Stepan P. Krasheninnikov, Explorations of Kamchatka 1735-1741, translated from the Russian, Oregon Historical society, Portland, 1972.

pp. 244-245



The Shamans


The Kamchadals have no specific shaman, as their neighbors do; but women, particularly the old ones, and the koekhchuchei [kinds of servants of unspecified sex but of female social gender. This site contains a chapter, ‘Sex and Shamanism’, drawn from Czaplicka’s book Aboriginal Siberia. She gathered all we know about these mysterious koekhchuch], are regarded as sorcerers; it is believed that they know how to interpret dreams. When they make their magic they do not beat on any kind of drum, nor do they any longer dress in special ceremonial robes, as is customary among the Iakuts, Tungus, Buriats and all the other idolatrous Siberian nations. They murmur words in a low voice over the gills or fins of fish, over sweet grass or sarana and tonshich; this is how they claim to cure illness, prevent misfortune, and foretell the future. I have not been able to learn what words they use in their ceremonies, nor the incantations, nor from which God they ask assistance. It was kept from me as a great mystery.

Their principal magic is made in the following manner. The women sit in a corner and continually intone words in a low voice. One of them ties to her foot a cord made of nettles twisted with red wool, and taps her foot. If it seems that she can easily raise her foot, it is a favorable omen, and a sign that whatever one has undertaken will meet with success; if it appears that she shakes her foot heavily, it is a bad portent. Meanwhile she invokes the spirits with the words, while grinding her teeth. When she has some vision, she cries out, as she bursts into laughter, khai, khai. After half an hour the spirits vanish, and the sorceress wails unceasingly, ishki, they are no longer here. The other woman who assists her mutters some words over her, and exhorts one to fear nothing, but to pay careful attention to the apparitions and to remember the reason for which she made the magic. Some say that when there is thunder and lightning, Biliukae [a God, called by this name by Steller. Krasheninnikov calls this God Piliachuche in the chapter devoted to the Kamchadal Gods. He lives in the clouds, he “makes the lightning flash and hurls thunderbolts and makes the rain fall.”] descends into these magicians, and that by taking possession of their senses he helps them read the future.

If a misfortune befalls someone, or if he is unlucky at hunting, he likewise sets out to find one of these old women, or even his wife. She casts a spell and considers the reason for his ill luck; then she prescribes the ways of averting it. She attributes the major cause to his having neglected certain superstitious practices; to remedy this fault, the one who has failed to perform these observances must carve a small idol, carry it into the woods, and put it on a tree.

The shamans also make their magic at feast time or when they are purified of their sins. They then mutter certain words, perfume themselves, wave their arms about, and work themselves into a state of violent agitation. They rub themselves with tonshich, wrap thongs around their bodies, and try to recall to reason those who have lost their minds. They put on other elaborate ceremonies, which will be more fully described in the following chapter.

If a child is born during a tempest or a hurricane, they make magic over him when he begins to talk, and reconcile him with the spirits; this is how it is done. He is stripped completely naked during a violent storm; into his hands is placed a sea shell; he must hold this shell up in the air and run around the iurt, the balagan, and the dog kennel, all the while addressing these words to Biliukae and the other evil spirits: “The shell is made for salt water, not for fresh water, you have made me soaking wet; the wet will make me perish. You see that I am completely naked and that I shiver in every limb.” When this is over, the child is considered to be reconciled with the spirits; otherwise they believe that he is the cause of tempests and hurricanes.

The Kamchadals are so curious about their dreams and place such faith in them that the first thing they do in the morning upon awakening is to recount them to each other; and by these dreams they decide what is going to befall them. They have hard and fast rules for interpreting them, as, for example, if they have dreamed of vermin, they fully expect to see the Cossacks come the next day. When they dream that they have everything they need, they feel this is a sign they are to be the hosts for their people. When they dream they are revelling with a woman, it is an omen of a lucky hunt.

In addition to magic and incantations, they are greatly given to palmistry; they believe it is possible to predict the good or evil that will befall a man by examining the lines in his hand; but they cloak the rules of this art in great mystery. If a line or mark suddenly appears on someone’s hand, or if a blemish suddenly disappears, they immediately consult an old sorceress about it.


The Koriaks (chap. XXI)

(pp. 287-289)

[Krasheninnikov evokes Koryak and Chukchee shamanism as follows.]


