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Udmurt shamanism: my antiquity and my contemporaneity
Yuri Kuciran

The Udmurt shamanism as a distinct form of faith was repelled and ousted by Udmurt pagan priests (Vosyas’) and later, in 17th–19th centuries, by the expanding global religions of Islam and Orthodox Christianity. However, in modified and fragmentary forms the institution of Tuno survived until the Russian revolution. There were elderly people who told me about having seen village people, more often men but sometimes women, too, performing strange dances or something similar to a dance on local holidays under the influence of the Udmurt hallucinogen - araky or posyatem.

By that time, shaman dances had already lost their actual sacral meaning and the imitation of shaman’s movements was perceived as comic. Nothing disappears without leaving a trace; neither did the Udmurt shamanism – a peculiar world of Tuno – vanish totally. Some of its elements have survived in folk songs and dances, in children’s games, cumulatively recited songs and tongue-twisters, as well as in the rites of physicking called tuno-pelle and pellyass’kis’. In the end of 1960’s as an eight-year boy I watched a man performing a strange dance on the holiday Nuny Syuan on the occasion of a child’s birth. The dance included undressing, rolling on the floor and screaming, with body movements imitating passion and love-making (an echo of the shaman’s initiation rite?), accompanied by everybody’s joyful fun and laughter. Those village holidays were unforgettable; particularly vivid was the wedding ceremony. At the one moment a guest could see the bridegroom strewing coins around to the delight of children; other guests as well, old and young, tried to pick up as many coins as possible. The main thing was not collecting money but enjoying the irrational and elevated festive mood. During the wedding carnival, a horse was sometimes brought into a house and given alcohol to the common laughter. The village life was full of pranks of that kind. Festivities were fascinating, surprising and at times frightening. Such impressions are hardly forgettable, especially if perceived by a child’s curious and inquisitive mind as something beyond comprehension but very vivid and attractive. In my view, these impressions serve as guides to the particularities of national mentality: they come to mind in flashes and help to preserve one’s ethnic identity.

Today I conceive those village holidays as great shows, as a model to follow in performances. This spontaneity of feelings and variety of forms is regrettably unattainable to us the young generation of Udmurts. However, there is no reason to be pessimistic about it. There are people like me who once saw those mysteries; the crisp flow of ethnic identity was transmitted to them. My performances help me to more fully identify myself in the rapidly changing world. I keep to the Udmurt, Finno-Ugric spirit and interlace it modestly with emanations of other cultures of the world – and the result attracts and stimulates me. Taken that shamanism is now popular worldwide, it may seem just a fashion to make use of the theatrical side of shamanism on the stage. Yet, neither audience nor actors take pleasure in shamanism being treated in formalistic way. The former dislike this; the latter know that their karma, as well as mental and even physical health may suffer. If I nevertheless stage these performances, it is because I have really something to say and because I want to share my innermost feelings with others.

In Udmurtia, the revival of interest to shamanism is quite perceivable. It is due, above all, to the worldwide-known Udmurt artist Olga Aleksandrova and to the ethnofuturist movement. Shamanism is revitalised by Olga Aleksandrova in its most archaic form, in the person of a female; in the ancient times of matriarchy the role of a shaman was performed by a woman. Her monoperformance Kuin’ Syuan Gur’yes (“Three Wedding Tunes”) had an effect of a bomb in the theatrical world. This revivalist approach was continued by the male group Katanchi who staged the play UlonPitran (“Life Is a Wheel”) based on family, tribal and agrarian cults. The play was clearly influenced by the art of Olga Aleksandrova. My performance KallenOlle (“Come On But Don’t Haste”) can be viewed as a search for syncretism. I interpret the meaning of different elements in the male costume by combining elements of different religions. The play was meant not only to be a universal medium of theatrical self-expression but also to produce a strong curative effect on the actor. The game covers – through dressing, reciting and singing – the period from birth to maturity, with the mystery of death excluded intentionally to prevent unexpected karma changes. I will continue performing this play for all my life. It will help me better comprehend my purpose in this life. During this play, with passionate purifying gestures and hymns I conjure away all the negative that has accumulated in my life, and convey this catharsis to the audience. Indeed, our destiny is granted to us from above and we cannot change it radically; however, we can adjust it to some extent.

It is extremely difficult to play shaman performances since the “Three Wedding Tunes” by Olga Aleksandrova was staged, as she said nearly everything in her work. Thus I search for completely new forms of presentation.

The performance Oti-Tati, Ottsy-Tattsy (“Here And There, This And That”) is, too, tied to shaman initiations and based on syncretism, yet with a stronger effort to grasp the trinity of the great mysteries of Belief, Hope and Love. The Love is perceived as the natural emotion of love revealing the poetry of spring; the Hope is perceived as love between the kindred revealing the poetry of childhood; and the Belief is the spiritual love dipping us into the sparkling waves of boundless poetry. The primeval, original harmonic synthesis of genres of art – music, dance and graphic images – focused in one person, creates a favourable archaic shamanist aura of participation with the mythological world of the Udmurts, of other Finno-Ugrians, and of all other peoples in the world. It is definitely this aspect in the shamanism revival that will be given refuge in the Eternity where the pure perfume of The Great Whole produces the infinite Love. Here is our Divine Father. Traditional shamanism, firmly linked to the material world, cannot behold the Divine Glory. People should employ the blessed activities of ethnofuturist movement to carry all over the Universe the Glory of our Father that produces the boundless love.

