The Landscape of Knowledge
A Discussion of the Construction of Shamanistic Knowledge among Rural and Urban Tuvans

Benedikte Møller Kristensen

Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002
By Benedikte Møller Kristensen, Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

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Cosmological knowledge
The iconic landscape
Past lives, present fates
The world experienced
Local and national landscapes



During communism I did not believe in shamanism, but I worshipped Oron Hangai, and I went to the places of my clan ongods to thank them….. Oron Hangai is connected with our worships, it is giving us wild game, it is helping and supporting us…it is giving us life. (Gomp)

Living among the Duha Tuvan reindeer nomads in Northern Mongolia, researching the construction of shamanistic knowledge, my informants were often reluctant to talk about shamanism (böögiin sjasjin) as such, and said they had no fate in shamanism. Whereas the presence and influence of spirits in human life and in the landscape never seemed to be doubted. My adoptive father Gomp and other Duha Tuvans would often tell me how they entrusted their fate in and honoured their landscape - Oron Hangai(1) and "their" trees and mountains.

Among the Duha Tuvans each clan, and often each family group, have their own worship sites in the landscape, which they describe as "my mountain, my tree". Such individualised relation to "personal" trees and mountains is connected to the Duha Tuvan concept of ongods (shamanic helper spirits) and luc (ancestor spirits), which after a shaman's or an important individual's death, become located in a specific natural feature, from where they influence in the lives of the living kin. Shamanism among the Duha Tuvans can thus be seen as a deeply local tradition closely intertwined with the Duha Tuvans' awareness of their surrounding landscape (see Vitebsky 1995).

For the Duha Tuvans it is important to know where the spirits of one's clan are located to avoid disastrous events, among urban Tuvans' [in Tuva, Siberia] knowledge of shamanic cosmology is not only important to act and move in the concrete landscape of kinship, rather local knowledge is being relocated, to confirm ethnic identity and ethnic rights, in Russian national space. Shamans and academics are using shamanism politically on conferences and in media representing shamanism as "an ethnic wisdom about the environment genetically remembered by the Tuvans"

This paper examines the relation between landscape and shamanistic knowledge in Post-Soviet Tuvan society. I will first discuss the way Duha Tuvans conceive their clan histories and their current problems through the landscape, and how they continually create and re-invent the landscape through cosmological symbols, narratives and ritualised experience of space. Moreover, I will make a limited comparison of local and national/global landscapes and knowledges, through considering the different roles the landscape plays in rural and urban Tuvan shamanism.

Cosmological knowledge

Trying to reach an understanding of Duha Tuvan cosmological knowledge I was confused by the inconsistencies in my informants statements about cosmology. Some Duha Tuvans made elaborate explanations about the existence of 99 heavens, which where connected to the ancestor spirits in the landscape, while other insisted that there were only 18, 9, 7 etc. heavens, which were not connected to any ancestor spirits. This variation did not disturb the Duha Tuvans, who, when I confronted them with the inconsistencies often said that maybe for the other person the number of heavens were just different.

In retrospect my initial search for a system of knowledge in the Duha Tuvan cosmology was bound to fail, considering that cosmological knowledge for the Duha Tuvans involves knowing how to act in the landscape to avoid misfortune, rather than possessing an exact knowledge of abstract cosmological terms. Duha Tuvan cosmology can, following Fredrik Barth, be seen as a living knowledge tradition in continual change, a tradition which is closely intertwined with daily life rather than grounded in a "system of knowledge" (Barth 1987: 84). As Caroline Humphrey has noted, concerning Mongolian shamanism, knowledge in these cultures involves the ability to control the things known (Humphrey 1996: 3). The knowledge object never seems to be cosmology in the broad sense, rather the Duha Tuvans show interest in their personal trees and mountains, unexplainable events in nature hinting at a connection between oneself and the spirit world - parts of cosmology which affect them. To reach an understanding of this inconsistent knowledge we therefore have to deal with the social distribution of knowledge, and investigate the transaction processes and communicative means through which knowledge is produced (Barth: 84-85).

