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

My comments are between [ ].



A SHAMAN’S CURSE [p. 211-224]


To a casual observer it might seem that the persecutions of an earlier day and the present attitude of calculated contempt and disparagement on the part of the official Russian missionaries have greatly weakened the hold of the shamans (medicine men) and the cults they represent on the minds of the native tribes of the lower Yenisei valley. The decay of shamanism is, however, more apparent than real ; and even where formal shamanist observances have to a great extent been abandoned, the spirit of the old beliefs still exercises an influence both wide and deep over the minds of shamanists everywhere, even of those who most protestingly call themselves Christians. This is well seen among the Tungus of the Limpiisk tundra, who are, in religious matters, perhaps the most sophisticated of all the groups of primitives living north of the Lower Tunguska - the most northerly of the great tributaries of the Yenisei. The traveller among these people constantly hears of instances of the havoc wrought by death and disaster in the families of those who have in some way, by design or inadvertence, offended a powerful shaman.

Among the Limpiisk Tungus of to-day the principal function of the shaman which has survived the efforts of the missionaries is that of healing. Besides this, a great deal of importance is still attached to shamanist ceremonies for securing luck in fishing and hunting. The injunctions of the shaman who is treating a patient or carrying out a ceremony for ensuring a good haul of fish are unquestioningly obeyed. But when he shamanises at some social gathering, displaying his powers by way of affording entertainment to the company, he cannot be so sure of a respectful compliance with his wishes; the more daring spirits will on such occasions sometimes venture to question his supernatural authority, and even to “chaff” the wielder of the mystic drumstick.

Social events which bring together a fair number of people are not very frequent among these scattered northern nomads. A few score may gather for the yearly fair of the Chapogir on the banks of the Lower Tunguska, or for the meeting of the munyak, or native Parliament, in some still less accessible spot; or the marriage of the child of some notable may attract a considerable number of guests. Perhaps an enterprising native trader will have brought a good stock of vodka from the nearest Russian settlement on the Yenisei to the fair; at wedding or munyak a less artificial state of exhilaration is induced by prolonged indulgence in games and dances ; in either case the right atmosphere is produced for a “struggle with the shaman."

This is the name they give to a trial of wits or a deliberately provoked quarrel, in which the shaman is incited to put forth his supernatural powers against the merely human mentality of a layman. Or the struggle may be between two shamans - a test of shamanistic power. A typical case is that of a contest between a Samoyed and a Yakut shaman, continued for years, in which the scene of strife was transferred first from the earth to the sky and then to the water and below it. Although the Samoyed succeeded -in compassing the death of his rival, this did not put an end to the struggle, which culminated in the defeat of the Samoyed - a tacit recognition of the superiority of Yakut culture; for the tale was told by the brother of the defeated champion.

When a layman pits himself against an adversary who can summon to his aid the resources of the spiritual world, it is notable that the issue is always decided by the lack of shamanistic power, no matter how greatly superior the layman may be in personality and intellect to the adept. A veritable tragedy - of which only the final catastrophe is still, so far as I know, to be enacted - was unfolded before our eyes, of a family blasted and disappearing under a wizard's curse, because its head had rashly offended the “spirits” of the latter. Śdipus himself was not more relentlessly pursued by the instruments of the offended gods than was the Tungus herdsman who presumed to slight the familiars of a powerful shaman. It was difficult to shake off the feeling that this was indeed the motive of the drama, and to pin oneself to the rational explanation that the misfortunes of this apparently fate-ridden family were partly a series of coincidences and partly a matter of psycho-pathology.

