26th July 2021

Book in Focus

Shamanic Dialogues with the Invisible Dark in Tuva, Siberia

The Cursed Lives

By Konstantinos Zorbas

The burgeoning scholarship on shamanism and religious revivals in the autonomous polities of the Russian Federation has highlighted the role that healing rituals and customs of ancestor veneration play in reconstructing ethnic identity and, focusing on Tuva, in rekindling cultural nationalism (a starting point being the visit of the Dalai Lama to the newly founded Republic of Tuva in 1992)[1]. The territory of “Tuva” (spelled as Tyva in the native language) is known within—and well beyond—Russia, owing to news reports and (significantly) scholarly accounts of the official restoration of Tibetan Buddhism and indigenous shamanism after decades of anti-religious campaigns and Soviet socialist rule[2].

With the publication of Shamanic Dialogues with the Invisible Dark in Tuva, Siberia: The Cursed Lives, we have the first in-depth ethnography of the deeper (or “invisible”) social operations and ramifications of an underlying “shamanic complex” of curses and counter-cursing remedies—to use the author’s terminology for these phenomena. From the outset, this concern with shamanic “effects” invisible to non-believing official agencies yields an ambitious project of documenting the centrality of shamanic healers and killers to a complex operation of occult and physical violence, which involves ethnic Tuvans and Russians alike. The author’s primary data draw on intensive fieldwork on consultations between shamans and clients (afflicted with curses and dangerous “substances” attributed to their enemies) in a professional association of Shamans (a state-sanctioned religious organization) in Kyzyl, the capital city of Tuva in Southern Siberia. As it emerges, this field project (which remains covert and carefully premeditated throughout the author’s fieldwork) examines counter-cursing practices enshrouded in a “veil of secrecy”[3]. Interestingly, the author’s approach to this methodological challenge is to treat secrecy and the clients’ resistance to his ethnographic forays into interpersonal troubles as a fact, which is suggestive of a nationwide trend of social tensions mediated by “occult” agencies.

In this sense, the author offers striking insights into a grassroots logic for avenging offences via a shamanic redress, which, as it is argued throughout the book, bears resemblances to drastic and deadly methods of retaliation. A great part of this analysis is devoted to exploring the relevance of Obeyesekere’s ground-breaking study of sorcery and planned murder (in Sri Lanka) for a sample of anti-cursing remedies involving a shamanic leader and his clients. Focusing on this specialist, the author constructs his “psychobiography”, involving a personal narrative of shamanic power being revealed through his ancestors’ killing by the Soviets, as well as through his experiences and feats of supernatural revenge. This “dialogue” between a shaman’s caseload of individuals seeking to redress perceived injustices (or to achieve legitimate goals) and the Sri Lankan pattern of retaliatory sorcery (as a functional alternative to premeditated homicide) leads to several intriguing outcomes regarding these clients’ motives for soliciting shamans as healers or supernatural assassins. Thus, in opting for the latter redress, which is viewed as an instrumental and pragmatic counter-offensive, the clients rationally aim to achieve justice with minimal risks and inconveniences (associated with the agencies of law enforcement). Clear evidence of this justification for shamanic counter-sorcery emerges from several case materials, where the clients’ tense interaction with their enemies and offenders is contained by traditional loyalties, corporate economic interests, or even Soviet-style hierarchical cooperativeness.

Notably, the title of the book is deliberately provocative, since its meanings are disclosed as the reader progressively delves into the biographies and experiences of transformation shared between a shamanic healer/killer and his clients. A complete picture of this theme, which comprises the “cursed lives” of dead shamanic ancestors and the post-socialist lives of curse-afflicted people, emerges in the Epilogue. The reader will learn about a crucial passage in this shaman’s open-ended initiatory process: an existential crisis occurring in the form of a shamanic multi-dialogue in a dream and a frenetic visitation by a disgruntled spectre from the past, associated with his childhood. Central to the book’s presentation are verbatim transcriptions of dialogues between this shamanic specialist, his clients, and his dead shamanic ancestors, who relive their disrupted or unfulfilled vocations through their revivalist successor’s rituals of incarnation and spirit-possession. In this context, the intriguing title and sub-title are intended to convey the overarching structure, which consists in two parallel competitive arguments about “shamanism”, unfolding throughout the Introduction and the five chapters of the book. This division is consistent with contemporary anthropological theories of the plurality of shamanism(s)[4]. Nonetheless, in the present context, this dualism also signifies vernacular concepts of the “multiplication” or “doubling” of shamanic kinds of impersonation in post-Soviet Tuva.

