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The Shamans Of Siberia

  • Amos Chapple

The shaman has served as healer and diviner in Siberia for centuries. During the Soviet age of "science and reason" the mystical figures were harshly repressed, but today in isolated regions of Siberia the shaman is once more regaining importance as the mediator between the spirit worlds above, the underworld below, and this world of ours.


A shaman hammers his drum during a ritual in Russia's Tuva Republic, in southern Siberia. During ceremonies like this, the beat of the drum grows steadily faster as the shamans circle a fire. While the beat intensifies, unearthly screams come from the shaman. At the height of the ritual the soul of the shaman is said to leave his or her body in order to make room for a spirit to enter. 
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A shaman hammers his drum during a ritual in Russia's Tuva Republic, in southern Siberia. During ceremonies like this, the beat of the drum grows steadily faster as the shamans circle a fire. While the beat intensifies, unearthly screams come from the shaman. At the height of the ritual the soul of the shaman is said to leave his or her body in order to make room for a spirit to enter. 

Another shaman in Tuva. When a spirit enters the body it is said to be dangerous to look into the shaman's eyes. While the shaman communicates with the spirit world, face coverings protect onlookers. 
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Another shaman in Tuva. When a spirit enters the body it is said to be dangerous to look into the shaman's eyes. While the shaman communicates with the spirit world, face coverings protect onlookers. 

An exhausted shaman after a ceremony. Shamans say that when entering a trance they have only precarious control of their journey into the spirit world. Entranced shaman have been filmed chewing red-hot coals. 
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An exhausted shaman after a ceremony. Shamans say that when entering a trance they have only precarious control of their journey into the spirit world. Entranced shaman have been filmed chewing red-hot coals

A shaman attempting to foresee the future of a customer. After exhibiting unusual abilities in his or her youth, a shaman-to-be must endure a serious illness before becoming a full shaman. Known as the "initiatory illness," its importance is due to the near-death experience carrying the shaman-to-be briefly through the spirit world. 
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A shaman attempting to foresee the future of a customer. After exhibiting unusual abilities in his or her youth, a shaman-to-be must endure a serious illness before becoming a full shaman. Known as the "initiatory illness," its importance is due to the near-death experience carrying the shaman-to-be briefly through the spirit world. 

Shaman Kara-ool Dopchun-ool uses a bear claw during a ritual to cure a man of asthma and liver disease. In an interview with The Siberian Times, the shaman explained: "We don't set prices for our services.... People give us as much as they can. If a man is poor and can't give anything, he will still get help."
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Shaman Kara-ool Dopchun-ool uses a bear claw during a ritual to cure a man of asthma and liver disease. In an interview with The Siberian Times, the shaman explained: "We don't set prices for our services.... People give us as much as they can. If a man is poor and can't give anything, he will still get help."

Shaman Vyacheslav Arapchor (left), conducts a session to predict the destiny of a customer. Many shamans make sure that each stone they use in their ceremonies is from a different river. The stones are said to hold the wisdom of the river they were taken from. 
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Shaman Vyacheslav Arapchor (left), conducts a session to predict the destiny of a customer. Many shamans make sure that each stone they use in their ceremonies is from a different river. The stones are said to hold the wisdom of the river they were taken from. 

In the Yakutia region of Siberia, many ethnic Russians -- despite being Orthodox Christians -- show deep respect for the rituals of the shamanic world. This truck driver is leaving a gift of cigarettes at a sacred site, a ritual he carries out each time he makes the treacherous journey along the frozen Indigirka River. 
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In the Yakutia region of Siberia, many ethnic Russians -- despite being Orthodox Christians -- show deep respect for the rituals of the shamanic world. This truck driver is leaving a gift of cigarettes at a sacred site, a ritual he carries out each time he makes the treacherous journey along the frozen Indigirka River. 

A sheep's head marks a shamanic site along the Yenisei River. Shamanic belief holds that, just as people are nourished by eating the flesh of animals, so the spirits of wild animals are nourished by the death of humans in the wilderness. "If a person is lost in the forest or drowns in a river, then the hunters think that the spirits will have been reimbursed for game or fish taken."  
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A sheep's head marks a shamanic site along the Yenisei River. Shamanic belief holds that, just as people are nourished by eating the flesh of animals, so the spirits of wild animals are nourished by the death of humans in the wilderness. "If a person is lost in the forest or drowns in a river, then the hunters think that the spirits will have been reimbursed for game or fish taken."
 

Herders greet on the plains of Russia's Tuva Republic, where shamanism is practiced alongside Buddhism. Shamans claim that today around a quarter of all Siberians practice shamanism to some extent, though researchers say that number is inflated. 
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Herders greet on the plains of Russia's Tuva Republic, where shamanism is practiced alongside Buddhism. Shamans claim that today around a quarter of all Siberians practice shamanism to some extent, though researchers say that number is inflated. 

The most important tool of the shaman is the drum. In Siberia the drums are made from reindeer hide that only "comes to life" once the shaman has traced the physical path the animal took throughout its life. After a shaman dies the skin of the drum is pierced. 
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The most important tool of the shaman is the drum. In Siberia the drums are made from reindeer hide that only "comes to life" once the shaman has traced the physical path the animal took throughout its life. After a shaman dies the skin of the drum is pierced. 

A shaman at work in Tuva. Each shaman creates his or her own unique cloak and headgear. The cloak is supposed to have been envisioned in a dream by the young shaman.
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A shaman at work in Tuva. Each shaman creates his or her own unique cloak and headgear. The cloak is supposed to have been envisioned in a dream by the young shaman.

In a photograph from 1890 titled Working To Beat The Devil, a shaman in Alaska stands with a sick boy. Shamanism dates back to the age of stone tools and hunting and gathering. In today's Czech Republic the remains of a female shaman were unearthed that dated back to 30,000 B.C.
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In a photograph from 1890 titled Working To Beat The Devil, a shaman in Alaska stands with a sick boy. Shamanism dates back to the age of stone tools and hunting and gathering. In today's Czech Republic the remains of a female shaman were unearthed that dated back to 30,000 B.C.

A shaman along the Yenisei River greets the sunrise in the winter of 2016.
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A shaman along the Yenisei River greets the sunrise in the winter of 2016.

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