An essay on Nganasan shamanism

Johanna Laakso johanna.laakso at
Fri Jul 4 05:00:59 UTC 2003

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 "Jean-Luc Lambert" <jvlamber at> writes to us:

Bonjour Marie-Dominique,=20

The Centre d'Etudes Mongoles et Siberiennes (French Center for Mongolian =
and Siberian Studies) is pleased to announce that the new issue of the =
periodical Etudes mongoles et siberiennes (n=B0 33-34) has just been =
released. This issue is devoted to shamanism among the Nganasans, a =
small Uralic people : "Sortir de la nuit. Essai sur le chamanisme =
nganassane (Arctique siberien) [Leaving the night behind. An essay on =
the shamanism of the Nganasans (Siberian Arctic)]", by Jean-Luc LAMBERT, =
Etudes mongoles et siberiennes n=B033-34 (2002-2003), 565 p., 32 Euro.=20

Orders should be made to : Librairie Oriens 10, bd Arago, F-75013 Paris, =

E-mail : oriens at     =
(, =



 Leaving the night behind.

An essay on the shamanism of the Nganasans (Siberian Arctic)




A detailed introduction presents the Nganasan society, and in particular =
its marriage system, as reflected in the results of the 1926-27 census, =
which are expounded in the annex. A foreword describing the directional =
system of the Nganasans, which is fundamental for understanding their =
shamanism, follows.

First Part. Towards the sun.

Chapter One. The three Nganasan groups (Avam Nganasans, Taimyr =
Nganasans, Vadeev Nganasans) organize their annual festival towards the =
end of the polar night at the end of January. This is a large-scale =
ritual which may last up to nine consecutive days. During the festival =
young bachelors dance and wrestle on a frozen lake near which the shaman =
in charge of the ritual officiates in a purpose-built ceremonial hut. On =
the first day he goes to the "pure" hut (into which the souls of the =
dead can not enter) holding an iron cane and with a band over his eyes. =
These are exactly the artefacts which a Samoyed shaman uses for his =
journey to the world of the dead. Moreover the direction in which the =
Nganasan shaman moves on this occasion suggests that he is symbolically =
leaving the world of the dead. On the following days he continues his =
journey to the south and will have to undergo various trials prescribed =
by the spirits, for example finding hidden ritual thongs.

Chapter II. The question of a possible marriage of the Nganasan shaman =
is raised. On the one hand an iron cane is the major attribute of a =
Nganasan matchmaker (and also, in related forms, of all Samoyed and =
Ob-ugrian matchmakers), who when asking in marriage travels in the same =
way as the shaman does during the festival. On the other hand an =
analysis of the ritual thongs used during the festival shows that they =
refer to "life-threads" connected to the sun and the moon, which =
Nganasan myths associate with the annual festival and with marriage. =
Finally a whole series of Nganasan tales of Russian origin present a sun =
daughter (the equivalent of the princess in European tales) bringing =
heat and light to the hero of the tale who marries her. As the Nganasan =
shamans count her among their helping spirits, the annual festival may =
celebrate a marriage between the shaman and the sun daughter. The ritual =
is not however celebrated during epidemics, because then the shaman =
would be marrying the smallpox woman, which would lead to death and =

Chapter III. Autobiographical narratives recounted by shamans allow us =
to understand how a shaman is led to marry a sun daughter. Each of these =
life stories is constructed around a specific dream. By analyzing them =
we see that the shamans are supposed to be born of spirits. Thus the =
male smallpox spirit is the symbolic father of Djuhadie, the most famous =
shaman of the 1930's. To move around among the spirits a neophyte shaman =
needs a new body, represented by his ritual costume, to which are =
associated the facial sensory organs (eyes, nose, mouth, ears). As for =
the shamanic drum, it is considered to be a spirit-reindeer which the =
shaman should be hunting during the complex ritual executed for =
obtaining his drum. Only after showing himself capable of killing the =
spirit-reindeer may a shaman marry a spirit-woman.

