NATUR WORSHIP IN SIBERIAN
During the last few decades animism has escaped the attention of scholars of
comparative religion. Animism, however, still represents a very important concept
both in the world view and the shamanism of Northern Siberian peoples. In this
paper different types of the concept of the soul will be enumerated, and animistic
notions of Siberian shamanism will be presented against that background. Special
attention will be paid to the different types of shamanic spirit helpers, and to the
forms of their representation.
What kind of symbols play what kind of roles in that representation? The answers to
that question will lead us to a semiotic understanding of Northern Siberian
shamanism. Siberian shamanism, moreover, is involved in the cult of the dead, of
ancestors and mountains, and in rituals of animal sacrifice. As a conclusion, one
could say that the deepest meaning or message of Siberian animism was to balance
man and nature.
As it is well known, it was the 19th century English anthropologist, Sir Edward Tylor,
who first coined the term "animism" for the earliest period of
magico-religious thinking, in his 1871 work "Primitive Culture" Tylor made
the distinction between the concepts soul and spirit, declaring that only
human beings had soul, while spirit was an abstract notion that could
be related to a wide spectrum of natural phenomena (Tylor 1871: vol. 2: 194-195).
The English scholar was of the opinion that animism must have developed from the
dream experience, where people generally feel as if they existed independently of
their bodies, flying. In short, the soul take "journeys" outside the body.
During such dream journeys they could see dead relatives, friends, or their
This idea was then adopted by many, especially Russian-Soviet school of history of
religion (V. G. Bogoraz, D. Klementz, A. F. Anisinov, F. A. Kudravtsev, S. A.
Tokarev, T. M. Mikhailov - see Krader 1978: 194). Since one important element of
shamanic lore was soul-flight, these Russian researchers, thinking in an
evolutionary scheme, believed animism to be a religous-idelological formation
predating shamanism (Anisimov 1967: 109-115). S. A. Tokarev, who wrote a
comprehensive Marxist-oriented work about the early forms of religion, made the
conclusion that Siberian shamanism developed out of animism, refining it in the
process - since it follows from a hunting lifestyle to maintain a close relationship with
the spirits of hunted animals: this was the task of shaman (Tokarev 1964: 304).
Naturally this idea has its antecedents, J. Stadling from Sweden (1912) has already
stated that animistic ways of thinking are tightly interwoven with the world-view of
Ivar Paulson, who, after his monograph on the soul concepts
("Seelenvorstellungen") in Northern Eurasia, studied the phenomenology
of shamanism, and wrote that "shamanism is an animistic ideology, one of the
characteristics of which is the use of an ecstatic-visionary technique" (Paulson:
1964: 131). Another distinctive feature of Eurasian shamanism is the dualistic soul
concept. According to the Estonian scholar the "free soul," during
ecstasy, is able to leave the body, and shamans send this soul to the world of spirits
and gods, in other words, this is the type of soul which practices the so-called
Another prominent scholar of the studies of comparative religion, from Scandinavia,
the Swedish Åke Hultkrantz, treated the subject of the images of the soul in
several of his studies. I am going to quote a comprehensive article he wrote about
soul-dualism in connection with shamanism: "the cases of soul-dualism were
clearer in shamanism, due to the intense observations of shamanistic perormances...
In the majority of cases the free-soul of the shaman sought the free-soul of his
client... It was not always a matter of a regular dualism between free-soul and
body-souls, where the free-soul of the shaman left in search of a runaway soul and a
body-soul remained to keep his life.
The record of the diffusion of shamanic and soul-dualism make it evident that
soul-dualism had its origins in a hunting culture." (Hultkrantz 1984:
During the first year on fifties' Mircea Eliade was completing his work, which, up to
his day, counts as a fundamental, classic book (on the life-work of Eliade, a scholar
of Rumenian origin, Siikala has given a good survey and appreciation in 1989). He
was an adherent of the phenomenological approach, therefore he was mostly
interested in a phenomena which gave the whole complex of shamanism its
distinctive characteristics: initiatory visions, the shamanic journey to the otherworld,
shamanic cosmology and, above all, ecstasy. The title of his book reveals his main
idea: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstacy (Eliade 1951, enlarged
edition in English 1964). Eliade did not discuss the historical antecedents of
shamanism, thus he declines to mention animism, and his characteristic, that certain
recent comprehensive works - thought made for the wider public - witch introduce
shamanism as a world phenomenon in the framework of "Eliadism", also
fail to discuss the formation of shamanism (Perrin 1995, Vitebsky 1995).
