Helpmate Spirits or Idols?
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Observations on Images on Some Shaman Garments from Expositions of Russian Ethnographic Museum

by L. N. Semyonova (Yakutsk) & A. A. Burykin (St. Petersburg)
Submitted by Yuri Klitsenko, Russia

Presence of idol images on shaman garment makes it obvious that among shaman's helpmate spirits there were not only his personal spirits inherited together with his shaman vocation, but also at least certain family spirits.

It is widely thought that anthropomorphous, zoomorphous and terramorphous images (appearing as various freaks), having any form of contact with shaman trappings, i.e. fastened to the caftan (upper vestment), apron or headdress, depicted on a tambourine, patterned on a beater, etc. are presenting shaman helpmate spirits. This opinion is expressed in this or that way in all works on shamanism, where shaman attributes, are characterized, and is presented in special works on shaman vestments. At the same time we have no case studies dedicated to flat or plastic images on shaman garments, though we find certain approaches to this already in the S.V.Ivanov's works on graphic arts of Siberian peoples.

Characterization of shaman trappings that have any accompanying explanations of their owners (Burykin A.A. Ethnocultural links of Evens and Koryaks in semiology of shaman objects//Ritual objects ethnosemiology. St.Petersburg., Russian Ethnographic Museum, 1993. page 140-154) makes it clear that shaman garments with their images of spirits is not just a form of receptacle of shaman helpmate spirits who serve him from time to time or a means to invoke them, but a sort of collection of helpmate spirits who have served shaman through his practice. Sometimes it is believed that the number of helpmate spirits affects the rank or status of shaman, but it remains unclear if shaman's specialty like the one that Nenets or Nanaj shamans have affects their status, whether a change to a different status is possible and how they are done.

These notes present some observations on images of spirits and figurines of helpmate spirits on certain shaman garments presented in recent years in Russian Ethnographic Museum (REM) expositions. A close look at some metal zoomorphous images attached as pendants to shaman garments persuades of the fact that these images have the same style with idols apparently representing patron spirits. In our opinion, this resemblance means that these pendants can be recognized not as independent images of helpmate spirits, but as secondary images of the idols formerly placed at home and now being a part of museum exposition near shaman garments.

From pure art history point of view this resemblance is hard to explain since at all times and with all nations plastic images were closely related to the specifics of their material, and things typical to the wooden plastic art, i.e. for idols, can hardly unintentionally be reproduced in metal, and small figurines of Siberian peoples is no exception. Correspondingly there is reason to raise a question if the images of spirits similar to idols are independent first order images or if they belong to the second order images, i.e. simulate images of idols? Recognition of the opinion that certain figurines on a shaman garment represent idols induces to define new view on semiotic characteristics of shaman garment and ultimately on shaman world view.

Presence of idol images on shaman garment makes it obvious that among shaman's helpmate spirits there were not only his personal spirits inherited together with his shaman vocation, but also at least certain family spirits, whose figurines were in general use of family members, or spirits being objects of fishing-hunting cults. This fact is not much remarkable, since it is known that among shaman's helpmate spirits, especially among those whom shaman addressed after kamlanie there were ancestor spirits and elemental masters, and representatives of pantheon – the made observations substantiate this idea only in some measure. But presence of idol images on shaman garment doubling and multiplying these idols slightly changes perceptions of shaman garment.

We do not dispute the opinion that shaman garment can be regarded as a unique model of the world, as far as we can find in it in one form or another the world tree or a different form of image of the universe, and diversity of figurines of helpmate spirits represents universal zoo (if they are zoomorphic) or ethnic pantheon (if they are anthropomorphous). If these qualities of shaman garment are supplemented with presence of idol images on it, which are independent objects of the cult irrespective shaman practice, then shaman garment acquires one more quality - being portable model of animistic altar, as far as not all images present on it represent personal shaman's spirits.

If we assume the shamanism as social institution appears as a modified form of nagualism, where personal deities, that is helpmate spirits and patrons are left only to shamans (and for such interpretation of shamanism origin more and more reasons are found) then the similarity of plastic images on shaman garments with idols can have a different interpretation, according to which family idols irrespective of their place (in a special container, dwelling, open place) will be regarded as reproduction of images of helpmate spirits and patrons of shaman. This view can find grounds in the custom of certain peoples to take away a part of pendants from dead shaman's garment as personal guards (churingas). Thus we discover multivariate association between the composition of personal helpmate spirits of shaman and family patron spirits, between images of idols and helpmate spirits and between the ideas of the functions of helpmate spirits and patron spirits. Since images of shaman's helpmate spirits and images of spirits being objects of collective veneration have remained with various peoples in different ratios, and even where they coexist in ethnographic context, their genealogy is obscure, so, as we understand, only stylistic analysis can give a chance to extend our knowledge of relations of images of helpmate and patron spirits and figure out whether images in this or that tradition are original or derivative.

L.N.Semyonova, Yakutian State M.K.Ammosov University, Yakutsk A.A.Burykin, Russian Academy of Sciencies, Institute of Linguistic Studies, St. Petersburg

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

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