Hunters: Spiritual Life

Peoples of the Far North, by virtue of their geographically remote location and isolation, have retained many elements of spiritual culture: ideas about the surrounding world and the place of humans, rituals, feasts associated with reindeer (the main source of their existence in the past), objects of cult practices, and the early form of religion--shamanism. Two forms of shamanism existed in that region: family and tribal/professional. Family shamanism was typical of peoples of northeastern Siberia, whereas tribal or professional shamanism was widespread among peoples of eastern and western Siberia.

The distinctive feature of family shamanism was participation by nearly all members of the family in ritual activities. At the same time, peoples of northeastern Siberia had shamans who played the main role in rituals. They included transvestite male and female shamans. During religious ceremonies (kamlaniye), such male shamans dressed in women's clothes and female shamans dressed in men's clothes. Transvestite men and women shamans were regarded as the most powerful.

Professional shamans acquired their skills gradually. The proclivity for this kind of activity revealed itself in a person of youth or adolescent age. A shaman's skills were frequently inherited. The long period of training necessary for a person to become a shaman began at the time when a protector spirit moved into him or her, ordering the individual to become a shaman. In cases of refusal, the individuals selected by the spirit became sick and ultimately had to agree to the demands of the protector spirit. Apart from the main protector spirit, shamans had spiritual assistants capable of rendering help during shamans' activities. During the training period, shamans received special clothes, a drum, a baton, and other accoutrements. A shaman's clothes differed from ordinary clothes by their cut and adornments. The connection between a shaman and his or her main protector spirit could be traced through clothing and decorations. Fringe, wings, claws, and different images of birds were sewn on clothes of those shamans whose main protector spirit was the bird. Clothes of shamans whose main protector spirit was that of the reindeer (or some other animal) had images of these animals or their parts. Images of helper spirits were also sewn on the clothes of shamans. All images of birds, mammals, and other spirit helpers and protectors were made according to the shaman's order from metal, bone, fabric, leather, or fur. Connection with the main protector spirit could be discerned by the headdress, shoes, mittens, drum, baton, and on other shamans' accoutrements.

The main functions of shamans were to cure the population by sending the souls of dead people to the next world and to render magical help in hunting and reindeer breeding. Ritual activities in which shamans participated were called kamlaniye, from the Turkic word kam (meaning "shaman"). Such activities normally occurred in an unilluminated, semidark, or sometimes illuminated dwellingthe chum or yaranga. During kamlaniye, those who were present could observe the shaman's ability to communicate with different spirits. They could sense his "journey" through worlds in search of the soul of a sick person and could see results of the curing.

The majority of people inhabiting Siberia believed that the universe comprised three worlds: the upper world, the middle world, and the lower world. The upper world was located above the heavens; the lower, beneath the earth. Some believed that in the time before shamans, anyone could pass from one world to another and travel through those levels, though the passage was not easy, and the way was fairly long. Because a newcomer from earth could not be seen or understood by the inhabitants of the upper and the lower worlds, and contact with him or her was thought to cause disease, the inhabitants tried to send the newcomer back to earth. With the development of shamanism, the general populace was believed to have lost the ability to travel to the other worlds. Only shamans could make a journey to the other worlds.

Shamanic cosmological ideas reflected the ancient movement and settling of peoples. Thus, according to the notions of the local Evenk groups, the upper world, situated above the head of the imaginary Endekit River, was located in different directions (in the east, south, southeast, and northeast). The upper shamanic world was situated above seven or nine clouds, or heavens, above the head of the Endekit River. The shaman penetrated there during kamlaniye, descended along his own shamanic river to the Endekit, then went up to the head of the Endekit River, and ascended the ladder, or tree (turu), and reached his goal. It was the same way that the host spirit used to descend from the upper world to talk to the Evenks through shamans.

The lower world was situated downwards along the imaginary river, having many tributaries (shamanic rivers of different kinds). Below the mouth of each shamanic river on the Endekit, the world of the dead of a certain tribe was located. The shaman sent the soul of the dead person there one year after death. The guards standing there did not permit the dead person to return to earth. Souls of "bad" dead people were sent by helper spirits of shamans into the lower world, which was located beneath the mouth of the mythical river. No one ever returned from there. The unexpected death of a shaman during kamlaniye was attributed to his or her accidental entrance into the lower world. The boundary between the routes to the shamanic upper and lower worlds passed some place below the mouth of a shamanic river on the Endekit. Only powerful shamans were able to travel through the worlds. Such notions were characteristic of the majority of the Tungus language-speaking peoples of Siberia, and common features were traced in the beliefs of other Siberian peoples having tribal shamanism. The Yakuts, related by their origin with the cattle-breeding culture of more southern groups, had white and black shamans. The main purpose of black shamans was to cure the sick and communicate with evil spirits. The white shamans served only good deities and interceded on behalf of their relatives. They participated in all tribal and family cults by actually performing the role of a priest. Christianity penetrated Siberia in the seventeenth century and left its mark upon traditional beliefs, ideas concerning the surrounding world, and shamanism. In many Siberian peoples, syncretism, that is a combination or union of different principles, became an integral part of the religion. This manifested itself in ideas about deities of the upper and lower worlds: God or the saint was regarded as the host of the upper world, and the devil was believed to be host of the lower world. Shamanism, however, appeared to be very long-lasting and became rooted in the life and consciousness of the population, particularly in people of the older generation who still turn to shamans for help.

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