Raising the Dead: Medicine Women who Revive and Retrieve Souls

Shamanic healing? It was never just a man’s job.

By Max Dashu


The healing power of shamans is well known. They may lay on hands, extract negative energies from a diseased person’s body or infuse it with life essences, chant power songs and curative charms, or make journeys in the spirit to find and recover the soul of traumatized people, thus restoring them to health. Much of the written commentary about “shamanism” focuses primarily on males, so much so that they give the impression that women’s participation is negligible. Standing in contrast to this picture are many traditions that cast medicine women as the greatest healers, so powerful that they are even capable of bringing the dead back to life. Traditions that turn on this theme are found in Egypt, Mali, Greece, Finland, Korea and Tibet. Other stories from Iraq, Israel, and Italy also feature women who call up the dead, or journey to the underworld.


Isis the Healer, the Mistress of Magic, in whose mouth is the Breath of Life, whose words destroy disease and awake the dead. 1

One of the 10,000 names of Auset (Isis) is Weret Hekau, meaning the Great Enchantress, or “Strong of Magic.” She heals by virtue of her words of power. She restored the scorpion-bitten son of a lady in the Delta marshes by invoking the Egg of the Great Cackler. Auset is often depicted shaking the sistrum, the sacred rattle of Kemetic temple women, which itself has strong shamanic associations. (Some modern African healers in Kenya and Namibia use gourd rattles in their curing ceremonies.) Auset also possesses the shamanic power of shapeshifting into a falcon-form. She spreads out her protective wings, and beats them powerfully, to arouse spirit and restore life-essence.

To revive the slain and dismembered Ausar/Osiris, she changed into the form of a kite (a bird with falcon-like wings but flat-faced like an owl). She hovered over his body, and she “made a shade with her plumage, / Created breath with her wings.” 2 Temple reliefs at Abydos and Denderah, as well as many papyri, show Auset as a bird flying and beating her wings all around Ausar. Serpents of regeneration rise in the underworld beneath his bier. Isis is shown in both her human and falcon forms. The deep-eyed Hekat, frog goddess of generation, birth and resurrection, watches over this transfiguration in the Denderah relief. 3


Auset revives Ausar

Although Auset is indisputably a deity, she is also described as a First Woman, with an array of foundational acts to her credit. She is not only a model of queenship, but also a powerful sorceress who is “mighty of tongue.” Her shapeshifting and power to restore the dead to life recur in numerous stories about powerful shamans. The closest parallel is found near the bend of the Niger River, where the great tungutu Pa Sini Jobu shapeshifted into bird form and used her wings to impart life to a dead ram.


In Mali, the Bosso or Soroko people remembered Pa Sini Jobu as the greatest of all tungutu (their name for shamans). She lived a very long time ago. “Pa Sini Jobu is regarded as the ancestress of a Soroko-Bosso tribe which dwells below Jenne; she attained to extreme old age, and was a mistress of the most marvelous powers. Now, when she arrived at the time when women generally get husbands, she sent all her suitors away.  She had no desire towards marriage.” 4 Tradition signals her abundant vital power by describing her very long hair.

One day a man killed the sacred ram of the king, whose fortunes were bound up in the animal. Desperate to revive his ram, the king sent out a call to all the tungutu to come and revive him. “Then all sorts and conditions of men from the uttermost ends of the earth flocked together; all who were Tungutu… some who could stay under water for three days. There were others who could stay buried in the earth for three days. There were people who could change themselves into fire. Each one tried his powers of wizardry. But the sheep was still dead; he gradually rotted and could not be made living and whole again.” 4

Then Pa Sini Jobu herself invited a tungutu named Yena to take up the task. He said he could do it if she was able to recover the ram’s liver and other body parts, which had already been devoured by hyenas. Through her second sight, Pa Sini Jobu described the place where the jackals were holed up. She summoned them, and they came to her running. She commanded the jackals to retch up the organs, and they complied. But the male tungutu was not able to do anything with these dead, chewed body parts. He said, “Thou hast brought back the parts that were missing by thy skill and use of (magical) powers, so that I cannot marvel at thee enough and I recognize thy superiority to me without more ado, but I am unable to restore the sheep to life.” 4

The King sent once more to Pa Sini Jobu, asking her if she knew of any way to revive the now rotting and stinking carcass of his ram. She agreed, saying, “I will see to this matter myself. The sheep shall live.”  The way she went about it was through a classic shamanic ceremony of ecstatic dance:

Thereupon the King caused all the Kie (musicians) to come together to beat their calabashes. The Kie sat around the square. Pa Sini Jobu took her seat on the ground in the midst of them. Because she was a Tungutu, she had such long hair that it reached far, far down her back, and she could sit on her own hair instead of a stool or a mat. This hair was the gift of her powers.

The Kie began to beat time. The Kie played music. They played and sang faster and faster still. Pa Sini Jobu began to get into a frenzy. Her power was awakened. The Kie played and sang and beat time with ever-increasing quickness. The power of Pa Sini Jobu grew stronger. Pa Sini Jobu screamed! The Kie beat time.

