Siberia, Northern and Eastern

Siberia, Northern and Eastern – Siberia (a vast landmass stretching from the Arctic Ocean in the north to the borders of Mongolia and China in the south, and eastwards to the Pacific Ocean) is the so-called locus classicus of shamanism. The term shaman itself derives from the Evenk (Tungus) language, carried by explorers in the 18th century to become the German schamanen and thence into English. Some of these early accounts characterized shamans through the lens of Christianity, such as Nicolas Witsen’s well-known illustration (from his Noord en Oost Tartarye, 1705) of an Evenk shaman, labeled “Priest of the Devil,” with an antler headdress and banging a drum. However, as Ronald Hutton points out, the clawed feet of this “priest of the devil” indicate that he is also a demon. Extensive fieldwork in the region began in the mid-19th century, documenting shamanism across the region, from the Chukchi and Koryak in the north, to the Evenk in the east and the Sakha (Yakut) who dwell in the interior of Siberia, one of the coldest places on earth. At the beginning of the 20th century, Waldemar Bogoras published extensively on the Chukchi and Koryak and made detailed accounts of gender transformations among Chukchi female and male shamans. Maria Czaplicka, who had written several primer books on the diverse peoples of Siberia and Central Asia, was one of the first scholars to call shamans “hysterical,” which in effect added to the already prevalent criticism of them as being merely charlatans. Sergei Shirokogoroff positively characterized shamans as religious specialists who learned to master spirits, although it might be more accurate to consider the relationship between shamans and helpers (such as reindeer among the Chukchi) as reciprocal to varying degrees.

During the Stalinist period of the 1930s, the dissemination of Siberian ethnography became restricted, and Soviet research into shamanism fell into social evolutionary frameworks of Soviet Marxism. The Marxist model characterized shamanism as a condition arising from the inequality of production and the establishment of private property. The Communist Party sent out its own ethnographers who sought out shamans, documented them, and informed on them to be punished. Siberian shamans were banned, imprisoned, or killed under Soviet rule and even today, in post-Soviet times, there are still regions where people will not talk about shamanic knowledge for fear of persecution. Recent scholarship has reclaimed much lost ground, however.

Ioan Lewis points to the consistent occurrence of possession in “classic” shamanic initiatory and biographical accounts from Siberia. Marjorie Balzer and Bernard Saladin d’Anglure have both agreed that Siberian shamans are often a third gender that mediates between human and other-than-human persons. Saladin d’Anglure also uses the term election to refer to the choosing of their own gender among some Siberian and Arctic peoples. Roberte Hamayon goes further, in her discussion of the Evenk and Buryat, in arguing that shamanic séances are themselves “sexual encounters” and that the “marriage” between shamans and their helpers is more important than the ecstasy, mastery of spirits, or journeying emphasized by other scholars. The Buryat and Sakha, on the other hand, distinguish between “black shamans,” who enter trances and descend into the underworld, and “white shamans,” who do not enter trances, are more like priests, and communicate with the upper world (note that there is not a good–bad distinction here). In her work on Siberian shamans, Caroline Humphrey assesses the complex political relationship between shamans and chiefs and in so doing repositions the shaman as a social being rather than a religious specialist separate from daily life. In parts of post-Soviet Siberia, shamanism is undergoing a reconstitution and revival, with the Sakha in particular seizing this process as part of their emergent nationalism.

See also Siberia, Southern; Siberia, Western.


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