Parts of a story of a world picture

We had a problem locating the excact source of this nice little vignette illustration, and therefore asked the internet for help (here is the original 1996 question page).
Originally, we found the picture in a Danish translation of Knaurs Lexikon der Mythologie by Gerhard J. Bellinger (Droemer Knauer Verlag, Munchen 1989). There, and in Alexander Eliot's Myths (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1976), it was postulated that it was a Siberian world picture, showing a world tree that - with its roots in the underworld - rises through the inhabited earth to penetrate the realm of the gods. We would like to get closer to some better ideas about its original use and meaning in the culture from where it came, if this is possible.

"A symbolical map of the Universe - maybe the earliest image of such type in human history."
"The central, cross-like figure represents the "Spirith-Master of the drum". The space of the picture divided into two important zones: above you see the sky (Upper World) with stars. Below the horizontal line there is a human world (Middle World). In the left part, the shaman, holding the drum. Above him - Mountain rams. In the right part: The horse beneath the tree, this animal ready for sacrifice. Above, the same animal after being sacrificed. It's skin is attached to a special ritual construction called Tayilga."

An anthropologist, professor Andrei M. Sagalaev (then at the University of Illinois) gave us an interesting and quite different interpretation, and located the original source. Sagalaev, who kindly permitted to cite from his letters here, wrote:

Date: Fri, 24 Jan 1997
Subject: "Siberian world picture"

Dear Claus,
I was really surprised to find this picture at the Internet.
Twenty years ago, when I was a graduate at the Dept. of Ethnography and Anhtropology at the Leningrad State University (USSR), I met this picture for the first time.

1. This is a copy of picture on the upper surface of the shaman's drum. The original drawing was made in 1909-1913, during the ethnograpical expeditions in South Siberia, in the Altai mountains. The head of those expeditions was Anokhin A.V. (Anokhin Andrei Viktorovich), russian ethnographer and composer.
For the first time this picture was published in his book :
Anokhin A.V. Materialy po shamanstvy u altaitsev (Materials on the Shamanism of the Altai people). Leningrad,1924.
This book was issued as separate volume in :
Sbornik Muzeia Antropologii i etnografii Akademii Nauk SSSR (Collection of the museum of Anthropology and Ethnography), vol.4, issue 2.

2. Later this picture was used in a number of books, in Russia and abroad. I also used this picture in my book :
Sagalaev A.M. Altai v zerkale mifa (Altai in the mirror of myth), Novosibirsk, Nauka publishers, 1992.
But unfortunately some authors forgot the real source and meaning of this picture.

3. About the picture.
The central, cross-like figure represents the "Spirith-Master of the drum" (altaic Tungur-eezi). Originally, according to the siberian tradition, shaman's drum had the only one surface covered with the skin of sacrificial animal - as a usual, of the horse. There was also a wooden handle inside the drum. At the same time this handle was a kind of wooden-metal figurine, representing the Spirith-Master of the drum. So: the central figurine on our drawing is a kind of "projection" of the real handle-figurine, which was hidden inside the drum (and was unvisible from that side, where the picture was made).

You can clearly see that the central figure is a highly stylised figure of the "man": with round head, two small legs etc.

Of course it is not a "world tree", but it is a symbol of the same importance. By the way, the pictures on the south-siberian drums often represent a mythical Universe, and different parts of it. It is the symbolical map of the Universe - may be the earliest image of such type in Human history.

The space of the picture divided into two important zones: above we can see the sky (Upper World) with stars. Below the horizontal line there is a human world (Middle World). In the left part - shaman, holding the drum. Above him - Mountain rams (altaic Teke). In the right part: The horse beneath the tree (this animal ready for sacrifice). Above - the same animal after being sacrificed. It's skin is attached to a special ritual construction called Tayilga.

Well, there's a lot of amazing things about these shaman's drums. [...]

Good luck,
Andrei M. Sagalaev
Visiting professor at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana)

Date: Fri, 14 Feb 1997
From: sagalaev[ at ] (Andrei Sagalaev)
Subject: Again:"Siberian world picture"

[...] - I was looking for another picture from Siberian shaman's drum. Unfortunately, I still have no ISSN of the book, where that picture was reproduced. I'll get it soon and will send to you. That pictire is very impressive too, I like it so much.