Pa Sini Jobu rose up. She floated aloft. She floated up to the clouds. She changed her arms while up in the clouds into wings, like the great birds have, and then sank slowly down over the ram. Pa Sini Jobu rested over the ram for the space of six days. During this time she covered the ram with her outstretched wings. On the seventh day she got up. The ram was alive! 4

Pa Sini Jobu had revived the animal with her wings, as Isis had done for Osiris.

After this exploit, Pa Sini Jobu left her country and traveled around. She came to a country ruled by a woman, Queen Na Manj. The queen joyfully welcomed her with a stately procession at the gates of her city. She greeted the tungutu in all friendliness and said: “I have heard of thy great gifts. Do me the pleasure to stay awhile with me so that I may show how greatly I honour thee.” Pa Sini Jobu said: “Thou art very gracious. For a while I will stay with thee.”

She made her entry into the city of Na Manj. The queen did all she possibly could to be good to her. All the townspeople came to greet Pa Sini Jobu, to bring her presents and do honour to her. After a few days, Na Manj asked the Tungutu for her advice. She replied, “All that has happened is known unto me. Ask me, therefore, and I will answer thee gladly.” Na Manj said that she needed her help in fighting off a neighboring king whose warriors were disturbing her country. Pa Sini Jobu agreed.

The king lived on an island in the Niger, and the river djinns tried to dissuade the medicine woman, saying: “Thou art a strange Tungutu, great and mighty — in other places — but here thy powers avail not. Let it be, Pa Sini Jobu.” But Pa Sini Jobu only said, “We’ll see about that.” She went ahead with her ceremony, and the djinn swallowed up the queen and her entire army, leaving only the Tungutu. Then the djinn took her under the water and instructed her about “all the illnesses and all misfortunes and all life on the earth,” and how each could be remedied or treated. They also gave her teachings about how to seat spirits in sacred pots that had been ceremonially filled with sacred and charged substances. 4

This widespread West African practice of consecrating vessels to deities was known to the Yoruba and BaKongo, who disseminated it across the African diaspora. 5  The way that the spirits took the tungutu “under the water” also compares to the San signification of “underwater” as the Spirit Realm of Ancestors, a timeless dimension where animals spoke to humans and where shamans accessed their powers. 6

Another instance of revivifying power appears in the Malian epic Sunjatta Keita. It briefly refers to the lifegiving powers of the Ninth Sorceress of Mande. Kulutugubaga has the ability not only to restore broken arms and heal flesh wounds, but even to bring the dead back to life. 7


The Georgian priestess Medea also was said to have revived a ram, but by putting it into a cauldron with potent herbs and incantations. All accounts emphasize Medea’s powers of enchantment and hers, repeatedly describing her as able to restore youth and even life itself. In Nostoi, she rejuvenated Jason’s father Aeson in a cauldron. Aeschylus has Medea revive the Nurses of Dionysos as well as their husbands with an herbal potion. But Euripedes casts Medea’s restorative cauldron in a more negative light. He makes her ram-rejuvenation into a ploy, in which the sorceress convinces the daughters of king Peleas that she will make him immortal—if they first dismember and boil him.


Medea and the ram


Euripides also transferred the blame for the killing of Medea’s children to her. But Corinthian tradition held that men of the city who feared her power had committed the murders. As against these demonizing stories of classical Greek dramatists, older scholastic sources relate that Medea was venerated as goddess in some Greek cities. 8 We can see how her history changed from that of a goddess, granddaughter of Helios, and a powerful priestess of Colchis, to that of a witch who had been transformed into a negative stereotype, a killer of her own children.


The 15th Rune of the Kalevala does not name the valiant witch-mother who brings her son back to life, but other clues of family relationships identify her as Ilmatar. She notices baleful omens – Lemminkäinen’s hairbrush is exuding blood – and rushes north to Pohjola, the northern land of the dead, where her son had fared on a rash quest, against her advice. She travels in a shamanic manner: “On her arm she throws her long-robes, Fleetly flies upon her journey; With her might she hastens northward, Mountains tremble from her footsteps, Valleys rise and heights are lowered, Highlands soon become as lowlands, All the hills and valleys leveled.” 9

She interrogates Louhi, mistress of the dead, whose daughter Lemminkäinen was courting, to find out what became of him. Three times she asks, making threats, before she gets a straight answer. Again she travels in a shamanic manner: “Now the mother seeks her lost one, For her son she weeps and trembles, Like the wolf she bounds through fenlands, Like the bear, through forest thickets, Like the wild-boar, through the marshes, Like the hare, along the sea-coast, To the sea-point, like the hedgehog, Like the wild-duck swims the waters…” 9 She questions the forest, the pathways, and the golden moon. All answer her that they are preoccupied with their own concerns. Finally the sun answers her, saying that her son had disappeared into the whirlpool of the underworld river Tuoni.

The mother then goes to a smith, asking him to forge a special rake with which to plumb the waters. She takes it to the river of Tuoni, calling on the sun for strength, and begins to rake the waters looking for Lemminkäinen’s body. She finds his clothing and then his body. As in the Bosso story, wild animals have dismembered the body. “There were wanting many fragments, Half the head, a hand, a fore-arm, Many other smaller portions, Life, above all else, was missing. Then the mother, well reflecting, Spake these words in bitter weeping: ‘From these fragments, with my magic, I will bring to life my hero.’” 9 Ilmatar continues raking the river until she finds all the body parts.

