Shamanism: Siberian and Inner Asian Shamanism

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Shamanism is a fundamental and striking feature of Siberian and Inner Asian cultures. The religions of these regions have therefore been described as shamanistic. Shamanism itself is not, however, a religion, but rather a complex of different rites and beliefs surrounding the activities of the shaman connected with very different religious systems. Shamanism is founded on a special technique for achieving ecstasy by means of which the shaman enters an altered state of consciousness, and on the idea that the shaman is accompanied by helping spirits who assist him in this state. While in a state of trance, the shaman is regarded as capable of direct communication with representatives of the otherworld, either by journeying to the supranormal world or by calling the spirits to the séance. He is thus able to help his fellow men in crises believed to be caused by the spirits and to act as a concrete mediator between this world and the otherworld in accompanying a soul to the otherworld, or fetching it from the domain of the spirits. The shaman acts as a healer and as a patron of hunting and fertility, but also as a diviner, the guardian of livelihoods, and so on.

The Origin of Shamanism

The ecological and cultural differences among the peoples of Siberia and Inner Asia are considerable. The way of life of the Arctic sea-mammal hunters and reindeer breeders differs greatly from that of the nomads of the steppe or the hunters and fishermen of the taiga. It follows that, despite certain basic similarities, the shamanistic complexes are not uniform either. There are variations in the shaman's status in the community, as there are differences, for example, in his ritual accessories or the tradition of beliefs he represents. Tracing the history of shamanism is thus a complicated matter. Shamanism is generally thought to be founded on the animistic concepts of the northern hunting peoples. On the other hand, soul flight, the ability of the shaman to journey to the otherworld, a striking feature of northern and western shamanistic complexes, has led scholars to regard a dualistic concept of the soul as the ideological basis of shamanism. According to this belief, man has one soul confined to the body and a second soul, or part soul, capable of leaving the body freely during sleep, trance, or sickness.

The word shaman comes through Russian sources from the Tunguz word šaman (xaman ). There are such varied names for the shaman in Siberia and Inner Asia that these names cannot be used to throw light on the origin of shamanism. A theory was put forward in the nineteenth century that the word derived from the Pali samaa (Sanskrit, śramaa ) and Chinese shamen. Although this theory has been disproved (Németh, 19131914; Laufer, 1917), the cultural-historical foundations of shamanism have been sought in Buddhism or others of the great scriptural traditions of the East. It is indeed a fact that Buddhism and Lamaism had a significant effect on the development of shamanism among the Evenki (a Tunguz people), the Mongols, and the Buriats. The wide distribution of the phenomenon of shamanism and the endemicity of certain of its basic ideassoul flight, soul dualism, the link with animal ceremonialismin Arctic and sub-Arctic cultures do, however, support the view that the roots of shamanism lie in the Paleolithic hunting cultures. In his fundamental work Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964), Mircea Eliade regards the ideas of ecstatic experience and soul flight as the basis of shamanism, and asserts that shamanism grew out of the ancient Paleolithic inheritance, fertilized by Buddhism, Lamaism, and even more ancient East and South Asian influences.

The Shaman in the Community

The small hunting and fishing communities of northern Siberia have provided a setting for shamanism completely different from that of the agrarian cultures of Inner Asia rooted to one locale. Both the status of the shaman in the community and his tasks depend on the supporting culture, its economy, the nature of its social structure, and its practice of religion as a whole. Variations in the status of the shaman and the importance of shamanism as an institution spring from the relationship between the shaman and the group supporting him as well as from the nature of the particular group.

The clan shaman

The Yukagir and the Evenki retained their clan system until relatively recent times, and their shamanism is clearly connected with the organization of the clan. Even at the end of the nineteenth century the Yukagir, a Siberian tribal people, lived off deer hunting and reindeer breeding, the latter having been assimilated from the Evenki. The population, consisting of the remains of formerly larger clans, lived in camps or villages of related families. The shaman, who had to be related to the clan by ties of blood, was one of the leaders of the clan and acted as its general patron. It was also his job to maintain contact between the living and the dead members of the clan and to arrange the shamanizing connected with the calendrical hunting rites. It was during these rites that the shaman would retrieve the souls of the animals to be hunted from the keeper of the species in the otherworld store. The shaman helped individual members of the clan by curing diseases and infertility, by prophesying, and by preventing misfortune threatened by the spirits.

A highly advanced clan system existed among the Evenki, who were spread over a wide area and were divided into different occupational categories: hunters and fishermen, reindeer breeders, and hunters breeding horses and cattle. Their chief social unit was the clan, which had its own area or "river"; the clans were in turn grouped into larger tribes. One of the leaders of the clan was a shaman. Such special status among the Evenki living along the Podkamennaia Tunguska is illustrated by the belief that the shaman's hair may not be cut because it is the dwelling place of the souls of the members of the clan. As the protector and leader of his clan, their shaman set up a marylya (a fence made of spirits) around the clan's lands; he also possessed knowledge of the mythical clan river leading to the otherworld. The clan shaman held séances on behalf of his supporters, shamanizing in the course of hunting rites and helping individual members of the clan. At the end of the nineteenth century there also were professional Evenk shamans who would shamanize on behalf of members of a different clan for a fee. These "false" shamans were not accorded the honored and important position of the clan shaman.

The small-group shaman

The shamans in circles of neighbors and relatives among the hunters of northwestern and northern Siberia had a relationship with their supporters comparable to that of the clan shaman. For example, the Nganasani (a Samoyed people) were spread over such a wide area that the clan was of no significance as an economic or local unit. It retained its significance mainly in religious connections, such as in annual rituals. On an occasion such as the clean-tent festival of the Nganasani, held in February when the sun began to rise again, the shaman might act as representative of the clan. He did not, however, achieve a status symbolizing clan unity and the welfare of the clan. He was equipped by his own small community, the tent community or village whose members he assisted as a healer, a bringer of success in hunting, a guardian at difficult births, and so on.

The professional shaman of the north

The relationship between the shaman of the north and his supporters was not as close as that described above in northeastern Siberia. The Chukchi and the Koriaksmall tribal peoples indigenous to Siberiafell into two occupational categories interacting closely with one another: reindeer breeders and sea-mammal hunters. They showed no signs of a clear clan system, their basic social unit being the hunting communities and nomad camps made up of relatives and neighbors. The annual occupational rites were handled by the family or occupational unit, one typical feature being family shamanism. In this type of shamanism, which cannot be considered shamanism proper, anyone attending a festival could drum and dance in the manner of a shaman. Since the occupational and other important rites were performed among the family or kin, the shaman was not tied to any clearly defined band of supporters. He was a healer and a resolver of various incidental crises. The status of the shaman who was able to choose his clients freely depended on his personal skills. Thus the performance of various tricks played a considerable part in the competition between shamans.

Shamanism in the south

The hierarchical community of the nomads and farmers of southern Siberia and Inner Asia (e.g., the Yakuts, the Buriats, the Tuvin, the southern Altais, the Khakasy, and the horse-breeding Evenki of Transbaikalia) and the rise in status of the area to an administrative unit (called "patriarchal feudalism" by Soviet scholars) above the clan provided a background to shamanism that differed from that of the northern hunting communities. Under the influence of the Lamaism and Buddhism of the south, the ritual aspects of shamanism and the beliefs concerning the supranormal world here developed in a richer and more complex form than shamanism in the north.

While contact with the clan may be significant, regional factors often determine the shaman's sphere of activities. Since becoming a shaman and the passing down of the shamanic tradition is under the strict control of older shamans, shamanism in the south clearly has more institutionalized forms than in the north. Among the Buriats, for example, a large number of initiated shamans join the new candidate in taking part in the shamanic initiation ceremony, thus demonstrating the importance of control from within to the institution of shamanism. In addition to acting as a healer and a diviner and carrying out other conventional tasks, the shaman may also assume the role of sacrificial priest. Practices such as the sacrifice made by the Altaic Tatars of a horse to the god in the sky rely on the ability of the shaman to accompany to the otherworld the soul of the animal sacrificed.

Categories of Shamans

In addition to the fundamental differences in the status of shamanism as a whole, shamans differ in their nature and prestige from one ethnic group to another. The Hungarian expert on shamanism Vilmos Diószegi observed on interviewing former Tofa shamans in the late 1950s that they fell into different categories according to clan, the color symbolism of their accoutrements, their power, their skill, and ultimately also their own personal characteristics.

The categories of shaman used by different ethnic groups themselves are evident in the names for types of shamans. For example, the most highly respected shaman among the Entsy (a Samoyed people) was the budtode, who is in contact with the spirits who live in heaven. The less highly regarded d'ano was able to protect humans from evil spirits, and the least respected sawode shaman could contact the dead. In the same way the lowest category of shaman among the Nanay (Goldi) was the siurinka, shamans who cure the sick. Nemati shamans were able both to cure the sick and to perform the shamanizing at the first festival in memory of the dead. Among the shamans with the greatest prestige were the kasati shamans, who had command of all shamanic knowledge and who are capable of the most important task of the Nanay shaman, that of accompanying the souls of the dead to the otherworld.

The Yakuts believed that the shaman's prestige was determined by the status of the god who granted him his chief spirit helper, and by the height of the branch on the mythical shaman's tree on which the shaman was instructed by the spirits during his initiation. The division of shamans into black and white, encountered among the Yakuts and elsewhere (e.g., among the Altaic peoples) points to the nature of the spirits with whom the shaman came into contact. White was the color of the sky, black that of the earth. According to the shamanic tradition, the shaman's nature and rank are determined by the spirits initiating him. In practice the distinguishing features were probably the skills and ability to achieve ecstasy of the initiate and the nature of the tradition that he assimilated. A shaman could also rise to a higher category as his knowledge increased. A great shaman often bore the epithet "old."


Gaining command of the shamanic tradition and the ecstatic rite technique called for special training on the part of the beginner. The nature and length of the initiation period depended on the position of the shaman in his community and the importance of shamanism in the culture in question. The length of the apprenticeship, the amount and nature of the tradition to be internalized, the initiate's instruction, the number of initiation rites, and the control of the initiate's abilities varied from one region to another. Two features common to all areas were the shaman's meeting of spirits and winning of spirit helpers while in a state of ecstasy and the recognition of a new shaman by his supporters.

The shaman's disease

A potential shaman could be recognized by an abnormal, often highly nervous, disposition. All over Siberia and Inner Asia, selection was often preceded by the shaman's sickness. The first symptoms might be states of mental unbalance, fits of hysteria, periods of seclusion, unusual visions and the hearing of voices, or states of physical torment. Usually the sickness struck at adolescence, but people stricken as adults might also become shaman initiates. It is impossible to give any specific account of the illness from reports of the symptoms, The point is that shamanizing was the only recognized cure. Often a shaman called in to cure the sufferer would teach him how to shamanize.

Scholars such as Waldemar Jochelson, an expert on the tribal peoples indigenous to Siberian and Inner Asia, have compared the shaman's initiatory sickness to hysteria. The healing effect of shamanizing would then mean that the novice, under the instruction of an older shaman, learned to control his ego functions and the regression of hysteria became an ego-controlled regression during the initiation stage. It is significant that shamans suffering from a preliminary sickness have found that repeated shamanizing is a condition for remaining healthy.

The shaman's sickness was interpreted as the call of the spirits to become a shaman; since the task was so dangerous, shamans say they often resisted the call to the very end. Internal compulsion was not the only reason for selection; there could also be external reasons. A young Chukchi, for example, might choose to become a shaman in the hope of gaining wealth and prestige. Among the Evenki the clan elders or clan shaman might select a child of suitable temperament for training as a shaman.

The position of shaman was handed down within the family, especially in the areas of clan shamanism and the professional shamanism of the south. A. F. Anisimov, an expert on the shamanism of the Podkamennaia Tunguska Evenki, observed that shamans deliberately tried to keep this important position within the family. The inheritance of shamanism is founded on shamanistic ideology. In the northern regions, where selection as shaman was often a matter of incidental vocation, the spirits encountered by the novice were chiefly spirits of nature. The principle of inheritance within the family is a reflection of the notion that the spirits preparing the initiate to become a shaman were ancestor shamans or spirits of nature undertaking the task at the request of the ancestor spirits.

The initiation period

At the start of the initiation period the initiate retired in solitude, learned how to use the drum in seeking ecstatic experiences, and steeped himself in the shamanic tradition. One of his main tasks was to compose his own shaman songs. The songs for calling the spirits sung at séances of Chukchi shamans, for example, were products of the initiation period. In the shamanic view the novice is taught by the spirits; there are, however, reports of situations in which older shamans guide the novice in the art of shamanizing.

The next phase of the initiatory period is one of visions and the hearing of voices, during which the novice undergoes his initiation by the spirits. During these experiences the novice feels that the spirits are actually destroying his old ego, dissecting or boiling it, after which he is to be reassembled as a new shaman, capable of seeing that which is hidden to ordinary men. Thus is repeated the theme of death and rebirth. Despite individual differences the visions follow traditional patterns. For example, among the Samoyeds, the novice is given his spirit helpers by the initiating spirits, and he promises to follow his calling. The handling of his bones, the dismembering and reassembling of his skeleton by the spirits, plays a significant part in the visions describing the shaman's rebirth. In the background here is the idea also found in animal ceremonialism that the bones are the point of attachment for the soul.

