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1886
Section: Ethnography
A Journey across Siberia. Turks of the Krasnoyarsk Uyezd and Their Shamans

A Journey across Siberia. Turks of the Krasnoyarsk Uyezd and Their Shamans

Johann Georg Gmelin was born in 1709 in Tubingen, Germany. He entered university at the age of 13 and completed his thesis when he was 18 years old. In 1727 Gmelin moved to St. Petersburg. In 1731 the 22-year-old scientist was appointed professor of the St. Petersburg Academy. Gmelin gained recognition of the European scientific community for the studies conducted within the framework of the Great Northern (Second Kamchatka) Expedition in 1733–1743...

Johann Georg Gmelin was born in 1709 in Tubingen, Germany. He entered university at the age of 13 and completed his thesis when he was 18 years old. In 1727 Gmelin moved to St. Petersburg. In 1731 the 22-year-old scientist was appointed professor of the St. Petersburg Academy. Gmelin gained recognition of the European scientific community for the studies conducted within the framework of the Great Northern (Second Kamchatka) Expedition in 1733–1743. After the trip to Siberia Gmelin returned to Tubingen, where he was a university professor of botany and chemistry until his death in 1755.

The Second Kamchatka Expedition headed by Vitus Bering had had no analogs in the human history. It was served by 13 specially constructed ships, the total number of participants approached five thousand people, which is impressive even from the modern perspective. The name of the expedition does not account adequately for the scope of this ambitious project. The original objective of the expedition was rather narrow, to prove existence of a strait between America and Eurasia. The First Kamchatka Expedition of 1728, in a sense the testament of Peter the Great, was not a success and failed to give an answer to this question (the Second Expedition was far more successful in this respect). A number of new objectives were added to the geographical task in the course of preparations for the expedition, some tasks were proposed by very young St. Petersburg Academy that was running a good jump at that time with several truly great scientists among its members. The list of objectives was expanded to include mapping of unexplored Russian territories from the Northern Dvina to Kamchatka, description and classification of flora and fauna of the regions (including vast Siberia), prospective assessment of local mineral resources, ethnographic and historical description of the aboriginal peoples, study of their languages, arrangement of economic activity and many other tasks, which obviously could not be fulfilled without involving scientists. Therefore, it was decided that one of the seven expedition detachments should be academic to deal with the investigation of the inner regions of Siberia. Gmelin joined that detachment.

From G. W. Steller’s letter to J. G. Gmelin dated August 20, 1740


Your High Honor,
Profoundly respected Herr Doctor,
Dear Patron and Friend,


I received Your kind letter and two boxes with herbs in Okhotsk on August 12, and satisfied myself with joy and also with great shame, that the noble heart of Your Honor, similarly to heaven’s inhabitants, cannot be forced to radiate light in the shade of somebody else; it can only shine of its own free will or hide completely in the clouds. In all my life, among all the fatal circumstances that I have often found myself in, can I remember nothing that would make me mourn more than the unwilling necessity to live in discord with Your Honor. Forever, the most distressful and wounding to my honor reproach will be the damage I inflicted on your dignity in front of the whole world, seeking to receive recognition from other people as your adversary, let alone only in appearance, and making all honest people suspect me of bad disposition and ill manners. I feel the most profound remorse because of your great honesty in fulfilling your duty, as well as connected with it sense of reason; the proof of the former is your most reasonable differentiation between the duty and the personality, and support of the latter is your decision to keep the word once given concerning sharing all your discoveries, though it would have been fair to break it because of my unpardonable recklessness. Owing to your most reasonable and noble attitude, which has made me part with my passions and prejudice, my soul has become so upset that I will not satisfy myself unless I apologize, as you require, and, having repaid your kindness, win back your regard to me. I am not driven by fear but solely by due respect: I owe so much to your noble heart. <...> My greatest happiness would be to erect, at the very edge of the Asian continent, the indestructible building of our friendship whose foundation would be kind attitude, in which you have been my wise teacher, our common love to our occupations, and my full loyalty to you in everything. <...>
                                                                                                                              Georg Wilhelm Steller. Letters and Documents. 1740. Moscow, 1998. Pp. 329—330

Later the researcher integrated the materials collected in Siberia in several botanical studies, one of them was the fundamental Flora Sibirica. The final volumes of that monograph were published by the Academy of Sciences in the 1760s, after Gmelin’s death. Famous Swedish botanist Karl Linney said that during his trip to Siberia Gmelin managed to discover more plant species than all the other botanists taken together.

Though Flora Sibirica was splendid, it was an example of fulfilling academic duties, a scientific report that Gmelin was obliged to submit to the Academy. But nobody really expected him to write a four-volume Journey across Siberia (Reise durch Sibirien). The book was published in 1751–1752 in Germany. It has not been translated into Russian yet. Incidentally, Gmelin was enrolled to the expedition as a botanist, while the description of the material and spiritual culture of Siberian peoples was assigned to Professor G. F. Mueller, one of Gmelin’s fellow travelers.

“We undertook this long and difficult journey because we were striving to see new places” (J. G. Gmelin).
A fragment of the General map of the Russian Empire published in 1745. Some parts of the map are lost, which evidences that it was much used.
Yet the map gives us an opportunity to trace Gmelin’s itinerary and to be impressed by the scope of the trip he undertook in 1733—1743

Despite everything, the book appeared; moreover, it could not happen otherwise. Gmelin, as most of contemporary scientists, was a person of encyclopedic knowledge who did not split science into strictly specialized disciplines and was interested in everything. Generally speaking, he was a careful observer looking with eyes wide open at the surrounding world. Take any field he was involved in, everywhere Gmelin achieved sound results: the thesis he defended in Tubingen was in medicine, in St. Petersburg he became a professor of chemistry and natural history, he joined the expedition team as a botanist. It is noteworthy that in Journey across Siberia he revealed himself as a gifted and punctilious ethnographer and an excellent novelist.

The book is a chronicle of the ten-year trip of the academic detachment, description of different regions of Siberia, sketches of everyday life and culture of indigenous peoples and Russians, data on commerce and trade, natural science observations and archeological materials.

Quite a number of pages are devoted to a description of shamanist practice, which to all appearances absorbed the traveler downright. As many Europeans who got to Siberia at those times, Gmelin believed that shamanism was a kind of good business and spoke of shamans as of sorcerers.

The observant scholar described the process of a shaman talking to the spirits, kamlanie, with undisguised irony. In his opinion, the kamlanie was no more than a series of various tricks aimed at forcing the audience to pay up in any form, by cattle, clothes, furs or any other property. At the same time he provided rationalistic explanations to the ‘wonders’ worked by ‘advanced’ shamans.

We are publishing two fragments of the third volume of Journey across Siberia. They describe the work of the Academic Detachment in the regions of South Siberia inhabited primarily by the Kachins, the closest ancestors of the modern Khakass. According to the Mueller diary, the scientists met the shamans of the Bagdinsk (the correct name is Bokhtinsk) and Yastinsk uluses on the night between September 2 and 3, 1740, when the team was on its way back to Krasnoyarsk after inspection of archeological sites of the Minusinsk Hollow. The second fragment dates back to the stay of the team in Krasnoyarsk (October 7, 1739 through February 2, 1740) and depicts the shaman kamlanie that took place on the night between November 13 and 14, 1739.

Mueller claimed that the shaman was not of the Kachin origin, as it followed from Gmelin’s description, but was rather a Yenisey Kyrghyz: he had stayed in Krasnoyarsk as a hostage after the withdrawal of the general body of the Kyrghyz in early 18th century to Dzungaria.

Just one last comment: readers should remember that these fragments are not strictly ethnographic writings, but rather one of the first approaches to understanding the life of Siberian aborigines. Therefore, one should not be confused by the fact that Gmelin perceived all shamans as mercenary cheats who pretended to be sorcerers (actually shamans were not much richer than the other members of their tribes), that the spirits supposedly communicating to shamans he called devils, undoubtedly considering them among evil forces. There are many inaccuracies due to Gmelin’s insufficient familiarity with the cosmogony and metaphysics of shamanism and with spiritual and social structure of the Kachins society. But he honestly tried to investigate and understand these phenomena, and the description of everything he met was the first step on this way. Serious science starts from objective observation and description; the time for analysis comes a bit later. It is essential that the description should be made by a curious individual who is not indifferent to the object of description, in other words is enchanted by the world he lives in.

Gmelin was such an individual.

Turks of the Krasnoyarsk Uyezd and Their Shamans

                                                                                                                                                                                                              Translated and published

                                                                                                                                                                                                 by Doctor of History A. Ch. Elert

Soon after passing the Irji Mountain we reached the Vorovskaya Protoka (Thievish Confluent), which is a left tributary of the river. It got its name from Yenisey Kyrghyz who had inhabited its banks in the old days. Having bypassed an island (almost eight versts long) formed by the confluent on the left, we disembarked. It was getting dark when we arrived. We saw Kachin yurts and invited several sorcerers and sorceresses to visit us. Though at that moment only one sorcerer from the Bagdinsk ulus and one sorceress from the Yastinsk ulus we available, they gave us a marvelous performance at night.

Here I wish to emphasize that one should not fear the terrible words ‘sorcerer’ and ‘sorceress’. My long experience of dealing with these people has convinced me that they have no evil intentions. Moreover, they are not familiar with the devil and unable to do anything that would contradict the laws of nature. If the devil cannot do more than these people, he is extremely unskillful. Thus, they have nothing to do with the witchcraft, at the same time they are considered as Siberian sorcerers, i.e., they use the superstitions of the rabble to ensure their well-to-do existence. One can reproach me for resuming talk about sorcerers when opportunity offers. I just want to demonstrate the diverse ways they use to fraud and describe all their dodges as far as possible, since they do not demonstrate all of them at once by chance or trying to cheat.

Both the sorcerer and the sorceress had recently occupied their honorary posts, which was clear from the fact that their clothes were almost new. The sorcerer’s father and the sorceress’s grandmother used to be shamans. Therefore, our sorcerers considered themselves well born and were ready to draw their genealogical trees to prove their sorcerer heredity way back up to the seventh generation. In the eyes of the pagan crowd, this was an honorary service indeed and only the selected were worthy of it, the most capable to do that were those whose veins carried the blood of respectable ancestors. However, this argument could not convince us.

The dresses of the sorcerers had much in common with what we saw before. They were decorated with numerous fells of small animals, eagle wings and a couple of poods of iron trinkets. The sorcerer’s hat was embellished with a bunch of feathers. The sorceress’s hat was decorated with an enormous number of feathers, which almost completely covered her face when she put it on. The high fur boots (unty) are a part of the costume, and they are never worn without it. The front of the sorceress’s unty was trimmed lengthwise with red fabric, while the edges were embroidered in horsehair. The sorcerer’s unty had a cross-like decoration above the foot. The sorceress’s hand drum was smaller than that of the sorcerer. Both had wider rattles than usual, with the top side that does not touch the drum decorated with lots of iron rings so that, while beating, the drum amplified the noise produced by the iron pieces hanged on the clothes and the drum.

The sorcery ceremony was somewhat different from what we had seen before. Before proceeding to the description I would like to ask the readers to follow my example and arm themselves with patience.

The sorcerers performed in turn. Both started from seating themselves in their Tatar manner on the earth just opposite the door. Holding the drums vertically in front of their faces, they started beating them without making much noise, accompanying the beats by low mumbling. Then the mumbling was getting faster and louder until it turned into a real frenzy. All of a sudden the sorcerers leaped to their feet and, beating the drums in a dreadful way, started jumping up, screaming in different voices, hissing, whistling and muttering. This lasted for a quarter of an hour. Then they started jumping to the side of the door and around the periphery inside the yurt, which was meant as decoying of devils. The loudest noise was produced near the door. Suddenly, the loudmouths stopped screaming and stood stockstill glancing up at the flue hole in the yurt top. This should have meant that devils had just arrived through the hole. The Tatars watching the performance splashed water from their spoons in that direction, as if the proposed drink should have persuaded the devils to be more inclined to negotiations with their friends-sorcerers.

Then followed antics and new jumps, and the buffoons continued their speeches in a manner of a peculiar singing, which narrated about the conversations of the sorcerer and the sorceress with the devils. The sorcerer often imitated the cuckoo, and some of the Tatars responded to him from aside by cuckooing. From time to time some of the participants of the performance screamed something directly in the sorcerer’s ear, the sorcerer responded by emitting amazing sounds that should have been perceived by the audience as devil’s voice. After a long buffoonery the sorcerer and the sorceress jumped out of the yurt that was closed behind them. However, all spectators, as the customs or superstitions required, stayed at their places. The absence of the dodgers did not last for long. It should be noted that before that moment the actions of the sorcerer and the sorceress were identical, but after that they behaved in a different way.

The sorcerer jumped in the yurt for a while, then he started throwing his rattle to each of the Tatars in turn. Getting the rattle back from them, the sorcerer predicted an excellent health to those persons. The performance was almost over: in the end the hat fell down from the sorcerer’s head. The Tatars assured us that this happened exclusively by magic, since neither the sorcerer, nor any of the audience touched the hat. The sorcerer took off the shaman’s dress and put on his regular clothes.

Then the floor was given to the sorceress. At first she precisely repeated the actions of the sorcerer, as I mentioned, she repeatedly ran out of the yurt and came back jumping and clanking her knick-knacks. When she entered for the last time, she sang that today she would conjure and amuse herself for long if the audience would enjoy this. The positive reply was unanimous. Thus, she asked and the Tatars replied several times. Then they threw a kind of fragrant wormwood (irben in Tatar) in the fire, which in their opinion should have brought a success to their undertakings.

One by one the sorceress got seven cups with water remaining after distillation of milk vodka. Having drunk each next cup, she leaped out from the yurt. Then she got seven Chinese pipes (gansa) filled with Chinese tobacco and smoked them one after another, leaping out of the yurt in the same way and coming back quickly, as she did it before. When she took the last pipe she pretended that she was fainting away, therefore they supported her until she came to consciousness a few moments later. Once the sorceress pretended that the pipe was stolen and tried to reveal the thief among the audience using her hand drum. For this purpose, she beat her drum whirling around every spectator, but failed to find the offender. Then she claimed that these were devils who played a trick on her by stealing the pipe. After she hurled loud and rough reproaches at them, the devils repented. In witness of this, the pipe all of a sudden was found in the sorceress’s drum, which must have been particularly respected by the devils.

Finally, seven splinters were fired, and the sorceress ate up burning splinters one after another, running out after each as she did before with the water and the pipes. Coming back for the last time the pretender rolled her drum in the yurt singing that if the audience were pleased she would wish to be merry that night. The response was positive again. Several times she threw her rattle to the same Tatar (leaping and running out) as an invitation to dance. Finally the Tatar got up and the dancers stood opposite each other: the Tatar on the right and the sorceress on the left. They offered hands to each other and bent their heads three times, which reminded me of German dances. The dancer whirled thrice jumping around the sorceress and went back to his place. Then the sorceress danced the same dance with six other men and seven women. There was not enough people in the yurt, thus she had to dance twice with some of them. Since some of the dancers were very unskillful, the agitated sorceress joked a lot at them. All these actions seemed so unusual and strange to Europeans that they would probably make even Cato Major laugh despite all his seriousness.

After the dances the sorceress started to beat her drum with a new bit of strength. The grass was thrown again in the fire and the sorceress fumed her clothes and the drum with the smoke. After jumping for a while, as her predecessor, she threw the rattle three times to each of the spectators and predicted excellent health to them. Having finished the clairvoyance she pretended to be extremely cheerful waiting for the hat to fall down from her head by itself. For this purpose, making fun at the sorcerer who performed before her, she shook her head with all her might. But the hat did not fall, thus, considering that she had been waiting for the miracle for too long, she took it off herself, changed the clothes and finished the performance.

The sorceress did not look tired in spite of the continuous four-hour performance. Maybe she noticed that we were satiated with the show and rationally decided to reduce her actions not waiting for the signs of impatience from our side. Other sorcerers and people sent to invite them did not arrive by that time, thus we went to sleep.

< ... >

Numerous Tatars among which we stayed during this year had appearances that would not seem repulsive to Europeans. They have shallow-seated eyes, their faces are neither flat, nor broad, the noses are not flat either, all these features are close to the European type. Most Tatars are rather tall. One can rarely meet an ugly or overweight person among them. They are mostly thin, at the same time vivacious and smart, ready to bargain, sociable, amiable, rather talkative, but still honest and sincere. However, they say that one should be careful when trading with the Tatars, because they believe that cheating is a skill. The Tatars explain this by saying that no one is forced to make bargain on the article of trade he has no idea of, if the person believes that he is an expert in this, then he has eyes as the seller, and if someone allows another person to cheat, this is pure naivety. There is no evidence that they rob at main roads, steal from each other or from Russians, or purposely hurt anybody. Almost anything is known about dissipation or drunkenness among them, but they are not completely free of these vices, I’ve written above about the Tatar who was completely affected by syphilis.

Since they have a lot of cattle, in particular horses, similarly to other pagans, they use vodka distilled from mare’s milk. If a Tatar has got a considerable stock of this vodka, he cannot refrain from enjoying it. Visiting Russian villages and cities, Tatars sometimes drop in a tavern or drink with a Russian friend several cups of vodka or beer over the dose they can endure. On the whole it would be fair to say and I must confirm that they are not much inclined to glut.

They have one habit in common with the other pagans: both males and females enjoy smoking tobacco and take to smoking when they are ten or twelve years old. They prefer the Chinese tobacco; only the poor smoke the Cherkass tobacco mixed with fine chips of birch bark in part for saving reasons, in part to reduce the strength of the tobacco.

Tatars worship the deceased, in particular their ancestry. Although they know that many treasures were found in the looted graves of their ancestors, we have not heard about the facts when one of them tried to enrich oneself in this way, despite the fact that they have the best opportunities for this, since they live near the burials. They can have two, three and even four wives, however the poor get by with only one. They don’t care about neatness, which to a certain extent reduces pleasantness of their faces. The women they consider beautiful look as dirty cattle-farm workers, the same might be said about men.

Tatars are not familiar with any religion and are real stubborn pagans. You will never meet a Muslim who took pride in proselytizing at least one Tatar, none of Mongols may boast of having persuaded them to believe in their superstitious pills, earthenware amulets or other idols. Unfortunately, Tatars similarly reject the Christian religion; and several attempts to christianize them have been abortive. When someone is persuading them to accept a religion, they point to the graves of their ancestors and say: robbery of these graves proves that our ancestors were noble and rich people; and their wealth was a reward for their righteousness. This became possible thanks to the beliefs inherited from the ancestors. Probably we are not as faithful as our ancestors and do not follow the old customs and ceremonies as strictly as we should, which has resulted in the decline of our lives, and this decline will rapidly progress if we betray our faith.

As soon as we arrived in Krasnoyarsk, Professor Mueller arranged a meeting with several Kachin sorcerers and sorceress whom we had invited during the cruise but failed to meet. We were told that they wore another style of clothes and their skills differed from what the other sorcerers showed us. Finally the sorcerer and the sorceress invited us to stay a night in a Tatar yurt located in the city. We went there and found a large crowd of Tatars. To save time we asked them to start immediately.

The woman was older and therefore was respected by the sorcerer, thus she started first. She took off her regular clothes keeping a miserable undershirt and breeches on to serve the decencies. Then she put on her shaman dress, a robe of pale blue Chinese cotton fabric encased by red fabric, the shoulders were decorated from the back side with several long multicolor threads that had attached small porcelain shells at the ends. She put a sash on, which was unusual, since only Tatar maids and males wear sashes. She got on heelless leather boots dyed red with the help of alter bark, the boots had no decorations. A round fur hat with a pointed crest was made of lynx abdomen and trimmed with sable fur. Instead of a tassel, owl ears were puffed up on the hat as they do on owls’ heads. The hand drum did not differ from what we had seen before. The drum mallet was covered with beaver’s fur.

The sorcery act was almost the same as the one that we had watched during the cruise. The only difference was that the liveliness of that sorceress was missing. Furthermore, local spectators intervened in the performance by singing, while the sorceress left the yurt only once but often looked out. Once, namely when she was told that the devils had arrived, she had a look as if she fainted away. Therefore spectators and participants supported her from behind, while from the front she was smoked by fragrant wormwood, which we saw before. To check the efficacy of the help, they pushed a knife under the sole of the sorceress boot and lifted her leg up. At this moment they threw a handful of Chinese tobacco in the fire. That action we had seen before as well, but this time the tobacco was thrown three times in the fire and twice towards the sorceress. Since people of that kind gain impudence from their craft, she asked to throw some more tobacco in the fire to win more of the devils’ favor. Her request was perceived as an order: as soon it was pronounced, the tobacco was thrown in the fire. Then the sorceress demonstrated her pleasure by dances and cheerful songs. She said also that now the devil masters treated her as a friend, which happened when such important guests were welcomed civilly. On that ground the next time she asked to give her a shirt that was hung near the yurt door and promised the devils to give it to them if they treated her kindly. Recalling that the shirt belonged to the yurt mistress, one would ‘appreciate’ the generosity of the sorceress. Besides, she knew that she would get more profit from this request than the devil.

Finally she took off the sorcery clothes. Since the sorcerer did not have his own shaman dress, he put on her clothes and started his acting in the same manner as the sorceress. By the way, none of them imitated the cuckoo, which is usually a part of such a performance. This is probably explained by the fact that we asked him not to spend too much time on his tricks. Therefore, it did not come to the moment when he had to faint away, while this is the most suitable moment for the cuckoo. Instead he sometimes asked to splash some water up, which was not practiced by the sorceress. At the beginning of the antics both he and the sorceress for some time held the drum over the fire, turned it but-and-ben, twisted their hands and legs as if these motions could make their sorcery stronger. The sorcerer finished his tricks by staring and screaming several times at the sorceress. He put the drum down holding it back by hand. After that the sorceress turned her face several times to him making clown faces. Then she stood up and took the drum, which was her property. The sorcerer took off the sorcery clothes.

(I. G. Gmelin. Reise durch Sibirien. — Th. 3. — Goettingen, 1752. — S. 329–338, 344–354)

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