Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold (part 2)

After decades of repression, Siberia’s shamans are re-emerging. Ken Hyder is a musician who performs with a Tuvan shaman. His novel describes the culture of contemporary shamanism as it emerges after decades of repression. Part two of three.
Ken Hyder
10 May 2010

Zoya lit the fire with a cigarette lighter decked out in the Marlboro colours. Alexei the driver sat down, not knowing what to do.  Some shamans insist participants hold their hands together in a Buddhist pose of concentration.  But Zoya gave no indication.  She fanned the small flickering flames with her hands and when she thought it was established, she began a quiet incantation, so quiet that neither Alexei nor Chimit who was standing beside her could make out any of the words.

“You should believe in something very strongly and the soul will be powerful and clean.”  -  Kungaa Tash-Ool Buu

She addressed the spirit of the spring and called on Hiarakan the supreme bear spirit to observe the séance. She then picked up the bowl and began throwing spoonfuls of the milk and juniper mixture into the air with her tos-karak ritual spoon. Some of the droplets were caught in the firelight as she moved round the fire. 

Then both Zoya and Chimit warmed their drums by the fire, moving them horizontally over the flames to even out the heat. Every now and again they would hit the skin once or twice with their drum-beaters listening to the dulled thud as the sheepskin of the beater moved the drumhead and the air. Then they might hold the dungur at an angle of 45 degrees to the heat, only moving it slightly to distribute the heat. Then another couple of quick hits, listening to the raised pitch, but also feeling the heaviness of the way the drum spoke.  Some shamans liked their dungurs slacker than others.  They liked the wet-sounding muffled slap, the darker sound, and the way you could almost dig the beater into the skin.  They liked the contrast of the black sound of the drum’s depth and the white sound of the high-pitched bells on the inside of the shell. That was Chimit’s style. Although he wasn’t a shaman. Very dark, very masculine. Zoya’s dungur was smaller, her goatskin head thinner, and her drumstick smaller and lighter. She kept coaxing the pitch higher. But not too high, or the drum would not speak. Too tight, and it is choked. When it was right, she began playing.

Chimit joined in. He knew this wasn’t a musical performance. He knew the drumming was not directly for anybody’s benefit but his own.  He knew that musical rhythm, timing, and phrasing were not what was needed.  And it was harder for him, because he was a musician. He remembered what an old shaman told him when he was starting to act shamanic roles onstage.  “Listen to the drum,” he said. And it instantly made sense. Listen to the drum.  Listen closely.  Each beat was different.  Each stroke a little harder or lighter than the previous one.  And landing in a different part of the skin. And the metal rings in the beater would vibrate differently. And the bells inside the dungur would respond a little further or nearer the beat each time. And as the shaman listens to the drum, it informs the next beat to be played. And the drumming becomes a circle.  A loopback. An ever changing loop.  There are no bars, no accents.  Because every beat is just one beat. It is one-time. And the focus on that one blurred moment is the trigger.  The key. The opening.

Zoya began playing fairly fast. She moved all round the cleft in the slope where the spring was, just behind the fire.  She was careful to cover all the ground at the spring and as she drummed, sometimes sweeping the dungur skywards to the left and the right, she sang her algysh - her own shaman’s song. 


 I will travel to Ak-Deer (white sky)

Come bird, come lift me

Bird-spirit you know me

My dungur is ready

The bells need no playing

The milk has been offered

My cap is fastened

Come bird, come lift me

Her eyes were closed. Chimit’s eyes were closed. The musician in him could not allow him to stop listening to Zoya’s drum. But Zoya had no such distraction. She was not a musician. Her dungur was not a musical instrument. She was a shamanka.  And now she was flying. Her body began swaying.  She was bent at the hip, leaning forward.  It seemed like the drum was leading her in a dance. She’d hold a position for a moment, then suddenly the drum pulled her left. Or right. Or round and round in a complete circle. The drum pulled her body upright, reaching for the stars.  Or down, down towards the ground. Sometimes the pace of her drumming suddenly quickened – or slowed down. Another shaman, watching, could tell where she was, where her spirit was flying to. But others could only tell that she was somewhere else.

