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The Shaman and Time

Evenk udagan (shamaness) exhibit from 1915 in Ethnographic museum St. Petersburg - photo by Heather Hobden People have always been dependent upon their economic activities - which amounts to their search for food and other things they need for survival, occurring in the right manner, at the right time and without hiccups. If the ice melted late in the spring; if the shoals of fish failed to come far enough up river in early summer; if the reindeer changed their usual path of migration in the autumn; if insufficient food had been stored to last the winter - the whole tribe could perish from starvation within a few months.

To ensure that everything would go well, a specialist timekeeper was appointed, to keep the calendar and organise activities to take place at the correct time of the year in the appropriate manner with the correct rituals and procedure for success. Since people relied upon their official timekeeper to solve their anxieties about the future, and to bring them success, health and happiness, the role was usually filled by someone with the status of a shaman or priest.

To understand fully the importance of the role played by the shamans as calendar-keepers, and therefore the first astronomers, in early societies and civilizations, we must first look at the universe as our ancestors perceived it.

Everything in the universe whether in reality animate or inanimate was thought animate and possessing a living spirit. Even when a person or animal was dead, it was though their spirit or soul lived on as a ghost. Ghosts could haunt the living and like the other spirits many be either friendly to humans, or hostile, bringing diseases and other misfortunes. This type of cosmology is called animism, from the Latin anima, meaning soul. Each "hour" division of the day, each day, each month, each year and other divisions of time, was possessed or ruled by a spirit or deity to be prayed to or sacrificed to. Most of the modern names of our months and days are a legacy of these beliefs.

Animism was basic to all the cosmologies one held by humans in all parts of the world. It is not in itself a religion, for each group of people had their own cultural variations of belief with their own gods, spirits and rituals. It is a type of cosmological belief, which was already well established at the beginning of the last ice-age, and still lingers on in the modern world.

Certain persons were believed to possess the ability to communicate with the gods, spirits and ghosts, these were the shamans.

A shaman's role was to protect his or her clan from evil spirits, just as the warrior in the clan was responsible for protecting the people from more substantial enemies. As the warrior was assisted in his task by other young men in the tribe whom he had trained as fighting men, so the shaman also had assistants. However the shaman's assistants were not all human, the shaman also had spirit helpers.

While the profession of warrior was with few notable exceptions almost always exclusively male and associated with the essence of "male power", either men or women could be shamans. Whether male or female shamans were preferred depended on the local custom, but had nothing to do with the social status of women (in Japan, for example, the shamans were always women). Very often the shamans were men, but gay. Homosexual men were believed to have unused reserves of "male power" and this was tapped by the warriors in ritual performances, that impelled those recording such things to describe in a foreign language like Latin or Sioux. Like George Catlin (painting Native Americans in the 1830s) who called it the "Dance of the Berdashe" - the Berdashe being the gay transvestite in the centre of the ceremony. Much the same thing went on in Lincolnshire, and survives in the Plough Plays.

A warrior may not have originally been a member of the clan, but a hired mercenary. The clan shaman, was nearly always a member of the founder family of the clan, inheriting the clan's ancestral protective spirits, and therefore part of a ruling dynasty which guarded the secrets of its powers.

This was not enough to qualify a young person as a shaman. Apart from possessing the necessary intelligence and talent, they were "chosen" by the spirits. They underwent a traumatic experience of some kind, suffered severe illness, physical and mental, and had visions. While they were in this state, gods or spirits cut them up into little pieces and cooked them. Shamans were graded into great, medium and small. If they could make more than seven kashlyks out of the meat - this person would be a great shaman, less than three - then only a small shaman. The person was transformed by the spirits into a shaman.

The candidate then undertook years of formal training, followed by examinations. When they qualified they received their special magical robes and equipment, in a graduation/initiation ceremony, and could then begin to practise their profession. They left their hair uncut and tangled, as spirits lived in it.

Shamans continued working after they were dead. When they died, parts of their body were preserved and kept in reliquaries, shrines or idols which still remained potent and cold be referred to.

Since everything was believed to be possessed by a sentient being, then everything that could happen to man was thought to be controlled by spirits. Therefore, the shaman's role was that which in more complex societies came to be held by various specialized priests, astronomers, politicians, historians, doctors, poets artists, writers and entertainers - singers, dancers, musicians, actors, conjurers. And engineers. For blacksmiths were also shamans and in many mythologies, such as the Finnish Kalevala, the world is created by shaman-blacksmiths.

