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Observations placeholder

Vitebsky, Piers - healing from a shaman



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

Piers Vitebsky

Reindeer People p388

The shaman's tassels swirled as he bent down to his first patient. His spirits continued to sing through him, but the throbbing beat stopped for a moment as he put his hands on her head. He drew out her illness, which now appeared as a smear of blood and gore on the inside of the drumskin which his assistant held out to the audience. Until now they had been silent, but there was a hubbub as the people sitting in the first few rows and standing around the walls surged forward, adults and children together, their various fur coats pressing together like a herd of mixed animals. His assistant wiped away the blood and the shaman resumed his drumming while she whispered to the patient and helped her down from the platform.

Now the shaman was bending down in front of Anna, while his assistant talked to her gently and helped her to her feet. The beat stopped again while he crouched in front of her and brushed her over and over again with his drumstick, repeating the movement with his bare hands, drawing her arthritis down from the wrist and out through the tips of her fingers. Anna blinked, dazed, as he passed his drum right around her body doing his best to gather up her illness into its concave interior.  Tolya turned the drum towards the audience, shining my head- torch onto another splash of blood, and they surged forward again.

The spirits had declared that Anna's illness was the working out of a curse which had also manifested itself through the recent death of her boy, who had been victimized by gangs when he went to study in the city and had mysteriously fallen down a stairwell in a student hostel. She was suffering for an ancestor who had killed a sacred piebald reindeer; her arthritis was a punishment for the sin of his hands that had committed the deed. There would be no easy cure. Anna's eyes brimmed with tears and the assistant comforted her in a low murmur as she stepped down from the stage and joined her surviving son.

The ritual was coming towards the end. The assistant wiped the shaman's face, which was drenched in sweat. She removed his headdress, then his drum. He sank exhausted onto his mat of wild reindeer fur, his soul beginning to return from the twelfth level of the sky. His chanting began to slow down as she wiped his face repeatedly and fed him sips of water.

Instructed by Tolya others donned the robe and picked up the drum, to draw the spiritual arousal away from the shaman and bring his soul safely down to earth. Kesha was the first to imitate his drumbeat and twirling dance. The pace was the same as before, but the intensity was diminishing as the robe and drum passed from one person to the next. The shaman lay huddled on his mat like a baby, still singing softly in rhythm to the beat. He put on a woollen skullcap and started to wipe his own face, gradually falling silent as he lay under a coat, smoking a cigarette. At length, all drumming ceased*.

The source of the experience

Siberian shamanism

Concepts, symbols and science items


Science Items

Activities and commonsteps


Vitebsky, P., 2005 Reindeer People  London: Harper Perennial