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14 January 2004

Leonid Lar

Education of the Shamans of Nenets People
Stages of the process of shamanic initiation at Nenets' (Siberia)

Category: Shamanism

Shaman's development is based on his journeys to the spirit world, where shamans travel in their pursuit of things that cannot be found in the real world. Every shaman has his own path, shown to him by his helper-spirits and guardian-spirits. In this article we will give a few cases of shaman progress from initiation to discovering their own path, using the examples of shaman texts and stories told by two shamans - Yamal one named Yavlad Yaptik and Tazov 1 Gavril Mandakov.

The analysis of the information coming from shamans themselves, and also from people who are familiar with the shaman folklore or shamans' descendants allow for the reconstruction of their idea concerning the composition of the surrounding world and the Universe, and also for reconstruction of the path followed by shamans of three categories. Let us start with the initiation of a shaman. During the initiation a shaman experiences cognition of the mystery of life and death through experiencing the state of pre-mortal and physical suffering. As the result of this process, transformation of the initiate's soul takes place. What is the soul, then? E. B. Tylor describes and explains this as follows:

"It is a thin unsubstantial human image, in its nature a sort of vapour, film, or shadow; the cause of life and thought in the individual it animates; independently possessing the personal consciousness and volition of its corporeal owner, past or present; capable of leaving the body far behind, to flash softly from place to place; mostly impalpable and invisible, yet also manifesting physical power, and especially appearing to men walking or asleep as a phantasm separate from the body of which it bears the likeness; continuing to exist and appear to men after the death of that body; able to enter into, possess, and act in the bodies of other men, of animals, and even of things." (Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture)

In a similar way shamans describe the soul and spirits as they believe them to appear: a human soul in the shape of delicate, shining air and the spirits as light mist or vapour. They identify the human soul with the breath ind' 2, which at death leaves in the form of a small light transparent cloud and together with the shaman flies to the land of eternal peace and quiet. A shaman's task is to deliver the soul to its final resting place. A shaman's soul looks like smoke or vapour, more dense than that of a common man. It may assume any shape and also turn into an animal, object, get into any body, etc.

At the time of initiation 3 a young shaman experiences the "physical destruction" of his body, which the spirits take apart. For a few days he lies "dead", until the spirits put all the parts of his body back together. The encounter with death is a key moment of the shaman's initiation. Next the initiate receives a "new body" and is reborn to a new quality. During the initiation ritual a young shaman receives new supernatural qualities, which allow him to move fast in the space and time and allow for transformation from one state to another. According to the stories told by shamans Yaptik and Mandakov they "were dead" for three days, did not eat or drink anything".

Shamans Gavril Mandakov and Yavlad Yaptik, before they became shamans, were instructed by old shamans who taught them all the secrets of the profession. Gavril Mandakov was instructed by his grandfather, who bequeathed to him all the shaman attributes and guardian spirits of ancestors and places. His father helped his grandfather as an assistant. He replaced the old shaman, who only supervised the rituals, as a teacher. At the age of 50 he took over the shaman's gift from his wife, who was older than him and after her death 4 she transmitted to him her "helper spirits" and the "knowledge". She was born of a shaman family from the neighbourhood of Turukhansk. 5 Yavlad Yaptik took over the shamanism from his older brother, who handed to him, before he died, his costume and drum. The Yaptik family were hereditary shamans.

In his childhood Gavril Mandakov often watched kamlanie (the shaman sessions) of his grandfather and father. At the age of 14 Mandakov became "ill": "I was dying and then I lived. My head was fractured and then knitted together. I slept a lot." It should be understood that he was losing consciousness. Yavlad did not have "shaman" illnesses, but he "was visited by the spirits in his dreams who told him stories. My brother guarded and taught me." Probably Yavlad did not want to speak about his "illness". After a long-lasting illness a shaman prepared his apprentice for the initiation ritual. There were three initiations: first when the disciple went down with the "shaman illness", second, after completing shaman training and third, when the young shaman was given the drum and the decision was taken that henceforth he was to occupy himself with the shaman practice.

In the process of training a young shaman gradually took part in kamlanie, first with an axe or knife and only after a few years with the drum. A shaman's receiving of the drum, as well as the rattle, not only accompanied the initiation, but also required offering sacrifices. The gradual way towards the drum was a stable element in becoming a shaman. Let us report one of the stories picturing their initiation process.