[Ready to curse Chunga if wounded in his pride]


[I guess this is the “only photograph in all the Limpiisk tundra” that he promised to give to Czaplicka, see infra]


Chunga, or - to use his Russian baptismal name - Nikolai, Hiragir, is a member of one of the two most influential families or clans among the ten which form the Limpiisk group of Tungus - a man of unusual refinement and delicacy for a Tungus, a thorough gentleman. We first met him in the tundra on our outward journey, in a chum, where our hosts, as in most of the other places where we had stopped for only an hour or two, forgot their hospitable duties in their curiosity. His courteous greeting was in welcome contrast to the jostling eagerness to shake hands with the strangers which made us the centre of a small mob-large enough, though, to cut us off from the warmth of the fire in the middle of the chum. It was Chunga who, with a few quiet words of authority, dispersed the chattering crowd and made room for us in the place of honour near the fire, opposite to and facing the tent flap; and when we set about the preparations for a much-needed meal, he informed us “When you come to my house you will not open your food-box," combining a hospitable invitation with a rebuke to his own hosts for forgetting their manners.

Chunga has been six times “prince” of the Limpiisk people, thus completing eighteen years of public service - a prince is elected for a three year term by the men of the group. His tact and ripe experience are still always at the service of the prince pro term and the elders, and they are frequently made use of. He was, until quite lately, the head of a prosperous family of five sons and five daughters; his quiet tactfulness, dignified bearing, and wisdom were recognised and appreciated no less by the Russian officials and traders than by his own tribesmen.

In the spring of last year Chunga went to the fair of the Chapogir. This is an annual gathering at which furs are exchanged for provisions and stuffs of Russian manufacture brought to the fair by native traders. The Chapogir are a tribe of Tungus who live in the taiga (forest) on the southern bank of the Lower Tunguska, while the Limpiisk people inhabit the tundra and the more open border-country, half-tundra, half taiga, to the north of this river. The Chapogir, being forest-dwellers, are more isolated and consequently more primitive in their mode of life than the Limpiisk group, who regard them rather condescendingly. They are Tungus, of course, say the Limpiisk people, but quite “wild.”

Now some enterprising Tungus trader had brought a large quantity of vodka from one of the Russian settlements on the Yenisei, and everybody at the fair was, to put it rather mildly, somewhat exalted-spiritually or spirituously. Chunga's one weakness - it is a failing which has the full sympathy of all his countrymen - is vodka. What followed would never have happened if he had been sober, for he is far too considerate of other people's feelings, when he is himself, to speak slightingly of anything they set store by.

There was at the fair a well-known Chapogir shaman. Chunga went to his chum, to make a friendly call and smoke a pipe with him. As has been hinted, Chunga was very drunk. After the usual exchange of greetings and news, they unluckily fell on the topic of the relative merits of Limpiisk and Chapogir shamans. Chunga, though at no time a devout shamanist, was in duty bound to uphold the claims of Limpiisk magic to be of superior potency. The Chapogir, he said, are “wild” people, and they cannot be supposed to have really powerful shamans. Portentously the shaman warned him to take back his words.

“Pooh!” said Chunga, “you know well enough who I am. A word from me to the pristav (local Russian administrator) or the pope, and you know what will become of your coat and drum.”

The use of the ceremonial coat and drum of the shaman are banned by Russian law, though Chunga knew very well that this law is now practically a dead letter.

The shaman rose, a baleful gleam in his little bloodshot eyes. Solemnly he took up his drum. As the swift jingling clatter rose and swelled to a booming thunder, the listeners within and without the tent ceased their noisy bargaining and chatter, and stood horror-struck. No one was ill, there could be only one other reason for day time shamanising - it was a “curse”! Chunga, sobered by terror, crouched motionless in the middle of the tent, paralysed by the sudden consciousness of what he had done. Only his eyes seemed alive; they followed with a dull intentness the leaping, swaying, figure of the shaman, whenever the latter came within his vision as he danced around the squatting figure of the blasphemer.