Now the poem draws on a very old healing incantation, widespread across northern Europe. It is the chant of bone to bone, flesh to flesh, sinew to sinew, recorded in the 11th century Merseberg Charm, one of the few pagan incantations to survive in Old German. Variants of it exist all over northern Europe.

[Ilmatar] shapes her son from all the fragments, Shapes anew her Lemminkainen, Flesh to flesh with skill she places, Gives the bones their proper stations, Binds one member to the other, Joins the ends of severed vessels, Counts the threads of all the venules, Knits the parts in apposition; Then this prayer the mother offers:

Suonetar, thou slender virgin,
Goddess of the veins of heroes,
Skillful spinner of the vessels,
With thy slender, silver spindle,
With thy spinning-wheel of copper,
Set in frame of molten silver,
Come thou hither, thou art needed;
Bring the instruments for mending,
Firmly knit the veins together,
At the end join well the venules,
In the wounds that still are open,
In the members that are injured. 9

Ilmatar also invokes a maiden in a copper boat, floating in the ether, to come “from the belt of heaven”:

Row throughout these veins, O maiden,
Row through all these lifeless members,
Through the channels of the long-bones,
Row through every form of tissue.
Set the vessels in their places,
Lay the heart in right position,
Make the pulses beat together,
Join the smallest of the veinlets,
And unite with skill the sinews.
Take thou now a slender needle,
Silken thread within its eyelet,
Ply the silver needle gently,
Sew with care the wounds together. 9

For good measure she also calls on Ukko (here a sun god, riding in a red sledge with chargers) to mend all the wounds. In this way, she succeeds in restoring the integrity of her son’s body—but he still lies lifeless. Now the medicine woman asks, “Where may I procure the balsam, Where the drops of magic honey?” with which to anoint and restore Lemminkäinen. 9 She sends the bee to gather honey from sacred forests. It does not avail. She sends the bee again, across the seven oceans, to a magic island (a staple of Russian healing charms) to fetch a stronger honey. Still the body cannot speak. So she dispatches the bee to the seventh heaven, and tasting the honey, finds it full of healing virtue. She anoints her son’s body and at last she succeeds in fully restoring him to life.

Ilmatar now asks Lemminkäinen how he came to this pass, and it is not long before she is reproaching his foolhardiness: “O thou son of little insight,/ Senseless hero, fool-magician, / Thou didst boast betimes thy magic / To enchant the wise enchanters,/ On the dismal shores of Lapland.” 9 (This is not the only instance in the Kalevala of female commentary on the recklessness of male heroes, and women who try to dissuade their men from battle.)

As in the tradition of Pa Sini Jobu, Lemminkäinen’s body is represented as hopelessly beyond repair, dead for days, dismembered and devoured by beasts. These stories highlight the revivifying power of the female shaman; even in the direst, seemingly hopeless circumstances, she is able to resurrect the dead. This theme is repeated in the Manchu epic of Nishan Shaman.


This text originates as an oral tradition, which was eventually written down (with some Confucian editorializing). It gives a Manchu view of the female shaman Teteke who was considered the most powerful of all shamans, so potent that she could bring a boy back from the dead. It offers a classic example of soul-retrieval from the underworld, by a shaman who goes into an ecstasy so deep that she falls as if dead, and must be revived by her assistant.

During the Ming dynasty, the only son of a rich official died. The distraught family mourned him with a lavish funeral. An old hunchback came and asked, “Are you just going to let your son go? Why not send for a skilled shaman to bring him back to life?” The family replied that the shamans around there weren’t much good, and asked for a recommendation. “Rich sir, how could you not know? There is a shaman by the name of Teteke who lives on the banks of the Nisihai River not far from here. This shaman has great power; she can revive the dead. Why don’t you go ask her?” At which the old man left, ascending on a five-colored cloud (like a Taoist immortal or Buddhist arhat). 10

So the father went in search of the shaman. He asked a woman hanging clothes where the Nishan shaman lived. She smiled and said that she lived on the opposite bank (the first of several times that this shaman appears as a trickster). The father went off, only to find out that she was in fact the shaman herself, and returned to ask her assistance. She demurred, saying that she was only a novice and that they should seek out other more capable shamans. (This demurral also figures in the story of Pa Sini Jobu.) The tearful father begged her to take the case. Finally she relented.

The Nishan shaman washed her face, set out an incense table, and threw round Go pieces into the water (performing a divination). Sitting on a stool in the middle of the room, she began beating on her frame drum with a drumstick, “she began to entreat.” Chanting hobage and deyanku, “she implored in a chant, and the spirit permeated her body.” She began chanting a prophecy that described all the relevant happenings that led up to the son’s death. Then she asked for confirmation, and the father affirmed that everything she had said was true. (Such prophetic descriptions of the situation at hand recur in innumerable shamanic tales around the world.) The text underlines that she was entranced during the ceremony, until: “The shaman grasped a stick of incense, raised it up, and revived. Then she put away the tambourine and drumstick.” 11

After more imploring from the official and another demurral from the shaman, she agreed to come to his house. They loaded up her cabinets of spirit receptacles and brought her on a sedan chair to the merchant’s home. They set up the spirit placings, and fed the shaman. The other shamans of the  village came, but their accompaniment was out of harmony. Nishan shaman said she would not be able to travel to the underworld that way. So they sent for her assistant, the 70-year-old Nari Fiyanngo, who she called “filial and obedient.”

