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Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories
Water Symbolism of Evenk Shaman’s Tent

Submitted by Yuri Klitsenko, Russia

Yuri Klitsenko

Materials on the Study of Water Symbolism of Evenk Shaman’s Tent

This compilation contains a collection of materials out of tractates by ethnographers- tungusologists and is intended to draw the reader’s attention to a number of issues pertaining to the symbolism of Evenk shaman’s tent.

In the article "Materials on shamanism of Sym Evenks" M. D. Simonov gives a description of “baptizing” children by shaman on a wooden platform (Proceedings of the Siberian division of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, Series of social sciences, No.11, 1983). The assumption that the "baptismal” platform is related to the structures of shaman’s tent and the idea of invisible cosmic river flowing through the place of the ceremony is supported by certain facts from thesis work by I. E. Maksimova:

“From outside a complex three-part structure “tuvur – tygdylon – tuktyvun” led to the entrance into the shaman’s tent. The only reference to it in the literature is very laconic: “Here our shamans baptized children” (Simonov, 1983, p.105). Though the primary events of “ikonipko” (ikeninke) feast took place in the tent, the highest importance was given to the moment of passing over this structure.

“T u v u r" meant seven log stumps laid symmetrically at the entrance. They symbolized bog tussocks – “j a k k u”, over which one had to pass to get to the island of shaman’s land. Those who misstepped were believed to face illness or death in water within the next year.

“T y g d y l o n" is a pad made of logs that symbolized a bridge over the shaman’s river. According to the feast scenario, in order to get to “d u k a n” (shaman’s tent), i.e. an island, one had first to cross a river hiding spirits of illness and death (“wala”). That is why in all the cases without exception one had to enter the tent only over tygdylon and tuvur.

“T y k t y v u n” is a structure resembling a table on legs about one and a half or two meters high. On both sides ladders were made. This structure symbolized a hill, on which the Evenks climbed going to the “land of light”, as well as the top of the former year and entering into the new year cycle, that is the beginning of the new life and the end of the old life. Tuktyvun was passed only once – in the very end of the feast (I. E. Maksimova, Tunugs Oikos: on the materials of Sym and Ket’ Evenk group, thesis work competing for the academic degree of Candidate of Historic Science, Tomsk, 1994).

In the works dedicated to the study of shaman’s tent structure among the Evenks, wandering in catchment basin of Lower and Stony Tunguska I.Ì.Suslov wrote among other things: “Shamanism takes place in water, not on the ground, since from under the ground evil spirits and even khargi himself (the supreme evil deity) can always penetrate the tent and disturb the shaman. Before starting the “kamlanie”, the shaman invokes the forces of nature and asks Muuny, 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). “Two big wooden pikes with square holes in the middle are perhaps the main guards of the shaman’s tent. When the last man enters the tent, pikes hide all those who entered the tent under water, protecting also the accepted threads of souls (Maeen) from possible rapture (break) by evil spirits” (I. M. Suslov, Shamanism as a brake of socialist development, Antireligiosnik, 1932, Nr. 17-18).

The rules of Evenk children game "khargi and lake” witness the integral water feature to restrict the activity of khargi evil spirit and his helpmates: “The players draw two circles one against the other, i.e. two lakes. Then they choose devil (khargi). One of the players leads khargi to the middle between the lakes, fells him on the ground, shouts: Home! Home! Home! and runs to the lake. After this the players run from one lake to the other. The devil runs after them trying to catch them. The devil fells the one caught on the ground, pretends that he sucks brain out of the victim’s head and laying his hand on the head of the victim he says: “ymgyl” (sucked out). The caught one closes his eyes and pretends to be dead. After that the dead turns devil’s mate and helps catching the others. The game continues till khargi and his servants catch the last one of the players” (K. M. Rychkov, Yenisei Tunguses, Zemlevedenie, 1922, book 1-4).

Both in shamanism and children game khargi preferred to act on the ground, and water gave shelter from evil spirits. In the Evenk folklore water could become insuperable boundary for the creatures from the lower world hunting for humans. By crossing the river the Evenks could survive after the chase, while the cosmic river processed monsters into things useful for humans:

Two young men were hunting in taiga and met Chulugdy. He started chasing them — wanted to catch and eat away. The men ran to the river. Hatala threw his tail on their bank. The men crossed the river over the tail. Chulugdy also went over the tail. When he was in the middle, a woodpecker saw the end of the tail and started pecking it. Feeling pain Hatala pulled his tail, and Chulugdy fell in water. When drowning Chulugdy shouted: - I am dying! Let my blood will be red stone color “devekse”, and my excrement be black stone color “endegi” (Human is the strongest. Collection of Evenk folktales, legends, riddles, signs, instructions. Written in Evenk language by Nikolay Oyogir, retold in Russian by Viktor Ermakov. Krasnoyarsk, 1986).

Two sisters found a cradle with a baby and brought it home. When they saw that the baby left alone turned into Mangi, sisters ran away; Mangi started chasing them. Old woman Achekai stretched her legs over the river like a bridge for them; when Mangi reached the middle of the river, Achekai took her legs away. Mangi fell in water and shouted: - Make ladles out of my hands, a bucket out of my head, dye out of my blood, shuttle out of my spine. And he drowned (Evenk tales. Collected and edited by M. Pinegina, G. Konenkov and others, Chita, 1952).

The bear started crossing a river to reach the girl. He went in, getting deeper into the water up to the heel, the ankle, the knee, the thigh, the hips, the belly, the navel, the armpits, the shoulders, the throat, the chin, the mouth, the nose, the eyes, the crown of the head, until he disappeared altogether. Then he said: "My heels shall be whetstones; my knees - grinders; my shoulder blades - stones for trying out dyes; my blood - the red dye; my excrement - the black dye. Since that time one could find in the taiga dyes, grinders, whetstones, and other things". (G.M. Vasilevich, Materials on Evenk (Tungus) folklore, Leningrad, 1936).

Similar ideas are reflected in the picture of Mammoth and Snake making Stony Tunguska river and its tributaries in order to rid the world of Chulugdy. Evenk Vasiliy Sheremiktal made a drawing at request of ethnographer Arkadiy Anisimov and told that when in the middle world female Chulugdy appeared and started to destroy everything on earth, mammoth Sely and snake Dyabdar entered the struggle against Chulugdy. She chased them. Sely and Dyabdar, running from her, created obstacles on Chulugdy’s way: Sely dug ground with his tusks and threw whole mountains at Chulugdy; Dyabdar, escaping together with the mammoth, furrowed a way for rivers and creeks with his body. This was the origin of mountains and rivers on earth. Pursuing each other, fabled beings went farther and father to the lower world till they reached its edge. There, Sely and Dyabdar launched a counterattack against Chulugdy and threw monster into the abyss. But they themselves could not get back to the middle world.

It is important to note, however, that not any water had protective features, but, for example, water, guarded by shaman’s helpmate spirits or purified by "iron” from sacred forge, where Sym Evenks made metal cult objects.

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

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