Louder and louder waxed the chant of the shaman. He called upon Etigr, the bringer of storms, of disease and death, to come to the drum, where rattled and shook in a jingling ecstasy his effigy, a twisted iron serpent. He called upon Iinyan, who bears the shaman on his wings to the world of spirits, to enter into the madly agitated man-faced eagle of iron that clashed and clattered against the serpent. He summoned into the drum the whole array of spirits whose symbols, in the form of jangling bits of metal, tore the shaken air around the head of the cowering victim. He conjured Iinyan to bear him far away from earth, where no blaspheming Limpiisk scorner could reach him to do hire, harm, while Etigr wreaked his will upon the offender. Then, in the manner of the shamans of the north, humbling himself before the black spirits, his chanting sank and ceased in a long drawn wail -

“Not me, not me, but you, O mighty spirits, Chunga has offended. Not for myself I call for vengeance, but for you. Let Chunga kill me if he will, but let him not escape the vengeance due. For it is you he has outraged, O Iinyan, O Etigr ! in the insult he has put upon your servant! Chunga Hiragir shall live alone among his reindeer - lone as this pointing forefinger - without child or workman to bear him aid.”

He ceased and flung himself down upon the ground, his eyes closed, his face twitching, his whole frame quivering, his foam-flecked lips working spasmodically. The drum fell with a clatter beside him, the drumstick described a circle in the air, as he jerked it from him, and lay at Chunga's feet, dread token of the futility of any lingering hope of avoiding the curse. He stared at it dully. The bystanders looked at him half curiously, half in awe. They saw a man, aged, bent, broken, it seemed, with the weight of the curse already fallen upon his hunched-up shoulders.

The story of the cursing was told me by an old man, of the Yalogir clan, who took Chunga home from the fair. I had remarked to him on the air of despondent apathy which seemed to weigh upon the occupants of Chunga's winter hut while we were his guests. It was a doomed family, he said, and proceeded to explain.

The working of the curse had begun before I met Chunga. Some weeks had passed since his ill-omened visit to the fair, and though his mind was still sick with the expectation of a blow he knew would fall, nothing tangible had taken place. Then news came from the south that the Chapogir shaman was dead. But this did not lighten Chunga's burden of fear; he knew that a curse does not die with the man who uttered it. Within a few hours his eldest son, a fine young man of thirty, was taken ill. It was the height of the short summer when Tungus families disperse for hunting and fishing. But Chunga would not allow any of his children to leave the lake where their tents had been pitched for the winter. Whatever was to come upon his children he preferred to see the blow fall with his own eyes. He entrusted the care of the herd, which involved frequent absences from home, to the husband of his eldest daughter.

He tried one after another all the medicines he had got at various times from the Russian traders on the river. The young man grew worse and worse. His memory failed; he seemed to live in a world apart - a world of the shaman's

making - from which he kept calling to his father as across an ever-widening gulf; calling him by name : “Chunga Hiragir ! Chunga Hiragir ! Chunga shall be left alone in the midst of his herd - alone like this pointing forefinger.” How did the boy know? He had never repeated to a living soul the words that echoed night and day in his own heart. Now, at any rate, his wife and children would know the fate that lurked in the cloud that had hung over his household ever since he returned from the taiga.

Chunga crossed the lake and the mountain beyond it, found his son-in-law, took charge of the herd himself, sent him to find somewhere, anywhere, a Limpiisk shaman. The man was taken suddenly and violently ill in the third

chum he reached on his wanderings. They buried him there. The same day died Chunga's eldest son. His father reached home in time to hear his last words: “Lone as a finger."

This was in the summer. When I arrived that winter at the balagan (winter hut) on the lake, Chunga had one son left, a boy of fifteen. Of daughters one had died, another was very ill - without hope of recovery, as they believed - a third was a prey to melancholia. It was a matter of wonder to every one that the youngest daughter had a suitor who was still fearless enough to be wishing to marry her. True, his mother was a shamaness and might be able to avert the curse from himself and his wife. The eldest daughter, now a widow, had charge of the herd; but she would have soon to go, in accordance with Tungus customary law, to her late husband's family. Chunga could not hire any one to work for him; nobody cared to live in a household which was so obviously shadowed by the influence of the black spirits. The same fixed idea was an invariable symptom in the illness of each of the children: they kept saying to their father, “You will be left alone, like this finger - pointing with a solitary forefinger among your reindeer and your wealth.”