Chapter IV. The shamans think their best helping spirits are their =
shaman-ancestors. A myth associated with each shaman-ancestor is =
presented and analyzed. One of these tells the story of the shaman who =
was hunted as if he were a reindeer by his people in order to obtain =
good luck for the hunt and then fished like a burbot to obtain good luck =
in fishing. Another myth recounts the shaman who confronted a wolf which =
after staying in a woman's belly is transformed into a skillful hunter. =
Still another has a female shaman who abandones herself to the smallpox =
spirit to save her camp. And so on. These supposed ancestors are =
mythical. Why don't the Nganasan shamans invoke their real ancestors, =
who were famous and powerful shamans?

Second Part. Far from the dead.

Chapter One. In this chapter we study the roles the dead are supposed to =
assume by analyzing various rites. In the Nganasan religious system =
illnesses are attributed either to the shadows of the dead (the =
namt=ABr=FC?) or to impersonal halves of men (the barus'i), who are also =
associated with the dead. The barus'i are considered as woman-stealers =
and play a fundamental role in female shamanism. Whereas the shadow of a =
dead man steals the shadow of a living one whose place it takes, the =
half-man steals the living man's vitality, as symbolized by his breath. =
In this case, the cure consists in going to the world of the dead to =
bring back the breath of the sick man. There the shaman of the living =
confronts his dead father during a festival comparable to that of the =
pure hut organized by the living. Are the barus'i then the helpers of =
the shaman of the dead, the breaths of the deceased?

Chapter II. Certain myths develop further the way relations between the =
living and the dead are conceived of, as shown in the preceding chapter. =
These myths make clear that the recently deceased may be revived, but =
that it is impossible to resuscitate a dead man already incorporated =
into the society of the dead. They indicate that the shaman of the =
living can never take for wife a dead woman. They show that an exchange =
system underlies Nganasan shamanism. Other myths associate the barus'i =
with the living. These have a barus'i fleeing through a finger-cut. =
(According to one version, this half-man even becomes the divinity =
protecting the Nganasans from the "Russian God".) This recalls a =
particularity of left-hand shamanic gloves, which have only three =
fingers, perhaps so that the shamans might release their breath of =
life-like the recently deceased who are supposed to have their fingers =
cut off when entering the world of the dead. Moreover the Nenets =
divinity of the dead and of illness too is sometimes represented as a =
half-man. All of which leads to a conjecture concerning this syncretic =
figure of the Nenets pantheon.

Chapter III. The symbolic journeys of the shaman towards the north =
(towards the land of the dead) and the south (towards the sun) were =
analyzed in the preceding chapters. This chapter deals with journeys =
along an east-west axis, which is linked to the spirits of cold winds =
and snowstorms. These are not visited by the shaman on his journeys. But =
there is a myth which recounts the journey of a girl sent off by her =
parents to calm the storm-spirit. She undergoes a series of trials, =
which, when analyzed, describe the obligations of a woman towards her =
parents, her husband and her mother-in-law. This myth, which also shows =
that a woman can marry a male spirit only by dying, is known to the =
other Samoyeds (Selkups, Nenets) but the narrative may be extensively =
modified. Thus a Nenets version recounts the journey of a young man who =
undergoes trials to see if he can become a good Soviet worker.

Chapter IV. The dead are not the only spirits who devour the living. In =
this chapter we study the ogre, who should be considered as an =
antisocial character recalling the epic hero by their common greediness. =
Not very clever, the ogre is opposed to D'ajk=FC, the little Nganasan =
trickster, whose story is recounted in a cycle of ten episodes. The =
adventures of the trickster are analyzed with respect to the European =
tales from which they derive, and also considering the Nganasan context =
where their meaning is completely transformed. The complexity and =
originality of this cycle stem from the appearance of a second trickster =
whom D'ajku imitates, which sheds a new light on Nganasan shamanism.

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