From New Dawn 110 (Sept-Oct 2008)
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.
Different Types of Shaman
Although Westerners used the generic term ‘shaman’ to describe all the tribal magical practitioners of Siberia and Mongolia, in practice they were divided into several different types, categories or classes with specific magical duties and responsibilities. Using English terminology, these included ‘conjurors’ who summoned and controlled spirits, prophets or psychics who foresaw the future, sorcerers who practised ‘black magic’, trance-workers who travelled in spirit form to the Otherworld, healers who were experts in folk medicine and herbalism, and guides to the dead who laid out corpses and conducted funeral rites.
The shaman-healers were often female and they specialised in health matters connected with human and animal fertility, sexuality and children. They were recognisable by their distinctive skirts made from animal hide and brightly coloured woollen hats. Instead of the ritual drum used by the male shamans, they carried a silk fan and prayer beads. Unfortunately when Buddhism came to Siberia and Mongolia many of these female healers were ruthlessly persecuted and exterminated by the misogynist monks. As a result their extensive knowledge of herbs and plants used for natural healing was either lost completely or taken over by Buddhist healers and only practised in a debased or diluted form.
Another female practitioner was the shaman-midwife, who inherited her power from the maternal line of familial descent. As well as ensuring that babies entered this world safely in a physical sense, she was also responsible for their spiritual protection from evil influences during birth and their well-being as children. In this sense she took on the role of a human fairy godmother. Immediately after a birth the shaman-midwife cut the umbilical cord and then purified the new-born baby with salt water and fire. Any (female only) witnesses to the birth could only be present if they had first been ritually purified by the midwife with fire and water. During the first few weeks of a baby’s life it was very important that the proper rituals were performed to protect the child until its spirit was fully established in the material world. If they were not performed properly then the baby’s spirit might return from whence it had come. These essential rites were the responsibility of the shaman-midwife and her assistants.
Another type of shamanic healer was a bone-setter who called upon spirit guides to help them in their healing work. They mainly repaired broken and dislocated bones and torn ligaments, healed back pain caused by spinal injuries or disease and also skin infections such as boils, rashes, psoriasis and eczema. These gifts were inherited from the paternal side of the family and, because the bones of the human body were considered to be spiritually ‘masculine’ in nature, these shamanic bone-setters were always male.
Most of the shamans worked with what modern New Agers call animal allies or spirit-helpers in animal form. These entities assisted them with their magical work and also taught them. For instance, the shaman-midwives described above worked with an animal spirit in the form of a mountain fox. The first bone-setter is supposed to have been taught his skills by a snake so that creature was sacred to the clan. Other shamanic practitioners were assisted by reindeer or wolves for attacking and destroying evil spirits, and ravens for getting rid of diseases. Other important animal spirit helpers included owls, wild ducks, geese, squirrels, bears, frogs and toads, dogs, seagulls and eagles.
One of the most important and respected types of magical practitioners was the shaman-smith. In all cultures all over the world from Europe to Africa the smith took a central role in tribal society and was regarded as a powerful magician or sorcerer because of his mastery over fire and skill in working with metal. There are many legends about blacksmiths making pacts with demons, gods or the Devil or tricking and outwitting them to acquire their skills. There are also many smith gods in ancient mythology who were magicians, made weapons for the Gods or acted as cultural exemplars by inventing agricultural tools. In Siberia the shaman-smiths made and magically consecrated the ritual metal objects used by other shamans. They were only chosen by the spirits and instead of a drum they used their anvils to communicate with the spiritual realm.
‘Black’ & ‘White’ Shamans
As well as the different types of magical practitioner, the shamans were also divided into two separate, but sometimes overlapping, categories – ‘black’ or ‘white’ shamans. The former were regarded as the most powerful of the two and were sometimes known as ‘warrior-shamans’ because they battled evil forces and were consulted as military advisors. They obtained their power from the north (possibly the North Pole or the North Star) and could be easily identified as they always wore black robes with very little, if any, decoration. The primary function of the black shaman was to deal with demons and the dark gods on behalf of their clients. In this role they were hired to curse their enemies and blight their crops and livestock.
