Siberian shamanism

Northern Asia, particularly Siberia, is regarded as the locus classicus of shamanism.[1] It is inhabited by a variety of ethnic groups, many of whom observe shamanistic practices even in modern times. Many classical ethnographic sources of “shamanism” were recorded among Siberian peoples.

These cultures are far from being alike. The same applies for their shamanistic beliefs and practice.[2]

Terms for 'shaman' and 'shamaness' in Siberian languages

  • 'shaman': saman (Nedigal, Nanay, Ulcha, Orok), sama (Manchu). The variant /šaman/ (i.e., pronounced "shaman") is Evenk (whence it was borrowed into Russian): this Evenk pronunciation may have had its origin in ṣāman 'name of Sāman (in Lāṭyāyana Śrauta Sūtra)'"[3]
  • 'shaman': alman, olman, wolmen[4] (Yukagir)
  • 'shaman': [qam] (Tatar, Shor, Oyrat), (Tuva, Tofalar) – these are related to Japanese kami 'god' and to Nanay qömio 'helping spirit'[5]
  • 'shamaness': itako[6] (Japanese), [iduɣan] (Mongol), [udaɣan] (Yakut), udagan (Buryat), udugan (Evenki, Lamut), odogan (Nedigal)


Siberian shamans' spirit-journeys[7] (re-acting their dreams wherein they had rescued the soul of the client) were conducted in, e.g., Oroch, Altai, and Nganasan healing séances.

Songs, music

As mentioned above, shamanistic practice shows great diversity,[2] even if restricted to Siberia. In some cultures, the music or song related to shamanistic practice may intend to mimic natural sounds, sometimes with onomatopoiea.[8]

This holds e. g. for shamanism among Sami groups. Although the Sami groups live outside of Siberia, many of their shamanistic beliefs and practice shared important features with those of some Siberian cultures.[9] The Yoiks of the Sami were sung on shamanistic rites.[10] Recently, yoiks are sung in two different styles, one of these are sung only by young people. But the traditional one may be the other, the “mumbling” style, resembling to magic spells.[11] Several surprising characteristics of yoiks can be explained by comparing the music ideals, as observed in yoiks and contrasted to music ideals of other cultures. Some yoiks intend to mimic natural sounds. This can be contrasted to bel canto, which intends to exploit human speech organs on the highest level to achieve an almost “superhuman” sound.[12]

The intention to mimic natural sounds is present in some Siberian cultures as well: overtone singing, and also shamanic songs of some cultures can be examples.

  • In a Soyot shamanic song, sounds of bird and wolf are imitated to represent helping spirits of the shaman.[13]
  • The seance of Nganasan shamans were accompanied by women imitating the sounds of the reindeer calf, (thought to provide fertility for those women).[14] In 1931, A. Popov observed the Nganasan shaman Dyukhade Kosterkin imitating the sound of polar bear: the shaman was believed to have transformed into polar bear.[15]

The intention to mimic natural sounds is not restricted to Siberian cultures. And it is not necessarily linked to shamanistic beliefs or practices. See for example katajjaq, a game played by women, an example of music of some Inuit groups. This applies overtone singing, and in some cases, sounds of nature (mostly those of animals, e.g. geese) is imitated.[16][17] Imitation of animal sounds can serve also such practical reasons like luring game in hunt.[16]

Grouped by linguistic relatedness


Uralic languages are proven to form a genealogical unit, a language family. Not all Uralic peoples live in Siberia or have shamanistic features any more. The largest populations, the Hungarians and Finns, live outside Siberia. Saami people had kept living shamanistic practice for a long time. They live in Europe, they practiced shamanism till cca the 18th century.[19] Most other Uralic peoples (e.g. Hungarian, Finnic, Mari) have only remnant elements of shamanism.[19] Majority of Uralic population lives outside Siberia. Some of them used to live in Siberia, have wandered to their present locations since then. The original location of the Proto-Uralic peoples (and its extent) is debated. Combined phytogeographical and linguistic considerations (distribution of various tree species and the presence of their names in various Uralic languages) suggest that this area was north of Central Ural Mountains and on lower and middle parts of Ob River.[20]


Among several Samoyedic peoples shamanism was a living tradition also in modern times, especially at groups living in isolation until recent times (Nganasans).[21] Enets people, Selkups There were distinguished several types of shamans among Nenets people,[22] Enets people,[23] Selkups.[24] (The Nganasan shaman used three different crowns, according to the situation: one for upper world, one for underneath word, one for occasion of childbirth.)[25]

