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Important Issues and Concepts Concerning Shamanism and Shamanistic Ritual In Siberia


Through playing Irish music for several years in Ireland, I have witnessed the use of the frame drum used during performances in many different contexts. The type of drum used to accompany Irish music, namely the bodhrán, has been performed in this dance music and has gained widespread popularity in recent years. During my research on various types of frame drum that have been used throughout the world, I became particularly interested in the use of the frame drum among various tribes situated in Siberia. What I found most interesting about the frame drum in Siberia was its function and use among the tribes studied. Although the bodhrán serves a functional role in accompanying Irish music, the frame drum in Siberia has carried much more importance and functionality in performance.

The purpose of this essay is to draw attention to shamanisms as ritual performances that have been carried out among various tribes in Siberia during the latter half of the 19th century up until the end of the last century. Through examining some concepts that add to the function and success of shamanic ritual, I hope to provide a context in which musical instruments lie in the shamanistic events of various different tribes in Siberia.

In particular, I would like to highlight the importance of contexts and symbolic meanings concerning important aspects that are attributed to such performances drawing from ethnographic accounts of those concepts that grew from various early researches.

Firstly, I will assess the context of shamanism as a religious phenomenon, and draw from ethnographic accounts from both emic tribal claims and contrasting etic claims to supply a context within which shamanism has been understood since these claims have been recorded by early ethnographers. I shall then examine many different concepts and meanings attributed to performances of shamanism that have been practiced among various tribes of the region of Siberia with specific regard to the role of the musical instruments in these ceremonies. The resulting findings will provide a context for the importance of the symbolism represented by these instruments in the practice of shamanism in the region of Siberia.

My discussion is divided into the following sections: Definition of shamanism, Should Shamanism Be Considered a Religion, Understanding The Shaman And The Ritual, The Important Role of the Frame Drum in Ceremonies Among Tribes of Siberia, The Functional Role of The Tambourine in The Shamanistic Ritual, The Playing of Instruments During the Shamanic Ritual, Conclusion

 Definition of Shamanism- What is it?

When defining shamanism, one does not easily find a clear definition of the word, the oxford English dictionary does not cite it, and early researchers used roundabout ways of defining what the term really means. Any attempt to clearly define the word can be misleading, as it covers a broad spectrum of different meanings, including religion, magic, trance, and healing.

Flaherty1 cites that the word shaman might have came into existence for the reason that the English word ‘wizard’ is stem-relating to the word ‘Gauckler’ in German, which derives itself from the Siberian tribes’ word shaman. Explorers that would have ventured to places such as Siberia, Tibet and America would have been German born or trained, or working for the Hanoverian kings of England. To describe the shaman as a wizard would be, as we shall see later on in this essay, a misleading description of a performance that is definite.


In order to understand more clearly what the word shaman means, we must see firstly how the people who shamanize themselves describe its meaning. According to Jochelson (Siikala 1978:95), the word shaman among the Yukagir was derived from the verbs ‘to do’ or ‘to tremble’. In his account on the origin of the word shaman, Rouget2 describes that it is derived from the language of the Tungus people of Siberia, and that it “contains the idea of dance and leap on the one hand, trouble and agitation on the other.” This description of the meaning of the shaman shows us that the shaman themselves have a unique role in the ritual process from the use of these words like tremble, agitate, and dance. It is clear therefore how the ritual act of shamanizing was described by early ethnographers to be used in the realm of religion. I will now discuss if shamanism should be considered a religion or not.

Should Shamanism be considered a Religion?

“The primitive religion of the Siberian peoples is commonly known as shamanism, the reason being that the shaman, a kind of witch, plays a very considerable role in it.” (Una Harva3, 1933:299) I will discuss the phenomenon in which the shaman in Siberia is viewed.

It has been explained by researchers that the early ethnographies carried out in the study of shamanism have not been conducted in a manner suitable to the proper explanation of the phenomenon. An ‘animistic’ approach has been reported as the method used to explain the basic ideology involved in shamanism, and a number of ethnographers have taken this direction which is viewed as insufficient because of the lack of understanding in the shamanistic ideology by these ethnographers. Research carried out by these evolutionist ethnographers has been described by Siikala as “Not sufficient as the basis for the growth of the shamanic complex.” An example of this view that tribes held an animistic view of the world can be seen in the Swede, J. Stadling’s accounts (Stadling4 1912:8) and also (Paulson5 1964:131). Stadling’s account explains the phenomenon reflected primitive thinking and the conception of the world were shown as animistic. However, on closer inspection, one can find that the concepts involved in shamanism were highly complex.


The functional role of the shaman, in contrast to that of priest is explained by Robert H. Lowie, according to whom:
Whereas a shaman by definition acquires his status through a personal communication by supernatural beings, the priest need not have this face-to-face relationship with the spirit world but must have competence in conducting ritual (Lowie6 1958:413).

Mikhailovski7 explains, “The presence of a shaman at a festival, as priest and sacrificer, is but of secondary importance, and is not of the essence of shamanism.”

How and in what way can shamanism be considered a religious phenomenon? Una Harva has said of the Siberian people that: “The primitive religion of the Siberian peoples is commonly known as shamanism, the reason being that a shaman, a kind of witch, plays a very considerable role in it.” Hans Findeisen and Vilmos Diószegi have also used the word shamanism as religious.

The shaman among many different cultures throughout the world has been witnessed and described as a healer. In the Central African Republic among the Ngbaka-Mandja peoples Arom and Taurelle8, the healer becomes the shaman in order to heal the sick.

 Taylor9 states that among the Eskimos of Alaska, USA, that, “Shamans were holistic healers, treating their patients’ physical, psychological, and spiritual symptoms.” He also states that they were, “gifted individuals, they could divine the cause of ill health or poor hunting.” The job of the shaman among this culture was to communicate with the spirit world in an effort to restore the balance among the Eskimo people.

The ancient Greeks we are told by Dodds10, used incantation by way of shamanism, if one wished to see the Orphic priests.

Professor V. M. Mikhailovskii of Moscow Mikhailovski11 in writing about the Yakuts explains that in the 1930s this tribe was asked to give information about their customary law, and excluded Shamanism from “Any particular profession of religion.” He cites that they said, “Shamanism is not the faith or religion of the Yakuts, but an independent set of actions which take place in certain definite cases.”

It is clear therefore, that the outlook of one of the Siberian tribe themselves, who were nominally Christian at that time as explained by Mikhailovski and would therefore understand religion in Christianity also as a contrast to their traditional ritual practice, shows that they regard the practise of shamanism as acts that take place with specific meaning and can be seen as  void of primitive thinking. The shamanistic practices in their views were not the same religion as Christians would see it, but a clear and distinctly different concept.

When one considers that the actions taken by the Yakuts Mikhailovski12, during a shamanistic rite ceremony are directly confrontational with the spirit world, the cause for defining shamanism as a religion appears to become somewhat lessened by its difference. It is clear that during a shamanic ritual, there is communication between the shaman and the supernatural world for a reason such as healing the sick, trying to ensure success in hunting, resolving a crisis in the tribe that is more direct than with religion. These are actions with the supernatural beings, rather than merely a “system of belief” in the spirits of the other world.

 Understanding The Shaman And The Ritual

For Western society, grasping the idea of shamanism is very much alienated by resulting ideologies pertaining to the way in which we live, our cultural centrality and the way in which we perceive the “spirit world”.

 The shaman may not simply be called a trickster or a deceiver. Herder explains that the shamans have been, “Deceived by the traditional preconceptions of their tribes.” In Western society, such an act might seem like it is artificial, since the shamans do not take mind altering substances, and the ritual act might seem easy to perform. However, Herder cites that shamans “Endure the fasting, solitude, emotional stress, and physical exhaustion so as initially to summon his tutelary spirit.” Flaherty13. In addition, it is explained by Flaherty also that observers, in witnessing shamanistic events during the 1700s, credited them on the, “Surefootedness, even at the height of frenzy during séances in which psychopathic drugs were used.” Flaherty also explains that the “Christian Europeans” found it difficult to understand how the shamans had great physical control during the ritual event while in a state of ecstasy. Not any person could become a shaman and communicate with the spirit world. In contrast to many western religions, where the priest is appointed through training to a degree, the shaman must be a certain type of person to be able to carry out the ritual activity. The priest in western religions does not necessarily have to hold a certain physical condition.
To become a shaman, many ethnographic accounts have stressed that the ancestors of the person to be initiated had to be shamans themselves. This further informs us that the view associated with primitive thinking of early ethnographic accounts should be disregarded. It is explained by Anisimov, that certain tribes of the Evenks community tried to keep the shaman within the family, following a complex set of values and beliefs. Dioszegi’s work among the Tofas on shamans also revealed that they assured that the post of shaman remained within the family through marriage. (Siikala14, 1978:285).

