Ronald Hutton's Shamans: Introduction and Part 1 - Summary

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Chapters on this page:
Ch 1: Siberia |  Ch 2: The Siberians |  Ch 3: Russian Rule |  Ch 4: The Evidence on Shamanism

Introduction [pp VII – IX]

The term ‘shaman’ first appeared in Europe towards the end of the c17th and was widely used by the end of the c18th. Siberian shamans displayed 3 characteristic features:

  1. they claimed to be able to interact with spirits
  2. publicly [1]
  3. in order to help or harm people.

The term ‘shamanism’ currently is used in 4 different ways: as referring to:

  1. contacting spirits while in a state of altered consciousness
  2. specialising in spirit contacts on request
  3. using methods differing from those of other sorts of spiritual or magical practitioners: specifically, controlling spirits or visiting them in another world
  4. the indigenous religions of Siberia and adjacent regions.

The last sort of use exaggerates the importance of one particular feature of those religions.

The author tells us that he aims to reassess the literature of shamanic studies: in the context of the study of Western cultural history.


Chapter 1: Siberia [pp 3 – 7]

The first chapter is a 4 page survey of Siberia (as it came to be known), geographically and historically. It is that part of Asia which came under Russian rule, starting at the end of the c16th.

Chapter 2: The Siberians [pp 9 – 14]

The second chapter identifies the many ethnically, linguistically, culturally diverse peoples scattered across the vast area labelled Siberia. Siberian identities were modified by Russian rule.

Chapter 3: The Religious Impact of Russian Rule [pp 15 – 27]

The Russians had colonised Siberia in order to exploit its fur. In the early period of Russian rule, the native populations were required to pay tribute in fur and treated with great brutality when they failed to comply. Otherwise, they were left alone.

Under Tsarist rule, some tribal groups disappeared entirely while others increased their numbers, a couple of them tenfold, to around a quarter of a million each. But the influx of European Russians meant that the original Siberians became a minority in their own lands: 10% in 1900 and only 5% today.

Tsarist rule:

Initial Tsarist toleration of indigenous religions ended in 1706 with a decree compelling conversion to Christianity. Policies enforcing Christianity continued throughout the Tsarist period, apart from during the reign of Catherine the Great. Christianity faced competition from Islam and Buddhism in those regions of Siberia closest to the Islamic and Buddhist lands to the south. But by the end of the c19th, almost all the indigenous population was Christian, in name at any rate.

The native religions had been driven underground or become irrevocably hybridised with Christianity: as in replacing traditional deities with figures drawn from Christianity. Consequently:

European knowledge of the pre-Christian beliefs and practices was doomed to be a matter of conjectural reconstruction, rather than of observation. [p 22]

Regarding to the shamans in particular, the fundamental issue was that their existence challenged the authority of the Russian Orthodox priests in Siberia. Persecution drove them underground, so that by the end of the Tsarist era, in the early part of the c20th, they had almost disappeared in some regions, though they were still performing publicly in others.

Soviet rule:

Under Soviet rule, pressure on shamans abated for a while, till Stalinism took hold: giving collectivisation, Russification and massive Russian immigration. Shamans were actively persecuted as enemies of the people, with the consequence that by 1980 they were believed to have disappeared altogether.

This process was widely regarded as beneficial to the native Siberians: superstitious practices having been replaced by the advantages of modern science.

Chapter 4: The Evidence on Shamanism [pp 29 – 44]

Much of the information available on shamanism has been provided by hostile witnesses: in the earlier period by Christians writing about what to them was heathenism.

The account of Richard Johnson:

The first really significant report on shamanistic practice was that made in 1557 (i.e. just prior to Russian colonisation) by Richard Johnson. Hutton reproduces at length this Englishman’s relation of what he called the ‘devilish rites’ of a shaman of the north west of Siberia.

Johnson describes the ‘priest’ as wearing on his head some kind of white garland and over his face a piece of mail festooned with fish bones and teeth and ‘wild beasts’. This ‘priest’ started proceedings by playing a drum and chanting loudly. He had the assembly sacrifice five deer and then launched into his shamanic performance.

As a preliminary, the priest stabbed himself with a sword which Johnson had examined: there was no wound. The priest then skewered himself with the sword right through to his ‘fundament’ and out; Johnson touched the sword, which poked out from under the priest’s shirt.

In the main part of the ceremony, the priest took off his shirt and squatted on a kind of chair. A long deerskin rope was fastened round his neck and under one arm and there was placed in front of him a cauldron of water which the assembly had just seen boiled. With men holding the ends of the rope, the priest in his seat and the cauldron in front of him were covered with a broadcloth garment, which formed a tent.

A splash was heard and Johnson was told that the priest’s head and arm had been cut off by the rope and had fallen into the water. But this time the Englishman was not allowed to examine what was going on: being told that anyone who did so would die of it.

