkan-kiski) of the sacrificial horse is chosen from among those present. The kam flourishes a birch-twig over the horse to indicate that its soul is being driven to Bai-Yulgen's abode, whither the soul of the Bash-tutkan accompanies it. He then collects spirits in his tambourine, calling each one by name, and answering for each as it arrives: 'I also am here, Kam!' As he speaks he makes motions with his tambourine as if taking the spirits into it. When he has secured his assistants, the kam goes out of the yurta, mounts upon a scarecrow made to resemble a goose, and flapping his arms as if they were wings, chants loudly and slowly:' 

Beneath the white sky,
Above the white cloud,
Beneath the blue sky,
Above the blue cloud,
Skyward ascend, O bird!

The goose replies (through the shaman himself, of course) in a series of quacks-'Ungaigak, ungaigak, kaigaigak gak, kaigai gak.' The kam, still on his feathered steed, pursues the pura (soul) of the sacrificial horse, neighing in imitation of the unwilling victim, until, with the help of the spectators, he drives it into the penfold to the stick with the horsehair noose, the guardian of the pura. After violent efforts, to the accompaniment of neighings and other noises produced by the shaman to imitate the struggles of the pura, the latter frees itself and runs away. It is at last recaptured, and fumigated with juniper by the shaman, who has now dismounted from his goose.

'The most important part of the performance takes place on the second day after sunset; it is then that the kam must display all his power and all his dramatic art. A whole religious drama is performed, descriptive of the kam's pilgrimage to Bai-Yulgen in heaven. A fire burns in the yurta, the shaman feeds the lords of the tambourine, i.e. the spirits personifying the shamanistic power of his family, with the meat of the offering and sings 

Accept this, O Kaira Khan!
Master of the tambourine with six horns,
Draw near with the sound of the bell!
When I cry 'Chokk'! make obeisance!
When I cry 'Mé'! accept this!

The 'owner' of the fire, representing the power of the family of the master of the yurta, who has organized the festival, is addressed in a similar invocation. Then the kam takes a cup and makes noises with his lips to imitate the sounds of drinking made by an assemblage of invisible guests. He distributes morsels of meat to the company, who devour them as representatives of the unseen spirits. Nine garments, on a rope decked with ribbons, the offering of the host to Yulgen, are fumigated with juniper by the shaman, who sings:

Gifts that no horse can carry
     Alás! Alás! Alás!
Gifts that no man can lift
     Alás! Alás! Alás!
Garments with triple collar-
Turn them thrice before thine eyes,
Let them be a cover for the steed,
     Alás! Alás! Alás!
Prince Yulgen full of gladness!
     Alás! Alás! Alás!

The kam next invokes many spirits, primary and secondary, having first donned his shaman's garment, and fumigated his tambourine, which he strikes to summon the spirits, answering for each, as it arrives, 'Here am I, kam!' Merkyut, the Bird of Heaven, is invoked as follows:

Birds of Heaven, the five Merkyuts!
Ye with mighty talons of brass,
Of copper is the moon's claw,
And of ice its beak;
Mightily flap the spreading wings,
Like to a fan is the long tail.
The left wing veils the moon
And the right obscures the sun,
Thou, mother of nine eagles,
Turning not aside, thou fliest over Yaik,
Over Edil thou weariest not!
Draw nigh with song!
Lightly draw nigh to my right eye,
Of my right shoulder make thou thy resting-place

The answering cry of the bird comes from the lips of the shaman: 'Kagak, kak, kak! Kain, here I come!' The kam seems to bend beneath the weight of the huge bird. His tambourine sounds louder and louder, and he staggers under the burden of the vast number of spirit-protectors collected in it. Having walked several times round the birch placed in the yurta, the shaman kneels at the door and asks the porter-spirit for a guide. His request granted, he comes out to the middle of the yurta, and with convulsive movements of the upper part of his body and inarticulate mutterings, beats violently upon the tambourine. Now he purifies the host, hostess, their children, and relatives by embracing them in such a way that the tambourine with the spirits collected in it touches the breast and the drum-stick the back of each. This is done after he has scraped from the back of the host with the drum-stick all that is unclean, for the back is the seat of the soul,