As a curiosity in the history of research I would like to mention the first issue of the
periodical Asian Folklore from 1979, in which several studies were published
on the subject of the images of the soul concepts in connection with shamanism (see
Kim 1979). That issue published the lectures of an international conference, so one
could read about the soul beliefs of certain Indian, Singhalese, Thai, Japanese and
Chinese peoples. Unfortunately these articles appeared to be rather like synopses of
the lectures delivered at the conference, most of them lacking the apparatus
philologicus, although many such articles delivering original folklore material
would be needed in the comparative studies of the future years.
This is one of the reasons why we are planning to prepare a comprehensive work
stretching to several volumes entitled Encyclopaedia of Uralic Mythologies
(Editors-in-chief: V. V. Napolskikh & A. L. Siikala & M. Hoppál; to
be published in the Ethnologica Uralica book series) in which we describe
and compare the soul concepts of all Finno-Ugrian (Uralic) peoples.
Shamans, as it is well known, play several social roles in their respective societies
(e.g. curing of the sick, fortune-telling, or conducting sacrifices etc.), but all of them
share the common element that the shamans somehow contact the spirits. L. E.
Sullivan put it well, when he said: "Shamans are experts in the movements of
the human soul, because they not only control the ecstasy of their own souls but
specialise in the knowledge and care for others'souls, as well." (Sullivan
In this study I am not attempting to describe the way shamans keep the human soul
in balance, only to illustrate their relationships to the spirit world, with examples from
the mythology of shamanism. Naturally, the relationship to spirits helpers, at least
Siberian data seem to bear out that conclusion. One interesting aspect of this is that
the final aim of communicating with spirits is the calming of the human soul to insure
a spiritual as well as physical-biological balance.
Animistic Mythology in Shamanism
Among peoples with the hunting and fishing lifestyle, the daily interactions with their
natural environment formed a unique world-view, the starting point here is that not
only human beings, but all the animate and inanimate things of the world also have
souls. The belief-system of Siberian peoples thus categorises the knowledge of the
world in a short of "nature-animism" (Paulson 1964). In this form of
thinking the environment is of primary importance, in other words: the
ecologically-minded mythological world-view provides shamanism with a unique
background, or more exactly, it helps us understand the concept of shamanic spirit
helpers deriving from this attitude. I am therefore going to quote a few less-known
examples from Siberian folklore. One such idea is that of spirit owners.
N. A. Alekseev, a prominent specialist of the folk beliefs of Siberian Turkic peoples
published his comprehensive monograph in 1980, describing the early forms of
religion of these nations, and one chapter of this work, "The Deification of
Nature and Elemental Forces" deals with animism. In this chapter he writes
about the spirit owners of fire, water, mountains and forests, stating that "...in
the consciousness of those who believed in them, the majority of spirit owners totally
merged with the things they owned". Names (aazi, or in Yakut,
icci) and the respective natural phenomena were completely identical.
"According to the beliefs of Southern Altaic peoples, every mountain, every
lake or river has its own spirit owner, which owns the place, and is in command of
the animals and birds living there. It could protect people who lived there or crossed
the area. Spirit owners were believed to be able to understand human speech, and
the myths associated with them say that, like people, they also had children, and one
could obtain their goodwill with prayers, supplications and sacrifices" (Alekseev
A. Gogolev mentions them in his work on Yakut mythology thus: "According to
Yakut beliefs, the icci is a unique category of being, present in certain specific
objects and natural phenomena as a mysterious inner force. Among the icci
there is a higher category equal to the gods. These beings do not belong to the
categories of either ayi or abasi. If certain rules are observed, they can
be helpful to human beings in various life situations, people can regard them as
protectors... For all the icci bloodless sacrifices were made. Among the
icci a special place was accorded to the spirit of Mother Earth, Aan Doydu
iccite." (Gogolev 1994: 42).
