Siberia is considered to be the heartland of shamanism. In modern anthropology, the term Shamanism refers to the spiritual practice of native groups. However, shamanism itself is not limited to Siberia. It is a universal practice where all major religions are based on. Siberia is a large area which includes a variety of cultures, languages, practices, and beliefs which many fall into the classification of shamanism and many of these ethnic groups practice shamanism still today.
In Siberian shamanism, there are some distinctive features such as worship of nature, belief for the world tree, an invisible pole that is a representation of the universe and three layers of the world (upper world, middle world, and the underworld). Many of these ethnic groups were hunters and lived a nomadic lifestyle. Hunting was a sacred ritual and in order for the hunt to success, the job of the shaman was to take shape of an animal and travel to meet the deity who was in charge of the hunting. The shaman would dress up as animals and mimic their sounds and movements.
There is lots of diversity among the sacred animals in Siberian shamanism. Among Samoyed and Uralic groups, a sacred animal was the bear who was believed to be the sacred ancestor of the tribe. In Mongolia and among Turkic groups stags and horses were most important animals. Among the Yukip, Nenetsi and the Saami´s reindeer was the sacred animal ancestor. The creation myth about the earth-diver is common among all groups whose roots are in Siberia and water birds play a significant part in the shamanic practice.
Origins of the word shaman are in Tungusia where it means the spiritual leader and the healer of the tribe.
Shamans and Shamanesses
In Siberian cultures shamanism often has strict gender roles.
For the tuvar´s shaman is ”Tatar”, ”Shor”, or ”Oyrat”.
In Yakagir language shaman is known as ”alman”, ”olman” or ”wolmen”.
Buryat shaman is known as ”Böö” (derived from old Mongolian word ”Böge”)
For the Mansi shaman was called ”Njat”.
Saami shaman is known as Noaidi. Saami word ”Noaidi” and Mansi ”Njat” are based on proto-Uralic word Nojta meaning a witch or a shaman.
Female shamans can be mainly found among Mongolian tribes.
For the Buryat shamaness is called ”Ugadan”, ”Evenki”, ”Lamut” or ”Ugudan”.
For the Negidal shamaness is called ”Odogan”.
In Siberian languages, there are many similar words meaning a ”shamaness” such as ”Utagan”, ”Ubukan”, ”Utygan”, ”Utusun”, ”Idan” and ”Duana”. Most of these words are based on ancient Mongolian earth goddess ”Etügen ”. She was also known as ”Etügen Eke ” the mother earth. Her name can be originated from Ötüken the holy mountain of the earth and fertility.
Speakers of Turkic languages
Turkic shamanism is practiced by ethnic groups who speak Turkic languages. These are Tatars, Tuvars, Tofalar, Yakut and Turks who live in the Altai mountains. Turkic shamanism covers large territories and the practice itself has been amalgamated with Buddhist and Islam beliefs.
Yakut Shaman. Notice the trinkets in the clothes. Fetishes represent animals and spirits who the shaman wishes to communicate with.
Area of the Yup´ik stretches from Eastern Siberia to Alaska and Northern Canada, therefore, there is lots of diversity in their shamanic practices. They believe in soul dualism and reincarnation. Soul of a Yup´ik shaman could travel between different levels to the underneath realms to meet supernatural beings and spirit guides asking for their guidance.
Shamanism of the Ket is foremost totemic. The lifestyle of the Ket is nomadic and shamanism is intertwined to Bear and deer hunting. They use lots of bones, skeletons and other animal parts in their rituals. Like for many Uralic people for the Ket waterbirds were sacred. Loon is an especially important bird, a totem animal and Loon´s bones are often used in ceremonies. They were shaman´s helpers in their journey. For the Ket shapeshifting is an important part of spiritual practice. Shaman goes off on the spiritual journey while drumming and dancing.
Young Buriyt boy
All ethnic groups that speak Samoyedic languages have elements of shamanism in their spiritual practice. Sayan shaman´s boot ´s, dress and headdress represents bones and human organs. The skeleton overlay of the dress symbolizes rebirth. Like all group´s who myths are based on Uralic myths for the Sayan´s loon was a sacred bird and a magical helper. Other Samoyedic tribes such as Nenets, Enets, and Selkup have different crowns and headdresses to be worn on different occasions. When a child is born the proper headdress represents the upperworld and for communicating with the dead headdress represents the underworld.
Reindeer is sacred animal for many ethnic groups in the northern hemisphere.
Saami´s are native people of Scandinavia (and the only ethnic group in the area of European Union). Saami´s live outside Siberia but their language is part of Samoyedic languages. There are elements of shamanism in the spirituality and folk traditions and customs of the saami. One of the most important parts of the Saami culture are the joiks. Joiks are wordless chants that were originally sung in shamanic rites. There are two types of joiks, clear joiks that are mostly sung by young people. Then there are mumbling joiks that are used while casting spells. These joiks often mimic natural sounds.
Speakers of Finno-Ugric languages.
