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Tiger bells in Northeast Asia

S. M. Shirokogoroff

Sergei M. Shirokogoroff (1887 – 1939) was a Russian anthropologist, educated in France. He did much linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork in Northern China, Manchuria and South East Siberia. He is however best known for his studies on Siberian and Manchurian shamanism. He made detailed studies of the Tungus* culture and of Tungus shamanism in particular. Such was his fame in the region that the locals gave him the nickname 'The White Tungus'. Shirokogoroff came to the conclusion that shamanism among the Tungus and Manchu speaking ethnic groups of SE Siberia and Manchuria was a...

...relatively recent phenomenon which seems to have spread from the west to the east and from the south to the north. It includes many elements directly borrowed from Buddhism introduced among the peoples using the word
saman, by the Mongols, some predecessors of the Manchus, and Chinese.

Sergei M. Shirokogoroff
Photograph source: Wikipedia
In his study Sramana-Saman, etymology of the word Shaman** (published in 1924) Shirokogoroff dates the emergence of Tungus shamanism at the eleventh century. He has described the Tungus shaman complex in his study The psychomental complex of the Tungus shaman. It includes minute descriptions of several shaman costumes. From these descriptions it becomes clear that the most elaborate costumes are found with groups in the area of Northern Manchuria and South East Siberia, among them groups such as the Solon and Manjagir (considered to be subgroups of the Tungus), the Nanay, the Goldi (also called Nanai) and the northern Manchus (Numinchen, Kumarchen, a.o.). In fact, although these groups live in different countries and regions, the whole area, covering East Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, South east Siberia, and North east China (former Mancuria) can, and perhaps should be considered as one entity, in terms of cultural traits such as religion, in this case shamanism. Shirokogoroff considers the complex of shamanism as found among the groups in this area as the authentic and, in fact, only form of shamanism. According to him all other forms are not shamanism but variations of animism, ancestor worship, etc. performed by magicians, medicine men and women, and others.

The shaman costumes used in Northern Manchuria and South East Siberia are all decorated with many objects, among them mirrors and dozens of tiger bells. Oddly, Shirokogoroff did not distinguish the tiger bells from other crotal bells, calling them all ball-bells. However when we compare some of the costumes he describes, particularly those of the Tungus in Manchuria, with the costumes in Copenhagen and on some photographs (link 1, link 2 and below) we can be sure that most of the ball-bells in those costumes are tiger bells.

Photograph: sources unknown
Shaman's coat from the Tungus from Manchuria, note the mirrors and the ball-bells which are most likely tiger bells.
Sketch by S. M. Shirokogoroff
Right: costume of a Numinchen female shaman. Note the head cover with the antlers, the breast cover with cowry shells, the bronze mirrors (toli) and the many tiger bells; all essential elements of the shaman dress.

Before the forced decline of shamanism in the beginning of the 20th century there must have been many dozens, if not hundreds of these costumes in the region since every village and even family had its shaman. Over the centuries many of these costumes were treasured and passed on by old shamans to their successors. Most likely the use of bronze objects such as mirrors, masks and tiger bells also goes back to the 11th century, or even before that.

This dense presence of tiger bells, as demonstrated by the costume of the Solon from Inner Mongolia, with 61 tiger bells, is typical for the area covering East Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, SE Siberia and NE China (former Manchuria). In more remote areas the number of tiger bells on costumes is smaller. The groups that have tiger bells all belong to the Neo-Siberians. There is one exception: the Gilyak, neighbors of the Nanay. They are of Paleo-Siberian descent but migrated to Neo-Siberian territory and adopted much of their culture, including SE Siberian shamanism, the costume and the tiger bells. There are no other examples of Paleo-Siberians using tiger bells.

Manchu shamans used tiger bells sparingly. There are reports that tiger bells were part of the head dress but I have not seen any pictures of Manchurian shaman costumes with tiger bells.

The same is true for the Mongols living in the rest of Mongolia. Based on pictures in literature one must conclude that they too used (and use?) at best only several tiger bells on their costumes. It is however possible that this was not so in the centuries of the Mongol invasions when shamanism was the court religion of the Mongolian leaders, the Khans.

Shaman's costume from Mongolia, note the two tiger bells attached to the
head dress. Compare this costume with the costume from Darchad.
Photograph source unknown

Concluding: we can assume that the Tungus shaman complex was established in the 11th century, and that shortly after that the complex was fully developed and complete, including rituals and their attributes such as the costume and paraphernalia which were already present in the area such as tiger bells, bronze masks and bronze mirrors (toli).

*Instead of the name Tungus, nowadays the name Ewenk, or Ewenki, is often used.

**Unfortunately I could not get hold of the book so I have to rely on quotes from others.

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