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Observations placeholder

M A Czaplicka - Siberian Smoke Inhalation



Type of Spiritual Experience


The following describes a shamanic healing ceremony.

A description of the experience

Shamanism in Siberia - excerpts from Aboriginal Siberia by M. A. CZAPLICKA [1914]

When the shaman who has been called to a sick person enters the yurta, he at once takes the place destined for him on the billiryk agon. He lies on his white mare's skin and waits for the night, the time when it is possible to shamanize. Meanwhile he is entertained with food and drink.

When the sun sets and the dusk of evening approaches, all preparations for the ceremony in the yurta are hurriedly completed: the ground is swept, the wood is cut, and food is provided in larger quantity and of better quality than usual. One by one the neighbours arrive and seat themselves along the wall, the men on the right, and the women on the left; the conversation is peculiarly serious and reserved,, the movements gentle.

In the northern part of the Yakut district the host chooses the best latchets and forms them into a loop, which is placed round the shaman's shoulders and bold by one of those present during the dance, in order to prevent the spirits from carrying him off. At length every one has supper, and the household takes some rest. The shaman, sitting on the edge of the billiryk, slowly untwists his tresses, muttering and giving orders. He sometimes has a nervous and artificial hiccough which makes his whole body shake; his gaze does not wander, his eyes being fixed on one point, usually on the fire.

'The fire is allowed to die out. More and more deeply the dusk descends on the room; voices are hushed, and the company talks in whispers; notice is given that anybody -wishing to go out must do so at once, because soon the door will be closed, after which nobody can either go out or come in.

The shaman slowly takes off his shirt and puts on his wizard's coat, or, failing that, he takes the woman's coat called sangyniah. Then he is given a pipe, which he smokes for a long time, swallowing the smoke; his hiccough becomes louder, he shivers more violently. When he - has finished smoking, his face is pale, his head falls on his breast, his eyes are half-closed.

At this point the white mare's skin is placed in the middle of the room. The shaman asks for cold water, and when he has drunk it he slowly holds out his hand for the drum prepared for him; he then walks to the middle of the room, and, kneeling for a time on his right knee, bows solemnly to all the four corners of the world, at the same time sprinkling the ground about him with the water from his mouth.

Now everything is silent. A handful of white horsehair is thrown on the fire; in the faint gleam of the red coals the black motionless figure of the shaman is still to be seen for a while, with drooping beard, big drum on breast, and face turned towards the south, as is also the head of the mare's skin upon which he is sitting.

Complete darkness follows the dusk; the audience scarcely breathes, and only the unintelligible mutterings and hiccoughs of the shaman can be heard; gradually even this sinks into a profound silence. Eventually a single great yawn like the clang of iron breaks the stillness, followed by the loud piercing cry of a falcon, or the plaintive weeping of a seamew-then silence again.

'Only the gentle sound of the voice of the drum, like the humming of a gnat, announces that the shaman has begun to play.

'This music is at first soft. delicate, tender, then rough and irrepressible like the roar of an oncoming storm. It grows louder and louder and, like peals of thunder, wild shouts rend the air; the crow calls, the grebe laughs, the seamews complain, snipes whistle, eagles and hawks scream.'

'The music swells and rises to the highest pitch, the beating of the drum becomes more and more vigorous, until the two sounds combine in one long-drawn crescendo. The numberless small bells ring and clang; it is not a storm - it is a whole cascade of sounds, enough to overwhelm all the listeners.... All at once it breaks off - there are one or two strong beats on the drum, which, hitherto held aloft, now falls to the shaman's knees. Suddenly the sound of the drum and the small bells ceases. Then silence for a long moment, while the gentle gnat-like murmur of the drum begins again.

This may be repeated several times, according to the degree of the shaman's inspiration; at last, when the music takes on a certain new rhythm and melody, sombrely the voice of the shaman chants the following obscure fragments:

'Mighty bull of the earth . . . Horse of the steppes!'
'I, the mighty bull . . . bellow!'
'I, the horse of the steppes . . . neigh!'
'I, the man set above all other beings!'
'I, the man most gifted of all!'
'I, the man created by the master all-powerful!
'Horse of the steppes, appear! teach me!'
'Enchanted bull of the earth, appear! speak to me!'
'Powerful master, command me!'

'All of you, who will go with me, give heed with your ears! Those whom I command not. follow me not!'
'Approach not nearer than is permitted! Look intently! Give heed ! Have a care!'
'Look heedfully! Do this, all of you . all together . . . all, however many you may be!'
'Thou of the left side, O lady with thy staff, if anything be done amiss, if I take not the right way, I entreat you - correct me! Command! . . .'
'My errors and my path show to me! O mother of mine! Wing thy free flight! Pave my wide roadway!'
'Souls of the sun, mothers of the sun, living in the south, in the nine wooded hills, ye who shall be jealous . . I adjure you all . . . let them stay . . . let your three shadows stand high!'
'In the East, on your mountain, lord, grandsire of mine. great of power and thick of neck-be thou with me!'
'And thou, grey-bearded wizard (fire), I ask thee: with all my dreams, 'with all comply! To all my desires consent . . . Heed all! Fulfil all! . . . All heed . . . All fulfil!'

At this point the sounds of the drum are heard once more, once more wild shouts and meaningless words-then all is silent.

The source of the experience

Siberian shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Shamanism in Siberia - excerpts from Aboriginal Siberia by M. A. CZAPLICKA [1914]