Iron was considered to have magic properties, and all the ceremonial clothes of a Siberian shaman were covered in attached pieces of iron. These represented the bones of the shaman's extra protective skeleton, - or sort of armour, the shaman's protective spirits. Shiny mirror-like discs represented the places - thought of as alien worlds - in the shaman's universe to which the shaman travelled for help from the deities. Other metal images represented guiding spirits, and there were rows of rattles and bells to make more of a noise when the shaman danced with their tambourine. The whole outfit was linked to animal, human and other spirits, and the spirit world. The shaman's coat was decorated with fringes, and came down in a pointed tail at the back. The shaman's boots, and mittens, if worn, were embroidered to look a little like animal paws or hoofs. Their identity may be also disguised with ceremonial headress which also covered the face. Great shamans also wore an iron crown with antlers.

An essential part of the shaman's ceremonial equipment is the large skin-covered tambourine. This was the first piece of equipment to be made by the student shaman and the wood and skin used was found by magic means. The outside was often painted to represent the universe where the shaman travelled. Inside, the cross pieces which enabled the shaman to hold it, were decorated with magic iron charms like those on the shaman's clothes. The tambourine was struck by a special magic stick - its slightly spoon shape represented the Plough constellation, seen as a female elk, and it was made from antler, covered with suede.

Before the iron age, the same type of ornaments sewn on to the fringed suede leather cloths were of ivory and polished stone. The tradition goes back a long time. The iron disks representing worlds in the shaman's universe in 19th century Siberia, look very similar to the stone and ivory disks found in the graves of mammoth hunters about 23,000 years old. It is possible that these disks also conveyed the same symbolic meaning, for religion is very conservative and there are many other symbolic cosmic emblems which can be traced back.

Shamanism was gutted out in Europe by the 18th century under Christian persecution, but the missionaries had less impact on remote parts of Siberia. Despite persecution first by the Christian missionaries and the Tsarist government, and then under the Stalinist regime, the shamans survived. With the founding of the Russian Republic in 1991, came a great shaman revival. Shamanism is now the official religion of the Sakha Republic and shamans have re-emerged in Evenkia, Tuva, Mongolia, and other parts of central and northern Asia. In 1992, there was a Shamans Conference in Yakutsk.

In Yakutia - now Sakha - there are three levels of shamans. At the lowest level are the faith healers, and in modern Russia they are on television and the internet too - there are the greatest number of these. At middle level are the White Shamans. I have met some white shamans. They are in effect priests or priestesses who conduct the various festivals and day to day rituals. At the top level are the Black Shamans. These are the ones who wear the special magic costumes, collected by them together in special magic ceremonies and perform the special ceremonies called kamlanie. They have the power to invoke the deities on all levels of both the Upper and Under Worlds and travel to these worlds through a connecting tunnel when they are in the trance during the kamlanie. They preside over winter festivals and conduct their ceremonies at night. The current Yakut Black Shamans refuse to perform publicly saying it is their religion, not for tourists. The word shaman is from the Evenk language (chaman), the Yakut is Oyuun. A woman shaman is called a Utagan, which means fire (or hearth) woman. They can be more powerful than the men.

Since everything was caused by spirits, diseases were attributed either to the invasion of an evil spirit or to the escape of one of the patient's own souls. (An individual has four or five souls presented at birth and crucial times in childhood by the appropriate deity).

The shaman would be called upon to diagnose the malady, then to effect the cure during ceremonies which may last several days. In these rituals, the shaman, wearing his magic robes and beating his drum, sang and danced into a frenzy (when he had to be tied up). Finally the shaman fell unconscious into a trance when he was thought to be possessed by his spirit familiar which took the form of an animal or bird. In this shape, the shaman's spirit travelled to the places in the universe where the appropriate spirits or gods could be found for the information required, and a missing soul was searched for, or aid obtained in exorcising an evil spirit.

Shamans were supposed to protect their clan, village, or neighbourhood from harm. When their clan was visited by disease or other misfortunes, the shaman would be blamed for letting this happen, accused of being an evil sorcerer, and attacked. The shaman would have to flee or they might suffer an awful death. Since shamans remained active after death - the only way to ensure an evil shaman would not continue to cause trouble was to pin them into their graves by an aspen stake hammered through the heart.

In Northern Europe the good shamans or witches wore red coats; the ones who commanded evil spirits wore blue. They were often in conflict.

To avoid blame for failure, the shaman would accuse a rival shaman in a neighbouring clan of sending his spirits against them. He retaliated with his own spirits backed by the material forces of the clan's warriors. It was then the responsibility of the shamans to negotiate a peace treaty, and after the campaign to record the event in the form of an epic poem or song.