The Tungus said that the dead shaman had entered into the victims. Chunga's wife offered me a sakui (hooded winter overcoat) which had belonged to one of her dead sons. When I pointed out to her that the youngest boy would soon be able to wear it -

“No," she said, “he will never wear a man's sakui.”

Everybody else, too, took his fate for granted, though he seemed then in perfect health : “Poor boy !” they always said, when he was spoken of – “Poor boy ! . . . ”

It was impossible to rid oneself of the feeling that this unfortunate family was hopelessly entangled in a web of fate. Something was always happening to confirm the impression. The youngest daughter and her melancholic sister formed part of our convoy when we continued our outward journey. The sledge of the latter was in the lead; her sister was driving our baggage sledges just in front of me. It was quite dark - at this time of the year there is little or no daylight - and we were passing through a belt of open forest. Suddenly my driver pulled up his deer with a jerk, as the baggage teams swerved across our paths, and the bucks stood with shaking limbs and snorts of terror. What was the matter? Oh, nothing, said my driver; the deer had shied at a wolf among the trees. As this was an ordinary incident of our journeys, the explanation seemed satisfactory enough. But the two sisters stood talking in low tones near my sledge. The younger girl was trying to convince her sister, and apparently herself as well, that it was a wolf. But the other knew better

“No, I saw the Chapogir quite plain, between those two trees over there to the left. My reindeer shied, and I looked round and saw him. It was not dark where he was. He will not leave me now.”

When we returned in the spring to Monastic-Turukhansk to await the steamer that should take us south, Chunga arrived in the little river settlement a few days later. Travelling was still possible in the tundra, though the snow was deep and soft, and there was open water here and there in the morning after his arrival. His gait was a trifle unsteady, his eyes were bleared, but his manner had lost none of its courtesy as he explained his errand. He needed fifty roubles. Could I let him have it? He was going home the same day. He would send the money in by his son-in-law before the first boat arrived. There was no cringing, no elaboration of shamefaced excuses; he was obviously quite assured that I would as a matter of course be his friend in need, just as he would have been mine in a similar case. He thanked me simply as I counted out the notes to him. His son-in-law should also bring me the photograph he had promised me, taken by a Russian geologist-probably the only photograph in all the Limpiisk tundra.

The days passed. The snows were melting rapidly. Daily the river was expected to “move.” The son of the shamaness had not come in. The Yenisei was open at Verkhne-Imbatskoye, three days' journey south, we heard one day. Next morning early a messenger from the trader's handed me a packet. It contained fifty roubles and a yellow photograph. Chunga's son-in-law had brought it late last night. No, he had no business with the trader. He had left again immediately. There was no time to lose. His route lay along the Tunguska for some hundred versts, and the Tunguska might “move” at any moment now.

At breakfast we were startled by a noise like a crash of thunder. We rushed out to the river bank. The Tunguska was “moving”! Had Chunga's daughter's bridegroom had warning in time to reach the bank? Or was he at that very moment, perhaps, floating crushed and lifeless among the splintered debris of his shattered sledge, somewhere in that chaos of whirling, bumping, grinding floes? I have never heard.

[Here is the probable grave (so I guess) of Chunga’s son in law]


But even now it makes me shudder to think - it is absurd, of course-that perhaps I, too, was drawn into the meshes of the web spun for Chunga's undoing, and made an unwitting instrument of the dead shaman's vengeance.


[This book was published in a popular collection My Siberian Year, and Czaplicka could certainly not shock her readers by stating ideas too much opposed to the canonical beliefs. Nevertheless, this popularization aspect enables her to say simply what she thinks without being forced to hide behind the scholarly mask as in her other book on the Siberians, Aboriginal Siberia.

I would also like to underline the strange attitude of Chunga who finds a way to borrow money from someone about to depart. Could it be that his purpose was to entangle her in the mesh of the curse? Anyhow, she could not find a stable academic position (a shame I share, it does not explain everything however), her beloved married another one, she became financially desesperate and ended in self-killing in 1921 – these are the facts.]