The Sarmatian Shaman

In 2013, archaeologists found in Kurgan (Russia) what seems to be a Sarmatian burial mound. In the southern Ural steppes this amazing finding shows some peculiar items that may suggest that the individual buried there was a shaman.

A little bit of history is needed to know who the Sarmatians were. Most people though for an age that they were natives to Europe in the region we now call Poland. However, the Sarmatians were Iranian (an Indo-European people such as the Alans/Alani, very caucasian-looking) flourishing from around the 5th century BC to the 4th century AD. The burial mound found in Russia, dates to early in the range, corresponding to the Early Iron Age within the region. The Sarmatians spoke a Scythian language and later their territory corresponded to the western part of greater Scythia (mostly modern Ukraine and Southern Russia nowadays). Around 100 BC, the Sarmatian tribes ranged from the Vistula River to the mouth of the Danube and eastward to the Volga, bordering the shores of the Black and Caspian seas as well as the Caucasus to the south. The Sarmatians traded with the Mediterranean cultures to the west, although, they retained their own customs and traditions, rooted in their nomadic lifestyle.

In the burial mound, in the grave itself to be more precise, 26 golden deer statues have been found, which may have been representations of Gods or spirits to the people that put them there. Further excavations were carried out and a body was revealed. Archaeologists first found a bronze cauldron (of great size) in the entrance passage to the grave, which might have been especially made for the burial. It is definitely in the Sarmatian style as the handles are made from two griffons. Such animals are prominently features in the art of the region and may represent spirit animals since griffons are mythical creatures.

The grave was richly furnished and, since the remains comprised those typically found with female burials, as well as a quantity of fine jewellery, the burial was concluded to be that of a woman. A small wicker case was found near the skull. It was stuffed with items including a wooden box, leather pouches, glass, horse teeth with red pigments, a cast silver lidded container, bathroom flasks, silver and earthenware and gold pectoral cages. There was also a large silver mirror that lay nearby. It was decorated with gilded stylised animals on the handle, and an embossed decoration on the back. The image of an eagle sat in the centre of the mirror, surrounded by a procession of six winged bulls. Mirrors at this time were very rare and such intense decoration suggests a spiritual use. It is common to link Iron Age mirrors to Shamanism because they were used for such purposes.

Archaeologists also uncovered equipment used for tattooing, including two stone mixing palettes and gold-covered iron needles, as well as bone spoons used to blend paints. The pens were decorated with animals. It is impossible to say whether the body had tattoos as only bones remain but, elsewhere, waterlogged kurgans reveal tattooed bodies with depictions animals such as those found in this burial mound. Tattooing at this time is often linked with shamanism and many of the other tattooed bodies contain items used in a spiritual lifestyle.

Later tests on the body revealed that the body found is not a woman at all, but actually a man. Now the items on the grave take a total different meaning.

In the Greek literature, there is an account about Enaree (a Scythian shaman described as effeminate or androgynous).Transvestite shamans in Scythian culture lived in the guise of the opposite gender. There are some details about these androgynous figures, suggesting that they received serious damage to their manhood through riding and therefore live the rest of their lives as women. Such transformation clearly marked them out as shamans. Blurring gender and sexual boundaries for spiritual practice still occurs in the area and is also found in many other parts of the world, where many male shamans live as women.

This might explain the items placed with the body in the Samaritan burial mound. This person might have been a male shaman living as a woman, and providing spiritual guidance to the local community. He was buried with his beautiful clothes and jewellery, vanity items, and also the tools of his shamanic trade. Given the wealth of grave goods, he was clearly highly esteemed by his community both during his life but also after his death.

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