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Siberian shamanism

Category: Indigenous people

Introduction

Siberia is a vast land.  It is part of the Russian federation and constitutes almost all of North Asia.  It was colonised between the 16th and 19th centuries during the Tsardom of Russia, then the Russian empire and finally the Soviet Union (USSR).  Encompassing much of the Eurasian Steppe, the territory of Siberia extends eastward from the Ural Mountains to the watershed between the Pacific and Arctic drainage basins, and southward from the Arctic Ocean to the hills of north-central Kazakhstan, then to the national borders of Mongolia and China.   It makes up about 77% of Russia's territory (13.1 million square kilometres), but is home to only 28% (40 million people) of Russia's population.

If one reads the books on Russia or watches films one may be tempted to believe that Siberia is a cold empty land inhabited by exiled revolutionaries, prisoners or war, Gulag slaves, and oilmen, but before the arrival of Russians in the late 1500s, Siberia had an estimated quarter of a million indigenous peoples.  Today, the indigenous peoples make up about 1.6 million.  Only in Tuva do they form a majority.

Languages and ethnic groups

If one takes the Russians’ own surveys as an indicator, these peoples once spoke Mongol, Turkic and Finno Ugric languages, numerous dialects and were split into numerous ethnic groups.  The names given to the groups are Russian and have been designated by Russians.  Thus names such as Nivki, Sakha, Buryat, Tuvan, Even, Chulchi, Khant, Koryak and Itelmen are Russian inventions.  In reality, these indigenous peoples cannot be permanently pigeon holed by these groupings, as a person can move groups because of marriage or choice.  Thus a person may be an Itelman speaking their dialect and wearing the local costume and then because he marries and moves he may be a Koryak.  This should hardly be surprising as it follows the pattern throughout the world.  Even within the UK, people move and change accents and dialects according to the work they find.  To thus say someone is ‘Scottish’, for example, is meaningless as a permanent classification, as they may have been born in the south and moved to Scotland to work.

Livelihood and spiritual practises

The indigenous peoples of Siberia at one time, had a means of existence and spiritual practises dependant entirely on the terrain in which they found themselves. 

Nearly all were nomadic hunter gatherers.  Some fished, some managed reindeer, some hunted seals, some bear, some walrus, some hunted whales.  The arrivals of the Russians caused a change in their hunting prey and for a while the prey was sable for the European fur market. 

Some kept camels and ponies which they rode across the wide open rolling grasslands or the deserts of the south.  They traded in iron, tobacco, tea and sugar.  Where they kept reindeer, the fur and skin were used extensively for clothes, ropes and lashes.  They collected wild plants for food and medicine.

Their lives were not easy.  There was inter tribal war, some were poor and there was famine, but some were also ‘wealthy’ and well fed.  Buryat chiefs, for example, owned thousands of horses and rich Evenk owned vast herds of reindeer.  Their yurts were decorated with silk carpets and their harnesses with silver and turquoise.

Their crafts were highly developed with embroidery and metal working, carving, weaving and decoration.  Their leisure time was also highly developed with feasts, running races, horse and camel races, games, dancing of all sorts, complex and varied music and musical instruments, poetry and epics thousands of verses long, toys for their children, footballs made of skin, and rope puzzles.  Their clothes could be very ornate, they also tattooed themselves in a way similar to the Maori with waves and spirals.

And their society was organised around shamanic lines.

The shamans of Siberia

Initially it appears that the majority of shamans in Siberia were women, not men.  In 1914 when Czaplicka visited the country, it was still true.  Some of these women were famous.  Gmelin met a lass of 18 years of age who was greatly revered and considered superior to any man.  In the descriptions, the shamanesses could ‘foretell the future’, look for lost things, and cure disease.  The male shamans specialised more in out of body travel and the search for game.

the women-shamans were considered as powerful as the men, sometimes, indeed, an individual female shaman is even cleverer than a man.”

Well! What do you know!  What a surprise eh?

Among Mongols, Buryat , Yakut, Altaians, Turgout, and Kirgis, the following names for the woman-shaman occur, utagan, udagan, ubakan, utygan, utügun, iduan, duana indicating common roots and customs that may well go back to prehistoric times. The Yakut call a male shaman an ayun; the Mongols, buge; the Buryat, buge and bo; the Tungus, samman and khamman; the Tartars, kam; the Altaians, kam and gam; the Kirgis, baksy; the Samoyed, tadibey. The Yakutuse the word khamma.  This probably indicates that male shamans are a later development, they emerged after the languages had diverged.

Roles

The shamans of Siberia performed much the same role as shamans throughout the world.  They officiated at rites and ceremonies, they healed, they searched for game, water and routes [using out of body travel], they were prophets and diviners.  A gifted shaman also had the ability to affect the ‘programs of the universe’ and fight the spirits of disease, or cooperate with the functions of the weather.

