Shamans are lucky for they are buried on arankases. An arankas is a platform made of wood of such a size that’s enough for a person to be put on it. They are placed between four trees about two meters above ground level.”
“Wait a moment, Kudai Kam! Do I get it right that shamans are not buried in the ground, but simply put on this platform?”
“Yes, you get it right.”
“Unbelievable,” Saosh flung up his hands. “But why is it so?”
“Because shamans go to the Upper World. It is our custom. It is good.”
“How come? I mean, birds may come and begin to eat the remains.”
“It’s good too. They carry the shaman’s soul away to the Upper World.”
“Oh, dear!” said Saosh in surprise and fell silent.
“So that if you return to life, you can get up and come back home,” laughed Kudai Kam merrily.
“You don’t say so! But what about your relatives? They can even go mad!”
“They can! My great-grandfather came back like that. I was just a boy at that time. I remember the night was so dark. No moon, no stars, the lights in the houses were out. It was dead silence. And right in the middle of the night he began to knock on the door. Everyone was frightened: they thought an uzut had shown up.”
“Wait, wait, what is it?”
“An uzut is a dead man’s spirit. It comes to take someone to the next world with it. And my great-grandfather was very strong, you know. He beat the door in with one sweep and said, ‘It’s me. Don’t you recognize me?’ But they just scattered with shrieks and squeals, like animals that run back into their holes. He goes to his son – he dashes away of the house. He approaches his wife – she shrinks into the corner with her hands over her head. And starts crying quietly. He goes to the daughter-in-law – she writhes in hysterics and shouts, ‘Don’t touch me, I’m in a delicate condition. Have mercy on me and on the innocent soul!’ He runs to all his kin with open arms – they run from him in different directions. It took his a while to convince everyone, to prove that was not an uzut, not a ghost, that he simply had returned to life. That he wasn’t going to take anyone to the next world. He even tried to touch them – they had a greater fit of hysterics. Everybody was about to go out of their mind. The entire village came up running when they heard the cries, the lights in all the houses went on. There was an incredible turmoil.”
“Oh, dear!” Saosh roared with a hearty laughter.
“Yeah, but they didn’t find it funny. Anyway, it ended when Anchar, great-grandfather’s dog, run up to him and started joyously licking his hands, wagging its tail. The people stood still, amazed. Silence fell upon the scene. They started watching what would happen to the dog, whether the uzut would take it with him or not… They stood and watched – he didn’t take the dog. They were just struck with wonder. There was dramatic confusion. And then I threw myself into his arms, shouting happily, ‘Grampa! Grampa! You’ve come!’ He picked me up, raised high in the air and laughed, ‘This is my future successor! I sense power in him!’ All our kin sighed with relief. They ran up to him and began to kiss and hug him. At last everyone understood that he wasn’t dead, that he wasn’t an uzut, that the Gods simply hadn’t taken him yet.”
“Ha-ha-ha! Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!” laughed Saosh Yant cheerfully.
“Yeah. Such things happened often in those days.”
“Know what, Kudai Kam? Sorry to interrupt you again, but I heard that even pathologists encounter such things during the autopsy. Here is what looks like a cadaver. They start dissecting it – and the man quickly comes around, but the pain shock makes him pass out again, and then the man dies. This time, for real.”
“Yes, unfortunately, such things aren’t rare. You’re right, my friend! And then they say nothing to the relatives. They just their report, give back the body and try to forget about that. Although they surely feel their huge guilt. Many lose themselves into drinking too early or retire from profession.”
“How many new and interesting things I am learning! Tell me, please, what happens next.”
“Then there is a short lull, and the next such ‘surge’ repeats on the ninth day. But it isn’t that strong.”
“Indeed! That’s how it happened. We buried grandfather. On the third day we clearly felt his presence. Then everything was sort of quiet. We began to calm down and forget about him. And on the ninth day we were having a funeral repast for him and we had a feeling that he was among us again. As if he was sitting at the same table with us. But the feeling wasn’t as strong as before. On the fortieth day it repeated again. And the feeling was very subtle. It was like a faint echo of the memory about granddad. On the forty-ninth day everything seemed to have stopped, and we accepted that he was already gone. We continued to live a somewhat new life.”
“And we, shamans, when at a funeral repast, we know that the deceased is still among us, we feed him and ask him to help us. A shaman asks him how he is, what he wants.”
“Tell me, Kudai Kam, how is the funeral ceremony conducted? What rites and traditions do they have?”
