Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Dmitry Funk

Shors. Spiritual culture (mythological worldview, traditional beliefs, holidays and rituals)


Despite the apparent abundance of ethnographic data, there has been no serious research into the spiritual culture of the Shors. By the time the data was acquired by ethnographers, most of the Shors’ perceptions about the universe had already been significantly altered due to the active process of Christianization from the second quarter of the 19th century. What makes matters more complicated is significant local differences (possibly the result of the ethnic history of the clans) and the variability of the local worldviews.

The main keepers of the knowledge about the universe were shamans ( kam ) and their assistants. According to the materials recorded by Vasily Radlov in the middle of the 19th century in the upper reaches of the river Mras, “in the sky their lives God Kudai (the Persian name for God common among all eastern Tatar tribes), who created the Earth. His name is Mukoli (corrupted Russian Nikolai, whom the Russians call the Wonderworker). In the underground there lives his evil counterpart named Aina. When a person dies, Aina devours his soul”. The notes of Andrei Anokhin made at the beginning of the 20th century, describe one of the shamans in the lower reaches of the Kondoma, who painted the following picture of the world: the heavenly deities, or the bayan spirits, include, in particular, the Creator, or Ulgen the Radiant, who was described as an imperious gentleman sitting “behind the counter” and Kydai Khan, or Kydai the Sky. The earthly bayan were Tebir-Khan (the Iron Khan), Kirbi-Khan (the Leech Khan), Kerey Khan and a number of others.  The malevolent spirits were ruled by Erlik Khan, or Ada-kizhi, who administers judgment over the souls of the dead.

The Shors had relatively few shamans, both male and female; and those that did exist served not only their clan, but all the residents of the nearby uluses or ails (camps and settlements) at once, and were often known beyond the ethnic boundaries among the neighboring groups, in particular among the Teleuts. In 1916 Andrei Anokhin personally interviewed 10 Shor shamans.

No less extensive data was collected in the 1920s by Nadezhda Dyrenkova: “I personally met with two kam (shamans) from the söök Kobyi on the Kobur-su river, with a she-kam from the söök Kyzai on the Pyzas river, and with a he-kam from the söök Kyzai in Ust-Kobur-su and even in the lower reaches of the Mras-su river, where the population comes into close contact with the Russians, 60 versts from the city of Kuznetsk, with a young 28-year-old he-kam from the söök [Chediber]; I heard about as many as three kam in the Ust-Anzas region alone”.

The idea of inheritance (actually “quasi-inheritance”) of the shamanic gift was widespread. One of the illustrative shamanic genealogies is the generation of Shulbai from the seok Kobyi in the Ust-Kobyrza region. Choiban was considered to be the first kam here. Then came his nephew in the male line, Omske. He was succeeded by his male cousin Achyke and his Achyke’s son Apechek. Nadezhda Dyrenkova at one time worked with kam Mitriy, who lived in Tayis and was Omske’s seconf cousin twice removed, as well as with kam Alexei from Saryg-sut, who was the great grand-nephew of Choiban himself and the grand-nephew of Omske.

The shamans were considered to be so closely connected with their clan that even, as the Shors believed, their helping spirits ( tös , plural töstör ) were inherited within the same söök . “That’s why after the death of a kam in a clan where they don’t want to have a shaman any more, they try not to preserve anything of the shaman’s belongings, and his tambourine is hung on a tree that won’t die for a long time, so that there won’t be a new kam. After the death of a kam, his helping spirits go to Erlik and live there until they find a new kam on earth that they like. They will look for a new kam from the clan of the deceased shaman and very rarely, and only if they do not locate a suitable one, do they move to another clan”. Leonid Potapov interviewed Kondom shamans in 1927 and wrote: “There cannot be 2 shamans in one generation; if this happens, one of the two will die”.

The tambourines are oval in shape, always colored on the front leather part and with a non-anthropomorphic wooden handle (this is the only type of tambourine used by the Shor and Teleut shamans). During their life, the shaman would have up to 9 tambourines. The life expectancy of shamans was also measured by the number of tambourines he/she had used.