Most speakers of Finno-Ugric languages live outside Siberia. Finno refers to Finnic languages such as Finnish and Estonian and Mari. In all these cultures there are elements of shamanism in the folklore and myths. In Pre-Christian Finland, shamanism had several phases. Noita the shaman was the spiritual healer of the tribe. Later on, there was a shift in the culture and noita became more individualized and was no longer a healer of the community but an individual practitioner of witchcraft/herbalism/healing. Ancient Finnish tribes believed in soul duality. Bear and moose were most common totem animals and there are lots of archeological proofs found from the widely spread bear cult. The world was divided into three levels and they were held together by an invisible pole, the wold tree.
In Estonia shaman was called Näit. Like in Finland also in Estonia worship of nature was an essential part of spiritual practice. Trees especially were worshipped as divine nature spirits. Other speakers of Finnic languages like Komi´s, Mari´s and Mordvan also have elements of shamanism in their spiritual practice. Folk religion also has elements from Russian Orthodoxism. Among all these groups nature worship, shamanic traveling and concept of the world tree are very common.
Ugric efers to Ugric languages such as Hungarian, Khanty, and Mansy. Early ancestors of modern-day Hungarians migrated from Siberia already 6000 years ago settling into the area of Pannonia Basin. Elements of shamanism have been preserved in folklore. Ancient Hungarians believed that world was divided into three levels and shaman had the ability to travel between these levels to seek information. In Khanty culture bear was worshiped as important totem animal and as the divine ancestor of the people.
Archetypes of the mother and the grandmother are some of the most sacred ones in all cultures. Life would not exist without mothers. In myths and legends across the world, we can find powerful grandmother figures. They represent the crone aspect of womanhood and had dual roles being connected to aging, dying nature and to the powers of the underworld. These grandmother goddesses are caring, wise, supporting and powerful matriarchs. Like grandmothers are in real life.
Great Grandmothers of the Samoyed
The saami´s, native people of Lapland of Scandinavia worshiped a goddess called Madderakka. She was the embodiment of the earth. Madderakka and her three daughters were mainly worshiped as goddesses of giving birth and creators of life. According to the legend, Madderakka received the soul of the child from Radien the god of community. It was her job to give the breath of life to the child and connect child´s body and soul together. Samoyeds worshiped a goddess called Kodanakkagoddess who makes the earth and the kuola-saami´s into a goddess called mändir-ähken which means grandmother of father or mother. Mändir-ähken was an ancient grandmother who had been buried in the ground. She was worshiped by the female members of the family asking her to assist them in giving birth.
Akka Finnish Goddess of the Earth
In old Finnish language, Akka was an honorary term that was given to a woman who had reached very high age. There are areas in northern Finland where words akkaand akku mean grandmother but in modern Finnish akka mainly means an old hag? What happened?
The story of Akka began 7000 years ago when Baltic tribes arrived in southern Finland bringing their gods and goddesses with them. The character of Akka is partly based on Lithuanian earth goddess Zemyna and Madderakka of the saami´s. Very little is known about Finnish Akka. She goes by many names. Maannakka, Maanutar, Manteretar. All these names are derived from the word maa meaning earth. Akka mantereenalanen is a common title used in spells and it means the woman who lives beneath the earth. Akka was the goddess of earth, soil, and vegetation. She was the creator of snakes and worms (mato). It was believed that during matopäivä day of the snakes (spring equinox). Akka woke up after the long cold winter and all snakes woke up from their hibernation and danced in her honor. Worship of snakes was very common in ancient Finland and in all Baltic countries. Akka´s spouse was Ukko god of the rain, thunder, fertility, and community. She had a daughter called Manua spirit of the dry land and her sons were earth spirits called mantu´s. Sacred tree of Akka was the rowan tree.
It is suspected that the cult of Akka was destroyed in early Middle Ages when Christianity arrived in Finland. For a long time, Catholicism and pagan customs were practiced together. Akka emerged into Virgin Mary as the giver of all life. At the same, her image changed from a wise grandmother into an old evil hag. Same happened to Louhi Finnish goddess of the moon and shamanism who was downgraded to become the goddess of death and the underworld. In many myths, roles of Akka and Louhi are intertwined together. Akka´s spouse Ukko became UkkoYlijumala (Ukko the highest of the gods) and equivalent to Christian god.
Baba Yaga Mother of Witches
The character of Baba Yaga appears in many Russian folktales. Most famous one of them is Vasilisa the fair. In the story young girl Vasilisa is sent to house of Baba Yaga by her wicked stepmother. Who secretly wishes that the witch would eat the girl. Witches house is guarded by three riders of death and her servants are three pairs of cut of hands. Baba Yaga gives pointless tasks to the girl. She is respectful towards the witch and doesn´t ask too many questions. In the end, Baba Yaga rewards the girl. Her stepmother and stepsisters get burned into ashes and Vasilisa marries a prince.
In the story, Baba Yaga is not either good or bad. She has no children but Vasilisa always addresses her as the grandmother. Baba means both grandmother and old woman and Yaga means a witch. She appears as an ugly old woman. Her house is wooden hut and it stands on a pair of giant chicken legs. It has no windows and the gates are made of human bones. Baba Yaga flies in a magical mortar. She is the goddess of the hearth, the domestic kitchen witch who knows secret ingredients of plants and herbs.