The iconic landscape

Language is, as James Weiner has noted, not merely a neutral tool, useful for describing a world "out there" but are constitutive of the world itself (Weiner 1991: 31-32). Trying to reach an understanding of the Duha Tuvan concept Oron Hangai it is thus important to grasp the communicative means the Duha Tuvans understand the world with. Passing mountains and trees, known as the location for ancestor spirits, the Duha Tuvans will often engage in elaborate narratives, songs or poems about the specific ancestor located there, and elaborate on where other ancestor spirits are located.

The processes whereby landscape is invested with meaning can be seen as a dialectical interaction between what Roy Wagner defines as a microcosm of names and a macrocosm of living communication and interpretation. As Wagner writes, the microcosm of names mediates the macrocosm of analogy by cutting it into manageable pieces (Wagner 1986: 16). The Duha Tuvan microcosm of landscape terms is characteristic in its use of body and clan terminology, where the landscape is named through mapping parts of the body unto the land, and through mapping former clan members into specific features of the land. For the Duha Tuvans, as for many indigenous groups, the connection between people and land is fixed through establishing analogies, or with the words of Wagner: the macrocosm of analogy mediates the microcosm of references by allowing us to see resemblance among them (Ibid: 16). In shamanic rituals, the shaman will often sing about the arrival of specific individuals' ancestor spirits, with words such as: "I arrive from the mouth on the back side of the red cliff south of the river Tengis". The song will be followed by the audience discussing which person's ancestor spirits it is, and when this is cleared up, the person will go and sit in front of the shaman, who will sing the ancestor spirit's messages. In shamans' songs and in lay people's narratives the analogy between place and person/clan is thus established.

The Duha Tuvan landscape can, as James Weiner and others have theorised about indigenous conceptualisations of landscape, be seen as iconic of human history, where individual lives are detotalized (Lévi-Strauss 1963) into a series of place names that taken in their entirety, stand for the totality of a clans history (see Weiner 1994: 600). Commonly known worship sites follow the migration of past generations, and thus some sites are situated in Tuva, several weeks away from the Duha Tuvans' current homeland. The history of past clan members, why people were forced to migrate from Tuva to Mongolia following famine, epidemics and black magic is illuminated in the narratives of the landscape.

The landscape not only represents the past, but is continually recreated and invested with new meaning reflecting current problems through the Duha Tuvans' practical engagement with the landscape. As Roy Wagner has noted concerning Walbiri aboriginals in Australia:

Since the traditional Walbiri must perforce as hunter gatherers, not only gain their living following tracks, but also spend their lives constantly making tracks themselves, thereby life in all of its acts become a process of inscription (Wagner 1986: 21).

In daily life the Duha Tuvans simultaneously engage with a known landscape consisting of features inhabited by recognised spirits, and with a hidden landscape of potential - forgotten or unrevealed - spirits. Three Duha Tuvan men told me, that they during hunting had seen a human skull lying on a mountain slope, and following this event "lost" their hunting luck. They were frightened by the incident and asked the shaman Gocsta to make out the connection between the human skull and the loss of hunting luck. The shaman told them that the place was chötgörtei (a place inhabited by spirits which have been forgotten and thereby turned into demons), the only way to regain hunting luck was to go back to the place and start a worshipping cult. In such ways Duha Tuvans continually invent space as recognised places.

Past lives, present fates

The landscape is thus not merely a story of the past, rather the past and the present fuse in the landscape; as ancestors' deeds directly influence the lives of the living kin. During my fieldwork I often overheard women stating the reasons behind their husbands' problems with alcoholism and violent behaviour toward them, with words such as "it is because of that mountain," or "he drinks because of the black ongods at his cedar tree". Such statements are based on shared knowledge of the broader stories behind the specific mountain or tree, which are often told to children and to the anthropology student while passing natural features in the landscape.

The experience of sensing places among Duha Tuvans can be illuminated through Keith Basso´s theory about how places are animated by stories among the Apache. Basso writes that landscapes are animated by the stories people tell about them, and landscape animates the ideas and feelings of people who attend them. As people experience places and these places become the objects of reflection about different topics, the external physical landscape and the internal mind is intertwined. This mixing of the physical landscape and personal, communal, religious and cultural ideas leads individuals to experience places as inherently meaningful (Basso 1996: 55).

