03 March 2019

A reflection on two stories of the Judgement

Illustration of a Manchu shamaness

It seems oddly fitting that on the Sunday of the Last Judgement this year I would find myself reading The Tale of the Nišan Shamaness: a folktale that was common and popular among the Manchu and their neighbouring peoples, including the Evenkil, the Orochën, the Sive, the Daur and the Hezhen, beginning around the seventeenth century.

The version I have of this folktale is the 1977 English translation by Margaret Nowak and Stephen Durrant, which in turn is based on a Russian- and Manchu-language transcription provided to the Tungusic scholar Dr Aleksandr Vasil’evich Grebenshchikov at what is now the Far East Federal University in Vladivostok by a lecturer in Manchu language, Dr Dekdengge, in 1913. The introduction is particularly fascinating for someone like me, an Orthodox Christian who remains spellbound by comparative studies of philosophy and religion. It should probably not be surprising given the location of the studies performed, but it seems that many of the relevant studies on the shamanistic tradition in which this folktale is included were done by people from Orthodox countries, who had an Orthodox religious background. Prominent in Nowak’s and Durrant’s bibliography are Sergei Shirokogorov (mentor to Fei Xiaotong) and the Romanian Mircea Eliade (who wrote a study on shamanism). At any rate, the rough outlines of the story are as follows.
Toward the end of the Ming Dynasty, in the village of Lolo, there lives a wealthy yuanwai 員外 official named Baldu Bayan. He and his wife have a single son, who goes out on a hunt at the age of fifteen, catches ill and dies. Many years pass and Baldu Bayan and his wife begin to worry about not leaving any posterity and having no one to look after them in their old age. They manage to conceive another son at the age of fifty, and they name him Sergudai Fiyanggo. Sergudai grows up healthy, strong, handsome, clever and kind – basically model student material. However, at the age of fifteen, he too conceives the desire to go on a hunt. His parents are both unwilling to let him go, for obvious reasons. But he prevails over them in the end and leads a massive hunting party to the Southern Mountain.

Sergudai and his attendants stage a massive hunt and kill an excessive number of beasts for sport. This angers the spirit of the Southern Mountain, Ilmun Han, who sends a subordinate, Monggoldai Nakcu, to kill Sergudai and take his soul. Sergudai thereupon falls ill and dies. His father’s retainers, weeping, bring the body back to his parents, who are devastated. The villagers tell them to make funeral arrangements, which they do, slaughtering lavish quantities of meat and oceans of wine for their son. A strange old man appears at the gate, asking only to mourn Sergudai. He enters the house, makes an offering, and rebukes Baldu Bayan for not sending for a shaman to revive his son. Baldu Bayan, sceptical, says all the shamans he knows are cheats and frauds – whereupon the strange old man recommends a certain powerful shaman named Teteke living near the river Nisihai. As the old man is taking his leave, Baldu Bayan beholds the strange old man mounting a five-coloured cloud and flying off into the air.

Baldu Bayan, understanding that he has been visited by a sage or an immortal, thereupon seeks out Teteke. When he reaches the east bank of the Nisihai he sees a young woman out washing clothes, who tells him that the shaman lives on the west bank. But once he reaches the west bank and asks after the shaman, a man living there tells Baldu Bayan that he has been tricked: the young woman who gave him directions was Teteke herself! Going back across the Nisihai yet again, Baldu Bayan prostrates himself before an old woman he finds there. However, it is not Teteke but her mother-in-law with whom she lives, her son having died a while back. Seeing the young widow, he turns to her and asks her to revive his son. She refuses, saying she is not skilled enough. Baldu Bayan asks again, and she grudgingly agrees to do a single divination for him.

She beats a drum and puts herself into a trance, and divines exactly the manner of both his sons’ deaths and their causes. Baldu Bayan begs her with tears and offers her half his fortune if she will revive his son, and at last convinces her to call back his soul: on the condition that he provide her with a beloved family dog, a rooster, sweet been paste and joss paper for use in her séance.

Agreeing, Baldu Bayan invites Teteke to his house and has her perform the divination, assisted by some local drummers. However, the drummers are clumsy and cannot keep the rhythm. Frustrated, Teteke breaks off and demands a drummer from her own village – a septuagenarian named Nari Fiyanggo. The old drummer is sent for. When he arrives, it’s clear that he and Teteke are intimate: they tease and flirt with each other; Teteke jokes about stripping Nari and beating him if he doesn’t perform well, but he laughs it off.

Teteke changes into her shamanic robes – a headdress with nine different kinds of feathers, a long elegant skirt and a girdle with clear bells – and begins to dance as Nari beats the drum. Teteke bids him to bring her the dog, the rooster, the bean paste and the paper money, and buckets of water besides to revive her when she comes back. She departs her body and, taking these with her and leading a great host of animal spirits, she flies west toward the land of the dead.

