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The Republic of Khakassia is a land of majestic mountain and steppe beauty, full of fresh and salt-water lakes. Located near the geographic center of Asia, it is thought by many to be the birthplace of Turkic culture. The Khakass "sunny world" lies between the Altai mountains to the west, the Tuvan Sayan mountains to the east and south, and the forests of Krasnoyarsk Territory to the north. Russian colonization began in the seventeenth century, bringing largely unsuccessful attempts to convert the Khakass to Christianity, but unlike their Tuvan neighbours they had very little contact with Buddhism.
During the communist period there were major changes in the traditional way of life, including ideological education, growth of urban centers, and the collectivization of labour. Daily life became divorced from the cycles of nature. Especially damaging to Khakass culture was the rapid rise in the non-native population. The Khakass now make up less than 10% of the population in their own republic, and their Turkic language is not spoken by most urban dwellers or young children. Today's most important problem is that the ethnos is dying, through poverty, a high suicide rate among the youth, illness and assimilation. Unemployment and the influence of the mafia and rapacious religious cults make new additions to Khakassia's social problems. The Soviet past is still felt in terms of prejudices and policies against native culture. A new Minister of Culture in 1997 expressed the opinion that Khakass culture was "primitive", and some artists portray to the general public its perceived dark side(1).
A more subtle example of these negative attitudes can be seen at the Minusinsk museum. A Khakass friend took me there to see the exhibit of ancient Turkic stone monuments, which is arranged in such a way that the viewer must walk counterclockwise to go in chronological order. We walked the opposite way, since the Khakass, like most Siberian peoples, do all ritual activities in the direction of the sun's movement. The opposite movement is the direction of death. A museum worker appeared and told us in no uncertain terms to go back and approach the exhibit the other way. My friend politely explained her people's tradition and her own tendency to severe headaches if she broke it. This news was treated as a whim by the supercilious museum worker. "You just want to have things your own way," she said. In the end we gave in. But why did the museum set the exhibit up this way in the first place? Was it a deliberate attempt to weaken the sacred content of the exhibit? Why are the workers even today not aware that it violates thousands of years of sacred tradition of the very people whose culture it represents(2)?
Khakass ethnic culture is reviving—music, art, theatre, storytelling, and ancient healing and ceremonial practices—all of which reclaim images of shamanic reality and bring their spiritual content back to life after years of silence and oppression. The cultural revival also gives encouragement to political and ecological movements.
More than individual healing, today's Khakass shamans focus on healing the ethnic group as a whole. The arts are vital in this connection, since they work first to raise self-esteem and encourage traditional values, moving from there to the healing of individual problems. I wonder whether this conscious focus on the whole group is stronger in areas (like Khakassia) less influenced by outsiders. In Tuva, Khakassia's neighbour republic, there has been much more contact not only with scholars but with practitioners of shamanic types of healing from the US and Europe, and there the focus seems to be more on individual healing. Westerners may have unconsciously influenced this focus, through their own biases and by looking for evidence of "classic" shamanic practice, which was often described by outsiders in relation to individual healing ceremonies.
At the same time as the outward focus of Khakassia's new shamans is on the whole group, their inward focus involves individual inspiration and creativity rather than setting up or imposing new authoritarian structures, more typical of the Buriats and Mongolians. Individual creativity is honoured in the arts as well as in shamanic practice—all are seen as evidence of the shamanic gift. Some of the people I was introduced to as "shamans" are actors, singers, philosophers and musical instrument makers, as well as traditional healers. Khakass music and epic now appear in the national theatre, carrying vital spiritual and ecological messages, while just a few years ago they were viewed as quaint remnants of a primitive past. Politics is considered a valid arena for shamanic creativity, and also for competition and trickery, time-honored parts of shamanic tradition.
Khakass scholars like Larissa Anzhiganova and Alexander Kotozhekov are reconstructing ritual and legend, and they have played a central role in raising the consciousness of rural people during the formation of the new republic in 1991 (Anzhiganova 1997). Recently members of the writer's union G. G. Kazachinova and V.K. Tatarova republished some of the works of 19th century ethnographer N.F. Katanov, including shamanic invocations, in small pamphlets useful to those who are conducting rituals.
A Contemporary Shaman's Practice
I see three lines contributing to the cultural and shamanic revival: (1) Consultation with hereditary tradition through the voices of the elders and ethnographic and historical literature, (2) Elements left from the Soviet era, and (3) Contacts with the outside world. To illustrate these three lines, I would like to introduce briefly the practice of one contemporary shaman, and then go on to some new legends which have been appearing in the last few years, building a bridge from the past to the present.