The Duha Tuvans often go to their worship sites in times of trouble, where they seek explanations and solutions for misfortune. One spring day I was passing the mountain Ulaan Uul together with Erdemchimeg. At the mountain she stopped to pray and told me:

"That mountain is revenging the life of all the females in my family….. my husband is beating me, you know how he drinks…, all this misfortune, because of my grandfather who did not help the shaman Tsagaa, she asked to stay for the night and he abandoned her wishes, so she died at that mountain, and now the ongods is showing revenge by making my husband an alcoholic."

The Duha Tuvans' search for explanations for present troubles, through narratives about places is not merely a way of finding explanations, but often results in a search for solutions. Shamans will often recommend that people with alcohol or violence problems go to make offerings at mountains, which often, for a time, result in improvement. Keith Basso has noted how the Apache "speak with names" during times of difficulty, confusion or emotional stress, and writes that these names allegorically anchor a person's worries in soothing, "good thinking" that follows fromdwelling upon past events in different places (Basso 1984). A similar tendency seems prevalent among the Duha Tuvans, where tales about how Tuvans traditionally were forbidden to drink alcohol before the age of 40 were told to young men who would often beat there wives following drinking. As Basso demonstrates concerning the Apache, narratives about the landscape are often about the systems or rules according to which Apache expect each other to organise and lead their lives (Ibid: 36). Location thus works in important ways to shape the image people have - or should have - of themselves.

The world experienced

As many anthropologists have noted, landscapes are not simply a cognitive ordering of place, rather they are the result of the land having been used in certain practical and value-laden ways (Humphrey 1996: 126). While descending the worship mountain Gurvan Saihan, a heavy snow storm began, and my adoptive brother Dakdji commented:" "Feel, Tuja, the hailstones beating against your skin….it is the spirits thanking us for the offerings we made". Caroline Humphrey has demonstrated, concerning Daur Mongolian shamanism, that religious concepts' felt autencity is guaranteed primarily by direct modes of experiencing natural phenomena (Humphrey 1996: 106). Likewise Duha Tuvan awareness of the landscape, as a space inhabited by spirits, seems to arrive through bodily experience of places.

The body is, as Merleau-Ponty points out, not simply an object in the world, but the means through which the world comes into being. Consciousness in the first place is not a matter of "I think" but of "I can", because consciousness derives from one's sense of oneself in the body and experience of its movements and activities (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 137). The Duha Tuvans' bodily involvement with physical objects in nature during rituals performed in daily life, where they make offerings and prayers to spirits through placing stones on cairns, walking three times around stone cairns, leaning their forehead against a rock, hugging trees etc., hence seem to construct shamanistic knowledge through experience.

Local and national landscapes

For the Duha Tuvans it is important to know how to interact with oron hangai, cosmological knowledge is thus connected to action, and is constructed as a flexible knowledge, rather than a "system of knowledge". Living among urban shamans and academics involved in the revitalisation of shamanism, in the Russian republic Tuva, I experienced "a shamanism" which seemed quite different, in people's abstract rhetoric about the relationship between shamanistic practice and cosmology and ethnic rights, environmentalism, psychology etc.

The difference between rural and urban shamanism can moreover be seen in the relation to the landscape. The Duha Tuvans often say that "moving around in the landscape, we entrust our fate in Oron Hanagai". So the Duha Tuvan relation to the landscape can, as Williams has written concerning aboriginals, be seen as a relation where the clan belongs to the land, rather than the land belongs to the clan (Williams 1983: 94-95). In urban Tuvan shamanism, as in other urban shamanisms in Siberia, shamanism is used to confirm the reverse. During conferences and in the media, shamans and academics relocate traditional shamanistic cosmology in a political discourse, to make claims for ethnic rights to the national territory. For the Duha Tuvans it is important to know how to interact with the landscape to avoid misfortune, whereas urban Tuvans see shamanism as a tradition worth to preserve as ethnic wisdom, which can be used not only to avoid individual problems but also to confirm and maintain ethnic identity, make claims for ethnic rights, to cope with environmental problems etc.