After some chanting by the assembly, what looked like a finger appeared twice, thrusting from the garment, even though no hole was to be seen in it. Johnson was told that the priest was dead and that what he was seeing was a ‘beast’, but what kind the informants could not say.

The priest emerged from the tent, first his head and arm, then his whole body. Johnson asked the priest’s attendants what the god had told the priest while he had been as if dead. They replied that they did not know, but had to do whatever he bade them.

C18th accounts:

The next available account is dated 1692; it was by a traveller called Nicholas Witsen. This evidence is notable for including the first picture of a shaman. A man is shown with antler headgear, chanting and playing a drum. However, demon-like, he also has claws for feet.

Further accounts appeared in the c18th. Somewhat typical are those of a Scot, John Bell, who described shamans as ‘a parcel of jugglers’ [2].

Hutton remarks on how much information on shamanism may have been lost on account of the prejudice of these authors. Also, given the impact of Russian colonisation, there is the question of how far native religion was still intact when the c18th travellers were reporting on it.

Changing attitudes:

Things gradually changed from the middle of the c19th, when scholars began to live for long periods among native populations, with the specific aim of studying their way of life. Hutton notes the contributions of three ‘early anthropologists’ [p 35] exiled to Siberia for political dissent. He quotes at length from one of them, pp 35 – 37.

However, the caveats remain. The cultures studied had been impacted on by colonisation; scholars’ contacts with them were sometimes limited; verification of one scholar’s account by comparison with that of another is usually not possible. What is more, general studies produced in the first half of the c20th on the basis of this previous work relied heavily on the same accounts as each other [3].

An Evenk shaman:

After the rise of Stalin, only Soviet researchers could engage in fieldwork, though these were far more thorough than their predecessors. For his third sample, Hutton quotes [pp 38 – 42] from an account of a 1931 healing ceremony among a people called the Evenks. The source is A F Anisimov’s essay, The Shaman’s Tent of the Evenks and the Origin of the Shamanistic Rite.

The ceremony took place inside a tent in semi-darkness, with a fire in the middle. Members of the clan sat round the sides and the shaman sat opposite the entrance. Around the fire and the shaman were positioned various symbolic objects. Anisimov describes the emotional state of those present: the clansmen very tense and the shaman himself nervous and twitching.

Proceedings got under way after an assistant had prepared the shaman’s drum by warming it over the fire and had clothed him in his ceremonial robes. The shaman began to beat his drum and the fire was dampened. With this, the emotional state of the assembly further intensified. Anisimov describes some of the clansmen staring at the shaman with eyes protruding.

The shaman began a rhythmic chant to the accompaniment of his drum, his verses being repeated after him by the assembly [4]. Improvising his chant, the shaman called individually on each of his spirit-helpers to come and assist him in defeating the spirit of the clansman’s disease.

The invocation of each spirit involved the shaman through his song describing the spirit for those present and giving a running commentary on how it was making its way from its own world to the tent. Characteristic noises made by each spirit when it finally presented itself to the shaman were to be heard in the tent.

Having assembled all his spirit-helpers, the shaman instructed them in his song on how they were to help him. Then he sent the most important spirit, his animal-double, to the lower world, along with other spirits in attendance, in order to find out the cause of the disease from the shaman’s principal ancestral spirit there. The shaman’s description in song, to drum accompaniment, was so graphic and dramatic that even Anisimov himself was moved by it.

The chant gradually built up to a peak of intensity, at which point the shaman moved from song to a frenzied dance, illustrative of the animal-double’s perilous journey to the lower world. Anisimov notes how the assembly were themselves drawn into a hallucinatory state.

At the climax of his dance, the shaman fell lifeless to the ground, signalling the spirit-double’s arrival in the lower world of the dead. The shaman’s assistant now revived the fire, so that its light would guide the animal-double and its spirit entourage back to this world.

The assistant next beat the drum and begged the spirit to return. The shaman gradually came back to life, signifying that the animal-double was indeed coming back.

The animal-double’s arrival was represented by the shaman starting his ecstatic dance once more. He gradually calmed down and started his chanting again, describing for the assembly the animal-double’s adventures on its journey and visit to the lower world.

This part of the ceremony ended with the shaman taking up his drum once more and reporting the advice that had been given in the underworld (by the chief ancestor-spirit of the shaman) for curing the clansman’s disease.

Ironically, this sort of excellent fieldwork was part of the Soviet drive to get rid of indigenous culture: to understand it better so as to be able to combat it more effectively. As late as 1987 an important scholar, in a study of shamanism in a Siberian people of which he was himself a member, called for the struggle against shamanism to continue.


Hutton concludes this first part of his book with three caveats regarding the evidence on shamanism:

  1. No first hand evidence from a traditional shaman seems to exist.
  2. There is almost no evidence from prior to Russian rule.
  3. The vast majority of those providing the available evidence from the c16th to the late c20th were at least indifferent to shamanism and frequently very hostile.
(c) John C Durham, 2006

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