Teteke comes to a red river with no crossing. She calls to a ferryman waiting there – a ‘lame rogue’ – and promises him a large fee (in bean paste and joss paper) if he will let her cross. After some haggling the lame rogue agrees and lets her cross in his ‘half a boat with half an oar’. From him she learns, too, the spirit who had taken Sergudai Fiyyango and at whose urging. She thanks him and seeks out Monggoldai Nakcu. After fording a red river with the help of her tambourine, she finds Monggoldai and haggles with him over Sergudai only to find that he’s handed him over to Ilmun Han already. Angrily, she refuses to give him anything and sets out across yet another river with her spirits in tow.

The shamaness comes to a keep with high walls that belongs to Ilmun Han, which it is clear she cannot scale. She calls upon the power of a great bird roosting on the Eastern Mountain to assail the keep and bear out the soul of the boy she is seeking. The bird swoops down and carries off Sergudai Fiyanggo as he is playing with Ilmun Han’s children, who – frightened and crying – report to their father what happened. Ilmun Han sends Monggoldai Nakcu after the shamaness.

When the evil spirit catches up to Teteke, he pleads with her to return the boy to Ilmun Han. She gives him bean paste and joss paper, but Monggoldai Nakcu refuses them. Understanding that Monggoldai Nakcu wants the dog and the rooster, Teteke cleverly uses the animals to bargain with the spirit, gradually getting him to add ninety years to the Sergudai’s life, and promising him nine children with a fine wife. However, Teteke tricks Monggoldai, too: at first, she does not tell him how to call the dog and the rooster, and they soon go chasing after her when she leaves. Only after they lead Monggoldai for a merry chase through the land of the dead does she tell him how to call them so they will follow him.

On her way back, the shamaness meets her ex-husband, who first asks her to revive him as well, then tries to guilt her into reviving him, and at last threatens to throw her into a vat of boiling oil if she doesn’t revive him. Each time she refuses, saying his body is already too decayed. When he tries to detain her, she summons a great crane to seize him and throw him into Fengdu Cheng 酆都城, the place of retribution for wicked souls.

One last trial awaits Teteke before she can return to the land of the living on the ferry of the ‘lame rogue’. She goes to meet Omosi-mama, the ‘grandmother’ of the underworld, who governs the workings of nature. Teteke learns upon meeting her, that Omosi-mama is the one who has ordained her fate of becoming a shamaness. Omosi-mama then shows her, in a Phædrus-like vision, the fates of the souls in the afterlife as they are judged according to their deeds. Teteke beholds a vision of Daoist hell, in which the souls of wrongdoers in life are faced with poetic punishments (loan sharks being bound in red-hot chains; verbal abusers having their tongues cut out; adulterers being tied to flaming pillars; eavesdroppers having their ears nailed to window-frames, &c.). She also sees two bridges, across which the souls of the righteous and unrighteous proceed – the righteous ascend on a golden bridge, and the unrighteous on a rusty bridge, where they are prodded and devoured by wild animals. Between the two bridges she beholds a bodhisatta reading from a sutta and declaring that based on the deeds of men in life, they will re-enter life according to their merit. Omosi-mama makes Teteke promise to tell everyone of what she has seen and heard.

In the land of the living, Nari Fiyanggo, having sustained the shaman in the land of the dead with his drumming, revives Teteke with water, and Sergudai Fiyanggo is found to be alive and well. Teteke describes in song all she has seen and done; however, her encounter with Omosi-mama has left her shaken. She breaks off her affair with Nari Fiyanggo and commits to writing the vision she has seen. However, when her mother-in-law learns from the villagers what passed between Teteke and her son in the land of the dead, she brings a lawsuit against her to the magistrate on her dead son’s behalf; the shamaness does not deny any detail of her mother-in-law’s testimony. The court hands down a sentence of death, which is commuted on account of Teteke’s honesty; instead, her shamanic instruments are to be taken from her, sealed in an iron case and thrown into a well. As for Sergudai: as the shamaness had promised him, he lives a long life, marries well, and has nine children – who go on to become officials themselves.
I should note that I began writing this piece before I was finished with Nowak’s and Durrant’s commentary at the end, so this will come off more as a ‘response piece’ than as an ‘analysis’. That said, the first thing that really struck me about this folktale was how familiar it seemed, as a fan of Judge Dee mysteries, Three Kingdoms and Chinese opera as well as more ‘high-brow’ forms of Chinese literature. But this should not have been surprising; by the Ming Dynasty the Manchu people were already well on their way towards assimilating to Chinese culture, and a number of Chinese cultural priorities, values and social expectations had already integrated themselves into Manchu (and Evenki, and Hezhen, and Daur) thinking – things like patrilineal descent reckoning, high regard for scholar-officials, Daoist mythology, Buddhist symbolism. Indeed, as Nowak and Durrant surmise, the structure and content of the tale both indicate that its popularity among these peoples – the indigenous peoples of North Asia – could imaginably rise from the fact that it calls attention to the precarity of indigenous values and material relations in the face of insurmountable pressures to assimilate. Teteke (the embodiment of the ‘older’, matrilineal shamanic order) is able to save Sergudai (the new, Sinicised Manchu who was careless of the environment in his fateful hunting trip, but who fulfills his duties to his parents and to his society per Chinese expectations), but at the explicit cost of her love, her progeny, her social position and her shamanic abilities.

