Materials on the Evenk shamans tent are included in a new photo album
: 22/01/2007
: Indigenous Issues

Yuri Klitsenko

The Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, and the Moscow-based 'Khudozhnik i Kniga' Publishing House have published a new photo album 'Between Worlds: Shamanism of the Peoples of Siberia', Khudozhnik i Kniga, Moscow, 2006. This Russian-English edition includes pictures of the artifacts in possession of the museum and related annotations.

One of the sections is dedicated to the Evenk shamans tent. A.A. Makarenko was the first ethnographer to come across and examine the shamans tents lost in the boreal taiga forest along the Yenisei riverbed in Siberia. The Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg stores wooden images, which Makarenkos expedition brought from the shamans tents located in Podkamennaya Tunguska area at the beginning of the 20th century.
The semantics of the shamans tent gives evidence that the Russian Orthodoxy influenced the development of the traditional Evenk cult. Standard design of the Evenk shamans tent had more in common with Eastern Christian temple theology, than with modern occult literature which claims to represent some sort of the Siberian 'secret knowledge'. Like the Christian temple, the Evenk shamans tent includes vertical and horizontal symbols of the universe. Its eastern, western and central sections are joined together by the river Engdekit (Dolbor), which can be paralleled with the stream flowing through the Prophet Ezekiels Temple.
This is what Alexandra Lavrillier, a French ethnographer who lives among the reindeer-breeders in Southern Yakutia, writes about the traditional Evenk vision of the world: 'A mans life is like a river; its like an uninterrupted stream born at the riverhead and running out at the estuary. Under the influence of Christianization, conducted regularly since the 18th century, this conception has undergone some changes: the universe was divided into three separate worlds. The 'upper world', corresponding to the riverhead, is the dwelling place of the 'souls to be born'; the 'middle world', corresponding to its middle course, is the dwelling place of the living; and the 'lower world', corresponding to the estuary, is the dwelling place of the dead. The river Engdekit connects all the three worlds. The 'upper realm' of the Christian conception has a positive connotation, just like the riverhead of the Evenk conception, while the 'lower realm' is associated with a negative meaning, like the river estuary of the Evenk myths. If at nightfall the river roars downstream, its a sure sign of bad weather; if it roars upstream, it means that the weather will be good'.
The floors of Byzantine temples symbolized primeval waters and were often decorated with mosaic featuring fishes and waterfowl birds. Images of fishes and waterfowl can be found both in the Old Testament and Christian art. The mosaic of Santa Constanzas dome in Rome (irretrievably lost in the 19th century) depicted trees on little islands set in the waters with fishes, swimming birds and fishing angels. The Earth and Ocean Byzantine silk found in the tomb of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, bears woven pontifical symbols rivers with fishes and ducks.
Waterfowl birds are very important personages of ancient cosmogonic myths. The Evenks placed wooden images of birds and fishes in the eastern and western galleries of the 'taiga temples', in the ditches dug in the floor of shamans tent, and on the shaman clothes. The eastern and western galleries as well as ditches in the floor symbolized rivers. Of all the birds, the Evenks distinguished the loon, since, according to the Evenk mythology, the loon, the mammoth and the serpent participated in the creation of the world. T.Y. Sem, a scholar from the Russian Museum of Ethnography, points out that 'It is impossible to imagine a Yenisei Evenk shaman garments without several loon figurines. Normally, they were attached to the upper and bottom parts of the apron, which symbolized the universe divided into three cosmic spheres. Sometimes, the figurine of a swimming loon placed at the bottom of the apron was fixed only at the tail, while its neck was passed through a loose loop. When the shaman danced in the process of kamlanie (the magic ceremony) he occasionally leaned forward. At such moments the loons neck slid out of the loop and it looked as if the bird dived. The whole act imitated the events described in the myth about the world creation' (T.Y. Sem, The Loon Creates the World, Northern Expanses 1-2/1993).
The 'baptismal' service of the Evenks living along the River Sym, described by M.D. Simonov, may also point at the connection between the layout of the shamans tent and Christian influences. The comparison of the data on the images of rivers and bridges in shamans tents with the description of the ritual published by M.D. Simonov, will lead us to the conclusion that the 'baptismal service' was carried out on a wooden bridge laid across the invisible river of life. 'As late as the 1940s there were still some Evenks who remembered the traditional 'baptismal service'. I, personally, was told about it by a Russian informant L.I. Romasheva, who once found herself at an 'old shaman place' a clearing in the thick taiga forest used for the shaman 'baptismal service'. She was sent to put out a forest fire with a group of other villagers. The leader of the group, Ivan Osipovich - a Sym Evenk, who had officially renounced Shamanism, decided to have a rest at that particular clearing. The woman remembered seeing a platform standing on four pillars. Each pillar represented an idol. The top of the platform was covered with squared tight-fitting poles. The construction had special ladders at the sides. The Russians were surprised when Ivan Osipovich said: 'Thats where we baptize our children', because there was no water anywhere near the place. However, it turned out that the Evenk 'baptismal service' didnt require the use of water. The shaman got to the platform using one of the ladders with the child in his hands. Then he crossed the platform and got off at the other side. Once on the ground, he went along the lateral side of the platform (past its two idol-pillars) back to the first ladder, got on to the platform once again, crossed it to the opposite side, got off the platform and continued his way, but this time along the other lateral side (past the second pair of idols)' (M.D. Simonov, Some Facts on the Sym Evenks Shamanism, Bulletin of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the Social Studies Series, 11, 1983).
Authentic artifacts from the Evenk shaman pagan temples and photographic pictures made at the beginning of the 20th century can be found at the museums in St. Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk. Modern reconstructions of shamans tents can be seen in the Bratsk Museum of Architecture and Ethnography 'Angarskaya Derevnya' (reconstruction prepared by Gennady Utkin) and in the Ulan-Ude Museum of Ethnography of the Transbaikalians in Verkhnaya Beryozovka (reconstruction prepared by Tamara Gurka and Nikolai Dovolin).
Russian scholars and regional ethnographers have collected unique materials on shamans tents. Unfortunately, before the end of the Soviet period, the majority of the texts and photographs accumulated by A.A. Makarenko, I.V. Suslov, M.A. Dmitriev and other Tungusologists could not be published for ideological and other reasons. We hope that most interesting materials published in St. Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk in 2006 will bring along the publication of the unjustly forgotten heritage left by the Russian and Soviet ethnographers. (Between Worlds: Shamanism of the Peoples of Siberia. From the Collection of the Russian Museum of Ethnography, Khudozhnik i Kniga, Moscow, 2006; M.S. Batashev, Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum Materials on the Evenk Cultic Structures, The Yenisei Province Almanac No2, 2006).