of a Siberian

'This is not a show, this is work'
Maria Karnaukhova
special to RBTH
Tucked away in the south of Siberia, among mountains, steppes and taiga, live the Khakas people, who have preserved the ancient traditions of shamanism. To this day, they perform rituals to thank the spirits and worship their ancestors at huge burial mounds. RBTH managed to arrange a visit to one of the most powerful Khakas shamans.
The quiet voice of shaman Maria Sagalakova beckons the four people who have come to seek her help to enter her yurt (the traditional dwelling of the Khakas).

Sagalakova is a kind-hearted woman in a bright dress; no roaming eye, no feathers in her hair. A cat welcomes guests at the entrance to the yurt. Inside, among the traditional Khakassian costumes and household appliances there are even Russian Orthodox icons hanging in the corner.

"They are my mother's," the shaman explains with a smile. "I respect all religions. They all have the same essence, except that it is interpreted differently: Everybody believes that there are supreme powers. In my 65 years I have never met a single atheist. Everybody believes in something."

In the middle of the room, on the earthen floor there is an open fireplace, behind which is a bed covered with cult objects. All the lights inside the yurt are dimmed, only the logs in the fireplace are smoldering.

"Sit around the fireplace so that you can see the fire," says Sagalakova.
Once everyone is settled inside, a bear's paw tied with a ribbon falls onto the dirt floor with a loud noise.

"This is the spirit of the house, it protects the entrance to the yurt. If it falls, it means that somebody has entered with mercenary thoughts," says Sagalakova. She takes a drum from the bed and holds it near the fire to dry it.

Each shaman's drum is unique, it has a soul of its own. It can transform into a riding animal to carry the shaman between different worlds or become the shaman's weapon for fighting the spirits. After a shaman dies, the skin on their drum is pierced.

Shaman's bear's paw tied with a ribbon
"Take out the food," says the shaman.

Vodka, raw meat, biscuits, bread, milk – the visitors have brought all this for the fire, as instructed by ancestral spirits.
The Khakas are a people living in the taiga and the steppes of southern Siberia in the valley of the Yenisei, Russia's second largest river.
Despite a period of persecution in Soviet times, the Khakas have managed to preserve their language, their beliefs, their cuisine, traditions and legends.

The oldest cultural monuments of the Khakas, which gave birth to archaeology in Russia, date back to the Copper Age. These are mainly cave drawings and huge burial mounds, which the Khakas still believe to be places of special force.

According to legends, these places are surrounded by spirits' paths. No Khakas would ever spend a night or build a house on one of these paths, lest the spirits punish them.

The main spirits in the Khakas hierarchy are the spirits of the mountains, which is not surprising given that a considerable part of their land is covered with mountains.

According to myths, the origin of the Khakas is linked to the mountains too and each family used to have their own holy mountain peak. Ethnologists, however, believe that the Khakas originate from one of the steppe peoples who lived in the Mongol Empire and after its break-up in the mid-14th century formed a state of their own. In the 18th century, the lands of the Khakas were conquered by the Russian Empire.

According to the 2010 census, the Khakas make up 12 percent of the population of the Republic of Khakassia (63,600 people). In Russia as a whole they number around 75,000 people.

Shamanism runs in the family

Maria Sagalakova
Sagalakova has a large family, for whom she keeps a vegetable patch and an orchard, tends cattle, cooks, cleans the house, and looks after the little ones in the summer. Legend has it that the origins of her family go back to a great shaman, while Sagalakova herself inherited her powers from her father.

Since childhood, Sagalakova had an extraordinary intuition, however, she first displayed true shamanic abilities only at the age of 40, when her youngest son was born: Each time she sat down to sing a lullaby, guttural singing came out instead. Three years later, she was paralyzed for nine months, throughout which period she kept seeing the same dream. Neither doctors, nor psychoanalysts, nor the church could help her.

Finally, Sagalakova decided to turn to shamans. She was told that her destiny was to help people and unless she opened herself to the spirits, she would die at 50. She herself had nowhere to turn for help: Her shaman father could not pass his knowledge to her directly – since in Soviet Russia shamans were persecuted, he practiced in secret.

When in a trance, Sagalakova listens to herself because the words she speaks and the rites she performs come over her as if from above. She also keeps notes, to makes things easier for her descendants.