In commanding the technique of ecstasy, hereditary shamanism provided for a common type of psychophysical shaman, as it was important for the shaman to be able to conduct communication with the spirit world and to have the support of their followers.

In addition to requiring a family tie, the overall skills of the shamans to conduct performances have been highlighted by ethnographers’ accounts which ensure that the rituals have been authentic.

There is a stage process that traverses many tribes accounted for where to become a great shaman many of them were required great skill in communicating with the spirit world.

Neher (1962:154-157) describes that the given responses due to drumming hold affinity with the individual’s genetic make-up. The shaman must find a correct drumming technique, and therefore a genetic make-up must be required as a result for them to become a good shaman rather than a random selection process.

Imitating the sound of the spirits was held in high regard by members of the clan in many cases, the greater the variety of spirits imitated, the greater the shaman.

 The fact that some tribes held that to become a shaman required a certain type of person and not just a random pick from the tribe proved that there was a deeper symbolism involved in the selection process of the shaman. Siikala notes that among certain peoples of Siberia, that becoming the shaman involved a study of singing and various rites before the shaman was allowed to perform (Siikala15 1978:317). Siikala also mentions that the technique of drumming had to be accomplished before acceptance as a shaman. As explained earlier, the technique of playing had to reflect the genetic make-up of the shaman so that they could carry out the ritual successfully.

It is therefore evident that a deeper symbolic meaning and more active communication is the contrast that shamanism holds with religion, that the advent of new shamans are a result of a complex set of values and beliefs and that it requires a specific type of person in most cases.

Performance of the shamanistic event depended on many factors and also quality of technique described earlier. The importance of the drum in shamanism I shall henceforth analyze through various ethnographic accounts.

The Important Role of the Frame Drum in Ceremonies Among Tribes of Siberia

It has frequently been described by ethnographers that musical instruments have been used among shamans throughout the world in communicating with the spirit world. The use of many different instruments including the tambourine, canes, rattles, lutes, and Jews harps have all been used with symbolic meaning and served very important functional roles. In Siberia in particular, the frame drum has been an important instrument enabling the shaman to enter, stay in, and leave the spirit world.

Described by Chadwick16 (1936:75-112) that among the Siberian Tatars, the drum was, “the epitome of the universe, symbolises his sphere of action [the shaman], both above and below the earth, and gives a short-hand view of… man’s spiritual environment. Symbolically therefore it is clear that the drum had a very important role in the shamanic ritual.

Movement to and from the spirit world has been explained by ethnographers’ accounts of shamanism throughout many different tribes of Siberia. The symbolic and functional role of musical instruments in accompanying the shamans into and out of the spirit world has been attributed high importance. Also, the performance during this journey has not only been played out by the shaman alone, but with the aid of attendants.

While many instruments of symbolic meaning and function serve in the ritual process among many tribes, perhaps the most important of these has been the frame drum. Made from the skin of a reindeer, and easily constructed, this instrument has been reported by many ethnographers to play a central role in shamanistic activity in this area.

A rite process of Korkodon Yukagir shamanising has been described by Jochelson in 1896 (Siikala17 1978:97). He explains the symbolic use of the frame drum and its use in the rite process. He reports that during the rite process the spirit of the ancestors speaks through the shaman and then in the next series of events, the shaman stops beating his drum and lies down. Jochelson explains that the, “soul of the shaman had left his body and through the drum as through a lake, had descended into the Kingdoms of Shadows[the spirit world].” It is explained that the Yukagir name for the drum translates to the English language as “lake” and that it was through the lake that the shaman descended into the world of spirits, the “underworld”. This path to the spirit world holds the drum as the key to success in the journey, and aids the shaman in contacting the spirits that he/she wishes with which to communicate. The importance of the drum is further highlighted in the ritual process of the Yukagirs, the drum is central to the ritual act, as it is explained that during the shamanic event, the derivative name of the drum is translated to English as ‘to act as shaman’. It is clear therefore that the drum among this tribe was held with high importance.

Such attributions of importance are regarded highly in the return of the shaman from the spirit world also, in the evidence put forth by Jochelson of the guidance that the shaman receives while returning to this world.

Highly important among another tribe, namely the Nentsy of Northern Russia, the drum had an important role to play during the shamanic event, it was used in a similar context to that of the Yukagirs’s process explained above. Lehtisalo explains that the drum was played by the shamans assistant and that by being played for the shaman, its use enabled the shaman to retain contact with the normal world and also safeguarded the shaman’s return from the spirit world.

Other examples also highlight the importance of the drum in guiding the shaman, this use of the drum was explained by Anisimov among the Evenks (Siikala18). Here, the helper took the drum and entreated the shaman to, “look more fixedly at the light of the tent fire, and to listen more closely for the sound of the drum.”
Claimed by G. M. Vasilevich that the entire population of the Evenks of Siberia that they held a ‘common belief of three worlds, one on top of the other’, this structural representation was symbolised by the Podkamennaya Tunguska Evenks in the form of a tent and two galleries. This form has been described as ‘shevenchedeck’, was, as Siikala reports (Siikala19), based on the idea that the shaman had a stream and that the mythological beings were on its islands or banks. To reach the lower world, the drum had a deep symbolic meaning and highly important functional role. The drum itself was used by the shaman as a boat, and the drum stick as a paddle in the journey towards the spirit world.

 Of importance also among other tribes was the impact that the spirit world had upon the ritual process with regard to the drum. Of importance to the Chukchi was the dual role of the shaman, one as that of the shaman, and the other as that of the spirit. In the case of this ritual, it is not the shaman that journeys to the spirit world, but that the spirit is present in the tent. If the drum is mended by the spirit, it means that the patient has a good chance of recovering.(Siikala20)

Of note here is that of how the early ethnographers saw the Siberians’ ‘animistic’ view of the world. The complex nature of these performances and the deeper symbolic meanings attributed to the use of the frame drum clearly indicate a complex set of beliefs and tradition.

This complex set of beliefs is accentuated by the description given to Jochelson by the shaman himself concerning the shamanistic ideology of the spirit world. The shaman explained that there were three souls; one soul in the head, one in the heart, and one pervading the entire body. Furthermore, the demon was considered to enter the person and frighten the head soul into escaping to the “Kingdom of Shadows” (the underworld). It is apparent that the shaman must journey into this world to banish the demon and then return the soul. Elements of the journey into the spirit world have a broad international background (Eliade21).

 In hindsight to these accounts of the complexity of the ideology in shamanic practices and the deeper symbolic meaning and importance of the frame drum, a deeper understanding of shamanism may be attained, which contrasts the view of early ethnographers in that the phenomenon was basic and of an early simple stage of development.

 Although the frame drum played an important role in the shamanistic event, it is described by Rouget21 that the drum was frequently used to induce trance and that, “any instrument at all can perform the same function.” This view is strongly accentuated by the reports that the tambourine was an instrument used in a similar if not identical way in some cases. I will now examine the use of the tambourine in shamanic rituals where it has a similar function to the drum therefore providing a context for the view of Rouget that any instrument can be used.

 The Functional Role of The Tambourine in The Shamanistic Ritual

Mikhailovski22 (1892:62-100) describes Radloffs account on the importance of the drumstick and tambourine in the profession of the shaman. Similar to the role of the frame drum, he describes that the tambourine has power in calling up spirits, but that also it carries the shaman.

Khangalov describes the deep symbolic meaning of the tambourine among the Yakuts and Buryats tribes, “a horse on which he rides to the spirit realm.” As I explained earlier about many of the uses with the frame drum for communication with and transport to and from the spirit world, the use of the tambourine has a very similar role here.

