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Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold

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 one of three.

They heated the drums by an open fire. Zoya and Chimit did not notice the big sky. The big, dark sky. With all the stars you could want, or need. There was always a big sky at Erzin and over the border too, in Mongolia. The steppe had a huge boundless feel, but when you’re used to it, it’s normal.  And it was normal too, for villagers to ask a shaman for help.  All kinds of help. Every sickness, lost animals, a drunken husband or wife, cleaning out the home of bad, or trapped spirits.  But this kamlanie séance was unusual.

Zoya Sedip, although just thirty-two, had been a shamanka for eight years.  Her initiation followed a classic pattern. She became ill with an inexplicable depression.  For six months she lay in the platform bed in her family’s round white felt yurta tent on the outskirts of Erzin where most of the homes were traditional Russian-style single storey wooden houses which could remind you of North American frontier cabins.

“Knowledge is a vocation. When knowledge becomes a calling that calls us toward our own being, we can discover it in art and music and poetry as well as in rocks and trees and stars.  Knowledge is found in all living things, as well as in numbers and symbols.  It is found in all creativity and inspiration. Knowledge is beauty, delight, and joy, like rich, full humour and laughter. It is love and appreciation, alive with the richest feelings that the heart can offer.”  -  Tarthang Tulku Kadai

Every day her mother Larissa fed her white food – sundried cream, white smoked cheese, and white salt-milk tea. Kaigal-Ool, the oldest of the three remaining Erzin shamans, visited the yurta every two or three weeks to see Zoya.  But he knew there was little he could do.  The spirits wanted her – whether or not she knew it herself.  Later, the visions would come, and Kaigal-Ool would tell her what they meant, and the choices open to her.

Simply put, she was being marked out to become a shaman.  Few of those selected in this way actually wanted to surrender.  Of course there was status, respect even. And now it was safe, politically at least. Until the Gorbachev era it was dangerous being a shaman.  Thousands of Tuvan shamans died in government purges, some thrown out of helicopters to their deaths.  Others were sent to the gulag. Kaigal-Ool himself was an underground shaman for 31 years, sometimes fleeing across the border to Mongolia when KGB officers came south from the capital Kyzyl and started asking questions. The Erzin shamans uniquely wore all-black costumes.  But that did not mean they were necessarily black shamans who dealt with negative energies and who fought black spirits, and when necessary, carried out dark rituals. Kaigal-Ool was a white shaman, able to visit the white sky - and heal people with white, positive energy.

Eventually, towards the end of her depression, Zoya succumbed to the imprecations of the spirits.  Kaigal-Ool told her that if she hadn’t, the spirits would never have left her alone, and she may never have recovered.  So, here she was, an initiated shamanka, with Chimit Ondar, a musician, a stone sculptor, a hard-drinking, hard-living cowboy whose musical performances involved dressing up as a shaman, and appearing to shamanise onstage.

Chimit had known Zoya since childhood.  They were country-Tuvans, although like many others from their region, Chimit had moved to Kyzyl, the largest settlement in the country.  It was a small capital with just 200,000 people. But it was superabundant with life.  There were dozens of musicians, and stone carvers, and three different shamans-centres operating like doctors’ group practices. Patients going to one of these centres could sometimes have the pick of a dozen shamans, some of them specialising in different aspects of healing, divination and exorcism.

Tonight though, Chimit was back home in Erzin, looking for answers. He had been playing in folk and rock groups for over a dozen years.  He was best known for his bass style of overtone singing that Westerners discovered in the 1990s and referred to as throat-singing. Tuvans thought it was a funny way to describe it. Doesn’t everyone sing with their throat?   There were very many astounding overtone singers in Tuva and it was hard to stand out.  Chimit covered the bass style Kargiraa – holding a low drone while simultaneously producing whistle-like overtones. And he did it better than most.  But he also developed his own particular style where he injected an urgent rhythmic vibrato into the singing.

He also played the horse-head fiddle – which was more like a small square-bodied cello and was also played in an upright position.  Chimit mastered other traditional instruments too, but what got him noticed were his shaman-artist performances where he spectacularly drove whatever band he played in, further and further into ecstasy - with the dungur.

Preparing for a ritual (kamlanie). Photo Ken Hyder

The dungur is a frame-drum.  A shaman’s drum. The shaman’s horse - a vehicle for flying. It is a little like an Irish folk drum, the bodhran. Each drum is different.  The size varies, the skin can vary too.  Most have ribbons and bells. Chimit’s was big.  About 30 inches across, with eight horns – raised bumps of three wooden knuckles around the frame over which goatskin was stretched.  The Tuvans made their drums with eight horns, corresponding to compass points. But the Sakha people of Yakutia in the north, were insistent on the whole nine horn complement, representing the nine skies belief, also shared by the Tuvans.

The problem Chimit took to Zoya was that after years of acting out as a shaman onstage, sometimes it was getting too real.  He was starting to get visions. Recurring visions.  He began seeing Kuular, his father who died from throat cancer when Chimit was six.  Every fourth or fifth performance, Chimit saw him. It didn’t matter that there was an audience, stage lights, other musicians playing harder and harder.  When Chimit saw the visions, everything around him stood still.  It was like he was the only one moving in a freeze-frame. His father was trying to speak to him, but he couldn’t work out what he was saying.  He could feel his father had a message for him, but the sound was switched off.

Zoya had readily agreed to help.  They met in Chimit’s mother’s house, and had a meal of roasted goat-chops.  Alexei, another childhood friend from school days had a Lada and was a part-time unofficial taxi-driver and he came round at eight to pick them up and take them to the arzhan – a spring where people went for the healing waters.  The Ak-Ugbai arzhan was thought to be particularly beneficial for skin diseases, although people with other ailments used it too. But it was also a power-spot. A place where a shamanic session could be super-charged with more energy, more success.

It had been a hot day. Winters in Erzin could easily reach a low of minus 40 degrees centigrade. But in summer, days like today could hit plus 40. The big sky was like a new age painting of bright garish pinks and oranges and shades of black as they motored on the pot-holed road out of town. The spring was nearby.  Twenty minutes into the steppe they approached a low rise, turning off the road to the old capital of Samagaltai.  The new track was dusty and even more rough and bumpy and they slowly climbed towards the escarpment.  On their left they saw nine or ten wild camels lethargically moving towards night-time rest.

By the time they stopped at a flattened piece of ground sheltered by man-sized boulders, there was a pleasantly refreshing light chill in the air and a faint smell of dry grass.

Zoya supervised the preparations.  Alexei opened the boot and took out the bag of flour, the butter wrapped in brown paper, and the juniper twigs tied together with copper wire at the bottom, and still full of fragrant green life. Zoya and Chimit lifted out their dungurs, each in a canvas bag. Because the drums were single-headed with a fairly shallow shell, they doubled up as round suitcases for the shaman’s costume, hat and paraphernalia. Zoya also took a plastic bottle of milk out of the boot, and the three of them made their way up a path to a narrow cleft in the ridge, nestling between bushes festooned with mainly white ribbons.

Just behind some flat stones was a larger flat stone, charred by ritual fires over the years. As well as the ribbons tied to branches to give thanks to the spirits, there was a cairn of small stones placed there for the same purpose, and paper and coin money, and some cigarettes. Although Chimit knew how to build a ritual fire, he allowed Zoya the shamanka to organise it. He and Alexei collected some twigs and small branches from bushes not far away, and Zoya built the fire with flour on top of the wood, and the butter, followed by the juniper, broken into smaller pieces about three inches long.

An ovaa (shaman shrine) at the side of the road, Tuva. Photo Ken Hyder

Before they actually lit the fire, Zoya and Chimit prepared their equipment. Alexei, meanwhile started making a Siberian joint. He took a Belomor papierosi cigarette – the roughest and cheapest Russian cigarette, with its long, empty cardboard tube, pinched and twisted before smoking. He shook the tobacco out of the cigarette and into the palm of his left hand, leaving him with a half-paper, half-cardboard empty tube. With his right hand he crumbled a block of cannabis resin into lumps the size of small peppercorns and mixed it up with the crude tobacco. In spite of the climate, or perhaps because of it, some of the strongest most potent cannabis in the world grows wild and free in Tuva. He carefully poured the mixture back into the empty cigarette tube, and the joint was ready.

Zoya and Chimit had opened their fawn-coloured canvas bags and had put on costumes. Each had an eagle feather hat.  It’s where the American Indians got the style, and of all Siberians, the Tuvans have the closest genetic link to native Americans. Zoya’s costume was plain black cloth, like a short dressing gown.  There were blue ribbons attached to the front and back. And sewn into the back were also three brass bells about one and a half inches deep.  The headband of her feather hat was decorated with cowrie shells and small brass disks intended to repel black spirits.

Chimit’s costume was a showbiz affair, silky, almost glittering in the emerging moonlight. It was basically bright red, but with sewn-on patches representing different animals, and there were dozens of ribbons in many colours. Chimit was typically Tuvan in stature, short and solidly built, but more stocky than most.  He gave the impression of a slow, lumbering country boy. But he could skip from stone to stone on a hillside like a goat.  And on horseback, he melded into the shape and force of the animal. He exuded a peaceful, confident stillness, but you could tell there was fierceness below, and few would want to get on his bad side. His hero was Chingis Khan.  And it showed. His flat, wide face and high bronzed cheekbones showed no emotion as he looked at his dungur, feeling the slackness of the skin under his fingers, judging just how much heat it would need to come up to an ideal playing tension.

