THE SHAMAN AS THE ZOOMORPHIC HUMAN
In this paper the shaman's transformations into an animal or a bird by means
of casbing spells and studied with a great importance attached to the question
by which means are these transformations made visible and audible. The
inspiration for the research is got from the Nganasan foretelling spell in
that is why the work is that nganasan-centred. The comparative material of the
subject both of the nothern and the southern regions of Siberia, and of some
other regions of the world offers a great deal of parallels. This indicates that
the technical skills of the ritual are widespread.
transformation into the animal or the bird is connected with his helping spirit
and his guardian spirit. The Buryat, for example, name the shaman's guardian
spirit 'khubilgan', which could be translated 'metamorphosis' (compare with the
verb 'khubilkhu' - 'to change oneself'', 'to take another shape' (Eliade 1974)).
The presence of the shaman's spirits is considered to be the most essential
requirement, as the spirits are that who give the shaman all the information and
practical aid on his ecstatic journeys. Majority of the shaman's spirits,
especially in Siberian shamanism, have taken the shape of the animal or the bird
(Hultkranz 1978). The Nganasan name their shaman's spirits d'a-mad'i (Kortt
& Simchenko 1985: d'amáda 'animal' or 'zoomorphic', ie. 'having a throat'),
despite of whether the spirit is zoomorphic or antropomorphic. Gracheva
(Gracheva 1983) considers the term to be the opposite of the term 'séjmid'a,
which is translated by Kortt and Simchenko as "having the eyes", and commented
on as a synonym both of a human being and of an animal.
game, such as a bear, an elk, a seal, a wolf, a hare, a deer etc. appear as the
helping spirits. Among the domestic animals a horse is known as the shaman's
spirit for the Yakut, and for the Ostyak and the Vogul who use the horse to go
to the Heaven (Karjalainen 1918). Among the ornitomorphic helping spirits a
goose and a diver are the most prevalent as being the good divers, as well as a
swan, an owl, a crow, and an eagle are widespread. For the Lapps fish may appear
as the helping spirits, and for the Tungus people the helping spirits may appear
in the shape of snakes.
Usually the shaman's helping spirit makes an
animal or a bird without any special characteristic features or originality. The
contray examples are given by the Netsilik Eskimo's comparatively extravagant
spirits, where the zoomorphic spirits have it's originality. For example, a very
big grampus (Arlu); a black earless dog (Kunnararjuq); a giant bear that
especially loves human flesh (Naroluk), and some others (Balicki
There are three different ways of zoomorphic and ornitomorphic
transformation in Siberian shamanism. They are: objective transformations,
soundic transformations, and expressive transformations.
shaman's equipment beginning from the costume to finish with the smallest
details of it symbolizes a certain animalor a bird. The Nganasan shaman's
costume symbolizes an elk. It is sewn of elk hide with a metal figure of a
hartshorn on it's back. The Nganasan instepless boots remind of elk feet.
Majority of the pendants fastened to the costume represent some shaman's
spirits. Gracheva describes the two bear figures on the Nganasan shaman's
costume as symbolizing a she-bear and a he-bear. According to the shaman's
explanations, he can team the bears to a sledge, and they take him wherever he
wants, and "with that quickly that nothing could be seen but the wind is
whistling in the ears". In addition to the bear figures, there are six goose's
head figures , and three bird tails. The goose's head figures are needed to move
through the air to the upper world. The bird tails help the shaman to dive. The
shaman has to dive when healing people, as the Nganasan consider water to be the
location of sick spirits. They say that the sick people's spirits are held
there. When the shaman finds out the wanted spirit, he seats it on the bird
tail, and fastens it to the tail with a chain for it didn't get lost on the way
back, and returns it to the sick person.
Whereas the shaman's costume as
the whole symbolizes the elk, the fringed sleeves of the costume symbolize the
bird wings. Gracheva describes a case that the shaman clasp the patient, and
spreads the leather fringe, sewn to his sleeves, over the patient. According to
the shaman's comments, he defends the sick person from sick spirits like a bird
protects its pinfeathered youngs (Gracheva 1978).