Gavril Mandakov tells the story of his second birth as a heavy burden: "They (the spirits) caught me and lifted me. I was scared, I thought my death came. My father was flying by my side and he told me not to be afraid. Otherwise, the spirits would take my soul and torture it. They brought me to the top. They lay me down and started to sing. I could not move, I was afraid. One must not be afraid of the spirits. One of them, the most important one, came up to me and thrust arrows into my body. Another one started to cut me into pieces. Ten spirits started to tear my body. They washed my bones and put them together. Then they poured something over them. I don't know what it was. My body was hurting and scorching. They took away my head, took out the brain and ate it. They took out the entrails, cut everything into pieces and put then back inside. It took a long time. I don't know how long. Then, my father's spirit showed me around the heaven. We were travelling a long time. Then I came back. This is how I became a shaman." 6

Yavlad Yaptik reluctantly told the story of his "resurrection from death": "My brother put me on a sacred deer hide. He began to shaman (penzreta), strike the penzer. 7 Tadebtsyi 8 (spirits) of my brother flew in and we flew away. My brother was flying next to me and he showed me the paths of human illnesses. They put me on the top of a tree. I couldn't get up. Everything was dead. Then they (the spirits) started cutting off the parts of my body. I wanted to shout, but I lost my voice, I only watched what they were doing. The head was hanging from a branch and staring. Tadebtsyi threw my flesh about and poured my blood on the ground. Then they mixed everything together and handed it to my brother. My brother put it into a cauldron and started to cook it. Tadebtsyi were taking the pieces out of the cauldron and eating them and then they were spitting them back. My brother collected the pieces and glued them into place. They scraped and washed the bones. When my brother was gluing the pieces, he explained what illness had been eating them." 9

During the journey at the time of the "shaman illness" the initiate learns the reasons for all the illnesses that lie in wait for men. If some part of his body was not "made sacred" by some spirit it meant that the shaman does not possess the power given by the spirit, which was necessary for healing the sick. During the initiation the candidate's soul separates itself from the body and together with the teacher rises.

As Gavril Mandakov says, his soul rose above his body and made for the smoke opening in the tent. His father flew with him and comforted him. The grandfather's spirit warned against various unpleasant tricks that might be inflicted by the spirits. Having risen above the chum (tent) they flew like birds. Below he saw his family dwellings with reindeer were grazing nearby. They were flying towards the setting sun. According to Mandakov the way was cold and slimy. When they approached the sun the road glittered with all the colours of the rainbow. They were met by a spirit (the informant did not provide his name) who led them to the top of a high mountain. On the mountain spirits were moving in circles or dancing. They greeted them kind-heartedly.

First, the father-teacher talked to the spirits and then they all went through a very small opening in the mountain. Together with them the helper-spirits and guardian-spirits were flying and showing them the way to the Nga world. 10. The deeper they descended underground, the colder and darker it became. Between the first and second level Gavril's soul was suspended 11. He was being swayed from side to side, as in a wind. The guardian-spirits flew up and pushed him aside and some force sucked him into a hole. He was falling into an abyss head down. Having come to a stop on the top of a dwarf birch he started to look around in search of his father.

Holding onto a branch he descended to the "ground". The ground was slimy and unpleasant to touch. Next he saw a broad river. There were chum (nomad tents) and some "people" were moving about. When I asked if there had been light there he answered it mostly resembled an autumn twilight. After some time his father and the guardian-spirits approached him and started explaining the "life" of spirits in the underground world and show him the shaman tracks. It was his first initiation.

Yavlad Yaptik described his first journey to the land of spirits along with the same principles as Mandakov. The soul separates itself from the body and then goes in search of the shaman path, following which he rises to heaven with an old shaman. Yaptik says that between the first and third level of heaven 12 there is a level of weightlessness, where the souls of the dead gather:

"I have risen to the heaven. The sun is shining. Next, together with my brother, we flew to the sun. My eyes started hurting from the vivid light. My brother said: close your eyes, look with your other eyes, it will not hurt. I closed my eyes and I saw the spirits of heavenly people (nuv hasovo). They are the same as we are. When we started to rise into the third layer of heaven I fell into a den. I can see my body hanging. 13 I gathered my strength, started moving and I cannot get out. There are no doors anywhere, only emptiness. Everything is grey. I can only see the souls of the dead, but they don't want to talk to me. I certainly was not a shaman then which is why I didn't hear their voices." Then the shamans and guardian-spirits that take the dead to the land of peace flew up to them. Cutting the body by the spirits is confirmed also by others, who heard about it from their family. But not all are eager to share the legends of shaman initiations. 14

Gennadii Puiko told the story of his ancestor shaman named Hadyu, who also went through the initiation ritual. His body was not only chopped up and scattered, but also dried in the sun. An error in the instruction or initiation may be the cause of a young shaman's death. This is why the shaman teacher, before he started their journey in the heavenly and underground lands, first had to recognize the destiny and powers of the initiate. This was the very aim of the first initiation: to check what his power is like and what sort of shaman he would become. Before the initiation the candidates learned about the hierarchy of the gods and spirits, human and animal anatomy, meteorology, psychology and hypnosis.

