Posted by R. John Howe on 09-11-2002 09:44 PM:

"Shamanism" As a Source for Us?

Dear folks –

Sophia has suggested in a thread here somewhere that we need to better acquaint ourselves with shamanism, that many in Central Asia practiced before the wave of Islam and, in truth, we hear frequent references to shamanistic influences in Turkmen designs, but I don’t recall a specific treatment of them by a scholar in this area.

It is pretty easy to find Internet summaries of what shamanism is purported to be in general terms. Here is one link:

There also appears to be a well-developed literature on shamanism in Central Asia, although I have no specific book to recommend:

A list of university experts on Central Asia, reveals that several specialize in the study of shamanism and shamanistic healing.

Indiana University, which has a formidable areas studies program that includes Central Asia, shows one specific course on shamanism:

There is some indication that in Central Asia, some shamans were women;

Does anyone have anything to contribute about shamanism among the Turkmen and especially anything in it that might suggest anything about the engsi?


R. John Howe

Posted by David R. E. Hunt on 09-12-2002 05:33 PM:

Dear R. John Howe and All- Not that taking a couple of classes makes me Napoleon Chagnon, but it is my understanding that belief systems evolved from the most fundamental Magic and Shamanism to complex organized belief systems such as Christianity and Islam , and that the more complex systems are elaborations and differientations of the more simplistic and primordial systems.In example, the Catholic Scapular is a talisman,a magical symbol or object, and as such relic or vestigal retention of a more primitive belief system. Such are the "Evil Eye" pendants and symbols which are so common in the Islamic world. Shamanism supposes the belief that supernatural beings and/or powers reside in both aminate(animals) and inanimate(wind,trees, rocks) and that through supplication or manipulation these beings/powers/forces can be influenced or even controlled. Hence the Shaman or Medicine Man. The concept of "the hair of the dog" is a manifestation of the power of talisman, and of course the "Evil Eye" talisman both drawn and as jewelry. Or rendered in woolen knotting as in rugs, for some symbols of Turkmen rugs have or had talismanic significance. Interestingly, trees often figure prominently in shamanism for any number of reasons, as the repositories of spirits.It is believed that cave paintings figured prominently in shamanistic or magical rituals, and those half man half animal creatures, with their internal organs depicted rather prominently( the symbolic significance of which escapes me), are Shamen. Hopefully this can help get you going in the right direction- Dave Hunt

Posted by Sophia Gates on 09-14-2002 10:04 PM:

Shamanism & Rugs

David,, I'd like to make a couple of comments.

From what I've studied (and felt, and experienced!) shamanism isn't a religion. It is not in conflict with religion but may exist alongside of religions or of belief systems.

A shaman is, in fact, a healer, who undertakes to heal illnesses both of body and of spirit, of individual or of tribe, by submitting him or herself, to various "battles", journeys, within or without the psyche. Practices vary from place to place but in most instances that I've encountered, rituals are employed to engage the spirit both of shaman and of patient.

Consciousness may have been raised within the shaman via ritual, ordeal or drugs. However, many if not most of the shamans I've studied do not use drugs during an actual ritual but rely instead upon consciously undertaking to unify their spirit with a healing path, which will guide their patient (or their tribe) to a better state of being.

The shaman and his tribe believe that the seat of human well-being lies in the psyche and that understanding its mechanisms and its interrelationship with the world will lead to health, balance and enlightenment. Shamans remain vigourously at work all over the planet, side by side with the practice of old religions - as in the traditional Navajo, many of whom are also Christian; likewise, in South America, where many tribespeople are Catholic; and in Asia, where followers and practioners are Islamic, Buddhist or Communist.

The cave paintings emphatically indicate a belief that man and animal are not separate, but one. Indeed, a Hopi term for "sorcerer" translates to "two-heart", meaning that the individual thus gifted shares the heart of man and animal, and thus can reason, paint, draw and dance with the skill of the human yet "see" with the instinctual cunning and excellence of antelope or lion.

Believing that modern religions are more complex or somehow have evolved from "simpler" systems is, I think, reflecting the fear priests of the "new" religions have of the old, as well as the belief that one's own religion is truer than another's.

It is true that priests, whose power derives from belief in THEIR version of events, frown upon the "old" - or other - religions. It is equally true that they have co-opted many old myths and symbols from other religions. Christianity, for example, is replete with examples taken wholesale from the Greek and Oriental mysteries. It is also true that shamans existed within animist cultures but as I've pointed out, they continue to work in "modern" cultures as well. And within my own experience, attempting to restore the balance within mind and body and between person and outside world is the essence of seeking and maintaining wellness.