As for religion, the Koriaks are as ignorant as the Kamchadals; at any rate the Koriak chief or prince with whom I had a chance to talk had no idea about a divinity. They have great respect for demons or evil spirits because they fear them; they believe they live in the rivers and mountains. The settled Koriaks acknowledge as their god the Kut of the Kamchadals [With all respect to Krasheninninkov, he was not a very good logician to state non-A for the set S and A for the set S’ included in S in a nearby sentence! Anyhow, this God Kut is the one he calls Kutkhu in chapter XI, devoted to the Kamchadals Gods. He is the God who creates earth, who lived some time in Kamchatka and then disappeared for ever.] They have no set time for making sacrifices, but when the spirit moves them they kill a reindeer or a dog; if it is a dog, they put it whole on a stake without skinning it, and turn its head to the east; if it is a reindeer, they put only the head and part of the tongue on the stake; they do not know to whom they offer this sacrifice; they only speak these words, Vaio koing iaknilaltr gangera, that is, “This is for you, but send us something else.”


This is for You, but send us something else.”

[The American edition attributes this photograph to George Kennan, Tent Life in Siberia, Putnam, 1910. The original edition of 1870 did not contain this picture.]


When they have to pass certain rivers or mountains they believe to be inhabited by evil spirits, they think about making sacrifices. Shortly before they come to such places, they kill a reindeer, eat the meat, and put the head on a stake, turned toward the place they imagine the spirits live. When they are taken with an illness they consider dangerous, they kill a dog, stretch his intestines over two stakes and walk between them.

When their shamans make sacrifices, they beat on little drums which are made in the same way as those of the Iakuts and other pagan natives of this country; but the Koriak shamans wear no special costume as the others do. Among the settled Koriaks there are shamans who are considered doctors and who, these superstitious people believe, can cure illnesses by beating on these little drums. It is a very interesting fact that there is no nation, no matter how wild and barbaric, whose shamans are not cleverer, more adroit and shrewder than the rest of the people.

In 1739 in Lower Kamchatka ostrog I saw a famous shaman. He was from a place called Ukinsk, and his name was Karymliach. He was considered a man of great learning and he was much respected, not only by these people but even by our Cossacks because of the amazing things he did. He pierced his abdomen with a knife and drank the blood which gushed out; but he did this so clumsily that one would have to be blinded by superstition as these people are not to see through such a gross deceit. He began by beating on his drum several times while he was kneeling; after that he plunged a knife into his belly, squeezed the supposed wound to make the blood gush out, and, thrusting his hand under his robe, he drew it back filled with blood and licked his fingers. I couldn't keep from laughing for he performed his trick so crudely that he would have had a hard time in our country being accepted by our apprentice thimbleriggers. One could see him slide the knife along his stomach and pretend to stab himself, then squeeze a bladder to make blood come out. After he had finished all this conjuring and magic, he felt he was astonishing us all the more by lifting up his shirt and showing us his belly all smeared with blood. He assured us that this blood (which was seal blood) had actually come from his wound, and that he had just healed it up by his magic. He also told us that evil spirits came for him from various places and appeared to him in different forms, that some came from the sea and others from volcanoes; that there were small ones and big ones; that several had no hands; that some had been completely burned, and others only half burned; that those who came from the sea seemed richer than the others and that their garments were made of a grass which grows along rivers; he said they came to him in a dream and that when they came to visit him they tormented him so cruelly that he was almost out of his mind in a kind of delirium.

When one of these shamans treats a sick person, he tells him, according to the rules of his craft, how he can be cured. Sometimes he orders the sick person to kill a dog, sometimes to place little branches outside his iurt, or to perform other trivial tasks of this nature. In the situation in which they kill a dog, this is how it is done. While two men hold the animal, one by the head and the other by the tail, its side is pierced with a lance or a knife; when the animal is dead, it is placed on a stake with its muzzle turned toward a volcano.

The reindeer Koriaks have no festivals. The settled Koriaks celebrate one at the same time as the Kamchadals, but in honor of whom and for what purpose, they do not know any more than the Kamchadals. They give no other reason for it than that their ancestors did the same thing. This festival lasts four weeks. During this time they admit no visitors and none of them leaves the settlement. They stop all work and do nothing but eat a great deal and make merry. They toss a bit of the food they serve into the fire as an offering to some volcano.

Their civil institutions are as crude and backward as their religion. They do not know how to divide time into years and months …