“It depends on the region. There’re different traditions,” said Kudai Kam thoughtfully.
“But still, I’d like to know,” said Saosh, burning with impatience.
“Every nation, every culture has their own customs. For example, in the Christian world the tradition is to bury the deceased. In Arabian countries, in the Middle East, they normally seat the dead man into a pit. And this is done on the very first day, before it starts decaying. In India the dead are floated off in the waters of the sacred river Ganges. Or they incinerate the bodies and scatter the ashes over the water of the Ganges. In Tibet the deceased remains in his family’s house for as long as forty-nine days, in a separate room. And his wife comes to see him every day. Every few days she turns his body from side to side. And a lama comes every day to say a prayer. This goes on for forty-nine days. Then the body is dismembered and placed on a mountaintop.”
“But it will be eaten there. How so?!”
“It is good. It is considered especially good if birds eat away the flesh – this is a good sign. The soul of the deceased is going to the Upper World.”
“What, you think it’d be better if it was eaten by worms? In the grave?”
“Hmm, I never thought of that…” pondered Saosh. “Yeah, that’s right! How interesting all that is. And if it’s eaten by worms, what happens?”
“The soul goes to the earth spirits.”
“And if cremated?”
“That’s better. But not always.”
“And when is it bad?”
“It’s not good for shamans. They must sever the ties with the Kut.”
“How is it done?”
“Here in the Altai shamans are placed above the ground on the arankases.”
“Yes. I already know about that.”
“And the Yukaghirs in North Yakutia had rather complicated but effective rites.”
“Oh! How interesting! Can you tell me?”
“You won’t be frightened, will you?”
“Why would I be afraid of stories? They don’t bite, do they?”
“Then listen. The Yukaghirs considered the body of a dead shaman as a sacred object. As a possibility to connect to his Kut, to receive patronage, protection and assistance. They processed the body in a special way.”
“They mummified it, eh?”
“No, not that,” the shaman gave the young man a warning look.
“Okay, okay,” Saosh started waving his hands. “I won’t interrupt you again. I’ll be listening quietly.”
“So listen. The ancestral spirit of a Yukaghir shaman was a patron of his entire clan. First, the body was undressed and washed. Then the shaman’s kinsmen carefully separated the meat from the bones with an iron hook. Then the meat was hung on a beam to be dried or jerked in the sun. To establish the connection with his Kut, the dried bones of the shaman were given out to his relatives to be used as amulets. The ancestor shaman’s jerked meat was also distributed among all the kinsmen, then they put their portions into the urasa made of willow braches and left killed dogs nearby (putting it together with the shaman’s meat). The Yukaghirs used the bones as talismans and they put dead dogs in the tent near the shaman’s dried meat. This custom was connected with totemism. The wolf was one of the Yukaghir totems, and the dog was its domesticated substitute. The urasa itself was a symbol of a family tree, on whose branches the patron of the shaman lived. It also could be a prototype of pyramidal tombs. The shaman’s skull was inserted into a wooden idol, for which special clothes and a mask were made. The Yukaghirs put this idol in the front corner of the house and constantly fed it with fire and smoke. Spirits like smoke. It is considered one of the offerings. They love fire too. They gladly come to it. Similarly, the spirit of the shaman likes it when there is fire and juniper and spruce twigs are burnt as incense.”
“Wait a moment, Kudai Kam, I didn’t quite understand this ritual. Can you explain, please, what is the point of all this?..”
“The point is to gain the favor of the shaman’s spirit and not to lose the connection with it. All the time, in all the cultures, the peoples of the earth have always treated the deceased with respect. They were considered to possess a special power and might. And if they got angry, the living person was sure to get into trouble. He wouldn’t evade hardships and trouble.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Even the word ‘mogila’ means ‘might’. A dead man knows more and can do more that the living one. That’s why the dead are regarded with such reverence.”
“Ah, now I understand.”
“They are flattered, offered different gifts. We make sure that the deceased man is in no want of anything in the next world. We give funeral feasts and pray for him. If he was a great shaman, we ask him for assistance and protection. If he was an ordinary man, we pray for him and tell him the right way. We pacify his frightened soul and set it on the right track, so that it doesn’t wander near the earth and plague the life out of the living, his relatives, for instance. Anyway, since olden times, all the rituals connected with death have been considered more important than any other. Because the afterlife has always been thought the most important, the longest and real. And the mortal life is just a temporary abode for the soul. And the way a person passes away, what death he dies, how his funeral is attended, this is the most significant. Because the restless soul can fly around the earth and make a lot of trouble.”