(1) Tatiana Kobezhikova is a hereditary shaman in her mid-forties. As in most Siberian traditions, the gift can pass down either the female or male line, and usually shows up in childhood. Because of the persecution of shamans during the Soviet period, Tania's parents were distressed when she began to predict what was about to happen, and could see auras around people. They tried to dissuade her from developing her shamanic gift. Although Tania's practice as a healer and clairvoyant began twenty years ago, since the fall of the Soviet Union she has practiced more openly as a declared shaman, with support from her family. In 1996 she sought consecration from hereditary shamans in Tuva and Mongolia. She has made a costume and drum, and her practice involves traditional methods of soul retrieval(3) and divination, as well as knowledge of sacred stories.
(2) Kobezhikova received a western-style education in Soviet institutions, and now uses knowledge gained during post-graduate work in archaeology together with her psychic ability to help archaeologists locate and interpret sites. She also runs a clinic in two rooms in an obshchezhitie, or dormitory/hotel in the city of Abakan(4). This setting has limited her in terms of drumming and long ceremonies using live animals, but at the same time opened her practice to a wide spectrum of urban clients. Although she speaks Khakass, most of her work is conducted in Russian.
(3) Kobezhikova has contacts with the west through reading the works of Michael Harner and Carlos Casteneda. Meetings with foreign psychiatrists and anthropologists at home and through travel to the West result in exchange of ideas and methods and possibly some financial support for her efforts to revive all methods of traditional healing in Khakassia.
What emerges from the union of these three lines is something unprecedented in the history of shamanism. (It is worth noting that the shamanic tradition has always been extremely flexible, adapting to changed conditions and the influx of new ideas.) Her practice adapts tradition to today's largely urban conditions and needs. Tania practices traditional soul-retrieval and divination, as well as healing through energy channels and chakras(5) similar to what is practiced by "extrasense" healers, massage, and herbal medicine which are not typical of traditional shamanic practice. She has also developed something which I am calling "eco-tourist shamanism", in which she guides people (including me) through the many sacred sites in Khakassia: kurgans, ancient observatories, caves and petroglyph sites. She helps her clients to feel the energies of the earth, developing rituals which contribute to personal growth and ecological awareness(6).
In a similar way other new shamans took me to Üstegei, a mountainous area where many disappearances and unexplained deaths have occurred. People have had encounters with mountain spirits in the form of ancient warriors who give warnings to those who fail to respect ancient traditions. We experienced one of these warnings on our visit to Üstegei. I had asked people to tell me legends and tales, and they wanted to do it in the correct geographic context. A friend and I started up the hill, and stopped briefly as a snake crossed our path. We then continued on, going separate ways. Both had forgotten the taboo which says that you must turn back if a snake crosses directly in front of you. I came to a place where the path became impassable and had to make a long detour to get back to our meeting place. But my friend took much longer to return—and when he did his face was pale and he looked exhausted and frightened. He had started climbing a steep hill when the earth fell away behind him. He was forced to continue up a cliff using one hand and carrying his dog. By this time he had remembered the snake, and realized that he should have stopped and addressed the spirits of Üstegei when we arrived. Although I too knew about the snake taboo, the punishment for a foreigner was merely a tiring walk, while as a native person and algyschy, or person with a special talent for carrying out rituals, he had a truly frightening experience.
On the same trip to Üstegei a new musical instrument was consecrated by its maker, Petya Topoev. It was a stringed khomus. An instrument gets its soul from being played in nature, he says. I expected him to draw the bow across the strings, but instead he held the instrument into the wind, which moved across the strings and the skin head, causing them to vibrate. Topoev held the instrument close to my ear. The sounds reminded me of choral singing. Now that it had been introduced to the spirits of mountain and wind, a player would be able to make spiritual music on it.
Towards the end of my time in Khakassia, I was present at the consecration of a new shaman's drum. This was a private ceremony carried out at the home of the drum's new owner—Alisa Kyzlasova, who uses the drum not only for shamanic ceremony, but also in the theatre, where she sings songs and enacts stories she learned from her grandmother, who was a powerful shaman in her own time(7). Tania Kobezhikova conducted the ceremony. First she lit three candles and placed them in a triangle, with Alisa standing in the middle. After smudging the drum and the the new shaman with the smoke of burning juniper and other herbs, Tania played the drum at length, watching the owner carefully. I sensed that she was bringing the sound and spirit of the drum into harmony with the new shaman's energies. When the playing was finished, Alisa told us which animal spirits had appeared to her as she became comfortable with the sound of the drum. The ceremony ended with a few instructions about how the drum should and should not be used in public performance.
