The Great Myths #16: A Siberian Horse Sacrifice, and the Shaman’s Ascent to the Sky (Altaic)

The first evening is devoted to preparation for the rite. The kam (shaman), having chosen a spot in a meadow, erects a new yurt there, setting inside it a young birch stripped of its lower branches and with nine steps (tapty) notched into its trunk. The higher foliage of the birch, with a flag at the top, protrudes through the upper opening of the yurt. A small palisade of birch sticks is erected around the yurt and a birch stick with a knot of horsehair is set at the entrance. Then a light-colored horse is chosen, and after having made sure that the animal is pleasing to the divinity, the shaman entrusts it to one of the people present, called, for this reason, bas-tut-kan-kisi, that is, “head-holder.” The shaman shakes a birch branch over the animal’s back to force its soul to leave and prepare its flight to Bai Ülgän. He repeats the same gesture over the “head-holder,” for his “soul” is to accompany the horse’s soul throughout its celestial journey and hence must be at the kam’s disposition.

The shaman re-enters the yurt, throws branches on the fire, and fumigates his drum. He begins to invoke the spirits, bidding them enter his drum; he will need each one of them in the course of his ascent. At each summons by name, the spirit replies, “I am here, kam!” and the shaman moves his drum as if he were catching the spirit. After assembling his spirit helpers (which are all celestial spirits) the shaman comes out of the yurt. At a few steps’ distance there is a scarecrow in the shape of a goose; he straddles it, rapidly waving his hands as if to fly, and sings:

Under the white sky,
Over the white cloud;
Under the blue sky,
Over the blue cloud:
Rise up to the sky, bird!

To this invocation, the goose replies, cackling: “Ungaigakgak, ungaigak, kaigaigakgak, kaigaigak.” It is, of course, the shaman himself who imitates the bird’s cry. Sitting astride the goose, the kam pursues the soul of the horse (pûra)—which is supposed to have fled—and neighs like a charger.

With the help of those present, he drives the animal’s soul into the palisade and laboriously mimes its capture; he whinnies, rears, and pretends that the noose that has been thrown to catch the animal is tightening around his own throat. Sometimes he lets his drum fall to show that the animal’s soul has escaped. Finally it is recaptured, the shaman fumigates it with juniper and dismisses the goose. Then he blesses the horse and, with the help of several of the audience, kills it in a cruel way, breaking its backbone in such a manner that not a drop of its blood falls to the ground or touches the sacrifices. The skin and bones are exposed, hung from a long pole. After offerings are made to the ancestors and the tutelary spirits of the yurt, the flesh is prepared and eaten ceremonially, the shaman receiving the best pieces.

The second and most important part of the ceremony takes place on the following evening. It is now that the shaman exhibits his shamanic abilities during his ecstatic journey to the celestial abode of Bai Ülgän. The fire is burning in the yurt. The shaman offers horse meat to the Masters of the Drum, that is, the spirits that personify the shamanic powers of his family, and sings:

Take it, O Kaira Kan,
Host of the drum with six bosses!
Come tinkling here to me!
If I cry: “Cok!” bow thyself!
If I cry: “Mäi!” take it to thee!…

He makes a similar address to the Master of the Fire, symbolizing the sacred power of the owner of the yurt, organizer of the festival. Raising a cup, the shaman imitates with his lips the noise of a gathering of invisible guests busily drinking; then he cuts up pieces of the horse and distributes them among those present (who represent the spirits), who noisily eat them. He next fumigates the nine garments hung on a rope as an offering from the master of the house to Bai Ülgän, and sings:

Gifts that no horse can carry,
Alas, alas, alas!
That no man can lift,
Alas, alas, alas!
Garments with triple collars,
Thrice turning look upon them!
Be they blankets for the courser,
Alas, alas, alas!
Prince Ülgän, thou joyous one!
Alas, alas, alas!

Putting on his shamanic costume, the kam sits down on a bench, and while he fumigates his drum, begins to invoke a multitude of spirits, great and small, who answer, in turn: “I am here, kam!” In this way he invokes: Yaik Kan, the Lord of the Sea, Kaira Kan, Paisyn Kan, then the family of Bai Ülgän (Mother Tasygan with nine daughters at her right and seven daughters at her left), and finally the Masters and Heroes of the Abakan and the Altai (Mordo Kan, Altai Kan, Oktu Kan, etc.). After this long invocation, he addresses the Märküt, the Birds of Heaven:

Birds of Heaven, five Märküt,
Ye with mighty copper talons,
Copper is the moon’s talon,
And of ice the moon’s beak;
Broad thy wings, of mighty sweep.
Like a fan thy long tail,
Hides the moon thy left wing,
And the sun thy right wing,
Thou, the mother of the nine eagles,
Who strayest not, flying through the Yaik,
Who weariest not about Edil,
Come to me, singing!
Come, playing, to my right eye,
Perch on my right shoulder!…

The shaman imitates the bird’s cry to announce its presence: “Kazak, kak, kak! I am here, kam!” And as he does so, he drops his shoulder, as if sinking under the weight of a huge bird.