In Siberian peoples'
shamanism a drum symbolizes a draught animal, mainly an elk. Zhornitskaya
describes a ride on the drum when the shaman bestrides the drum and bumps
himself as whwn riding the elk. Such practice is spread among Ostyak-Samoyedic
shamans and Evenk shamans. Although the Nganasan are not familiar with the
practice of riding on elk, still the drum is the symbol of the elk for them.
According to Dolgih's data the Nganasan shaman Kherepte(?) imitated the elk by
means of the drum scraping the ground with the drumbuttons(*2) like the
elk scrapes the ground with its forelegs (Dolgikh 1978) (*3).
zoomorphic transformations described above are expressive rather than objective.
By expressive transformation we mean imitating of the movements of animals or
birds. These transformations could be rhytmless movements, such as the turn of
the body, the wave of the hand etc.,pantomimes, or dances. Actually, one can't
draw the line between the pantomime and the dance. In some researchers the
difference is made on the ground of eirher it is a mere imitating of someone, or
some meaningless rhytmical movements are added. The Eskimo's pantomimes
imitating the shaman's zoomorphic spirits are distinguished from their
ceremonial dances, for example (Driver 1970).
In most cases the imitating
of animals is classified as a dance. Zhornitskaya differentiates two
subdivisions of a ritual dance, such as imitating ritual dances and ecstatic
ritual dances. In case of the imitating ritual dance, there is the
transformation into zoomorphic spirits into which the shaman changes himself on
his journey. The ecstatic ritual dance is to help the shaman to reach ecstasy.
Both these subdivisions are improvisatory, and consist of the widely spread
imitating movements without any certain succession. They are considered to be
dances because the movements are always carried out with a certain rhytm
The imitating of behaviour and uttering sounds of
animals and birds is a widespread and extremely old practice, as the information
of it appears in the travel books written several centuries ago. The earliest
data about the Samoyed, the Ostyak, and the Vogul peoples' imitating practices
date back to the 18th century (Romenskaya 1986). In the diary of his travels to
Siberia in the 1840s Middendorff gives a detailed description of the samoyed
roundelay in which the bear movements are imitated, and it is accompanied by
grunting coughing, which is obviously the uttering sound of the bear
(Middendorff 1987). Thus the practice shouldn't be looked at as a part of
shamanism only, but it is also a part of social entertainment. Both in case of
the practice being a social entertainment, and in case of the practice being a
shamanistic ritual, the imitating of the movements of animals or birds is
accompanied by the imitating of the uttering sounds of animals or
The imitating of the uttering sounds of animals or birds can be
either natural or symbolic. In case of natural imitations some one uttering
sound, such as a whistle, a cry, a howl, etc. is imitated as alike to the real
uttering sound as possible. The natural imitations have of practical importance
above all. They are used to decoy the animals, whereas the human voice timbre is
completely concealed. The uttering sounds of birds can be imitated by means of
different whistling techniques, and by means of decoy whistle. In case of the
sounding imitations produced by the human voice the usual vocal-phonetic
intonation is not used. The uttering sound of birds are imitated by means of a
falsetto. The uttering sounds of animals are produced by means of a nose-throat
articulation based on one respiratory cycle, which enables to provide hoarses,
grunts, roars, etc (Sheikin 1983; Sheikin 1984; Kim & Sheikin
The symbolicimitations of uttering sounds are based on the real
uttering sounds of animals or birds, whereas the intonation is transformed by
man. The result of it is a note pattern which expresses the main characteristic
features of the source signal. Less complicated imitations, such as the cuckoo's
calling etc., are closer to the source sound, and both the rhytm and the pitches
of the signal are quite original. More complicated imitations are man's creation
rather than the uttering sounds of birds. To confirm the above-mentioned there
is the song of the great northern diver (sample 1) which
differs from the source signal in its substantially slower movement, abd also in
its varied melody arrangement (compare with the sample 8 where
there is the pattern of the uttering sounds of the diver in the shaman's
ritual). The using of the falsetto and the syllabled text imitating "the bird's
language" emphasize that this concerns the uttering sounds of birds.
sounding imitations by which the shaman expresses his transformations into the
animal or the bird, are substantially closer to the source sounds than the song
of the great nothern diver mentioned above.
