Elektroloristi 2/1997, 4. vuosikerta
Julkaisija: Suomen Kansantietouden Tutkijain Seura ry., Joensuu
ISSN 1237-8593, URL: http://cc.joensuu.fi/~loristi/2_97/sha297.html
E-mail: loristi@cc.joensuu.fi

Theme of "Swinging" in Shamanism and Folk Culture

V.E. Sharapov & D.A. Nesanelis

Studies of shamanism often discussed the idea that shamanistic notions and rituals (including the experience of ecstatic states) were typical not only for "classic centres" of this cultural phenomenon, but also for those traditions, in which one could not distinguish the special institution of "shaman". The cultural theme of "swinging" is the universal metaphor for real, as well as for conceptual motion - the way in space-time for many cultures. Semantic and typological analysis of this matter will probably confirm the above mentioned thesis.

The present article deals with the theme of "swinging", based on the analysis of folklore and ritual texts collected by the authors in the Komi Republic and Tumen region (Shurishkansk and Nefteugansk).(*)

One can propose that rituals connected with the swinging motion, as well as fortune-telling, based on the observation of magic pendulum, may be put in one row with some methods of shaman's ecstacy, namely feelings of sound, and visual or sensual rhythms.(1) We suppose that the materials of this article might be useful for discussing the theme of "rhythmic perception in traditional worldview", as well as the more wide theme "rhythm as a cultural and creational mechanism".

This analysis of "swinging" intends to focus on ethnographic materials of the so-called "big swing". We can notice several ideas in identifying the swinging ritual. Swings were built in the early spring, according to ancient tradition. The rituals are:

- ritual of purification (E.V. Anichkov)(2)
- magic ritual, connected with agricultural cult (D.K. Zelenin)(3)
- imitation of sexual act (L.J. Stermberg)(4)
- a form of traditional amusement (V.J. Propp)(5)
- ritual of symbolic banishment of evil forces (T.A. Bernstam)(6)
- symbol of cyclical time (N.D. Konakov)(7)

In the context of the above-mentioned ideas, it will be purposeful to analyze the ritual of swing construction, the symbolism of big swing construction as well as swing games.

The Easter swings in Komi villages were made on the "Light Sunday". The builders tried to get the swing ready before dawn in order to avoid anybody seeing the process of setting the swing up.

Large swing of similar construction as the North-Russian Easter swing was widely spread in the Komi region. Every support was made of 3-4 poles. The cross-beam was placed on the supports. Then a long board was hung on ropes or chains. One can see the same construction in the folklore of the Ishma Komi:

We get a swing going well.
The swing, which stands on eight straight poles.
We swing a cradle with four corners.(8)

We can pay attention here on the symbolism of numbers in the construction of the above-mentioned variant of the swing. If one support consists of three poles, the second one is made, as a rule, of four poles. Probably, this is a case of construction symbolism, because from an engineer's point of view, the support made of three poles is more stable for the swing construction. It is known that number 7 is the universal definition, describing the world creation and often compared with the World Tree in the mythologic and poetic notions of many peoples. The contour connection of seven points of swing supports is interpreted and read as a graphical image of the constellations of Large and Small Bears. The mythology of many Siberian and Northern peoples consider these constellations as "the World Axe" and "the way to Heaven".

Constructive materials also confirm the possibility that the construction of the big Easter swing was created by traditional notions of world creation. The poles for the swing were taken from a chum frame (Inta and Ishma Komi), or from a fence. Sometimes, the sitting-board was taken from the floor of a chum or a shed. After the end of Easter week all these materials were taken back. In the context of Easter rituals we can interprete these actions as symbolic "destruction-reconstruction" of the house, which in the traditional worldview is considered as the model of cosmos.(9)

The most archaic variant of the Easter swing was, probably, a swing with two living trees as supports. The semantic theme of "Two Trees" can be correlated with the images of "Gates" and "Arch", i.e. with the notions of "crossing" through some kind of a border. The theme of "two trees" in the Komi folklore is also the metaphor of the border between two worlds. For example, the hero of Komi legends Perja Bogatyr died when he extended a net between two trees growing on opposite banks of a river.(10)

The actions of Perja Bogatyr can be correlated with different versions of the construction ritual of "bridge" or "stairs", which are used by a shaman during the process of seance (kamlanie) for ascent to heaven. For example, a rope tightened between two ceremonial birches symbolizes the opposites and can be overcome only by a man who has gone out of human state.(11) As for Perja Bogatyr, he found his "last place" between two big pines. In this case we can remember the funeral constructions of Siberian and Northern peoples. These constructions were done on two supports made of living trees growing near. As S.V.Ivanov, the famous investigator of the Siberian peoples' fine art, observed, the theme of "two trees" is common also for images on a shaman's drums. The researcher treats this story as "cosmic trees", which "...begin in the Lower World (correspondingly, in the lower part of drum composition - V. S.; D. N.), then grow through all the three layers of the Universe...".(12)