The summons to the spirits continues, and the drum becomes heavy. Provided with these numerous and powerful protectors, the shaman several times circles the birch that stands inside the yurt, and kneels before the door to pray the Porter Spirit for a guide. Receiving a favorable reply, he returns to the center of the yurt, beating his drum, convulsing his body, and muttering unintelligible words. Then he purifies the whole gathering with his drum, beginning with the master of the house. It is a long and complex ceremony, at the end of which the shaman is in a state of exaltation. It is also the signal for the ascent proper, for soon afterward the kam suddenly takes his place on the first notch (tapty) in the birch, beating his drum violently and crying “Cok! cok!” He also makes motions to indicate that he is mounting into the sky. In “ecstasy” (?!) he circles the birch and the fire, imitating the sound of thunder, and then hurries to a bench covered with a horsehide. This represents the soul of the pûra, the sacrificed horse. The shaman mounts it and cries:

I have climbed a step,
Aihai, aihai!
I have reached a plane,
I have climbed to the tapty’s head,
I have risen to the full moon,

The shaman becomes increasingly excited and, continuing to beat his drum, orders the baš-tut-kan-kiši to hurry. For the soul of the “head-holder” abandons his body at the same time as the soul of the sacrificed horse. The baš-tut-kan-kiši complains of the difficulty of the road, and the shaman encourages him. Then, mounting to the second tapty he symbolically enters the second heaven, and cries:

I have broken through the second ground,
I have climbed the second level.
See, the ground lies in splinters.

And, again imitating thunder and lightning, he proclaims:

Šagarbata! Šagarbata!
Now I have climbed up two levels…

In the third heaven the pûra becomes extremely tired, and, to relieve it, the shaman summons the goose. The bird presents itself: “Kagak! Kagak! I am here, kam!” The shaman mounts it and continues his celestial journey. He describes the ascent and imitates the cackling of the goose, which, in its turn, complains of the difficulties of the journey. In the third heaven there is a halt. The shaman now tells of his horse’s weariness and his own. He also gives information concerning the coming weather, the epidemics and misfortunes that threaten, and the sacrifices that the collectivity should offer. After the baš-tut-kan-kiši has had a good rest, the journey continues. The shaman climbs the notches in the birch one after the other, thus successively entering the other celestial regions. To enliven the performance, various episodes are introduced, some of them quite grotesque: the kam offers tobacco to Karakuš, the Black Bird, in the shaman’s service, and Karakuš drives away the cuckoo; he waters the pûra, imitating the sound of a horse drinking; the sixth heaven is the scene of the last comic episode: a hare hunt. In the fifth heaven the shaman has a long conversation with the powerful Yayutši (the “Supreme Creator”), who reveals several secrets of the future to him; some of these the shaman communicates aloud, others are murmured. In the sixth heaven the shaman bows to the Moon, and to the Sun in the seventh. He passes through heaven after heaven to the ninth and, if he is really powerful, to the twelfth and even higher; the ascent depends entirely on the shaman’s abilities. When he has gone as high as his power permits, he stops and humbly addresses Bai Ülgän in the following terms:

Prince, to whom three ladders lead,
Bai Ülgän with the three flocks,
Blue slope that has appeared,
Blue sky that shows itself!
Blue cloud, drifting away,
Blue sky unattainable,
White sky unattainable,
Watering place a year away!
Father Ülgän, thrice exalted,
Whom the moon’s ax-edge spares,
Who uses the horse’s hoof!
Thou didst create all men, Ülgän,
All that make a noise around us.
All cattle thou hast forsaken, Ülgän!
Deliver us not to misfortune
Let us withstand the Evil One!
Show us not Körmös [the evil spirit]
Give us not into his hand!
Thou who the starry heaven
Hast turned a thousand, thousand times,
Condemn not my sins!

      The shaman learns from Bai Ülgän if the sacrifice has been accepted and receives predictions concerning the weather and the coming harvest; he also learns what other sacrifice the divinity expects. This episode is the culminating point of the “ecstasy”: the shaman collapses, exhausted. The baš-tut-kan-kiši approaches and takes the drum and stick from his hands. The shaman remains motionless and dumb. After a time he rubs his eyes, appears to wake from a deep sleep, and greets those present as if after a long absence.

– Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask, 190-197; it also appears in the anthology Eliade edited, Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World, 211-216; and Eliade’s account itself is a translation and summary of Wilhelm Radlov’s 1884 Lose Blätter aus dem Tagebuche eines reisenden Linguisten, vol. 2, 20-50

Read the other Great Myths here