How to deal with old religion – 1

Fugitive shaman chased by a photographer

To Soviet anthropologists, shamans had to be either insane or conscious frauds. With this assumption they set out to study them.

And what are our assumptions? Aren’t they uncomfortably alike? It’s troubled waters for your average rationalist who’s sworn, on heavy forfeits, not to demean the people she writes about – that’s me.

Me and where I start from, my axiom and vow: These people were as intelligent as you and I. Do not dumb them down. Because dumbing-down is oh so easily done in the area of old or obsolete religion, but remains an error and an insult and they ought to haunt you for it. Science can tell you brains haven’t evolved since the 13th century. Don’t just pay lip service to that, implement it in every sentence you write about them, or may they blow rude noises at you.

I have to assume the opposite of a Soviet scientist – mostly. Insanity has traits in common, you might say, and can give clues. Fraud? Shamans were aware of an audience, and a few tricks up one’s sleeve won’t go amiss: I’ve seen that cheerily admitted by shamans who take their real work very seriously. There are levels. It was always hard to get a shaman to give an ‘authentic performance’ in front of a scientific observer. When observation proved impossible to ignore a shaman might have to act, and overact.

Putting on the spooky

You’ve never met a more determined set of religion-bashers, believe me, than Soviet-era anthropologists, whose reports are a big percentage of what we have on still-living, still-functioning shamans, before the shop closed down (it’s open again, sort of). A thing they mightn’t have expected – and we mightn’t either – is the critical spirit that pertained. Shamans were used to an audience, and a sceptical one. That audience – that clientele – is on the alert for tricks, and familiar with shamanry; the scientists found them far from dupes, ready to believe whatever was thrown at them. They had stern tests for their shamans, and if they weren’t bamboozled they weren’t impressed. It’s when the shamans managed to flummox this audience that the scientists too scratch their heads.

The anthropologists have to record instances they can’t explain. It can be stunts with knives and fire, but often it’s knowledge: shamans earn a hard-earnt trust with pieces of knowledge – maybe trivial, maybe irrelevant to the case in hand – and though the anthropologists impute to them an espionage of the class they have back home, they’re left with unexplainables.

Watch what you say about me

That’s why I put an unexplainable into my story. Because if I didn’t, I’d be false. Shamanship was such an art a Soviet scientist can’t see to the bottom of it: how the heck would I? I’m not without a partial theory on how my shaman knows what she knows, but if I presented my shamans as fully transparent to you and me, I’d be untrue – and unjust – to historic shamans. My aim is to be true to life. Me pretend to understand a shaman? No, that’s not true to life.

As for shamans’ insanity… I’ll leave that for another post. Maybe Jamuqa can guest-post on that, being loopy as a Merqot lasso.

[Jamuqa’s voice] If that’s an attempt to stir me up into a guest-ghost-post, try harder.

Jamuqa, that’s about as dirty a thing as I can say to you.

I noticed. What’s with that?

You’ve infected me.

Our first shaman clutches his drum against intrusion. These photographs are telling, aren’t they?













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Tomb masks from the Kingdom of Qatay

a similar gold mask-brushedEurope’s old name for China, Cathay, comes in fact from a northern neighbour and rival of China’s, Qatay or Khitai (or half a dozen transcriptions) between Great Khingan (Xingan) Mountains and the sea, a horse people on the easternmost steppe.

They remained a horse people, after they acquired a great Chinese population and ran a dual government – Chinese-style for the Chinese, tribal-style for the tribals – and took on dual nomenclature. In Chinese they were the Liao Dynasty, with dates 907-1125 CE.

These are their funerary masks. About which we know no more than we can see. We don’t know whether the masks are shamanist in inspiration or Buddhist – they were ardent Buddhists; but they must have learnt to entomb their dead from China? Before their Imperial Period they left their dead in trees on holy mountains, and after three years gathered the bones to burn and bury: along the lines of other shamanists.

Liao funerary 2But their practices are unique, and I am happy to say, they created their own from these elements. These face masks, with the individual’s features; and often a wire mesh wrapping the corpse – in aid of? Our guesses are merely guesses (vague waffle about shamanism). I hope to stumble on indirect evidence, a clue; then I can put them in my novel.

