"Shaman" Is a Siberian Word



In this chapter we propose to deal not only with the male and female shamans and their relation to each other, but also with it curious phenomenon-the mystical change of sex among shamans, by which a male shaman is ‘transformed’ into a female, and vice versa. Nearly all writers on Siberia agree that the position of the female shaman in modern days is sometimes even more important than that occupied by the male.

Krasheninnikoff ascribes the shamanistic gift among the Kamchadal almost exclusively to women; Steller, who travelled through Kamchatka after him, states, however, that there were also men-shamans among the Yukaghir, Koryak, and Chukchee. Bogoras, Jochelson, and others saw as many notable women shamans as men. Tretyakoff affirms the existence of women-shamans side by side with men-shamans among the Samoyed of Turukhan, and the same, according to Bielayewski, is true of the Ostyak. Among the Tungus of Baikal the woman can be a shaman as well as the man; and Gmelin met among them a woman eighteen years of age who was held superior to any man-shaman. Among the Yakut and Buryat there are shamans of both sexes.Solovieff thinks that among the Yakut the female shamans are considered less important than the male, and the people ask their help only when there is no man-shaman in the neighbourhood. The shamanesses, according to him, are especially good in foretelling the future, looking for things that are lost, and curing mental diseases,

Among the Palaeo-Siberians, women receive the gift of shamanizing more often than men. ‘The woman is by nature a shaman,’ declared a Chukchee shaman to Bogoras. She does not need to be specially prepared for the calling and so her novitiate is much shorter and less trying. Ventrioloquism, however, is not practised among female shamans.

Taking into account the present prominent position of female shamans among many Siberian tribes and their place in traditions,’ together with certain feminine attributes of the male shaman (such as dress, habits, privileges) and certain linguistic similarities between the names for male and female shamans, many scientists (Troshchanski, Bogoras, Stadling) have been led to express the opinion that in former days, only female shamans existed, and that the male. shaman is a later development which has to some extent supplanted them.

Concerning the supposed evolution of the shaman from female to male There is no certain knowledge; one can only surmise. The different views of the origin of shamanism naturally affect the theory that shamans were originally female. Among several tribes traditions exist that the shaman’s gift was first bestowed on woman. In Mongolian myths goddesses were both shamans themselves-like the Daughter of the Moon-and the bestowers of the shamanistic gift on mankind.

Neo-Siberians nearly all have a common name for the -woman-shaman, while each of these tribes has a special name for the man-shaman. The Yakut call him ayun; the Mongols, buge; the Buryat, buge and bo; the Tungus, samman and khamman; the Tartars, kam; the Altaians, kam and gam; the Kirgis, baksy; the Samoyed, tadibey. The Yakut, it is curious to note, though they have the word khamma, nevertheless do not call the shaman by a name similar to that in use among other Neo-Siberians, but give him a special appellation. This, according to Troshchanski may be explained by the fact that when the Yakut appeared in the present Yakut district they did not possess a man-shaman, but they had already a woman-shaman, for whom all these tribes have a name in common. Among Mongols, Buryat , Yakut, Altaians, Turgout, and Kirgis, the following names for the woman-shaman occur, utagan, udagan, ubakan, utygan, utügun, iduan, duana. All these words come from a root the meaning of which has not been certainly determined. In some Tartaric dialects üdege, ‘female shaman’, means also ‘housewife’ and ‘wife’. In Tungus, utakan means ‘sorcerer’ and ‘cannibal’; but utagan seems to be a Mongol word in origin According to Potanin and Banzaroff, the term in question is etymologically connected with the Mongol word Etugen, hearth-goddess’ (Etugen-eke ‘mother-earth’). Potanin further connects the word for Earth-Goddess among different Altaic and Finno-Ugric tribes with the names of constellations, especially with the two bear constellations. In one Tartaric dialect utygan means ‘bear’. According to ancient Mongol and Chineses myths, the gods of certain constellations are connected with the. protective spirits or the family hearth, just as they are connected with the goddess of the earth. Thus these terms for female shamans are related to the genesis of certain goddesses..