There were ‘family’ shamans and every family had their own shaman who performed healing, prophecy and also interpreted dreams.  Nearly all family shamans were women.

Then there were professional shamans, some of whom were men.  Thus female shamans came first but did not charge for their skills, then men – realising there was a living to be made from this – started to emerge and they did charge.  There are some funny parallels here.  In our society women cooked and did not make a great fuss about it, sharing recipes and occasionally writing helpful cookbooks for other women.  Then men saw the money making potential and we now have ‘chefs’, expensive restaurants serving minute portions and television programmes and competitions. 

Having said this, the male shamans of old did not charge much and generally this was only a side line in terms of income, they all also had a profession or job by which they earned a living separate from shamanism. 

Types – black and white shamans

Troshchanski  [ The Evolution of the Black Faith, 1902] suggests that the division of shamans into black and white is the most essential division among all Siberian tribes, Among the Yakut the black shamans predominate, the white hardly existing; while among  the Votyak the white are almost the only shamans now to be found.

  • White shamans are called aïy-oïuna in Yakut, for example. They take part in the spring festivals, marriage ceremonies, fertilization rites, and the curing of diseases.  White shamans also ask, in cases of the sterility of women, the maghan sylgglakh to descend to earth and make the woman fertile.  In effect, white shamans are the healers and hierophants
  • Black shamans are called abassy-oïuna in Yakut.  They offer sacrifices and communicate with ‘abassylar’ – ‘evil spirits’. Black shamans live outside family groups.  They foretell the future, call up spirits, wander into spirit-land, and give accounts of their journeys thither.  In effect, black shamans are prophets and out of body travellers.  It is important, I think to realise that a black shaman is NOT an evil shaman – black does not symbolically represent evil. The 'black shaman' is only professionally 'black', he helps men no less than the white shaman does, but he may have to deal with evil powers.  For this reason, he occupies a higher position than other types of shaman because the risks are greater.  Where the evil powers come from of course is another matter

The smith

Another key figure is the ‘smith’.  The smith as a symbolic figure is present in Africa, Nordic countries, Greece and many other cultures.  In Siberia, the smith who made the ornaments for the female shaman's garment acquired some shamanic power. He was in contact with iron, which was of magical importance, and power came to him through this contact. The smiths were, like the shamans, 'black' and 'white', but among the Yakut one hears more of 'black' smiths than of 'white' – hence the term blacksmith. Thus the similarity between the vocation of a shaman and that of a smith becomes close, especially when the calling of smith descends through many generations in the same family. Smiths come to be considered as the elder brothers of shamans, and then the differences between them finally disappear, the smith becoming a shaman.

Sorcerors 

Black shamans who communed with evil spirits for personal gain or for the purposes of evil were called sorcerors. 

Black shamans could start out as well meaning, but continual exposure to evil could result in them becoming sorcerors.  

The majority were men.

These shamans were said to have power to bring illness and death upon men. They were not liked, but much feared, by the people, who sometimes killed them.

The grave of a black shaman is usually shaded by aspens, and the body is fastened to the earth by a stake taken from this tree”

From this we get the story of Dracula.

Dress

The Siberians used their own symbolism – principally via dress and change of occupation to denote those who had merged their conscious and subconscious selves and thus obtained access to their Higher spirit.  In effect a man could dress like a woman and vice versa in order to signify that the merger of the female with the male principle had taken place. 

When conscious and unconscious merge you obtain a balancing of the two sides of the personality.  Logic and reason merges with creativity and compassion. The female principle is the way to obtain access to the Higher spirit

Shamans in Siberia also  ‘became’ the spirit of the animal who was their spirit guide, thus they perceived themselves to be a bird or wolf or reindeer.  This animal spirit guide then aided them in their healing, in their search for game or in their battles with other shamans.

Their clothes then reflected this affiliation and they would wear a bird feather cloak or antlers or a wolf’s pelt.  More details can be found in the observations.

Initiation

The initiation and calling of shamans in earlier days was not one that was voluntary, as it seems to be now amongst the so-called shamans.  Many shamans then had the vocation almost ‘forced’ on them.  There are accounts also of rebirth experiences as terrifying as you are likely to ever get.  All these characteristics mark out the genuine shaman from the merely spiritually inclined, which is what many practising these days tend to be.

The Russian effect

The fate of the shamans paralleled the fate of the indigenous population in general, thus it is worth looking first at the effect of Russian invasion on the population in general.  The picture is so similar to that of other shamanic cultures that it is almost an exact replica and no less tragic.  Native American Indians, Aboriginal Australians – all suffered in similar ways. 

Siberia was used, for example, just as Australia was initially, as a place for convicts, prisoners of war and political exiles.  At one time these people made up one tenth the population of Siberia and many of them behaved disgracefully towards the native population.  Furthermore, the officials sent out there were equally brutal.

