Siberian and Eurasian Shamanism

Niina Pekantytär
6 min readMay 18, 2020

Siberia is considered to be the heartland of shamanism. In modern anthropology, the term Shamanism refers to the spiritual practice of native groups. However, shamanism itself is not limited to Siberia. It is a universal practice where all major religions are based on. Siberia is a large area that includes a variety of cultures, languages, practices, and beliefs which many fall into the classification of shamanism and many of these ethnic groups practice shamanism still today.

In Siberian shamanism, there are some distinctive features such as worship of nature, belief in the world tree, an invisible pole that is a representation of the universe and three layers of the world (upper world, middle world, and the underworld). Many of these ethnic groups were hunters and lived a nomadic lifestyle. Hunting was a sacred ritual and in order for the hunt to succeed, the job of the shaman was to take shape of an animal and travel to meet the deity who was in charge of the hunting. The shaman would dress up as animals and mimic their sounds and movements.

There is a lot of diversity among the sacred animals in Siberian shamanism. Among Samoyed and Uralic groups, a sacred animal was the bear who was believed to be the sacred ancestor of the tribe. In Mongolia and among Turkic groups stags and horses were the most important animals. Among the Yukip, Nenetsi and the Saami´s reindeer was the sacred animal ancestor. The creation myth about the earth-diver is common among all groups whose roots are in Siberia and water birds play a significant part in the shamanic practice.

Origins of the word shaman are in Tungusia where it means the spiritual leader and the healer of the tribe.

Shamans and Shamanesses

In Siberian cultures shamanism often has strict gender roles.

For the tuvar´s shaman is ”Tatar”, ”Shor”, or ”Oyrat”.

In Yakagir language shaman is known as ”alman”, ”olman” or ”wolmen”.

Buryat shaman is known as ”Böö” (derived from old Mongolian word ”Böge”)

For the Mansi shaman was called ”Njat”.
Saami shaman is known as Noaidi. Saami word ”Noaidi” and Mansi ”Njat” are based on proto-Uralic word Nojta meaning a witch or a shaman.

Female shamans can be mainly found among Mongolian tribes.

For the Buryat shamaness is called ”Ugadan”, ”Evenki”, ”Lamut” or ”Ugudan”.
For the Negidal shamaness is called ”Odogan”.

In Siberian languages, there are many similar words meaning a ”shamaness” such as ”Utagan”, ”Ubukan”, ”Utygan”, ”Utusun”, ”Idan” and ”Duana”. Most of these words are based on ancient Mongolian earth goddess ”Etügen ”. She was also known as ”Etügen Eke ” the mother earth. Her name can be originated from Ötüken the holy mountain of the earth and fertility.

Turkic Shamanism

Turkic shamanism is practised by ethnic groups who speak Turkic languages. These are Tatars, Tuvars, Tofalar, Yakut and Turks who live in the Altai mountains. Turkic shamanism covers large territories and the practice itself has been amalgamated with Buddhist and Islam beliefs.

​Yakut Shaman. Notice the trinkets in the clothes. Fetishes represent animals and spirits who the shaman wishes to communicate with.

​Yup´ik shamanism

Area of the Yup´ik stretches from Eastern Siberia to Alaska and Northern Canada, therefore, there is lots of diversity in their shamanic practices. They believe in soul dualism and reincarnation. Soul of a Yup´ik shaman could travel between different levels to the underneath realms to meet supernatural beings and spirit guides asking for their guidance.

Ket Shamanism

​Shamanism of the Ket is foremost totemic. The lifestyle of the Ket is nomadic and shamanism is intertwined to Bear and deer hunting. They use lots of bones, skeletons and other animal parts in their rituals. Like for many Uralic people the Ket waterbirds were sacred. Loon is an especially important bird, a totem animal and Loon´s bones are often used in ceremonies. They were shamans´ helpers in their journey. For the Ket shapeshifting is an important part of spiritual practice. The shaman goes off on the spiritual journey while drumming and dancing.

Young Buriyt boy

Samoyed Shamanism

​All ethnic groups that speak Samoyedic languages have elements of shamanism in their spiritual practice. Sayan shaman´s boot ´s, dress and headdress represents bones and human organs. The skeleton overlay of the dress symbolizes rebirth. Like all group´s who myths are based on Uralic myths for the Sayan´s loon was a sacred bird and a magical helper. Other Samoyedic tribes such as Nenets, Enets, and Selkup have different crowns and headdresses to be worn on different occasions. When a child is born the proper headdress represents the upper world and for communicating with the dead headdress represents the underworld.

Reindeer is a sacred animal for many ethnic groups in the northern hemisphere.

Saami Shamanism

​Saami´s are native people of Scandinavia (and the only ethnic group in the area of European Union). Saami´s live outside Siberia but their language is part of Samoyedic languages. There are elements of shamanism in the spirituality and folk traditions and customs of the Saami. One of the most important parts of the Saami culture is the joiks. Joiks are wordless chants that were originally sung in shamanic rites. There are two types of joiks, clear joiks that are mostly sung by young people. Then there are mumbling joiks that are used while casting spells. These joiks often mimic natural sounds.

​Finno-Ugric Shamanism

Most speakers of Finno-Ugric languages live outside Siberia. Finno refers to Finnic languages such as Finnish and Estonian and Mari. In all these cultures there are elements of shamanism in the folklore and myths. In Pre-Christian Finland, shamanism had several phases. Noita the shaman was the spiritual healer of the tribe. Later on, there was a shift in the culture and noita became more individualized and was no longer a healer of the community but an individual practitioner of witchcraft/herbalism/healing. Ancient Finnish tribes believed in soul duality. Bear and moose were most common totem animals and there are lots of archaeological proofs found from the widely spread bear cult. The world was divided into three levels and they were held together by an invisible pole, the wold tree.

In Estonia shaman was called Näit. Like in Finland also in Estonia worship of nature was an essential part of spiritual practice. Trees especially were worshipped as divine nature spirits. Other speakers of Finnic languages like Komi´s, Mari´s and Mordvan also have elements of shamanism in their spiritual practice. Folk religion also has elements from Russian Orthodox. Among all these groups nature worship, shamanic travelling and concept of the world tree are very common.

Ugric refers to Ugric languages such as Hungarian, Khanty, and Mansy. Early ancestors of modern-day Hungarians migrated from Siberia already 6000 years ago settling into the area of Pannonia Basin. Elements of shamanism have been preserved in folklore. Ancient Hungarians believed that the world was divided into three levels and shamans had the ability to travel between these levels to seek information. In Khanty culture bear was worshipped as an important totem animal and as the divine ancestor of the people.

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Niina Pekantytär

Niina is an Illustrator, writer and folklorist. Likes cats, tea, 19th century books and period dramas. Host of the Little Women Podcast.