My friend Louisa reports from St.Petersburg, Russia, on a new exhibition of artifacts of Siberian shamanism at the Ethnography Museum. She found the exhibits intriguing, but only sketchily explained. Some are labeled only as "shaman's ritual object", which Louisa translates as "we don't know what the heck it is".
Here's a sample of the correct attire for a young woman shaman of Siberia, with amulets infused with the energy of her animal spirits:
Here is my personal favorite from Louisa's gallery:
It is the figure of a shaman's bear ally, paws outstretched, ready to assist in healing. It comes from the Nanai people and was collected in the Khabarovsk region in 1927. The "healing hands" of this bear were held to be especially helpful in treating joint problems.
I was grateful to receive this image. Just before it arrived, I found I was having some trouble with my knees, so a healer of joints is a welcome visitor. I know something of what Bear can do in this field. When I suffered a serious knee injury a couple of years ago, Bear appeared to me as a healer in a powerful vision, cracking open the damaged part and fixing what was inside. I managed to avoid surgery - though the MRI showed I had severed a muscle in the quad - and the orthopedists were surprised by how fast I recovered near-normal functioning in that knee. "You're either very odd or very lucky," one of them told me. The other knee is the problem now; I'm open to Bear playing doctor again.
The tiger comes from the Udegei people of eastern Siberia, and dates from the late 19th century. The tiger is an important ally of Siberian shamans. This one was reputedly effective in treating paralysis.
The initiation banner of a young female shaman shows a gathering of animal powers in the Underworld. It belonged to a Nanai shaman around 1900 and was collected in Torgon-on-Amur.
Given the brutal Soviet effort to suppress indigenous shamanism, well-chronicled in Anna Reid's The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia, it's good to have this evidence of the past that may give a hint of ways that are now reviving. Anna Reid reminded me that at the time the Nanai artifacts in the St. Petersburg exhibition were collected, the director of the Khabarovsk museum - where some of them were first housed - was a former army officer named Vladimir Arsenyev, who won fame (and the brutal enmity of Stalin's secret police)by writing a sweeping adventure, Deisu Uzala, based on his time among native Siberians. The title character is Nanai. In a key scene - brought to the screen many years later in a 1975 Kurosawa movie - the Cossacks who encounter Deisu in the forest mistake him for a bear and are about to shoot him before he reveals himself as a man.