Levon Abrahamian
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Symbolic Folly or Patterns of Ur-Vitalization? Multivocal Power in Siberian Shamanic Practice


      In 1999, the famous mummy of a Sakha woman-shaman (udagan), who had spent the Soviet period in the Yaroslavsky museum of Yakutsk, was ceremonially reburied in the Megino-Kangalask region by, among others, a celebrated shaman of post-Soviet times, Dora Kobeikova, respectfully called E'dei Dora, Older Sister Dora.  E'dei Dora's ritual included a cow sacrifice, with parts of its meat scattered to ravens.  Dora implored local Sakha not to hunt or trespass near the grave, but one man shot a goose nearby and his daughter died soon after.  Dora had warned that the awakened spirit, unsettled and readjusting, might take small or even large sacrifices.  Several other deaths, including a child of five with cancer and a boy of nineteen who committed suicide, were attributed locally to the reburial.  In 1999, on the day I passed a full two kilometers from the burial, a small bird (chickadee) died before my eyes, and a horse was killed, bizarrely caught in downed telephone wires.  Friends with whom I witnessed these deaths correlated them to Dora's warning about possible sacrifices.

            The lesson was double-edged:  stirring up dead souls (kut), especially of shamans, can bring disaster; but appealing to shamanic ancestors with proper ritual respect can bring rewards.  Sakha today often are afraid to literally unearth a grave or uncover a tree-platform aranghas where dead shamans reside.  But metaphorically, they are searching for buried affirmation of many possible identities.  While some are grateful to be free of shamanic heritage, others selectively rejoice in it.  Shamans, curers, artists and scholars sometimes return to the resting places of particular famed shamans when in critical need of spiritual guidance. 

            In the spirit of Levon Abramians path-breaking work on ritual and its roots, we can ask basic questions (Abramian 1983, 2005).  Are newly respected shamans of Siberia (rural and urban) enacting ancient rituals that have patterned, symbolic significance?  Are they part of larger social urges to rebuild their social and spiritual communities in post-Soviet times of chaos and uncertainty?  Do their actions bring us closer to analytical understandings of the relativity of rationality, including our own (cf. Abramian 2005; Handler 2004)?

            Queries into the anthropology of emotion (Lutz and Abu-Lughod 1990) and the diverse social-political contexts of spiritual power (Michael Taussig 1987, 1997; Richard Fox 1991; Sherry Ortner 1995; Brown 2003; Koss-Chioino, Hefner 2006) have raised our consciousness concerning how and why people discuss belief and ritual with passions, conviction and sometimes dismay.  Popular culture gurus such as Toby Lester (2002) peg new religions led by charismatic leaders as mutations, and reveal they are increasing at high post-millennial rates.  What are the conditions that lead to new religions?  Crises contexts combined with personal revelation and social network mobilization were long ago implicated in the anthropology of religious movements pioneered by Anthony Wallace (1969).  Levon Abramian has helped us understand their social psychology and deeply human symbolic anthropology aspects.

            For over twenty five years, I have been listening to the ways Siberians, especially Sakha (Yakut), have explained their traditional belief system of respect for shamans and spirits. (The Sakha word for belief in diverse spirits is itegheii, while a more general term to express confidence in someone or thing is érénii.)  Crucial changes in the context of permissible belief and in definitions of the traditional (Sakha: uges buolbut, literally being old-style) can be discerned.  The context for credible belief and ritual has been shaped by an obvious post-Soviet demise of anti-religious propaganda and persecution, and by a more subtle expectation gap as new forms of spirituality have sometimes failed to deliver hoped for individual calm and national-cultural confidence. 

            Personal struggles for spirituality, faith and healing are often culturally layered, shifting and multivocal (Lindquist 2006; Humphrey 1999). This essay analyses a range of village and urban responses to individual crises of faith and power.  Implications for group identity and examples of synergistic group faith are explored.  A transition from amorphous underground shamanic practice to institutionalization of shamanism as a religion is exemplified in a temple project called Archie Diété (House of Purification) in the Sakha Republic capital, Yakutsk.  Some recent Sakha converts to Christianity have reconsidered and returned to atheism or Sakha shamanic beliefs.  What emerges is an ethnography of the pain as well as joy accompanying fragmented faith epistemologies during post-colonial, plural power regimes.  My approach is situated at the crossroads of medical/psychological anthropology, religious studies and political-social movement analysis. Long-term, periodic Sakha Republic (Yakutia) fieldwork began in 1986, with supplemental fieldwork in Tuva, Buryatia and Moscow.