Finding Slavic pagan tales from pre-Christian times can be challenging because Orthodoxism arrived in Russia already 1000 years ago. Expressions such as Mother Russia and symbols like the nesting doll refer to Russian tight-knit family culture. Bigger nesting dolls birth to smaller ones like Babuska the grandmother has given birth to new generations. Worship of mother earth in Russia is mainly based on the beliefs of different ethnic groups like the Mongols, Turks, and Samoyeds who all worshiped mother earth as one of their most important deities. Russian culture was deeply influenced by the early Greek civilization. Baba Yaga is an archaic figure who represents desolation, chaos, and destruction and at the same time, she is the goddess of growth, re-creation, and eternal wisdom. She is a surviving image of the Greek goddess Hekate, the goddess of witchcraft. Hekate in her original form was the goddess of the universe, nature, and death. One of her aspects is Persephone, goddess of spring who eventually became the goddess of the underworld. Like Persephone who embraces Hekate, her dark aspect, Baba Yaga is unapologetic. She is not ashamed of her age, her appearance, neither she cares what other people think of her.
Cailleach Celtic Mother of the Mountains
Cailleach is a Celtic goddess who was widely worshiped in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland in Pre-Christian times. Her origins, however, are in southern Europe. Archeological and genetic evidence makes clear that the Irish Celts migrated from Iberian Peninsula. Folklorist Sorita D´Este has suggested that origins of Cailleach can be traced into the island of Malta. In the island of Gozo there is a temple that was built between 3600-3000 BC and it was told be built by a giant Sansuna. She was told to be carrying a supporting stone of dolmen in her hands. This dolmen has a long history of use as a delivery stone by pregnant mothers. Her myth is connected to series of migrations of people from Spain to Ireland and from Norway to Scotland, where it was told that Cailleach or Carlin the giant woman, arrived from the north with stones in her apron creating the Scottish islands.
Woman who doesn´t reveal her age
First literal mentions of Cailleach in Ireland mention her old age. She is told to be older than Biblical floods. Some sources even go as far as tell her having fifty children and seven husbands being the founders of all tribes of the world. Word Cailleach has several meanings including an old woman, hag, crone, the veiled one. It is possible that Cailleach has roots in the old priestess cult. In Scotland, Cailleach Mhor Nam Fiadh was the deer woman. She is connected to the element of water and healing wells which were common associations to priestess cults. In Celtic traditions, gigantic size was often seen as an indication of supernatural powers and the divine nature. This also hints to a priestess cult and large statues of Cailleach which could have been exaggerated over time.
In most legends, Cailleach shapes the landscapes. She created mountains, lakes, caves, and rivers. Her old appearance reflects the age of the earth and the age of our planet. Cailleach is told to bring winter and snow with her. Mentions of Cailleach as the winter goddess is not found outside Britain but she shares similarities with Germanic Goddess Frau Holda or Holde who created snow by shaking her apron.
The Divine Grandmother
Seasonal tides of the year have become associated with the ages of human life. In the springtime young maiden dances carefree and beautiful. She matures into an old crone of winter. A cycle that reflects the seasons upon the earth. Fairytale of Baba Yaga tells about the maiden accepting the crone aspect within herself. Across cultures old age has been connected to witchcraft. In Fairytales we come across two kinds of grandmothers. Little Red Riding Hood´s kind and caring grandmother and the cannibalistic hag witch in the story of Hansel and Gretel. Yet the image of the grandfather is missing. The archetype of an old wise wizard is never attached to a woman and rarely he has children. This is a reflection of patriarchal societies of past. The divine grandmother is the mother nature herself. She is not to be tamed or controlled. In nature, time loses its meaning. Everything dies to be reborn again. Life is a constant cycle that keeps recreating itself.
Both my grandmothers are still alive. In Finnish language we have many words for grandma (mummi, mummu, mummo and mumma). My mummi is in her 90´s. Everything about her is round and short. My father died when I was very young so I spent lot of time with my grandparents as a child. My mummi is Christian but she never talked about her faith to others unless if they were Christians as well. This is something that I always respected in her. She has pretty much lost her memory. She recognizes my face but doesn´t always remember my name. She is always kind and supportive, an ideal grandmother really. Then there is my other grandma mummu. My mother´s mother. She is total opposite to my mummi. She is tall and has sharp features. She is an atheist and a left-wing feminist in her 80´s. She likes to debate and my mother has told me amusing stories how her parents always argued over politics (grandpa leaned way more towards right). Wisdom that we learn from our grandparents can not be measured. One of my earliest childhood memories was sitting next to my mummu when she told me fairy tales. Like generations before us, she and I became part of a never-ending chain where grandmothers pass their stories to their grandchildren. The divine grandmother lives in all of us. It doesn´t look for gender or the amount children you have. Divine grandmother live in the present, in the future, stories of the past, memories, and in those important events that shape our lives.
Check out my course on Finnish Mythology and folklore )O(
Artist and Illustrator. Mythology and Folklore enthusiastic. Keen traveler. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea, and such.