Among the Chernev Tatars tribe, it is reported by Klements23, that they used various pictorial representations on their tambourines, including those of horses, birds, trees, and the sun. These pictorial representations enabled a symbolic use and showed that the tambourine was a very important instrument used in the shamanic ritual.

If the frame drum was held as an extremely important function of the shamanistic ritual, then the tambourine was to be held in even higher regard as a more important instrument, Mikhailovski24 explains that it, “continues to occupy first place among shamanist instruments.” Mikhailovski also explains that the problem with the decrease in the use of the tambourine among tribes of Siberia was a result of the decline in shamanistic rituals, as less and less persons had the knowledge of making the instrument. In beating the frame drum the communication has been made with the spirit world, and in a similar way, the beating of the tambourine has been a function in the communication process. I shall now examine the areas of the ritual where these instruments have been used, if they serve an important role at specific times during the ritual, and if so, does the ritual depend highly on the competent playing of a shaman for the ritual to be a successful one?

The Playing of Instruments During the Shamanic Ritual

Many of the accounts described earlier relating to instruments being played show that they enable the shaman to travel to the spirit world and communicate with this world. It has also been shown that the drum has been used to aid the shaman in returning from the spirit world. Lucile Hoerr Charles25 describes in shamanism that the paraphernalia used during the ritual serves to, “heighten the emotional quality of the séance and powerfully assist the shaman’s psychotherapeutic function.” At what points, however, in the ritual are the instruments being played? And at these points, is it important for the drum to be played in a certain manner?

Levi Strauss26 (1962:292) describes the role of the shaman’s music as it, “seeks to intervene in natural determinism in order to modify its course.”

The playing of the frame drum has been widely documented by early ethnographers, Charles27 explains the process in which the instrument is brought into the ritual by the Yakuts. She explains that at first that there is some sounds of various birds and animals and a, “low beating of the drum”. She goes on to explain that this culminates in a “crashing climax” and that this is repeated with more low beating of the drum. This is evident among many accounts of Siberian tribes.

In Jochelson’s account of a ritual among the Yukagirs (Siikala28), the shaman begins by beating the drum and imitation of different animals. The shaman then sings, and speaks to the spirits. Later on he again sings and plays the drum, speeding up after some time. The next use of the drum he beats it quietly, taking leave of his spirits. Following this, he throws the drumstick behind himself and finishes the drumming there.

Kai Donner (Siikala29) explains a performance of the Sel’kups in 1912. Here the drumming is soft to begin with, as the shaman imitates the sounds of the animals. By whispering, the shaman brings out the sound of the drum at the event, and Donner further explains that the sounds of the animals result from the echo on every side of the instrument. Again, like the last example described, the drumming begins to get faster, and it also gets louder, just when the shaman is traveling to the spirit world. Interestingly, here the shaman suddenly stops the singing and playing of the instrument. This comes just before the shaman begins to talk to the spirit. Then the noise gets louder and louder as the shaman is speaking to the spirit. As the shaman is returning from the spirit world, the sounds become softer and softer.

It is clear that many of these examples show us that there is a quiet beating of the drum to start off with, and a louder noise when the shaman gets louder, and then a quieter beating of the drum nearer the end of the event. The performance on the instrument is mostly at random points of the ritual. Depending on the need for the shaman to be transported to the spirit world, and the meeting with the spirits themselves, determines how and when the drum is played.

The skill required to play the instrument has been documented by many ethnographers, as it is claimed that the shaman must be trained to play the drum, while moving on from the beginner instrument which was sometimes the jews harp.


It is clear that to understand fully the implications of the use of musical instruments in the shamanistic ritual, a better knowledge of the concepts that lie behind the symbolic and spiritualistic aspects of the event need to be attained. The musical instruments that carry symbolic meaning are of importance because they play such a crucial role in the ritual process. The relation of percussion used in ritual ceremony to transition depends on many broader issues and concepts that are involved in the practice of shamanism.