In wartime the black shamans attached themselves to the army rather like the modern padres and helped to win battles using their occult powers. In peacetime they took a more positive role as diplomats, political advisors and emissaries and they oversaw the preparation and signing of treaties with the appropriate magical rites. Black shamans were greatly feared, even after their deaths. In the 19th century when a famous one died she was placed in a coffin made from the ‘unclean’ wood of an aspen. Her corpse was then nailed down with aspen stakes so she could not become a ‘night walker’ and haunt the living.
In contrast, the so-called ‘white’ shamans obtained their magical power from a westerly direction, the home of the benevolent deities and spirits. They operated at a tribal level almost exclusively as healers and diviners and they only had dealings with beneficent entities. It was their role to pacify angry or evil spirits, exorcise them if they possessed human beings and help the tribe live in harmony with their natural environment and the spirit world. To this end on a physical level they were often employed in an administrative role to oversee tribal affairs.
The Yurt, the World Tree & Spirit Flight
In Siberian and especially Mongolian shamanism the yurt, a traditional dwelling constructed from a framework of wooden poles covered with animal skins and with a central smoke-hole in the roof, was a microcosmic symbol or representation of the universe. For this reason all movement inside the yurt was conducted, if at all possible, in a deosil or sunways direction. This also reflected the traditional direction of movement used in shamanic rituals and dances. The centre of the yurt, where a fire burnt in a hearth and was seldom extinguished, was symbolic of the actual centre of the world or universe. The column of smoke that drifted up from the fire and left the yurt through the central smoke-hole in the roof was symbolic of the axis mundi – the World Mountain, World Pillar or World Tree. This links the underworld below with the heavens above and ends at the North and Pole Star around which all the other stars revolve in the night sky.
The shamans believed in three worlds of existence connected together by the World Tree or Tree of Life. They were the lower world or underworld inhabited by the dead who are awaiting reincarnation, the middle world or Middle Earth, the material plane of existence in which human spirits are incarnated, and the upper world or Heaven, the dwelling place of the Gods. Numerous non-human spirits also inhabit each of these three worlds. The shaman can access these other worlds in trance by means of spirit travel. His soul body ascends the column of smoke from the fire and passes through the aperture in the roof of the yurt. It is interesting to note that in medieval times European witches were supposed to fly to their Sabbats by ascending the chimney on their broomsticks. It is obvious that this was not done physically so they also were practising a shamanic type of spirit flight.
Shamans can also fly through the air when they spirit travel, either by shapeshifting into the form of birds (such as geese) or by riding on the back of a flying deer, horse or some other large animal. Again, there are many woodcuts dating from the Middle Ages depicting witches riding through the night sky on the backs of goats and rams. Sometimes the shaman visited the spirit world by ascending the World Tree itself or by travelling along a rainbow. This is another symbol that is found in Northern European paganism where a rainbow bridge connects Midgard (Middle Earth) with Asgard, the realm of the Gods.
One of the methods used by the Siberian shamans to achieve trance and spirit travel was the hallucinogenic fungi amanita muscaria or fly agaric. This red capped white-spotted toadstool has a symbiotic relationship with both birch and fir trees, which grow profusely in northern and arctic climes. It is so closely associated with magical properties in myth and fairy tales that it is frequently depicted in illustrations to modern children’s stories about woodland elves, faeries and goblins. Fly agaric is reputed to be able to open up the ‘crack between the worlds’ and experiments in the 20th century by the two well-known ethonomycologists Gordon and Valentina Wasson revealed the ethenogenic qualities of this most famous of ‘sacred mushrooms’.