Yet again, we see genocide of the local population.  The north eastern peoples – the Yukagir were, in legend, so numerous that ‘their camp fires resembled the stars in the sky’.  By 1800 they had been driven virtually to extinction.

We yet again see the systematic removal of land.  During the 1930s, for example, intense collectivisation resulted in  the forcible settlement of reindeer hunters, the creation of fish farming and quotas, and state farms – the ‘reservations’ of the Siberians.  The nomadic life style was replaced by a farming life style.

All privately owned livestock was confiscated as were agricultural stores and land.  Recalcitrants were either deported or executed.  From November 1929 to February 1930 around 1,000 herders and farmers both Buryat and Slav, for example, were executed and another 19,000 were deported or imprisoned.  This attack upon life styles and ways of living so degraded the culture of the people, that Arsenyev a prominent writer on the population, was convinced that the indigenous peoples  would soon become extinct.

To this can be added famine caused by crippling ‘tribute’ money.

Just like the Native American Indians and the Australian aboriginals, by far the greatest ill of Russian rule was European diseases. Smallpox, influenza and syphilis were the three main culprits.  The first epidemic of smallpox occurred in 1630 and may have killed as many as half of all Khant, Mansi, Nenets and Ket.  In the 1650s smallpox crossed the Yenisay and killed around 80% of the northern Evenck and Sakha and nearly half the Yukagir.  In the early 1700s, it reached Kamchatka and decimated the Itelmen and Koryak populations.

Just like the North American Indians and the Australian Aboriginals, the indigenous population turned to alcohol.  These days many are given government handouts and as a consequence are looked upon as thriftless, rather ignoring the reason they have been reduced to this state. 

Their children were at one time removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where they were forcibly made to speak and learn Russian, thus in effect destroying their languages and through this their cultural roots and the inheritance of the culture.  This directly parallels the treatment of Australian aboriginals and North American Indians [see Education for Extinction:  American Indians and the Boarding School Experience – David Wallace Adams].

The effect on the shamanic population

The effect of Russian influence on shamanism in Siberia has been truly catastrophic.  Back in the 1970s when Russian ethnographers started to do field work on the indigenous population, shamans still existed – but only just.  In 1931, for example, a census put the number of practising shamans in Tuva at 725.  By the end of the decade there were none left.

Shamanism survived secretly, by shamans going ‘underground’.  Shamans did not practise, but because shamanism could be both inherited and passed on through teaching, the skills were passed on even if the shamans themselves did not practice openly, as long as there was someone to pass it on to.  There was every reason for them to fear the Russian invasion.

They have been persecuted by the Orthodox Christians, by Muslims, by Protestants, by Communists, by Cossacks, and still are.  There are still Protestant missionaries seeking to undermine and devalue shamanic ways.  There are still Muslim extremists who desecrate the sacred sites.

Even the schools were used to try to denigrate shamanism.  In the early years of the Soviet Union, primary schooling employed local languages, because the very first Soviet teachers, spoke Russian and worked with translators.  The teachers quickly learnt the local languages, however, and started to produce text books in local languages.  Below is a page from an early text book Jissa-Kalikal (Red Book) produced by a Russian teacher.

The page reads

“Shaman.
The shaman jumps around with a drum
The shaman is shouting
Why is he shouting?
Why is he jumping?
For nothing
Early sly shamans deceived us
Earlier we were in the dark and listened to shamans
Down with shamans!

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Again I have provided some extra details in the observations.

The only religion which did not seek to destroy the indigenous population’s beliefs was that of Buddhism.  Buddhist missionaries from Tibet first arrived in about 1700 and absorbed rather than extirpated shamanism.  Old gods were absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon, old sacred sites preserved and turned into ‘obos’ on the shores of lakes and the tops of mountains.  The result was a hybrid religion which flourished.  By 1917, Buryatiya had 37 Buddhist monasteries and 15,000 lamas.  But these too were attacked under Stalin.

Stalin’s campaign began in the 1920s.  Lamaseries were heavily taxed, then lamas were deprived of their right to vote or travel.  Selling them food or giving them shelter became a criminal offense and local party activists were encouraged to compete in physical destruction.  Activists looted temples and libraries and destroyed monasteries.  Lamaseries were still being demolished in the 1940s and 1950s.  Thousands of lamas were shot, imprisoned or sent to camps.  Thus where there might have been some hope that the hybrid religion might have preserved something of the old ways, the systematic destruction probably removed any hope that this was true.

So overall, it is somewhat questionable whether the shamans who practise openly today are genuine or ‘authentic’. The influx of Americans to some of the areas looking for shamanic experience has created a ‘market’ which was obviously going to be filled, but whether it has been filled by genuine shamans is a moot point.