To reach an understanding of why rural and urban Tuvan shamanism look so different, although they use many of the same symbols and rituals, I will follow Barth's lead, and investigate how specific ways of transacting knowledge and the conditions of creativity of those who cultivate tradition, form the traditions (Barth 1990: 640-641)

Among rural Tuvans, shamanistic knowledge is reproduced and created through narratives, rituals and experience in the landscape, whereas urban Tuvans often are communicating the "value" of shamanistic cosmology to national and global audiences through written media. Urban Tuvan shamanism can be characterised as a revitalisation movement, which in trying to make claims for ethnic identity and rights in the national and global arena, is cultivating the contrasts between their own culture and the culture of the majority, and at the same time is forced to adapt to the discourse of the majority (see Eidheim 1971, Otto 1997). The anthropologist Piers Vitebsky writes that such adaptation changes local tradition from a knowledge based on experience and flexibility to an objective and non-flexible knowledge system (Vitebsky 1995).

Non-flexibility is connected with the use of written texts in urban shamanism, which I shortly will investigate through Lévi-Strauss's classical theory of how oral and written tradition influence the forms of knowledge traditions. In oral traditions, reasoning is based on interpretation of concrete phenomena, which results in flexibility and limited specialisation. Whereas written texts make it possible to move away from the concrete and make abstractions, resulting in specialisation and limited flexibility.

Looking at the surface of urban shamanism it is easy to define urban shamanism as just the opposition of rural shamanism, and to settle with the conclusion that the relocation of local knowledge in a national discourse leads to a fundamental transformation of shamanism, or even defines local shamanism "as wisdom, and urban as foolishness" as some anthropologists have done (see Vitebsky 1995). However, I believe the strategy of using shamanism in political discourses does not imply that urban Tuvans have abandoned "living" shamanism. Among urban shamans I was told again and again how shamanism cannot be taught, and how it was only the spirits who could choose who should be a shaman, and likewise only the spirits who gave people knowledge through ritual interaction with the spirits and with the concrete landscape.

Urban Tuvans often regret having forgotten the places where their ancestor spirits reside, and will often, with the help of shamans, go to the countryside, and like detectives seek for their clan trees and mountains. Upon discovering the place, huge rituals are held, where the shaman through dancing and drumming communicates the messages to the living kin, which are discussed and evaluated as explanations and solutions for current problems. Many anthropologists have demonstrated how ritual forms often are consistent through time, in spite of social and cultural change, hence rituals become the means through which one can confront and create a feeling of continuity in times of change. Rituals create a space for creativity and interpretations, where local and national/global ideas are combined in new ways: mediating between the individual and the collective, the local and the national (Sjørslev 1989, Hoppal 1992, Crowther 1994).

Urban shamanism seems to be caught in its own pressure, where the flexibility inherent in rituals is challenged by the need to use written media in voicing ethnic claims on the national arena. Trying to adapt to the broader world has the side effect of challenging the very flexibility of shamanic knowledge, which seems needed to confront and negotiate the changes in the national arena.


In spite of violent repression during communist time, shamanism among Tuvan people has survived up until today, and is now increasing in the Mongolian forests and in the Tuvan cities. The key to its viability seems to be the flexibility inherent in shamanism, where knowledge gained through ritual engagement with spirits in the landscape, rather than a strict cosmological doctrine, is seen as the core of shamanism, even among academics involved in the revitalisation of shamanism in Tuva (See Figureido 1997, Heinze 1991, Hoppal 1992).

For Tuvan people in Mongolia and Siberia, shamanistic knowledge of the landscape is used to confront, understand and challenge the turbulent changes which are taking place in this corner of the Post-Soviet world. Moving around in the local landscape of Oron Hangai, the Duha Tuvans seek answers and solutions to problems by listening, negotiating and experiencing "the voice of their" personal mountains and trees. In the city, urban Tuvans are at once trying to cope with individual problems through participating in shamanistic rituals and seeking to confront collective changes in the national arena through relocating shamanic cosmology in a national "landscape". The challenge for urban shamanism seems to be discover how to adapt to the national arena and still remain flexible. But maybe the key is, as the academic and shaman Nikolai Abaev said in Tuva, to "go to the mountain Haira Khan and let the shaman drum beat and we will know".


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1. Literally translated "forested land" indicating the Duha Tuvans surrounding landscape.