Whereas, in the past, a shaman’s trance ritual (kamlaniye) involved a dialogue between various personae, which took possession of the shaman, and the community[5], the post-socialist resurgence of neo-shamans is synonymous with a proliferation of curses, as well as with popular abuses of “shamanic power” for expropriating a person’s “identity parts” and legal property. This dangerous “doubling” of shamanism emerges from informants’ accounts about “stolen identity parts”, including a fascinating case of a doctor’s testimony about a shamanic ritual of “soul transplantation” regarding a terminally ill patient. The author proposes a new perception of shamanism as a “competitive ontological government”, and expands a recent analysis on the “policing of personhood”[6]. This new argument is based on analogies between shamanic sorcery and intellectual property theft and on accounts about the illicit workings of quasi-shamanic “entrepreneurs of the self”. This is succinctly rendered in the following passage by the author:

“Beneath the façade of religious revitalization in Kyzyl, a competitive government of shamanic specialists is redrawing the ontological divide between forensics or criminology and supernatural violence (the latter constituting a “cultural crime”, which is unsanctioned by the law” (p. 33).

This is the first social anthropological monograph to examine an undocumented aspect of shamanic religion in a remote Siberian territory. Although the Republic of Tuva is generally known through newsletters and reports regarding the revival of traditions and religions since the early 1990s, no previous research has probed the nature and function of the shamanic complex in this region (and perhaps in Siberia more broadly). This book originated in the author’s doctoral thesis on shamanic healing and an epidemic of curse afflictions in Kyzyl. However, it substantially differs from this original thesis since it uses a new scholarly apparatus (as well as previously unpublished ethnographic data) showing the omnipresence of this shamanic complex as a judicial agency concerned with the occult ramifications of legal disputes and competition for jobs and contests in the political arena. The book engages with Bailey’s seminal study of political competition as a game, which replicates antagonisms characteristic of elite criminal networks[7]. Far from representing “shamanism” as an exotic artefact of ethnic heritage, the book offers an unusual argument about shamans’ role as unofficial “ministers of justice” in a post-socialist society, where violence seems to be uncontrolled. In this sense, the case materials evince the proliferation of counter-cursing practices, to which ethnic Tuvans and Russians resort in order to meet new contexts of anxiety and “curse paranoia”.

In discussing an officially “invisible” revival of curses and dark “spectres of the past”, this book radically departs from studies of shamanic practices in adjacent regions of Siberia or Mongolia, which portray shamanism as a quest for disrupted or lost knowledge, or as a way of countering traumatic memories of political repression. The author’s discussion takes due account of several well-known studies of shamanism in post-socialist Mongolia, yet it offers alternative shamanic visions of loss and reparation through rituals. It shows how the cursed “spectres of the past” relive their shamanic lives in the context of consultations involving spirit-possession and supernatural retaliation in an association of Shamans in Kyzyl.   

{Fieldwork in Tuva was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, New York; dissertation fieldwork grant, March 2003}

[1] Marina Kenin-Lopsan, ‘H. H. The Dalai Lama Visits Tannu Tuva’. In Snow Lion Newsletter and Catalog, Volume 8, No. 1, Winter 1993. {H.H. the Dalai Lama Visits Tannu Tuva | Shambhala, retrieved on 26/6/2021}. 

[2] For instance: Lindquist, Galina. 2011. ‘Ethnic Identity and Religious Competition: Buddhism and Shamanism in South Siberia’. In Religion, Politics, and Globalization:  Anthropological Approaches, eds. Handelman, Don and Lindquist, Galina, pp. 69-90. Berghahn Books.  

[3] Obeyesekere, Gananath. 1975. ‘Sorcery, Premeditated Murder, and the Canalization of Aggression in Sri Lanka’. Ethnology 14 (1): 1-23. {phrase in quotation marks taken from this article}.  

[4] For instance, Piers Vitebsky, The Shaman: Voyages of the Soul – Trance, Ecstasy, and Healing from Siberia to the Amazon, 2001, Duncan Baird Publishers, New Edition.

[5] See Piers Vitebsky, Dialogues with the Dead: The Discussion of Mortality among the Sora of Eastern India, 1993, Cambridge University Press. 

[6] See Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John. The Truth about Crime: Sovereignty, Knowledge, Social Order, 2016, Chicago University Press. 

[7] See F.G. Bailey Stratagems and Spoils: A Social Anthropology of Politics, 1969, Wiley-Blackwell.  


“This is an outstanding ethnography on shamanism in Tuva. Crosslinking the study of shamanism in Siberia with the anthropology of African witchcraft and the occult, Zorbas sheds light on the “invisible dark” of post-socialist anomie.”
Ippei Shimamura
National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka; author of The Roots Seekers: Shamanism and Ethnicity among the Mongol Buryats

“An extraordinary insight into the darker side of shamanic practice. At a tumultuous moment in modern history, Zorbas shows us how shamans adapt older symbols and patterns of meaning to meet clients’ new anxieties and expectations.”
Piers Vitebsky
University of Cambridge and North-Eastern Federal University, Yakutsk, Russia; author of The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia

Shamanic Dialogues with the Invisible Dark in Tuva, Siberia: The Cursed Lives is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem