TUVAN SHAMANIC UNDERSTANDINGS OF WATER
Now we shift our focus all the way around the world to Mongolia in the northern Asian steppes, where many groupsincluding Tuvans, Buryat, Hamnigan, Darkhad, Tsaatan, Hotgoit, Urianhai, and the Halh practice the ancient tradition of shamanism In particular, our focus will be on the Tuvans, a society of approximately 235,000 people, perhaps most famous for their traditional art of throat singing. Although as of this time I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Mongolia personally, I’ve been able to learn from those who have training in the Tuvan form of shamanism Their beliefs are remarkably similar to the traditions I have more direct experience with and have already described.
Tuvan shamanism has its origins in the Stone and Bronze Ages, when survival was difficult and specialized tools and practices were needed to cope with a dangerous and hazardous environment. The fact that the Tuvans’ shamanic practice has survived to this day is testament to its practicality, effectiveness, and resilience even in the face of attempted eradication at the hands of the Communists and organized religions. (The Buddhist religion, however, didn’t attempt to eliminate it, but rather accommodated it in its practices and beliefs. Buddhism continues to be practiced alongside shamanism to this day.)
Early shamans from this region crossed the Bering Strait during the ice ages and began their migrations into North, Central, and South America. Thus, it’s understandable that shamanic insights about the power of water are so similar in such diverse regions of the world.
Tuvans believe that every lake or river has its own spirit keeper or guardian who protects that place and is in charge of the animals and plants living there. They believe that if drawn into alliance through proper respect, these guardian spirits have the ability to protect people living nearby or those who happen to be traveling through the area. The Tuvans believe that guardian spirits of the waters are able to understand the languages of humans and that by speaking or singing directly to them, one can obtain their protection and goodwill.
Like most shamanic peoples, they understand that guardian spirits must be complimented and honored if they’re to become good human allies. They erect a small hut (ovaa) made of stones and branches on the riverbank near fords in order to house their offerings to the guardian spirits there. (This is similar to the Huichols’ temples that contain sacred objects at pilgrimage sites.) Inside, they place sacred stones, crafts, textiles, and blessed objects as forms of sacrifice. This is often carried out prior to attempting to cross the river in order to ensure the safe passage of all the travelers.
The subjects of the Tuvans’ songs are usually the elements of nature: the wind in the grasses, ripples on a body of water, rain-laden clouds, and so on. On one occasion, I witnessed traveling throat singers, singing to reproduce the spirit of rain clouds on the distant horizon. They told me that the idea was to make a connection with that element and communicate with it via deep-throated sounds. Thus, like the Shipibo and the Huichols, the Tuvans connect with the spirits of water through their singing practice. By bonding deeply and forming resonance with the water, they honor it and receive its gifts.
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The Tuvans hold springs to be especially sacred and consider the trees and plants that grow there to be guarded by the spirit keeper of the spring. Particularly unusual trees growing in these placesones with double trunks, gnarled survivors of harsh weather, and those clearly struck by lightningare called “shaman trees” and are given special honor. Under them, the Tuvans perform their ceremonies honoring the springs and asking for their protection and healing gifts. Around such springs, especially medicinal ones, hunting is forbidden in order to keep from offending the guardian of that place, whose protection is extended to the animals there.
Like shamans in many parts of the world, Mongolian shamans practice the shamanic journey, inducing trance states with the use of skin drums. They train for these experiences by stimulating the imagination until it becomes a powerful and useful tool to travel with. Often the trance journey begins at the sacred spring, the entrance point for the three worlds of the spirit realm As the drumming begins, the shaman imagines himself entering the water of the spring, meeting with the guardian spirit there and communicating his intention or destination. The guardian of the waters then accompanies the shaman on an extensive and sometimes perilous path through underground waterways to a distant landscape where knowledge may be found or power garnered in order to perform healing or a task.
Through the use of this technique, the shaman may meet other powerful spirits, do battle with them, retrieve lost souls, or see into the future. The return journey is typically back through the waterways and out of the spring again. Other shamans may use cave entrances or shaman trees as points of entry into the spirit realm, but entering water is a particularly effective method.
