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Ritual identification of the shaman with a large deer
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This symbolic assimilation, underscored by all of the ritual elements, is abundantly confirmed by the common representations such as ìthe shaman is like a big buck deer defending his herdî, ì two shamans face off like reindeerî. The reason lies not only in the model of masculinity provided by the male deer in rut, which is evoked particularly by the shamanís behavior during the ritual. It is the expression of a principle underlying the shamanism of the Evenk and other Siberian peoples who make their livelihood essentially from hunting big game. This principle consists in envisaging hunting not as an act of predation, but as a point in an ìexchangeî between humans and the wild species they eat. The animals are seen as being ìinhabitedî by spirits, the counterpart of the souls that dwell in humans, which makes it possible to establish the same type of relations with them as between humans. Just as people eat game, so the spirits of the wild species consume peopleís life-force, devouring their flesh and sucking their blood. Sickness (like the loss of vitality in old age) and death are therefore part of the natural order, repayment for the game that enabled the hunter to live, promise of game for his descendants. The shamanís function is to perform this exchange at the symbolic level, which prefigures and determines reality for the hunter. He must establish the basis of this ìexchangeî of flesh with wild species, make them ìpromise gameî (seen as ìluckî in hunting) for the coming season and finally allow the spirit partners to ìdevourî in turn, a token of the immanent death of certain members of the human community as compensation. The first two stages of his symbolic action are valorized and ostensibly dramatized during the ritual, while the third stage, during which the shaman lies stretched out on his back, motionless, is enveloped in silence: here the shaman assumes his ultimate role as the game animal for which he is destined by his ritual identification with a big deer.

This ìexchangeî is often compared with the food chain as it is observed in practice. The exchange must be fair, that is involve a real nutritional substance, but it is conceived from a standpoint that one could describe using the notion of ìplayî, omnipresent in the shamanistic ritual vocabulary. The good shaman is one who ìtakesî the most as soon as possible and ìgives backî the least as late as possible. This twofold duty makes him indispensable and to be feared. At the end of the ritual, he must decide by divination how long the participants have to live. A community that feels that too many of its members have disappeared since the previous ritual entrusts the following one to a different shaman.

Author(s): R. Hamayon
Date created: 2003-06-07 - Date modified: 2004-04-14


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Movie(s):
Reindeer consecration (0MB)

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A shaman's headdress

Reindeer's game...

...Children's game


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