Raising the Dead: Medicine Women and Soul Retrieval, III

Nishan Shaman

This traditional Manchu longpoem was eventually written down, with some Confucian editorializing. It gives a view from within Manchu culture of the female shaman* Teteke who was considered the most powerful of all shamans, so potent that she could bring a boy back from the dead. This story is a classic example of soul-retrieval from the underworld, by a shaman who chants and drum, goes into an ecstasy so deep that she falls as if dead, makes her journey in the spirit, and must be revived by her assistant.

Back of Numinchen shaman's robes
Back of Numinchen shaman’s robes

During the Ming dynasty, the only son of a rich official died. The distraught family mourned him with a lavish funeral. An old hunchback came and said, Are you just going to let your son go? Why not send for a skilled shaman to bring him back to life? The family replied that the shamans around there weren’t much good, and asked for a recommendation. “Rich sir, how could you not know? There is a shaman by the name of Teteke who lives on the banks of the Nisihai River not far from here. This shaman has great power; she can revive the dead. Why don’t you go ask her?” Then the old man left and ascended on a five-colored cloud (like a Taoist immortal or Buddhist arhat; the implication is that the family’s piety and good deeds were being rewarded).

So the father went in search of the great shaman. He asked a woman hanging clothes where the Nishan shaman lived. She smiled and told them that she lived on the opposite bank (the first of several times that the story shows this shaman as a trickster). The father came to find out that the laundress was in fact the shaman herself, and returned. She demurred at his request, saying that she was only a novice and that they should seek out other, more capable shamans. The tearful father begged her to take the case, and she finally relented.

The Nishan shaman washed her face, set out an incense table, and threw round Go pieces into the water (performing a divination). She sat on a stool in the middle of the room, grasped her hand drum and drumstick, and drumming, “she began to entreat.” Chanting hobage and deyanku, “she implored in a chant, and the spirit permeated her body.” She began to sing a prophecy that described all the relevant happenings leading up to the son’s death. (This prophetic description of the situation at hand recurs in innumerable shamanic tales around the world.) She asked for confirmation, and the father affirmed that everything she had said was true. The text underlines that she was entranced during the ceremony, after which: “The shaman grasped a stick of incense, raised it up, and revived. Then she put away the tambourine and drumstick.”

After more imploring from the official and another demurral from the shaman, she agreed to come to his house to do a ceremony. They loaded up her cabinets of spirit receptacles and brought her on a sedan chair. They set up the spirit placings, and the shaman ate. The other shamans of the village came, but their accompaniment was out of harmony with the chant. Nishan shaman said she would not be able to travel to the underworld that way. So they sent for her assistant, the 70-year-old Nari Fiyanngo who, she comments, “has been filial and obedient.”

When he arrived, Nishan shaman humorously asked him to harmonize beautifully with the tune. “If you do not harmonize with the chanting and murmuring, I will beat your buttocks with a wet drumstick made of cherry wood!” Nari Fiyanngo laughed and replied, “Powerful, strange Nishan shaman, I, your younger brother know this. I do not require a lot of instruction!” And he sat down, ate, and then began to drum. The shaman put on her garments, bells and skirts, “and put the nine-bird cap on her head.” Her body began to wave like a willow and shook with her chanting. She began beseeching her spirits:

Hoge yage Please come, escaping / Hoge yage from the stone pit
Hoge yage please descend quickly / Hoge yage…

The Nishan Shaman with drum, antlered headdress, and robes with leather streamers
The Nishan Shaman with drum, antlered headdress, and robes with leather streamers

And the shaman began to go into ecstasy. The incantation continued as she instructed her assistant to prepare a rooster, a striped dog, and many offerings of bean paste and paper bundles as offerings for the underworld gatekeepers.

Hoge yage I am going to pursue a soul
Hoge yage into a dark place
Hoge yage I will go to the land of the dead
Hoge yage I am going to raise
Hoge yage
a fallen soul.

Nishan Shaman instructs her assistant to help her return by reviving her by throwing buckets of water around her face. “Having uttered this, she was thrown down and immediately her appearance began to change.” In other words, her body fell as if lifeless while she began her otherworld journey. The assistant came and laid her down, lined up the offerings next to her, and began to drum and chant in support of her spirit voyage.

