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Mythical beings of Siberian Shamanism


Excerpts from ‘Siberian Shamanism’, A study in social anthropology of Aboriginal Siberia, by M. A. Czaplicka, 1914

Chukchee tribes:

All the forests, rivers, lakes, and classes of animals have their own ‘masters’ (Auralit) or ‘owners’ (Etinvit). Sometimes, the Chukchee call them Kelet-a (spirit beings, magical beings)… Kelet are said to live underground, and to have also an abode above the earth… The Kelet do not remain in their home but wander abroad… They are too numerous to be distinguished by special names… They have all sorts of strange faces and forms… They are organized in communities resembling those of men.

On the Pacific shores they are often known as Rekkenit (singular: Rekken). These have various monstrous forms and animals that are born with diformities are sacrificed to them… These spirits once formed a tribe of giants living on the Arctic shores, but being much harassed by the Chukchee, they changed themselves into invisible spirits…

They take the forms of animals, plants, icebergs, etc, and can change their forms very quickly, and also their temper, on account of this last peculiarity, the shaman must be very punctilious in keeping his contact with them. The shaman says of them: ”These are my people, my own little spirits”… The mammoth plays an important part in Chukchee beliefs. It is said to be the reindeer of the Kelet.

According to the Chukchee belief there are several worlds, one above the other. Some reckon five such worlds, other seven or nine. A whole under the pole star forms a passage from one world to the other, and through this hole shamans and spirits pass from one to another of the worlds… Some of the stars also are distinct worlds, with their own inhabitants.

Koryak tribes:

(Such) spirits are called Kalau (singular: Kala), corresponding to the Chukchee Kelet. The Kalau formerly lived with The-Master-On-High, but he quarelled with them and sent them down to our world.

In the time of Big-Raven, they were visible to men, but now they are usually invisible. In most of the myths which refer to them, they are represented as living in communities, like human beings. They are very numerous, and have the power of changing their size, so that sometimes they are very large, and then again very small. Sometimes they seem to be ordinary cannibals and not supernatural beings at all.

When the Kalau are visible, they appear sometimes in the form of animals… or as human beings with pointed heads… Some of the Kalau live underground and they enter the houses of men through the fire on the hearth; others dwell on the earth, in the west. Although invisible, they can make their approach felt. Thus, when Big-Raven’s children begin to fail, he says: ”The Kalau must be close by”… Big-Raven… got rid of them, by making a steam bath for them, in which they were smoothered.

Kalau are divided into Maritime and Reindeer Kalau. Some live in the forests, others in the tundra. Human beings are the spoils of their chase, as reindeer and seals are those of human hunters…

Kalau are, however, not always harmful to men… The guardian spirits of the Koryak shamans, and some varieties of the guardians of the villages, of the families or of individuals, are called by this name.

In the Koryak cosmogony there are five worlds, two above and two below the earth. The uppermost is the seat of the Supreme Being. The next is inhabited by Cloud-People (Yahalanu). Next comes our earth. Of the two worlds below, the nearest to ours is the dwelling of the Kalau; and the lowest of all (Ennanenak or Nenenqal’on on the opposite side) is the abode of the shades of the dead (Penilelau: ancient people).

At the present day, only the shaman can pass from one world to another, but in the ancient days of Big-Raven, this was possible for ordinary people… In the days of Big-Raven, men could transform themselves either into the forms of animals or of inanimate objects… But the transformation of objects from one state into another ceased to be visible to men, just like the Kalau became invisible to them. Only shamans, that is people inspired by spirits, are able to see the Kalau and to observe the transformation of objects.

Gilyak tribes:

The highest benevolent deity of the Gilyak is known as Yetsigy… and they apply the same name to their highest anthropomorphic deities… The ‘owners’ of the taiga, of the mountain, of the sea and of the fire, are of course, the most important for men, from an economic point of view. The gods of the sky are regarded as less important, for men do not come in direct contact with them. These live in th sky in clans and are called Tlinivukh.

Buryat tribes:

They are called ”the old people of the mountain”, khadaulan-obokhod. In every district there are such ”old people of the mountain” for which are made tailgans and kiriks, and other less propitiatory offerings. These ”old People’, are purely local deities and are not worshiped outside of the particular locality to which they belong.

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