The biggest manuscript in her collection is the visitors' book. People come to Sagalakova almost every day. When there are no visitors, she still has work to do, otherwise the spirits may punish her.
Legend of the Sagalakov shamans

Once upon a time, a powerful shaman bought for his sons a young girl from a Khakas family. He was so struck by her beauty that he allowed her to choose whom of his three sons she would marry.
However, in actual fact, she had no choice. Under Khakas traditions, if the eldest brother is not married, younger ones have no right to marry. Although the girl liked the youngest brother the most, she had to choose the eldest. Before the wedding, several times she tried to run away from the shaman's family but she was always found and brought back.
One day, when she was already eight months pregnant, she was no longer watched so closely and she escaped, running deep into the taiga. She ate berries and mushrooms and kept walking, in search of people, until she gave birth not far from a village.
Exhausted, she wrapped the baby up and looked around: There were only uniform pines and cedars everywhere, until suddenly she spotted a red rowan tree. She put her baby boy under the tree and walked to the poorest-looking yurt on the outskirts of the village in the hope of getting help there.
There was an elderly couple living in that yurt. While the old woman looked after the young one, the old man went to fetch the baby. He spotted the rowan tree among the firs and then saw an eagle, its beak covered in blood, sitting on a cedar opposite the rowan.
The old man thought that the eagle must have killed the baby, however, when he approached the rowan tree he saw that the baby was alive and well but there were bodies of killed predators scattered around him. None of them had managed to approach the baby because he was being guarded by the eagle.
That was the baby who grew up to become a great shaman, the first in the Sagalakov line. He began healing people at the age of just nine.

Secret rites

The drum has been dried and the shaman is beginning to feed the fire. It flares up and somebody sees an open jaw in it.
"Look, the food is falling out of the hearth. Have you ever seen trees hung with ribbons? People tie ribbons to them as they make a wish. Red ribbons are for supplications to the spirits of the sun and the fire; green ones are for the spirits of nature; blue ones, to the spirits of the sky, while white ribbons symbolize pure thoughts, when you cannot think of anything bad for a whole day. The wind rustles the ribbons and your wishes come true. Near a tree like this, just as near a hitching post, one must always stop and leave a biscuit or a candy or some coins. But you don't do it, the fire has shown me."

Maria Sagalakova
The Khakas people have always considered themselves to be just visitors to this earth, while its true masters are the spirits in the mountains. To communicate with them, people have created a special language of rites. It is believed that the stronger the bond with the spirits, the more prosperous the people are.

"This is not a show, this is work, a heavy burden that hardly leaves me any time for myself," says Sagalakova. "While some people think that all it takes is to buy a drum and beat it, and you are a shaman. Or people get together and start performing rituals (kamlanie). But how can it work? Everybody has different spirits. I for one would never stand beside a dark shaman."

Finally, Sagalakova puts on a traditional costume: a red dress cut in the middle and a black cap embroidered with shells and decorated with ribbons that nearly cover the whole of her face.

"Look at the fire and ask for forgiveness from everyone and forgive everyone. Burn all your worries in it. There is no need for any special words or prayers, just speak from your heart," she says.

A voyage to the spirit world

Closing her eyes, the shaman starts a kamlanie: She is traveling through the worlds of the universe, talking to spirits, looking through their eyes, letting them inside her. She is walking in circles, now singing, now laughing strangely, now whispering, now screaming, now imitating the sound of a babbling brook or the chirping of birds, now talking to somebody.

She hits the drum with her rattle in the form of a tree leaf, symbolizing that its owner is the master of all the four elements.

Above the heads of talented people she hits the top end of the drum – this is a higher world populated by gods. Her hands go up; the shaman is whirling frantically.

Above the heads of more down-to-earth people, she beats the middle of the drum – this is the world of people and the spirits of nature.

Above the heads of those whose souls are fragile and who are inclined to otherworldliness, she beats the lower half of the drum – this is the world of underground spirits.

Next to those whose hearts are full of anger and envy, the shaman's arms drop, the spirits sit down on her shoulders and press her down.

"I have finished, you can go now," the shaman tells one of the visitors, dropping her rattle.

The smell of all the herbs burning in the fire is dizzying. The shaman tells one of the other visitors to become friends with the moon and to show off their warts to it so that the moon will take them away. Another one she frees from an ancestral spirit that was having a strong influence on their life, while another has their nightmares banished for good.

A shaman is a conduit for the forces of nature, someone who brings one in harmony with the nature and the spirits. After the ritual is over, Sagalakova lays out protection amulets she has made herself:
"Sometimes, I may pierce my finger and a drop of blood falls on an amulet, making it very strong because it carries a sacrifice. Sometimes, the threads get all tangled and I spend hours untangling them, spending my force on it.

"Judging by what amulet a person chooses I can say what kind of person they are. Incidentally, this amulet is very good for the joints," says Sagalakova, pointing at a wooden ornament, and you can see that she has six fingers on one hand.

The shaman takes off the ritual dress, wipes her forehead and sits down by the fire, tired.

"People keep telling me: you always have money. Of course I do, I work so hard! These days, people have stopped working. I think it is a disease. They live in the country and they do not keep a vegetable patch. How has it come to this? They do not work themselves and the do not appreciate other people's work.

"Were it the other way round," she says, "shamans would have less work to do. After all, a shaman's mission is to help people, to bring goodness into their lives. I talk to a person and I feel good because they feel better, they now know how to protect their future. Our force is in our faith in people." ■

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Text by Maria Karnaukhova, edited by Alastair Gill and Vsevolod Pulya
Image credits: Alexander Kryazhev/Ilya Pitalev/RIA Novosti; Reuters; Shutterstock/Legion-Media; Maria Karnaukhova
Design and layout by Vsevolod Pulya
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