Spirit Voices is a rare look at various North Asian shamanic traditions. Author David Shi felt pulled to follow the shamanic path of his Manchu ancestors but being an American, he didn't have easy access. His personal journey took him to various places in North Asia. If you find yourself also called to study these traditions but stymied because of language barriers and distance, Spirit Voices introduces the shamanism from Siberia, Tuva, Mongolia and down into Manchuria (China). This book won't turn you into a shaman or give you ceremonies to perform, as these are passed on from teacher to student. What it does do is educate seekers on the beliefs, history, and common practices and differences between neighboring cultures.
The author is hoping to become initiated into a Manchu shamanic practice based on his ancestral line but has not been able to so far. His dreams have led him to study the shamanism of neighboring cultures and so he has been introduced to the practices of shamans in Mongolia, Siberia and other parts of China. Shi discusses that if your ancestors were at war previously with another culture, it can be detrimental to initiate into these other traditions and for this reason he has not. I appreciate that he's direct about his experience and does not claim to be an expert but a seeker. The book has a decent bibliography showing Shi has studied antrhopological papers. He discusses the possible pitfalls of these reports. For instance, in one culture, demons are not discussed with outsiders and may appear to be non-existent when in fact they are a cultural secret.
Shi talks about the issues that occur when shamanism is taken out of context as is the case with Western core shamanism, and how this has changed the Western view of shamanism. There is a substantial difference in use of journey work between Western core shamanism and North Asian practice. North Asian shamans are more likely to use divination instead of journey work to get answers. They are also more likely to participate in possession by spirits than in journeying. The Ulchi and Amur even have half-shamans or diviners who only have the skill to divine and are not initiated to do other shamanic work. The discussion on shamans, otoshis, midwives, blacksmiths and bonesetters demonstrate that shamanism has permeated these cultures in ways that westerners may not anticipate.
None of these cultures have existed in a vacuum and there is a tremendous amount of influence both with the neighbors and from conquering peoples. The historical context is useful in understanding why things are done as they are. The influence of Tengerism and Buddhism has been substantial in some areas and led to classes of shamans such as the Buryat white, black and yellow shamans and the Manchurian domestic and wild shamans. The culltural mixing over time has resulted in differences in the deities and spirits used in shamanic work. These may include ancestral shamanic spirits, land and animal spirits, and sometimes Chinese or Buddhist deities. Even the astrology can be different depending on whether it's Tibetan or Chinese astrology.
A list of the most common mythological deities from the Evenk, Yakut, Mongolians and Manchu, details which culture has these deities and describes what the deities are known for. A general cosmology introduces the concepts of the tripartite soul and the Upper, Middle and Lower worlds. Each culture has a variation on how they see these worlds and this is explained. Turkic shamanism is also discussed. The Turkic peoples are widespread, not just in the area of Turkey and historically there is a connection with Mongolia. The author shares his opinion of the current Turkish nationalist movement's use of Mongolian culture. Readers may or may not agree. Mostly the author sticks to the facts and when he doesn't it is clear that this is his opinion.
Spirit Voices is an enjoyable introduction into several North Asian shamanic traditions. The book strikes the right balance between academic information and readability for the general public. There's very little published in English on these topics outside of academic journals so this book is highly recommended for anyone seeking English language sources that are informative, interesting and understandable.
~review by Larissa Carlson
Author: David Shi
Weiser Books, 2023
250 pages, $18.95