Leading the rooster and dog and carrying the offerings, the shaman started off for the land of the dead. As she went, animals ran, birds flew, and snakes slithered. (These represent the creatures of the three worlds — upper, middle and lower — that the Manchu have in common with the Mongols and other North Asian peoples). “Traveling like a whirlwind she arrived at the bank of a river.” She looked around for a way to cross, and called to a lame boatman to take her across so that she could meet her dead relatives. She named her father and mother, then gave a long list of matrilineal relatives (a theme that is repeated further on). She paid him with bean paste and paper, and he ferried her over.

Then the shaman came to the Red river. This time there was no boat. She invoked the great eagle and the silver wagtail, the river snake and eight pythons. She threw her drum in the water, stood in it, and crossed the river “like a whirlwind,” again leaving behind bean paste and paper bundles for the river spirit. In the same manner she went through all the underworld gates and gave offerings to their guardians. (Drum as boat, as horse or other conveyance in the spirit realms is a common theme in North Asia; so is the shaman’s coat adorned with bells, mirrors and pendant amulets, and the cap with feathers or horns.)

“With skirt bells shaking, cap waving, and small bells ringing,
the Nishan shaman was making her voice clang like metal.”

Finally she confronted a lord of the underworld who had carried away the son. Getting no satisfaction from him, she went to the higher lord of the underworld, whose city walls were tightly locked. The shaman made a long invocation to dozens of animal powers to enter the city and bring out the child spirit. “When she finished, all the spirits rose up in flight and became like clouds and fog.”

Numinchen shaman's robes with brass mirros and bell pendants
Numinchen shaman’s robes with brass mirros and bell pendants

A great bird snatched up the boy and brought him to the shaman. Infuriated, the underworld king confronted his underling, who replied that it must have been the Nishan shaman who did this. He pursued her, calling out, “Shaman, elder sister, wait a moment.” He appealed to her, saying that it was not right to take the boy away without paying a fee, since he had made great efforts to bring him there and was in trouble now. They negotiated; the shaman offered him bean paste and paper bundles, but he protested that it was not enough. She added more, but still it was not enough; he asked for the rooster and dog, since the king of the dead has neither, and thus everyone would be satisfied. She agrees, but only on condition that he lengthen the child’s life. A long bargaining session ensues, with the shaman piled up more years of long life, and the spirit throwing in good health and progeny. The deal is done, and the shaman leaves.

But Teteke had one more obstacle to confront. The spirit of her long-dead husband confronted her beside the road, and demanded that she bring him back too. She answered that it was not possible, since his tendons and flesh were rotted, but said that she will make offerings at his grave and take care of his mother. He became enraged and started to reproach her with old marital disputes. She retorted that he had left her with nothing,  and yet she had cared for his mother all these years. Making no headway, at last she called  on a great crane to come and fling him into Fungtu City (Taoist world of the dead). Then she sang an anthem of female independence and nonconformity that affirms the old, pre-Chinese matrilineal traditions of the Manchu:

Deyanku deyanku Without a husband
Deyanku deyanku I shall live happily
Deyanku deyanku Without a man
Deyanku deyanku I shall live proudly
Deyanku deyanku Among mother’s relatives
Deyanku deyanku I shall live enjoyably
Deyanku deyanku Facing the years
Deyanku deyanku I shall live on
Deyanku deyanku Without children
Deyanku deyanku I shall live on
Deyanku deyanku Without a family
Deyanku deyanku I shall live lovingly
Deyanku deyanku Pursuing my own youth
Deyanku deyanku I shall live as a guest
Deyanku deyanku

After singing this, she led the boy quickly through the underworld. Now they came to a beautiful, majestic tower surrounded by five-colored clouds and guarded by two gods in gold armor. She asked them who lived there, and they replied, “Omosi-mama, who causes the leaves to unfurl and the roots to spread properly.” Omosi-mama is the Manchu goddess who gives life to all beings. She endows human beings with three souls: the true soul, which is the lifeforce that, once departed, causes death; the soul-that-precedes, which can travel during dreams or soul-loss, and which the goddess gives to another person after death; and the external soul, which returns to the god of the underworld after death (probably the physical body-soul).