In the first place, very few true shamans give demonstrations of their powers for ‘entertainment’ .  And in the second place, true shamanism is dangerous and thus not something that would appeal to the majority of people these days.

In effect, what observations I have been able to pull together are old and from books that go back to well before the Communist era.  And my attempts at deducing what they used as techniques has had to be based on this evidence alone, so it is more than probably incomplete [or wrong!]

Beliefs

One would think that with such a vast geographical spread and such diverse languages that the belief systems of the Siberian shamans would differ considerably, but this is not the case.  Although the names of things differ, the concepts are remarkably homogeneous [reference observation  003072 - Siberian shamanism].

The indigenous population is classified by anthropologists as being ‘animists’.   In reality, the population shares the beliefs of the spirit world and of everything being ‘worked’ by software with Shinto, the Kahuna approach of the Polynesians, with Celts and Druids, with most African tribes, with Plato and the Greeks, with the Australian Aborigines, with the Alchemists, the Kabbalists, with Native American Indians, with South American Indians, with Lewis Carroll, with most of the English Romantic poets, with Shakespeare, with Goethe, with the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with the Rosicruceans, with the Hermeticists, with the Wiccans and with the Sufis – amongst many others.

The Trinity is represented by the Sun and Moon and the Stars  see 003074 – Siberian shamanism

If we take a different people we also find additional symbolism.  The term Samoyedic peoples  is used to describe peoples speaking Samoyedic languages. They are thus a linguistic grouping, not an ethnic or cultural one. They include the Nenets, Enets, Nganasan, Selkup and Kamasins. The Samoyeds, see the Sun and Moon as the eyes of the Creator/Created, the Sun being the good eye and the Moon the ‘bad eye’ [not as bright or large].

The highest Intelligence has various names depending on language, but in most of the groups the concept of an Ultimate intelligence exists see 003075 – Siberian shamanism

Beyond this a complex hierarchy of all sorts of spirits exists.  Siberian shamans, because of the very nature of the work they did, tended to come in contact with Beings rather than Intelligences.  If your objective is to find game or the attributes of plants, you are going to communicate with the spirits of these things, and practically all the spirits related to animals and plants, reptiles, fish and insects would be classified as Beings and not Intelligences. see 003076 – Siberian shamanism

Although the principle focus of shamanic activity is centred on beings, the existence of Intelligences is recognised and again the complex hierarchy Intelligence hierarchy that exists was also known.

The Siberian shamans [like most shamanic and mystic religions] associated each Intelligence with a ‘level’.  In effect, this was somewhat similar to the approach used by Dante.  There are Intelligences present at each level with increasing power until one gets to the Ultimate Intelligence. see 003077 – Siberian shamanism.

Siberians did not have a spiritual path in the sense of a series of well defined steps to ‘nirvana’, but they did have a well developed path of initiation for the shaman and also a clear understanding of the types of spiritual experience and how to manage them.  Furthermore there was a belief in ‘destiny’  see 003078 – Siberian shamanism initiation and 003068 – Siberian shamanism initiation, and  003069 – Siberian shamanism rebirth.

The Higher spirit is called the Anagyat, plus many more names,  but there is more believed about the Higher spirit in Siberian shamanism, than in perhaps many other shamanic or mystical beliefs. 

Sieroszewski says that the shaman implores the assistance of his ämägyat and it is only when the ämägyat ‘descends’ upon the shaman that he is able to shamanise.    “The shaman can see and hear only with the help of his ämägyat said the shaman Tiuspiut to Sieroszewski”.

But Siberian shamans also believe that “whenever a family numbers a shaman among its members, it continues to do so, for after his death the ämägyat seeks to re-embody itself in some one belonging to the same clan (aya-usa)”.  In effect, the allocation of the higher spirit is not arbitrary, it passes to genetically related clan members.

There are extra beliefs.  The human body, according to Siberian shamans, cannot endure the continuous presence of a power equal to that of the great gods; hence this “spirit-protector” or higher spirit (if ämägyat can be so called) resides not within, but close beside the shaman, and comes to his assistance at critical moments, or whenever he needs him.  So the higher spirit is not found in the body.

Subconscious - The yekyua – is representative of the lower world of emotions and basic instincts.  see 003079 – Siberian shamanism initiation

Siberian shamans also recognise the existence of the software that is attached to each organ in a body – in effect, there is a ‘soul’ for the body as a whole and a soul – a set of software functions – that also work each organ.

Western writers trying to understand the beliefs didn’t express them very well, but it is clear that the Siberian beliefs encompassed the knowledge that everything is worked by ‘software’ and that there is software attached to each ‘thing’; so it acquires the functions of the things of which it is formed [the aggregate principle], but also each aggregate has its own functionality.

see 003080 – Siberian shamanism initiation.

Observations

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