The earliest pictures, representing shaman's drum appeared in Siberia about 5 thousand years ago, at the Bronze age, in a form of a rock-drawings. Of course, there's no details (like the World-tree), but the construction of shaman's drum is very similar, almost identical to those of the 20th century.

[...] I do believe our ancestors were not just "archaic", but they were well advanced in that kind of things we now call "Philosophy of Nature". Here, in USA I have a course "Shamanism and popular beliefs in Siberia". For last two weeks we discussed with my students the general differences between modern and archaic worldview. I've tried to explain my point of view ("The prehistory of human's mind didn't finished yet, we're still the Mother Nature's children"). And then I've got your e-mail. When my american children saw the Shaman-Internet-Printer picture, they've got something new. In today's America it looks like "From here to Eternity".

Yes, I'm still working with the problem of shamanistic culture. In previos ten years I've published some books and articles on this subject. All in Russian. 'Cause we were living in a very specific country - I guess you now what I'm talking about. Now I'm about to finish my new work "Siberian Shamanism : a Philosophy of Nature". But in Russia there's no publishers now for such a book. I fall in that theme after reading works by I.Prigojin, C.Levi-Strauss, V.Turner.

[...] you can use any part of my messages in any way: quotation etc. Here in Illinois I will stay till the end of June. Later I'll be back to Siberia, to my hometown Tomsk (close to the real shamanistic traditions). Anyway I'll be glad to recieve your message and questions.

Later, Sagalaev wrote

Date: Sun, 9 Mar 1997
Subject: "Siberian world picture"

[...] Here's (at last) information about another "world picture". This drawing was published in :

Shamanism in Eurasia, Mihaly Hoppal (Editor). Part 1. Gottingen,1984.
ISSN 0175-2464 ISBN 3-88694-029-2
p.167. Figure 3.1.

There's a nice picture from shaman's drum of Altai people.
I'll be glad to answer your questions - if there will be any of them.


We have received other coments as well: Joan Hess wrote to us:

Date: Fri, 03 Oct 1997
From: Joan Hess (twomoons[ at ]
"I have just viewed your site. The drum is interesting and so are some of the comments I read.

When I viewed the drawing I noticed the horse was eating the tree, an indication of food shortage. I would say this is due to much snow fall which also brought about the death of many animales. The upper portion of the shield told me this was in winter with mostly stars showing.

The other side was the obligation of the shaman to interseed for his people to bring a bountiful spring soon.
I have never heard of a horse being a sacrificial animal by any group, interesting, I would think a reindeer would be more prized.
Joan Hess

- - - - -
I (Claus E., Date: Sat, 4 Oct 1997) answered, among other things:
"Prized by the spirrits? I think it is really hard to tell the difference between a horse and a reindeer on a picture like this, but only the deers on the left side have antlers, so there seems to be two kinds of animals.
Do you have a special interest for these pictures?"

- - - - -
Joan Hess
(Date: Wed, 08 Oct 1997):
"First, yes you may put my comments on the web. As to my interest in the picture, I have designed my own drum and find the complexity in others analysis interesting.

I have spent my life in Texas and New Mexico, USA. I was raised by a grandmother that practiced the German Medicine Way (these people are called Pow Wow folk, but that is another story). I grew up mostly around Curanderos (Mexican Medicine) and Native American Medicine Ways. When I look at the picture to see what it says, I think of the needs of the people the Shaman was serving. Also, what the relationship with the people and environment was, and read what the picture says.

Think about it. These people lived in a harsh environment. Their concerns were on survival, with little leisure time. Nothing was wasted. You will find that among these types of people there was no such thing as sacrifice, they didn't have time for it. With the exception of the Pueblo Tribes of North America there was no such thing as sacrifice.