An important focus of today's movement is clan ritual, with attention to genealogy, ancestry and especially to the importance of specific places sacred to families and clans, and to places like Üstegei, that are power points on the earth. Shamans have identified over 200 sites which are now used for rituals. Many of these places are in the mountains, home of ancient spirits who appeared in the past as helping spirits of shamans. Mountains appear in epic and tale as the meeting place of heaven and earth, and a route for approaching the upper world.
People have begun to make direct contact with these ancient mountain spirits, and their experiences turn into new legends that are inspiring the rebirth of culture. Today's legends involve survival, rebirth, initiation, creativity including the interaction of male and female energies, the vital role of music, and most importantly, respect for nature and the land. Certain people have changed the focus of their lives entirely as a result of the experiences and visions that result in these legends, and have begun to concentrate on helping their people. Others tell of how they were offered the shamanic gift in Soviet times, how they refused it and what happened as a result. Many stories are told about shamans remembered from recent generations. On the negative side, some young people have hung themselves as a result of meetings with the mountain spirits.
In the past the singer of epics, or khaidzhi, enjoyed a position similar to that of the shaman. These storytellers, who performed in a type of throat singing called khai, came from their own ancestral lineage and underwent initiation like shamans. They showed talent from childhood, and were respected for their clairvoyant abilities. Storytelling was understood as a healing art, as it is increasingly in the West as well. Today's legends are told by new khaidzhi, and also by folklore collectors, philosophers, actors, and even elderly people speaking on the radio. Like shamans, the legend-tellers work toward healing the people as a whole, raising self-esteem.
One contemporary story connected with singing is that of an elderly musician named Itpekov. He was sitting at home one evening playing his chatkhan (zither) when a little old woman with snow-white hair and a bright face appeared unexpectedly before him. The chatkhan is the sacred instrument of storytellers, and he had felt compelled to take it up after his retirement. "The old woman's clothing amazed him with its former wealth, being made of satin and silk. But it was in pitiful condition: all torn, with threads pulling out. After they had drunk tea in silence, she told him she was Chir Ine, the mother spirit of all the Turkic peoples. `I am the mother spirit and I am dying,' she told Itpekov. `You need to help revive your culture and the people themselves, so that I won't die. You, the Khakass, are my eldest son among the Turkic peoples.' Not at all long ago Chir Ine had been young and beautiful, she said, because the Khakass people were living according to their customs and traditions. They worshipped her because she was the Soul of the People. When the people is alive and blossoming, she too is well. But now the Khakass have stopped worshipping the spirits of Fire, Water, Mountain, and Taiga. They are forgetting their language, losing their culture. If this continues further, the people will die—the Khakass will hang themselves, drown themselves, kill one another." Chir Ine taught Itpekov her song, which he often sang and now others sing too (Anzhiganova 1997).
Another story with similar themes of initiation through meeting the mountain spirits (tag eezi) is that of the sculptor Slava Kuchenov. The specific spirits he met were khai eezi—the spirits of singing khai, which leads to the art of the khaidzhi, or epic singer.
Kuchenov had received his formal education in St Petersburg and returned to his homeland with no sense of traditional culture. He went to visit an aunt in a far-away village, walking a long way to get there through the mud. When he arrived, he cleaned his boots and went to bed. In the night someone woke him and took him out through the steppe to the mountains. Something happened to him there, a deep transformation based on meetings with spirits. He was told he must learn five musical instruments, including the chatkhan played by khaidzhi, the khomus (a bowed string instrument(8)), and demir-khomus, a kind of jaw harp played by shamans. Some of the things he was told were to remain secret. Then he returned to his aunt's and went back to bed.
In the morning he woke up and thought it had all been a dream, until he saw that his boots were muddy again—with mud from the mountains. This was such a powerful experience that he began to play music afterward and became an adept khaidzhi. He now composes his own poems similar to heroic epics, using classic and contemporary themes. He says that spirits turn pictures before his eyes and he simply relates what he sees. This is exactly the way the khaidzhi of the past described their art (Anzhiganova, Kotozhekov, Kazachinova 1997: personal communications.)
