Monday, November 30, 2015

Yakut - People of the Frozen Meadows - .

Article by Ty Hulse

Be inspired by some of the richest and often least utilized cultures, their mythology, and fairy tales.

This article centers primarily around the Yakut, however, it also includes some information inspired by Steppes and other Siberian cultures where noted.

The translation for the above song begins:

"You showed me the most beautiful Alaas* in the world.
I always keep that quiet evening in my eyes,
where was the moon swimming amongst the clouds."
(Translation courtesy of

This song in continues to describe the wonder of the Alaas and the persons desire to dwell there. The Alaas, (a generally circular meadow surrounded by dark forests which formed as the lake in the center shrank leaving rich, fertile grasslands behind) was the center of Yakut life. Portions of the Yakut population and their language came from the herdsman to the South (near Mongolia), however, thousands of years ago they traveled to the cold forests of Central Siberia, only surviving as pastorals by discovering the many Alaases which doted Lena Valley. 

Here in these valleys the Yakut lived in their thick winter homes, protected against the cold and the evil spirits of the forest and underworld by the warm spirit who lived in their fire. The rich grasses of the Alaas having provided hay for the horses and cattle which lived in their barns through the snowy month. With the coming of spring the tiny Winter village of 3 or 4 families would migrate to the larger summer villages of half a dozen or so homes. These summer homes were located in beautiful Alaas where their horses and cattle could feed, and where they could use nearby Alaases to make hay. When fall came this hay was transported to their winter homes which were located closer to the trees sheltered from the cold Siberian wind.


As with all ancient societies people's lives revolved around the food that they ate. Because the Yakut mostly lived off of dairy from horse and cattle they spent their summers and the fall cutting hay, they moved to better pastures in the summer, woke early to milk their animals, lived around herding their animals in the alaas. People move to larger summer villages because it takes more people to gather and make the hay for their animals, and to smaller winter homes because of the necessity of taking care of their animals. Food determined how big their villages were, where they were located, when people woke up, what they did with their days, etc.

Dairy was a defining fact of people's lives. with cheeses and sour milks making up the bulk people people's calories. The wilderness itself also provided a large portion ofpeople's foods, from fish and wild game to roots and Phloem (new pine bark peeled in June and ground into a powder and mixed into milk). Almost all of this was mixed with milk, fish, animals, roots, and more would be mixed into the milk and frozen to store through the winter. Interestingly enough, however, the Yakut were one of the few Siberian people not to eat mushrooms or berries with great frequency.

Because of the meat which hunting and fishing provided much of the Yakut's tales center around this act. More importantly the Yakut's need to go into the dark northern forests gave them ample opportunities to encounter the dark spirits and monsters of their land. It is always an interesting question of how a people will survive in a fantasy world which is potentially filled with.

Perhaps the best way to answer this question of survival in a fantasy world comes from the idea that each region has a spirit, a deity which oversees it. So long as the hunter gives an offering to the spirit of the forest before entering it the spirit of the forest will help keep them safe. However, if the hunter steps off the primary hunting paths they will find themselves in a more dangerous spirit realm, or if the forest king is distracted, sick, or other wise occupied the hunter might encounter something dangerous.

Not all of these spirit lords were tamed, however, for wild feral alaases and forests, once which didn't have people within were home to more dangerous spirits, spirits who were likely to cause illness and even attack those who entered them. In this way it's easy to explain how there can be safe and dangerous regions right next to each other.

Returning to the Yakut's life which often centered around their food each spring began with the foal being weaned away from their mother so that the people could milk the horses, which was then made into Kumiss (a slightly alcoholic beverage made from fermented horses milk.

Soon there after people would be able to leave their winter homes to graze their cattle and catch the spawning fish.

June was known as "Pine Month" when the people would collect the pine to make a sort of flour.

July was the hay making month,

August was the Hay drying and stacking month.

In September people would return to their winter homes, where they could rest a little, living off the stores of food they'd gathered in the summer.

A Few Recipes

Heat sour cream, add cranberries and other sweeteners.

Cook horse meat. Add some cool horse broth and flour, stir this together, serve with raw onions.

Boil milk, stir in flour, sour cream, boil it a bit more before adding butter and salt. Eat while hot.

Boil fish in the cold water, near the end of the cooking add milk, green onions, mustard, pepper, and salt.

Because most of their food came from horse milk and meat the Yakut had many rituals regarding the horse itself. Magical winged horses were the greatest of companions and advisers to heroes, it was more of a sin to beat a horse than it was to beat a person of lesser rank. The bones of the horse were hung in the trees as it was wrong for them to touch the ground.