In the past the participation in swing games was a ritual test for the youths of marriage age. As you may see, the children were forbidden to swing in the big Easter swing. It is interesting to notice, that a swing in the Komi folklore is described as a mortal test for an epic hero set out in search of a bride.(13)

One can interpret the theme of "the mortal swing test" as the culmination of "a dangerous journey to another world". It may be supposed that the Easter customs of "dangerous crossing" (in present case on the swing) may have their origins in the rite of initiation. We want to mention here an episode of the Komi wedding ritual. If the bride didn't come to her fiance on the first day of the wedding, all participants began to swing him on the hands until he was exhausted. The secret ritual of the youths - swing construction - and erotic swing games, most likely, are symbolic reproductions of world creation through establishing contacts between Heaven and Earth. M.Eliade saw the sense of initiation just in this action.(14) Primary time in cosmogonic myths is characterized by inseparability (or special nearness) of Earth and Heaven.

The theme of the separation of Earth and Heaven in one of the variants of Komi-Permian cosmogonic myths is clearly connected with the theme of "swinging": "the women swing the yoke on the shoulder and brush against the sky, which arises very high".

The dynamic construction of a traditional Easter swing can also look like a visual image of the above-mentioned cosmogonic story. An East-West oriented geometrically corrected construction of the traditional swing seems to underline the theme of space structure through acting its opposites.

The theme of "cosmogenesis" is central also for shaman ecstasy technique. E. Novik and Jm. Overlung, analyzing shaman songs, define the shaman's function not only as the "mediator", but also as "the creator of the world".(15) The likeness between seance and cosmogonic myths can be seen both in narratives and in visual (plastic art) metaphors: during seance in a dark closed room a shaman modelled the state of condensation- expansion of space and time through sound and plastic rhythm. At the same time he provoked the participants to experience the act of cosmic creation ("death and new birth"). Here we would like to pay attention to the visual sense of a man swaying on the swing. He feels the dynamics of the space surrounding him.

The symbolism of Komi funeral rituals also confirms the link between "swinging" and "death-rebirth". For example, the Komi of Pechora suspended the coffin horizontally to a strong pine pole ("pokojnik potsh") during the funeral procession. When the coffin was put to the bottom of the grave, it swung lightly on this pole. The Vychegda Komi had in the past a tradition to bury their dead babies in the cradle.

The theme of opposing death through swinging can be seen in some traditional children's games, for example, in the Komi folk game "Anjömakö", acting around a toy-pendulum. In Salym Khanty families, parents, making dolls of ceder branches, told their children different variants of the mythological story about the creation of man from a tree. When the story came to the episode of the First Man's revival, the doll was put on a wooden platform, which was slightly tilted. It was really the illusion of the doll's revival, when it began to move on the platform (Salym Khanty).

Taking into consideration the famous hypothesis about "deep parallel between cosmogonic and embrygonic ideas in mytho- poetical notions"(16), one may propose that the above-mentioned metaphoric row "cradle-swing-coffin" is caused by an association of the pendulum motion with the "death-revival" theme through cosmic renovation (i.e. some real features of life cycle projected to the story of cosmic myth).

It is known that the mytho-poetical image of space and time is based on perceptions of biological and physiological rhythms. Probably, some variants of traditional semantic based on direct feeling of the rhythm or on observation of "magic pendulum" can be explained as cases of violating the adequate perception of this space and time; i.e. transpersonal experience (the loss of "ego", "twinkling" between the first and the third person).

Divinations (to choose the name for a newborn, to define the name of the dead person who "worried" the living, to define the cause of a disease) among the Komi people were done with the help of a body cross, an icon and an axe, and a small pack with salt and hops, which were hung on a forefinger or on a bread spade near the stove opening.

The authors saw a similar ritual among the Khanty of Shurishkansky district of Tumen region. A shaman divined the whereabouts of lost cattle with a metal wand, which was tied to a string and held on a straight finger during seance. The lost cattle was searched in the direction pointed by the top of the metal wand.

The analysis of the operation plans of the above-mentioned divination variants shows that different things can be used as a magic pendulum. In this case, violation of "the nonstable balance" of the suspended article is important. This effect, probably, was taken as the moment of establishing the contact with the other world. In his book "The Permians" I.N.Smirnov wrote about divination rites in significant detail: "...the participants of divination, who saw the pendulum, came to a special state"(17).