The mesh is silver or gold wire, the masks gilt bronze or silvered copper. Ears have ornamental squiggles or rings or flap. The expression tends to be serene, but features aren’t idealised. I’ll just note that Mongols, in their Imperial Period, as art patrons, encouraged a surge of portraiture. People’s faces were their idea of art, and Mongols are cousin to Qatat.512px-LiaoMask10-12thcentury

It’s a huge thing when a culture changes its burial practices, from a tribal style (the trees) to a civilized style (tombs learnt from the Chinese). I’ve read anthropology on equivalent cases, with a close-up on people’s feelings. If that’s what happened here; the old steppe, of course, had great burials and treasure in tombs. It’s easy to over-emphasise the China influence.

silvered copper




The woman’s face against black I must give you a link to. Here you can hover and see her enlarged. She’s worth it. And here see the above fellow against red, in zoom: he’s magnificent work that way.


I’ll leave you with an odd few more: first, the most tranquil beauty, for me; second, a none-too-handsome royal woman – with her eyes open.
Empires Beyond cover cut




silver death maskLiao mask blue face cut











death mask silverDeath_Mask






Liao mask with wire







Additional: see this site, TibetArchaeology, on The golden funerary masks of the Himalaya. I am also collecting more specimens on my Pinterest board.

about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

The Kyrgyz epic Manas, online

OttomanHorseArcherIt ain’t easy to find your steppe epic in English. So I alert you to a project to translate the epic Manas online. Here’s the link: The Kyrgyz Epic Manas, selections translated, introduced and annotated by Elmira Kocumkulkizil.

It’s the epic of a people – a little like the Shahnameh used to be, perhaps; it’s THE epic, people didn’t bother to make up others, they just added to Manas. In fact the Kyrgyz don’t have epic singers, they have manaschi: singers of Manas. They celebrated the poem’s 1000th anniversary a few years ago. Wiki contests that age, but Wiki can argue with the ‘new independent government of Kyrgyzstan’ and cultural pride. The version from which you find great swathes here is half a million lines: take the Iliad and the Odyssey together and times by twenty… or since the lines are short, yes Wiki, let’s say by ten. It’s oral epic, written down and saved in sixty versions from the last of the oral poets alive, who in the tradition of their art have each an original rendition. The art is alive in Kyrgyzstan, just not exclusively oral. That changes things.

horse-head fiddles

horse-head fiddles

W. Barthold, of the wonderful book Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion, called it an absurd gallimaufry of pseudo-history. That’s the sound of a frustrated historian; fast and loose is the least of Turk epic’s attitude to history, quite as bad as Homer and the Trojan War. Nora Chadwick, my fave person on steppe epic, thinks this the peak of the art: The Kirghiz were said to specialize in epic poetry almost to the exclusion of saga and lyric, and to pay especial regard to finished and polished diction… An individual feature of the poetry of the Kirghiz, and one which shows the advanced character of the tradition, is its tendency to fall into cycles. She means, Manas is a cycle rather than a single poem, with shifts to different central figures. Thus the neverending story.

Go explore.

Women, Barbarians and the Dread Interpretation

I think the person in the street knows by now, women were better off in barbarian societies. That’s a blanket statement I can conscientiously make. I have even thought, on my travels in the past, we aren’t the most feminist society that has ever been. I’m hesitant there, but I’d say, don’t make that assumption. If I were a woman in the Middle Ages, I’d want to be either Norse or from the steppe. So I have a laugh when I see macho projections onto Vikings or steppe hordes (that isn’t true: I don’t have a laugh, I have a cry).

It’s risky to let scholars intervene between you and the source material. They can skew your perceptions. In the Nibelungenlied (German, circa 1200), Brunhild warns her suitors: “He will have to cast the weight, follow through with a leap, and then throw the javelin with me. Do not be too hasty – you may well lose your lives and your reputations here,” said the charming woman. “Consider it very closely.”  And Hatto footnotes, There is always a touch of burlesque when Brunhild goes into action. I like you, A.T. Hatto; you translated a steppe epic, bless you; but why is this burlesque? Brunhild’s a riot, I grant you, but the butt of the burlesque is Gunther. The Nibelungenlied can be (mis)taken for misogynist. Its society, yes, which hides a girl away; but distinguish from that the author’s stance. Are we happy when Brunhild is robbed of her vast strength and Gunther manages to sleep with his wife? He can scarcely deserve her less. On his second attempt at a wedding night Hatto apologises for the poet, who as a child of his age, is shocked by her refusal to consummate the marriage. Is he? He’s thrown in a conservative sentence – at face value – but that has been a strategy of poets since. Does the story support a husband’s right? Doesn’t the story ask questions?

While we’re on this folklore motif – the girl who challenges her suitors to trials of strength – let’s visit Qaidu’s daughter Qutulun, over in Turkestan and eighty years after the Nibelungenlied was written: she put the folktale into practice. I love it when people decide to live out fiction. She had the wherewithal, and beat her suitors at wrestling. She didn’t have them killed, but only took a forfeit of horses.