Narratives of Faith and Fear

            Post-millennial narratives reveal a diversity of living, breathing belief in parallel spirit worlds in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia).  Far from the barely alive "survivals" derided in Soviet propaganda as meaningless shreds of primitive belief torn from their social, political and economic contexts, such narratives illustrate adaptive creativity that has psychological if not mystical power to explain the unexplainable or the coincidental in today's eclectic, uncertain, crisis-driven, and interconnected world.  More significant than scary ghost (yeur) stories occasionally told around campfires, they show a range of faith that helps contextualize the wide-spread Sakha ritual of "feeding" the fire with offerings and prayer.

            The first narrative, a composite from several consultants, fits a contemporary crisis, a forest-fire, into patterns of legendary stories about the prowess of shamans.  In the Viliuisk area, forest fires raged especially strongly in 2002, including perilously close to the village of Zhemkon, where the young shaman Fedot P. Ivanov has been building a prodigious reputation in the post-Soviet period.  Just as the fire was about to engulf the village and cause mass evacuation, a strong rainstorm, complete with hail, as some enthusiasts explained, diminished its strength and saved the village.  How did this happen?  I was repeatedly told that Fedot himself called on his helper spirits, including possibly the revered deceased shaman Nikon, to avert disaster.  Further queries produced the admission that teams of forest fighters from the whole Far East had descended on the region.  But they were not given the dominant credit for the success.(1)

            A second narrative comes from an articulate sixty-one year old matron of Viliuisk, Galina E. Safronova, who has been healing grateful patients since 1992, having gone through two debilitating bouts of shamanic étéénei, or spirit torture.  The first of these, in childhood, doctors mistook for the notorious illness Viliuisk encephalitis, and the second she initially thought was cancer.  She takes her career as a curer, bound by sacred promises to spirits, quite seriously.  When asked about her state of mind during curing, she described an incident that is still puzzling her:

            "I was in Zhigansk region, Bistak village, waiting to be transported out... after 2 months there helping people.  Just as I found a ride, I got word that a child was ill and really needed me.  I returned to the village.  A girl was lying unconscious, with no discernable pulse... I myself blanked out...  When I was "out,"  I heard a voice saying the child would be better.  When I came to, I asked: 'what happened to me?' I had let my hair out and had danced, they said."   Galina elaborated: "I loosened my hair and, by the bed, started to jump and sing and shout.  And then I spoke.  Turning into another form, I repeatedly said: "I won't give the child back."

            Galina used the word trance (in Russian) for what had happened, and explained her state in Sakha as "Kharakh baaiyyta," "turning of the eye," and "khomuhun," glossed in Russian as magiia magic.(2)  After the girl regained consciousness, Galina talked to the family about what had happened: "Some guy named Maksim had stopped her on the road from the store.  She'd been found unconscious.  She'd been given shots, everything.  I'd never seen anything like this and never responded this way.  It seems some kind of dark force had come in the form of Maxim, a boy she knew."

            Galina saw the "dark force" as a kind of "abaahy," an evil or capricious spirit, although another possible (or parallel) explanation might be the raging hormones of a teenaged boy.  Whatever had caused the girl's black-out, Galina's own response was tied to forces she saw as beyond herself and unplanned.  She explained: "That place didn't want me to leave... I want to understand this spiritually.  It happened only recently.  So I still have much more to do to understand it."  The community, including medical workers whose shots had not helped, perceived Galina to have intervened successfully in a matter that was beyond the purely medical.