When he arrived, Nishan shaman humorously asked him to harmonize beautifully with the tune. “If you do not harmonize with the chanting and murmuring, I will beat your buttocks with a wet drumstick made of cherry wood!” Nari Fiyanngo laughed and replied, “Powerful, strange Nishan shaman, I, your younger brother know this. I do not require a lot of instruction!” He too sat down and ate, and then began to drum. The shaman put on her garments, bells and skirts, “and put the nine-bird cap on her head.” Her body began to wave like a willow, shaking with her chanting. She began to beseech:

Hoge yage Please come, escaping  
Hoge yage from the stone pit
Hoge yage please descend quickly Hoge yage…

And she began to go into ecstasy. The shaman continued with her incantation, instructing her assistant to prepare a rooster, a striped dog, and many offerings of bean paste and paper bundles as offerings for the underworld gatekeepers.

Hoge yage I am going to pursue a soul  / Hoge yage into a dark place / Hoge yage I will go to the land of the dead / Hoge yage I am going to raise / Hoge yage a fallen soul. 12

She instructed her assistant to help her return from her spirit journey, to revive her by throwing buckets of water around her face. “Having uttered this, she was thrown down and immediately her appearance began to change.” Her body fell as if lifeless as she began her otherworld journey. The assistant came and laid her down, lined up the offerings next to her, and drummed and chanted.

Leading the rooster and dog, and carrying the offerings, the shaman started off for the land of the dead. As she went, animals ran, birds flew, and snakes slithered. (These are creatures of the three worlds, upper, middle, and lower, which the Manchu share with the Mongols and other North Asian peoples). “Traveling like a whirlwind she arrived at the bank of a river.” She looked around for a way to cross, and called to a lame boatman to take her across so that she can meet her dead relatives. She named her father and mother, then gave a long list of matrilineal relatives (a theme that is repeated further on). She paid him with bean paste and paper, and he ferried her over.

Then the shaman came to the Red river, and this time there was no boat. She invoked the great eagle and the silver wagtail, the river snake and eight pythons. She threw her drum in the water, stood in it, and crossed the river “like a whirlwind,” again leaving behind bean paste and paper bundles for the river spirit. In the same manner she went through all the underworld gates, giving offerings to their guardians.

“With skirt bells shaking, cap waving, and small bells ringing, the Nishan shaman was making her voice clang like metal.” Now she confronted a lord of the underworld, the one who had carried away the son. Getting no satisfaction from him, she went to the higher lord of the underworld, whose city walls were tightly locked. The shaman made a long invocation to dozens of animal powers to enter the city and bring out the child spirit. “When she finished, all the spirits rose up in flight and became like clouds and fog.” 13 A great bird snatched up the boy and brought him to the shaman.

The infuriated underworld king confronted his underling, who replied that it must have been the Nishan shaman who did this. The minion pursued her, calling out, “Shaman, elder sister, wait a moment.” He appealed to her, saying that it was not right to take the boy away without paying a fee, since he had gone to great trouble to bring him there and was in trouble now. They negotiated; the shaman offered him bean paste and paper bundles, but he protested that it was not enough. She added more, but still it was not enough; he asked for the rooster and dog, since the king of the dead has neither, and thus everyone would be satisfied. She agreed, but only on condition that he lengthen the life of the child. A long bargaining session ensues, with the shaman piling up more years of long life, and the spirit throwing in good health and progeny. The deal was done, and the shaman departed.

But Teteke had one more obstacle to confront. The spirit of her long-dead husband confronted her beside the road, demanding that she bring him back too. She answered that it was not possible, since his tendons and flesh had rotted, but promised that she would make offerings at his grave and take care of his mother. He became enraged and started to reproach her with old marital disputes. She retorted that he had left her with nothing and yet she had cared for his mother all these years.

Making no headway, at last she called on a great crane to come and fling him into Fungtu City, the Taoist world of the dead. Then she sang a anthem of female independence and nonconformity, affirming old, pre-Chinese, matrilineal traditions of the Manchu:

Deyanku deyanku Without a husband
Deyanku deyanku I shall live happily
Deyanku deyanku Without a man
Deyanku deyanku I shall live proudly
Deyanku deyanku Among mother’s relatives
Deyanku deyanku I shall live enjoyably
Deyanku deyanku Facing the years
Deyanku deyanku I shall live on
Deyanku deyanku Without children
Deyanku deyanku I shall live on
Deyanku deyanku Without a family
Deyanku deyanku I shall live lovingly
Deyanku deyanku Pursuing my own youth
Deyanku deyanku I shall live as a guest
Deyanku deyanku 14

After this song, she led the boy quickly through the underworld. Now they came to a beautiful, majestic tower surrounded by five-colored clouds and guarded by two gods in gold armor. She asked them who lived there, and they replied, “Omosi-mama, who causes the leaves to unfurl and the roots to spread properly.” Omosi-mama is the Manchu goddess who gives life to all beings. She endows human beings with three souls: the true soul, the life whose departure causes death; the soul-that-precedes, which can travel during dreams or soul-loss, and which the goddess gives to another person after death; and the external soul, which returns to the underworld after death (body-soul).

