On the Semantics of the Evenk Shaman’s Tent in the Context of "Ikenipke" Ritual
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Submitted by: Yuri Klitsenko

Evenk shaman’s tents are often referred to as "models of the universe" and "enlarged copies of shaman’s garments". The Evenks believed in the ability of the shamans to imitate deluges. A shaman practiced “baptism” of children in the “cosmic waters”.

Yuri Klitsenko

On the Semantics of the Evenk Shaman’s Tent in the Context of "Ikenipke" Ritual


Evenk shaman’s tents are often referred to as "models of the universe" and "enlarged copies of shaman’s garments". Indeed, the cosmogonic symbolism of the shaman’s garments, which corresponded to the upper, the middle and the lower worlds, can be compared to the arrangement of the Evenk prayer grounds, which reflected the mythological concept of a three-part universe. Yulia Yampol’skaya, with reference to a manuscript by Innokentii Suslov, gives an example of a rule for conducting rituals: a shaman shall not start assembling the shaman’s tents unless he is initiated for wearing all the shaman’s garments. "Assembling the shaman’s tent without the full shaman’s costume would be as nonsensical for a shamanist, as we would consider an astronaut starting on a space walk without an extravehicular space suit" (Yu.A. Yampol’skaya, Evenk "Shaman’s Tent": History of the Discovery, Results of the Research, Hypotheses. Ethnoses and Ethnic Processes, Moscow, 1993). Thus, in the spring of 1925, during the Sym Evenks’ "ikenipke" festivities, the chief shaman, Ivan Ivigin, in full shaman’s attire carried out the ceremony of kamlanie in the shaman’s tent, made up of 45 poles. Meanwhile, the young shaman carried out the ceremony in an ordinary tent made up of 25 poles (M.S. Batashev, Materials of the Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum on the Evenk Cultic Structures, The Yenisei Province Almanac No2, 2006).

One cannot but notice that the metal pendants attached to shaman’s garments and the wooden images of shaman’s tents have the same iconographies and ritual functions. The most honoured characters in the rank of the shaman attributes are those which took part in the creation of the world: figurines of water birds, fishes, mammoths, serpents etc. According to Evenk tales the gods had created animals and people from the figurines, which were not unlike those made for the shaman’s garments and tent (A.I. Mazin, Traditional Beliefs and Rituals of the Ochoron Evenks, Novosibirsk, 1984).

The description of the "ikenipke" ritual published by the famous tungusologist Glaphira Vasilevich (G.M. Vasilevich, Ancient Hunting and Deer-Breeding Evenk Rituals, in the Collected Works of the Leningrad Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, vol.17, Leningrad, 1957) shows that there is a close semantic connection between the shaman’s garments, the shaman’s tent and the Evenk cosmogonic myths.

Preparations for the "ikenipke" festivities included the construction and decoration of the shaman’s tent. All the elements of the tent were made by men. The shaman assisted insofar as some of his tribesmen worked in the shaman’s smithy forging metal pendants for his garments and for the tambourine, while several girls processed pelts and made the shaman’s cloak.

The completion of the work was celebrated by a song, which praised the skills of the smiths and the girls. The song was followed by a dance that was accompanied by interjections and whoops, which symbolized the creation of the world. According to Glaphira Vasilevich, on the first day of the festivities the participants sat in a circle holding their tools. The shaman started the song. In the course of singing he enumerated all the phases of work and all the tools that were used in the process. Meanwhile, other participants, who were sitting around the shaman, imitated the actions he mentioned but in the reverse way. For example, they scraped the pelts moving the knives in the wrong direction. Then, the shaman together with two women, began to hop and dance crying out: "Pagey! Kulur! Dekur! Dekur! Dunner! Himir! Uyur! Tokur! Aba! Dere! A-a!" These words do not exist in the modern Evenk language. The Evenks, however, thought that they were used to denote different phases of the world creation. Shamans probably believed that the "sacred" language was best suited for rendering the act of the creation. Once the magic words were cried out, everybody sprang to their feet and joined the round dance, which symbolized a journey down the cosmic Engdekit river. Some people were walking "along the river bank" while the rest were "rafting down the river". For the most part, the eight-day-long festivities reproduced the full-year cycle of the Evenk daily activities, including imaginary deer stalking as a special feature.