The spirit of Mother Earth was regarded as Important and worthy of a special respect
by peoples throughout Siberia (as well as by North American Indians).
Prayer and invocation are special forms of speech acts which do not exist and lose
their meaning outside the ritual context. They are validated not only by the text,
which, aside from certain phrases, is mostly improvised, but also by being spoken,
by the act itself.
"The Shors believe in the existence of mountain spirits (tag-azi) and
water spirits (shug-azi). Every clan had its own clan mountain and its
mountain spirit, who protected the members of the clan. Every three years sacrificial
ceremonies were held on that mountain. To express their respect, every Shor threw
a libation the spirit owner of the mountain or river, when he or she was near the
mountain or river... The spirit owner of the waters was imagined as a long-armed
naked woman by the Kumandines... The Tuvans used to believe in the spirit owners
of the waters. They made an ovaa of stones and dry branches for her, too, on
the riverbanks, and near the fords. This looked like a hut, and they placed the
sacrificial objects in it: stones, rags, horsehair etc. Before crossing the river they
usually performed a sacrifice." (Alekseev 1980: 72-73).
Among the Tuvans the cult of springs (arzhan), especially that of medicinal
springs was intertwined with the cult of the trees growing around the springs. This
was especially true of the trees whose growth or shape differed from the usual - for
instance, they had a double trunk, or their fronds consisted of branches grown
irregularly. Trees of this kind were called "shaman trees." I took a picture
of one such tree in Yakutia in 1990 (Hoppál 1995: 227) - if such a tree stood
near a spring, under the tree shamans made their ceremonies.
Passers-by usually stopped - and even today, they stop their cars - at these special
trees, and place some money, tie a little piece of their clothes or handkerchiefs on it
branches, put a comb or some other personal belongings. They attribute special
powers to these trees, and they maintain that the trees bring good fortune in
travelling, and that they protect people from accidents. This belief is a sign of
unconditional trust in the power of nature, of a conviction which supposes the
powers of nature to be so strong as to control human destiny as well.
When the Yakut hunter is getting ready to hunt, he turns to the forest spirit: above all
he tries to win its favour, therefore he pours some oil on the fire. Then he gets down
on his knees, puts his hand over his heart, bows towards the fire and says an
alghis (a prayer asking for blessings). Having started out he is not allowed to
"Before the start they sometimes hung a sacrifice (salama): they
stretched a rope between two trees at arm's height, the length of which was
"seven little fathoms," on this they hung a hare's pelt, and horsehair
taken from the mane of a white horse, and they tied woodpecker feathers on it. This
sacrifice was intended for Bayanay. They asked for a rich quarry in their
prayers performed for the spirit of dark forest. In the old times a white shaman did
the ceremony: the shaman of the ayii dieted. He poured butter mixed with
q'umis or sorat on the sacrifice from a hamiyah (large wooden ladle).
On the occasion of the alghis the priest, shouting 'Uruy!', also
sprinkled some q'umis on the hunter." (Gogolev 1994: 23).
The Turkic peoples, however, were not the only ones who knew about and
respected the spirit owner of forests, so did the hunter tribes living further
The Finnish researcher Toivo Lehtisalo visited the Yurak Samoyeds already in 1912,
gathering valuable folklore data. Among the forest Yuraks, who belong to the Uralic
group of peoples, the existence of an animistic world-view was still obvious in those
times. The forest spirit, the parnee, for example, is such a category: an
invisible, malicious being, who can even kill people. It was believed to be a female
being, who lives underground in a decayed tree-trunk, and, according to some
accounts, has a human exterior, and possesses wings (Lehtisalo 1924: 41).