Nishan shaman negotiated again with various guardians, giving them offerings. Among those attending the goddess she encountered the deceased wife of her assistant and exchanged friendly greetings with her. Then she went to pay her respects to Omosi-mama, an old woman with snow-white hair. She is described as ugly (much like the spinner-faeries in European folklore): “her eyes protruded, her mouth was large, her face long, her chin stuck out, and her teeth had become red-unpleasant to behold!” 15

Though derided by the storyteller, this Old Goddess remains the life-giver. Around her, women were bustling around making babies, passing around yarn, carrying children to be born, putting them into bags and taking their on their backs out the eastern door. Nishan shaman prostrated nine times before Omosi-mama. The old goddess did not recognize her at first, but then exclaimed, “How could I have forgotten? When you were to be born, I became annoyed with you because you absolutely refused to go, and I placed a shaman’s cap on your head, tied bells on your skirt, put a tambourine in your hand, and causing you to act as a shaman, I playfully brought you to life.” 15

Omosi-mama spoke of how she had ordained the future fame of the Nishan shaman, and how she fated destinies for all the souls who came from her realm. She had her helpers show Teteke around so that she could see the flourishing forests whose willow branches were used to send forth souls who have not eaten horses or cattle, and the sparse woods for those who have. (This Buddhist ban against meat-eating is supplemented by terrifying descriptions of souls being punished for sins, or reborn as worms.). In another building all kinds of animals, birds and fish were being created.

After witnessing all this, the Nishan shaman retraced her steps, paying more fees to the various spirits and guardians so that she could return. The ferryman hailed her triumph in bringing back the boy from the land of the dead. She reached the merchant’s house, and her assistant poured the buckets of water on her as she had instructed. He burned incense to revive her, singing an incantation praising her achievement and calling on various animal spirits to help her awaken. The shaman got up and began to chant an account of what she had done, and reporting the blessings of Omosi-mama.

Kerani kerani When you serve Omosi-mama
Kerani kerani with respect and purity
Kerani kerani Omosi-mama’s flowers are good
Kerani kerani Therefore do only good. 16

Again the shaman was thrown backward, and was censed once more by her assistant. “Then, because the shaman herself fanned the soul into the empty body of Sergudai Fiyanngo, he suddenly came to.” He asked for water and said he had been sleeping and dreaming for a long while. The family rejoiced as he sat up. The father offered wine to the Nishan shaman and her assistant. She praised Nari Fiyanggo, modestly quoting a saying that if a shaman was worth three parts, she will not come back to life unless helped by an assistant of seven parts. Everyone laughed. Then the family loaded up wagons full of payments for the shaman and her assistant.

But the final episode shows the social and political pressures on such a powerful woman at the time this epic was recorded. Her mother-in-law had heard that Nishan had refused to bring back her dead husband, and had even thrown him into Fungtu city after he threatened to boil her in oil. The furious mother accused the shaman of killing her son a second time. She went to the capital and filed an official complaint. Nishan shaman was arrested, and her testimony matched the mother’s. So the officials condemned her as a disloyal wife. They could have executed her but, because she had not lied, they destroyed her shaman’s regalia and drums instead.  The epic ends with an tacked-on admonition similar to those added to other classics of orature, such as the Icelandic Völuspá, when they were committed to writing by men determined to defuse them. The writer claims that the Manchu poem contains “evil teachings contrary to the great law. People in the future must not imitate them.”

Three different written versions of this story survive. Two of them lack the sermonizing conclusion. One does not mention any destruction of the shaman’s power objects; the other describes it in a single final sentence, which also appears to be tacked-on. The original poem had beeen performed in a broad-based Manchu oral tradition that was dissolving under Chinese influence. Manchu kinship patterns also were moving toward patriarchal Chinese patterns. However, the persistence of maternal kinship terms led Shirokogoroff and other scholars to posit an original Manchu matrilineage. The passages affirming maternal kin in the poem seem to bear out these older maternal loyalties. 18 The very reason offered for the shaman’s downfall was her disloyalty to patriarchy, even more than Confucian or Buddhist officialdom’s disapproval of shamanic rites.

Manchu clans were structured around shamanic spirits—both ancestors and animal guardian spirits. 19 The Manchu kept their clan lists secret, guarded in spirit receptacles. Nishan Shaman brings these sacred receptacles with her for the ceremony, implying that ancestral spirits were important for such rites. Her song places strong emphasis on the maternal relatives, and Margaret Nowak suggests that it is “a plea for the old order.” 20

Teteke’s self-affirming chant to her dead husband is “a strong and surprising denial of all that a woman in Manchu culture should live for: husband, husband’s clan, children, descendants.” Nowak contrasts the patrilineage-preserving task of restoring the son to the shaman’s repudiation of marriage and motherhood. Toward the story’s end, having seen the punishments for sins in the underworld, the shaman ends a love affair with her assistant and breaks from “all strange dissolute matters.” Here Nowak takes the wording of elder sister/younger brother at face value, and frames the wrongfulness of the relationship as breaking clan taboos around sexual relationships. I disagree, because this kind of kinship language is adopted in other shamanic settings; here it functions to signal the shaman’s seniority over her assistant. It is the “elder,” not sister, that is the significator here; and what is disapproved is that the widow has any love affair with anyone. But this entire theme of transgression is another late interpolation tacked on at the end. The real meaning of Nishan shaman, as Nowak comments, is that “she transcends social norms”and mediates between the worlds. 21 Her cleaving to “mother’s relatives” stands in stark contrast to the Confucian norm that drives the story: the official has lost his only son, the second, and thus his patrilineal posterity.