Zoya got out her paraphernalia bag. It was a piece of maroon velvet with pockets sewn into it.  It was rolled up and tied with a cord. She unrolled it onto a flat stone.  From the first pocket she took out her kuzungu  - a highly polished copper-brass mirror - and slipped its ribbon over her neck so that it faced outwards from her body. In Tuva and in some other parts of Siberia, the kuzungu is the most important shamanic instrument – more important than the dungur. It’s also the most versatile, being used for healing, divination, and protection – and in the hands of a black shaman, sending black energy into the enemies of patients. It could be hard for outsiders to understand how it worked.  A kuzungu is just a round flat disk of copper-bronze, plain, but polished on one side.  It has a raised bossed loop on one side to take the ribbon so it could be worn round the neck. It is a mirror and it is as clear as a glass mirror. Some are just three inches or so across, while others can cover a shaman’s chest.

If a shaman runs a kuzungu over your arm, you feel a tingling, a prickly feeling, a sensation of energy. Try passing any other flat metal disk over your arm, and you’ll feel nothing.

She also took out a bear claw protector, a small bell, a single divining rod made from a piece of wire, her ritual spoon carved with nine small indentations for sprinkling libations to the nine skies.

Zoya was tall and strikingly beautiful in both her shape, and in the mesmeric aspect of her face. People were attracted to her piercing, intense dark eyes.  She was a Kyrgyz and proud of her tribe’s history.  When Chingis Khan was in Tuva, he married a Tuvan woman. The Kyrzyz used to live in the north of Tuva, then one of the tribes moved south settling on the border with Mongolia. She said little, and could appear stern, but she could also laugh freely.  When she did talk, it was considered. Other Tuvans liked her Tuvan-language accent. It was rhythmic and melodic, coming out in phrases which paused just slightly longer than you expected. She was part of the community, but she also kept herself apart.  She lived alone in a small wooden house in the village.  She got on well with the few shamans around Erzin – most of the time.  But shaman rivalry can be violently volatile and intrigues and even shamanic fights can develop overnight from the slightest of slights. She didn’t want to get drawn into petty rivalries, nor the binge-drinking which put so many shamans out of action for several days at a time.  She knew why they did it.  She knew the pressures shamans suffered in their work.  But Zoya wanted to be purer, stronger than the others. Her seriousness and dedication earned her the respect of the villagers, although they knew she was not yet as powerful as her teacher Kaigal-Ool.

The last part of her preparation needed one of the ceramic bowls Tuvans used for drinking tea. She poured milk into it. Then she broke up some juniper in her fingers and sprinkled the green crumbs on top of the milk.  The milk was now ready for sprinkling to the skies and to the earth with her ritual spoon.

All during the preparation for the kamlanie seance nothing was said. Siberians have this way of working where each person gets on with an individual task until the whole job is done. Nothing is said, for nothing needs to be said. It’s the way their nomadic ancestors set up and broke camp. And now everything was ready for a séance to find out why Chimit was receiving visions, and what his father was trying to say.

The three stood still and looked at each other. Zoya briefly glanced at the joint in Alexei’s hand and nodded. They each sat down on a boulder and Alexei lit up.

Parts 2 and 3 to follow. 

Ken Hyder is a London-based freelance journalist specialising in policing, serious crime, and race. He is also a highly original musician who has made over 25 albums. Ken Hyder can be contacted at ken@hyder.demon.co.uk Black Sky, White Sky  is published as an e-book on Amazon

About the author

Ken Hyder is a London-based freelance Home Affairs correspondent, specialising in policing, serious crime and issues of race for a range of national daily and Sunday newspapers.

He is also an experimental musician with over 25 albums to his name. Fusing jazz and traditional Scottish music, Hyder collaborates with musicians from diverse backgrounds: from Tibetan monks to Siberian shamans.

In 1990 Hyder joined another player to tour Russia in what was up till then the biggest Russian tour ever undertaken by British musicians. They played throughout the country from Leningrad to Vladivostok.


Ken Hyder's website.

Read On

Vilmost Dioszegi Tracing Shamans in Siberia, (Oosterhout:Anthropological Publications, 1968)

Andrei Znamenski, Russian Records of Indigenous Spirituality (Kluwer Academic Publicatios, 2003)

Piers Vitebsky The Shaman: Voyage of the Soul, trance, ecstasy and healing from Siberia to the Amazon (Duncan Baird, 2001)

More On

Black Sky, White Sky deals with rivalry among shamans in Tuva as they come out in public after years of working in secret. The shamans form group-practice clinics, but jealousy and power-struggles lead to in-fighting – with deadly consequences.

The book cuts across genres and seeks to set out the landscape of the mind, culture and spirituality of Siberia allowing the reader to identify with and understand the action - which often takes place in the altered states of characters, most of whom are shamans.

In 1990 - with another player - he toured Russia from Leningrad to Vladivostok. Later, Ken began studying shamanic music in Yakutia, Buryatia, the Altai and Tuva in Siberia. He performs and records with a shaman from Tuva, and that connection made it much easier for him to gain the confidence of local shamans who were very generous with the information they passed on.