"The most important festival among the Yakut is connected with the preparation and use of kumiss, and is called ystyax, or kumiss festival. It has both a social and a religious significance. During the summer, in olden times, every rich man arranged a kumiss festival, at which all members of the clan assembled and were entertained. Other people, and frequently whole clans, were invited; and during the festival, defensive and offensive leagues were concluded. Every such festival commenced with sacrifices, and was accompanied with songs, dances, games, horse and foot races, and other contests.
Two kumiss festivals in honor of deities are arranged during the year by the owners of large droves of mares. One of them, in the spring, is consecrated to the Supreme Being and the head of the benevolent deities of the "creators" (ay^), — to Lord Bright-Creator. The first milking of mares in the spring is also consecrated to the Supreme Being. The spring festival is called Ayy. y'syaxa ("kumiss festival in honor of the 'creators'"). Spring, as the period of the revival of nature, appears as the season of happiness and abundance. In the prayers addressed to the "creators," they are implored to bestow their blessing upon the people.
The spring kumiss festival takes place in the open air. In the midst of a large smooth grass meadow a kind of altar is erected. This consists of two posts with a crossbeam, and three young birch-trees with young shoots on them. The altar is hung round with sacrificial horsehair, and on the ground in front of it are placed ornamented birch-bark and ox-hide barrels filled with kumiss. The skin barrels are tied to the altar-frame by long ornamented straps of soft elk-leather. This is done so that the vessels, when softened by the liquid in them, shall not collapse. The ceremony commences by sacrifices to Lord Bright-Creator and to other " creators." Their names are uttered by the steward of the festival, who may be a shaman or an elder member of the clan. The sacrifices consist of libations of kumiss, in the direction of the dawn, to every deity; and formerly horses were often consecrated by being driven to the east.
The plate just referred to represents one act in a spring festival.2 In front of the altar stands the steward, having on one side of him the owner of the drove, and on the other the latter's wife. All three face to the east side of the sky, where the benevolent deities have their abode. On the right side of the altar stand nine innocent youths in a row, and on the left a row of nine pure maidens, with goblets filled with kumiss consecrated to the benevolent deities. The splendid festival attire worn on this occasion by a Yakut girl,

The trimming consists of valuable fur, silver pendants, and other decorations.
The steward addresses a prayer to the "creators," begging for blessings, — increase of horses and cattle, a good harvest of hay, good health for the people and animals, and an abundance of food. Then he takes the kumiss-festival ladle (ysyax xamy.yaha), and makes a libation, in the direction of the dawn, to the benevolent deities. Then, while making a libation to the ground, he addresses the local deity, "the owner of the place" (an doidu iccita), asking him not to harm the inhabitants of the spot and the members of the clan. After that, the steward, with the help of the sacrificial ladle, proceeds to divine. He throws the ladle towards the sky: and if it falls with the front part upwards, it portends the granting by the deities of future abundance; and all the people utter the joyful cry Uruf
Then the boys and girls give the goblets with the sacrificial kumiss, according to the directions of the steward, to the elder and honored members of the clan, both male and female. These, after placing themselves, — the men on the right and the women on the left of the altar, — drink off the kumiss from the goblets, and pass them on to the less important and the younger people. Behind every honored or aged member of the clan, sit or stand his domestics, less esteemed relatives, young men, and laborers. He looks after the welfare of each of these. When the goblet is emptied, it is given back to the steward or the host to be filled.
At the same time, not far from the altar, other stewards are preparing tables, or simply boards on the ground, on which are placed piles of horse and cow flesh, and dishes of melted butter. Every chief of a family or clan receives a large portion of meat and butter, which he divides among his people.
The whole day passes with songs, round dances, games, races and other contests, and shamanistic performances. The poetical choral songs of the young men and girls, in praise of the spring and love, are most interesting. Trostchansky relates, also, that during the kumiss festival the change of winter to spring is personated in a contest between two men. One of them, dressed in white, represents spring, and is called "son of 'creator'" (ayy. uola). The other, clad in black, represents winter, and is called " son of evil spirit" (abasy. uola}.
The autumnal festival is celebrated in honor of the destructive forces, and is therefore called abasy-ysifax. This festival is dedicated to the evil spirits (abasy.lar), the inhabitants of the west and the representatives of darkness and night, in order that they may not interfere with them in winter, the time of the year when starvation, disease, and death are imminent. This festival, also, takes place in the open air, but at night.
The first night of the festival is in honor of Big-Lord (Ulu-Toyon) and the evil spirits of the upper world subordinate to him. The second night is in honor of Axsan Duolai and his subordinates, the evil spirits of the lower world. To all of these evil spirits, in addition to the libations of kumiss made to the benevolent deities, blood sacrifices of cattle and horses are also made. This ceremony, according to Trost chansky, is superintended by nine male and nine female shamans."
("Kumiss Festivals of the Yakut and the Decoration of Kumiss Vessels" by Waldemar Jochelson)