We may comment it as follows: the outside rhythm was rising to a level of significance and influenced the psychological state of the divination participants. As it was mentioned above, some methods of shaman ecstasy technique are based on perception of outside rhythm (sound or visual).

The famous mathematician and philosopher V.V.Nalimov, based on experimental results achieved in the Research Laboratory of Abnormal Phenomena (the University of Princeton) worked out the hypothesis that the human consiousness has the semantic analogy of a physical pendulum (the latter looks like a physical metaphor of brain or mind). Co-operation of "inner" and "outer" rhythms was defined by the scientist as "coming to continuous stream of images".(18)

One of the variants of the swing games of the Komi people collected by the authors on the Vym and Middle Pechora regions can be correlated with divination operating plans. Girls had to say the name of their supposed husbands-to-be at the moment of the maximum swinging motion on the Easter swing, otherwise they could not go away from the swing.

In all these examples outer rhythm not only actualizes the notions of overcoming the space and time borders, but also stipulates the contents of information from the other world. Therefore, the theme of "swinging" in the traditional worldview can be seen as one of the mechanisms of overcoming fatal "indefinition" and "unprediction".

The "swinging" can also be defined as "the instrument of flexible modelling" in the description of the mytho-poetical notions of the dynamic aspects of cosmo- and sociogenesis. The traditional rituals, operating plans of which are built on "swing" feelings can clearly be compared with some methods of shaman ecstasy technique, which depend on psycho-physiological peculiarity of the human perception of rhythm.


* The authors consider it as a pleasant opportunity to express their thanks to professor Anna-Leena Siikala from Helsinki University, who led the field investigations on above-mentioned theme in Shurishkarsky district of Tumen region in August 1994.

1. Siikala, A.-L., The Siberian shaman's technique of ecstasy // Siikala A.L. and Hoppal M. Studies on shamanism. Ethnologica Uralica. Helsinki-Budapest, 1992, p.28
2. Anichkov, E.V., Vesennaya obrjadovaya pesnya na Zapade i u slavyan. T. LXXIY. S.-Peterburg, 1903.
3. Zelenin, D.K., Vostochnoslavyanskaya etnografija. Moskva, 1991, s.380.
4. Shternberg, L.J. , Pervobitnaya religiya v svete etnografii. 1936, s. 446.
5. Propp, V.J., Russkie agrarnye prazdniki. Leningrad, 1963, s. 137.
6. Bernshtam, T.A., Tradicionnye prazdnichnye kalendari v Pomorye vo vtoroj polovine XIX- nachale XX vekov // Etnograficheskie issledovaniya Severo-Zapada SSSR. Leningrad, 1977, s. 92-93.
7. Konakov, N.D., Ot Svjatok do Sochelnika. Komi tradicionnye kalendarnye obrjadi. Syktyvkar. 1993, s. 59.
8. Komi narodnie pesni. Vip.2. Izma i Pechora. Syktyvkar, 1968,
s. 54.
9. Bajburin, A.K., Zilizhe v obryadah i predstavleniyah vostochnyh slavyan. Leningrad, 1983.
10. Ozegova, M.N., Komi-permjatskie predaniya o Kudim-Oshe i Pere-Bogatire. Perm, 1971. s. 71-72.
11. Eliade, M., Kosmos i istoriya. Moskva, 1989, s. 148 -149.
12. Ivanov, S.V., K voprosu o znachenii izobrazenii na starinnih predmetah kulta u narodov Sajano- Altajskogo nagorja // Sbornic Muzej antropologii i etnografii. Moskva, 1955. Æ. XYI, s. 191-192.
13. Komi epicheskaya poeziya. Leningrad, 1991, s. 115.
14. Eliade, M., Kosmos i istoriya. Moskva, 1989, s. 188.
15. Novic, E.C., Obrjad i folklor v sibirskom shamanizme. Moskva, 1984, s. 99;Joanna Overing The shaman as a maker of worlds: Nelson Goodman in the Amason // Man, m. 25, n. 4. December 1990, p. 610-612.
16. Kejper, F.B.J., Trudi po vedijskoj mifologii. Moskva, 1986. s.125-136; Toporov, V.N. O rituale. Vvedenie v problematiku // Arhaicheskij ritual v folklornih i ranneliteraturnyh pamyatnikah. Moskva, 1988, s. 44.
17. Smirnov, I.N., Permjki. Istorico-etnograficheskij ocherk. Izvestiya obzestva antropologii, istorii i etnografii. Kazan, 1891. Æ. IX. Vip. 2, s. 287.
18. Nalimov, V.V., V poiskah inyh smyslov. Moskva, 1993, s. 43-46.

V.E. Sharapov & D.A. Nesanelis
Syktyvkar, Russia