Secrets of Siberian Shamanism
May 16, 2013 By davidjones
By MICHAEL HOWARD—
Today, especially in New Age circles, the term ‘shamanism’ is often used in a generalised way to describe all kinds of indigenous magical practices in a wide range of cultures worldwide. It has also been projected back into a past that it never had, so we can find modern books on so-called ‘Celtic shamanism’ and even ‘Ancient Egyptian shamanism’. Modern writers on the subject such as Dr. Michael Harner have also created what is called ‘core shamanism’ or ‘urban shamanism’.
This takes the essence of shamanic beliefs and practices and repackages them in a safe, sanitised and often diluted form that is acceptable for Western seekers of alternative spirituality. In this article, however, we examine and describe the real ‘core shamanism’ as it has been practised for hundreds of years in its homeland of Siberia and the Turkic-speaking areas of Mongolia, and where it is now being revived.
In the late 16th and early 17th centuries the area known as Siberia was colonised by the Russians. They were led there by its abundance of wild animals that created a flourishing trade in animal skins and furs. The Tsars used the income from this enterprise to boost their economy and access the foreign currency that helped create the Russian empire. The influx of Russian hunters, fur traders and merchants drastically affected the local population, which consisted of many different tribes. By the 1900s the native population had dwindled to about 10% of the total people living in Siberia. Along with the fur traders there also came missionaries and, in later times, anthropologists. The former were interested in converting the indigenous population to Orthodox Christianity, while the latter wanted to study their tribal culture, spiritual beliefs and ritual practices. Both these groups of outsiders contacted the tribal shamans of Siberia and, for totally different reasons, recorded and commented upon their religious observances.
The earliest references to magical practitioners that could be described as shamans in fact date back to the 13th century. It was then that the first Western travellers penetrated Central Asia and visited the court of the Mongol rulers. The explorer Marco Polo, for instance, met magicians who were healers and could diagnosis diseases by the use of divination. Polo says they became possessed by what he described as “a devil,” who then used their vocal chords to speak through them.
However, it was an English explorer called Richard Johnston in the 16th century who first described what sounds very like the activities of shamans proper. He reported witnessing a tribal priest wearing animal skins and playing a drum “shaped like a great sieve” in “devilish rites.” During the ritual the drummer fell into a trance and was possessed by “evil spirits.”
In 1692 another Western explorer, Nicholas Witsen, described seeing a “shaman” or “priest of the Devil.” He was clad in ritual regalia, consisting of an antlered head-dress and a richly decorated robe, and chanted and beat on a drum to attract the spirits. Generally, reflecting the Catholic culture they came from, these Westerners regarded the shamans as fanatical “devil worshippers” who forced their ignorant and uneducated followers to serve evil spirits and demons.
What is Siberian Shamanism?
The meaning of the word ‘shaman’ is shrouded in linguistic mystery and various explanations have been put forward for its origin. One theory is that it is possibly derived from an ancient Chinese term for a Buddhist priest or monk. The Oxford English Dictionary defines its meaning as “a priest or witch-doctor [sic] of (a) class claiming to have sole contact with gods etc.” It says the word comes from the Russian “shaman” and is a translation of the Tungusion word “saman.” In Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism was known as Tengerism, meaning a reverence for sky spirits. It reflected an animistic belief system where everything in the natural world was alive, permeated by spirit force or, in simple terms, inhabited by spirits.
These spirits had to be respected and appeased or else the land would become infertile and barren, the animals relied upon for food would disappear and eventually the world would come to an end. To achieve this essential and vital balance between humans, nature and the spirit world, a magical specialist was required and the shaman took that role. He or she acted as an intermediary or middle person between humanity and the Other, and a caretaker of cultural and magical tradition. Their job involved conducting blessings, especially on new-born babies, performing rituals of protection, divining the future, healing the sick, exorcising ghosts and demons, overseeing the burial of the dead, and generally communicating on behalf of the tribe with the spirit world and its denizens.
Initiation into the shamanic cult could be achieved in several different ways. The easiest was the hereditary route where magical knowledge, power and skill were passed down from grandfather or father to son or, more rarely, from grandmother or mother to daughter. Sometimes children were chosen at a very early age or even at birth by the spirits and instructed by them through the medium of visions and dreams. Young people who suffered a serious illness or disease or from epileptic fits, were introverted and dreamy, or had any form of mental condition or disability, were regarded as natural shamans who had been specially chosen by the spirits.
In later life those who felt a strong calling to become a magical practitioner would retreat from society, usually to a remote place in the wilderness, and undergo a vigil during which they invited the spirits to contact them and teach them the shamanic ways. When a person was actually taken on by another shaman as his assistant or sorcerer’s apprentice, a formal initiation rite was often carried out. The candidate offered an animal sacrifice, called on the spirits to aid them in their task, took an oath of loyalty to their shamanic master or spiritual clan, and accepted the special ritual regalia of a shaman’s office.
Often these initiations by either another shaman or the spirits involved a traumatic visionary death and rebirth experience. Sometimes this included a journey to the underworld, meetings with deities and the would-be shaman’s body being dismembered and then put together again.
The ritual regalia given to the new shaman reflected the fact that he or she was a special person who was separate and different from other members of the tribe. Siberian shamans wore robes made from animal hide and fur and decorated with embroidery, bird’s feathers, silk tassels, ribbons, bells, small mirrors, jewellery representing symbolic motifs such as the World Tree, and assorted metalwork such as copper discs. Headwear consisted of a conical or pointed cap made from felt or fur or the antlers of a reindeer. Some shamans wore iron-shod fur boots so when they stamped their feet they could drive away evil spirits.
The majority of shamans carried a ritual drum similar in shape to the traditional Irish bodhran. These were made from an animal skin stretched over a wooden frame and decorated with feathers and magical symbols representing spirit journeys to the Otherworld or the shamanic cosmology. The drum was very important and represented the symbolic and magical steed that enabled the practitioner to travel from Middle Earth to the realm of the spirits. It was also a magical object in its own right that contained and focused spirit force or energy. By playing it the shaman could both attract spirits and exorcise them. In addition to the drum a magical staff was often carried. This was made of either wood or metal and was decorated with feathers, bells, ribbons and the pelts of small woodland animals.
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