Following his initiation by the spirits the shaman still had to prove his powers to his community. He did so at various test shamanizings and through public rites. The small-group shaman of northwestern Siberia acquired his attributes gradually in the course of annual rites. His dress and ritual objects were made by neighbors and relatives who were among his supporters and who also took part in the shamanizings at which these objects were first used. Similarly, great test shamanizings were held in the clan shamanism region and were attended by the entire clan. Through prayers and sacrifices, an ancestor shaman might be asked to indicate a suitable animal for making the shaman's requisites. As we have seen, the rituals surrounding the initiation of the shaman were most richly developed in the shamanism of the southern regions. The Buriat shaman, for example, promised during a great initiation festival to fulfill the obligations of his profession.

The shaman's initiation was less formal among the tribal peoples of Siberian and Inner Asia than elsewhere. The mysteries surrounding the call of the spirits and the experience of meeting them were paramount; as there were few requisites, the ritual announcement of the new status was not of itself significant. The shaman's later actions proved whether or not he was capable and whether he had gained any supporters.

The Shamanistic Belief Tradition

Some indication of the nature of the shamanistic belief tradition is provided by the visions of the initiation period and the shaman songs describing, for example, the shaman's journey to the otherworld. Although the cosmographic concepts vary greatly over Siberia and Inner Asia, and although the influence of Lamaism and Buddhism is very much in evidence among the southern peoples, there are certain structural features shared by all and of wide distribution. Among these are concepts of a multilevel cosmos, the world above, the middle world inhabited by man, and the world below, which is divided into three, seven, or nine levels. The layers are connected either by the world stream (among the Ket, it is by holy water), which begins in heaven and flows through the earth to the underworld, or by a hole at the North Star in the center of the globe through which the Chukchi, among others, believe it is possible to pass from one layer to another. Besides believing in a multilayered cosmos, the northern peoples in particular believe in the concept of a tentlike upper world, the firmaments spanning a round or square world. Supporting it in the center is the cosmic pillar. Phenomena parallel to the cosmic pillar are the cosmic mountain and the cosmic tree. The latter's counterpart in the shamanistic belief tradition is the shaman's tree, by means of which the shaman might travel from one world level to another.

During his initiation period the novice had to study the structure of the cosmos and above all learn the topography of the otherworld: the paths and rivers leading to the otherworld and the dwellings of the various gods, the guardian spirits, the demons of disease, and the dead. The way to the otherworld was usually described as being fraught with difficulties and dangers. The Nanay shaman, for example, was able to list the landmarks along the road to the kingdom of the dead and the dangers in store along the way.

At the séance the shaman turned to various gods and spirits as it became necessary. Linked directly with the shamanistic complex were the spirits of his initiation and his ecstatic experiences. In some cases the shaman enters the service of these spirits; at other times, they are at the shaman's command.

The spirits influencing a shaman's initiation in northeastern Siberia were mainly spirits of nature. One Koriak shaman described how spirits of the wolf, the raven, the bear, the sea gull, and the plover appeared before him in the forest, sometimes in human form, sometimes in the form of an animal, demanding that he enter their service. The Chukchi believed that "everything lives," that even inanimate objects have some sort of soul principle. Thus the shaman's band of spirits might also include various objects, stones, or household utensils. It is significant that there is no difference between the guiding spirits of the initiation period and the spirit helpers proper: the spirits appearing before the novice become his spirit helpers when he is a shaman.

In the small-group shamanism of northwestern Siberia, too, the spirits influencing a shaman's initiation are mainly spirits of nature. The initiation visions of the Nganasani demonstrate that the novice meets a number of spirits who help him in different ways. The selection of a shaman might be made by spirits of nature, such as the spirit of water, who give the novice zoomorphic guides on his journey to the otherworld. The shaman's initiation is performed by special smith spirits, who forge a new shaman on their anvil. The guiding spirits leave the shaman after his ecstatic initiation, by which time he has gotten to know his spirit helpers proper.

The spirits of ancestor shamans play an important part in a shaman's initiation in clan shamanism and the professional shamanism of the south. For example, the Transbaikalia Evenki say that a dead shaman appears before a prospective candidate and orders him to follow. The spirits of ancestor shamans may appear as candidate selectors, as the novice's supranormal teachers, or as initiators carrying out the dissection process, as in the Lower Tunguska region. The spirit of an ancestor shaman usually remains as the shaman's spirit helper proper. Although most of the spirit helpers of, for example, the Evenk shaman are in the form of an animal or a bird, he is usually also supported by shaman's spirits in human form.

