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Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold (part 3)

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 three of three.

Making music by the Mongolian Steppe

The kamlanie at the spring, with Zoya, gave Chimit the answer to his onstage visions.   He was being called.  It was more than an invitation.  Individuals who were singled out to become shamans could always decline.  But Chimit knew that usually, they would suffer sometimes a succession of illnesses, or just one big, long affliction.

Of course, the idea of becoming a shaman attracted him.  It gave status and power, and if not exactly popularity, it meant small-scale celebrity. He could see how it would fit in with his personality.  He could carry it off with style.  When he shamanised it would be a powerful performance.

At the same time, he knew it was a serious business, a serious step to take.  There were pressures and stresses which went with the job. He would be dealing with the uncertainties and dangers of the spirit world, daily.  And there was the shamanic politics.  There was always the shamanic politics.

Shamans tended to be fiercely proud to the point of seeing sleights in the smallest gestures of other shamans. Sometimes the fights were sneaky affairs, black magic behind closed doors.  But every now and again it was a full-scale public call-out like a western gunfight.

Then each shaman would chant his or her own kargysh – a personalised invocation or curse - in an attempt at destroying the other with black power.

But Chimit thought he could handle all that.  He was used to fighting.  He was a powerful man, capable of silencing opponents with a hefty punch.

So he agreed to begin his apprenticeship with Zoya.  He left  his wife Irgit, and daughters Nelli and Natasha in Kyzyl and moved back to Erzin for a month, staying with an uncle, not far from Zoya’s home.

There were no concerts or tours planned for another two and a half months, so he had time, and there was enough money left over from the last European tour to tide the family over.

It was like going back to school.  Zoya was thorough and strict.  She felt she had to control Chimit’s flare for extravagant gestures and showbiz posturing. Although there has always been a strong display aspect to Tuvan shamanism, Zoya thought that Chimit had more than enough already, and clipping his flamboyant wings would not reduce his effectiveness.

Zoya also believed in doing things by the book – except that there was no book, only a tradition which was interpreted more liberally by some shamans than others.  For Zoya, every ritual had to be performed with the right words, the right procedures, in the right order.

Again this did not sit easily with Chimit’s more fluid approach to life.  But he was decided on one thing.  He was going to do this with conviction. And as Zoya was his teacher, he resolved to follow her instructions with respect. She started by looking at Chimit’s astrological background.  There were two systems.  The first is the familiar 12-year cycle – the year of the dragon, the snake, the horse – used by the Chinese and others. The other is an unusual system which probably arrived in Tuva from Tibetan Buddhists, via Mongolia. The Tuvans called it the nine menge method, menge meaning a dot.  So in the nine year cycle, Chimit was born in an eight white-dot year, also in the year of the snake.

It meant, said Zoya, that he was a deep thinker, but a rowdy reveller. She went on to build up a picture of Chimit, and the origins of his power, and she told him he had to study these astrological methods in order to help people.

“If you use the astrology alongside your shamanic power, you will be able to give more positive help to people,” she told Chimit.

She showed him an old book of charts combining both systems, a book she had been given by her own teacher who had added notes in the margins of nearly every page, and she told Chimit to copy it out for his own use.

Although Chimit knew the differences between black and white shamans, Zoya insisted on spelling it out.

“You will become a white shaman. You have the power to go to the white sky.  There you can find white energy to bring back down to give to people who are ill.

“Only black shamans can deal with black spirits.  Sometimes people you shamanise for will be ill from black spirits.  You should not try to fight these spirits.  You will lose and become ill.

“Instead you must find and use as much white energy as you can to help the sick person. Usually the white energy is enough to cure that person.

“After some time, it is likely you will find something that you are especially good at doing.  Maybe you are good with children, or people with problems of the spine.”

Zoya effectively worked out an intensive shamanic course for Chimit designed to last the month he would be in Erzin.  He would visit her house each day at two in the afternoon, they would talk mainly, sometimes going outside to walk in the steppe land, and in the evening Chimit would act as an assistant when people came to Zoya’s house for help.


A shaman's kuzungu

 She insisted that Chimit get a new dungur.  The dungur he had was fine, but tainted with rock and roll.  So in the mornings, Chimit had to find a goatskin and prepare it, then start working on the drum itself.  He also had to make himself a tos-deer - the ritual spoon with nine small hollows in it for sprinkling salt-milk tea to the nine skies.

Chimit was a well-respected stone carver, but he was equally adept with wood.  He began carving an elaborately designed spoon with interlocking patterns reminiscent of Celtic knotwork.  He was so pleased with it, he decided to do another, as a present for Zoya.

He also went hunting, shooting a steppe owl, preserving its claw as a protector eeren.

But there was one essential part of the equipment which was still elusive – the kuzungu or copper-brass mirror.  A lot of shamans say the kuzungu is even more important to them than the drum. It helps them to see into the future, to heal people by amplifying energy, and to fight black energy.

Chimit asked around, going to blacksmiths asking if anyone had the metal so he could make one. But there was nothing around.

Then he was speaking to Vova, another school-friend of his who happened to mention that his grandmother had been a shamanka, and he thought her drum and costume and equipment had been hidden in a cave during one of the purges in the 1930s.

They went to Vova’s home, and spoke to his father. Vova explained that Chimit was apprenticed to Zoya, and needed a kuzungu. His father described a ridge about fifteen miles north-east of Erzin where the cave was.

If they found it, Chimit could keep and use any of the implements  that were there. Vova’s father was only a baby when his mother’s paraphernalia was hidden, but he remembered her telling him about it when he was a teenager.

She told him precisely how to find the cave by following a stream, and that nobody should try to retrieve her instruments until it was safe.  But such a long time had passed, nobody in the family had thought to go and look for it.

Next morning, Chimit borrowed one of his uncle’s horses, and together with Vova, he rode to the ridge. It was dry and dusty, and shortly after leaving Erzin, they were in wide open wild country.  They headed north towards the old capital of Tuva, Samagaltai, then soon took a track to the east towards the hills.

As they rode up on to higher ground, the still-luscious steppe turned into scrubby sandy ground, becoming more rocky interspersed with loose scree.

They found the stream, tethered their horses and walked up towards the spot where the cave should be. It was hot, and the ground was steep by now, and they stopped to drink from the stream and wash their faces.

Ten minutes more climbing and they found the cave. It wasn’t much of a cave.  The entrance was half-hidden by a boulder and the opening was only three foot high.

Chimit began to crawl in. After four feet or so the cave opened out becoming wider and higher. The torch illuminated bare walls.  He edged further forwards and there, on his right, was a wooden box about two foot square, and on top of it something looking like a bundle of cloth.

Chimit reached forward and began dragging the box towards him.  Then he gradually reversed out of the cave, pulling the prize with him.

At the entrance, he passed out the cloth bundle to Vova, then crawled further back out, bringing the box into the open.

It was a green-painted box with red and gold painted decoration in the familiar interlocking design.  There was a hasp, but no padlock.  It opened easily.

Kara-Ool - one of the most influential shamans in Russia

Inside, the first thing they saw was a headress of feathers, the Tuvan shaman’s hat, just like American indians’ warbonnet, but smaller.  The black eagles’ feathers were still intact, but dry and brittle.

Carefully they lifted the cap, and underneath was a black cloak with faded ribbons attached and small bells.

And finally, underneath resting on the bottom of the chest, were three black cloth bags.  In the first they found a dried steppe-owl claw just like the eeren Chimit made a few days ago.

In the second bag was another bag of stiff leather. Carefully they opened it out and inside they saw black and white stones. They both knew there would be  41 of them. They were used for khuvaanak - a traditional method of divination by stones.

Chimit opened the last bag, but even as he picked it up he knew what he was going to find.  He could feel the weight of a flat disk about four inches across, and when he brought it out into the daylight it was a kuzungu - dusty, dirty and faded like the purple, yellow and blue plaited ribbon attached to it.

They shifted their attention to the bundle now, and as they began teasing out the dirty black cloth, they heard a jingle of a tiny bell. A dungur. It had been a magnificent dungur.  On the faded blackened hide skin they could make out a painted dragon.

Vova took out his clasp-knife and slashed the drum head.

“Maybe my grandmother thought she would be able to use the dungur again some day.  But she is gone now, so I must release the spirits of the drum.

“I will take it home to my father.  But you can have any thing else here.”

Chimit said he would take the kuzungu and the stones.

They put the costume back in the box, wrapped up the dungur in the cloth and silently descended back down to the horses.

Now Chimit had something else to do in the mornings.  Polishing the kuzungu first with emery paper, then with toothpaste and water.  After three or four days it was transformed into something brilliant and precious.

Zoya said that at the end of the month, they would take Chimit’s new drum and all the other instruments up to the arzhan where they had the first kamlanie and she would purify them all.

Gradually in the last few days, Zoya moved from the theoretical to the practical.  More than assisting by tending to the juniper incense and observing Zoya’s shamanising, Chimit was being asked to make diagnoses when patients came to her house in the evening.

He was learning how to seek out imbalances in the body by running his hands over a patient.  And he began healing patients by redirecting energy from one part of the body to another using his hands again.

And they started shamanising together. If someone called asking for help for a relative in Novosibirsk, say, Zoya would later shamanise to send distant healing.

Late at night, Zoya and Chimit would shamanise together. Drumming, going into light trance, flying up to the white sky together.  And they would see things while they were shamanising, and compare experiences afterwards.

And slowly Zoya’s disciplinarian demeanour changed. She had been watching Chimit closely over the past month.  And he had changed too.  The more he worked on his craft, the more serious he had become about it.

He did everything with respect.

On the last day, after they had gone to the arzhan where Zoya had sanctified the accoutrements, they sat together in Zoya’s house.

She poured two large glasses of vodka and proposed a toast.

“Chimit, you were called through visions.  And in the past weeks you have worked hard to understand the mysteries of Tuvan shamans.

“What you have achieved in these weeks is more than others have achieved in some years.  But it is only a start. You have a lot more to learn and now you will go back to Kyzyl.

“There are many temptations there, as you know.  I hope you have the strength to be modest about your new work.  I hope you find a way to work to help people, and to carry on learning.

“There are others who can help you, and others who can put you on a wrong path. But you know enough and have learned enough to make good judgements.

“I salute the work you have done, and the work you have yet to do.”

They drank the vodka.

Chimit presented the tos-deer spoon he had carved for Zoya.

He picked up the black bag containing his new dungur and his other instruments, and said goodbye.

Tomorrow he would be back in Kyzyl. 

Black Sky, White Sky is published as an e-book by Amazon

All photos (c) Ken Hyder

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

Vilmos 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.