Frankly, I am concerned that "modern", "sophisticated" people are not as sensitive and aware of the human psyche, of the power of the human mind to heal OR to destroy, on the one hand; and on the other take for granted that their system, their religions, are "more evolved" or better or more complex than the old ones. In my opinion, they aren't! Serious study of Navajo or Hopi religion, for example, will reveal a stunning degree of complexity as well as a deeply felt sense of oneness with the powers of the universe, with its manifestation in animals, plants, lighting and rainfall.

"Modern" and "sophisticated" people are destroying this planet at an alarming clip. We have invented weapons that would shame the Nordic wargods. Yet we laugh at the shamans and their patients, consider them shams, consider the people they work with primitive fools.

But I digress

The purpose of this thread, I think, was to try & introduce a discussion of shamanism into our salon about ensis.

Taking into account that the shamans were healers, who in some cases also acted as spirit guides for their tribes both on a psychological and a physical level, I think it's possible that some ensis reflect the presence of plants and animals that were important to Turkmen people. One writer who doesn't publish here anymore has proposed that mushrooms appear in some guls on chuvals, etc. I don't think I've seen them on ensis but eagle/butterflies and arrow/trees seem to proliferate on Yomud group pieces.

Finally, I think Sue's suggestion that the cross motif may represent a shifting milky way is certainly possible. I think it might also represent a quartering of the year into seasons and perhaps serve as a frame through which one can "see".

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-15-2002 06:40 AM:

Dear folks -

In the initial salon essay I referred to an indication by Jourdan in which tries to suggest some possible shamanistic meanings for the "hatchi" versions of the engsi design.

Here again is what he says:

"...This design can be said to reflect the idea of a cosmos with a tree at the centre of the earth, the latter "represented" by the design found in the lower elem panel. The four separate fields created by the cross-shaped composition…represent the cardinal points, the hook-like motifs, reminiscent of candelabra, within them representing the various spiritual levels though which the soul most pass…"

I am struck by the fact that no one, so far,has cited this passage in either agreement or disagreement.

Jourdan's suggestions seem transparent to me, excepting that it might be useful to point out that his "cardinal" points likely refer simply to "north, south, east and west." But beyond that his suggestions here about the meanings of this design seem clear.

So what do we think? Is his interpretation plausible? It's certainly very different from Sue's suggestion.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-15-2002 08:51 AM:

Hi People,

The four cardinal compass points and the four seasons come up from time to time, and are back for another visit.

Does anyone out there know whether the Turkmen divided the directions into four cardinal points? Two might have sufficed, for sunrise and sunset, for instance.

Does anyone out there know whether the Turkmen considered the year to have four seasons? They had two important events that were calendar related, the summer and winter migrations, so perhaps they only saw the year in terms of two seasons.

I raise these questions because I wonder whether we are simply imposing elements of our culture on the interpretation we make of theirs when we hypothesize that this or that motif or design or layout is a symbol for the four seasons or the four cardinal compass points.

An aside: Sophia mentions that some of us object strenuously to symbolic interpretations of motifs and designs. My objection is usually not to the notion that motifs and designs have (or had, at some point) symbolic significance. I object to the notions, often accompanying that one, that the person presenting it actually knows what the symbolic significance is.


Steve Price

Posted by Sophia Gates on 09-15-2002 01:29 PM:

Four Directions

OK, I think that Jordan's idea is quite plausible. The concept of levels of consciousness whether before or after leaving the body, or during a trance or ceremony, is encountered in many cultures and religions.

The four directions, however, can apply either either to the physical OR the metaphysical. Interestingly, some Native American groups refer to SIX directions, up and down being the additional two.

Unfortunately, I don't think we know enough about the Turkmen to conjecture much further. So much literature has concentrated on their military actions, their horses, their material culture, their evolution in Thisworld - we don't know enough about their spiritual concerns, the "little things" that reveal so much. And unfortunately, I think it might be too late...

It's frustrating! Added to that is the fact that so far, not much has been said about the spiritual concerns of the people who made the rugs - the women! The Turkmen writer of whom I spoke earlier, who no longer posts here, made a great point of suggesting that the designs for rugs may/would have been drawn up in the sand by shamans (male) for the women to weave.


It was a creative idea. But - in the first place, there are many female shamans working in Central Asia even to this day. Secondly, there's no reason why shamans couldn't weave. Thirdly, we don't know if or how these designs would have been translated into wool. Navajo rugs and shamanic sandpaintings exist in different worlds. The sandpaintings are sacred and although their motifs are sometimes woven, the resulting rugs are not. They may be SYMBOLIC but they are not apotropaic. In other words, a sandpainting design might be copied but it has no particular power beyond that of its beauty and perhaps, its ability to remind the viewer of otherworld magic.

Certain Moroccan weavings, however, especially women's shawls and blankets and I would assume, but don't know for sure, the henna-painted cloths used by healers, are indeed apotropaic. That is to say, they contain actual magic and their very presence confers blessings upon the wearer. This is different from saying that they are "symbolic", ie, their motifs represent something.