Uno Harva prepared a comprehensive study of Finno-Ugrian mythology in the first
decades of this century, dedicating several chapters of his work to animistic ideas. In
some chapters he described forest and water spirits, the spirits of the weather (sky
and wind), mother of fire, and the spirit places of plants and of the Earth (Harva
1927: chapters XI-XV.). Among the Selkups, who live among the river Ob, one can
still find animistic beliefs, thus S. M. Malinovskaya (1990) recounts that in order to
ensure the success of fishing, one should give a gift or a sacrifice to the spirit owner
of the water (utkim-loz).
Among the Nenets, who live in Northern Siberia, animistic beliefs are still alive today.
This was the subject of M. Ya. Barmich's lecture at a 1990 Helsinki conference, the
main theme of which was Circumpolar and Northern Religions.
"The Nenets people have always been conscious of the existence of spirits (in
Nenets tadebtso) living side by side with them. The Nenets are confident that
good spirits protect them from evil spirits, and provide them with a fortunate life.
Custom and taboo are the two aspects of their spiritual life - positive and
Thus the custom of feeding the fire reveals the traits of a good attitude towards the
fire spirit. This custom has survived up to the present time. When sitting down to
dinner, a senior person, if not all the persons are present at the dinner, is sure to
throw a piece of foodstuff, pour some soup, tea or alcohol to the fire.
The taboos connected with the cult of fire are aimed not to hurt or pollute fire which
gives pure warmth and to life property, so that the people are forbidden to pour water
on fire hastily, throw any unclean sweepings to the fire, or to spit into the fire. It used
to be forbidden to stir up fire with sharp metal objects, otherwise the hostess of fire
might be wounded. Women and girls are forbidden to step over the fire, since they
are considered unclean and may pollute the fire." (Barmich 1990: 1-2).
The Samoyeds also believed that fire was a living being, notably an old woman. The
licking flames of the fire are her movements, and She is the guardian of the tent, who
immediately gets angry if someone throws trash or trodden wood shavings, or spits
into the fire, or hits it. When children lost their teeth, they told them to throw the teeth
into the fire, so that 'Old Grandmother Fire' could give them new ones instead. They
where awed by fire, and respected its power so much that their swore by it, saying
"May I be devoured by Old Grandmother Fire if I am guilty!" (Lehtisalo
Among the Turkic peoples of Siberia the Tuvans held the compulsory family holiday
"fire-feast," which meant that under the direction of the most powerful
shaman they sacrificed a lamb or a calf to the fire. They were feeding the fire with oil
and butter, so that then following year the spirit would provide the family members
with the health and happiness (Kenin-Lopsan 1993: 31). The Yakuts categorised the
spirit owner of fire (Uat iccite) among the most revered spirits, elevated to the
rank of a deity.
"For the Yakuts of the old beliefs this god was a grey-haired, loquacious, old
man in perpetual motion. What he chatters and twaddle's is intelligible only to the
few: shamans understand him, also the tiny babies whose ears are still not used to
the comprehension of human speech. The fire, burning in the family heart, however,
understands brilliantly what is being said and done around him. Hence the warning
that it would be dangerous to insult the fire. It was thought of as a living being,
wherefore it was not advisable to poke at fire with iron. Housewives always
attempted to keep the fire satisfied, and they gave him a piece of everything they
cooked or baked. Similarly he got some from the results of a lucky hunting
expedition." (Gogolev 1994: 19).
The Tungus of the Far East also personified fire and gave its spirit food and drinks
(Tugokulov 1978: 425).
The majority of Uyghurs live today in China. Zhong Jinwen, are researcher of Yellow
Uyghur (Yoghur) shamanism, studied the cult of the Sun, the Moon and the heavenly
bodies in Uyghur folk tales. As a starting point he stated that Yoghur shamanism is
permeated with the idea that everything in nature possesses a soul. One interesting
example he brought was the sun. Quoted as follows:
"Sun and fire are originally the one and the same god in the same god in the
thinking of primeval man, they become divided into two deities in a later stage of
social development only. The sun-god fosters and supports all beings, the fire-god,
however, exists for the benefit of man only." (Zhong 1995: ).
The Spirit Helpers of the Shaman
As we have seen, the animistic mythology of Siberian shamans, which is full of spirit
beings, provides an ideological context to serve as a basis for the formation of the
idea of spirit helpers. This whole paper aims to prove that point.