Kuchenov commissioned his instruments from Petya Topoev, who says that the meeting with the khai eezi happened at the confluence of two rivers, a meeting place of the physical and the spiritual. The instruments he made had unusual shapes, designed according to the instructions of the spirits that Kuchenov met.
Topoev told me a story of his own meeting with spirits—this time with the spirit of a warrior who sleeps in the mountains. Topoev went out with a newly finished drum to consecrate it. His brother had played the new drum and said it would be a warrior's drum.
Petya went up to a place where he could see five peaks, and there he played. Beside one peak a big sleeping warrior appeared. Another warrior was trying to wake him. Petya stopped playing and the two warriors disappeared. When he began to beat the drum again, they reappeared and the sleeping warrior moved around, as if he were about to awaken and get up. At this, Petya was frightened and ran away!
His story relates to an old legend about a sleeping warrior of the past. In the sixteenth century a great Khakass hero was defeated by the Mongols and went away to sleep in the mountains. You can see his form high in the rocky mountains along the road from Abakan to Kyzyl. Legend says that he will come to life when the time is right, and save the people.
Through Khakassia's shamanic and cultural revival, the sleeping warrior is waking up!
Anzhiganova, Larissa. 1997 "Renaissance of a Culture: How Khakass Shamanism Survived and Flourishes Today" Active Voices: The Online Journal of Cultural Survival. www.cs.org
Butanaev, V. Ya. Traditsionnaya kul'tura i byt Khakassov [Traditional Khakass Culture and Way of Life]. 1996. Abakan: Khakasskoe knizhnoe izdatel'stvo.
Van Deusen, Kira. 1998a. "Shamanism and Music in Tuva and Khakassia" Shaman's Drum, No 47, pp 22-29
____ 1998b. "New Legends in the Rebirth of Khakass Shamanic Culture" The Anthropology of East Europe Review, volume 16 number 2, Autumn 1998 pp 35-38.
____ 1997a. "The Voice of the Mountain Spirit: Contemporary Shamanism in Siberia" Active Voices: The Online Journal of Cultural Survival. www.cs.org
Thanks to: Larissa Anzhiganova, Galina Kazachinova, Tatiana Kobezhikova, Alexander Kotozhekov, Valentina Tatarova, Petr Topoev.
A different version of this article appears in The Anthropology of East Europe Review, volume 16 number 2, Autumn 1998 pp 35-38.
© 1999 K Van Deusen
1. For example a 1997 children's theater production of the epic "Altyn Aryg" portrayed its bold and beautiful warrior heroine as a witch (Van Deusen 1998b).
2. Although located on traditional Khakass territory, Minusinsk is officially part of Krasnoyarsk Territory. The atmosphere at the museum in Abakan is much more welcoming and there the workers actually allow ceremonies to take place in the exhibit halls.
3. In the Khakass understanding there are several forms of soul, including khut, the life force, tyn, the breath, chula, the fire of the eyes which may leave the body at night and wander around as a shiny figure. The technique of healing depends on which soul is missing and where it has gone. Khag'ba, a protective aura, is located on a man's right shoulder. In addition a shaman has myg'yra, located in the clan tree. One shaman can kill another if he finds and swallows it (Butanaev 1996). Every clan (seok) has a soul located in a certain kind of tree. It is forbidden to cut that tree, or make things from the wood. G. Kazachinova says that khut of a clan is contained in the hair. Women protect their lungs (home of the breath or tyn) with a pog'o, or ritual shield usually decorated with beadwork. Other areas of the body which are ritually protected are the top of the head (syn, the area of truth) and third eye. For men a special belt protects the area associated with the third chakra (personal communication 1997).
4. Buriat shaman Nadezhda Stepanova uses a similar setting in Ulan-Ude.
5. When criticized for using foreign terms like "chakra" and "aura", many Siberian shamans explain that the concepts are completely in line with traditional views of human energy phenomena.
6. I have also seen a similar practice in Buriatia, where shaman Valentin Hagdaev runs spiritual excursions on Olkhon Island through the Baikal Parks Service. Although serious problems have resulted from similar kinds of ecotourism in Central and South America, so far in Siberia it is on a very small scale and has created no damage either to the land or to indigenous culture.
7. Van Deusen 1997.
8. This can be confusing, since in Tuvan the word khomus refers to the temir-khomus or jaw harp. A Khakass stringed khomus made by Topoev has the shape of the sacred swan.
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