Another inherited spirit is the Nanay ajami, the tutelary spirit of the novice period, who instructs the novice in matters of the otherworld and provides him with the spirits necessary for shamanizing. The relationship between the ajami and the shaman is erotic, the spirit in question being a spirit wife or husband handed down from one shaman to another within the family. Similar marriagelike relationships between spirit and man are also reported elsewhere. The transvestite shamans among the tribal peoples indigenous to Siberia and Inner Asia, for example, might have a spirit lover.

An important part is played in the initiation tales of Yakut shamans by the Animal Mother and the spirits of ancestor shamans, the evil abaasy spirits that may perform the novice's initiation mysteries. The Animal Mother, who is the incarnation of the shaman's kut soul, his invisible double, was thought to show itself on the birth or death of a shaman and during his supranormal initiation. The Animal Mother, in the form of a bird with iron feathers, was thought to sit on a branch of the shaman's tree, incubating an egg containing the soul of a novice until the soul hatches from the egg.

The nature and number of spirit helpers proper varies from one ethnic group to another. Among the Ob-Ugrians (i. e., the Khanty and Mansi), the shaman might have seven spirit helpers, most of them in the form of an animal, such as a bear, a deer, a wolf, a horse, a snake, a fish, or a bird. Birds common to the northern regions were the eagle and the owl, as well as various waterfowl, in whose form the shaman was said to travel the underwater routes to the otherworld. The beliefs concerning the relationship between the shaman and his spirits are complex. The shaman might travel in the form of the animal accompanying him; the Yakut shaman, for example, fights other shamans in the form of his Animal Mother, as an elk or a deer. On the other hand, the spirit helpers may accompany him as outside assistants. For example, the Evenk shaman of the Podkamennaia Tunguska region had command over a large band of spirits on his journeys to the underworld.

The Shaman's Activities

The shaman's public activities took place at the séance, a ritual performance. While there were many reasons for calling a séance, there was a need to make direct contact with representatives of the spirit world in all cases. All the vital elements of shamanism were present at the séance: the shaman and his assistant, those in need of assistance, an interested audience, and representatives of the spirit world called on by the shaman.

The shaman's attributes

The ritual objects and the shaman's attributes symbolize the shamanistic worldview. The most important item is the drum. Names for the drum are usually connected with the idea of the shaman's journey. For example, the Transbaikalia Evenki call the drum a boat, while the Yakuts, Buriats, and Soyot call it a horse. In this case the drumstick is a "whip." By means of his drum the shaman "rides" or "flies"; in other words, he achieves an altered state of consciousness. The frame of the drum is made from a special treea representative of the cosmic treeindicated by the spirits, and the membrane from the skin of an animal also chosen by the spirits. The drum-reviving ceremonies in the Altaic regions indicate that the drum animal represents one of the shamanistic spirits: during these ceremonies the animal from whose skin the membrane was made "comes to life again," telling of its life and promising to help the shaman. The motifs carved on the drum frame or drawn on the skin likewise symbolize shamanistic spirits and express cosmological concepts.

Although the shaman's dress, along with the drum, is one of the most striking features of shamanism in northern and Inner Asia, the number and type of attributes varies from one area to another. There is no shaman's dress proper among the Chukchi. While preparing for a séance the shaman was, like the Inuit (Eskimo) shaman, stripped to the waist. Similarly, the only item that identified the shaman among the Nentsy (a Samoyed people) in the northwest of Siberia was the headdress that he wore. The dresses with the greatest number of symbolic ornaments are to be found in central and southern Siberia and in Inner Asia.

The shaman's dress is made of leather or cloth, and onto it are sewn pendants of metal, bone, and cloth depicting spirits in animal or human shape or phenomena associated with the supranormal world. On the back of the Yakut shaman's dress are metal disks, the shaman's sun and moon, providing light on the dark route to the otherworld. Despite the variety of symbolic emblems, the basic idea behind the shaman's dress is clear. The feathers attached to the headdress, the winglike or furry appendages on the sleeves, the antlers or bear's snout on the headdress show that the dress basically represents some kind of animal. The most common type is a bird, found not only in the Altai-Sayan region but also in northern Mongolia and different parts of Siberia. In the Altaic region the dress most often imitates an owl or an eagle, in northern Siberia a deer. The Samoyeds and the Ket also wear a dress reminiscent of a bear.