Ichchi - Spirit Masters

Ichchi or master, is a spirit which lives in all things. Each plan or animal, and natural phenomena or topography has an Ichchi. Even objects such as knives or stoves has such a soul. These Ichchi are not necessarily good or bad, but it's important to keep on their good side by feeding and entertaining them. When people walk into a new territory, the forest, a mountain pass, they make an offering to the ichchi. When they get ready to eat they might offer scraps of cloth or food to the stove, and they will leave offerings at sacred trees and the boundaries of their lands. This is called feading the ichchi. The grassland itself had an ichchi which they had to provide for in order to begin gathering hay.

During such feedings people remain quite and respectful. Ichchi could be dangerous, especially if they weren't used to people and such people were loud and disrespectful. When a man moved into a new land there was always the danger that the Ichchi would dislike and curse them, ultimately leaving them to grow sick and die.

The land in which the Yakut lived has one of the harshest winters of any place human's live. The challenges of living in such a brutally cold environment is exemplified in the following folk tale,

"In a village lived an old woman who set out one winter morning to fetch some water. She went to the watering hole in the ice and broke the layer of ice which had frozen that night. She scooped up some buckets of water and began carrying them home. On the way she slipped and fell, spilling the buckets of water onto the hem of her dress so that it froze to the ice, trapping her out in the cold storm...."

At this point the old woman begins negotiating with the sun, clouds, wind, fire, etc. asking each in turn to free her.

Social Structure

The Yakut lived in extended family groups which were part of larger clans that were ruled over by chieftains known as Toyons. When a woman married into another clan she moved to her husbands home, as a result the women of each village, people's mothers had grown up among a neighboring people, so the ideas of the Yakut continued to mix around and spread between clans.

The political system wasn't that much unlike the Feudal wars of Medieval Europe, Japan, but most especially Mongolia, though unlike these societies there was no larger entity such as an Emperor or Pope which brought even a semblance of unity to the Yakut. As a result the Yakut didn't really view themselves as a single society, instead there were nearly a thousand different clans of 400 to 5000 people each, all of which engaged in near constant warfare with each other.

In essence you have the Toyons who ruled over the owners of the Alaases, each of whom paid taxes in dairy goods and meat to their lord and who ruled over a group of slaves, serfs, and lesser workers. Finally there were hunters who lived on the margins, as the poorest of people's often didn't even have cattle of their own, instead living almost entirely by hunting.

In many ways this situation was to be expected because there were a limited number of Alaas's the clans would often go to war with each other, conducting cattle raids or attempting to gain more land to feed their growing numbers. Because of this the "kingdoms" such that there were were always fluid and variable in size. One Chinese source claims that they could muster together 5000 troops, a fairly substantial number in the history of Northern warfare.  Still it's likely that only a few people actually fought in wars as forging iron weapons and raising horses only for fighting would have been expensive. Further, at least in tales, poverty was a near constant problem, and the poorest of people likely never actually fought in war.

As with all societies poverty and starvation were a constant and very real threat, in one tale;

"One year for some unknown reason the hunting went so poorly that a young man and his family had nothing to eat. Despite their starvation, however, they didn't begin to steal from their neighbors or turn to banditry the way many would have. Finally one of the brothers went and sold himself into slavery to a rich man."

Being a fairy tale, however, this is not the end of it, for the wicked rich man revels in the suffering of others and gives the young man an impossible task and flays him alive for failing to complete it. He does this to his slaves one at a time, until finally a young man who is impossibly strong sells himself to the rich man. This young man completes the wealthy man's every request and becomes so popular among the slaves that the wealthy worry that he might stir up a revolt.

Still, despite such poverty the Yakut had managed to find a way to live in parts of the north that were virtually uninhabited by other people's, making them by far the largest Siberian population, with more than ten times as many people as the neighboring Evanki.

Quest Idea - Lead a slave revolt, keeping in mind that the frigid winter is coming when no one will be able to get food.

