Hey everybody, welcome back to Office Hours with the Brofessor, the Show Where I Say Things. Today we’re going to do a very basic outline of the shamanistic belief system of the Ket people. This is one of the most important aspects of Ket culture, but on the other hand one of the most mysterious; we know very little about Ket shamanism, especially as it existed prior to the arrival of the Russians in the 17th century.
Peoples all over Siberia have historically been shamanists. That is, they believe that particular people, i.e. shamans, have the ability to interact with the spirit world, and could act as representatives of the community thereto. That didn’t make the shaman better than anyone else, just different—I like to think of the muggle-wizard distinction from Harry Potter. Indeed, despite their vital role in the community, shamans weren’t necessarily the most popular people. Shamans were treated with some degree of “fearful reverence”. There was often something a bit "off" about them. At the onset of a shaman's powers, he or she would go through a period of mental illness. During this time they would go off into the woods and learn to work with the spirits; if the spirits were ignored, the shaman would go crazy and die. Even after rejoining the community, shamans were still feared by some. It was a position that we really have no parallel to in our society, and one that I for one struggle to understand.
These shamans, as I say, had the special ability to interact with the spirit world by going into a trance. Usually such a state was brought on by singing and beating a drum, sometimes with the help of fly agaric mushrooms (Vajda 2009). Among the Ket, both men and women could become shamans, although the most powerful shamans were men, at least in the 20th century. Male shamans were known as sening, while female shamans were called senam—note here the Ket word am “mother”. Shamans didn’t make up a single homogeneous group; there were different types of shaman, as well as a kind of earth sorcerer called a bangos (literally “earth one” or “earthy one”). They could belong to a few different classes, depending on their animal helpers: bear, reindeer, eagle, dragonfly or anthropomorphic-bear-man. The last category is cool because their helper was this guy who had bear paws instead of hands, known as a kandelok. So my guess is that America’s founding fathers were Ket scholars too. After all, they gave us the right to bear arms!
Anyway, different shaman classes had different abilities, strengths and weaknesses:
- · Dragonfly shamans were strongest, but could only shamanize in summer—i.e. when dragonflies are around, and they could only travel southwest in their spiritual journeys. That was kind of a bother, since the main Ket adversary, the soul-eating witch Hosedam, lived to the north.
- · Bear and kandelok shamans couldn’t fly. On the plus side they had the ability to call on not just their own spirit helpers, but the family’s allel guardian spirits too.
- · Eagle shamans weren’t as strong as the dragonfly guys, but they got the most most badass spirit helper--a giant eagle that was bigger than the sun. Also, they were heirs of the very first shaman, who is said to have either kept an eagle or been an eagle himself.
- · Reindeer shamans were the most common. In their séances their drums would turn into these flying female reindeer called qaduks that would take the shaman up into the sky. There they would have epic battles against Hosedam and her army of demons. Kind of like Santa, but infinitely cooler:
Hosedam's on the naughty list.
Out of these five types, there were also great “full time” shamans and lesser “part time” shamans. Most shamans were somewhere in between, while relatively few “leveled up” to great shamans. Lesser shamans had just rejoined the community after their "illness", and had a drumstick, but no drum. Upon "graduating" to a full shaman, they would recieve drums and an increasing amount of equipment, until the greatest shamans were more or less covered in spiritual regalia.
So, basically, these guys were the real deal. I would’ve loved to sit in on a séance and observe this beautiful ancient tradition, but unfortunately I can’t. Not because they’re secretive or anything, but because there are no more shamans left to observe. The last Ket shaman died in the 70s, bringing an end to this tradition. Given the persecution and eradication of traditional lore by the USSR in the 20th century, along with the social issues of modern Ket life, it does not seem likely that there will be a comeback. All we have now are fragments of the traditional beliefs practiced by the Ket, and even these are fading fast (Vajda 2010). On the other hand, we may have some cause for optimism, considering that other Siberian groups have extensively revitalized their ancient practices, e.g. Buryats and Tuvans.
The fate of Ket shamanism sends a sobering message to Western academia, not only about the importance of documenting indigenous spiritual traditions, but also of simply respecting them. Had it not been for the ravages of Western exploitation, this tradition from Ket prehistory might still live on today.
1. Ed Vajda, "Ket Shamanism". From Shaman, Spring/Autumn 2010. http://linguistics.uoregon.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Vajda-2010-Ket-Shamanism-Shaman.pdf