Four centuries later – we’re in the 1650s now – a Dutch embassy to China, shortly after the Qing conquest, leaves us sketches of your typical northern woman, in contrast to Han Chinese. The women from the north strode around on big feet, with unpainted faces, while the Chinese were caked in make-up and didn’t walk anywhere on their lotus-feet. The Europeans seem amused and oddly charmed to meet these Tartar ladies – forward, free and easy, very hospitable – although the ambassador’s eyes might have spun when she unbuttoned him. Here are two encounters:

The Governor was by birth a Tartar, but understood not the Chinese language, therefore his sons were Interpreters. His Wife, a proper and comely Dame, spoke more than her husband, and was strangely inquisitive about Holland; she was not dismayed at our strange Arms, but like a bold Virago drew out our Swords, and discharged our Pistols, which much delighted her.

As we were riding out one day to take the air, we passed by the gate of the Old Imperial Court, where sat a great Tartar Lady, with her servants waiting upon her, about forty years of Age: She very civilly sent to our Interpreter to invite the Ambassadors into her House; Jacob de Keyzer hereupon alighted, and the Lady then made towards him: She was very debonair and free, looked upon our Swords, and much admired their bending without breaking: She took the Ambassador’s Hat, and put it on her own Head, and unbutton’d his Doublet almost down to the Waist: Afterwards she led the way into the house and desired him to follow… in her Apartment we found her standing with her Daughter about half her age, waiting our coming, in great state…. They set before us some of their Sweet-meats, much entreating us to Eat, excusing the meanness of their Entertainment, her husband being absent. 

Case study: were the women heads-of-state in Qara Khitai regents or khans? Once China had a woman emperor, and only one historian dares to call her that. Christopher I. Beckwith explains: The sources indicate she was called ‘Emperor’ (Chinese, ti) during her reign. Although she is better known by her posthumous name, Empress Wu Tse-t’ien, I prefer to follow her own intentions and also to give her credit for her accomplishments; thus I call her ‘Emperor Wu’.  It’s a similar tale in Qara Khitai (or Western Liao; Central Asia, dates 1141-1218) where Michal Biran is the first to acknowledge the women khans for what they were: Two out of the five Gurkhans were women… According to the Liao shi [Chinese source], the Qara Khitai empresses were merely regents, who reigned only temporarily, until their male children or nephews reached majority. Both Qara Khitai empresses, however, were specifically nominated for the post by their predecessors… Muslim sources suggest that the empress held unlimited authority in her realm, as is also implied by her titles… In fact, it is clear that the empresses functioned as rulers in their own right. They had their own reign titles, a feature that no Liao (or Chinese) regent ever had; they bore the titles Gurkhan [Universal Khan] and Dashi; and they certainly determined the empire’s internal and external policy.

On matters of sexual violence (a subject I have to research; my God, wish me luck or grant me strength), I was deeply struck, early in my education, by the sheer enlightenment found in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and yes, the kindness. Forget her Prologue, read her Tale. At eighteen or twenty I thought, this is so much more civilized than what I hear in the world today.


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Talking Horses

“Throughout Turkic literature, human and superhuman faculties are attributed to horses. Not only are these generally gifted with human speech and reason, but they are superior morally and intellectually to the heroes themselves.” – Chadwick’s Oral Epics of Central Asia.

In steppe art, too, the horses talk. Take this bloke:

Mongol_cavalry - Persian Wcut horse headHe’s being galloped into the fray – a sad affray of Mongols against Mongols. And the people are lusty about it, but the horse is going, yes, this seems like a bloody great idea.

His eyes are set at the front of his head. Unanatomical, and done for effect: that’s so he can make eye-contact with us, and comment on the scene. This horse is definitely smarter than the humans.

Portrait with Horse is one of the commonest subjects in steppe art, and often the horse has more expression than its person. Which happens in the Secret History: Horses always have their features documented when they trot into the story, unlike the people on them; we’re told that Tchingis got his fatal injury in a fall from a red-earth roan, but for Tchingis’ own looks we have to consult Chinese travel journals and Persian war reports.

Here’s a Jurchen hunter (he’s squinting at his arrow) and a sheepish sort of horse, with his eyes on us again.Jurchen_man W











I guess your average nomad saw more horse faces than human, daily, outside the family ger.

I thought I was being clever in the quarrel between Temujin and Jamuqa, late in book one: Jamuqa’s mare catches his mood and starts to give his body language for him, as Jamuqa becomes too deeply agitated to tell us how he’s feeling – even in pov – he can’t think about himself and only notices the antics of his mare. But no, I’m a rank amateur in use-of-a-horse. I’ll have to do much more with my horses in book three.