Extracts from M. A. Czaplicka, My Siberian Year, Mills & Boon,  London, 1916.

My comments are between [ ].




[p. 190-201]

Shamanism when most affected by Christianity remains profoundly and essentially shamanist in its worship of natural objects of strikingly unusual form or appearance. From Christianity it has borrowed only some outward forms and rites. Yet many of the natives who are shamanist in grain will assure you that they are Christians, and thus, sincerely enough, since they understand little of what Christianity implies, confirm the official Russian view. Nor would the Sibiriak “Christian Shamanist” be willing to call himself anything but a Christian, though he has a rooted belief in the power of shamans, and will confess it to you, if he thinks you are a safe person to talk to.

A Sibiriak peasant from the Angara (the great right tributary of the Yenisei) was telling me how a Tungus shaman saved his father's life.

• How did you find the shaman ?” I asked, thinking that no doubt in the absence of a doctor, he had been driven, as the last resort of filial anxiety, to seek out in the forest a wizard known to him through native report.

• Oh, but he is our batyushka (“little father,” peasant name for a pope), answered the man. “He always shamanises for me.”

“Is he always successful ?”

Why, no. The spirits sometimes will have their own way. But he always tries very hard.”

“Have you never tried a Russian batyushka ? “I have not. Others have.”

“Then why not you?”

“He cannot help against some of the bad spirits we have here. And he does not work so hard as our batyushka. He does not call the spirits to him; he does not struggle with them. And I do not understand the Russian batyushka's prayers.”

The incongruity of the man's personal appearance with the views he was expressing was most striking. He was a fine, big fellow of a pronounced North-European type, such as you find in great numbers near Novgorod, where there is probably some Norse blood. He was of just the tall, slim, fair type that predominates there, with little of the Slav about him, except perhaps for just a slight obliqueness in the setting of his eyes. Certainly, nothing about him that suggested the Asiatic. ,

“And yet your people came from Russia?” I suggested.

“Yes-when great Peter was Tsar, they tell me.”

“Then they were Christians, surely.”

“But of course. Am I not a Christian myself ?

The Tungus batyushka is a Christian, too. He has also many ikons; that is why he is so clever.”

I take it that my friend from the Angara considered that the best Christian is he who is clever enough to get the best of two worlds, and by a shrewd eclecticism keep on the right side of gods both old and new, since the old have not yet been deposed. The cry that swept the blue Aegean when the oracles fell silent has waked no echo on the Yenisei.

“Not all the Tungus are so clever, though. There are still some wild people among them,” he concluded as if to sweep away any lingering misconceptions I might have of the true meaning of the word “Christian” : the connotation must include, I think he would say, “civilised,” “up-to-date,” and its denotation will not therefore take in shamanists pure and simple.

Just as the shamanist ceremonies, and even the shaman's costume, in the north show traces of Christian influence, so in the south it is Lamaism, or Buddhism which have left their impress, even more strongly, on the forms and beliefs of the old faith. But in the latter case, the religious conceptions, the whole sphere of beliefs concerning spirits and deities, and not merely the outer forms of shamanism, have been much more deeply affected than in the north.

To say, as some Russian investigators have done, that many native: Siberians - or even the Sibiriaks who disclaim allegiance to any particular creed - are “atheists,” conveys a quite false impression of their attitude towards a belief in the unearthly, the something outside oneself towards which men, especially in primitive conditions, turn in moments of stress or crisis. And to the man who has to face harsh nature almost bare-handed such moments are of frequent occurrence. An observer who had watched the procedure in almost all the native tribes when their members set out for the hunting or fishing, when the sun returns after the winter darkness, when a new hearth - the defender against man's ,chief enemy, the bitter northern cold-is built, when one is starting on a long journey, or when some one falls ill, could not with fairness bring a charge of “atheism” against these people. It is true that they do not exhibit in their everyday life a behaviour which betrays any self-consciousness of being “religious.” The shamanist mysteries are not matter of common knowledge among the tribesmen; it is the shaman's job to know how to deal with the spirits and what spirits he has to deal with. But the layman has an implicit confidence in the efficacy of that knowledge, though he does not go about his daily tasks and enjoyments in an ever-present consciousness of that belief. But when the moment comes, he believes. And if the emotional atmosphere that forms the setting of the particular ceremony does not persist between ceremonies, it is not the less pregnant with fervour when the next occasion arises. And the Sibiriak backwoodsman also, as we have seen, feels and yields to the urgency of the same need, seeking to satisfy it by means which appeal most strongly to his rude emotional disposition.