Oh one more thing, in North America the Shaman's drum is called horse. Its sound is what the Shaman rides to upper or lower world. The designs on these drums depict the intent or "Medicine" of that particular Shaman and the animal they travel with.
Joan Hess

We have also corresponded with other people in our search for the sorces of the picture and would like to thank everyone, especially Per-Olof Johansson (from Allerød, Denmark) and Pasi Tanner (from Rauma, Finland), for their helpful suggestions.
Later the same picture was found reproduced p. 128 in this strange book, Wm. R. Fix (1979): Star Maps. London: Octopus Books [Toronto: Jonathan-James Books, 1979]. Here on p. 128 the figure caption says "A painting of a shaman's drum with an axis pointing upward to a hole among the stars in the upper world. Below left is the shaman holding his drum and gazing upward." In that book's list of picture credits, the source mentioned is Roger Cook (1974): The Tree of Life: Image for the Cosmos. London: Thames & Hudson.
[remark removed following a wish of its original contributor]

Then, later in June 2006, Roslyn M. Frank wrote a longer comment, telling, among other things, this:

"(...) In other words, from my vantage point we are not talking about an arcane and outdated cosmogony without any application to the environmental crisis currently facing us. Rather I see it as an exceptionally viable cognitive template that can be readily tested against the dominant Western notions of the acceptability of the endless exploitation of natural (and human) resources. Moreover, in contrast to the prevailing 19th century metaphor which projected onto the natural world the tenets of 19th century imperialism, e.g., the natural world was portrayed as a locus of constant warfare and was governed by "the rule of nature" or the "survival of the fittest", the latter concept being interpreted as the natural dominance of the being who was physically the "strongest" and most "powerful", e.g., the worldview of the so-called "social Darwinism" (which, as we are well aware, was in place long before Darwin ever lifted his pen to paper). In short, the Bear Ancestor narrative provides a vehicle for exploring another view of the world. In addition, this is not an alien belief system imported from some "exotically" remote corner of the planet, but rather one indigenous to Europe. Remnants of the earlier belief system are abundantly available once a person begins to learn where to look for them in our 21st century European cultural landscape."

See all the correspondance with Roz here (comment in Word or in pdf), or help Roz solve yet another riddle (described here in a pdf file, or Word file) about a "shaman feeding stone" photo.

New comments of 2007, included with permission, from Anita Susi:

Date: July 28, 2007.

Concerning the world picture and horse sacrifice, I would like to comment on what Joan Hess wrote about not being aware of horse-sacrificing cultures. I've read in a number of sources about the ritual mating of ancient Irish kings with white horses, and the subsequent sacrifice of the animals, followed by ritual consumption by the community. Vedic India had a horse sacrifice known as the Ashvamedha. In ancient Rome, Equus October was the sacrifice of a horse to the god Mars on October 15. And I believe the old Norse also sacrificed horses. Whether any of these cultures influenced the Altaic people -- or vice versa -- is unknown. I find it quite plausible that the horse tied to the tree is a potential sacrifice.

What interests me are the round stars dancing at the top of the picture. Does anyone know anything about them?

Anita Susi
Maryland, USA

Comment of September 2007, included with permission, from Arnoud ten Haaft:

Date: September 5, 2007

When I was searching the internet for information about Siberian drums I found this page

In 2005 I bought a t-shirt after a trekking in the Altai mountains, it has a print quite similar to the drum you are discussing on this page.

Can you help me explaining the lower right corner of the drum in my picture?

With kind regards,
Arnoud ten Haaft (Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Anonymous comment of August 2008.

I think I don't actually have much to say on it, because my knowledge of Altaic cultures is not adequate. I think that [...] the whole discussion on this page is faulty because it suggests the existence of a "Siberian world picture", a "Siberian tradition" etc, when actually there of course is no common Siberian or even Altaic culture. The area under question is too big and ethnically-culturally diverse for that. Making claims of a "Siberian world picture", a "Siberian tradition" etc. is essentialistic.

That would be my comment which if you wish you could add anonymously. [...].

We are still interested in other comments or interpretations of the signification of the original picture, its history and further meaning, as well as other similar pictures, and we also welcome related reflections. Any suggestions are welcome!

CPNSS, Niels Bohr Institute, Blegdamsvej 17, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark
Send an email to Claus Emmeche or a Fax: +45 35 32 50 16. (home page)
Thank you very much in advance.

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