“So what is to be done?”
“You see, it is very important to lay his soul to rest so that it could leave the earth. Otherwise it will bother the living and cause trouble.”
“But why does it happen?”
“Depends. Usually because of the unnatural death.”
“How is that?” laughed Saosh. “What you mean, ‘unnatural’? How can death be unnatural? Ha-ha-ha! I don’t get it. What on earth are you talking about?”
“Yes, it sure can.”
“Oh, God! Do tell me. Don’t drag it out!”
“Then listen. This can happen in several cases. One of them is when a man dies too early and unexpectedly. In a disaster or accident, for example. He doesn’t understand what’s happened. He wanders near the earth for a long time, resenting his loved ones not hearing and not understanding him.”
“That’s how my nephew Emil died. He was so young. His leg cramped when he was swimming, and there he was!”
“Yes, I know. He too didn’t understand straight away where he had to do after his death. But then he went eventually. Now his soul rests. Another case, I’ve told you already, is when a person was very greedy while alive. When he dies he sees other people dispose of his property. That’s a perfect torture for a miser!” laughed the old man.
“Ha-ha-ha! That’s a hoot,” echoed the young man. He fell to the floor, pulled up his legs and started rolling on the ground, laughing.
“A special category,” continued Kam, “is self-murderers. These people are inconsistent with the design of God. He wanted to teach a lesson, but a man ‘does not sit through the lesson’ and decides ‘to play hooky’. So all the unburnt energy will torment him after his death. What do you call it? Karma?”
“Yes, Kudai Kam, it’s called karma,” nodded Saosh.
“So this karma torments him after his death.”
“Ugh! I dread to think about such a thing. And there are people who have the courage to do it!” Saosh shook himself like a dog shakes off water.
“It’s not courage, it’s foolishness!” the shaman tousled the young man’s hair. “Another category is the people who are grieved for by their loved ones. They hurt him greatly with their anguish and attachment to the dead man.”
“Because although he is eager to go away, to leave the earth, but he can’t. HE JUST CAN’T! Their emotions don’t let him go.”
“Oh, yes! I knew one such woman. He lived alone and grieved deeply for her dead son. For about two years or so. She grew thin, her cheeks were sunken. There were shadows beneath her eyes. And some footsteps and noises could be heard around her house. As if someone was sighing. Everyone who lived nearby felt creepy. And then they called a shaman. He performed a ritual, and the inconsolable mother calmed down. And everything became quiet at once. The nights were tranquil from then on.”
“Of course! The dead man’s soul was laid to rest. They let it go, and it went where it was supposed to.”
“Are there any other?”
“There is another category of the deceased that hover near the earth, – so-called ‘wish-washy ones’.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s very simple. For all their lives they have been ‘half angels half birds’.”
“YEAAAAH! I’ve seen so many such people,” drawled Saosh Yant meaningfully.
“While alive, they did not know where to go. Why they lived. What powers they serve. What inspired them. They idled their life away. And after they died, they still don’t know where to go. They don’t approach the light because they didn’t think of it while alive, and they don’t approach the darkness because they didn’t sin that much. But anyway, they have wasted their life. They weren’t eager to do something good, something positive.”
“Yes, I understand you, Kudai Kam. There are a lot of such people on earth.”
“There have always been quite a lot of them. But you have an easier time with them. Their emotions are faint, their attachments weak. They leave the earth after a while. They are sort of blown away by the wind.”
“The wind of change?”
“Yeah, sort of,” nodded Kam.
“And what about the babies that died in their early years, or the children who died in an accident? And others?”
“They did nothing wrong. They even didn’t have time to realize where they were. So they can escape the bad consequences. They go to the upper worlds almost at once.”
“Ah, I wish I had died young…”
“Do not talk like that!”
“What’s wrong about that?”
“One the Gods decide who should go, when and why. You mustn’t think about such things!”
The Great Shaman looked angry.
“I am very sorry, Kudai Kam! I didn’t mean to provoke your wrath.”
“It’s not my forgiveness you should seek.”
“Do not call down the wrath of the Gods. Do you understand?”
The young man’s only answer was a meaningful shrug of the shoulders…
“But you should know the most important thing,” the old man softened his tone. “I’m telling you all this in order to explain one thing. Shamans must be able to find the restless souls of such people and help them.”
“What do you mean ‘help’?”