But then I also got to thinking about my previous thoughts on shamanism, and felt that I had to revisit them in a certain sense. I still hold by what I said then: there is a preoccupation in this story with death, fate, the entanglement of erotic love and bereavement, and the sense of nature being something to be both respected and feared, while forces of chaos rage just beyond the horizons of ordinary liminal comprehension. There is a sense of tragœdy that pervades this story, that makes it powerful – and that makes Teteke a compelling heroine. The shamaness makes immense sacrifices for the bereaved father in the story – pecuniary, mental, spiritual. And in the end, Teteke leaves her lover the drummer who sustained her in her spirit journey, and even stands as a kind of Girardian scapegoat in the rather moralistic ending of the tale. Even though she had pulled off this death-defying rescue, she is still blamed by her mother-in-law, the villagers and the justice system for her husband not being revived as well. In stepping over the boundaries provided in the story – demarcated by river-crossings especially – she becomes something of a transgressive figure as well as a heroine. And yet, she is the one who comes back bearing this tale, this vision of heaven and hell, by which Omosi-mama means her to enlighten and rectify the community. In other words: a tragic catharsis, even if it is one which seems superimposed by an entirely different cultural complex.

And I can start to see why these figures from Orthodox countries like Eliade, Shirokogorov and Grebenshchikov, who imbibed Orthodox Christianity with their mothers’ milk, became so fascinated by – one dares say, bewitched by – the shamanistic cultures with this tragic sensibility, even as these cultures were being assailed by a rationalistic Faustian order seeking to master fate, to subjugate the erotic (even as it claims to liberate it), to cheat death. Perhaps it was the same impulse that motivated Aldous Huxley to contrapose two such worlds. Perhaps even these ‘cradle’ Orthodox who didn’t entirely hold onto Orthodoxy into adulthood, still saw something admirable and heroic in these cultures which grappled with the fundamental absurdities of nature and death and sought to find some kind of balance with them, as opposed to the culture that sought to systematically rationalise nature and wish away death. The problem is, even if death is not the ‘natural’ end – and there’s something of that realisation in the Tale of the Nišan Shamaness – the Faustian approach to it is itself something of a dead end.

Father Paul gave a sermon today on the Last Judgement, and asked us to consider specifically the time and the place at which the Judgement occurs. In the Gospel text, we are treated to an image that is very similar to the one that Teteke beheld, of the two bridges. And yet, the modes of judgement and the standards used are worlds apart. The Last Judgement occurs, as he had it, at the Cross: at the place in which the world (that is to say, Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin, the crowds – in short, all of us, standing as enemies) judged Him and put Him to death; with the impetus for that same little-j ‘judgement’ lying in the very depths of our inward being. The Last Judgement, then, happens not as a grand world-ending historical event, but now, at every moment.

And how are we judged? We are judged not based on any righteous or unrighteous deeds we ourselves do. We are already standing in the position, either of the Publican before he came to the Temple, or else of the Pharisee if we do not acknowledge our own need of forgiveness, the violence of our own attachments to the world and its idols. We stand in the position of the Prodigal in the pigsty – or else in the position of the elder brother, if we complain that God is treating us unfairly. In short: we’re all on that rusty bridge together. Nobody’s getting onto the golden bridge on his own brains or his own gumption. We’re all part of the order that creates these cycles of retribution and tragœdy. And we can only break these cycles when, with Christ’s help, we go out of the city, across the river in baptism and down to the land of the dead ourselves. Down to the land where we are dead, that is. Down to the tomb, where our heart is.

I won’t take up more blog space by simply repeating Fr Paul’s sermon by paraphrase; he says it better than I could anyway. But I do want to recapitulate my earlier point about the pre-Christian societies and the fertile ground they seem to have made for the Gospel. Are they perhaps in a better state than we are? Are they perhaps wiser, in allowing themselves to be more vulnerable to the messy surd realities of death, loss, bereavement? Is there perhaps more room for recognition, that we are not sufficient for the salvation of our selves? Is there perhaps greater wisdom in the idea that what we can hope for at best are simply a series of smaller victories in the ‘long defeat’? Is there a lapsarian reality, though upset entirely by Christ, of which an awareness is still necessary for Christ to be of any use to us? Realising full well that Tolkien was an Englishman, I think he had an ‘ear’ for such realities, in folklore and in færie, that most of us Faustian Westerns simply don’t want to acknowledge – and I think these realities can be sensed in the eschatological pessimism of the folklore of marginal, indigenous cultures, pieces like the Tale of the Nišan Shamaness. It’s not only possible but necessary to read Teteke as the tragic scapegoat of the Tale. But, in light of her willing renunciation of her lover and her non-resistance at her trial, it’s also possible to read her by the end of the Tale as someone for whom true confession, repentance, dare I say salvation, are only half a dance-step and half a drum-beat away.

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