by Michael Howard
Today, especially in New Age circles, the term 'shamanism' is often used in a generalized 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
article, however, we examine and describe the real 'core shamanism'
as it has been practiced for hundreds of years in its homeland of
Siberia and the Turkic-speaking areas of Mongolia, and where it is
now being revived.
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 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.
During the ritual the drummer fell into a
trance and was possessed by "evil 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.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines its meaning as,
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
Tengrism, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Using English terminology, these included,
The shaman-healers were often female and they specialized in health matters connected with human and animal fertility, sexuality and children.
They were recognizable by their distinctive skirts made from animal hide and brightly colored woolen 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 practiced
in a debased or diluted form.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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 practicing a
shamanic type of spirit flight.
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
Midgard (Middle Earth) with
Asgard, the realm of the Gods.
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
the ethenogenic qualities of this most famous of 'sacred
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.
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.
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
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 dispatched quickly, cleanly and without cruelty. Before it was killed the hunter apologized 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 practiced in the West, was an unknown concept.
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 recognize 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It quickly organized 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
Strangely it is also a religion without dogma, prayers or a priesthood.
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.
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.
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.