Evenk shaman's tent: one has to stand on stilts to see a mammoth
: 22/10/2007
: Indigenous Issues


Yuri Klitsenko

On their way to the future on the road of the ancestors Sym Evenks could see ancient people and animals, which lived in the epoch of the beginning of life. Taking part in the round dance inside the shamans tent on the days of "ikenipke" festival the Evenks recalled their tradition to cross rivers walking on poles. The helpmate spirits of shaman hopped on the poles on the trail of the ancestors.


Since 1907, when ethnographer A.A.Makarenko came across shamans tents in the Yenisei taiga for the first time, the Russian scholars like I.M.Suslov, A.F.Anisimov, Yu.A.Yampolskaya, M.S.Batashev, G.S.Utkin, etc., published studies devoted to the cultic structures built by the Evenks of the Stony Tunguska and Lower Tunguska rivers basin. There are also translations into West-European languages, e.g.: I.M.Suslov, Materialien zum Schamanismus der Ewenki-Tungusen an der mittleren und unteren Tunguska, Wiesbaden,1983; A.F.Anisimov, The Shamans Tent of the Evenks and the Origin of the Shamanistic Rite, Henry N. Michael, ed., Studies in Siberian shamanism, Toronto, 1963.

Authentic artifacts from the Evenk prayer grounds 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' and in the Ulan-Ude Museum of Ethnography of the Transbaikalians in Verkhnaya Beryozovka.

However, the arrangement details of a shamans tent of the Sym river Evenks, described in the unpublished studies of N.P.Nikulshin and I.E.Maksimova, remain little-known both to Russian and foreign readers. Some information about a tent for "ikenipke" ritual of the Sym Evenks is to be found in the article "Ancient Hunting and Deer-Breeding Evenk Rituals" by G.M. Vasilevich, as well as in chapter Toungouses of the collection Regis Boyer et Eveline Lot-Falck, Les religions de l'Europe du Nord. Eddas, sagas, hymnes chamaniques, Paris, 1974, which is a shortened compilation of G.M.Vasilevich's publications.

The shamans complexes of the interfluve of Stony Tunguska and Lower Tunguska normally consisted of three parts - "dulu" tent, which name is translated from the Evenk language as the "middle world", and eastern and western galleries "onang" and "darpe", consisting of wooden structures and sculptures.

The largest image was the figure of a mammoth in the western gallery "onang" illustrating myths of the world creation. A.F.Anisimov wrote down a legend of an old Evenk Vasiliy Sharemiktal on the Yudokon river (Stony Tunguska tributary). According to it on the original earth strip there lived mammoth Sely, giant snake-like creature Dyabdar and other animals. Then monster Chulugdy appeared and started chasing the first inhabitants of the earth. Sely and Dyabdar enter the fray with the monster. Their titanic struggle produced the modern relief: lakes and bogs were formed, where the mammoth stepped, mountains appeared, where it dug ground with its tusks and threw clods at Chulugdy; rivers started flowing, where the serpent crawled, assisting the mammoth in the struggle. In order to throw Chulugdy to the precipice of the subterranean world, Sely and Dyabdar had to migrate to the lower world. The legend of mammoth the creator, written down by M.I.Osharov in 1923 from Evenk Moronenok says about difficulties of the first man's life on earth. There was only water around, and on a small strip of earth the man lived. The mammoth helped man. Sely went into water and started wresting sand, clay and rocks out of bottom with its strong tusks. That was how plains, mountains and cliffs appeared. In his turn Dyabdar made roads (beds) for the rivers with his body. The mammoth and the snake hurried over water and land, cutting the space, and water ran sweepingly along their traces to the lowland, leaving behind the land, which the man so much languished. The more water gathered in their traces, the more impetuously it ran after them, and finally water devoured Sely and Dyabdar and carried the mammoth and the snake to the lower world (M.G.Voskoboinikov, About Evenk cosmogonic legends. Languages and folklore of Northern people, Novosibirsk, 1981).

Eastern gallery "darpe", being an entrance to the tent, symbolized vital forces of the universe (upper world), and "onang" - the land of the dead (lower world). The Evenks regarded the prayer ground, consisting of a tent with an eastern and a western galleries, as an island in the middle of the cosmic river, flowing from East to West. There, inside a shaman tent, discovered in 1921 at the mouth of Fitili river (flowing into Stony Tunguska), symbolic river-ditches were dug, decorated with wooden images of birds and fishes (M.S. Batashev, Materials of the Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum on the Evenk Cultic Structures, The Yenisei Province Almanac No2, 2006). "Darpe" and "onang" were thought to be bridges for moving both in space and time.

The structure and semantics of Evenk shaman tents on the right and left banks of Yenisei had similarities and differences. In particular, the Sym Evenks did not know "darpe" and "onang" galleries. However, in all cases the center of the prayer ground was marked with "world tree", and the horizontal axis - with "cosmic river". They were guarded by anthropo-, zoo- and ornitomorphic wooden figures. The entrance of the tent was arranged as a special protective structure, and the side opposite to the entrance on the outside of the tent was the zone of contact with spirits of ancestors. In the "big tent" of the Sym Evenks a complex structure led to the entrance for the ikenipke rituals. It consisted of "tuvur" (seven log stumps - bog tussocks), "tygdylon" (a log pad - a bridge over the shaman river) and "tuktyvun" (a platform with two ladders - a mountain in the land of light), as well as wooden sculptures of helpmate spirits. On the side opposite to the entrance behind the tent, in the zone of contact with the lower world an image of kalir was set (a mythic animal, combining traits of mammoth, elk and deer) and ritual trees.

One of the functions of the platforms, rafts, plankings of the shaman tent was insulation of the participants of the rite from contacts with chthonic forces of the earth. Accidental contact with earth when entering the shaman tent or exiting it after kamlanie was considered by the Evenks a dangerous omen. Diaries of N.P.Nikulshin contain notes, that the Sym Evenks moved over the territory of the prayer ground only along "tygdylon" and "tuvur". According to the communicants of N.P.Nikulshin, those who misstepped were deemed for illness or death within the following year. In this context the reasons for dicontent of the Lower Tunguska Evenks with shamanism of Beturman, noted by I.M.Suslov, become clear: "In the Beturman's tent the kalirs are put not across darpe gallery, but along it, besides there is no bridge made of fish. Iktual and Gerasim explained to Suslov that Beturman made all the present to pass through this darpe before shamaning. They all tried to crawl one by one over the backs of kalirs, but in the darkness they lost their balance and fell on the ground, which inevitably caused laughter, especially among the youth" (M.L.Sonin, Evenk shamanism as a form of primitive religion, Thesis work for the academic degree of Doctor of Historic Science, Moscow, 1948).

For protection against underground spirits before the beginning of kamlanie the shaman tent was symbolically filled with "invisible waters" (this ritual possibly modeled the primeval condition of the universe). In particular, I.M.Suslov reports: Shamanism takes place in water, not on the ground, since from under the ground evil spirits and even Khargi himself (the supreme evil deity) can always penetrate the tent and disturb the shaman. Before starting the kamlanie, the shaman invokes the forces of nature and asks Muuny, the water king, to flood the place of the ceremony. Hence, all the attributes of the prayer ground shall be regarded as being either on water or in water"(M.S. Batashev, Materials of the Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum on the Evenk Cultic Structures, The Yenisei Province Almanac No2, 2006).

In Siberian folklore the theme of shamans' ability to imitate flood is present: "It was only once during my trips over Yenisei province that I heard about Russian shaman who had come out of Christians from a peasant of Bedobskaya village Grigory Shumilov. He told the following: "And in our place, my master, there is Petrovan Fomich Rukosuev from Chukhshi, out peasants, and he is a shaman like a real Tungus. I came to him by chance a couple of times and saw him running about the house and shamanizing. He used to say: "if you want, I can fill the house with water", - and that was true, everybody climbed to the attic, the house was full of water, everybody feared" (I..Chekaninsky , Traces of shaman cult in Russian-Tungus settlements on the Chunia river in Yenisei province, "Ethnographic survey", 1914, No. 3-4).