“It means to sever their ties with the earth, the attachments to things, to events, to situations and, of course, to the people who were around. And then determine which path the Gods have for them in store. And, of course, to show them this path. To guide them where they’ve deserved to go.”
“Ah, now I see. It sounds rather complicated. But will you teach me how to do all these things?”
“Of course, I will. Otherwise what’s the point for me to work with you? I’ll teach you these and many other things too!”
“That’s great!” Saosh Yant gave a skip for joy.
“Don’t rush and don’t get excited too soon. It is a very intricate art.”
“All right. I’m ready! But tell me, Kudai Kam, why are all these rituals so scary? I would day, terrible. Deboning a shaman… Giving his bones to people. Drilling beads out of the dead shaman’s skull… What is it? What should I think of all that?”
“These are archaic rituals and customs. That is how the ancient people perceived the world. There’s nothing special about it,” said Kam indifferently. Then gave the young man a mischievous look.
“Ah, you’re kidding, aren’t you?.. Yes, you are. I can tell it from the look in your eyes!”
And they both had a sincere, hearty laugh.
“Jokes aside, the bones of a dead shaman were kept to establish the connection with him.”
“So that he could come and help, of course,” for Kam that was an evident thing.
“And it must be only the bones?” Saosh Yant wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“Not necessarily bones. You can have his magical item which was associated with him.”
“Phew!” Saosh gave a sigh of relief.
“But bones are better.”
The Great Kam seemed to be teasing his apprentice.
“There you go again!” Saosh looked awry at him.
“You don’t understand. They allow a direct connection with the person. It is better…”
Saosh was silent. There was a struggle inside him. After all, he was a town dweller, so there were a lot of things unclear to him. His stereotyped perception didn’t allow new experience.
“All right. If you’re not comfortable with the bones, you can use the dead shaman’s nails and hair to establish the connection with him.”
“Hair, eh? Okay then,” Saosh sighed with relief.
“You’ll come to the necessary understanding… Not now… Later… Later…”
Saosh sat for a while, thinking over what he had heard, watching the fire in the hearth. And then he went on asking questions.
“And did they believe in the afterlife?”
“Of course, he did! Each nation called in a different name. For example, the ancient Goldi called it the buni. It was located quite deep under the ground. None of the living can find it, and only a shaman can fly there, on the back of the Koori, a mystical bird, accompanied by the seon, the patron of the Buchu. The buni serves as a place of everlasting rest. There the souls will enjoy happiness and abundance, there is a lot of game in the forests there, and there’s little difficulty in hunting it. In the buni, in the next world, the dead will enjoy a life similar to that they had here, on earth. In a word, everything is just like what we have here, only better. But the journey there is difficult and dangerous, and the way is known only to shamans. The soul of a dead man can’t reach the buni itself and has to wander through the Universe until his relatives give a big funeral repast (the koza), to which they invite a shaman who, with the help of his patrons, the seons, after a long search, eventually finds the desolate soul. Then, with the help of the Koori bird and the seon, the Buchu guides it into the buni. Into the realm of the dead.
But it is difficult to reach the buni even for a shaman. Not every shaman always can do it successfully. A lot of inexperienced shamans died in the maze of the underworld on their way to the buni, and a lot of souls were lost there. Only an old experienced shaman can travel in the buni.
The Goldi are greatly afraid of the soul of a dead person. They believe that the soul flies freely in the Universe, and, of course, like nothing better than spending time near its house, near the living relatives, in other words, near the places dearest to it, where it used to live before the death. It stays in the house, invisible, and carefully watches the living and sees their attitude to it. If it notices that the relatives have forgotten about it or treat it without respect, take possession of its property or ruin it, the embittered soul starts avenging: it can cause illnesses, bad luck and so on. The dead man keeps vigilant and zealous watch on his wife. If the widow forgets about her dead husband or is even unfaithful to him, his vengeance can be fearful. The dead man can send an illness upon her, for example, madness, or take away the ability to speak, to hear, to see and so on.
That is why the Goldi try their best to blandish the dead kinsman’s soul, in order to gain his favor by their good attitude toward the deceased. According to their beliefs, kindness is repaid in kindness. That’s why the dead man likes it most when he is remembered, when celebrations and feasts are held in his honor, which are attended by numerous relatives and guests, – the mindful relatives give a funeral repast for the deceased.
There is a whole system of funeral rites and traditions. They are not done as simply as the modern people do them. Because how the funeral is attended determines the afterlife and the life of the living kith and kin. You know, the afterlife is much more important than the mortal life.”