Nowak remarks on another interesting pattern in the poem: that water figures in passages between realms. The shaman throws her divinatory Go pieces into water; she and others wash their faces before the shamanizing begins; she crosses rivers to the underworld; her return to ordinary consciousness is accomplished by pouring water; and the first thing the revived boy does is ask for water. She also makes an observation on the realm of Omosi-mama: “Here nothing new is ever added; nothing old totally disappears. In cyclic fashion life keeps appearing and reappearing.” Omosi mama is “autonomous,” and oversees this endless process “significantly symbolized by the turning stone wheel.” 22

The epic illuminates the way Manchu shamans carried out their ceremonies, the kind of incantations they sang, an even mentions the cabinets with ancestral regalia referred to by other sources. It portrays Manchu beliefs about life, death, and a great Goddess who is both life-giver and fate-giver. It also repeats the theme of the greatest shaman who is nevertheless modest and retiring, as we have already seen with Pa Sini Jobu.


The imperative to have sons as patrilineal successors also figures in a primary Korean story about a female shaman, Bari Gongju (often transliterated as Pali Kongju.). Her father cast her off at birth for being a girl, the seventh in a series of daughters. Her name means “Princess Thrown-Away.” Her father tore her from her mother’s arms, locked her in a jeweled box, and cast her into the ocean. Turtles or dragons rescued her and brought her to a peasant couple, who raised her. She eventually became a mudang (female shaman).

Her story celebrates her forgiving filial loyalty. The Mountain God appeared before her and told her that her parents were ill. Only water from the Western Sky could cure them. Bari Gongju went to the palace and, disclosing her identity, said that she would undertake the dangerous journey to find the healing water. In some versions, she goes to save a brother born after her, replicating the theme of the all-important male heir. Other accounts say that her father was ill and her mother begged her to go to the Western Sky for “medicine water.” 23

It was a long journey through the spirit world to the Western Sky. Disguised as a boy, Pali Kongju passed between the North Pole Star and the South Pole Star. She met the Old Farming Woman of Heaven, who made her plow and sow a field by herself.  Then she had to get past the Laundress of Heaven, who forced her to wash all her laundry from black to white, causing a monsoon. Finally, she reached cliffs that led to the Western Sky.  Once again, golden turtles came to her rescue, forming a bridge to get her there safely.  She found the well with the water of life, protected by the Guardian, a rather disagreeable old man.  Still dressed as a boy, she asked him for some of the water, but when he learned she had no money to pay for it, he refused. 24

But she got the spirit to agree to let her become his servant. After three years of work, she was no closer to getting the water. Then the Guardian discovered that she was female, and asked her to marry him. She did, and bore him seven sons. Only then did he give her the elixir of water. She returned to find that her parents had just died, with funeral ceremonies underway. She sprinkled them with the water and brought them back to life. They gratefully offered her a place in the palace, but she refused. She returned to the spirit world, where she became a goddess who helps souls of the dead journey to the otherworld.


Bari Kongju

“Except for Cheju Island, Pali Kongju is regarded as the ancestor of modern shamans in Korea, even though she has been known by many different names.” 25 She is a prototypical shaman who is celebrated in rituals where the mudang enact the story of her passing through a portal of the Underworld. They wear sleeves striped with a rainbow of colors.


The wana’gi wapiyé Lucille Kills Enemy treated Mel Lone Hill for recurring pneumonia in the early 1950s, when she was in her 80s. She came to Mel’s house to doctor him when he was near death. “She had to go find me on the other side. She was probably the only one I knew of who was that powerful.” 26 The account of the shamanic journey is missing, but stories like this recur over and over in the annals of shamanic healing.


Stories about the co-founder of Tibetan Buddhism, Yeshe Tsogyel, retain aspects of shamanic culture even though firmly placed within a Buddhist context. She is described as a khandro, or dakini, rather than as a “shaman.” It is through meditation that she acquires siddhis, or powers:
“Where shale and snow met, I found the mystic heat’s inner warmth…” 27


Yeshe Tsogyel wields a phurba, a 3-sided ritual blade used by Himalayan shamans

The shamanic flight of Yeshe Tsogyal is cast in Buddhist terms: “The fledgling dakini-bird nesting in a crag / Could not conceive how easy was flight /Until her skill in the six vehicles was perfected; / But her potential released, wings beating with hidden strength/ Breaking the back of even the razor-edged wind,/ She arrived at whatever distination she chose.” 28 Thangkas often show her wielding a phurba, a ritual knife that shamans used in healing. It also has an esoteric significance as “remover of obstacles.”

Without enumerating all the parallels, I will note that the siddhis of Yeshe Tsogyal extended to the power of reviving the dead: “In Nepal, I resurrected the corpse of a dead man… My body became a sky-dancing rainbow body…” 29


Returning for a moment to the theme of shamanic goddesses, both Inanna and Ishtar are winged, and emanate the me (powers, rites, skills, and offices) from their shoulders. Among these me are religious offices, the scepter, staff – the caduceus occurring first in the Mesopotamian iconography of Ishtar—magicianship, descent to and ascent from underworld, various arts, and five different kinds of drums.


