Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Nishan shaman brings back a soul from the Land of the Dead

Remember Orpheus, who went down to the Underworld to try to bring back a soul from the Land of the Dead? In an epic poem recorded in the Manchu language – related to the Tungusic language family that gave us the word “shaman” – we have a story that folklorists might place in the “Orphic” category but differs from the Greek myth in three important ways. First, the shaman succeeds in retrieving the soul – because, unlike Orpheus, she refuses to look back. Second, the shaman is a woman. Third, she is not operating on behalf of a spouse or lover or even a close family member, as in many tales of this kind. She intervenes on behalf of a stranger in need. 
     By the fires of the Daur Mongols and neighboring peoples of Manchuria, they still tell the story of the Nishan shaman. In addition to the oral traditions, there is a written version, collected by Russian ethnographers before the Bolshevik Revolution; The Tale of the Nishan Shaman is the one great surviving text of Manchu literature. By harmonizing these voices, we can reclaim the extraordinary experience of a shaman who is a woman, and a dreamer who uses her gift to rescue souls, even from the Underworld. It begins like this:

A rich boy is out hunting. They call him Sergudai. He kills the animals without reverence, for sheer pleasure. Sometimes he does not even bother to send his retainers to take the hides and the meat. He revels in running down a mature female reindeer; her antlers are bigger than those of the males. He kills her with his arrows, and laughs.
     The animal spirits complain to Irmu Khan, the Lord of Death, that the order of things has been disturbed. The death lord sends his shadow to strike down the boy hunter and carry his soul down to his inner keep in his sunless domain.
     The boy’s father, a wealthy headman called Baldu Bayan, is inconsolable. A stranger tells him there is a powerful shaman, who lives on the Nishan river, who could bring back his son. Bayan is skeptical; the local shamans are greedy charlatans and the stranger is a hunchback in rags. Then the stranger performs a disappearing act on a many-colored cloud, and Bayan understands – whether or not he was dreaming – that his message came from an immortal.
     So the father sets out in quest of the shaman. People describe her house, on the east side of the river. When he comes to the western shore, Bayan looks over the water and sees a pretty young woman doing the wash. She is wearing a simple, unbelted dark blue gown, the year-round garb of any other ordinary woman. But when he swims his horse across the river, he greets her with respect. “Elder Sister, are you the shaman?”
“Not me,” she tells him. She directs him back across the river, to another house. When Bayan makes his way back, they tell him on the other side that he has been deceived. Shamans are tricky.
Bayan crosses the river for the third time. “You are a powerful shaman. Can you bring back my son?” She must consult her guardian spirits, her onggors. They can take many forms. They promise their help. She must also ask permission from her mother-in-law, because she is living with her husband’s clan, and is required to conform to their rules, shaman or not. She has been a widow for some time, and may be older than she looks. The mother-in-law says she can go.
Her personal name is Teteke; it is there in the Manchu version of the tale. But most people who tell her story call her simply “the Nishan shaman”, as if to release her from personal and family circumstances. [Note the word “shaman” is not gender specific]
The shaman’s fee is agreed. The Nishan shaman gathers her professional tools – her drum, her robe hung with bronze mirrors and horse tails, her antlered headdress – and follows Bayan back to his home, where the son’s body is laid out. She knows that her work will require a long journey, where no normal person would choose to go. Offerings will be required for the gatekeepers she must pass; bean paste and bundles of paper, a dog and a rooster.
    Her safety requires an assistant who is a powerful drummer and singer, strong enough to propel her along the roads of the Underworld – and, above all, to bring her back. She names the man she must have, Sunny Anggu. There’s an edge of excitement when he is named; we sense that they know each other body and soul.
When Sunny arrives, the Nishan shaman gets ready to journey. She is unrecognizable now as the girl with the wash, resplendent in her long fringed coat of skins, hung with bells and horsetails, with a bronze mirror hanging over her heart. In her own language, the mirror is called the “soul vessel”, a place to capture and carry soul. She pounds her skin drum, while Sunny echoes her beat. She is cantering, galloping, turning to the left, her feet almost noiseless in her high reindeer boots. A deerskin fringe flutters over her face, hiding her eyes. The antlers of her headdress sweep back and forth, in a spray of feathers.
She dances until there is foam on her lips, until she crumples into a dream as deep as death, her drum over her face. “She dies,” they say.
The hoofbeats do not slacken or tire. Her assistant is riding his drum, sending her the power.
The steady beat helps her to make a road out of a chaos of fog and sourceless shadows. The road brings her to a river. The Lame Boatman is on the other side. He is a hard bargainer. She has to promise more than is easy before he comes for her in his dugout canoe.
There are more crossings, more negotiations, and many tests of her courage. She comes to a river without a ferryman; she crosses by making her drum her boat.She descends at last to the inner keep of Irmu Khan. She sees the soul of the boy hunter playing with a youngster she knows to be the child of Death. None of her companion spirits can help her now. She must raise a cry from her heart and her gut that can reach all the way to the nest of the heaven bird that is her strongest ally.
    In some lands, they call him the Garuda. The shaman’s cry spirals up from the depths of the Underworld. In the Middle World, her assistant echoes it. The cry rises up the World Tree, and rouses the heaven bird from his nest. The great bird unfolds his long form and swoops down. At the shaman’s direction, he folds himself tight enough, like a projectile, to penetrate the fortress of Irmu Khan, snatches up the boy hunter, and delivers him to the shaman, who places the soul in her mirror.
Now she is racing back up the confusing, murky roads from the lower depths, pursued by Death’s servitors. Her animal guardians can help her now, blurring her trail, leading pursuers in the wrong directions.
Her greatest test is in front of her. From a mob of hungry spirits, twittering like bats, a man’s shape separates and becomes gruesomely familiar. It’s her ex-husband. He often out her down, when he was still living, beating her if the milk was sour or his meal was late, chasing after other women. But he wants her now, desperately. “Take me with you,” he implores, alternately cajoling and threatening. When she explains that there is nothing to be done for him – his body rotted long ago – he tries to hold her in the Underworld by laying a guilt trip on her, then by brute force. She has to fight him and silence him. “She stamps on his face and his mouth” so stop the words that are draining her strength and resolve.
She stops by a kind of registration office and bargains hard for a good long lifespan for Sergudai, the soul in the mirror. She has a moving encounter with Omosi-mama, the "divine grandmother" who "causes leaves to unfurl and the roots to spread properly," who is the giver of souls and protectress of children. We learn that it was Omosi, no less, who ordained that Teteke would become a great shaman.
The Nishan shaman loses so much energy during all of this that she might never make it back, except for the pull of the drum. Sunny is beating harder and faster, calling her back. Now she is riding his beat, back to her prostrate body. When she rises in that, she can finish her job by fanning the boy hunter’s soul from its vessel – the bronze mirror – back into his own body. The Nishan shaman has dreamed strong enough to rescue a soul even from the fortress of Death.