The rules of Evenk children game "khargi and lake also witness the integral water feature to restrict the activity of khargi evil spirit and his helpmates: The players draw two circles one against the other, i.e. two lakes. Then they choose devil (khargi). One of the players leads khargi to the middle between the lakes, fells him on the ground, shouts: Home! Home! Home! and runs to the lake. After this the players run from one lake to the other. The devil runs after them trying to catch them. The devil fells the one caught on the ground, pretends that he sucks brain out of the victims head and laying his hand on the head of the victim he says: ymgyl (sucked out). The caught one closes his eyes and pretends to be dead. After that the dead turns devils mate and helps catching the others. The game continues till khargi and his servants catch the last one of the players (K. M. Rychkov, Yenisei Tunguses, Zemlevedenie, 1922, book 1-4).

According to I.M.Suslov, "via western gallery onang shaman communicated with the souls of ancestors; neither shaman himself, nor the present in shamanism might not enter onang" (I.M.Suslov, Shamanism as a brake of socialist development, Antireligiosnik, 1932, No. 17-18). According to other sources, "shaman ran along onang planking during kamlanie" (M.S. Batashev, Materials of the Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum on the Evenk Cultic Structures, The Yenisei Province Almanac No. 2, 2006). The latter appears possible, since the plankings of "onang" type were made by Evenks not only for shamanist ceremonies, but also for fateful "transition rituals", related to choosing military and civil chiefs. Hopping from one "onang" on the other, the candidates passed various tests to prove their sportsmanship, huntsmanship, ability to use arms and to duck arrows, as well as worldly wisdom. In the case of falling from "onang" or its heavy decline the testee could not become the chief. Sometimes disputes between shamans were settled on the "shaman bridge" (A.F.Anisimov, Evenk (Tungus) Tribal Community, Leningrad, 1938).

Performing the round dance inside the shaman tent on the days of "ikenipke" festival the Sym Evenks "went to the land of light on the trail of ancient people". The paradox of the round dance was that the farther the Evenks moved to the future, the more back in the past they turned out to be. On their way to the future the Evenks could see ancient people and animals, who lived in the epoch of the "beginning of earth". In relation to the rituals of ikenipke festival the walking of the Evenks to the "land of light" on the stilts is mentioned, while the shaman helpmate spirits preferred a different travel mode - pole jumping (I..Maksimova "Tungus Oikos on the materials of Sym and Ket' Evenk group, Thesis work for the academic degree of Doctor of Historic Science, Tomsk, 1994).

Similar traditions of protection against spirits of the lower world are known also in the Russian culture: "Necessity of constant physical contact with earth in the everyday life (taking into account the chthonic nature of earth) was probably perceived as rather dangerous, and due to this in special situations a certain tendency of insulation from earth, of lifting above its surface is observed. In the church before the entrance and the exit of bishops a carpet is spread, which is done not to separate the clergy from the parishioners. In the Old Believers' prayer practice the daily prayer is performed unfailingly on the personal prayer mat called "podrushnik" upon which to rest one's arms and forehead during the obligatory "bows to the ground". If it is missing, the prostrations are made on the lap of the clothes or on the mittens of the worshipper. It is characteristic that in the inverted world of the festival, carnival, fair it is normal for a person to move at a certain distance from the earth surface, e.g., on the stilts. One of the organizing ideas of the described rites lies in the effort to lift the object of the rite above the ground, arranging a special zone for it between the Earth and the Heaven, which is free from properties of the past and the future condition. It is these ideas might have found reflection in the Russian stable idiomatic expressions "between heaven and earth", "in mid air" and "up tight" (Yu..Nazarenko, On the archaic traditions in the modern world view. Traditional faiths in the modern culture of ethnoses, Saint-Petersburg, 1993).






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