            A third narrative, spanning generations, reveals the prodigious efforts of a young mother to reject the life of a female shaman, an udagan.  It is a "success" story in a very different sense, for it is about the "salvation" of an entire kin line from its shamanic heritage.  Told by the protagonist's granddaughter, an elder who is herself a renowned craftswoman nearing 70, this family saga shows an aspect of battles with the spirit world rarely described in the shamanic literature.(3)

            "My grandmother didn't want to become an udagan.  But the spirits wanted her to.  She died when she was 15, after she had already had my mother.  She had signs of menerike, uncontrolled spirit possession, and all sorts of animals, cattle, horses, were dying at her family homestead.  She was ill for a long time, and everyone said it was spirit torture, étéénei.  My grandfather called several [male] shamans, oiuun, and none could open the door to a cure.  The first fled immediately.  The second fainted.  The third tried to go into a seance, with drumming and dancing, but then he too fell into a faint. 'She's stronger than I am,' he admitted, though he was renowned through the region."

            The key to this bittersweet memory lies in what the grandmother explained on her deathbed.  She told her loved ones: "They are trying to make me an udagan, but I will not.  I do not want my successors to have this burden, to be ill like this, and to suffer.  So I refuse.  They [the spirits] will take me in three days."  The grandmother predicted, after hearing a drum through the stove (chuval), that the family would become prosperous and fertile.  She prescribed certain rituals to be done after her death, which occurred in the 1920s.

            My interlocutor, who prefers her name not be used for this story, is convinced that her grandmother "closed the road" to her own shamanic practice, and she is grateful.  "At first when I heard my mother tell this story when I was a girl in the village, I thought it was some fairy tale.  But now I believe."  She has channeled her magnificent creativity in other directions, while diligently performing domestic purification rituals and elaborate prayers (algys) in archaic Sakha metaphorical language.

            The tellers and protagonists of these narratives believe strongly in the power of spirits and shamans, but their personally negotiated relationships with the spirit world are quite various, as is the timing of their renewed recent faiths.  Together, such (hi)stories serve as belief validations and indicate a grasping for meaning in post-Soviet times of trouble and transformation.  The cases depict ecological, social and spiritual fright.  They come from people at home in villages, regional centers and the capital, Yakutsk.  They provide insight into why the capital in 2002 hosted a very crowded opening of a "House of Purification" (Archie Diété), meant to serve as an urban temple of rekindled Sakha spirituality.  The politics of community were and are being redefined and contested.

Debates about Ritual and Spiritual Life

            Certain members of the Sakha intelligentsia explain they are bitter that the imposing and elegant riverside Archie Diété temple is not a "true Aiyy Diété," literally a House of Spirits.  They complain that established bureaucrat-intellectuals hijacked their idea to create a Sakha temple in the city.  They are particularly upset that the initial site for the temple, directly opposite a new Russian Orthodox church with gleaming golden domes, was moved to a less provocative place down the road (Nikolaev 2001). The geography of the capital has become a symbolic battleground, with multiple sides and agendas competing for presidential and mayoral favor in a republic where both the President and the Mayor are currently Russians (Balzer 2004; cf. Balzer, Petro, Robertson 2001).  By 2005, a modest House of Spirits had also arisen on the outskirts of Yakutsk.

            Similarly cacophonous have been debates concerning how to teach and sustain sacred traditions.  Concerns about the demise of Sakha spirituality led to a Ministry of Education sponsored program in the early 1990s called "aiyy yeurekhé," or "benevolent spirit teaching."  It probably crossed the controversial border between description of religious history and proselytizing of archaic religion in the schools.  Due to its non-secular ideology, authorities had it removed from school curricula.  Even while instituted, its resonance was uneven, for the effectiveness of the program ranged wildly, depending on the enthusiasm of particular teachers for this clear reversal of years of Soviet atheist propaganda.