Nenets people, Enets people, Nganasan people speak Northern Samoyedic languages. They live in North Siberia (Nenets live also in European parts), they provide classical examples. Selkups are the only ones who speak Southern Samoyedic languages nowadays. They live more to the south, shamanism was in decline also at the beginning of 20th century, although folklore memories could be recorded even in the 1960s.[24] Other Southern Samoyedic languages were spoken by some peoples living in the Sayan Mountains, but language shift has finished completely, making all these languages extinct.[26][27]

Main article: Tadibya

There were several types of shamans distinguishing ones contacting upper world, ones contacting underneath world, ones contacting the dead.[22]


The isolated location of Nganasan people enabled that shamanism was a living phenomenon among them even in the beginning of 20th century,[14] the last notable Nganasan shaman's seances could be recorded on film in the 1970s.[14][28]

One of the occasions in which the shaman partook was the clean tent rite. held after the polar night, including sacrifice.[21][29]

Sayan Samoyedic

Some peoples of the Sayan Mountains spoke once Southern Samoyedic languages. Most of them underwent a language shift in the beginning and middle of the 19th century, borrowing the language of neighboring Turkic peoples. The Kamassian language survived longer: 14 old people spoke it yet in 1914. In the late 20th century, some old people had passive or uncertain knowledge of the language, but collecting reliable scientific data was no longer possible.[26][27] Today Kamassian is regarded as extinct.

The shamanism of Samoyedic peoples in the Sayan Mountains survived longer (if we regard Karagas as a Samoyedic people,[26][27][30] although such approaches have been refined: the problem of their origin may be more complex[31]). Diószegi Vilmos could record not only folklore memories in the late 1950s, but he managed also to talk personally to (no longer practicing) shamans, record their personal memories, songs, some of their paraphernalia.[32]

An interesting question here: is this shamanism borrowed entirely from neighboring Turkic peoples, or does it have some ethnic features, maybe remnant of Samoyedic origin? Comparative considerations suggest, that

  • certainly, there are influences. Karagas shamanism is affected by Abakan-Turkic and Buryat influence.[33] Among the various Soyot cultures, the central Soyot groups, keeping cattle and horses, show Khalkha-Mongolian phenomena in their shamanism,[34] the shamanism of Western Soyots, living on the steppe, is similar to that of Altai Turkic peoples.[35] A shaman story narrates contacts between Soyots and Abakan Turkic peoples in a mythical form.[36]
  • Karagas and Eastern (reindeer-breeding, mountain-inhabiting) Soyots. have many similarities in their culture[37] and shamanism.[38] It was these two cultures who presented some ethnic features, phenomena lacking among neighboring Turkic peoples. E.g., the structure of their shamanic drum showed such peculiarity: it had two transoms.[39] It was also these two cultures who showed some features, which could be possibly of Samoyedic origin: the shaman's headdress, dress and boots has the effigies symbolizing human organs, mostly bones;[40] in the case of headdress, representation of human face.[41] Also the dress-initiating song of the Karagas shaman Kokuyev contained the expression “my shamanic dress with seven vertebrae”.[42] Hoppál interprets the skeleton-like overlay of the Karagas shaman-dress as symbol of shamanic rebirth,[43] similar remark applies for the skeleton-like iron ornamentation of the (not Samoyedic, but genealogically unclassified, Paleosiberian) Ket shamanic dress,[44] although it may symbolize also the bones of the loon (the helper animal of the shaman).[45] (The theory of Ket origin of the Karagas has already been mentioned above.[31]) The skeleton-like overlay symbolized shamanic rebirth also among some other Siberian cultures.[46]

Hungarian people have wandered to from the Proto-Uralic area to the Pannonian Basin, thus they have they left Siberia. Shamanism is no more a widespread living practice among them, but some remnants have been reserved as fragments of folklore. Comparative methods can reveal, that some motifs of folktales, some fragments of songs or rhymes of folk customs preserved fragments of the old belief system. Some records narrate us about shaman-like figures directly. Shamanistic remnants in Hungarian folklore was researched among others by Diószegi Vilmos, based on ethnographic records of Hungarian and neighboring peoples, and comparative works with various shamanisms of some Siberian peoples.[47] Hoppál continued his work of studying Hungarian shamanistic belief remnants,[48] comparing shamanistic beliefs of Uralic peoples[49] with those of several non-Uralic Siberian peoples as well.[50][51]

