Imitation of sounds in shamanism

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Shamanism in various cultures shows great diversity.[1] In some cultures, shamanic music may intentionally mimic natural sounds, sometimes with onomatopoeia.[2] Imitation of natural sounds may also serve other functions not necessarily related to shamanism, such as luring in the hunt;[3] and entertainment (katajjaqs of the Inuit).[3][4]



This holds e. g. for shamanism among Sami groups. Some of their shamanistic beliefs and practice shared important features with those of some Siberian cultures;[5] some of their yoiks were sung on shamanistic rites,[6] this memory is conserved also in a folklore text (a shaman story).[7] Recently, yoiks are sung in two different styles, one of these are sung only by young people, but the traditional one may be the other, the “mumbling” style, resembling to magic spells.[8]

Several surprising characteristics of yoiks can be explained by comparing the music ideals, as observed in yoiks and contrasted to music ideals of other cultures; some yoiks intend to mimic natural sounds.[9][10] This can be contrasted to bel canto, which intends to exploit human speech organs on the highest level to achieve an almost “superhuman” sound.[10]


Shamanism in Siberia is far from being homogeneous. In some of the various cultures there, mimicking natural sounds can be present: some instances of overtone singing, and also certain shamanic songs of some cultures can be examples.


The seance of Nganasan shamans were accompanied by women imitating the sounds of the reindeer calf, (thought to provide fertility for those women).[11] In 1931, A. Popov observed the Nganasan shaman Dyukhade Kosterkin imitating the sound of polar bear: the shaman was believed to have transformed into a polar bear.[12]


A Russian traveler described a Khanty shamanic séance: it took place in the birch bark tent in full darkness. Only the song and the dombra music of the shaman could be heard: he invoked his spirits, it was mimicked as if the direction of the sound were moving: it sounded as if the shaman had flown around in the tent and left. Later, the voices of various animals (cuckoo, owl, hoopoe, duck, squirrel) could be heard. Then it was imitated as if the shaman had flown back into the tent, singing his song.[13]


Among several peoples near the Altai Mountains, the new drum of a shaman must go through a special ritual; this is regarded as “making the drum alive”: the tree and the deer who gave their wood and skin for the new drum narrate their whole lives and promise to the shaman that they will serve him. The ritual itself is a libation: beer is poured onto the skin and wood of the drum, and these materials “come to life” and speak with the voice of the shaman in the name of the tree and the deer. Among the Tubalar, this means literally the imitation of the behavior and the voice of the animal by the shaman.[14]

In a Soyot shamanic song, sounds of bird and wolf are imitated to represent helping spirits of the shaman.[15]


  1. ^ Hoppál 2005: 15
  2. ^ Hoppál 2006: 143 Archived 2015-04-02 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b Nattiez: 5
  4. ^ Deschênes 2002
  5. ^ Voigt 1966: 296
  6. ^ Szomjas-Schiffert 1996: 56, 76
  7. ^ Voigt 1966: 145
  8. ^ Szomjas-Schiffert 1996: 64
  9. ^ Somby 1995
  10. ^ a b Szomjas-Schiffert 1996: 74
  11. ^ Hoppál 2005: 92
  12. ^ Lintrop
  13. ^ Vitebsky 1996: 89
  14. ^ Eliade 2001: 164 (= Chpt 5 discussing the symbolics of shamanic drum and costume, the subsection about the drum)
  15. ^ Diószegi 1960: 203


  • Deschênes, Bruno (2002). "Inuit Throat-Singing". Musical Traditions; the Magazine for Traditional Music Throughout the World.
  • Diószegi, Vilmos (1960). Sámánok nyomában Szibéria földjén. Egy néprajzi kutatóút története (in Hungarian). Budapest: Magvető Könyvkiadó. The book has been translated to English: Diószegi, Vilmos (1968). Tracing shamans in Siberia. The story of an ethnographical research expedition. Translated from Hungarian by Anita Rajkay Babó. Oosterhout: Anthropological Publications.
  • Eliade, Mircea (1983). Le chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de'l extase. Paris: Éditions Payot.
  • Eliade, Mircea (2001). A samanizmus. Az extázis ősi technikái. Osiris könyvtár (in Hungarian). Budapest: Osiris. ISBN 963-379-755-1. Translated from Eliade 1983.
  • Hoppál, Mihály (2005). Sámánok Eurázsiában (in Hungarian). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó. ISBN 963-05-8295-3. The title means “Shamans in Eurasia”, the book is published also in German, Estonian and Finnish. Site of publisher with short description on the book (in Hungarian).
  • Hoppál, Mihály (2006). "Music of Shamanic Healing" (PDF). In Gerhard Kilger (ed.). Macht Musik. Musik als Glück und Nutzen für das Leben. Köln: Wienand Verlag. ISBN 3-87909-865-4.
  • Lintrop, Aarno. "The Clean Tent Rite". Studies in Siberian shamanism and religions of the Finno-Ugric peoples.
  • Nattiez, Jean Jacques, Inuit Games and Songs • Chants et Jeux des Inuit, Musiques & musiciens du monde • Musics & musicians of the world, Montreal: Research Group in Musical Semiotics, Faculty of Music, University of Montreal. The songs are online available from the ethnopoetics website curated by Jerome Rothenberg.
  • Somby, Ánde (1995). "Joik and the theory of knowledge". Archived from the original on 2008-03-25.
  • Szomjas-Schiffert, György (1996). Lapp sámánok énekes hagyománya • Singing tradition of Lapp shamans (in Hungarian and English). Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó. ISBN 963-05-6940-X.
  • Vitebsky, Piers (1996). A sámán. Bölcsesség • hit • mítosz (in Hungarian). Budapest: Magyar Könyvklub • Helikon Kiadó. ISBN 963-208-361-X. Translation of the original: Vitebsky, Piers (1995). The Shaman (Living Wisdom). Duncan Baird.
  • Voigt, Vilmos (1966). A varázsdob és a látó asszonyok. Lapp népmesék. Népek meséi (in Hungarian). Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó. The title means: “The magic drum and the clairvoyant women. Sami folktales”, the series means: “Tales of folks”.

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