Siberia, Western

Siberia, Western – The territory that lies to the east of the Ural Mountains is a vast lowland covered in taiga forest which extends toward the Arctic Ocean in the north and, to the east, to the network of rivers in the basin of the Ob, the largest Siberian river. The Khanty (Ostyaks) and Mansi (Voguls) are known as Ob-Ugrian speakers living east of the Urals, and these peoples spread to the great Ob River and its tributaries. Culturally the Khanty and Mansi are closely related, and their languages, together with Hungarian, comprise the Ugrian group of Finno-Ugrian languages, so studies of their shamanism tend to emphasize links to the Suomi (Finns), Saami (Lapps), and Hungarian Magyars. To the north of the Khanty and Mansi are the Nenet (Samoyeds) who are a Samoyed-speaking people. All these Western Siberians are hunters and fishers. By the 18th century much of the territory was seized by the encroaching Russians, who sought to control the natural resources of the region beyond the Urals. The Khanty and Mansi were converted to Orthodox Christianity, but much of their indigenous beliefs endured. Two important 19thand early 20th-century ethnographies about the Ob-Ugrians and Samoyeds were amassed by Alexander Castrén and K. Karjalainen. Khanty, Mansi, and Samoyed shamans wore special hoodlike hats, and they utilized drums. Shamanic séances were conducted to recover information from the spirits or for soul retrieval. Indigenous religious practices, according to Marjorie Balzer, involved each clan maintaining sacred sites in groves within which effigies of ancestors and spirits, as well as those of shamans, were placed. Castrén also noted that Khanty shamans spoke to wooden effigies during shamanic ceremonies. Early ethnographers reported that only a shaman was allowed to conduct sacrifices; however, Kustaa Karjalainen demonstrated that this was not always the case. The most famous rite among the Ob-Ugrian peoples was the bear ceremony, which has been documented by many investigators and comprises a number of rituals involving the sacrifice of a bear that conclude with festivities involving dancing, singing, and satirical dramatic performances. More recently, Balzer addressed the significance of gender and bear ceremonialism among the Ob-Ugrian peoples. Karjalainen points out that the bear was also an important spirit called upon by Mansi shamans. However, the Ob-Ugrian shamans, and by extension the Finno-Ugrians, are most noted for their ingestion of Amanita muscaria or fly agaric mushrooms. This practice continues today, as Khanty shamans have been recorded to take Amanita, beat their drum, and wait for the spirit of the mushroom, pong, to arrive. Pong acts as the intermediary between the spirits and shaman, transmitting questions and returning answers.
See also Siberia, Northern and Eastern; Siberia, Southern.


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