At the beginning of the XX century the "ikenipke" was celebrated only by the Sym Evenks. The analysis of the "ikenipke" first-day rituals, however, suggests that all important kamlanie ceremonies which required the construction of the shaman’s tent, brought the Evenks back to the first days of the creation and the establishment of the cosmic order. This supposition is supported by the fact that at the beginning of the ritual the shaman’s tent was imagined as being filled with water, which symbolized the initial state of the universe. Describing the shaman rituals of the Evenks who inhabited the area around the Nizhnaya Tunguska and Podkamennaya Tunguska rivers, Innokentii Suslov remarked: "Before the start of a kamlanie ceremony, the shaman invokes the forces of nature and asks Muuna, the water king, to flood the place of the ceremony. Hence, all the attributes of the prayer ground shall be regarded as being either on water or in water" (M.S. Batashev, Materials of the Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum on the Evenk Cultic Structures, The Yenisei Province Almanac No2, 2006). According to Anatoly Mazin, the Orochon Evenks believed in the ability of the shamans to imitate deluges. While being on the waters, the participants of shaman ceremonies used bridges and rafts made of fish. These bridges and rafts also illustrate the myths about the dawn of time. A Sym shaman used a raised platform of this kind to "baptize" children in the waters of the cosmic river.

A comparison of the data on the images of rivers and bridges in shaman’s tents with the description of the “baptism” ritual published by Mikhail Simonov, will lead us to the conclusion that the “baptismal service” conducted by a shaman was carried out on a wooden bridge laid across the invisible river. “As late as the 1940s there were still some Evenks who remembered the traditional 'baptismal service'. I, personally, was told about it by a Russian informant L.I. Romasheva, who once found herself at an 'old shaman place' – a clearing in the thick taiga forest used for the shaman 'baptismal service'. She was sent to put out a forest fire with a group of other villagers. The leader of the group, Ivan Osipovich - a Sym Evenk, who had officially renounced Shamanism - decided to have a rest at that particular clearing. The woman remembered seeing a platform standing on four pillars. Each pillar represented an idol. The top of the platform was covered with squared tight-fitting poles. The construction had special ladders at the sides. The Russians were surprised when Ivan Osipovich said: 'That’s where we baptize our children', because there was no water anywhere near the place. However, it turned out that the Evenk 'baptismal service' didn’t require the use of water. The shaman, with the child in his hands, got to the platform using one of the ladders. Then he crossed the platform and got off at the other side. Once on the ground, he went along the lateral side of the platform (past its two idol-pillars) back to the first ladder, got on to the platform once again, crossed it to the opposite side, got off the platform and continued his way, but this time along the other lateral side (past the second pair of idols)” (M.D. Simonov, Some Facts on the Sym Evenks Shamanism, Bulletin of the Siberian Division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, the Social Studies Series, №11, 1983).

The images placed in the shaman’s tent suggested associations with the legends, which told about the role of the mammoth and the snake in the formation of land, mountains, lakes and rivers. The poles, which formed the tent carcass, were intertwined with a braid symbolizing the Dyabdar Snake, while a wooden figure of the Seli Mammoth was usually placed in the shaman’s tent western gallery.

The study of the "ikenipke" festivities rituals is important for a better understanding of the role played by the shaman’s tent in the Evenk culture. It also gives new insights into the history of temple construction. There are only two sources of information on “ikenipke”: the notes made by Glaphira Vasilevich, who witnessed the ritual performed by the Sym Evenks in 1930, and some surviving extracts from the lost diary kept by Mikhail Dmitriev, a research assistant of the Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum, who during his expedition to the Sym River in 1926 wrote down the data received from shaman Ivan Ivigin.

Authentic artifacts from the Evenk prayer grounds and photographic pictures made at the beginning of the 20th century can be found at the museums in St. Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk. Modern reconstructions of shaman’s tents can be seen in the Bratsk Museum of Architecture and Ethnography 'Angarskaya Derevnya' (reconstruction prepared by Gennady Utkin) and in the Ulan-Ude Museum of Ethnography of the Transbaikalians in Verkhnaya Beryozovka (reconstruction prepared by Tamara Gurka and Nikolai Dovolin).

Yuri Klitsenko is a Russian living in Moscow.  He works for the Russian Orthodox Church.

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