In sum, we need to find out more about these "little things", these extra-religious, daily concerns of the Turkmen people, especially the weavers, before we can be at all certain of what the engsis are or mean in the metaphysical sense. For now, I'm happy that they are so beautiful, and that the ones I'm blessed to live with seem to convey a great sense of time and space within their borders. They seem to punch holes right through the walls of my apartment.

Posted by Steve Price on 09-15-2002 01:49 PM:

Hi Sophia,

I, too, think Jourdan's suggestion is plausible, and as long as it doesn't get presented as much more than plausible without much more information than we've seen, I have no problem with it at all. It's when people start pushing such things as proven, especially when the "proof" consists of little other than some personal intuition, that I object.


Steve Price

Posted by David R.E. Hunt on 09-15-2002 11:07 PM:

Dear R.J.Howe and All- I pulled my copy of U. Jourdan's Turkoman from the bookshelf and read his cursory introduction to the shamanistic implications of Turkmen carpet designs, and while I don't profess to be adequately versed in the shamanistic practices of Central Asia to question his attribution of symbols and symbolic representation, I am not entirely satisfied with either his interpretation of the Engsi carpet design or the implied magnitude of influence affected by shamanism upon Turkmen carpet design and motif vocabulary. On page 36 we read "According to common shamanistic belief, heaven and earth are connected by a tree which grows at earth's center ", and also "The bird symbolises the "flight" of the human soul and thus stylised trees are often delineated in concert with equally stylised birds, the latter either "complete " or in part. Eventually, tree and bird "merge" into one motif ." In the first instance this term "common shamanistic belief" does not ring true and strikes me as a catch all term ,contrived as opposed to a reflection of circumspect research. Also, the "Tree of life" figures quite prominently, even centrally, in Zoroastrinism, Judeo-Christianity, and Islam. In the second instance, and just as with the tree, the bird symbolises a variety of things up to and including flight of the soul in, you guessed it, Zoroastrianism, Judeo-Christianity, and Islam. "Animal headed Trees" and "Animal Heads" in general have figured prominently in the artistic expressions of the peoples of Asia for Millenia, and to attribute them when encountered in a weaving solely to shamanisn strikes me as a premature conclusion. This is not to say that shamanisn didn't play a role in the evolution of these designs, but that shamanism was not the principal medium of the transmission and/ or the reflective and representational inspiration for Turkmen carpet designs. And while it is true that the term shamen proceeds from the word sham and meaning counterfeit or feign, the role played by shamanism in both the the evolution of belief systems and artistic heritage are real enough.-Dave

Posted by Jerry Silverman on 09-16-2002 02:56 AM:

Reading these posts on shamanism reminded me that Robert Pinner referred to it several times in his article "The Animal Tree and the Great Bird" in Turkoman Studies I , Oguz Press, 1980. Unfortunately, none of the references bear on this discussion of ensiis.

Still, given the zigs and zags this and other threads of this Salon, his "Introduction" may be informative, even revelatory. With his indulgence, I'll quote directly:

"The symbolic content of designs and ornaments is fashionable but difficult territory. It is usually avoided by art historians and for good reason. Nowhere do we find so much erudite naivete as in the interpretation of symbolic meanings and derivations of ornaments. It is also a subject on which hardly anyone has been found to agree. Perhaps this is inevitable; sometimes it has seemed that a discussion of symbols in art requires an art historian with a lifetime's study of anthropology, and encyclopaedic knowledge of religion, mythology and folklore and the equipment of a practician in analytical psychology. It goes without saying
that he must be a student of the histories of the people who produced the art and of those who influenced them, that he will be familiar with the geography and the fauna and flora of the area and will command its languages in the archaic and modern forms. He should also arrange to have access to a time machine.

"Nevertheless it would be wrong to ignore the semantics of art. Meaning, as well as emotion and idea, infuse its complex harmonics. To ignore such references is to denude art to abstract form and even the simplest geometric ornament is never wholly or only that.

"This is far from saying that we can draw a paraphrase meaning from art, as if it were a means for setting a hidden but concrete message into code. Ornaments can, of course, convey specific ideas. In the form of pictographs, hieroglyphs or signs, 'ornaments' can function as substitutes for objects, give instructions or convey messages. Symbolic content is, by any meaningful definition, something different. Many ideas and experiences, often related tenuously, or related on levels to which we have poor access or which may seem mutually contradictory, fuse into symbolic material. In the very sense in which the language of art is symbolic it cannot be interpreted without loss of meaning. Each language has its own semantics.

"The animal-tree and bird ornaments which stand at the centre of this essay are two rare naturalistic elements to be found in central Asian carpet design but they are neither confined to one area and time nor are they the exclusive property of any one ethnic or culture group. On the contrary, birds are depicted in Man's earliest art and the animal-tree appears on artifacts made over the last six thousand years...."