Winter War - Wars were often waged in winter, a time when even travel by sleigh was dangerous but when people had the free time to engage in war.


As with many people's Shamans began manifesting through serious mental problems, running off into the woods, screaming wildly, and generally behaving in bizarre ways. This was known as the Shaman's sickness, a time when people were overcome by the spirits which sought to force them to become shamans, to work for the spirit world on behalf of the shamans. Given the small size of their communities most of them probably wouldn't have had powerful shamans, so when a serious illness struck someone would have to be dispatched, perhaps across dangerous wilderness to go to the village where the shaman lived.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Shamanism for your RPG

Article by Ty Hulse

Although there have many books which have included a shaman class in Dungeons and Dragons, and other table top RPGs they all miss one key aspect of shamanism.

Shamanism isn't so much a class as it is a calling, for anyone could become a shaman including the small children of the Alps who Perchta led to battle, or the blacksmiths of the Celts, the blind girls of Northern Japan, and even Robin Hood. The spirits would call on shamans to help them work with the mortal world. Sometimes the local Fairy Queen might call a shaman to help her provide the people of a land with healing, or to rob from the rich to give to the poor. Other spirits would call shamans to help battle the spirits of the underworld which sought to hurt humanity, and sometimes darker spirits would force a person to help them spread illness and evil.

What's important for your RPG is that perhaps you shouldn't treat shamanism as a class, so much as you should treat it as a way of providing your characters with quests. A shaman could be a cleric, a druid, a wizard, a thief, a fighter, etc. All of these might have skills that are useful to the spirits.

There were three primary ways which these shamans would work with the spirits, fairies, and gods.

Many shamans, especially those of Greece and Japan would become possessed by the spirits they worked for. These spirits could then work through them, casing healing spells, providing advice, foretelling the future, etc. There were people who lived in caves in Ancient Greece who would be possessed by nymphs in order to help the nymphs town. Nymphs in Greek lore were often the founder and guardians of cities. More than this they were often the great, great, grandmother of the people in the city. So a nymph would choose a person to possess so they could aid their down. This person gained a companion who had a lot of knowledge and some healing spells, but little else. So in terms of a game a group of adventurers might by chosen by a nymph to protect a town, in return she can provide them with knowledge and information, some divination and healing spells (sort of like if they had a few scrolls and potions) but in truth they would gain very little but a lot of jobs to help protect a city. 

In Japan there were villages of Miko (shamanistic figures) who would travel the countryside (often with a body guard). These Miko were in constant danger from bandits, from lecherous samurai, from the spirits of the dead, etc. Often they would be hired by a village to become possessed by the spirits of the dead to gain instructions on how to improve harvests, etc. The Miko might have to battle evil sorcerers who controlled armies of magical shape shifting foxes, travel into the mountains to battle and ultimately calm angry kami and spirits of the dead, or seek out stolen treasures.

The point is that while being possessed by spirits might provide an adventurer with quests it would provide only limited support in battles.

RPG's tend to treat familiar spirits as servants, as a benefit of a specific class, but in truth familiar spirits were very often the lords of the witches who served them, or companions, only the most powerful shamans had familiars who they controlled.

In some cases a familiar spirit was scent by the Fairy Queen, the Sky Gods, the Lord of the Underworld, etc. In order to direct a shaman. In such cases it might be best to treat the familiar spirit as an employer or a companion rather than an only occasionally thought of servant. Indeed you could have a game where one of the characters plays a familiar spirits who serves the Queen of the Fairies and which levels up just like the players do.

Sometimes shamans would serve evil spirits, not always by choice. There are many cases where an evil spirit would kidnap and torture a person until they agreed to serve. Often these people would curse the bride and groom at weddings, steal milk, blight crops, cause illness, spread discord, and evil kill people for their spirit masters. Such people could be anyone the spirits could torture into submission and in lore were often simple farmers, shepherds, etc.

Enter the Spirit World
Perhaps the best known shaman power was their ability to enter the spirit world. This ability, however, provides very little advantage in most circumstances. Granted a shaman can heal the sick by entering the underworld and battling or negotiating with the spirits which caused the illness. They can help the crops grow by battling to steal the fertility of the land from other spirits and shamans. However, both these things are more like quests to achieve a certain goal, rather than a power in and of itself. Often (though not always) the shaman isn't even entering the spirit world on their own, they are doing so with the help of the spirits. So it would be easy to simply say that a group of characters serves the spirits and so the spirits will bring them into the spirit world to complete certain quests.