Next, a brief survey of
Djulsymjaku Kosterkin's foretelling spell is given. The three travel episodes of
the spell contain a great deal of expressive and sounding imitations. The
purpose of the spell was to find out how many years would the shaman's patient
live. Majority of the spell was carried out singing. The practice lasted 3 hours
and 50 minutes, and only 40 minutes of it were occupied by talk.
melodies performed during the spell belong to the shaman's helping spirits and
guardian spirits. These melodies could be considered to be the personal
melodies, as they are named after the spirits' names. In the present time the
Nganasan don't associate the genesis of songs with the spirits. The songs are
considered to be created by the shamans themselves. The melodies created by the
shamans don't have any feature characteristic of that particular genre as
compared to the nganasan melodies in general. Although the majority of these
melodies belong to the zoomorphic spirits not one of them personates a melodic
characteristic of a particular animal or bird.
The same melody may have
different functions during the practise. In the exposition of the show the
melodies act as call signs, i.e. the singing of these melodies is expected to
fetch their owners. According to the nganasan shamanistic ritual, the call signs
are syllabilized in a nonsensical way. Some peoples, such as the Ostyak, have
the instrumental call signs which are performed on string instruments named
either "nars-juh", or "panan-juh" Alekseyenko, 1988).
Having taken the
advices of the fetched spirits the shaman starts his hypothetical journey. The
travel episodes are those where the shaman transforms himself into a bird or an
animal depending on where he happens to go.
Djulsymjaku's 1st travel
episode is accompanied by the song in the melody of the song of na-rka 'ne-me
(the song of the she-bear), which works as the travel song tara-rsa ba-'le
(compare with the verb taru-d'a 'to start moving').
The nganasan shamans
cast spells in the sitting position. Standing up is the sign that the journey is
going to begin. In the 1st travel episode the shaman imitates the elk. The
expressive transformation starts with the walk on the spot, that is accompanied
by the bows (i.e. the shaman in the shape of the elk tries to find the right
path), and by the nods of the head. Next, he turns a semicircular to the sunwise
(i.e. like the Heaven revolves), and imitates the grunts of the elk (sample 2).
During the journey the shaman's assistant holds the chain fastened to the back
of the shaman's costume (as if people held the chain for nobody didn't miss or
get lost. The shaman is the chief elk, that is followed by all the others) (*4). Next, the
shaman imitates the flight of the swan and the uttering sounds of the swan (sample 3). The
whole episode is accompanied by the melody of ka-d'a ko-'pta (i.e. the
thundermaid's melody) which doesn't belong to any particular ornitomorphic or
teriomorphic helping spirit. Djulsymjaku explains that this melody is chosen
because "the clowds are like the birds, as they also travel".
travel episode the shaman sits down and starts telling the stories about what he
has seen on his journey, and at the same time the spirits repose who helped the
shaman on his journey.
In the 2nd travel episode the shaman imitates the
bear. The finding of the right path is carried out in the sitting position. The
shaman casts an investigating glance to the right and to the left, next he
shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head. Then he rises to his feet and moves
slowly to the sunwise. His movement is accompanied by the recitative a-nt'ina
ma-nt'ina ĺ-ku ai. These are the meaningless words, or the shaman's words as the
comment says. However, the nganasan bear dance is accompanied by these words.
The recitative syllabled text alternates with the imitations of the grunts of
the bear (the ritual episode: sample 4; the
5). After the bear dance the shaman starts imitating the elk. The walk on
the spot becomes more energetic, and finally becomes the run on the spot. The
crooked arms move from front to back like when increasing the spead. These
movements are accompanied by the imitating of the coughs of the elk (waf-waf).
The walk becomes slower and unrhytmical. The shaman in the shape of the elk bows
and imitates sniffing.
