THE LAND OF SHAMANS
The land and the Spirits in Siberian shamanism
I have seen many traditional Shaman's working in Siberia, but the one who impressed me most was the one I watched in action about three years go. It happened by Lake Baikal, when I attended a festival there. The shaman, who worked at a local collective farm, turned up in his Sunday best, a modern suit and tie, his chest bedecked with medals.
He had been asked to help a visiting American who was suffering from a sore throat. The shaman took a thick metal rod, about 2cm in diameter, and held it over a fire until it was white hot. Then he started licking it. Observers who were filming the scene gasped as they saw clouds of steam rising from the rod. Then the shaman brought the rod to the patient's face and started blowing steam at the level of the his throat. The shaman whispered some incantations and then repeated the procedure several times. Two hours later the patient, who had faced a hospital stay, was cured.
Working with the Spirits
A shaman's strength is derived from the strength and number of spirits he can call upon for help. The spirits are of varying strength and it is their strength that determines the shaman's rank. They help the shaman treat people, foretell the future, and influence it.
The shaman needs the spirits as much as they need him. It is said that spirits must be in touch with our physical world to stay charged with energy. So, when a shaman for some reason decides to sever his ties with them, this may have dire consequences for him.
According to Siberian traditions, many spirits are quite aggressive and they can take away the shaman's life energy. If they do this enough, the shaman will die. Another danger for the shaman is that the spirit may supersede his own soul. If this is the case it may mean insanity and schizophrenia for the shaman.
Although the shaman is in contact with the spirits all the time, the contact is much stronger when the shaman is in a state of altered consciousness. To achieve this, various techniques are used. Most often the shaman simply beats his drum and sings a chant. This ritual is called a kamlaniye.
The drum can be replaced or accompanied by either a rattle or a kamuz (sometimes called vargan). A kamuz is a type of jaws or jews harp, a metal spring which can be made to sound if it is pressed against the teeth. The sounds of all these instruments induce special vibrations in the skull. These alter the shaman's consciousness.
Altered states can also be induced in other ways, sometimes by breathing
in the smoke of burning juniper or by eating fly-agaric, a mushroom
with a strong hallucinogenic effect.
Shamanism amongst the Khanty people
The Khanty are a northern people who live in the Khanty-Mansi area of Siberia. During my last visit there I learned a lot of interesting things from these people. A shaman by the name of Yakov, whom I met in the small Khanty village of Usanovo, told me that he had seen spirits known locally as invisible Khanty. Yakov claimed to know a hill not far from the village where invisible Khanty can often be met. When they become visible they look like ordinary Khanty clad in traditional dress, only they are very tall. The hill is held sacred by the local people. Only the men of the village may go there; strangers and women are not allowed to approach it.
In Koikovo, another village, the locals told me that they had spotted a wood spirit who looked like a tall Khanty with a dog. Sometimes the spirit appeared in the village and when it did, it becomes dark in the middle of the day.
His appearance made people feel an unaccountable fear, which on one visit I experienced myself. This happened during a full moon. I woke up in the middle of the night with a feeling of anxiety. I discovered that my room-mates were also wide awake and looked scared. One of them, a woman, had dreamt that she saw a Khanty emerging out of the wall, stretching his arms toward her and calling her to follow him.
She became aware of a colossal strength that emanated from him. The woman tried to resist his force, but could not. She summoned all her strength and screamed. Her scream awakened her, but it took her some time to realise that the Khanty was not beside her.
When I compared notes with the villagers, they told me that they too
had had a bad night and many, like my room mate thought they saw a Khanty
who walked through a wall.
The land and the spirits
The following day a woman who lived in the village and who was a grand-daughter of an old respected shaman, took me to the forest and in a glade overgrown with tall grass she showed me a small bare patch of earth. In the middle of the patch lay a large dark stone, and next to it grew a fly-agaric mushroom. She claimed that a spirit resided in this spot. She warned me to be careful and make sure that the spirit did not get angry or it might have grave consequences. She told me that the villagers were afraid of the glade and tried to avoid it.
Spirits are said to feel most comfortable on porous ground. Siberia abounds with such soils, which may explain why Siberia had so many shamans. It is said that the spirits like porous surfaces because such a surface helps them preserve and accumulate energy. If a spirit is in an open space it loses energy like a man who is chilled if he spends time in a strong wind.
Porous surfaces can store up energy and at the same time are good insulators. The spirit feels safe in such places. The energy level in such spots is usually very high. By contrast, there are places with low energy levels, and in such places the spirits are few and very weak.
Porous earth containing ores, crude oil or peat sediments. Energy has
been stored in these areas for millennia. Therefore, the spirits inhabiting
them are usually very strong. All these rocks are organic in nature.
Organic substances are former living organisms, and they release energy
as they decompose. This energy is said to feed the spirits.
The role of Spirit houses
Sometimes Spirits are put into an artificial dwelling place. Shamans make wide use of this, surrounding themselves with fetishes made of wood, clay, and other materials.
Such fetishes can act as guardians of a place protecting it from evil spirits which could bring misfortune. A labaz is a small wooden hut in which a wooden figure in traditional clothing is placed. This is a spirit from the shaman's pantheon. Next to this fetish are usually placed figures, which represent members of the shaman's family.
The labaz is located in a forest far from human settlements, and is impossible to reach without a guide. The first time you go you are supposed to be taken by a shaman or a labaz-keeper.
Going to the labaz you are obliged to bring gifts to the spirit such as cloth. But upon leaving, the shaman or labaz-keeper asks the spirit if he would like to give the visitor something and if the answer is yes, a piece of the fetishes clothing is removed and given to you. In this way the visitor and the spirit exchange energy.
In Koikovo I went to a labaz from which, during Soviet occupation of
the land, the police had tried to remove the fetish. I was told that
each time the police came they were overcome by fear and could not bring
themselves to touch the fetish. In this way, the labaz and its sacred
relics were preserved.
Siberian shamanism today
The shamanic tradition country was very largely destroyed after the 1917 Russian revolution. This is particularly true of such peoples as the Altai, and the Buryatia where the shamanic tradition used to be very strong. It has been greatly undermined by years of persecution and restriction. The folkways have survived, but the dynasties of shamans have been exterminated. The Soviet government mercilessly had the shamans shot or exiled, so there are hardly any left today.
As a result, the traditional shamans left feel that the situation in these areas is very unfavourable. They say that if an area is inhabited by many spirits, but there is no human to control them, the spirits proliferate and become very aggressive causing grave damage to people.
They also say that the spirits take possession of people and sap their energy. This may cause a person's death. That is the reason they give for the high suicide rates in former shamanic areas. Mysterious deaths, cases of madness and other manifestations of the presence of hungry spirits abound.
Now, things are so bad, that in rituals the shamans often make do with
a bowl with cloth stretched over it, because the deer whose skins were
used to make drums have been all but wiped out.
Chukotka shaman drawing, early 20th century
This article has been edited and adapted from one which appeared in
the Russian magazine "Inward path".
© Evgueny Faydysh. 2003.