The drum figures in a story of Inanna planting a magical huluppu tree in her garden. In its three levels came to live the serpent, the wild-woman Lilitu, and Anzu the thunderbird. Inanna caused the magical tree to be felled and a drum and drumstick made from its wood – but gave them to Gilgamesh. So the shamanic power is displaced from Inanna to the male hero, ultimately with negative results. Inanna/Ishtar herself descends to the underworld, passing through its seven gates. This pre-eminently shamanic act was not performed to bring back a dead soul, but as a journey of spiritual discovery.

Other shamanic women are described as having the power to raise the dead to appear before the living, rather than to revive them. The Witch of Ein Dor called up the shade of Samuel at the command of Saul. This king had himself persecuted such women, as the biblical account explains; but he set aside the death penalty when he himself needed their services. The aHebrew title of the Ein Dor seeress reveals her shamanic dimensions: Baalat Ov, “Mistress of the Talisman,” or to put it another way, “Lady with a Medicine Object” (what it might have been is a much-debated subject). 30

The Cumaean Sibyl had the power to conduct Aeneas to the Underworld to commune with the dead. Mount Cuma overlooks the bay of Naples and a group of volcanic fumeroles called the Flaming Fields. The nearby crater-lake Avernus was known as an entrance to Tartarus, land of the dead. Ancient writers referred to an oracle of the dead here in the time of Odysseus. 32 The rock of mount Cuma was riddled with wide underground galleries and chambers and caves “from which a hundred wide tunnels, a hundred mouths lead, from which as many voices rush: the sibyl’s replies.” 34


The Sibyl of Cumae conducts Aeneas to the Underworld

According to Livy, the first sibyl came to Cumae after the burning of Troy, but Virgil shows a sibyl already living there when Aeneas fled Troy. Arriving in Italy, he came to consult the Cumaean sibyl, addressing her as “O most holy prophetess, you who see the future…” 34 The old seeress Deiphobe sat in silence, gazing at the floor, and slowly entered trance. She agreed to help the Trojan hero descend to the underworld to search out his father. But first, she told him, he must seek the golden bough (mistletoe, “sacred to Proserpina”) as an offering to the guardians of the gates of Hades. Then the sibyl guided Aeneas on a journey to the realm of the dead. She began with an offering of four steers and a heifer before “a wide-mouthed cavern, deep and vast and rugged.” Entering the cave, they descended deep into the earth. When challenged by Charon, she opened her robe to show the golden bough, and he allowed them passage. Aeneas communed with his father’s shade, and then the sibyl brought him back to the world of the living. 35



Teresa Urrea, la Santa de Cabora

A modern Mexican woman underwent her own otherworld journey, which was precipitated by a traumatic event. A ranch hand attacked and raped Teresa Urrea when she was only 15. She went into a coma for such a long time that she was given up for dead. But she revived, sitting up next to the coffin that had been brought in to bury her. During the months when she appeared unconscious, she experienced visions that transformed her into a healer with prophetic insight. She began curing people suffering from cancer, blindness, stroke, and paralysis. 36

Teresita became known as la Santa de Cabora. Thousands of Indian people came in a steady stream to the Cabora ranch to see her and be healed by her touch and gaze. This daughter of an Indian teen and a wealthly rancher in Sinaloa was a skilled healer even before her extended near-death experience, having trained under the midwife/curandera la Huila and a Yaqui medicine man. 36

Teresa Urrea became an inspiration to Indigenous people as a prophetess of Indian rights. She was a forerunner of the Mexican Revolution who co-authored el Plan de Tomóchic, one of the most radical declarations of human rights ever written. It called for new laws “declaring both men and women, whites and blacks, natives and foreigners, rich and poor, have the the same rights, duties and privileges and that they be absolutely equal before the law.” 37

Those goals remain as a guide for us yet to attain today.



Max DashuMax Dashu founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970 to research women’s history and heritages

globally. Her legendary slideshows bring to light female realities hidden from view, from ancient

iconography to women leaders, medicine women and rebels. Her work bridges the gap between academia

and grassroots education, and foregrounds Indigenous women passed over by standard histories. From her

collection of over 40,000 images, Dashu has created hundreds of slideshows, and presented them at

universities, conferences, and grassroots venues. She has authored numerous articles and produced two

videos on dvd: Woman Shaman: the Ancients (2013) and Women’s Power in Global Perspective (2008).