In addition to the pictures associated with the spirits or the otherworld, the shaman's dress also has iron or bone appendages resembling a human or animal skeleton. These symbolize the death and rebirth experienced by the shaman during the ecstatic visions of his initiation period. The dress represents the mysteries experienced by the shaman and is the dwelling place of the spirits. Thus the dress itself is thought to possess supernormal power. In the areas of clan shamanism the dress could not be sold outside the clan, because the shaman's spirits belonging to the clan were attached to it. A wornout shaman's dress might be hung on a tree in the forest, so that the spirits could leave it gradually and enter a new dress.

The shamanic séance

The shamanizing séance requires that both the shaman himself and the setting for the rite be meticulously prepared. The séance is often preceded by a period of time during which the shaman goes into seclusion, fasts, meditates, and recalls the details of the rituals he must perform during the séance. He transfers to the role of shaman by putting on the ritual dress and by tuning the drum.

The actual séance is usually held inside after dark, in a dwelling with a fire burning in the center. Because the spirits are thought to be afraid of light, darkness is a prerequisite for shamanizing. The settings for séances varied greatly, depending on the status of the shaman and the importance of his task. In the Podkamennaia Tunguska region the shaman and protector of the clan held his séance in the sevenčedek, a tent specially erected for the purpose. Here he acted out the fundamental features of the shamanistic world concept: the middle world inhabited by humans, the upper and lower worlds with their spirits, and the cosmic stream and cosmic tree as landmarks along the shaman's route in the otherworld. The séance was attended by the entire clan, members helping with the preparations. Similar large séance settings are found among the Nanay, whose shaman, being the representative of his clan, transported the souls of the dead to the otherworld. It seems that the higher the status of the shaman and the bigger the group he represented, the richer were the symbolic requisites of the dress and the setting for the séance and the more theatrical the course of shamanizing. The imposing settings of the séance in the southern areas are probably a later development influenced by the great scriptural traditions of the East.

Before the séance, the shaman's assistant, those in need of the shaman's help, and the audience would assemble. At the start of the séance the shaman concentrates on calling his spirit helper by singing and drumming. The themes of the shaman's songs are the calling of the spirit helpers, a description of the spirits' journey, an account of the shaman's own journey to the otherworld, and a description of the topography of the supranormal world. In the songs calling the spirits, during which the shaman might imitate the sounds of his zoomorphic spirit helpers through whistles, shouts, and growls, the shaman invites the spirits to the séance and may also give a step-by-step description of their journey to the séance from their dwelling in the otherworld.

The calling of the spirit helpers is the trance-induction stage. The rhythmic drumming, dancing, and singing gradually become louder and more frenzied as the shaman, while concentrating on the world of the spirits, achieves an altered state of consciousness. This phenomenon, similar to Western hypnosis, is brought about by rhythmical stimulation of the nervous system, growing concentration, motivation on the part of the shaman, and the emotional charge produced by the expectations of the audience. The effect of rhythmical stimulation was further enhanced among the Ob-Ugrians and the tribal peoples indigenous to Siberian Asia by, for example, eating amanita mushrooms. Other common means were the burning of various herbs producing intoxicating smoke, and, more recently, smoking tobacco and consuming alcohol. The use of hallucinogens and other intoxicants is not, however, essential to or even a vital factor in the shaman's trance technique.

The ecstatic climaxes of the séance come at the point where the shaman meets his spirit helpers, journeys with them to the otherworld, or banishes, for example, a disease demon that has taken up residence in a patient. The biggest cultural differences in the shamanistic rite technique are manifest at precisely this stage. The forms of meeting the spirits are based on different belief traditions.

Common to the central and eastern parts of Siberia, for example, among the Yukagir, the Evenki, the Yakuts, the Manchus, the Nanays, and the Orochi is the possession séance, during which the shaman's chief spirit helper enters his body and speaks through him. The shaman fully identifies with the spirit; he in fact turns into the spirit and manifests this change in his gestures, movements, and speech. Another person present at the séance, usually the shaman's assistant, then becomes the shaman, talking to the spirit. In regions where this type of possession-trance is common, the usual explanation for disease is that a demon has entered a person. It is then the shaman's task to banish the demon, and to do this the shaman takes the disease demon upon himself after his spirit helper; in other words, he turns into the demon. There are also complex possession-trance séances at which the shaman, having manifested various spirits, travels with his spirit helpers to the otherworldwhen banishing a demon, for example.

