The fairytale horrors of Soviet shamanism | Andrew Brown

I have been reading about Siberian shamanism, which transports me to a world where fairytale horrors were still alive deep into the 20th century. One story collected in the 1980s tells of the shaman Khosogoi who was believed to “eat the souls of children”. A suspicious guest places the shaman’s own child in the cradle provided for hers: “In the night, as though dreaming, the guest saw Khosogoi wave his drum beater three times in the direction of the cradle and bring it to his lips, whereupon something resembling sour cream flowed into his mouth. After this, the woman again switched children.

“Early next morning, the household was awakened by a heartrending howl from the hosts’ child. The child cried for a while and soon died. Khosogoi tried to vomit what he had swallowed in the night, but nothing came out. He then said: ‘What has been eaten can never return. And my spirits have left me for ever, being angry that I fed them my own child.'”

The tale has the quick, undeviating cruelty of the Brothers Grimm but it takes place not in the long ago and far away world of witches, but in – as it might be – the yurt next door.

Another contrast with Grimm is that in their 19th-century fairytales of Germany, the constant theme is hunger. But in these Siberian folk tales, the overhanging dread is of disease. Children die; mothers die; tuberculosis and smallpox wipe out whole tribes. All these deaths are due to evil spirits. This explanation of disease and death is of course common to almost all preliterate religions, and survives even in literate ones. The shamanism of Siberia has hybridised in various places with Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, depending on the religion of the invaders of any particular region. In all these cases the rituals of drumming and singing in a darkened tent survived, even if the spirits invoked changed their names and characters.

The shaman, though he – or she – has dark powers, is necessary to the tribe because the spirits with whom they communicate are the only powers that can combat the evil ones that are imagined with startling vividness: “The Evén believed that the evil spirit of smallpox appeared on the migration routes of reindeer herders in the form of a woman with red hair like a European.”

“The woman with red hair like a European” is not embedded in any worked-out system of mythology. That would demand the kind of tidying that can only emerge in literate religions. Even then, there will be a layer of unofficial folk beliefs that contradict official doctrine on almost every point. What matters is ritual, in which the meaning cannot be separated from the performance. The other really important thing about shamanism is that its purpose is not to explain the world, but to cure it. This is of course what Marx claimed for his own followers: “The philosophers up till now have tried to understand the world. The point, however, is to change it.” That is another way in which Marxism resembled a religion more than a science.

The book I’m reading – Shamanic Worlds – is a translation of a volume originally published in Soviet Russia, so that the chapters make ritual obeisance to the spirits of Marx and Lenin. The authors, whatever their private views may have been, are obliged to pretend they are studying something that must disappear. “The extinction of religious vestiges is not a straightforward process. Under certain circumstances, they may revive, influencing some groups of people. But the general tendency of the development of society inevitably dooms them to gradual extinction.”

It is pleasant to read this and reflect that there are almost certainly more shamanists than communists flourishing in Siberia today. Neither Marxism nor shamanism could cure the diseases they claimed to, but shamans had the better songs and made the world a little easier to endure.

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