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.
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
“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
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
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
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.”  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. 
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,
- M. A. Czaplica, Aboriginal
Siberia, a study in social anthropology. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1914,
- Stephen W. Durrant,, “The Nišan Shaman Caught in Cultural
Contradiction” in Signs, Vol. 5, No.2. (Winter, 1979), pp.
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.