In mythology, the highest value was ascribed to the point in the space where the act of creation takes place. This point was perceived as the global tree or the world axis, while in shamanist performances it was the shaman’s body. This point is the centre of the world, the hub of the universe. It is the holiest point in the space. It is in such places that people build a house and erect a fireplace, as the shortest binding string between the sky, the earth and the human goes there. These places are also best fitting for prayer. The place for prayer was divided into three concentric circles, the inner circle being the most sacred. In its centre, the sacral fire was lit.

It is precisely in this place that the House of Love is placed in Oti-Tati, Ottsy-Tattsy. In the symbolic web of the play, the Udmurt shamanist cosmology with initiations is easily recognisable. According to it, the universe consisted of three spheres and the connecting axis penetrated all of them. The Udmurts believed that this axis passed through cosmic trees – the fir, the birch and the pine. The cult of these trees was most common and they were associated with the triad of supreme deities. Each deity had its own tree. The pine was the tree of the supreme deity Inmar; the fir was the tree of the deity of atmosphere and weather Kuaz’; the birch was the tree of the creator of the earth Kyldysin. The roots, the trunk and the crown of trees symbolised accordingly the lower, the intermediate and the upper worlds. I would identity the tuno’s body with the sacred tree. As the tuno I present a pillar containing the life-asserting beginning, the symbol of fertility and the symbol of eternal life. In my ardent cosmic dance I offer to gods and simultaneously act as the global tree, as a person and as god. After all, god created me in his own image. I love god and he loves me. I praise god and his glory all over the Universe. My offer to the upper world is named Vyle mychon; it is directed upward and made by certain manipulations with the dymbyr – the Udmurt drum similar to the Mari tumyr but of a more oblong form. To make the performance more vivid and image-bearing, I use the instrument to denote various things during the play. It is worth to mention that I was the first performer to use the archaic Udmurt drum. My performance made the groups Ekton Korka and Marzan Gur’yes to start playing the dymbyr.

My offer to the intermediate world includes specially dressed dolls, towels, ribbons and bright pieces of fabric. Beer, kumyshka and melted butter are offered to the lower world. I wish good and love to all people on earth. This is accompanied by the quiet chime of a set of bells named chingyli that are attached to the Tuno’s clothes. This chime is called Invu Utchan Gur (“The Search For the Divine Dew”), as the archaic deity Invu Mumy was the patron of the Tuno.

I intentionally exclude some elements of the traditional tuno rite that I consider to be upsetting to modern civilised audience. To achieve the trance, a shaman could manipulate with a knife and injure his body. He might tie himself with a towel or a braid, driving himself almost to syncope.

In my mind’s eye I see the fantastic picture of the world as perceived by the ancient Udmurts. It revolved around the cults of fire, water, the earth, the sun and the moon, and the peculiar notions of the life, the death and the soul. It included worshipping the sky deity and the water fowl (ducks, geese and swans), the cult of trees, the cult of the sacred grove, and the concept of the universe being divided into the lower, the intermediate and the upper worlds, each of these levels having the corresponding colour. Black stood for the lower world and symbolised the beyond. Red stood for the intermediate world, the world of people. White stood for the upper world, the world of gods. The water fowl (geese, ducks and swans) were flying from the world of gods to the world of the dead through the world of people. In the centre of all this was the figure of Udmurt shaman, the Tuno – with goose, ducks and swans, I suppose, to assist the Tuno in keeping his unique intercourse. I think of these birds as of thoughts acquiring form: they were emitted by the Tuno, the demiurge and the spirits in the cold realm of the dead, all interflowed in the mystic intercourse through the Milky Way, the passage of wild geese and swans (Lud zazeg lobzon syures) linking the three parts of the universe together. I imagine this passage as the cosmic river flowing from the south with its source in the world of gods, light and the divine forces, to the north with its mouth in the beyond, in the world of cold, darkness and the malicious spirits.

I owe this lucid and detailed picture of religious and mythological ideas of the ancient Udmurts, which once impressed me and, in a way, became my creative outfit, to the book The Religious And Mythological World View Of the Udmurts by historian Dr.Phil., Prof. V.V. Vladykin, to the findings made by philologist Dr.Lit., Prof. T.G. Vladykina-Perevoshchikova and historians Dr.Phil. V.V. Napol’skikh and Dr.Phil.candidate L.A. Molchanova, to the stage innovations by O.Y. Aleksandrova, and to the scientific researches carried out by folk choreographer A.N. Prokop’yeva.

What is it that makes the ethnofuturists so eager in exploring the figure of the shaman in figurative and stage art? I suppose it is the enigmatic and mysterious air surrounding this figure that will continue to excite artists and other people, and it is the shaman’s aspiration for the future because he can surmount the time boundaries of the universe, which is really ethnofuturistic.

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