Jochelson expresses the opinion that there is no doubt that professional shamanism has developed from the ceremonials of family shamanism. The same author also states that in family shamanism among the Koryak some women possess a knowledge not only of those incantations which are a family secret, but of many others besides, of which they make use outside the family circle on request. From this we can see very clearly how family shamanism among the Koryak has developed into professional shamanism.

Some one with unusual gifts, often a woman, is requested to use them on behalf of a larger circle outside the family, and thus becomes a professional shaman. This is especially true of the Koryak. There is, however, no evidence that among them the woman-shaman preceded the man. In the old days, as at the present time, the women-shamans were considered as powerful as the men, sometimes, indeed, an individual female shaman is even cleverer than a man. The ‘transformed’ shamans are considered very powerful also, though they exist merely in Koryak traditions. But since the change of sex is ‘in obedience to the commands of Spirits’,[3] it seems to belong to another category of facts and to have no connexion with the theory of an originally universal feminine shamanism.

Among the Chukchee family shamanism, being quite simple and primitive, probably preceded individual shamanism, and the latter seems to have grown out of the former. The mother shares with the father the róle of shaman in the family ceremonials; she has charge of the drum and amulets, and in exceptional cases it is she, and not the father, who performs the family sacrifice. Thus shamanism is not restricted to either sex, but ‘the gift of inspiration is thought to be bestowed more frequently upon women, though it is reputed to be of a rather inferior kind, the higher grades belonging rather to men. The reason given for this is that the bearing of children is generally adverse to shamanistic inspirations, so that a young woman with considerable shamanistic power may lose the greater part of it after the birth of her first child.’.

The above statenients of the two best authorities on the Koryak and the Chukchee make it clear that among these people there are visible traces that fainily shamanism preceded the individual, or professional, kind; and although woman plays an important róle in both, there is no sufficient reason to suppose that in former times she alone could shamanize. Of course, the adherents to the theory of universal mother-right would try to see in this case a proof of the former higher position of woman in society, her moral supremacy, &c. As far as our materials go, we do not see evidence either of a superior position in the social structure or of the moral supremacy of women in these societies, but only of the superiority of individuals of either sex.

A similar state of things may be observed among other Palaeo-Siberians and Neo-Siberians, although among the latter a woman shaman is not very often met with. In spite of the low social position of women among these natives, it is personal ability, irrespective of sex, which is the decisive factor in the case of the shamanistic vocation.

As proof that women were the original shamans, certain authors adduce the fact that the professional shaman does not possess his own drum. But neither is this the case with women or men-shamans among those peoples where professional shamanism is not yet clearly differentiated from family shamanism. As regards the female dress and habits of the shaman, I shall have opportunity to discuss this point when dealing with tribes whose shaman’s garment is more elaborate, i.e. the Neo-Siberians.

Troshchanski and, following him, Stadling believe professional shamanism to be a special institution which has no direct connexion with the communal cult, though in the latter there are also shamanistic elements. In the later stages of its development the office of shaman is connected in certain cases with the communal cult, and thus ‘white’ shamanism came into existence. Troshchanski develops his theory chiefly on Yakut evidence, and though he tries to apply it to the whole of Siberia, we shall confine ourselves to what he says about the Yakut.. Among them, where there are two categories of shamans, the white’, representing creative, and the ‘black’, destructive forces, the latter tend to behave like women, since it is from women-shamans that they derive their origin. In support of this theory of their origin Troshchanski puts forward the following arguments:

The shaman has on his coat two iron circles representing the breasts. He parts his hair in the middle like a woman, and braids it, letting it fall loose during the shamanistic ceremony. In the Kolyma district neither a woman nor a shaman lies on the right side of the horse-skin in the yurta, because, as they say, it is on this side that one beats a horse. It is only on very important occasions that the shaman wears his own garment; on lesser occasion’s he wears a girl’s jacket made of foal’s hide. For three days after the birth of a child, at which the goddess of fecundity, Aiasyt, is present, no man may enter the room where the mother is lying, but only women and shamans.

Finally, according to Troshchanski, the female ‘black’ shaman was replaced by the male ‘black’ shaman. This transition was effected by means of the smith, who, as the maker of the woman-shaman’s garment, held an influential position, and whose power increased in proportion to the length of his ancestry. Through their contact with shamanistic implements they acquired mana and themselves became sorcerers and shamans.