Zoya herself was in two states at once.  She was both aware of where she was in her out of body flight, yet she was not in control at all. She could hear the drum clearly, and precisely, but it felt like somebody else was playing it.  She was locked into a movement, a moving forward, a moving upwards.  And her experience informed her that she was going where she needed to go, half pointing herself in the direction, half abandoning choice like a leaf drifting on a stream. Of course none of these thoughts surfaced. She was there.  In the moment. In time. In the time that never stops.

Chimit was thinking however. And he was trying to stop. But he knew that a spirit of a relative calling on him was potentially troublesome. If it is a peaceful visit, a lot of smiling, a benevolent watching-over vision, that’s fine. But if it is unfinished business. It is bad. And he thought that smoking the joint had been both a good, and bad idea. It loosened him up.  It allowed things to happen.  But at the same time, it made him think. His mind was racing.  Each time he began to lift, he caught himself being aware of it, then he would start to analyse it.  Was he really lifting – or just imagining he was lifting?  And it went on like this for ten minutes. Although it seemed much longer to Chimit. Then he fought the distractions head on.  He dug deeper into the dungur.  And by now the skin had slackened, away from the heat. And it was lower and muddier, and Chimit began to lose himself and find himself in the undertones of the dungur which only he could hear by putting his face closer to the head.


Then he saw his father. Only this time he wasn’t speaking. Or trying to speak. He was showing Chimit something.  His father disappeared.  And in his place was a mountain.  A distinctive mountain.  Not a stylised mountain. It was Hiarakan. Bear mountain.  The holiest spot for all Tuvan shamans. Some of the few foreign visitors who were starting to take the long, difficult journey to reach Tuva compared it to Mont Saint Victoire. Cezanne’s mountain. Then it disappeared. And his father reappeared for just an instant.  Then Chimit was almost blinded.  By a dazzling yellow light which flooded the field of his vision.  Then it shrunk slowly to one smaller circle of bright deep reddish-yellow in a black velvet-like background. And that circle remained there for a long time.  Gradually losing the light-like quality of its appearance, becoming more solid, more real, more metallic. Then his father reappeared. He looked straight at Chimit.  Didn’t say anything to him.  But now Chimit could understand without hearing.  He knew was that his father would not appear again. He had done what he had to do and now he was leaving his son to his life.

And Chimit stopped. He let his arms fall to his sides, still holding the vertical crossbar of the dungur, and the beater. And he stood. Still. He was breathing heavily. But there was no sweat on his brow. He felt exhausted.  But alive. Alive with frizzing energy zapping through the meridians of his body. He could lift the huge boulder Alexei was sitting on - if he wanted. Only he couldn’t move. And the thoughts came back. The analysis. The questioning.

He shuffled over to the stone he had been sitting on earlier, and propped the drum against it.  And he sat down.

Zoya had just finished. She was bright eyed. Razor sharp. Yet calm and floating in her movements. Carefully she placed her dungur on a stone. Her teacher Kaigal-Ool told her early on in her apprenticeship: “Don’t ever place your dungur on the ground. You will lose its energy.”

On the other side of the fire – where Chimit could not see what she was doing – Zoya began drawing.  She brushed the fine earth with her hand, smoothing it out, then with a stick she began drawing. First she drew the outline of the mountain, then a circle with a ribbon attached. Finally she began drawing an animal.  Then she rubbed it out, as she realised what it was, and it was for Chimit to discover when he was ready.

Zoya looked over to Chimit.  Alexei looked on.  He saw. But he did not know.

“I know you saw some things, Chimit.”


“Well, what?” Zoya sounded impatient.

“I saw Hiarakan.  The mountain.  Not the bear. Oh and I saw my father before that.  But he didn’t say anything. And I saw this light.  A big yellow light and it got smaller, and less fuzzy.  And more clear.”

“What was it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Anything else?”

“No.  Except I felt my father will not come back again.”

“Come here.”

She showed him her drawing. She explained that the yellow light which got smaller and smaller was a kuzungu copper-brass mirror.

Chimit was in shock. He was shocked with amazement. Zoya had the same visions. He knew that shamans often saw the same things when they shamanised. He looked at the drawing, Bear mountain, and the kuzungu. And he realised what it meant.

“You know what it means.” It was not a question Zoya asked.

“You know what you have to do.”

Chimit nodded. Slowly.


Part 3 to follow.

Ken Hyder can be contacted at [email protected] Sky, White Sky is published as an e-book on Amazon.

All photographs (c) Ken Hyder


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