“And will you tell me about them?”
“Not only will I tell you, but I will also teach you everything.”
“Great!” Saosh Yant gave a skip for joy. “You know, I often had a feeling that the dead man was somewhere around watching me.”
“That’s right. But on the forty-ninth day the soul’s connection with the earth is severed completely, and it goes away into lighter and purer worlds. Since there’re no lies there, the soul is enlightened and starts seeing things in their true colors. It lets off all the attachments to the past and wends into heaven. The man is freed from lies. Because it is lies that cause negative emotions, the desire to do things in his own way, to interfere in people’s lives, all of which make him unhappy. But the God Tengri is loving and merciful. He wouldn’t allow the man to suffer eternally in hell, as it is believed by the Christians. He even has made the mortal life not very long so that the man wouldn’t have a lot of trouble while living in his physical body, and be incarnated just occasionally, and so that he could live in heaven most of the time, where is home for him, in happiness and pleasure.”
“That’s interesting. And can you tell me, please, what happens to a person if he doesn’t let off his attachments? If he doesn’t do it within the forty days?”
“This wicked man temporarily becomes a karakarmyos – a malevolent spirit. He will live in such a state until he realizes everything and lets off the mortal life and all he has in it, and goes to heaven.”
“Oh, yes! I remember!” exclaim Saosh Yant joyously. “There was an occasion in our village. One day a very rich man died. We all used to call him a ‘kulak’. While alive, he had poisoned the existence of many of his fellow villagers. Not to mention his wife and kids. After his death they became kind of happy. Everyone marveled at them: they should’ve been lamenting but they were laughing. They happiness didn’t last long, though. On the third day, they started to have different misfortunes and troubles. Now the rabbits died of some disease, every last one of them. Then the eldest son got lost in the forest which he knew like the back of his hand, literally in broad daylight. Or the baby knocked over a kettle and scalded himself. There was a fire one night. We hardly put it out. We were lucky to notice it in time. In short, the widow and her kids had a good deal of trouble.”
“Yeah, that’s how a restless soul shows its qualities,” the Great Shaman nodded earnestly.
He became somewhat taciturn. As if he was watching or listening to something. Making no reckoning of it, Saosh went ahead with his story.
“And a couple of months later there was a great loss of cattle. Then the people started falling ill one by one. Two men died even. We asked the shaman for help. He performed a ritual. And after that everything was fine. That wicked spirit seemed to have quieted down. Things returned back to normal.”
Kudai Kam was tranquilly and attentively listening to the young man, staring at him with his penetrating eyes.
“Tell me, please, Kudai Kam, how did he manage to do it? Reveal the secret.”
“The secret?” The Great Kam smiled patronizingly. “There’s no secret. The shaman simply sent it to the realm of the dead and put it under a spell to prevent it from returning.”
“But what was it? A malevolent spirit? The spirit of the dead man?”
“That’s right. It was an evil spirit that couldn’t find rest. It is called an Aldaichi, it’s Erlik’s servant. While it remains in hell, it devotes itself to the evil and destruction, like it used to do on earth. And asking the shaman for help was the right thing to do.”
“Was it that serious, Kudai Kam?”
“Yes. The shaman quieted down that spirit. If he hadn’t, it could have done you all a lot more evil and harm.”
Then there was silence. Saosh was sitting for a while, not knowing what to say. At last he remembered the question he had been wrestling with for a few years.
“Tell me, Kudai Kam, I have been thinking but without any result. What happens to a man, or rather, to what remains of him, after all that? On the forty-ninth day onward?”
“On the forty-ninth day the Kut disintegrates and goes into the relatives, it is spread among them. The strongest get more of its power.”
“And the deceased?”
“The deceased should go to the land of the ancestors. There is his afterlife. He remains there until he is reborn again.”
“And what’s the case with shamans? They are not ordinary people.”
“When a shaman dies, he can give his power to his successor. His apprentice. When I pass away, my Power will be yours. And you will know and be able to do all what I can.”
Saosh was standing with his mouth wide open.
“Anyway, don’t think about it now.”
“Why?” the young man was sincerely surprised.
“It’s too early for you to think about that! You’d better focus on what you have here.”
And they continued their exciting journey.
 A Russian word for ‘grave’ (translator’s note).
 A former name for the Nanai (translator’s note).
 A member of the class of wealthy Russian peasants who became proprietors of their own farms (translator’s note).