In Siberia fly agaric was sometimes fed to reindeer and then the animal’s toxic urine is drank. The shamans said that taking it put them in touch with the spirit of the plant, who appeared as small mushrooms with eyes and arms and legs attached. Needless to say that in large quantities fly agaric is highly poisonous and can be deadly. It must, as with all hallucinogenic plants used in magical practice, be used in small quantities, treated with respect and only taken after the proper spiritual preparation and then only under expert supervision. It should also be noted that in many countries fly agaric and other psychedelic fungi are classified as dangerous drugs and the possession or partaking of them is illegal.
In common with indigenous folk beliefs in the West, it was accepted in shamanism that the spirit world was not entirely separated from the material one. There are special places in the natural environment – sacra loci – where the two realms meet and touch and interconnect. These can be a sacred mountain or hill, a stone, a river, a lake, a forest or any natural landmark in the countryside. While the shaman may be able to access such ‘gateways’ or ‘portals’ between here and there easily, lesser mortals may be unaware of them or, if they are sensitive, they may feel they are ‘different’ or ‘other’. Spooky places, whether natural sites in the landscape or buildings, associated with folklore, paranormal phenomena and hauntings are usually spirit gateways.
In shamanistic belief all inanimate objects were inhabited or possessed by spirit energy or force who controlled their environs. Some shamans taught that living beings, especially human ones, could have more than one spirit inhabiting their physical body. Many accepted that humans had an etheric, astral or spirit double and this could be projected in trance or spirit travel to roam over the Earth and also enter the Otherworld. The shamans believed that the soul of a human being resided in a spherical or ovoid energy field that surrounds each of us. It is probably what Western occultists would refer to as the auric field or aura. It was this energy field that was attacked by demons or black shamans when they psychically attacked their victims and in that way they could cause illness or death. It was the task of the white shaman to redress the balance by healing the damaged aura and if possible bring the victim back to full health.
Earlier we saw how animals were important clan totems and spirit guides to the shaman. Before the 20th century and the rise of industrial scale food production, hunting was widespread on the Siberian steppes and in the forests. Unlike Christian belief, it was accepted without question that animals had souls and when hunting them down and killing them it was essential that their sprits were respected and appeased. If they were not, disaster and misfortune could befall the hunter, his family and tribe. When a hunter killed his prey it was always despatched quickly, cleanly and without cruelty. Before it was killed the hunter apologised for having to do so and after death its remains were treated with care and respect. The same rule applied to domestic animals. A master animal spirit ruled each species and prayers and sacrificial offerings of incense and fire were made to them before the hunt began. Hunting purely for pleasure, as practised in the West, was an unknown concept.
Buddhism & the Stamping Out of Shamanism
Despite the early arrival of the fur traders and merchants in Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism survived. In the 16th century, however, a Mongolian ruler called Altan Khan invited a Tibetan Buddhist mission to the country. His motives were political as he wanted to consolidate his own position as the supreme tribal leader by claiming to be the reincarnation of the great Kubla Khan. The Buddhists agreed to recognise his claim and in return the Khan gave the head of the Buddhist Order the spiritual title of Dalai Lama, which of course exists today even though the present holder is in exile in India. As a result of the Khan’s one conversion, he passed laws banning shamanic rituals and granted the Buddhist priesthood a special status in society and privileges that were not granted to the shamans.
In the 17th century attempts were made by the Mongolian rulers to eradicate shamanic survival entirely. The black shaman brotherhood refused to submit to the new religion and many were killed. Some of the white shamans came to an accommodation with it. This led to the creation of a third way called ‘yellow shamanism’ that submitted to the control of the lamas and combined shamanic beliefs and practices with Tibetan Buddhism.
During the 18th century in Siberia, Buddhist, Orthodox Christian and Muslim missionaries attempted to convert the native population and opposed the practice of all rival religions. Considering their modern peaceful and pacifist image, the Buddhist monks were the most severe in this respect and they hunted down shamans, beat them and destroyed their sacred sites, replacing them with their own image-filled shrines. The Russian Orthodox Church also forced the pagan tribes to accept baptism at the point of a sword and they flogged or imprisoned anyone who dared to practice shamanic rites such as divination and animal sacrifice.