            One aspect of the complex program was its explanation of traditional Sakha shamanic cosmology, including an impressive range of 12 deities and heavens derived from Turkic epic sources.  Debating the need for "aiyy yeurekhé" to be taught in schools, scholarly ethnographers like Anatoly Gogolev have questioned its main advocate, linguist-believer Lazar Afanasev (Téris), over specific details of Sakha religious tradition.(4) Where Téris perceives far more organization in Sakha religion, with emphasis on a hierarchical priestly tradition, Anatoly Gogolev argues for a degree of eclectism, a looser shamanic system previously without temples or rigid gospel.  Recalling the debate in 2002, Anatoly explained that he had once asked Téris where he was getting his information.  Téris replied that his sources were spiritual: "I have a white bearded old-man-spirit who tells me what to write."  Contradicting Téris's claims for knowledge of 'pure' Sakha tradition, Anatoly Gogolev identifies syncretic aspects of Buddhism and Christianity that have crept into Téris's "aiyy yeurekhé."  In the early 1990s, Tériss followers founded a group called Kut-Siur, roughly glossed as Heart-Soul-Mind.  Their claims for knowledge of Sakha gospel concerning archaic white shamanic religion, have led some more free-thinking Sakha to call them fundamentalists.

            A further debate concerning what should be taught in republic schools and homes reveals a classic clash of tradition and modernity.  Should parents and teachers acknowledge the dark underworld of dangers, threats, oaths and curses behind much of "traditional" Sakha belief in abaahy, loosely glossed, possibly inaccurately, as evil spirit?  Is the abaahy more capricious than evil - more like a human?  Do contemporary parents need to scare children into respect for Nature, into ethical behavior?  Or were the archaic shamanic spirit world balances of ichchi(-lar,plural); abaahy, aiyy and tängara all terms for spirits at various levels of Sakha cosmology distorted beyond contemporary recognition first by Christian proselytizing and then by Soviet propaganda? (Tängara, glossed as God, shares its root with tängalai, sky, depicted in epics as multilayered with whole families of deities at each level.)

            These debates illustrate the folly of any anthropologist or missionary attempting to define either current or historical Sakha belief as monolithic.  As has happened frequently in the history of religion, various charismatic activists have tried to delineate gospel and position themselves in more fundamental (pure) than thou polemics.  For many followers, however, faith remains eclectic, situational, or elusive, as do the ways people discuss it.



Conclusions: Too Many Coincidences?


            People who have bouts of doubts about their faith are not fickle intellectuals, they are human.  But our analysis must reach beyond this.  Healers and elder-experts in Sakha prayers and blessings have repeatedly used the expression there are too many coincidences [to be real coincidences] to explain to me why they believe in the spirits they address in their magnificent, poetic prayers.  They also point to dramatic successes in shamanic healing by living as well as legendary shamans.  Reputations build: success reinforces successive success. 

            Some of the healer-shamans currently working in the Sakha Republic are trying to create communities of faith beyond what they can accomplish in quiet, sometimes secret, individual healing sessions.  Among them are the young village shaman Fedot, the famed urban elder-historian and founder of the Association of Folk Medicine Vladimir Kondakov, and a middle-aged healer named Klavdia Maksimova, or Saiyyna (Spring, Renewal), also practicing in the capital. Saiyyna consistently makes the case for special Sakha conditions of spirituality, based on the "Triad of Cosmos-Person-Land." She argues, convincingly for many urban Sakha longing to return to their roots: "This land, the medicinal herbs, the food, the water, this wonderful Nature of ours, is what gives us our special energy."(5)

            Some Sakha, striving for collective spiritual solidarity and pride at a national level, have imbued projects like the House of Purification, the House of Spirits, and numerous folk healing centers with meaning beyond political symbolism.  Whether called shamanism or neo-shamanism, shamanic or animistic, folk-urban religion or benevolent spirit teaching, nature worship or ancestor worship, such faith-based striving links indigenous Siberian peoples to spiritual revitalization trends throughout the world.(6) Implicit, and sometimes explicit, is an us/ them sentiment that pits indigenous groups against more dominant cultural others, in the Sakha case, Russians.  Dangers of home-grown fundamentalism lurk, but are not dominant (cf. Van der Veer 2000). Competition with established Russian Orthodoxy and invigorated Western Christian missions is part of the dynamic driving Sakha religious revitalization.  Hope for community renewal also comes from within, from non-chauvinist rediscovery of the Sakha shamanic, homestead-based past (Vinokurova 1994).

