Ritual and Shamanism
Research Projects and Fieldwork
Archival, Circumpolar North
Central to the Alaskan Eskimo theatre tradition were the elders and the angatkok. The elders were the holders and conveyers of tradition in every aspect of Eskimo life. It was the elders that kept their orally transmitted theatre tradition alive; it was a tradition that could lead back several centuries. From generation to generation performance stories, songs, dances, acting, props, costumes and mask traditions were passed on with adjustments and evolutions taking place over time.
In most theatre performances the elders worked in conjunction with the angatkok, the shaman, the healer, the medicine man or woman, the keeper of the community's spiritual well-being. The angatkok was variously chosen, trained or called into his or her position because of special expressed attributes, which generally included the ability of spiritual vision. The calling of the angatkok was a gift, something that came to a person naturally or something a person sought to obtain and to develop because with it came power and responsibility: a responsibility to the very survival of the community and a power to effect physical and spiritual well-being. The angatkok was responsible for improving the weather, healing the sick, procuring game, foretelling the future, contending with evil spirits. All of the angatkok's activities were performed in public and with the community's interaction, for the role of the angatkok was, at its core, that of a performance artist. The performance of the angatkok reassured the community by demonstrating that there was indeed interaction between the human and spirit world and that decisive action was being taken. To the community, the angatkok's performance, trance, dance, vocalizations or ritual, was a bridge to a mysterious and ineffable world. Like the secular theatre artist of the Western tradition, the angatkok gave form and feeling to the intangible ideas and spirits that surround and live with the community.
!Xuu and Khwe Bushmen, Kalahari Desert
As she spoke Mrs. Jong became younger, almost child-like, her face and shoulders moving with dance rhythms only she heard; occasionally she shuddered with some unseen touch. Her vocal patterns fell into the patterns of a chant as we all watched with curiosity, fascination, and anticipation. Chang Chong-il slept contentedly in her grandmother’s lap. Mrs. Jong’s two lady friends nodded with affirmation, swaying and rocking as if they, too, felt the spirits near. Mrs. Jong’s low singing increased in volume to encourage the spirits to enter the room. Her body shuttered as if suddenly possessed. Concerned, her son and daughter came near and watched their mother speak in the dialect of the spirits.
Then Mrs. Jong stopped as suddenly as she had started, looking at us as if someone just startled into wakefulness, wondering why people were staring at her.
She lit a cigarette, “The spirits like to smoke,” she laughed. “The spirits are good to me, they protect me when I am on the knives. So I smoke to please them.”
from A World Away
When we first arrived I had walked the entire perimeter of Izbekhov’s compound, thinking I had seen everything. I hadn’t, and was caught by surprise when Izbekhov led us into a grove containing his magnificent shaman's tree. The tree was stripped of its bark, carved and without leaves, its upper branches reaching like fingers on a hand reaching skyward as if alien antenna. Affixed to its central pole was a milchmare skull. At its base, to about seven feet off the ground, were several small, crudely carved totem spirits, representing ancestors, helping, and tutelary spirits. In the cracks, grooves and grain of the tree were stuffed coins and folded currency, offerings to the spirits. Extending from the tree on weathered diagonal log, were perched, in line as if ready to take flight, nine bird carvings. Each carving was unique, each a different kind of bird and a different size. Each bird carving, going from largest to smallest represented another level of his advancement as a shaman. They signified, and were what remained, of Izbekhov’s great Shamanic powers. Through his frailty he strained to tell us, in detail, about each of the bird figures. He said it was important we knew.
from Diary of Siberia