Thus all are liberated from the malign influence of the wicked Erlik. Then the people return to their places and the shaman 'drives all potential misfortunes out of doors', and, beating his tambourine close to the ear of his host, drives into him the spirit and power of his ancestors that he may understand the prophecies of the shaman. In pantomime he invests each member of the family with breastplates and hats, and then falls into an ecstasy. He beats his tambourine furiously, rushes about as if possessed, and, after mounting the first step cut in the birch-trunk, runs round the fire and the birch, imitating the sound of thunder. Next he mounts a bench covered with a horse-cloth, which represents the pitra, and cries:

One step have I ascended,
    Aikhai! Aikhai!
One zone I have attained.
To the topmost tapty [the birch steps] I have mounted.
I have risen to the full moon.

Hurrying on the Bash-tutkan, the kam passes from one zone of heaven to another. The goose once more takes the place of the wearied pura, affording temporary relief to the Bash-tutkan, who relates his woes vicariously by means of the shaman. In the third zone a halt is made, the shaman prophesies impending misfortunes, and declares what sacrifices are to be offered by the district. If he foretells rainy weather he sings:

Kara Shurlu of the six rods
Drips on the low ground,
No hoofed beast can protect itself,
No creature with claws can uphold itself.

Similar prophecies may be made in other regions of the sky.

When the Bash-tutkan is rested the journey is continued, progress being indicated by mounting one step higher on the birch for every new zone attained. Variety is given to the performance by the introduction of various episodes. 'In the sixth sphere of heaven takes place the last episodical scene, and this has a comic tinge. The shaman sends his servant Kuruldak to track and catch a hare that has hidden itself. For a time the chase is unsuccessful, now personages are introduced, and one of them, Kereldei, mocks Kuruldak, who, however, at last succeeds in catching the hare.'

Previously, in the fifth heaven, the kam has interviewed Yayuchi ('Supreme-Creator'), and learned many secrets of the future, some of which he communicates aloud. In the sixth heaven he makes obeisance to the moon, and in the seventh to the sun, for these heavens are the abodes of these luminaries. Only a few shamans are powerful enough to mount beyond the ninth heaven. Having reached the highest zone attainable by his powers, the kam drops his tambourine, and beating gently with the drum-stick, makes a humble petition to Yulgen:

Lord, to whom three stairways lead,
Bai-Yulgen, possessor of three flocks,
The blue vault which has appeared,
The blue sky that shows itself,
The blue cloud that whirls along,
The blue sky so hard to reach,
Land a year's journey distant from water,
Father Yulgen thrice exalted,
Shunned by the edge of the moon's axe,
Thou who usest the hoof of the horse
O Yulgen, thou hast created all men
Who are stirring round about us.
Thou, Yulgen, hast bestowed all cattle upon us,
Let us not fall into sorrow!
Grant that we may withstand the evil one!
Let us not behold Kermes [the evil spirit that attends man],
Deliver us not into his hands!
Thou who a thousand thousand times
The starry shy hast turned,
Condemn me not for sin!

'From Yulgen the shaman learns whether the sacrifice is accepted or not, and receives the most authentic information concerning the wealth and the character of the coming harvest; he also finds out what sacrifices are expected by the deity.

On such an occasion the shaman designates the neighbour who is bound to furnish a sacrifice, and even describes the colour and appearance of the animal. After his conversation with Yulgen, the ecstasy of the shaman reaches its highest point, and he falls down completely exhausted. Then the Bash-tutkan goes up to him, and takes the tambourine and drum-stick out of his bands. After a short time, during which quiet reigns in the yurta, the shaman seems to awake, rubs his eyes, stretches himself, wrings out the perspiration from his shirt, and salutes all those present as if after a long absence.'

This sometimes concludes the festival, but more often, especially among the wealthy, a third day is spent in feasting and libations to the gods 

The source of the experience

Siberian shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps