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Section: Ethnography
Dancing with the Spirits

Dancing with the Spirits

Despite the processes of globalization and assimilation of cultures, modern mankind does not have a single face. Rather, this is a great mosaic which consists of a multitude of peoples: small and great

The Shamans of Tuva: Dancing with the Spirits

Tuva is an enormous territory, inhabited from ancient times, with a total area of one hundred seventy thousand square kilometres and having a variety of landscapes (forests, plains, and mountains). It is situated in the geographical centre of Asia, on the border of Russia and Mongolia. Despite the complicated historic, social, political and economic developments of the last two centuries, the natives have preserved their traditional way of life.

The uniqueness of the spiritual culture of this region of Siberia was determined by centuries-long interaction of Buddhism/Lamaism and the Pantheism of the nomads and shaman practices, rooted in the Siberian Paleolithic. At the beginning of the twentieth century more than twenty Buddhist monasteries with four thousand lamas were in action here, along with about two thousand shamans.

The commercialization of the shaman’s practice is a characteristic feature of urban shamanism. The ancient forms of the sacred practice are priced according to a price-list and are part of the modern market economy

The attempts to introduce atheistic standards did not succeed in Soviet Tuva, and by the end of the 1980s the religious tradition became a source of the ideology of national awakening. The shamanistic ritual practices and cults started being revived, and in the post-Soviet times, by the beginning of the third millennium five shaman organisations, which have more than two hundred members, were registered. According to shamanistic canons, the representatives of this “sacred corporation” are to support the necessary equilibrium between the world of people and the world of spirits. In sum, they perform the most important social functions, which are necessary for sustainable maintenance of every society: they heal, perform calendar and family cycle rituals, and public ceremonies.

Today, shamanism is returning into the everyday life of Tuva people. The cults of the “hosts of the land” are being revived; new sanctuaries (oboo) are being built, to which newlyweds make pilgrimages. Organizing shaman rituals in order to solve quite pragmatic problems has become common practice for many families and even governmental organizations. Visiting a shaman and attending a ritual have become an integral part of the tourist itinerary in Tuva

The modern shamanism of Tuva is heterogeneous. Well-known “traditional” shamans are able to heal, to tell fortunes, to forecast. Their abilities, the costume, and the attributes are determined by the inherited predisposition and by the power of their creative potential. The “new shamans” work actively in the tourist business, participate in folklore shows and presentations. Tuva shamans practice not only in Russia, but also in Germany, Belgium, and Scandinavian countries; they participate in world congresses of shamans and magicians, perform kamlanie rituals on concert grounds of the USA and Italy.

Modern shamans of Tuva are placed in the epicentre of social and cultural modernisation of traditional society, confirming in practice the value of ethnic traditions. We would like to note that today the ancient esoteric practices, including shamanism, go beyond Central Asia, penetrating actively into the culture of modern technocratic society. This is one of the paradoxes of the modern age of globalisation.

The little “stars” of Siberia

Despite the processes of globalization and assimilation of cultures, modern mankind is still a great mosaic which consists of a multitude of peoples: small and great. Unique material and cultural achievements of each of them are the fruit of the unique centuries-long experience of existence in a specific environment and a priceless contribution to human culture.

Siberia impresses not only with its dimensions, the variety of natural landscapes and abundance of natural resources, but also by its ethnic diversity. More than forty indigenous peoples live in Siberian lands, in the forest, on the plains, in the tundra, on the seashore… Adapting to the local (often unfriendly) environment, Siberian natives have created flexible systems of nature management and ecologically balanced types of economy based on energy-saving technologies, which are of utmost importance at the present. The specific relations between man and the surrounding world are reflected in the unique spiritual culture of Siberian peoples. This culture is based on the continuity of traditions.

The senior shaman of Tuva, by the name of Saylyk-ool Kanchyyr-ool, got his gift from his grandfather, who put his palm on the head of the newborn. On the back of his head the hereditary mark was left, five long scars that look like the trace of a bear’s paw.
In 1998, he organized the Shaman’s School in Kyzуl with the active participation of the government of Tuva, where he teaches an original course, “the basics of shamanism”

The integration of the region into the mining-industrial economy, which was caused by the unification of Siberia and Russia and the strategy of national administration, resulted in the inevitable transformation of the life of indigenous peoples. The changes influenced everything — the environment, the way of the economic life of the natives, the religious culture, and the language.

Only experienced and powerful shamans possess the shaman’s complete outfit and accessories, which are a head-dressing with quills, a mirror, a dragon-head knife, a clapper, and a sacred tambourine the energy of which, together with the shaman’s songs, helps the shaman transfer himself to other worlds

The Soviet-style practice of colonizing Siberia followed by mass migrations and the concentration of the natives in large settlements has made many traditional ways of economic activity problematic. The system of boarding schools separated modern generations of indigenous inhabitants from their own language and ethnic culture. Traditional religious cults, which are the most important part of spiritual life, were banned; many religious sites were destroyed and the rituals were forgotten.

Let the tambourine ring, summoning the wind;
Let it clean the burden
of suffering to its very root;
Let the tambourine drum melodically, while the clapper chatters;
Let the trouble be gone with the wind forever.
“The Algyshes of Tuva shamans” by M. Kenin-Lopsan, 1995

However, against all the odds, many native peoples have preserved a traditional way of life and the foundations of their original culture until nowadays. The national traditions of hunting, cattle-breeding, fishing, gathering, the secrets of traditional medicine, painting and the art of costume, rich musical folklore, mythology and religious cults — this ethnic potential of Siberian peoples attracts a lot of attention not only of scholars, but also of the general public in Russia and beyond its borders. In the wide human universe, Siberian peoples remain perhaps small, but “stars,” which should not fade…

Ph. D. in History I. V.Oktyabrskaya (The Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences),

Ph. D. in History A. V. Shapovalov

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