Her feat does not go unpunished. The Nishan shaman is not allowed to enjoy her triumph for long. In the Manchu text, her late husband’s mother brings the equivalent of a legal action against her, for failing to bring her ex back. She is forced to relinquish the tools of her trade – the antlers and the mirror, the robe and the drum – and to give up her lover, the indefatigable drummer, and becomes just another of the drab “work women” in her village, bound to the routines and taboos of her husband’s people. In this last version we encounter a perennial theme in the history of women.
     The Nishan shaman is not a solitary figure in the history of shamanism, especially in this part of Central Asia. The Chukchi say “Woman is by nature a shaman.” [1] Among the Manchus, shamans were mostly women. There is strong evidence that under the Shang dynasty in China [1766-1122 BCE], shamans again were mostly women. For the Nishan shaman, as for women of power in other cultures, the way to establish authority is to dream stronger than others, to become at home with the uncanny, and to risk herself in a soul journey from which most men would flinch. A woman with gifts like hers will be sought after in an emergency, but the guardians of the conventional order will pull her down, if they can, once the crisis is over. [2]

For more on the Nishan shaman, please see The Secret History of Dreaming, chapter 1. In this telling I have interwoven (a) the Manchu version translated in Margaret Nowak and Stephen W. Durrant, The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: a Manchu Folk Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977 with (b) oral traditions, especially a Daur Mongol version transcribed in Caroline Humphrey and Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.


  1. M. A. Czaplica, Aboriginal Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914, p 243.
  2. Stephen W. Durrant,, “The NiĊĦan Shaman Caught in Cultural Contradiction” in Signs, Vol. 5, No.2. (Winter, 1979), pp. 338-347.
Image: The Nishan shaman with her drum and antlered headdress. Illustration from Nowak and Durrant (trans.) The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: a Manchu Folk Epic.

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