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The drum's symbolic functions and values.
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The drum is a polyvalent ritual object. By its makeup it represents the ritual figure of the shaman. Because it is made of band of larch, it concretizes his very life, insofar as the death of that larch would cause his own death. Because the head of the drum is made of the skin of a large male moose or reindeer, it is his ìanimal doubleî ñ if the skin were to tear, the shaman would die (Delaby 1976: 111). One of the terminologies encountered is that of the parts of the head: chin, ears, caninesÖ
The virility of the male moose or reindeer symbolically present in the drum gives it the value of a defensive and offensive weapon. It can also be called an ìarrowî (Vasilevich 1969: 254). It serves as a prop to help guard the helping spirits the shaman marshals to serve him, the souls of children he must help to be born, the souls of sick people he must keep from dying, as well as the souls of the enemy that he must keep imprisoned (Shirokogoroff 1935, Lot-Falck 1961, Delaby 1976).
Because of its provenance, the drum is seen as a vehicle for travel both in the forest and on water. It can be called a ìraftî or a ìboatî (in which case the beater is an ìoarî). This relativizes the symbolism of the mount, which has all too often been associated with it. Among herders, the animal that provides the skin for the drumhead is always supposed to come from the wild and the animal invited in the ritual to ìanimateî it is never supposed to be domesticated ñ otherwise the drum could not provide access to the wild species that give game.
Some drums are clearly painted with a female moose, regarded as the shamanís main tutelary spirit, ajami, the one that calls him to his function ìfor the love of himî, which entertains a loving relationship with him, which heads up his helping spirits (Shternberg 1925: 480, Kozíminskij 1929: 49, Shirokogoroff 1935: 366ñ368, Delaby 1976: 38ñ39).
The drum thus also represents this female spirit. This value accounts for the virility attached to the representation of the shaman as a large male reindeer or moose, and for the way he holds his drum against his body and strikes the head from the outside.
Last of all, the drum is said to ìtalkî, as indicated by the etymology of its name in some dialects (Shirokogoroff 1935, Delaby 1976: 109).
The drumbeat is supposed to be spontaneous, personal; it is hard to write down, as Zhornickaja observes (1966), adding that the steps and the gestures of the shaman do not lend themselves to choreographic notation. The primary objective is not their musical dimension. This is also underscored by the nature of the counterparts of the drum (like the hobbyhorse among certain Evenk of Transbaikalia), or those props used clandestinely instead of the drum under the Soviets (for instance a lead, a horsetail or a bundle of sticks tied together with rags, which are struck on the palm of the hand). The sound appears as an attribute of the gesture, which constitutes the essential ritual action.

Author(s): R. Hamayon
Date created: 2003-09-09 - Date modified: 2004-04-14


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Evenk drum (drawing)

Female moose and calf

Transbaikalia Evenk or Buryat horse-headed staff


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