            Do stable communities exist where shamanic practice, despite some degree of political repression, has been able to maintain a more isolated and traditional basis of credible belief and authority?  Many romantics, spiritual seekers and ethnographers (sometimes overlapping categories) have searched Siberia looking for such places.  The mountainous Republic of Tyva (Tuva) in particular has been identified not only with spiritual revival but spiritual continuities of archaic faith, ritual, and throat singing harmonized to running rivers (Levin, Suzukei 2006; Van Deusen 2004; Kenin-Lopsan 1997).  However, the more a researcher learns of the politics of spirituality and of permeating outside influences, the less consistent over the generations a particular peoples shamanic practice looks.  Like a disturbed archeological dig, interpenetrating layers of faith, be they Buddhist, Christian or Islamic, distort our ability to discern what is a revitalization process and what is a more natural, flowing vitalization.  Perhaps the line should be declared too fuzzy for us to fuss over, just as searches for some romanticized site for an ur-shamanism birthplace seem futile (cf. Shirokokogoroff 1937).  Yet the level of analysis reached by Levon Abramians social psychological functionalism suggests that shamanic symbolic patterns repeat themselves too often to be accidental.  Why, as he notes, do carnival-like rituals resurface in so many places? Why, during such rituals, do fear and laughter come together so often (Abramian 2005: 146)?

            A related continuum-like line of analytical distinctions can perhaps be drawn, juxtaposing conscious faith-based initiatives that are community-oriented at various levels with those that are more familial, personal or individual oriented.  Much of the traditional power of synergistic, intense group belief was squashed by Soviet political repression in most of Siberia.  Group practices representing or encouraging shamanic faith and ritual have had to be recreated in ways that may look artificial, although their vocabulary and symbols may be ancient, derived from epics.  Sakha practitioners say that the spirits themselves, some of whom are ancestors, are helping them to reconnect with their past.  They learn what they need as they go, usually with some degree of altered consciousness to assist entry into non-ordinary realities.(7)  To pervert the famous Levi Strauss bricolage metaphor (1966:16-22), the crafting materials are there, but put together in highly reconstructive and imaginative (intuitive?) ways, with enormous gaps.  Tuvan and Buryat intellectuals have indicated to me that such gaps worry practitioners in Tyva and Buryatia as well as the Sakha Republic.  In all these areas, the shamanic revival is strong yet eclectic, controversial and subject to changing public opinion (see also Hoppál and Kosa 2003).

            When recalling any and all Siberian rituals remotely shamanic that I have observed or participated in, I must differentiate those oriented to public white shamanic practice (such as those occurring in the Archie Diété temple or at national festivals or at blessing ceremonies) and those explicitly for healing, that are much more personal, intimate and private.(8)  These are in turn separate from the rituals of Russian or Russian-influenced Siberian practitioners called extra-sense, who sometimes have mass meetings and workshops they call seances.  More intriguing and problematic to categorize are the relatively recent group sessions of several powerful Sakha women shamans, Alexandra Chirkova, Saiyyna and Edei Dora.  While drawing on elements of pre-Soviet seances, they have brilliantly reconfigured the traditional yet maintained the essence of shamanic practice: the evoking of and communication with spirits for a purpose.  Group dynamics reinforcing communal faith is key to their practices as human-spirit mediators, but fragile belief is socially and politically activated in a somewhat skeptical, worldly milieu. Messages concerning an urgent need for ecological and social healing as well as personal healing resonate strongly.  However, eclectic global media and banal internet games have reached Siberian villages, piercing any romantic illusions that isolated, bravura, tradition-permeated seances are dominant forms of group succor, knowledge, or political theatre.

            In Siberian community contexts, shamanic performances get reviews these days.  We know they did in the past as well because the literature abounds in discussions of shamanic reputation.(9) Many current reviews are based on the following criteria: effectiveness concerning targeted purposes; whether and how well a shaman stimulates or sustains faith; and whether audience/ participants/ patients lose their distance during a seance, at least to some degree.  These are interrelated phenomena.  A seance must transcend performance to be effective; it helps enormously if all present concentrate the energies of faith.  But to create communities of faith requires constant renewal, charismatic leadership, and open-mindedness concerning how community is defined and sustained.  Manipulating idioms of ethnonational and religious conviction could combust into a potent mix.  Will it lead to a Sakha messiah, a new 21rst century religion? The symbols of power and ritual are once again the sinews of cultural revitalization.