The evolution of the ‘white’ shaman took place, he opines, on different lines. In family ceremonial the cleverest head of a family or member of a community was chosen; he was elected anew for each ceremony until eventually his tenure of the office became permanent. This theory of a dual evolution of shamans is not easy to substantiate. In the first place, we find that the ‘white’ shaman’s garment is made by a ‘white’ smith; which fact, by Trosbehanski’s mode of argument, would seem to imply a line of development for ‘white’ shamanism parallel to, and not divergent from, that of ‘black’ shamanism.

Again, all the supposed feminine habits of the shaman of today would not go to prove that the earlier female-shaman was the servant of abassy alone. We find in the past as well as in the present that the woman can be the priestess of the family cult and a professional shamaness, the servant of either aïy or abassy. Among the Yakut, however, where the worship of abassy is more developed than that of aïy, the ‘black’ shamans, both men and

Jochelson was present at a ceremony in the Kolyma district where the shaman wore such a costume. women, predominate. On the other hand, among the Votyaks, where the cult aïy of is more developed than that of abassy, the ‘white’ shamans are much more numerous, and form the whole hierarchy. All that has been cited concerning the feminine habits of the present-day shaman was taken by Troshchanski as proof of his theory of the evolution of the ‘black’ shaman from the ‘black’ shamaness and by Jochelson as ‘traces of the change of a shaman’s sex into that of a woman’.

Frazer says that the interchange of dress between men and women is an obscure and complex problem, and thinks it unlikely that any single solution would be applicable to all cases. In enumerating instances of such cases among the priests of Khasis and the Pelew Islanders[6]-instances, that is, of men dressing and acting like women throughout life-he ascribes these phenomena to the inspiration of a female spirit, which often chooses a man rather than a woman for her minister and inspired mouthpiece.

‘The sexual organs play a part in certain shamanistic ceremonies,’ says Bogoras. The shaman is said to be very often naked during his incantations, e.g. that used to invoke the moon, and to mention his genital parts..The change of sex is called in Chukchee ‘soft-man-being’, yirka-laul-vairgin, ‘soft man’ (yirka-laul) meaning a man transformed into a being of the weaker sex. A man who has ‘changed his sex’ is also called ‘similar to a woman’ (ne uchica), and a woman in like condition ‘similar to a man’ (qa cikcheca). These latter transformations are much rarer.

Bogoras distinguishes various degrees of ‘transformation’ among the Chukchee:

The shaman, or the sick person at the bidding of a shaman, arranges and braids his hair like a woman. The change of dress: Kimiqai, for instance, were woman’s clothes by order of the spirits. In his youth he had been afflicted by in illness and had been greatly benefited by the change of dress. At the time described he was an elderly man with a beard, and had a wife and four children. The change in the habits of one sex is shown when the man ‘throws away the rifle and the lance, the lasso of the reindeer herdman, and the harpoon of the seal-hunter, and takes to the needle and the skin-scraper ‘.[6] He learns the use of these quickly, because the ‘spirits’ help him all the time. Even his pronunciation changes from masculine to feminine. His body loses its masculine appearance, and he becomes shy.

In rare cases the ‘soft man’ begins to feel himself a woman; he seeks for a lover, and sometimes marries. The marriage is performed with the usual rites, and the union is as durable as any other. The ‘man’ goes hunting and fishing, the ‘woman’ does domestic work. Bogoras thinks they cohabit modo Socratis, though they are sometimes said to have mistresses in secret and to produce children by them. The wife does not, however, change her name, though the husband sometimes adds the name of his wife to his own.

Public opinion is always against them,but as the transformed shamans are very dangerous, they are not opposed and no outward objections are raised. Each ‘soft man’ is supposed to have a special protector among the ‘spirits’, who is usually said to play the part of a supernatural husband, the ‘kele-husband’ of the ‘transformed’ one. This husband is supposed to be the real head of the family and to communicate his orders by means of his ‘transformed’ wife. The human husband, of course, has to execute these orders faithfully under fear of prompt punishment..