Although folklore narratives preserved many memories of shamanism, but its practice remained only in fragments by in 1930s among Khanty people, Mansi people. There was more types of shamans.[52] Ugric shamanism] is largely Khanty.[53]


Traditional culture of Ket people was researched by Matthias Castrén, Vasiliy Ivanovich Anuchin, Kai Donner, Hans Findeisen, Yevgeniya Alekseyevna Alekseyenko.[54] Shamanism was a living practice in the 1930s yet, but by the 1960s almost no authentic shaman could be found. Ket shamanism shared features with those of Turkic and Mongolic peoples.[55] Besides that, there were several types of shamans,[56][57] differing in function (sacral rites, curing), power and associated animal (deer, bear).[57] Also among Kets (like at several other Siberian peoples, e.g. Karagas[40][42][43]), there are examples of using skeleton symbolics,[55] Hoppál interprets it as a symbol of shamanic rebirth,[44] although it may symbolize also the bones of the loon (the helper animal of the shaman, joining air and underwater world, just like the shaman who travelled both to the sky and the underworld as well).[45] The skeleton-like overlay represented shamanic rebirth also among some other Siberian cultures.[46]


Further information: Turkic mythology

Turkic peoples spread over large territories, and are far from alike. In some cases, shamanism has been widely amalgamated with Islam, in others with Buddhism, but there are surviving traditions among the Siberian Tatars, Tuvans and Tofalar. See the photos of Tuvan Shamans by Stanislav Krupar

The Altai Turks may be related to neighboring Ugric, Samoyedic, Ket, or Mongolic peoples.[58][59][60] There may be also ethnographic traces of such past of these nowadays Turkic-speaking peoples of the Altai. For example, some of them have phallic-erotic fertility rites, and that can be compared to similar rites of Obi-Ugric peoples.[59][60]


Among the Tungusic peoples of Siberia, shamanism is also widespread.

The Tale of the Nisan Shaman, a famous piece of folklore which describes the resurrection of a rich landowner's son by a female shaman, is known among various Tungusic peoples including the Manchu, Evenk, and Nanai.[61][62]

Koryak and Chukchi

Linguistically, Koryak and Chukchi are close congeners of Eskimo. Koryak shamanism is known.[63]


Eskimo groups comprise a huge area stretching from Eastern Siberia through Alaska and Northern Canada (including Labrador Peninsula) to Greenland. Shamanistic practice and beliefs have been recorded at several parts of this vast area crosscutting continental borders.[64][65][66]

Like Eskimo cultures themselves, shamanistic practices reveal diversity. Some mosaic-like examples from various cultures: the soul concepts of the various cultures were diverse as well, some groups believed that the young child had to be taken for by guardian names inherited from a recently deceased relative. Among some groups, this belief amounted to a kind of reincarnation. Also shamanism might include beliefs in soul dualism, where the free-soul of the shaman could fly to celestial or underneath realms, contacting mythological beings, negotiating with them in order to cease calamities or achieve success in hunt. If their wrath was believed to be caused by taboo breaches, the shaman asked for confessions by members of the community.

In most cultures, shamanism could be refused by the candidate: calling could be felt by visions, but generally, becoming a shaman followed conscious considerations.


The 2002 census of the Russian Federation reports 123,423 (0.23% of the population) people of ethnic groups which dominantly adhere to "traditional beliefs"

Traditional beliefs in Russia, based on 2002 Russian Census and Ethnic Group predominant religion
Ethnic Group Population (2002)
Evenks 35,527
Nanais 12,160
Evens 19,071
Chukchi 15,767
Mansi 11,432
Koryaks 8,743
Nivkhs 5,162
Itelmeni 3,180
Ulchs 2,913
Eskimo 1,750
Udege 1,657
Ket 1,494
Chuvans 1,087
Tofalar 837
Nganasans 834
Orochs 686
Aleut 540
Oroks 346
Enets 237
Total 123,423

See also



  • The book has been translated to English:
  • , also in German, Estonian and Finnish. Site of publisher with short description on the book (in Hungarian).
  • . The songs are Jerome Rothenberg.
  • Original data:
  • Translation of the original:

External links

  • Stanislav Krupar's photos of Siberian shamans Homepage |url=
  • It describes the life of Chuonnasuan, the last shaman of the Oroqen of Northeast China.
  • Rendering in English: Ungazik settlement, Kunstkamera, Russian Academy of Sciences. Old photos about former life of a Siberian Yupik settlement, including those of a shaman, performing his séance.