SIBERIAN SHAMANISM. At The Top Of The Mountain

Saosh Yant took the firewood that he’d laid up, and began to light a campfire. The fire flared up and the flames started greedily licking the kindling: dry moss, straw and small twigs. The hungry fire ecstatically began to gnaw at thicker branches, then passed on to the heavy logs. The more Saosh Yant fed it, the hungrier it grew. The tops of the flames barely touching the bottom of the cauldron that was hung over the campfire, were heating up the water. The young man threw in it the laid up spruce twigs and the mixture of special herbs, given to him by Kudai Kam. The spellbinding movements of the flame had a fascination which kept the eye, brought warmth and joy. The feeling of harmony and life. In the meanwhile, Kudai Kam took some arak[1] and sprinkled it in the four corners of the earth. He turned to the east and said:

“Accept our offering and help us, Tengri and your spirits.”

Then he turned to the south and sprinkled the arak, saying:

“Accept this offering and be with us, Ülgen’s spirits and you, Great Ülgen.”

He turned to the west and said:

“Umai and the spirits of earth and water, help us!”

Turning to the north, he said:

“Erlik and erlikens, create no hindrances to us!”

So, having turned with the sun, he made the offerings to the Gods and enlisted their support. Then he prepared a simple meal. He took a fresh flatbread out of his bag, broke it in two and gave one half to Saosh Yant. The travelers settled down by the fire and, after saying their prayers, began to eat. Despite his old age, Kudai Kam didn’t even look tired. On the contrary, he seemed to reveal himself and flourish in the energy that emanated from that place. The same, though, couldn’t be said about Saosh Yant. The long walk in the mountains was difficult and tiring for him. Although he was trying to keep his end up, it was obvious that he was exhausted.

“But why are we eating here?” asked Saosh Yant, puzzled. “We had to carry the firewood to the very top of the mountain. We could well have a meal at its bottom, where there’s a lot of firewood in the forest.”

Kudai Kam gave him a condescending smile.

“So that the food that we eat here could give us the energy of this place and help us enhance the connection with the Ayami. Of course, we could have had a bite much below, in the forest, we even could well stay at home and not go anywhere. But that would take us nowhere, since we do need the connection with the Ayami. Remember the ritual of taking food in the graveyards?”

“Of course, I do,” shrugged Saosh. “I have always amazed at the fact. I was even scared when my parents made me do that. I have always had the feeling that I didn’t simply eat food, but the deceased himself.”

“Exactly! Such rituals are needed to enhance the connection with the ancestors and get their assistance. Nowadays, unfortunately, people have forgotten about the meaning of this ritual, but in the past, they used to ask the powerful people for help, those who really could be of assistance.”

“I’m sorry, Kudai Kam, but is it all right that after the funeral repast, tramps roam about the graveyard, picking up the leftovers and drinking liquor? I have also seen many times that birds wouldn’t mind feeding of the food.”

“No, it makes no difference. Because they sought help not from a powerful person, but from an ordinary one. And the meaning of the ritual has been forgotten. Now it’s just a formality. And the birds’ activity is good. They carry the soul of the deceased away into the upper worlds. Some nations even have a tradition of not burying the dead body into the ground, but dismembering and placing it on a mountaintop. And if birds have regaled themselves on the remains, it means that his soul goes into the Upper World of the God Tengri and finds a fortunate destiny.”

“And if it’s done by animals, not birds?”

“Then the soul goes to the God the animal belongs to.”

“How interesting! And what is the altar for? Sacrifices were made here, right?” Saosh Yant pointed to the stone slab.

“Yes, ” answered Kudai Kam. “The spirits feed on the energy of the body, for the blood is the energy of the Kut. When blood is shed, the nether spirits get their food. And then you can influence them. Placate them, so to speak, so that they didn’t do harm to the living, didn’t eat them alive through misfortunes, diseases and suffering which are food for these spirits. To do so, you need to divert them and redirect them to the sacrifice. The spirits will drink the energy that is released through the blood of the sacrificial animal, quiet down and stop doing mischief.”