            I am indebted to Georgetown University, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Yakutsk University, the Academy of Sciences Institute of Languages, Literature and History in Yakutsk (AN IIaLI, now the Humanities Institute), the Sakha Republic Ministry of Culture, the American Museum of Natural History, and to the Kennan Institute of the Smithsonian's Wilson Center for fieldwork and/or research support.  Fieldwork in Yakutia (Sakha Republic) relevant to this paper was begun in 1986 and 1987, continuing periodically from 1991-2003.  Work in Tuva and Buryatia was in summer 2004. I am deeply thankful to my Sakha language teacher, Klara Belkin, with whom I began studying in 1983, and to many Sakha friends and colleagues, especially Zinaida and the late Vladimir Ivanov for sharing their home, and Anatoly Gogolev for bravely hosting me in 1986 and guiding me in Viliuisk in 2002. I owe a less specific debt to Levon Abramian: his inspiration for me and many others to have the courage to be unconventional, marvelously maverick in thought and deed.


1.  I first visited Fedot Ivanov, with the help of the linguist Ivan Alekseev, in 1991, when Fedots reputation as a miracle curer shaman was just beginning to grow beyond his local Viliuisk region, due to his renowned healing of a Russian medical doctor from cancer.  Like many of the greatest shamans in Sakha history, he has been consistently modest and cautious in his contacts with those he defines outsiders (including some Sakha).

2.  While I am aware of the controversies concerning the words magic and trance, their widespread uses as glosses by indigenous interlocutors makes them difficult to avoid.  Sakha terminology is at once more explicit, and more metaphorical.  See also Richard Handlers (2004) discussion of the difficulties of drawing sharp cognitive boundaries between insiders and outsiders, anthropologists and Natives.  On trance, compare Basilov (1997) and Eliade (2004[1951]).

3.  Reticence to become a shaman could be interpreted as a reaction to Soviet anti-religious agitation.  However, the incident occurred in an isolated area and earlier than most of the anti-religious campaigns in Siberia.  On diverse shamanic reactions to Soviet repression, see Balzer (1999; 2003); Iliakov (1995, 1997); Vasileva 2000).

4.  See Gogolev (1983, 1993, 2000, 2002); Gogolev et al (1992); Alekseev (1984,1997); Afanasev (Téris) (1993, 2002).  My perspective on the aiyy yeurekhe school program comes from fieldwork in several regions, including Srednaia Kolyma (1994), Abyi (1994, 2000), Kangalas (1997, 2002), and Megino-Kangalas (1993, 1997, 1999).  I am grateful to both Anatoly Gogolev and Lazar Afanasev for many conversations.

5.  See Saiyyna (2000). I visited Saiyynas group curing, blessing and creativity-stimulation sessions in 1995, 2000, 2003.  Her claims for special Sakha energies derived from Nature are similar (though not identical) to those of Kondakov (1997, 1999) and Edei Dora (Protopopova 1999). For context, see Sakha scholars Kolodesnikov (2000); Vinokurova (1994); Romanova (1994, 1997).

6.  Compare Lindquist (1997; Csordas (2002); Niezen (2000); Humphrey (1999); Kendall (1996, 2000); Balzer (1996, 1997); Pentakainen (1997); Atkinson (1992); Vitebsky (1995).

7.  The widely used phrase non-ordinary reality is also part of the terminology of Michael Harners core shamanism workshops.  See Harner (2000); compare Lindquist (1997); Jacobsen (1999); Karitonova (2000).  Altered consciousness is a matter of degree, not a yes/no state of ecstacy subdivided into controlled (shamanic) and out of control (possession) states.  Compare Eliade (2004); Lewis 1971).

8.  This contrasts with the familiar and misleading white benevolent and black ill-willed shaman distinction in the literature. Compare Troshansky (1903); Kulakovsky (1979).  See also Carter (1996) on problems of authenticity in defining religions.

9.  For example, see Shirokogoroff (1937); Ksenofontov ([1928] 1992); Funk (1995); Basilov (1997); Narby and Huxley (2001). 



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© Levon Abrahamian, 2010. .