Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!


Neither religion nor belief system, shamanism is the ancient practice of accessing the power of the spirits of the earth, the animal kingdom and the heavens for the benefit of groups or individuals. Shamanism came to Kyrgyzstan with the earliest invaders from the Siberian region. It is thought to have emerged initially in the Neolithic period and to have evolved ever since. The word shaman comes from the Tungus-Manchurian word saman meaning 'he who knows' (the equivalent in Kyrgyz is bakshi). In nomadic times the shaman was central to the life of the tribe and the individual, providing auspicious dates and rituals for important life events, and dispensing solutions to a wide range of spiritual and medical problems.

An earlier shamanistic practice of the Kyrgyz tribes had been a belief in totemism, in which they recognised a spiritual kinship with an animal like a bear or a snake, or a celestial body like the sun or moon. Traces of this survive in Kyrgyz religious practice today, a phenomenon that links to both their nomadic lifestyle and their Siberian origins. Traces of earlier shamanistic practices can also be seen in Kyrgyz cultural items like sliyrdaks (Kyrgyz rugs), which bear many of the same designs seen on petroglyphs throughout the country.

Central to the practice is the belief in many levels of spiritual consciousness and that our souls ultimately belong to a spirit world which ordinary mortals cannot access. The shaman is the messenger between the physical and spiritual universes and the link with all supernatural phenomena. The shaman is both medicine man and prophet, and escorts the soul of the dead into the next world. He once performed ritual sacrifices for warriors going into battle in order to harness the powers and strengths of particular animals.

The shaman achieves this by entering a trance state, while retaining control over his consciousness as it leaves his body and travels to other spheres. He does not become possessed' by another force or being. The spiritual journeys he recounts appeal in Kyrgyz epics and songs. His most common role is as healer. The soul of a sick person is considered to be missing, having either wandered off by itself or been stolen in demons. The shaman's job is to ascertain which, and to find and escort it back. The most dramatic accounts of shamanistic journeys describe escorting the soul of the dead to another world.

The shaman, who is believed to be 'appointed' by the spirits, often has special physical characteristics (for example, an extra finger) and is assisted by a group of spirits with a particular spirit guardian who maybe in the form of another person or  an animal.
Some remnants of shamanist practice are still alive in Kyrgyz life today: many will call a shaman as well as consulting a doctor. The smouldering branches of the archa, a kind of fir tree, are waved around a house to rid it of evil spirits or to exorcise the lingering vibes of a disliked visitor.

In the 1950s, the Russian writer Victor Vitkovich witnessed (with much Soviet scepticism) a bakshi invoking shamanist rituals to cure a sick boy:

He rubbed spruce resin on the sheep-gut of his komuz and run his fingers across them. It seemed as though a whole swarm of wasps were droning softly ... The Bakshy sang a song: 'O insect with a camel's head, I'll force you out, don't joke with me! Be gone, jinn, be gone, before the breath of Suleiman!'
The jinn was in the yurta! The Bakshy seized a whip and began to flog the invisible jinn ... With the knife the Bakshy began to prick the {boy} in the belly, chest, feet, head and arms. This meant the jinns were rushing back and forth in his body. A whistle came from the witch-doctor's lips, which had turned blue from the tension ... The boy groaned and twisted ... the jinns had darted out of the boy's body through his month

Victor Vitkovich, Kirghizia Today

Many shamanistic beliefs and practices have faded as a result of both Islamic influence and Sovietisation, but others persist as part of the everyday cultural backdrop of Kyrgyz daily life. One such practice is the hanging of an animal carcass or part of an animal (such as a tail) from a tree to render the place - a tree, stream or rock-of special spiritual significance. Another common practice, which extends right across the central Asian world as far west as the Caucasus, is the tradition of tying votive rags to chosen trees, usually close to a stream or a waterfall, or en route to a traditionally holy site like the tomb of a Muslim saint. This common practice, which probably has little more significance to modern practitioners than mere good luck, is undoubtedly an echo of an ancient animistic tradition that worshipped the spirit of the earth rather than a single supreme deity. Also common is the burning of fragrant juniper branches - archa - to rid a house or a yurt of bad spirits.

Shamans still exist in Kyrgyz society and there are both men and women - usually referred to as baksbi - who practise healing using herbs and chanted incantations. Even today, many Kyrgyz would consider using the services of a bakshi if they were ill, perhaps in tandem with Western medicine just to be on the safe side.