In the following episode the shaman says that he
walked along the crooked path, and that he needs flyers, i.e. the birds as the
helping spirits who could lead the way when he happens to lose it.
starting for his 3rd journey the shaman makes it sure whether he is on the right
path or not. It takes place by means of a song which goes like
We lived with the wild elks
There was fish enough
clothes were made of elk hide
I am no more the master of the elks.
spirits answer by the mouth of the shaman's assistant:
You are correct
are on the right path
Next there is the most
long-lasting and the most emotional journey which starts with the finding of the
right path like the previous episodes did. It goes like this: the shaman bows
and straightens his back, and looks around searching with his his arm concealing
the eyes. Then he beckons forward with his arm whereas his look is irresolute;
next he retreats; then he picks his steps forward again. His movements are
unrhytmical, and the practice resembles a pantomime. Then he stops short and
hits the ornament worn round his neck (it is the figure of the helping spirit)
with the drumstick for he had been shown the way. Then he gives the drum to the
assistant and goes down on one knee, rocking his body to and fro; then he
streches his arnes out with the palms upward, and starts beckoning.
practice is accompanied by the song with the following content:
that we rode along before is covered with snow. The path was visible as the elk
teams rode along it. Now I can no more find the path as I can see very little.
Now there are the roads for tractors and snowmobiles. Now I am in the closed
If I were in the tent, perhaps it would be easier to find my way. Here I can see
nothing. I can but nose my way out. The shamanistic path is completely
invisible, as the place is unknown. Some spirits tell me "to be careful; not to
stand up! not to fall into the evil spirits' hands; not to hurry; when you
hurry, it will drain you. You would walk slower for you could bring your
children up to maturity. The evil spirits look out of the Earth. If you hurry,
you can't see them, but they have to be driven away.
When singing the
shaman rocks himself unrhytmically. His gestures are hesitant and his glances
back are anxious.
Next the shaman sings that he is a bear (to the melody
of the song 'na rka ne me, sample 6) and
he imitates the roaring of the bear (to drive away the evil
Then the shaman in the shape of the bear becomes the shaman in
the shape of the goose, and its flight is expressed by the imitating of flaps of
the wings, by the sudden lifts of the heels, and by making circles by the hips.
The expressive imitations are accompanied by the sounding imitations of the
goose. These practices are accompanied by the tinkle of the ornaments fastened
to the shaman's costume (sample 7).
Suddenly the goose changes its manner of flying. The shaman moves his stiff arms
up and down, and in doing this he makes sudden jolts with his wrists. Then the
goose becomes the bear again, and the roars of the bear and the shamanistic
words are uttered alternately. The journey is continued along the
While the movements of the birds and the animals are imitated only
in travel episodes, the sounding imitations appear in some other kinds of
episodes, too. For example, Djulsymjaku imitates the uttering sounds of a great
northern diver (sample 8) in
the song that comes after the call signs. The song says that all the spirits of
importance are present, and the foretelling may begin. The song is to the melody
of the song of the great northern diver (the song of o-tare, sample
For some peoples the sounding imitations act as the call signs.
In case of the Orotsh funeral feasts of the bear, the killed bear is brought up
to the house where the majority of the feast is carried out. Inside the house
the roaring of the bear is imitated, meaning that the bear is expected to come
in (Sheikin 1986). The Nganasan don't use the sounding imitations as call signs.
After the show the shaman has to gather all the helping spirits together, and
"put them to sleep". Djulsymjaku comments on it: "The Heaven is foursquare, like
a sheet of paper is. These four corners are like the four quarters of the
horizon. The spirits will sleep under the sheet of paper. You must not wake them
up until the next spell."
The spirits are called together by means of the
ko-u ko-u ko-u ko-u
In most cases the
calls like that appear in the spell, as it is seen in sample 9, which
is a fragment of Tubjaku Kosterkin's spell in 1989(*7). Whwn the
shaman's assistant gives the call signs to the spirits, the rest of the people
participating in the ritual have to support him by calls, for the spirits
reacted to them quicker. Such practice is spread among the samoyed peoples
living in the northern areas.
u-ok u-ok u-ok u-ok
These calls come from the
"vocabulary" of the reindeer breeders. They use the calls like that or similar
to that to call the herd of reindeer together. When the reindeers cross the
river the Nganasan support them by the calls "he-hei-heh!" (sample 10). In
case of a spell the shaman uses these calls to make his hypothetic draught
animal move quicker (sample 11).
Here it follows that the shaman communicates with his zoomorphic helping spirits
like people communicate with the real animals.
