Photo: (c) Jamie K. Reaser
Siberia is a place of the far North characterized by long winters, snow, and reindeer. The Tungusic are indigenous peoples of Siberia whose lives have long been dependent on an intimate and sacred relationship with reindeer – they are reindeer herders. The word ‘Saman’ (shaman) is a Tungusic word that connotes a spiritual specialist, someone who serves as a bridge between the ‘everyday world’ and the ‘spirit world.’ The shaman’s role is to engage with the spirit world (aka practice magic) in order to support the community, generally through visions, healing, protection, and resource abundance.
Amanita muscaria is the scientific name for a mushroom commonly known as fly amanita or fly agaric. It is a relatively large, attractive looking mushroom sporting a red cap specked with white dots. You’ve probably seen them illustrated alongside fairytales. Amanitas generally grows under – and in a close ecological association with - conifers (pine trees). They contain the psychoactive compound muscamol which, when ingested, can induce hallucinations (including visions of flying), euphoria, and a ruddy complexion. Dried mushrooms are, apparently, most potent. However, it is reportedly safer to experience the affects Amanitas by drinking the urine of someone or something that has already consumed the fungus. Amanitas muscaria is a favorite Autumn food of reindeer.
Red and white
In the Tungusic tradition, it was the shaman’s role to work with the spirit of the Amanitas mushroom – the holy mushroom. When it came time to gather them, he would do so ceremoniously, dressing in long black boots and a red and white fur-trimmed coat. He carried a large collecting sack. Once he had a sufficient number of mushrooms, he returned and distributed them throughout the village. When the snows became deep, it was common to enter the family yurts (large teepee-like structures) through a hole in the ceiling – which also served as an exit for smoke. Imagine, under the influence of Amanitas, how this rather jolly, red-faced man might look descending through the chimney with a “Ho, ho, ho!” And envision the mushrooms then being dried by the fire with care – strung together like garlands or, possibly, hanging in garments, such as socks.
When the dried mushrooms were consumed during Winter Solstice ceremonies, would these peoples have seen the shaman flying in a sleigh led by reindeer? Perhaps. Stories of the various gods being associated with flying chariots date far back in human history – and various versions of the story claim the chariot was pulled by horses or, yes, reindeer. Thor was one such god. In the Old High German language, he was known as Donar. Interestingly, mythology also reveals links between the chariot and the Big Dipper – a star constellation which appears to circle the North Star over the course of a single night.
Flying reindeer and sleigh
All in a night
The North Star was considered sacred by indigenous people of the Northern Hemisphere. Because it seems to be a fixed point encircled by other stars, it was essentially their Axis Mundi – the center of the universe. To some of these peoples, the North Star adorned the top of the World Tree which connected the realms of the universe – underworld (roots), middle world (Earth), and upper world (cosmos - the realm of the gods and their chariots). The shaman was responsible for climbing the World Tree and setting the star in place.
Or, so the story goes.
Remember to leave the cookies and carrots on the hearth.
(c) 2014/Jamie K. Reaser
From "Winter: Reflections by Snowlight"
Published by Hiraeth Press (www.hiraethpress.com)
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