The shaman may also create an illusion that the spirit helpers are present at the séance without identifying with them. The Chukchi display great skill in the manifestation of the spirits by the technique of ventriloquism. The shaman brings one spirit after another to the séance, and the audience can hear the spirits speak outside the shaman's body. Meetings of shaman and spirits at séances without possession are also known in western Siberia and Inner Asia. Among the Minusinsk Tatars, for example, the shaman's assistant sprinkles water around for the spirits to drink, so that they will not come too close to the shaman.

If the main idea of the séance is soul flight, or the shaman's journey to the otherworld, the manifestation of the spirits is not as dramatic as at séances of the possession type. Typical séances in the western and northern parts of Siberiaamong the Samoyeds and the Ob-Ugrians, for exampleare those at which the shaman is imagined as traveling to the otherworld with his spirit helpers. The emphasis is not on role-changing and talking to the spirits but on the description of the shaman's journey. At this type of séance the shaman's trance usually deepens steadily and ends with loss of consciousness. At possession-type and ventriloquist séances the shaman often calls his spirits again after his return, by singing and drumming. In other words, the depth of the trance moves in waves. Since concentration on the spirit world leads to a change in consciousness and focusing his attention on the audience brings the shaman back to his waking state, the depth of shamanic ecstasy depends upon the extent to which he must allow for the audience's wishes during the séance, and thus ultimately on the relationship between the shaman and his supporters.

The séance usually ends with an episode during which the shaman sends his spirit helpers away, answers questions from the audience, and issues instructions on the sacrifices or required propitiations to be made. The basic structure of the séance is thus relatively uniform, regardless of the object of shamanizing, showing variation according to the way in which the spirits are encountered. The various rites, manifestation of the presence of or banishing of spirits, and tricks or demonstrations of skill proving the supranormal abilities of the shaman do, however, vary from one area to another. Despite cultural differences, the basic features of the shaman's technique of ecstasy, his main requisites, the concept of the spirits helping the shaman, and the part played by the audience as a chorus assisting at séances are elements of shamanism common throughout northern and Inner Asia.

See Also

Arctic Religions, overview article; Buriat Religion; Khanty and Mansi Religion; Samoyed Religion; Southern Siberian Religions; Tunguz Religion; Yakut Religion.


There is a vast amount of literature on shamanism in Siberia and Inner Asia. A list of Russian sources and research literature appearing before 1932 is given in A. A. Popov's Materialy dlia bibliografi russkoi literatury po izucheniiu shamanstva severoaziatskikh narodov (Leningrad, 1932). The first widely known general treatise on Siberian shamanism was V. M. Mikhailovskii's "Shamanism in Siberia and European Russia," translated by John Oliver Wardrop, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 24 (1985): 126158. Of the general treatises that appeared in the early decades of the twentieth century among the most thorough are M. A. Czaplicka's Aboriginal Siberia: A Study in Social Anthropology (Oxford, 1914) and G. K. Nioradze's Der Schamanismus bei den sibirischen Völkern (Stuttgart, 1925). Uno Harva's work Die religiösen Vorstellungen der altaischen Völkern, "Folklore Fellows Communications," no. 125 (Helsinki, 1938), first published in Finnish in 1933, contains both a survey of shamanism and a systematic account of the main religious features of the peoples of Siberia and Inner Asia. The section on Inner Asian shamanism in the extensive work Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, 12 vols. (Münster, 19121955), by Wilhelm Schmidt is interesting because of the author's thorough familiarity with the sources.

Later general works dealing with the fundamental idea behind shamanism include Åke Ohlmarks's Studien zum Problem des Schamanismus (Lund, 1939), Hans Findeisen's Schamanentum dargestellt am Beispiel der Besessenheitspriester nordeurasiatischer Völker (Stuttgart, 1957), Matthias Hermanns's Schamanen, Pseudoschamanen, Erlöser und Heilbringer, 3 vols. (Wiesbaden, 1970), and Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, rev. & enl. ed. (New York, 1964). This last work, which first appeared in French as Le chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l'extase (Paris, 1951), examines shamanistic phenomena in different parts of the world and is regarded as a classic in its field.

Material publications and studies on the shamanism of different peoples and ethnic groups have appeared individually and in certain scientific series. One of the most important is The Jesup North Pacific Expedition, edited by Franz Boas (Leiden and New York, 19001930), in which the following works give a good account of shamanism in northeastern Siberia: Waldemar Bogoraz's The Chukchee, vol. 7 (19041909); Waldemar Jochelson's The Koryak, vol. 6 (19051908); and the latter's The Yukaghir and the Yukaghirized Tungus, vol. 9 (1926). The results of Russian and Soviet researchers' field trips to the Altai and to western and central Siberia have been given considerable coverage in the journal Sbornik Muzeia antropologii i etnografii (Leningrad, 1900).