The picture of the spread of shamanism changed significantly in the mid-1920s, when the district executive committee began to collect information about the local shamans, and then take measures to limit or terminate their activities. In the remote taiga places of Shoriya, the tambourine-wielding shamans were active until 1980. In most cases, the role of shaman was played by elderly women who used some household items for ritual purposes, but had no shamanic costumes nor tambourines.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the majority of the Shors were officially Orthodox Christians. The credit for this belongs to Vasily Verbitsky, the archpriest of the Altai spiritual mission, and his students from the local population: Ioann Shtygashev, Timofey Kanshin, Gavriil Ottygashev, Pavel Kadymaev.

The methods of spreading Christianity were very different, from direct coercion to the offering of various bonuses for the newly baptized: free distribution of bread, three-year tax exemption, an opportunity to become a pashtyk , the head of the volost. Baptisms were carried out both inside and outside the church, on the banks of local rivers during annual missionary trips. The missionaries spread advanced farming methods (beekeeping, agriculture), healthy lifestyle and new medical treatment techniques. They also protected the Shors from the arbitrary treatment by royal officials, and fought against alcoholism.

The most important result of their activities was the spread of literacy through missionary schools with libraries and the emergence of the first Shor educators and intelligentsia from among the students of those schools. The newly baptized used Christian attributes: they wore crosses, had icons both in their houses and on trees in front of villages, and installed crosses on graves. However, the missionaries were never able to completely eradicate shamanic rituals and beliefs. Until collectivization, shamans had played a large role in public life, especially among the Mras Shors. The old pre-shamanistic tribal cults coexisted with shamanism.

The Shors who adopted Christianity from the Russians, re-purposed a number of traditional pagan holidays with their characteristic rituals to coincide with the Orthodox holidays. One of the attributes of the costumes of Christmas mummers were birch bark masks, similar to the masks of the kocha or devils. One of the photographs from the early 20th century captured a participant in the ritual wearing a birch bark mask on his face and a fur coat turned inside out. In some villages in the lower reaches of the river Mras, the rite of Kocha-kaan continues to this day.

The spring fertility celebration was seamlessly combined with the idea of the Orthodox Trinity and one of the central figures of the event was the traditionally revered birch tree.

In the northern, the most Russified part of Shoriya, each ulus celebrated their own holiday or the day of their patron saint. In the uluses Myski (Tomazak) and Kalachevsky it was Peter, in Abinsky it was Mikola, in Uchula and Chuvashensky it was Prokop, in Syrkashensky it was Christmas, in Kosoy Porog it was St. Seraphim, in Toza (Pine Mountain) Elijah, in Balbyna Panteleimon, etc.

By the end of the Soviet period, in addition to the residual elements of Orthodoxy and shamanism, Protestantism had begun to spread in the territory of Gornaya (Mountain) Shoriya. The majority of both the rural and the urban Shors, as researchers noted in the 1990s, were characterized by religious nihilism, and the attempts to introduce neo-shamanism by the Shor and Khakass political elite were not met with enthusiasm.

The worldview of the Shors would be incomplete without the funeral rite. By the beginning of the 20th century, it had undergone significant changes under the influence of Orthodoxy, but still continued to retain specifically endemic ideas about death, human doubles (souls), the other world and the necessary funeral rites to be carried out both in the house of the deceased and in the cemetery. Sky burials (on tree branches) of deceased young children had existed until the third quarter of the 20th century (but the practice was rare). The dead were buried in logs (in the villages on the middle and upper reaches of the Mras) or in ordinary plank coffins. The cemeteries that appeared with the missionaries were usually located behind the ulus on the mountain. The grave was shallow, with a pole platform at the bottom. In the lower reaches of the Mras, a small board house was built above the burial mound. This was the so-called "house of the deceased". A wooden Orthodox cross was placed at the feet of the buried. The grave was fenced  but rarely and was not looked after.

Until the disappearance of the last kaichi storytellers (winter of 2006–2007), the practice of inviting storytellers to the wake at the house where the body of the deceased lay had been maintained in Northern Shoriya.  The kaichi were to perform epic tales usually accompanied with music.

Currently, funeral rites have largely lost their ethnic and regional specificity. In the city and even the rural cemeteries, monuments are often erected, metal fences placed around the plot and the graves are looked after.