“And for how long is it going to help?”

“As long as the spirits are fed, they don’t harm people.”

“But then they will send woes and misfortunes?”

“Yes. Unfortunately, such things happen in our world all the time. You can see for yourself: there are wars, diseases, natural disasters and terrorist attacks happening every now and again. Because the spirits always need food. They exult and rejoice when things like that occur. People used to know about it perfectly well. And they made the sacrifices in proper time. Now this practice has been abandoned. Nobody performs these rituals. That’s why all sorts of calamity happen in the world.”

“A-a-ah!” drawled the young man. “Now much is becoming clear to me!”

“Besides,” the Great Shaman went on, “the sacrificial animal becomes an assistant spirit for the shaman. You see this drum, for example?” asked Kudai Kam, warming the skin of his drum over the fire.

“Yeah, it’s a good drum!”

There were overtones of real envy in Saosh Yant’s voice.

“It’s made of maral skin, which was sacrificed long ago. And now this maral has become my assistant spirit. It helps me, when I perform my rituals. It shows me the right direction and takes me to the right place. It knows where I need to go. And I trust it.”

“Is it something like GPS navigation?”

“Ah, these are the devices which all tourists have now?” grinned Kudai Kam.


“Yeah, it’s something like that. With the difference that the data have been fed into your navigator in advance and the maral learns everything itself.”

“How is that?”

“Have you ever seen an animal with a navigator?”

“Ha-ha-ha! Of course not!” laughed Saosh Yant, surprised.

“So my maral knows where to take me.”

“But it is dead!”

“So are you! The maral is alive. And its soul serves to me.”

The young man pondered for a while.

“But is it right to kill animals?” asked Saosh Yant incredulously.

“The killing itself,” said the shaman sagely, “is bad. If a man kills for no reason, just for fun, it’s bad. It worsens his destiny. Or if he does so out of spite. It’s bad too. Nowadays a lot of people who live in cities, go hunting. This also worsens their destiny.”


“Because if a man is satisfied, he has everything, he isn’t starving, then there’s no point in killing animals. It’s done just for fun, for adrenaline rush. All that burdens the destiny of this unfortunate hunter. In the past people couldn’t survive without it. That was understandable. But now the modern man has everything, he isn’t starving, on the contrary, he’s got too much money and not enough common sense.”

“Ha, that was well said!” laughed the young man.

“That’s why we should respect nature and everything that is around us. Besides, a lot of animals are in the Red List.”

“Tell me, Kudai Kam, is it bad for the animals themselves that they are killed?”

“It is good for them, for they go to a better world. They become free from the suffering in the physical world. Their souls go to the world where there isn’t as much evil and suffering as we have here. But on earth, the needless killing ruins the harmony. But still we have to make sacrifices. For example, when we don’t have any other food, or when we need to help out kinsmen to drive away the evil spirits. Then it is permissible and doesn’t disrupt the harmony of the world. But only in rare and exceptional cases.”

“Ah! Now I understand. Thanks, Kudai Kam.”

“Good. Now you tear one more band off your shirt. Put it onto the drum in order to be connected to it and to receive the assistance of the spirits.”

He showed the drum handle, carved in the form of a man. It was dark brown. Where the hand held it, it was much darker. Saosh curiously glanced at what no one had been allowed to see, and recoiled involuntarily. The guardian of the drum was looking at him, lifelike.

“It can’t be!” exclaimed the young man in surprise.

“What? You thought it’s just a piece of wood? No, my friend. The guardian is alive! More alive than you and me put together! So make sure you handle it with care.”

Saosh Yant made a low obeisance to the drum, then stood up and tied a kona round the guardian’s neck.

“It is the image of the ancestor shaman who helps me in the drumming. There are two types of shamans: from the ancestors and from the Ayami. Then an Ayami is portrayed on the handle, she helps in the drumming. Sometimes there can be one more head on the handle, below, or a small man on the belly – it’s the image of the shaman, the owner of the drum.”

[1] A distilled alcoholic drink (translator’s note).

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