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Title: Agents of evil : curse accusations and shamanic retaliation in post-Soviet Tuva (Siberia)
Author: Zorbas, Konstantinos
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2007
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This dissertation examines suspicions and accusations of affliction with curses in the Republic of Tuva, south Siberia (Russia). Based on a sample of consultations between shamans and clients regarding curse-inflicted misfortunes, as well as on sociological and statistical sources about post-Soviet Tuva, this thesis identifies a significant incidence of curse accusations in contemporary Tuva. I argue that this tendency is a repercussion of socio-economic pressures principally related to the post-socialist transition, in particular to new patterns of relatedness which emerged after the privatisation of property and the market in the early 90s. My data show that curse accusations occur especially in the context of tense or ambiguous personal relations associated with private economic ambitions, or of conflicts over private property and competition for jobs. If pre-Soviet curse accusations occurred between “tribes” or similar groups, in today’s bureaucratic segment of Tuvan society they occur within networks of relatives and white-collar workers. It would seem that even cursing has been privatised. The ethnographic body of the thesis consists of three consultations with one shaman. I focus on the interaction between shaman and client, and identify pervasive patterns of analogy between the misfortunes of each party. Contrary to classic accounts of shamanic initiation in the pre-Soviet age, I show that the shaman’s symbolic repertoire originates not only in encounters with spirits and dead shaman-ancestors, but also in ordinary events of Soviet repression and post-Soviet despair which are experienced equally by laymen. The analysis of this shaman’s psychobiography reveals how ordinary events can now offer the triggers for stages of initiation and symbolic transformation in a cumulative way. The shaman’s manipulation of the analogy between the client and himself is crucial for the resolution of the consultation and for the shaman’s own personal fulfilment. I, therefore, argue that in contemporary Tuva the repertoire of shamanic transformation has encompassed historical traumas of Soviet persecution and the post-socialist transition. Furthermore, analogous shared narratives of psychic conflict and soul loss show how both parties also adapt pre-Soviet idioms of suffering to their present circumstances. The thesis concludes with an analysis of the factors contributing to an ethos of “curse paranoia”, arguing that the formation of this ethos results from the repression of aggression under social pressures related both to Soviet and post-Soviet patterns of relatedness. Central to this operation of suspicions and accusations is the shaman as a regulator of “paranoia”: the shaman’s performance contributes to this ethos by cultivating anxiety and expanding the client’s horizon of suspiciousness in a process of regulating the client’s suspicions and accusations of curse affliction; ultimately, the healing process and the ritual retaliation, achieved through the return of the curses to the enemy, lead to the reduction of the client’s tension and suspicions.
Supervisor: Vitebsky, Piers Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Curses ; Shamans ; Shamanism ; Tuva (Siberia) ; Post-Soviet era