The work Chernaia vera, ili Shamanstvo u mongolov (Saint Petersburg, 1891) by Dorzhi Banzarov on Mongolian shamanism is an extensive late-nineteenth-century monograph. Information on shamanism in the Altaic region is covered in A. V. Anokhin's Materialy po shamanstvu u altaitsev (Leningrad, 1924). One of the best sources on the Ob-Ugrian peoples is K. F. Karjalainen's Jugralaisten uskonto (Porvoo, Finland, 1918). Toivo Lehtisalo describes Nentsy or Yurak shamanism in Entwurf einer Mythologie der Jurak-Samojeden, "Mémoires de la Société Finno-ougrienne," vol. 53 (Helsinki, 1924). Some of the most interesting information on Samoyed shamanism is provided by A. A. Popov in, for example, The Nganson: The Material Culture of the Tavgi Samoyeds (1949), translated by Elaine K. Ristinen (Bloomington, Ind., 1966). Evenki shamanism is examined by A. F. Anisimov in Religiia evenkov v istoriko-geneticheskom izuchenii i problemy proiskhozhdeniia pervobytnykh verovanii (Moscow, 1958) and by S. M. Shirokogoroff in the extensive Psychomental Complex of the Tungus (London, 1935), this latter being one of the main sources on research into shamanism. Information on Nanay shamanism is included in P. P. Shimkevich's Materialy dlia izucheniia shamanstva u gol'dov, "Zapiski priamurskogo otdela Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva," vol. 1 (Khabarovsk, 1896), and Ivan A. Lopatin's The Cult of the Dead among the Natives of the Amur Basin, "Central Asiatic Studies," vol. 6 (The Hague, 1960).

Translations of certain extremely interesting articles on shamanism in the U.S.S.R. have been published in Studies in Siberian Shamanism, edited by Henry N. Michael (Toronto, 1963). In Hungary, Vilmos Diószegi and Mihály Hoppál have edited anthologies containing general theoretical treatises and a wealth of fresh information produced during field research, and these are also among the main publications on research into shamanism: Popular Beliefs and Folklore Tradition in Siberia, edited by Vilmos Diószegi, translated by Stephen P. Dunn (Budapest, 1968); Shamanism in Siberia, edited by Vilmos Diószegi and Mihály Hoppál and translated by S. Simon (Budapest, 1978); and Shamanism in Eurasia, edited by Mihály Hoppál, "Forum," no. 5 (Göttingen).

Comparative studies of special aspects of shamanism are The Shaman Costume and Its Significance, by Uno Holmberg (later Harva), in "Turun suomalaisen yliopiston julkaisuja," series B, vol. 1 (Turku, 1922); my The Rite Technique of the Siberian Shaman, "Folklore Fellows Communications," no. 220 (Helsinki, 1978); and E. C. Novik's Obriad i fol'klor v sibirskom shama-nizme (Moscow, 1984).

Significant opinions on the fundamental issues of shamanism have been put forward in a number of shorter articles. These include Dominik Schröder's "Zur Struktur des Schamanismus," Anthropos 50 (1950), aiming at a definition of shamanism; Ake Hultkrantz's "A Definition of Shamanism," Temenos 9 (1973): 2537; Lauri Honko's "Role-Taking of the Shaman," Temenos 4 (1969): 2655, on the shaman's rite technique; and László Vajda's "Zur phaseologischen Stellung des Schamanismus," Ural-Altaische Jahrbucher 31 (1959): 456485, examining the history of the development of shamanism. Special aspects of shamanism have also been studied by Gisela Bleibtrau-Ehrenberg in "Homosexualität und Transvestition im Schamanismus," Anthropos 65 (1970): 189228; and by H. Nachtigall in "Die Kulturhistorische Wurzel der Schamanen-skelettierung," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 77 (1952): 188197. Two articles disproving the Pali or Sanskrit origins of the word shaman are Julius Németh's "Über den Ursprung des Wortes Šaman und einige Bemerkungen zur türkisch-mongolischen Lautgeschichte," Keleti Szemle (Budapest) 14 (19131914), and Berthold Laufer's "Origin of the Word Shaman," American Anthropologist 19 (1917).

Anna-Leena Siikala (1987)

Translated from Finnish by Susan Sinisalo