Her book Witches and Pagans is forthcoming, the first of multiple volumes in the series Secret History of

the Witches. www.suppressedhistories.net




  1. Margaret A. Murray, Ancient Egyptian Legends. Mineola NY: Courier Dover, 2000, p 47. On the words of power of Isis, see also Nora E. Scott, “The Metternich Stela,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, online: http://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/bulletins/1/pdf/3258024.pdf.bannered.pdf
  1. Lichtheim, 83. Her hovering over him is made clearer in this translation: “She overshadowed him with her feathers, she made wind with her wings, and she uttered cries…  She raised up the prostrate form of him whose heart was still…”  E.A. Wallis Budge, The Book of the Dead: the Papyrus of Ani in the British Museum, New York: Dover, 1967 [1895], p. liii
  1.  Max Dashu, Woman Shaman: the Ancients (dvd). Oakland, California: Suppressed Histories Archives, 2013 http://www.suppressedhistories.net/womanshamandvd.html
  1. Frobenius, Leo. The voice of Africa : being an account of the travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the years 1910-1912. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1913 The entire account of Pa Sini Jobu, with  all quotes, are drawn from this source.
  1. Aina Olomo, The Core of Fire: A Path to Spiritual Activism. (Brooklyn NY: Athelia Henrietta Press, 2002) 53
  1. J.D. Lewis-Williams, “The Thin Red Line: Southern San Notions and Rock Paintings of Supernatural Potency.” The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 36 No. 153 (Jun 1981) 11
  1. Frobenius, online. See also Dashu, “The Nine Sorceresses of Mande,” 2012, online:  http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles/9sorceress.html ]
  1. Sarah Iles Johnston, Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) 34. Pausanias (III, 27) also mentions these positive traditions of Medea. See also Miriam Robbins Dexter, “Colchian Medea and her circumpontic sisters.” ReVision. San Francisco, June 22, 2002
  1. John Martin Crawford, The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, Rune XV, Online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm All Kalevala quotes are drawn from this source.
  1. Margaret Nowak and Stephen Durrant, The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: A Manchu Folk Epic. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977) pp 49-50
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 52-54
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 59
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 65
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 74
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 75ff
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 86
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 89-90
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 106-09
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 96
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 109
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 101-02; 107
  1. Nowak and Durrant, 112-16
  1. Alan Carter Covell, Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea. (Seoul: Hollym, 1986) 183-89
  1. Tara the Antisocial Social Worker, “How a Woman Becomes a Goddess: Pali Kongju” Aug 19, 2009.  Online: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/08/19/769300/-How-a-Woman-Becomes-a-Goddess-Pali-Kongju
  1. Lee, Jung Young Lee. Korean Shamanistic Rituals. The Hague: Walter de Gruyter, 1981; 169, n. 9
  1. St. Pierre, Mark, and Tilda Long Soldier, Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers–Medicine Women of the Plains Indians. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995 p. 199
  1. Keith Dowman, Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel (Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, 1996) p. 94
  1. Dowman, 160
  1. Dowman, 94
  1. I Samuel 28:3-25
  1. Emil G. Hirsch, “Endor the Witch of” in the Jewish Encyclopedia, 1911.  http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5755-endor-the-witch-of
  1. Strabo, V, 4, 5
  1. Aeneid VI, online
  1. Aeneid VI, online
  1. Aeneid VI, 50-1000
  1. Urrea, Luis. The Hummingbird’s Daughter. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2005
  1. Romo, David. Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez, 1893-1923. El Paso TX: Cinco Puntos Press, 2005, p 32




Lichtheim, Miriam, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume II: The New Kingdom. University of California Press, Ltd., Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1976

Margaret A. Murray, Ancient Egyptian Legends. Mineola NY: Courier Dover, 2000

Frobenius, Leo. The voice of Africa : being an account of the travels of the German Inner African Exploration Expedition in the years 1910-1912. London: Hutchinson & Co, 1913  Online: http://www.archive.org/stream/voiceofafricabei02frobuoft/voiceofafricabei02frobuoft_djvu.txt Accessed Dec. 29, 2012

Dashu, Max. “The Nine Sorceresses of Mande,” 2011. Online:  http://www.suppressedhistories.net/articles/9sorceress.html

Aina Olomo, The Core of Fire: A Path to Spiritual Activism. Brooklyn NY: Athelia Henrietta Press, 2002

J.D. Lewis-Williams, “The Thin Red Line: Southern San Notions and Rock Paintings of Supernatural Potency.” The South African Archaeological Bulletin, Vol. 36 No. 153 (Jun 1981)

Sarah Iles Johnston, Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy, and Art (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) 34.

Miriam Robbins Dexter, “Colchian Medea and her circumpontic sisters.” ReVision. San Francisco, June 22, 2002

Crawford, John Martin. The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, 1888 Rune XV. Online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/kveng/kvrune15.htm

Nowak, Margaret, and Durrant, Stephen. The Tale of the Nishan Shamaness: A Manchu Folk Epic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977

Covell, Alan Carter, Folk Art and Magic: Shamanism in Korea. Seoul: Hollym (1986)

Tara the Antisocial Social Worker, “How a Woman Becomes a Goddess: Pali Kongju” The Daily Kos, Aug 19, 2009. Online: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/08/19/769300/-How-a-Woman-Becomes-a-Goddess-Pali-Kongju Accessed Dec. 29, 2012

Lee, Jung Young Lee. Korean Shamanistic Rituals. Walter de Gruyter, 1981, p 169, note 9

Dowman, Keith. Sky Dancer: The Secret Life and Songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel, Ithaca NY: Snow Lion, 1996

Mark St Pierre and Tilda Long Soldier, Walking in the Sacred Manner: Healers, Dreamers, and Pipe Carriers-Medicine Women of the Plains Indians. New York: Touchstone/ Simon & Schuster, 1995

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