Two things follow from animism as a world view: one is the ideology of totemism, the
other is the idea of helping spirits. I am not discussing totemism in the present paper,
because I have already given analysis of the interface of shamanism and totemism
in an earlier one (Hoppal 1975).
M. Eliade has already pointed out the central role of spirit helpers, which can even
become the shaman's alter ego. Notably, that is how the shaman's need for
identification with the spirit helpers can be understood. In this case the shaman
ventures to the soul-flight in the shape of the animal. All comprehensive studies
mention these animal-like helpers (see Perrin 1995: 38-39; Vitebsky 1995: 66).
"...spirit guides are perceived as crucial to the shaman's resolve and power -
literal embodiments of his psychic and magical strength.
There are two basic types of spirit guide. Firstly there are spirits which are
substantially under the shaman's control and which serve as his familiars. But there
are also other spirits - though of more as guardians or helpers - who are available
when he needs to call on their aid. These may be minor deities, or the spirits of
deceased shamans: entities who maintain a certain independence in their particular
realm, and who are not automatically subject to the control of the shaman.
Siberian shamans generally have animal helpers like bears, wolves and hares, or
birds like geese, eagles and owls. Yakuts, for example, view bulls, eagles and bears
as their strongest allies, preferring them to wolves or dogs - the spirits of lesser
shamans." (Drury 1994: 27-28).
The idea of spirit helpers of an animal shape can be supposed to derive from its
ancient character, from the age when for human beings animals represented both
idols and inscrutable force, which they could only scarcely control, and then only with
the help of magic. The era goes back to the Palaeolithic, when animals were
generally looked upon as superior and sacred, which is why they were portrayed
with preference in ancient petroglyphs, rock art and cave paintings. Human figures -
representing the first shaman or magical - appeared only later (see Hoppal 1995: 37;
Vitebsky 1955: 28-29). It is therefore perfectly natural that shamans wanted to
identify themselves with powerful, strong and intelligent animals.
Shamans, however, possessed not only animal helpers, since it follows from
animism that all phenomena of nature can serve as spirit helpers. Even today, one
of the most crucial problems of anthropology is how far a researcher is able to
penetrate the culture being under examination, how much he/she is able to
comprehend the world view and the language of a given culture. Language skills of
native level are of utmost importance in the examination of mythology and, within
that, soul beliefs.
Luckily, is Siberia today we can find many native ethnographers and
folklorists working, who publish authentic data and descriptions. Such is M.
Kenin-Lopsan, an expert of Tuvan shamanism, who is Tuvan origin.
Kenin-Lopsan differentiated among five categories of shamans, starting from the
Tuvan belief that only persons inheriting shamanhood can be become true shamans.
Kenin-Lopsan categorised Tuvan shamans in the following five groups, according to
the origins of their powers:
The activities of the "free-spirit" of the shaman are made in accordance
with the various animal shapers of the spirit helpers. This means that during the
trance, the soul flight, as fish they would swim to the underground waters, to the
domain of the dead, as birds they would soar to the sky gods of the Upper World,
while in the form of reindeer stags or bulls they would fight other shamans'spirit
helpers or evil spirits on the ground.
- Shamans who directly descend from previous shamans, or shaman ancestors.
It is noteworthy that these shamans called upon their ancestors or mentioned their
abodes in their abodes in their invocation before their rituals.
- Shamans who originate themselves from earth and water spirits (in Tuvan:
cher sug öazinden hamnaan hamnar). The members of this group have
obtained their shamanic powers from the host spirits of water and earth. The
existence of these is without doubt connected to the animistic beliefs of the local
Turkic peoples, since one of the characters of animistic mythology was
Yer-Shub, the God of Water and Earth.
- The members of the third group descend from the sky, their name was
tengri boo (sky shaman). They had a relationship with rainbow: it related
powers to them, or it gave a sign for them to perform their shamanic rituals.
Shamans in this category chanted in their songs about various natural phenomena -
storms, thunder and lightning; what is more, a man struck by lightning was to
become a really powerful shaman. We can suppose that through their animistic spirit
helpers this group of Tuvian shamans was responsible for the weather.
