Woman’s Shaman Caftan

19th Century 

Irkutsk Region, Russia

This female shaman’s caftan with a breastplate (hamnar ton) belonged to a “big” shaman of the Tofalar people who inhabited the northern slopes of the eastern Sayan Mountains. It is an important cultural object.This caftan was the main element of a shaman’s ritual outfit. It is made of Manchurian deer skin (Ceruvus elaphus xanthopygus), with fur inside. The image of the ancestor-spirit of the female shaman plays the central part in its decoration. A skeleton is embroidered on the caftan with deer hair: the breastplate shows the breastbone and the ribs, the sleeves contain images of arm and hand bones, the back holds an embroidered image of the spine, the shoulder-blades and pelvis bones. Two round copper plates are attached to the upper part of the breastplate and symbolize the bosoms. By wearing such caftan, the female shaman “transformed” into a creature from a different world and absorbed the power of her ancestors. The whole surface of the caftan is richly decorated with pendants and ribbons, each of which has its own symbolic meaning. Together they symbolize the plumage of a bird and the skin of a deer, thus referring to the ancient concept of a shaman’s ritual dress based on the image of a creature uniting an animal and a bird: a deer or a bear and, most commonly, some swimming bird. In most northern Asian cultures, such images reflect the characters of the two main myths: about the “celestial hunt” and about the creation of the Universe. In the first myth, the deer symbolized the sun, and the bear was a chthonic animal that ran after the deer and devoured it at the end of the way. In the second myth, a bird extracts a handful of soil from the bottom of the initial world ocean, which grows to form solid soil. This is how the universal laws – the course of time and the origin of the world – were reflected in mythical and poetic images. Shamanism absorbed these cosmological and cosmogonical concepts and started a special mythological tradition. The deer, the bear and the bird became the main helper-spirits of a shaman who were embodied in his ritual outfit and who helped him reach all spheres of the Universe. The ancestor-spirit is a result of the anthropomorphization of archaic mythological creatures. However, the archaic zoomorphic images preserved in ritual costumes and defined their ancient cosmological origin.