The materials and information gathered imply that the shaman education consisted of a number of stages. The introductory instruction was received by children between 7 and 14 and as early as then they acquired the elementary skills of the shaman profession. They were present at all the kamlanie performed by old shamans. At the age of 14 the first shaman initiation took place, examination of the apprentice's strength and abilities. In shaman "secondary school" students aged 14-21 learned aesthetics, poetry, psychology, herb healing and natural medicine. At this stage a young shaman should compose his own song and acquire helper-spirits. Next, at the age of 21 he went through an initiation ritual, during which he received a shaman gift and guardian-spirits; ancestor-spirits. 15 At this stage of education a young shaman practised under the supervision of an old shaman, helped him with his ritual activities, but did not occupy himself with healing or meditation.

At 21 the candidate proceeded to a higher level of education. In this school young shaman learned to communicate with the helper-spirits and direct them, studied meditation and finding his way in space. He also learned to transform himself from one state to another, change his features. During the ritual activities of the teacher he played the part of the guide (teltan). At the age of 28 he went through an initiation ritual and was granted the right to practise divination from bones, an axe and a knife's blade, he was allowed to call the spirits of the dead and talk to them. Such shamans were counted among the group of mal tadebya, which means "a shaman without a drum".

At the age of 28 a young shaman proceeded to a higher school of shamanism, where he studied all the professional subtleties and secrets. He could perform kamlanie, divination and healing lesser illnesses. At the age of 35, after going through another initiation, a young man became a si'mya shaman, that is a shaman with a drum without hangings 16. After this initiation he was allowed to occupy himself with shaman activity.

From his 35th year of life a young shaman started his own ten-year practice, during which he developed his skills and deepened his knowledge. At this stage of activity his category, strength and his special talent crystallised. At the age of 42 he went through the initiation for powerful shamans. After the initiation he received the guardian-spirits and hangings for his drum and costume. Such people were considered fully educated shamans - yanumta. At the age of 42 they were counted among professional shamans, who after every initiation received power from the spirits and hangings as the sign of a stronger shaman. The more hangings a shaman received for his drum and costume, the more helper-spirits he had and the more powerful he was considered to be. At the age of 50 he could replace [the old shaman] or become a shaman of a yet higher category - vydu'tana, ya'nyangy tadebya or sambdorta.

The path of vydu'tana shaman begins in the Middle World 17, where he flies first parallel to the ground and then, suddenly, he rises and flies through layers of the heavenly space. Every layer of the heavenly sphere has its own colour, depending on the refraction of light and from which side the shaman enters it. Flying through the heavenly layers he feels the temperature and space of this world. When he rises through the spheres of the heaven he meets heavenly dwellers there, who had lived on the earth before they became spirits. They lead the same life and do the same things as they did on earth. Every heavenly sphere is ruled by one son of the Num god.

Between the first and third layer of the heaven there is an area of weightlessness. The souls of the dead reach this intermediary space 18 and there they await their fate. They stay there in the state of weightlessness; the souls were somehow in suspension between the heaven and earth. They cannot move and change place until a shaman frees them and takes them to their place of destination.

Vydu'tana shaman goes through five layers of heaven, on the sixth and seventh he is helped by the gods Mikola Mutratna 19 and Ya'Minya. Reaching the borders of the god Num's sphere, vydu'tana should go through the trials and obstacles that lie on the track leading to the god. The informants claim there is infinite space there, where vivid light can be seen, which may blind the shaman, or darkness, in which one can lose the way. When one has gone through all the trials, he receives a blessing from Num, and together with it power for his further shaman activity.

A shaman of the Middle World - ya'nyangy tadebya - has his path within the space of earth. As a result of the kamlanie process he reaches the other, somehow mirror side of the earth. The world looks the same but instead of people, a shaman there has to do with the forest, river and mountain spirits, which are invisible to the human eye. Depending on their rank, shamans can communicate with particular host-spirits 20 and ask them for help in finding a lost soul, possession, etc. Shamans of the Middle World also have their obstacles and face the risk of going astray, which they have to overcome before they meet a god or spirit.

A sambdorta shaman rises above his chum (tent) and flies in the sky parallel to the ground. He reaches the end of the earth in the west and goes through the earth and the underground world. He descends to the first level of the underground world. There are sihirtya in this land, who live a similar life to the people in the Middle World. The shaman knows that the souls of dead people who married sihirtya also live there. They are all gentle creatures, who do not hurt people. Sihirtya help shamans during their journey under the ground and in their search for a stray or sick soul.