- Shamans originating from the evil spirit called albis (albistan hamnaan
hamnar). This evil spirit, which can manifest either as a man or a woman, steals the
soul of the shaman-to-be, who falls ill with a really serious sickness (for example,
epilepsy or temporary insanity). If he/she gets cured, such a shaman will be called a
"sexless shaman" (uk chok hamnar). This category contained
some very powerful shamans.
- The last group also acquired abilities from evil spirits, from a devil-like spirit
called aza. This kind of shaman always invites his/her spirit helpers to the
session to fight sickness (spirits of sickness). It would seem that fighting diseases
was the chief function of this group of shamans. (Kenin-Lopsan 1993: 1-5).
The helpers of Tungus - Nanai and Udekhe - shamans, as I have confirmed drink my
own field work - are members of the family, and influential shamans strive to collect
all the spirits that belonged to other family members, relatives and earlier shamans
to serve and strengthen themselves. Among the shamans of the Oroch people there
were some who had as many as fifty such spirit helpers (Qui Pu 1989).
Buryat shamans formed a very intimate relationship with their spirits helpers, as we
learn from R. Hamayon's interpretation - they could even enter into sexual
relationships. The whole shamanic session, with its increasing speed of drumming,
consist of symbolic motions altogether comparable to sex (Hamayton 1995:
Helping spirits and the symbolic meanings attached to them lead us to a hitherto
quite neglected field, towards something we could call the semiotics of
Here we should begin with the well-known fact that in a culture everything can be
understood as a sign, according to the theories of ethnosemiotics (Hoppal 1996: ).
We live in the world of signs and symbols, and this has always been the case with
religious phenomena, and Siberian shamanism is no exception to this. We may
declare that all the paraphernalia and ceremonies of shamanic rituals have been
symbolic. Let us quote first Wilhelm Radloff, the linguist and traveller of the last
century, who visited the lands of the Altaic Turks, and published his travel notes
under the title Aus Siberien, in which a particularly rich description of
shamanic ritual appears, beginning with the human-shaped spirit owner of the
"Inside the drum, on the longitudinal axle of the frame there is a grip shaped
like a stick, usually representing a man standing with outstretched hands, who is
called the master owner of the drum (tüngür asi). A round head is
carved onto the inner end of the handle, with button-shaped eyes on the head, with
an iron stick symbolising the hands. On this and the handle red or blue ribbons were
attached, which symbolised the ancestors of the shaman, recalling their
memory." (Radloff 1884: 31).
The enlivening of the drum was followed by the first element of the ritual - Radloff's
authentic description tells the story of a horse sacrifice - the invocation of the spirit
helpers. Almost all the deities and spirit beings of the shamanistic pantheon are
invited, "because without their help the shaman would be unable to make the
journey, which is done during the ritual in the Upper World of the sky" (Radloff
The shaman's costume was in its totality as well as in its details a carrier of symbols
throughout Siberia (Hoppal 1995: 108-121). Uno Holmberg-Harva (1922) perfectly
summed up the main types, when he stated that types of 'bird', 'reindeer' and
'bear'-costumes could be differentiated. In his opinion all kinds of shamanic
costumes in all their constituent parts represented whatever real or imagined animal
was regarded as the helper of the shaman, which, trough its powers and abilities
gave supernatural powers to the shaman who wore the costume. All these ideas
gain their explanation from the animistic roots of shamanism (Alekseev 1984:
In the case of Tuvan shamanism, a really powerful shaman never worked without
his/her drum and costume, only weaker shamans relied solely on metal mirrors
(küzüngü), or Jew's harp (khomuz) (Kenin-Lopsan
1993). While in these case of Tuvans the presence or absence of an object could
signify the symbolic power of the shaman, among the Yakuts it defines two opposing
categories of shamans.