Here Nishan shaman negotiates again with various guardians, giving them offerings. She encounters among the goddess’s attendants the deceased wife of her assistant and exchanges friendly greetings with her. Then she goes to pay her respects to Omosi-mama, an old woman with snow-white hair. She is described as ugly (much like the spinner-faeries in early modern European lore): “her eyes protruded, her mouth was large, her face long, her chin stuck out, and her teeth had become red-unpleasant to behold!”

Numinchen shaman's collar, Manchuria
Numinchen shaman’s collar with cowries, tassels, bells, and embroidered tigers, Manchuria

But however demonized by the storyteller, this Old Goddess remains the life-giver. Around her, women were bustling around making babies, passing around yarn, carrying children to be born, putting them into bags and taking their on their backs out the eastern door. Nishan shaman prostrated nine times before Omosi-mama. The old goddess did not recognize her at first, but then exclaimed, “How could I have forgotten? When you were to be born, I became annoyed with you because you absolutely refused to go, and I placed a shaman’s cap on your head, tied bells on your skirt, put a tambourine in your hand, and causing you to act as a shaman, I playfully brought you to life.”

Omosi-mama spoke of how she had ordained the future fame of the shaman, and how she fated destinies for all the souls who came from her realm. She had her helpers show Teteke around so that she could see the flourishing forests whose willow branches were used to send forth souls who have not eaten horses or cattle, and the sparse woods for those who have (in a bit of Buddhist editorializing against meat-eating). In another building all kinds of animals, birds and fish were being created. There was also a city where ghosts wept and lamented, and where souls were judged for a long list of crimes. The graphic descriptions of punishments also show strong Buddhist overtones, as does the bodhisattva preaching and predicting the future rebirths of the various souls, from palace-dwellers to animals and worms.

After witnessing all this, the Nishan shaman retraced her steps, paying more fees to the various spirits and guardians so that she could return. The ferryman hailed her triumph in bringing back the son from the land of the dead. She reached his father’s house, and her assistant poured the buckets of water on her as she had instructed. Then he burned incense to revive her, singing an incantation praising her achievement and calling on various animal spirits to help her awaken. The shaman got up and began to chant an account of what she had done, and reporting the blessings of Omosi-mama:

Kerani kerani When you serve Omosi-mama
Kerani kerani with respect and purity
Kerani kerani Omosi-mama’s flowers are good
Kerani kerani Therefore do only good.

Dagur shaman with her drum, 1931. From this time forward, repression of shamanic ceremonies increased.
Dagur shaman with her drum, 1931. From this time forward, repression of shamanic ceremonies increased.

Then the shaman was thrown backward again, and censed again by her assistant. “Then, because the shaman herself fanned the soul into the empty body of Sergudai Fiyanngo, he suddenly came to.” He asked for water and said he had been sleeping and dreaming for a long while. The family rejoiced as he sat up. The father offered wine to the Nishan shaman and her assistant. She praised Nari Fiyanggo, modestly quoting a saying that if a shaman was worth three parts, she will not come back to life unless helped by an assistant of seven parts. Everyone laughed. Then the family loaded up wagons full of payments for the shaman and her assistant.

But the final episode shows the social and political pressures on such a powerful woman at the time this old epic was written down. Her mother-in-law heard that Nishan had refused to bring back her dead husband, and even thrown him into Fungtu city after he threatened to boil her in oil. The mother was furious, and accused the shaman of killing her husband a second time. She went to the capital and filed an official complaint. Nishan shaman was arrested, and her testimony matched the mother’s. So the officials condemned her as a disloyal wife. They could have executed her for this but instead, because she had not lied, they destroyed her shaman’s regalia and drums.

The epic ends with an tacked-on admonition similar to those added to other classics of orature, such as the Icelandic Völuspá, when they were committed to writing by men determined to defuse them. The writer claims that the Manchu poem contains “evil teachings contrary to the great law. People in the future must not imitate them.”

