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Shaman and Native Mysticism
 

Friday, August 18, 2000

Shaman and Native Mysticism

by Linda DeLaine

Shamanism is a rather liberal term which was used by explorers of the Siberian region in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Shaman is loosely translated from Evenk to mean excited man. The focus of Shamanism is the Shaman.

The term Shaman is both a noun and a verb. It is from the Tungus language and is seen as saman or haman. The actions of the Shaman are, what western explorers referred to as, Shamanism. Shamanism should not be categorized as a religion.

Shamanism came to refer to a form of spirituality which believes that all elements of the physical environment possess a spirit force which can be controlled by humanity. Historically, this belief is most prevalent in the native peoples of Siberia, Mongolia and North America. Shaman is the original high priest and mediator between the physical and spirit worlds. Legend has it that Shaman was swept off to another world which enabled him to commune with the spirits and gain favors for his people. So called Shamanism began during the Stone Age and is considered to be the first human spiritual practice.

The foundation of the Shamanistic belief is Animism which claims that the world is infested with spiritual forces who are responsible for everything that happens to mankind. It is an ancient philosophy that believes all elements of nature are possessed with a soul; this includes living things, as well as inanimate objects, such as rocks, and the forces of nature; wind, fire and so on. In fact, Animism comes from the Latin word, Anima, which means soul. Humanity is defenseless against these spirit powers, except for the intervention of the Shaman. Thus, the Tungus people believed that the, so called, Tunguska Event was the work of a powerful evil spirit. Russia is reported to have roughly 1,213,970 practicing Animists.

The Shaman's goal is to control the physical world through healing and knowledge. This means he must be able to drive out evil spirits or bring closer, helpful spirits. When the Shaman is successful in resolving the ills of a person or community, he is seen as a healer; thus, a medicine man. He is, also, the primary source of tribal history and knowledge and able to detect evil and punish crimes. In Siberia, each tribe has a shaman who is in charge of all rituals and the care of the idols. He has apprentices who tend to individual community and family concerns; births, marriages, spiritual cleansing of homes, etc.

Shaman is both healer and priest. He cures illnesses, leads communal rituals and guides the souls of the dead to the after life. Shaman is able to accomplish these things because of his ability to leave his mortal body. In Siberia and in northeastern Asia, shamans either inherited the position or were elected by the clan or tribe.

Healing is the most sought after service of the shaman. Tribal peoples believe that illness is the result of the person's soul leaving the body. The shaman must determine if this is due to demonic possession or some transgression on the part of the individual. In the first case, the shaman must leave his body, journey to the netherworld and guide the soul back. In the case of individual transgression, the shaman finds the wandering soul and brings it back to the body, thus healing the ailing person.

Equally impressive is shaman's flight to heaven. This occurs during tribal rituals and sacrifices and is considered the oldest form of human spiritual expression. Shaman is, also, the creator and caretaker of most of the tribe's folklore and oral traditions. Stories of tribal lore and history, based on the shamans' accounts of their out of body experiences, have been passed done through countless generations.

Shaman techniques include symbolic magic, fasting, celibacy, isolation and chanting. The tools of the Siberian Shaman include tambourines and rattles and their colorful costume. The practice of meditating oneself into spiritual flight, to search for information, is unique to the Siberian Shaman. These journeys are most effective when done on behalf of others. Siberian Shamans have been known to use psychedelics to aid them on their journeys. One in particular is a mushroom known as Amanita muscaria or agaric. The Shaman's journey into the spirit world allows him to gain knowledge of other plains of consciousness. This is the foundation of the Shaman's power as it gives him the ability to communicate between this world and that of the spirit powers.

The Evenki Peoples

Also known as Tungus, the Evenki represent the largest native Siberian nationality. At the end of the 1900s, the Evenki numbered roughly 50,000. Most live in Russia and China with a small group residing in Mongolia. There are two basic groups of Evenki: reindeer breeders across the taiga all the way to the Sea of Okhotsk and hunters. Smaller groups of farmers and cattlemen live in Mongolia and northeast China.

The Evenki were divided into tribes which were made up of clans. Each clan had a common ancestry traced through the males lines. The clans maintained a communal fire and called upon their common ancestral spirits. Each clan had a shaman to heal and guide them, as well as serve as prophet.

In the years following the Russian Revolution, the Evenki peoples were gathered up on collective farms. In 1930, the autonomous Evenk district was formed. The nomadic and free roaming Evenk were forced to settle into a life which involved farming, animal husbandry and working in factories. Much of their ancient practices fell by the way side as generations of Evenk adapted to non-tribal life, intermarriage and forced non-nomadic life.

The Shaman hold a considerable level of power over the tribe. If he considers a person or thing to be evil, it is. The Shaman's word is seldom challenged. Shamanism affected the artwork of the native peoples. Totems and masks reflect the are primary examples of this influence and the firm belief that spirits do live in our world. The high regard that the community holds for their Shaman is evident in a Shaman's tomb.