Less well known is A. M. Zolotarev's monograph (1964) on the dualistic social
structure and the similarly dualistic mythological structures of Siberian peoples. He
quotes data from Yakut shamanism, where the main accessory of black shamans
was the gown, while the symbol of white shamans was the drum. White shamans
did their rituals in the daytime, while black ones chose dark nights without the moon
for theirs. White shamans served the sky spirits, the black shamans chose
It is obvious, that this series of mutually opposing symbols, which also explain each
other, from a coherent world-view. This world-view means a way of thinking, or to
use an appropriate expression coined by Juha Pentikainen, "a grammar of
mind" (Pentikäinen 1995: 266).
In language we put words into an order with the help of grammar, we build a world
from words to create meanings. In other words, we are conscious of the meaning of
things from their mutual relationship. Understanding comes from revealing the
inherent interdependence of things.
Beliefs in spirits in animism and in shamanic symbolism mutually suppose each
other. I am going to add a few more examples to the ones we have seen before in
order to shed some light on the real message of this ancient way of thinking,
because it has a meaning for us as well. Namely, if everything in nature has a spirit
(or soul), then we ought to behave in a way so that we avoid hurting, insulting, or
A characteristic attitude of protecting and not harming Nature is revealed in the belief
system and taboos of the Todja living in Tuva, described by N. A. Alekseev in his
monograph on the religions of the Siberian Turkic nations:
"According to the belief of the Todja Tuvans even big rivers and lakes have
their spirit owners, which appear to people in the form of women only. They
performed sacrifices to these before fishing: they tied a calama on the tree
near the river or lake, or sprinkled some tea or milk on the bank. According to their
beliefs, every arzhan (medicinal spring) has its own spirit owner. The people
who went there prayed to the spirit of the medicinal waters, making supplications that
they would be cured at least for a year or two. Around the arzhan hunting was
forbidden, because all the animals and birds there were regarded as the property of
the spirit owner. It was also an obligatory rule to avoid polluting the water."
(Alekseev 1980: 78-79).
The message is clear: it is our moral duty to maintain the balance of the natural
order. Let us take another example: the nature philosophy of a tungus tribe from the
Far East was thus characterised by a Russian scholar:
"A clear expression of the animistic attitude to nature was the hunting rite
whose vestiges still make themselves felt in practically all areas populated by Evenki
and Evens. The hunting cult of the Tungus was based on the following premise: to
kill animals, birds, fish, and to destroy trees in order to obtain food, clothing, fire, etc.
is not contrary to nature and does not hurt it. What is contrary to nature and hunting
is useless, senseless waste of natural resources..." (Tugolukov 1987:
Since everything has a soul (spirit), it should not be endured - that is, it would be
senseless to do so, because it would result in retribution. Exactly this rule was
observed in former times by another Tungus people, the Nanai, who live along the
"In traditional Nanai society the unit of man and nature was regulated by the
law of reflection or 'boomerang' (in Nanai amdori)... Centuries old
observations led the Nanais to the conclusion that it is impossible to torture someone
without being punished afterwards... This self-regulating system of interdependence
between man and nature was kept through centuries, and maintained. At present
this interdependence takes different shapes and people have almost stopped being
conscious of it... Old people tell that some destruction in the spirit world upset the
balance of Nature." (Bulgakova 1992: 25-27).
I think the message of these sentences - which is ethnographic data at the same
time - is quite clear: it is a program for a new, ecologically conscious animism
(eco-animism) - for the protection of the environment. Unfortunately I have
seen with my own eyes, while doing field work among the Nanai, how much injury
the landscape sustained, how polluted the dignified river was, thought still rich in
fish, and how defenceless people could be, when they are left to fend for
themselves, deprived of their traditions.
It is apparent, then, that an ethnohermeneutical (Hoppal 1992) understanding
of shamanism can lead to the revelation that the belief systems of Siberian peoples,
their mythological world-view and their practice of shamanism, like a giant reservoir
or refrigerator, have not only conserved the ideas of animism (Gemuyev et alii 1989:
136-137), but also a message valid up to this day, a message has been serving the
protection of the environment from the most ancient times until today.
The message is: balance has to be maintained in all respects - and this is typically a
shaman's task. This is why we agree with Nevill Drury's statement:
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