The calls used by the
reindeer breeders are rather melodic, especially the call "he-hei". The Nganasan
consider the calls to be "the music created by Man to make the reindeers cross
the river quickier, and to prevent them from cold in the cold water."
movements by which the shaman expresses his transformations are widespread among
Siberian peoples, i.e. the different peoples imitate the same objects in the
same way. For example, flying of a bird is imitated by moving the arms extended
sideways up and down; and the ride on a draught animal is imitated by bumping
himself as when riding a real animal.
There are regional differences in
sounding imitations but the practice itself is spread all over Siberia. The
Ostyak are the exception of it, as they have the songs that represent some
animal or bird, but they lack the practice of sounding imitations because they
consider it making fools of the birds or the animals. However, the Vogul are
familiar with the practice of sounding imitations. Rombandejeva describes the
episode of the funeral feast of the bear where the spirit in the shape of the
bear named Jalius ojka appears and he makes a circle to the sunwise, and spits
every now and then like the bear. Rombandejeva also mentions a human being
imitating a sea gull by means of moving his arms extended sideways up and down,
like the sea gull flaps its wings, and utters the following sounds:
"tjar-tjar-tjar" (Rombandejeva 1993).
Eliade considers the sounding
imitations as a code that the shaman uses to communicate with the spirits. In
several Indian tribes both in North America and South America it is compulsory
for the shamans to acquire the imitating skills during the initiation period.
According to Eliade's data the Lapps, the Chukchi, the Yakut, and the Tungus
practiced the code. He objects against the Sienkewicz-Gudkova's statement when
saying that the Ostyak also practiced the code (Eliade 1974). It is self-evident
that the code is not used beyond the rituals. The taboos forbid the Orotsh to
provide some naturalistic sounding imitations (Kim & Sheikin 1986). It is a
practical taboo rather than theoretical as the Siberian peoples consider the
sounding imitations to be the genre of music that precedes to the song, and they
are practiced not only by the shamans but also by other people.
genres of epic also contain the sounding imitations of animals and birds. It can
be exemplified by the fragment of the nganasan song si tabi (i.e. the heroic
song) where the singer imitates the uttering sounds of an owl and the flaps of
its wings that is marked under the staff. The uttering sounds of birds are
imitated in children's plays, too.
On the one hand the sounding
imitations can be considered to be entertainment, that get their subject from
everyday life. On the other hand in some languages the words "magic" and "song"
(especially "bird song") are marked by the same word. In germanic languages the
word "magic" is marked by the word "galdr" which comes from the verb galan 'to
sing ', especially 'to sing a bird song' (Eliade 1974).
In Nganasan epic
a mythical hero is able to understand the sounding imitations of animals and
birds, and to act in the way the animals or the birds do (to fly, for example).
Both in the old heroic songs and in shamanism Man can have animals and be
identified with animals simultaneously. The general idea of the shaman's journey
is perhaps the imaginary return to the period of time when the men and the
animals were the same?
1. The video signal recording of the
ritual is in the collection of the Estonian Literary Museum named after
2. The drumbuttons, or the drumknobs are the
parts of the instrument which have an acoustic purpose. They produce an empty
space between the drumskin and the frame of the drum which acts as a resonator,
as it can be seen in the following figure.
3. In addition to
the drum being a draught animal, there are some other objects which can be
expressed by means of the drum in Siberian shamanism. For example, it may
symbolize a boat, a cloud, etc, but for certain the drum symbolizes the object
by means of which one can move forward.
4. In the literature in
the field of etnography the chain has somewhat different purpose. It is fastened
to the pole of the tent for the shaman didn't fall into the fire.
5. Djulsymjaku Kosterkin performed the spell in the sound recording
studio of Novosibirsk Conservatoire.
6. xo:tare is a
mythical name for the great northern diver (the general name for the diver is
nuo na). O:tare is the shaman Demnime's (Djulsymjaku's father) helping spirit
which is the antropo-ornitomorphic spirit, i.e. the bird that, when coming out
of the water, takes the shape of the woman.
7. The video signal
recording is made in the village named Ust-Avam, and the recording is in the
collection of the Estonian Folklore Archives.
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