Again the most important thing to understand about shamanism is that while there might be specific classes surrounding it, most of the shaman's "abilities" have nothing to do with a specific class, rather the shaman is a calling, an opportunity to give the players of your rpg or the characters in your story interesting quests.

Stay tuned for a few more of these quest ideas in future articles.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Journey's to Fairy Land

A drum sounds in the chilly Alpine night calling you from your warm bead to climb upon a giant hare. Over snowy hills and icy rivers you ride into the spirit world where an army of shamans from your homeland has gathered to defend next years crop against evil witches.  Few benandanti, cunning, shamans, or whatever else you might want to call them ever chose this life, they were compelled to it. Called by the fairies on some dark night or in some lonely place.

Most of us will never experience the spirit world of the shamans, the witches and the cunning at one time people believed the spirit world was all around them. For fairies lived not just in the forest, but also under the thresholds and hearths of their houses, in the fields where they farmed, in the rocks on hills overlooking their village. Often times what we find in folk lore is that the spirit world isn’t a place, its a state of mind. Those who have studied shamans call this state of mind ecstasy. (European Shamanism)

Take Anne Jefferies, for example. As a witch in the 1600s she often entered the fairy realm, or at least her soul did, her body remained behind, just as a shamans body remains when they travel into the spirit world. Anne Jefferies  was always a bit of an odd one. She was a young servant girl who was known for doing things that even the boldest boys were afraid to do. Among these things was her seeking out the fairies.

Turning up fern leaves, and looking into the bells of the foxglove to find a fairy, singing all the time. “fairy fairy and fairy bright; Come and be my chosen sprite,”
 She never allowed a moonlight night to pass without going down into the valley, and walked against the stream, singing: ‘Moon shines bright, waters run clear, I am here, but where's my fairy dear? (Hunt, 1903)'

At first the fairies ignored her, finally, however, she heard a suppressed laugh and a ruffle under the branches in the garden. When she went to search for the sound she heard a musical laugh and ringing, Suddenly she felt afraid or whoever might be watching her. Finally six handsome little men in green appeared, the grandest of which wore a red feather, and it was this one who spoke to her with a bow.

Ultimately these fairies brought her to the fairy court,

"She was in one of the most beautiful places—temples and palaces of gold and silver. Trees laden with fruits and flowers. Lakes full of gold and silver fish, and the air full of birds of the sweetest song, and the most brilliant colours. Hundreds of ladies and gentlemen were walking about. Hundreds more were idling in the most luxuriant bowers, the fragrance of the flowers oppressing them with a sense of delicious repose. Hundreds were also dancing, or engaged in sports of various kinds. Anne was, however, surprised to find that these happy people were no longer the small people she had previously seen. There was now no more than the difference usually seen in a crowd, between their height and her own. Anne found herself arrayed in the most highly-decorated clothes (Hunt)."

The only unusual aspect to Anne's story is that she sought out her relationship with the fairies, there were many others who were brought into the fairies court, often before the fairy Queen or King. Here they were typically ordered to use their new found powers to help humanity. Other times, as in Russia a girl might stumble out of the woods covered in moss, with the whispers of the forest fairies still in her ears.

Another man in France was taken into the forest by the spirits who ordered him to "rob from the rich to give to the poor." Such an order was common for the fairy queen to give. This is likely the source for the original Robin Hood tale.

In Japan there was a young boy who was taken into the mountains and raised by the tengu and mountain kami for a time before being returned to the humanity in order to help people navigate the changing world.

What's important to understand from such stories is that most witches were chosen by the fairies because they wanted to help humanity. Fairies have built our civilization, indeed at one time each technological advance was attributed to them. We might abuse or misuse their technology, just as a little kid might throw his Legos, but many fairies are not against cities or civilization (though some are).

Perhaps most common of all in fairy tales are those who enter the spirit world in order to help the fairies work. Take, for example, the Russian Tale of "The Girl in the Well" in which a girl falls into fairy land where she is asked to clean up after sheep, feed animals, and do other menial tasks for which she is paid in great wealth. Often times stories of the devil trying to purchase a persons soul are corruptions of stories about a forest or water fairy trying to get a person to become their servant for many fairies had trouble with household choirs, or simply couldn't be bothered with them.

There is another reason for fairies to seek out humans, for "when the fairy tribes under the various kings and queens have a battle, one side manages to have a living man among them, and he by knocking the fairies about turns the battle in case the side he is on is losing."