In their role as timekeepers, shamans were called upon before any important undertaking. The commencement of a new seasonal economic activity, the spring hunt, for example, or early summer fishing, usually also meant a change of abode for the people in the clan.

Here is an account of such a ceremony with the Samoyeds, written by an English navigator, Richard Johnson, who was on the ship "Searchthrift" looking for the north-east passage, from 1556 to 1557. Considering this was written in the reign of Mary 1, when hundreds of people in England were executed for their heretical beliefs, the account is remarkably unbiased. The ceremony Johnson watched was held by the Samoyeds (Nenets), reindeer herders, in Pechora, in the north of Russia, before they moved camp, on the 5th January 1557.

"And the sayde Samoeds which are about the bankes of Pechere, which are in subjection to the Emperour of Russia, when they will remove from one place to another, then they will make sacrifices in manner following. Everie kinred doeth sacrifice in their owne tent, and hee that is most auncient is their Priest. And first the Priest doeth beginne to playe upon a thing like to a great sieve, with a skinne on the one ende like a drumme: and the sticke that he playeth with is about a spanne long, and one ende is round like a ball, covered with the skine of a Harte. Also the Priest has upon his head a thing of white like a garlande, and his face is covered with a piece of a shirt of maile, with manie small ribbes, and teeth of fishes and wilde beastes hanging on the same maile. Then he singeth as wee use heere in Englande to hallow, whope or showte at houndes, and the rest of the company answere him with this Owtis, Igha, Igha, Igha, and then the Priest replieth againe with his voyces. And they answer him with the selfesame words so many times, that in the end he becometh as it were madde, and falling downe as hee were dead, having nothing on him but a shirt, lying upon his backe I might perceive him to breathe.

I asked them why hee lay so, and they answered mee, Nowe doeth our God tell him what we shall doe, and whither wee shall goe. And when he had lyen still a litle while they cried three times together, Oghao. Oghao. Oghao. and as they use these three calles, hee riseth with his head and lieth downe againe, and then hee rose up and sang with like voyces as hee did before: and his augience answered him, Igha, Igha, Igha. Then hee commaunded them to kill five Olens or great Deere, and continued singing still both hee and they as before. Then he took a sworde of a cubit and a spanne long, (I did mete it my self) and put it into his bellie halfeway and sometime lesse, but no wounde was to bee seene, (they continuing in their sweete song still). Then he put the sworde into the fire till it was warme, and so thrust it into the slitte of his shirte and thrust it through his bodie, as I thought, in at his navill and out at his fundament: the poynt being out of his shirt behinde. I layd my finger upon it, then hee pulled out the sworde and sate downe. This beeing done, they set a kettle of water over the fire to heate, and when the water doeth seethe, the Priest beginneth to sing againe they answering thim, for so long as the water was in heating, they sate and sang not. Then they made a thing being foure square, and in height and squarenesse of a chaire, and covered with a goven very close the forepart theof,for the hinder part stood to the tents side. Their tents are rounde and are called Chome in their language. The water still seething on the fire, and this square seate being ready, the Priest put off his shirt, and the thing like a garland which was on his head, with those things which covered his face, & he had on yet all this while a paire of hosen of deeres skins with ye haire on, which came up to his buttocks. So he went into the square seat, and sate down like a tailour and sang with a strong voyce or halowing. Then they tooke a small line made of deeres skinnes of foure fathoms long, and with a smal knotte the Priest made it fast about his necke, and under his left arme, and gave it unto two men standing on both sides of him, which held the ends together. Then the kettle of hote water was set before him in the spare seat, al this time the square seat was not covered, and then it was covered wt a gowne of broad cloth without lining, such as the Russes do weare. Then the 2. men which did hold ye ends of the line still standing there, began to draw, & drew til they had drawn the ends of the line stiffe and together, and then I hearde a thing fall into he kettle of water which was before him in the tent. Thereupon I asked them that sate by me what it was that fell into the water that stoode before him. And they answered me, that it was his head, his shoulder and left arme, which the line had cut off, I meane the knot which I sawe afterwarde drawen hard together. Then I rose up and would have looked whether it were so or not, but they laid hold on me, and said, that if they should see him with their bodily eyes, they shoulde live no longer. And the most part of them can speake the Russe tongue to bee understood: and they tooke me to be a Russian. Then they beganne to halow with these wordes. Oghaoo, Oghaoo, Oghaoo, many times together. And as they were thus singing & out calling, I sawe a thing like a finger of a man two times together thrust through the gowne from the Priest. I asked them that sate next to me what it was that I sawe, and they saide, not his finger; for he was yet dead; and that which I saw appeare through the gowne was a beast, but what beast they knew not nor would not tell. And I looked upon the gowne, and thee was no hole to bee seen: and then at the last the Priest lifted up his head with his shoulder and arme, and all his bodie, and came forth to the fire. Thus farre of their service which I sawe during the space of certaine houres: but how they doe worship their Idoles that I saw not: for they put up their stuffe for to remove from that place where they lay. And I went to him that served the Priest, and asked him what their God saide to him when he lay as dead. Hee answered, that his owne people doeth not know: neither is it for them to know: for they must doe as he commanded. This I saw the fift day of Januarie in the yere of our Lord 1556 after the English account."

The music and dancing of the northern shamans would seem less strange to us now than it did to the mariners of Tudor England, or to the Presbyterian missionaries from Stepney who tried to convert Buryats and Yakuts in the 19th century. (Without success, but the schools were appreciated). The dance movements and rhythms are similar to elements in modern music and dance. The scene is familiar to us even to the charismatic appeal of the performer and the hysterical effects on the audience. It goes deeper than that.

Our biological clock is regulated by a hormone called melatonin, which is produced in the pineal gland within the brain and is also found in the retina of the eye. Melatonin reacts to changes in light intensity by day and night. When it is dark, melatonin is secreted by the pineal gland. The longer the night the more melatonin that is produced. The chemical messages conveying this information are received in two small structures in the brain called the suproachiasmatic nuclei. The chemical affects the rhythm in the electrical activity of the cells and the rate during the day at which they require glucose to provide energy. This circadian (means about a day) rhythm acts as a biological clock for the body. Thus the level of melatonin tell our body what time of the year it is, and what time of day.

Our circadian rhythms are free running but can be easily disrupted. One effect of this is experienced when we fly east across several time zones and can suffer "jet-lag". Long periods of darkness, as experiences in northern winters, can induce depression. The biological clock can be affected by illness. A fever makes time appear to pass more rapidly for the affected individual. During a trance or hypnotic state, the temperature of the body is raised. When the shamans went into their trances, they said they became "heated". Their hallucinatory experiences during that state appeared to them to have taken a long time, whereas in fact only a short time had passed for their audience. The biological clock is also easily affected by hallucinatory and hypnotic drugs. Stimulants like caffeine speed up the biological clock making time appear longer, opiates make time seem shorter.

Thus we can see that the biological clock in humans is easily upset and the result is to disorientate the individual's time perception and with it their mind. By deliberately inducing such a state of disorientation it is possible to affect and control the minds of others. This is brainwashing and the technique frequently used today was known to ancient shamans.

Evenk shaman tent photo by Heather Hobden Ceremonies were held inside a special tent or building - often new for the occasion. It was orientated and decorated with effigies representing the spirits and the spirit worlds. People entered through a special passage lined with representations of spirits - so they were in a strange and different place.

The rhythms of the shaman's tambourine, together with the chanting, movement, flashing lights and rhythm set up by the shaman's outfit and the atmosphere in the carefully arranged, darkened, shaman's tent, would have been sufficient to induce a hypnotic trance state not only in the shaman, but in his audience. Shamans often reinforced this effect by taking hallucinogenic drugs before a performance, and the audience too had often taken drugs or intoxicants. Therefore, as they slowly built up the rhythm during their long performance, the shamans were altering not just their own, but their audience's time perception, leaving their audience suggestible and vulnerable. Even critical outsiders like the Presbyterian missionaries succumbed.

Shamans were involved in all aspects of life, and their successors now specialize in many different professions. Shamans had great influence over the rest of the people, and we have just seen that this power did not only stem from the fact that people were inclined to be afraid of offending someone they believed capable of casting a spell and laying a curse upon them. Shamans and astronomer-priests were able to dominate society to the extent that people were willing to sacrifice, not only their possessions, not only prisoners and slaves, but themselves and even their children at the demands of their priests for the fulfilment of calendar rituals. By using shamanic techniques, those after power, no matter how irrational and damaging their intentions, are able to sway a mass of followers in blind obedience to their will.


The text of this article is the copyright of Heather Hobden, The Cosmic Elk.

The work was based on original research, field work and primary material.

An article was published in Clocks.


Buriat shaman song (with shaman pictures) from You Tube.



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The Cosmic Elk

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