Guided by a woman trained in Tuvan shamanism, I was able to journey via a spring and the underground waterways to discover the answer to an important question about my health. The guardian of the waters I encountered was a beautiful, tall woman who directed me to the shore of a river, where I was led to a small cave and given guidance about my condition. After offering thanks, I returned to the shore, plunged into the river, and went back through the rapidly flowing channels of underground water to the spring where I began the journey. As a result, my health was restored.
Tuvan shamans align themselves with, and draw their power from, particular spirits and become specialists in those elements. Some are more connected with mountains while others are focused on the spirit of water, either in the form of small springs or large bodies such as broad rivers and big lakes. Interestingly, given my own experience, the spirit of water among the Tuvans is typically feminine, and therefore appears to the shamans who work with her as a tall woman with long arms. Sometimes the spirit also appears in the form of a large snake, similar to Roni, the anaconda spirit of the Shipibo.
One of the jobs of the Tuvan shaman is to see that bodies of water are protected from pollution by people. Casting waste or garbage into water is seen as disrespectful and may arouse the ire of the water guardian of that place. For the Tuvans, as with the Shipibo, the spirits of water can be helpful and protective or may be dangerous if not handled properly. Healing often has to do with maladies and illnesses that have come from being careless around sacred bodies of water. On the other hand, the guardian spirit of water can be called upon to free someone of illness, depression, or bad luck.
Tuvan shamans understand that these cures may not last forever, so repeat ceremonies may be needed every year or two to continue benefiting from the help of the spirit. In this way, the water spirits are continually honored, and the tradition is perpetuated. Likewise, the shamans understand that their work with spirit through ceremony is a necessary and ongoing practice in order to keep the world in balance.
In this short article, I’ve touched on the deepest understandings of three different cultures regarding the properties of water. Although remote from one another geographically, all three cultures have remarkably similar beliefs about the nature of water. The Shipibo, the Huichols, and the Tuvans all:
From my Devon village in the west of England, it’s a short distance through winding green lanes to the once-independent kingdom of Cornwall a land of mysterious standing stones, crumbling Celtic ruins, and ancient stories. On a bright, clear day near the summer solstice, a friend and I made a sacred pilgrimage to the Cornish countryside. We went seeking an ancient magic that lies beneath the surface of the rolling hills: water magic, pooled in half-forgotten holy wells and springs found in myths and legends not only in the British Isles, but all around the world.
A mile or so past the village of Callington, we parked at the edge of a farmyard and followed an overgrown footpath to Dupath Well. Like many of the holy wells of Cornwall, the spring that runs through Dupath Well is believed to have been a sacred site to Celtic peoples in the distant past, its older use now overlaid with a gloss of Christian legend. At one time, this spring may have been surrounded by a grove of oak, rowan, and thorn trees sacred to the druids and practitioners of other animist religions.
In 1510, a group of Christian monks claimed the Dupath site for their own use, enclosing the spring in a small well house made out of rough-hewn granite. This was the common fate of many pagan sacred sites in the British Isles. Unable to dissuade the local people from visiting their holy places, Christian missionaries simply took them over building churches where standing stones once stood; erecting baptisteries over sacred springs; and cutting down groves of oak, rowan, and thorn in a new god’s name. One can still find numerous holy wells buried all over the British countryside, many of them now named for saints and associated with their miraculous lives. But scratch the surface of these legends and older stories emerge like a palimpsest stories of fairy creatures, the knights of Arthur, and the old gods of the land.
Inside the tiny chapel-like building erected over Dupath Well, the holy water pools in a shallow trough carved from a single granite slab. The air feels thick, heavy with shadows, with silence, with the ghosts of men and women drawn to this spot over hundreds of years. The stones are worn where these people once knelt and prayed to the Virgin Mary, or to the Goddess of the Sacred Springs. At the bottom of the trough lie a few copper coins the modern custom of making wishes being not so very different from the pagan practice of throwing pins into a well to ask for blessings. I watch as my companion places an offering of wildflowers by the water an equally ancient practice recalling a time when it was the land itself our ancestors worshiped, prayed to, and thanked for the gift of life.