Rouget claims that it is the drum (or any other instrument used) serves to punctuate the action of the shaman, that it provides the rhythm that is the primary support of their dancing (Rouget30 1985:318). The drum alone is not the sole instigator of the trance, but one feature that is important in the advent of the trance itself. The shaman, as explained by Rouget, makes the most use of music to enter into a trance state. Through the deep symbolic use described earlier (the stick as a paddle, the drum as a lake for example), the shaman places the drum in a central role when entering this trance. As a result of the previous findings in discussing the frame drum and tambourine, the importance of the instruments and the symbolism of individual instruments is extremely high during shamanic rituals.

Mauss explains that, “underlying all our mystic states there are corporeal techniques, biological methods of entering into communication with God.” In Siberia, among the various tribes described earlier, trance is made up of corporeal techniques with singing, which form the principal elements of communication with the spirit world.

But if there was any instrument to be used in shamanic ritual without symbolic meaning, without these deeper meanings that the Siberians claim bring them into the spirit world, could the shaman carry out the shamanic ritual as successfully? Rouget explains of trance that, “Music does nothing more than socialize it, and enable it to attain full development” (Rouget 1985:326).  One begs to question if the absence of such symbolism were to occur, would it be possible to carry out the ritual with a less meaningful instrument?


 1 Goethe and Shamanism

Gloria Flaherty

MLN, Vol. 104, No. 3, German Issue. (Apr., 1989), pp. 580-596

2 Gilbert Rouget “Music and Trance” A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession University of Chicago Press 1985

3 Harva 1933, p299

4 (Stadling 1912:8)

5 (Paulson 1964:131)

6 (Lowie 1958:413).

7 Shamanism in Siberia and European Russia, Being the Second Part of “Shamanstvo” V.M. Mikhailovskii; Oliver Wardrop The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 24. (1895), pp.62-100

8 Arom and Taurelle 1968

9 Taylor, Colin F. “The Native Americans” Smithsonian Institution 1991

10 Dodds (1951, 147),

11  Mikhailovski, 1895:63

12 Mikhailovski, 1892:92

13 Flaherty, 1989:580-596

14 Dioszegi, 1968:242-244

15 Siikala 1978:317

FF Communications VOL. XCIII No. 220 Helsinki 1978 Anna-Leena Siikala

16 Shamanism Among the Siberian Tatars

Nora K. Chadwick

The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 66. (Jan. – Jul., 1936), pp.75-112.

17 Jochelson 1926:196-199

18 Siikala, 1978:234

19 Siikala, 1978:238

20 Siikala , 1978:162

21 CF Eliade, 1964:247

22 Rouget, 1985:127

23 Mikhailovski, 1892:62-100

24 Mikhailovski, 1892:62-100

25 Drama in Shaman Exorcism

Lucile Hoerr Charles

The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 66, No. 260. (Apr.- Jun., 1953). pp. 95-122.

26 Levi Strauss 1962:292

27 Drama in Shaman Exorcism

Lucile Hoerr Charles

The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 66, No. 260. (Apr.- Jun., 1953). pp. 121.

 28 Siikala 1978:106

29 Siikala 1978:211

30 Rouget 1985:318

Flights of the Sacred: Symbolism and Theory in Siberian Shamanism

Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer

American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol.98, No. 2. (Jun., 1996), pp. 305-318.

Results of Soviet Investigations in Siberia, 1940-1941

Henry Field; Eugene Prostov

American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 44, No. 3. (Jul.-Sep., 1942), pp. 388-406.

Shamanisms Today

Jane Monnig Atkinson

Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 21. (1992), pp. 307-330.

Shamanism in Mexico

William Madsen

Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Spring, 1955), pp. 48-57.


Shamanisms Today

Jane Monnig Atkinson

Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 21. (1992), pp. 307-330.


Some Relationships between Music and Hallucinogenic Ritual: The “Jungle Gym” in Consciousness

Marlene Dobkin De Rios; Fred Katz

Ethos, Vl. 3, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), pp. 64-76.


Problems of Central Asian and Siberian Shamanism

Manabu Waida

Numen, Vol. 30, Fasc. 2. (Dec., 1983), pp. 215-239.

  Physiological Explanation of Unusual Behaviour in Ceremonies Involving Drums

Andrew Neher

Human Biology 34:151-160

 The Soul of Mbira

Paul Berliner

African Music 5.4:130-9

University of California Press, 1978