Sometimes the shaman of untransformed sex has a ‘kele-wife’ in addition to his own. Bogoras himself was best acquainted with a ‘soft man’ called Tiluwgi, who, however, would not allow himself to be inspected fully. His human husband described him as a normal male person. In spite of this, his habits were those of a woman. The husband of Tiluwgi was an ordinary man and his cousin. The ‘transformed shamans’ generally chose a husband from among their nearest relations.

Bogoras never met a woman transformed into a man, but he heard of several cases. One transformed shamaness was a widow, who had children of her own. Following the command of the ‘spirits’, she cut her hair, donned the dress of a man, adopted the masculine pronunciation, and even learned in a very short time to handle the spear and to shoot with a rifle. At last she wanted to marry and easily found a young girl who consented to become her wife.. Jochelson states that he did not learn of the transformation of women-shamans into men among the Koryak of to-day; we find, however, accounts of such transformation in legends. Neither did he meet any men-shamans transformed into women.

‘The father of Yulta, a Koryak from the village of Kainenskoye, who died not long ago and who had been a shaman, had worn women’s clothes for two years by order of the spirits; but since he had been unable to obtain complete transformation he implored his spirits to permit him to resume men’s clothes. His request was granted, but on condition that he should put on women’s clothes during shamanistic ceremonies.. This is, the only case familiar to Jochelson of the change of sex, or rather change of dress. The Koryak call the transformed shaman kavau or keveu; they are supposed to be as powerful as women-shamans.

The narratives concerning the Kamchadal kockchuch are much confused, for Krasheninnikoff does not rightly explain either who they were, or whether they were men or women. The kockchuch were women’s dress, did women’s work, and were treated with the same lack of respect as is shown to women. They could enter the house through the draught-channel, which corresponds to the opening in the roof of the porch of the Koryak underground house, in the same way as the women and the Koryak qavau. Piekarski finds that Krasheninnikoff contradicts himself in his statements concerning ‘koekchuch women, who do not come into contact with men’.

Krasheninnikoff’s descriptions of koekchuch are as follows: ‘The Kamchadal have one, two, or three wives, and besides these some of them keep koekchuch who wear women’s clothes, do women’s work, and have nothing to do with men, in whose company they feel shy and not at their ease’ . ‘The Kamchadal women are tailors and shoemakers, which professions are considered useless to men, who are immediately regarded as kockchuch if they enter these vocations’. ‘The women are not jealous, for not only do two or three wives of one man live together in peace, but they do not even object to the kockchuch, whom some Kamchadal keep instead of concubines’. ‘Every woman, especially an old one, and every kockchuch, is a sorcerer and interpreter of dreams’ .

‘Thc female sex being more attractive and perhaps also cleverer, more shamans are chosen among women and koekchtech than from men’ . ‘The natives of the Kuril Islands have two or three wives each; . . . they have also koekchtech, like the Koryak and Kamchadal’. The kockchuch who was regarded by the community as being of an unusual type probably enjoyed special privileges higher than those of a sorcerer or a shaman. The worship of the pathological may have verged here into the worship of the supernatural.

The ‘change of sex’ is met with only among the Palaeo-Siberians, whilst among the Neo-Siberians only does the shamanistic dress more often resemble female garments. It is true that among Yakut men-shamans traditions exist of their bearing children, but this is connected rather with the idea of the power of shamanistic spirits which makes such miracles possible. As a rule, child-birth among the Palaeo-Siberian shamanesses results in either a complete or at least a temporary loss of the shamanistic gift. In a Koryak tale the shanianistic power of Ememqut, son of Big-Raven, ‘disappeared after the mythical Triton had bewitched him and caused him to give birth to a boy. His power was restored to him after his sister had killed the Triton’s sister, by which deed the act of giving birth was completely eliminated.’

We observe also that in many Siberian communities a woman shaman is not permitted to touch the drum. The question of the change of sex, especially as it concerns the most powerful shamans, cannot be explained on a purely physical basis. Several perversions occur among these people, as they do in all primitive and even in more civilized societies; but it does not follow that every pathological individual is the subject of magical worship. On the contrary, when reading the detailed description of the transformed shamans in Bogoras and Jochelson, we see that in nearly every case these shamans are at first normal people and only later, by inspiration of spirits, have to change their sex. As described in previous pages, some of them have secretly, along with an official husband of the same sex, normal sexual relations with a person of the other sex, and we may even assume that some of them actually became sexless, although in certain cases the outward show required by religious considerations may cover abnormal passions.