The shaman, being usually a person of strong will and remarkable imaginative faculty, strongly impresses by his personality any one who comes under his influence. Even if you are not a shamanist or a “Christian shamanist” like the Angara carpenter, you can hardly fail to appreciate in some measure the power these people have over the imaginations of impressionable folk, if you have come into contact with a really notable shaman.

I met the great Samoyed shaman Bokkobushka about the middle of my fourth month among the northern natives. Over three months of close intercourse and friendly relations with these people, and yet I had not hitherto been considered sufficiently initiated to be allowed to witness a shamanist ceremony. It was on the muddy beach of an island in the Yenisei, at no great distance from the mouth. I had not long parted from my two women companions of the first summer, who were then on their way back to England via the Kara Sea on the S.S.T.M. Company's steamer Ragna, through the courtesy of Mr. Alfred Derry, the London Director of the Company, and Mr. Jonas Lied, the Managing Director. I was very anxious about them, and my thoughts were always running on ice-jams in the Kara Sea and German mines in the waters farther west, not to speak of other poignant anxieties raised by the vague news which had only lately reached us about the outbreak of the war. We were on our way up-river to Monastir, the starting-point for our winter journey to the Tungus, on the old Oryol. It was a gloomy autumn afternoon, and a gale which had held us up for two days had just fallen sufficiently to allow of our going ashore, while the work of getting the barrels of salt fish on board the barge, which had been interrupted by the storm, was being completed.

Bokkobushka had spent the summer fishing on the river, and we found his chum [tent] a few yards from the water's edge. We went in and paid our respects to his wife, who sent to call the shaman from his task of cobbling his net. Soon he came in, a little dark man, with a single eye gleaming from under a heavier brow-ridge than one usually sees in a Samoyed. His piercing glance seemed to be trying to search out my most inward thought, as I greeted him and put my request. It was necessary to offer a pretext for requiring him to shamanise, and groping as I was in the dark for some, for any, solace to my anxieties, it was not without a dim fantastic stirring of belief and hope somewhere in those obscure depths of consciousness, where lurk in all of us the shadowy remains of far-off ancestral faiths, that I asked Bokkobushka to “look into my way,” to tell me what the future held for me.

How did I know he was a tadibey (Samoyed for “shaman”) ? Why, every one on the river had heard of Bokkobushka.-But there was a pope on the steamer.-Yes, but no more boats were coming ashore, and we would guarantee the batyushka should not hear of it, if he would shamanise for me. The Samoyed have not forgotten the rigorous persecution of their shamans by the Church authorities some years ago, though at present they are not much interfered with. I went on to urge that I was very far from home and very anxious to know how I and my people would fare before I returned to them. At last Bokkobushka consented to call up his spirits, and the performance began.

He seated himself cross-legged on the ground, while his assistant, a young Yurak brought up in a Samoyed family, threw over him a cloth, which completely concealed him from view. After some moments of silence, broken only by the crackling of the driftwood fire in the centre of the chum, a low sound of chanting arose from the cone-shaped bundle that was all we could see of Bokkobushka. His chant rose progressively in pitch and volume to the middle of a long verse or rhythmical sentence, on two or three notes smooth and monotonous, broke into a quavering staccato, then sank again smoothly to the end of the verse, and paused to await the similarly chanted response from the assistant. This continued for some five minutes, and then the tadibey inquired, through his assistant, whether one of us had not been ill during our journey down the river. I had, and said so. Had we not, one or both, some dark spots on the right arm ? I confessed to a mole. “Ah,” said Bokkobushka, “the spirits know you.”

Silence again, followed by a low moaning sound, which gradually became articulate as the chanting was resumed, to be followed by another short silence. Then the result of this second colloquy with the spirits was communicated to me, again through the assistant. There would be “much business” for me when I returned to my country (which I should reach safely), and where I had left one home, I should find three homes made one. Prophecy strangely - and sadly -fulfilled since, though I do not suppose that Bokkobushka had any conception of a wider sense of “home” than was actually involved in his use of the Samoyed word for tent.

First we had had divination, and then prophecy. The shaman now threw off his cloth, and began the third stage of his shamanising - a contest with the spirits of disease. The same antiphonal chanting, broken this time by sentences uttered in a conversational tone - a dialogue with the evil spirits. When this was over, the shaman dipped his fingers into a cup of water and touched my cheek below the left ear three times. He had requested the spirit of small-pox not to touch me, but the spirit would make no promise, and, indeed, had declared its intention of paying me a visit. Therefore, Bokkobushka, to thwart him, wrought this charm. Now the malicious bringer of disease would not dare to come near me.