Central Asia

Central Asia – Indigenous shamanisms, Buddhism, and Islam meet in this vast landlocked region, and considerable interaction has resulted in many creative fusions and cultural evolutions. Traditionally, the Uzbeks and Tajiks were agriculturalists and pastoralists, while the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen were nomadic pastoralists. Furthermore, the Tajiks speak an Iranian-based language, while the others are of the Turkic language family. Definitive historical accounts of shamanic practitioners in the region begin around the 18th century CE, and there is evidence from visual culture in the form of Central Asian rock art.

Islam was adopted sporadically across Central Asia, beginning in the 12th century, and today these peoples are officially Muslim. Shamans operated outside Islam by conducting healing rituals and séances within their local communities, yet called upon Muslim saints among their cadre of shamanic spirit helpers. Furthermore, it was noted by Joseph Castagné that some female shamans did not cover their heads in accordance to Muslim tradition but wore their hair loose. These shamanisms are historically and culturally contingent as reflected in their known appellations—the Kazakh baksy, Kyrgyz bakshi, Turkmen porkhan, Uzbek parkhon, and Tajik folbin—yet the close relationships between Central Asian peoples provides clear overlap. The baksy, bakshi, and porkhan can also be bards and play stringed instruments for the recitation of stories and oral epics as well as in shamanic rituals in order to engage with spirit helpers; the Uzbek parkhon and Tajik folbin use a tambourine without a drumstick during such rituals. There is a small degree of “black shamanism” and “white shamanism” among some Kazakh and Kyrgyz, similar to that found among the Mongols.

After the establishment of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 20th century, the purge of religious activities extended from Islam to Central Asian shamanism. During the latter half of the 20th century, Russian ethnographer Vladimir Basilov published numerous articles and his seminal book, Shamanism among the Peoples of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (1992), which demonstrated not only the continuing duration and diversity of shamanisms in the region but also the scholarly neglect of the subject in relation to the “classic” shamanisms of Siberia (the locus classicus). In addition, Basilov (1978) provides a contemporary account of an Uzbek shaman who was forced by the spirits to change gender and wear women’s costume, even though he bore a beard and had four successive wives with children and grandchildren. Since the fall of Soviet Communism, Central Asian shamanisms have been actively revived by a diversity of practitioners not only reconnecting with their shamanic heritage but also, idiosyncratically, re-embracing facets of Islam, as well as adopting elements of neo-shamanisms.

See also Islam; Siberian and Central Asian Rock Art.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007