Three different written versions of this story exist. The other two texts lack this sermonizing conclusion. One does not mention any destruction of the shaman’s power objects; the other describes it in a single final sentence which also appears to be tacked-on. The original poem was performed in a broad-based Manchu oral tradition that was dissolving under Chinese influence. At the same time, Manchu kinship patterns moved toward patriarchal Chinese patterns. However, the persistence of maternal kinship terms led Shirokogoroff and other scholars to posit an original Manchu matrilineage. The passages affirming maternal kin in the poem seem to bear out these older maternal loyalties. The very reason offered for the shaman’s downfall was her disloyalty to patriarchy, much more than Confucian or Buddhist officialdom’s disapproval of shamanic rites.

Manchu clans were structured around shamanic spirits—both ancestors and animal guardian spirits. [Nowak and Durrant, 96] The Manchu kept their clan lists secret, guarded in spirit receptacles. Nishan Shaman brings these sacred receptacles with her for the ceremony, implying that ancestral spirits were important for such rites. Her song places strong emphasis on the maternal relatives, and Margaret Nowak suggests that it is “a plea for the old order.” [15] Teteke’s self-affirming chant to her dead husband is “a strong and surprising denial of all that a woman in Manchu culture should live for: husband, husband’s clan, children, descendants.” Nowak contrasts the patrilineage-preserving task of restoring the son to the shaman’s repudiation of marriage and motherhood.

Toward the story’s end, having seen the punishments for sins in the underworld, the shaman ends a love affair with her assistant and breaks from “all strange dissolute matters.” Here Nowak takes the wording of “elder sister”/”younger brother” at face value, and frames the wrongfulness of the relationship as breaking clan taboos around sexual relationships. I disagree; this kind of kinship language is a common Indigenous framing that does not necessarily indicate direct blood relationship, or in many cases a much broader concept of kinship. Here it functions to signal the shaman’s seniority over her assistant. It is the “elder,” not “sister,” that is significant here; and what is disapproved is that the widow has any love affair with anyone.

But this entire theme of transgression is another late interpolation tacked on at the end. The real meaning of Nishan shaman, as Nowak comments, is that “she transcends social norms”and mediates between the worlds. [101-2, 107] Her cleaving to “mother’s relatives” stands in stark contrast to the Confucian norm that drives the story: the official has lost his only son, the second, and thus his patrilineal posterity.

Shaman in fringed robes riding on deer: petroglyph from Olyonka Cave, upper Amur river
Shaman in fringed robes riding on a deer: petroglyph in  Olyonka Cave, in the upper Amur river

Nowak remarks on another interesting pattern in the poem: that water figures in passages between realms. The shaman throws her divinatory Go pieces into water; she and others wash their faces before the shamanizing begins; she crosses rivers to the underworld; her return to ordinary consciousness is accomplished by pouring water; and the first thing the revived boy does is ask for water. (Passage across the waters is also important in Korean ceremonies of the mudang.)

Nowak also makes an key observation on the realm of Omosi-mama “Here nothing new is ever added; nothing old totally disappears. In cyclic fashion life keeps appearing and reappearing.” Omosi mama is “autonomous,” and oversees this endless process “significantly symbolized by the turning stone wheel.” [112-16]

The epic illuminates the way Manchu shamans did their ceremonies, the kind of incantations they sang, even mentions the cabinets with ancestral regalia referred to by other sources. It portrays Manchu beliefs about life, death, and a great Goddess who is both life-giver and fate-giver. It also repeats the theme of the greatest of all the shaman who is nevertheless modest and retiring, that we have already seen with Pa Sini Jobu.

© 2013 Max Dashu

* Shaman is a word of the Tungusic languages, including Evenk, to which Manchu belongs. Attempts to read it as sha-man, and pluralize it as sha-men, are misinformed. The second syllable -man has nothing to do with English “men,” and in fact the word is not sex-specific.

All quotes are taken from Margaret Nowak and Stephen Durrant, The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: A Manchu Folk Epic. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977)

manchuriaManchuria was historically connected to Korea, and influenced as well by Mongolia on its western border. (They adopted a central Asian script from the Mongolians.) In 1931 the Japanese invaded, followed by the Chinese after World War II. The Manchu are best known for their own conquest of China, founding the Qing dynasty in the 17th century. You are far less likely to read about many Indigenous groups such as the Orochen, Numinchen, Dagur, and others who are culturally closer to their Siberian relatives, the Evenk and Even.