The second underground level is inhabited by evil spirits, who try to imprison the soul of the sick and take them down to the underground world of Nga. Between the first and second world there is space to which lost souls go. If the shaman does not manage to free the soul in time, then the evil spirits may take it to Nga. There the shaman needs not only good orientation but also cleverness, as along the edge of this space evil spirits are lying in ambush to catch the souls of the sick and dead; thus they may also catch him when he tries to leave. If the shaman does not manage to take the soul away, he has to descend to the underground and find the evil spirit that took it. The shaman offers the spirit in return for the soul of the sick - a sacrifice. The functions of a sambdorta shaman in rituals of the funeral cycle involve guiding the soul of the dead to the world of the after-life.

All the informants emphasise that all these worlds are united and interrelated. The shaman should live according to the principles of nature and the universe. He who breaks them is punished by the spirits while the soul of the shaman suffers in the underground world of Nga - as long as Num lets him be reborn. Moving to another world a shaman does not escape life; on the contrary, he absorbs it so as to transform himself.

Leonid Lar

The text was first published in: Prostranstvo kul'tury v arheologo-etnograficheskom izmerenii. Zapadnaya Sibir' i sopredel'nye territorii. Tomsk. 2001.

Translated and published by permission of the Author.

Translation: Maya Florczykowska (maya@op.pl)
Editing and footnotes: Wojciech Jozwiak

Leonid Lar and Nenets in the Internet and "Taraka":


1. Yamal... Tazov. The Author of the article is a Nenets himself and is writing about the shamanism of his own nation. The nation comprises a few territory groups, which vary as to their dialect, customs and history, for in various regions the influence and pressure of Euro-Russian civilization was different, and at the time of the USSR the political systems were different. The Yamal Nenets are inhabitants of the Yamal peninsula; they are mainly reindeer shepherds; Tazov Nenets live by the estuary of the Taz river and are mainly fishermen. Shaman Gavril Mandakov died in 2003, Yavlad Yaptik is still living and practising (Information of L. Lar from October 2004)

2. breath ind'. The Nenets language is written using an adapted Cyrillic alphabet. The information on its phonetics can be found on: www.helsinki.fi/~tasalmin/sketch.html. The apostrophe means a glottal stop which serves as a consonant. The Nenets words cited are underlined, the Russian - written in italics.

3. At the time of initiation. The author uses a multifunctional Russian term posvyashchenie, which can be translated as follows: sacrifice, ordination, initiation. We translate it everywhere as "initiation", though in different places it may refer to the formal and ritual part of the event, while in others it refers rather to the internal experience in which the "spirits" take part.

4. After her death. Sic! This is how it stands in the original.

5. from the neighbourhood of Turukhansk. Turukhansk is a town by the lower Yenisey, east of the land on the Taz river.

6. I wrote down the words of the shaman Mandakov during my stay in his chum (tent). At first he did not want to talk about his first experiences. He started talking only after I had spent one month there helping him with his household jobs, one week before I left. [Author's note.]

7. Penzer - shaman drum, in Nenets language.

8. Tadebtsyi - a shaman's helper-spirits. (The word looks like a Nenets-Russian hybrid?)

9. Yavlad Yaptik went through a number of initiation ceremonies. [Author's note.]

10. The way to the Nga world. Nga is the god of the underground world and the ruler of the spirits of diseases. The Nenets religion is dualistic and opposes the god of the sun, heaven and light, named Num as opposite to the god of the dark and underground; Nga.

11. Between the first and second level Gavril's soul was in suspension. Nenets, like Canadian Indians and Inuit (the belief may be present in other cultures) believe that both the heaven and the underground space comprise several "layers" or "levels", crossing which involves additional effort and not every shaman is successful in the flight of his soul.

12. Between the first and third level of heaven. See the note 11 above.

13. I can see my body is hanging. Sic! The original text says so.

14. H. Vanuito, M. Vanuito, H. Hudi, H. Okotetto and others. [Author's note - names of his Nenets informants.]

15. Guardian-spirits, ancestor-spirits. This must be understood as: shaman guardian spirits, serving a particular family of hereditary shamans.

16. With a drum without hangings. This refers to the decorations, chiming pieces of metal and figures of spirits hung on the drums.

17. In the Middle World. According to Nenets cosmology, there are three worlds: Middle, inhabited by men, Upper, heavenly and Lower, underground.

18. To this intermediary space. Russian promezhutok. Compare the concept of bardo or antarabhava that is the after-death intermediary space of Tibetan Buddhism.

19. Mikola Mutratna - in fact this is Saint Nicolas (Saint Nicolas the Miracle Worker), who, borrowed from the Orthodox Church, in the Nenets religion was promoted to be one of the highest gods.

20. With particular host-spirits. In all Siberia, the faith in host-spirits residing in the mountains, waters and specific "holy places" is/was widespread.

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