It is scarcely possible to see in these cases a religious conception of a divine two-sexed shaman embodying in one being a perfect man- and woman-nature. We do not find such gods or spirits among the Palaeo-Siberians, though we encounter this idea among the more advanced Neo-Siberians. In the religion of the natives of the Altai this idea is expressed by the name ‘mother and father of the man’, given to the Supreme Being.

It may be that the most satisfactory basis for an attempt at the solution of this problem would be the sociological one. The extraordinary rights granted by the community to the shaman are clearly evident in the exceptional position he occupies. Shamans (male and female) may do what is not permitted to others, and indeed they must act differently, because they have a supernatural power recognized by the community.

Taking some of the characteristics ascribed to shamans in previous chapters, we see that, inspired by the spirits, ‘they may cut and otherwise injure their bodies without suffering harm.’ They may, during shamanistic performances, ‘ascend to the sky together with the shaman’s drum and sacrificial animal.

They may give birth to a child, a bird, a frog, and they may change their sex if they are ‘real shamans’, with supernatural powers, with a true vocation. Socially, the shaman does not belong either to the class of males or to that of females, but to a third class, that of shamans. Sexually, he may be sexless, or ascetic, or have inclinations of homosexualistic character, but he may also be quite normal. And so, forming a special class, shamans have special taboos comprising both male and female characters. The same may be said of their costume, which combines features peculiar to the dress of both sexes.

The woman-shaman is not restricted to taboos specifically female, for her social position is much higher than that of the ordinary woman: whilst purely male taboos are not applied to the man-shaman, who has, together with certain male taboos, some privileges of a woman; e.g. among the Yakut, access to the house of lying-in women during the first three days after the birth of a child.

From this point of view it would appear that the high respect shown in individual cases to the female shaman is due to the position which shaman, as such, of whatever sex, occupies in society, and does not imply an earlier general female shamanism. Shamanhood is separated from society by a boundary-line of many taboos. When the shaman cannot keep these taboos he or she ceases to be a shaman; e. g. the woman during the period of child-birth and menstruation, when she again belongs to the community of women.

The class of shamans, in which the woman acquires certain attributes of a man, and the man certain attributes of a woman, seems in Siberia to be independent of father- or mother-right. It would be interesting to ascertain whether the ‘spirits’ inspiring the change of sex are of opposed sexes, as was suggested by J. G. Frazer.’ The shaman class, through the exclusion of its members from both the male and the female sections of society, may in some cases be pathological, but this is in no sense a significant or indispensable characteristic, since in the only instances where the ‘marriage’ of transformed shamans with persons of the same sex has been observed in our time (i.e. among the Chukchee) it is always disapproved by public opinion.

The magico-religious and sociological explanation of the change of dress among shamans does not, however, apply satisfactorily to the koekchuch, for professional shamanism among the Kamchadal was not organized and developed to the point of producing a distinct section of society inspired by shamanistic spirits. Neither does this explanation cover cases in which men are dressed in women’s costume without being shamans at all. Perhaps we may here find aid in the suggestions put forward by Mr. Crawley: in treating of the belief, very widespread among primitive peoples, in the possibility of the transmission of feminine qualities, especially weakness, by contagion. He cites

Since this chapter was written I have been able to familiarize myself with a very interesting pamphlet by the prominent Russian sociologist, A. Maksimoff, dealing with the same subject under the title ‘The Change of Sex’, Russian Anthrop. Journ., xxix. I was glad to see that Maksimoff also is not satisfied with the physiological explanation of this phenomenon. He gives two reasons for his doubts: The phenomena, in common with the shamanistic practices, is in decadence everywhere in Siberia; and if it were only due to sexual perversions it would probably be rather on the increase during the present period of colonization, when we know that all sorts of diseases and every kind of sexual licence have increased among the Siberian natives. In many similar cases among other peoples we can see that this phenomenon is purely ritualistic, e. g. in the case of the Mujerados of New Mexico.


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