Despite this religious persecution, shamanism survived the forced conversions and it continued underground in remote rural areas. Sometimes shamanic elements were incorporated into an unorthodox form of folk Christianity that flourished despite the censure of the priests. This movement produced hybrid sects who coincided their sacrifices with Church festivals and made offerings to saints. Some shamans accepted the patron saints of Russia, SS George and Michael, as their deities. St Michael was even given the honorary title of ‘Master of the Shamans’ and blood sacrifices were made to his icons.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, shamanism had a brief revival as the power and influence of the Orthodox Russian Church and Buddhism in Siberia faded away. However, with the beginning of the bloody Stalinist regime in the 1920s, the new policy of agricultural collectivism caused drastic changes in Siberian society. The Soviet communists regarded the shamans as an example of primitive superstition and social inequality and they were condemned as enemies of the state. There are horrific stories of KGB agents throwing shamans out of helicopters to prove to their followers that they could not fly and also randomly executing them by firing squad. In 1980 the central government in Moscow claimed that shamanism was extinct in Siberia.
When Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University visited Siberia in the early 1980s he was told by experts in the field that there were no more shamans alive and shamanism had died out. At the time he accepted this, but later he came to believe that a number of former shamans had managed to survive the pograms. With the collapse of Soviet communism in the later 1980s and early 1990s there was a revival of traditional culture among the ethnic peoples of the former USSR. Professor Hutton has described an encounter by some British musicians visiting Siberia in 1997 with a person who claimed to be a hereditary shaman. He said he had inherited his powers and knowledge from his grandfather, who had been a blacksmith, and he used his skills for healing and exorcising evil spirits.
In the 1990s a neo-shamanic movement known as Tengrism arose in Central Asia and the new Russian Federation. It quickly organised itself and now claims a rather inflated membership of 500,000. One of its prominent leaders is a Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament called Dastan Sarygulov, who also runs an international scientific centre for Tengrist studies. Its members have a political agenda and attempt to spread their beliefs and ideology in government circles. Apparently they have had some success as a former Kyrgyz president and the present President of Kazakhstan have both declared that Tengrism is the natural and national religion of the Turkic population.
Unlike the shamanism of former times, Tengrism is a monotheistic form of religion with a cosmology that is suitable for the modern world. It is firmly based on trendy ‘green’ or environmental concerns and believes that humanity should live in harmony with the natural world. Forgetting or ignoring the persecution of the past, it also preaches tolerance towards other religions and seeks to co-exist with them in the spirit of interfaith. Strangely it is also a religion without dogma, prayers or a priesthood. The American academic Marlene Larvelle, who has studied Tengrism, claims that it has been influenced by the atheism of the Soviet years and contemporary ideas about modernity. Its political agenda calls for a recognition of Turkic national ideals and the ultimate unification of all Turkic-speaking peoples.
The revival of shamanism in its modern Tengrist form would seem to hearken back to a romantic past that probably never existed in reality. Its increasing popularity among urban Russians is based on an idyllic image of yurts on the steppes, a nomadic lifestyle and living in harmony with nature. This is in direct contrast to the struggle of daily existence in a modern neo-capitalist and corrupt society governed by autocratic rulers.
An inner desire to reconnect with the natural world and follow spiritual values in a technocratic consumer society, a romantic view of the past and an urge to ‘save the planet’ is also the driving force behind so-called ‘urban shamanism’ in the West. However, the Siberian shaman and his Mongolian counterpart were not so much interested in preserving the environment than surviving day by day appeasing the spirits they believed inhabited it. In that sense the shamanism of the past was an essential part of daily life.
Dr. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princetown University Press, USA, 1972)
Professor Ronald Hutton, Siberian Shamanism and the Western Imagination (Hambledon and London, UK, 2001)
Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution (Bantam Press, USA 1992)
Marlene Laurelle, ‘Tengrism: In Search of Central Asia’s Spiritual Roots’ in Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst, www.cacianalyst.org/?q=node/3837 (22 March 2008), and www.tengerism.org.
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