Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nudan the Shaman (Manchu & Ewenki)

When Nudan was only twenty years of age, her husband died. She was now a young widow. In order to support her aged mother-in-law, Nudan studied to become a shaman. She eventually became very skilled at curing various illnesses. She was even able to revive those who had died, providing their souls had not settled in bucehe, the underworld, for a very long time. Knowledge of her skill spread across the land as she became more and more adept at her craft.

Soon came word that the Qing Crown Prince had been struck down by an illness. The Emperor invited two lamas to cure the Crown Prince, but he steadily grew worse and died. The Emperor was beside himself with grief but then heard that the shaman known as Nudan could bring his son back.

"Send a chair for Nudan and bring her at once!" he shouted as he dismissed the lamas.

Nudan happened to be washing clothes by the river when the Emperor's sedan chair arrived. A guard told her that she was needed at once, and so she immediately grabbed her imcin, her small tom-tom, entered the sedan chair, and left.

It so happened that the two lamas were infuriated at the thought of a shaman's aiding the Emperor. They felt grossly insulted and planned to kill Nudan before the sedan chair reached the imperial palace. And so outside they waited and waited. Nudan, however, while still far away, sensed something was up.

Just before the sedan chair came within sight of the palace gate, Nudan bid the runners to halt. She opened the door of the sedan chair, mounted her imcin, and flew into the air. She flew right over the heads of the astonished lamas and right through the gate and into the palace itself. She did not stop until she was at the very feet of the Emperor himself, who was on his throne. The Emperor was amazed but also extremely displeased. Under normal circumstances, the punishment for such an entry into the palace was death. He furiously scolded Nudan, telling her that no one but no one was to enter the imperial palace except in a respectful manner. Then he reined in his temper, for, at the moment, no one in the palace was living under a normal circumstance.

"Find my son's soul and bring him back to life!" he ordered.

Then with the magic that only shamans can understand, Nudan entered on the road to the other world, the world of the spirits, the dead. She headed for the underworld, hoping to catch up with the Crown Prince's spirit before it stayed there for good.

On the dark road to bucehe, Nudan saw her own husband. He was stirring oil in a pot over the fire by the eternity road.

"What! Have you come to join me?" he asked. "Have you come to take me back?"

"No," she said and told him how she had had become a shaman to support his mother.

"I am on a mission for the Emperor," she continued. "I must locate the Crown Prince before his soul settles permanently down here."

Her husband was angry. "Why is it that you can bring back others, but you have never tried to bring me, your own husband, back?" he asked.

"How could I?" she replied. "By the time I learned how to be a shaman, you had already been dead too long here in bucehe. Look, your body has already decayed." And indeed it had; he no longer resembled a person. "Even if I had succeeded in bringing you back, you would have never been able to live very long in that body of yours."

Her husband continued to argue, and the argument became physical. Nudan's husband stretched out his arm to bar Nudan from going any farther. They wrestled, and Nudan threw her husband down a well. She saw to it that he would be trapped there forever. Nudan could now continue her journey to find the Crown Prince; however, her violent behavior in bucehe canceled out her merit for her many previous good deeds. She would have to pay for what she had done.

Nudan continued on her way and soon spotted the Crown Prince. He was playing in a meadow. Nudan was happy and relieved. She snatched up the Crown Prince's spirit in the palm of her hand and hurried back to the world of the living. Before long, the boy's spirit reentered his body, and then the boy rose from what had been his deathbed and rejoined the living.

The Emperor was overjoyed to have his son back. He ordered a huge banquet and invited Nudan. It was at the banquet that he gave Nudan a new demand. "My younger sister has been dead for three years. Bring her back," he said.

"I can't do that," said Nudan. "She's been in bucehe too long. Her body has decayed past the point that her soul can use it."

The Emperor was furious. He thought about how Nudan had been skillful enough to enter bucehe and fly on her tom-tom; furthermore, he was not used to having his requests denied. However, in any case, what could he do? He said no more to Nudan, and the banquet ended with bitterness and frost in the air.

Later the two scheming lamas returned to the palace and spoke to the Emperor. The Emperor told them that Nudan could not bring his sister back from bucehe.

"Oh, Your Imperial Highness, she can do it! She just chooses not to," one of them said. Then, the two lamas spread other lies about Nudan.

The Emperor was outraged, for he believed the lies he was hearing. He ordered Nudan to be seized at once. Like the spirit of her husband, she was cast down a well, the mouth of which was then sealed by chains. Before long, Nudan died.

Three days after Nudan had died, a strange thing happened--the sun stopped shining its rays on the imperial palace. Every other palace in the capital but the imperial palace basked in the warm rays.

The Emperor called forth his chief soothsayer, who turned his head up toward the heavens and said, "The sun's rays are not reaching the palace, but this is not because of the clouds. Rather, it is because the wings of an enormous bird are blocking out the sunlight. Have your best archer shoot an arrow into the sky to bring this monster down."

So the Emperor did just that; he sent for a general whose skill in archery had won him great renown. The general shot an arrow up into the sky and down came a gigantic feather, an eagle feather, the likes of which could only be taken away on a cart.

The Emperor's soothsayer then looked at the feather and said to the Emperor, "This feather, Excellency, is from Nudan's spirit. She and the eagle are one in the same."

The Emperor now, of course, greatly regretted what he had done to Nudan. Standing in the courtyard of his palace, he looked up and called out to the sky: "If you are Nudan's vengeful spirit, let me make amends. Henceforth, all Manchus are to revere you and worship you as patron saint of all shamans."

No sooner had he spoken did the darkness which had engulfed the palace lift. Once again light came through the clouds.

From that day on, Manchus would observe rites for not only their ancestors but also for the eagle spirit, Nudan the Shaman. It is said that from deep down within the well Nudan was imprisoned in there can still be heard a thumping noise. And no one has yet ever been able to remove the chains from her final resting place.

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Aixinjuelo, p. 88-106

The word "shaman" is originally from the Sanskrit
srmana, meaning "ascetic" (Kurath 1003-1004). Campbell, however, suggests that it is a Tungusic word for "he who knows" (157). Among the equipment common to shamans is the tom-tom, the beating of which sends the shaman into a trance and then to the realm of spirits. As shown in this story, a journey to the land of the dead is fraught with danger, with the ever envious dead always ready to pounce upon their living friends and family members (Delaby 344). In worldwide folklore, the dead are the implacable foes of the living; hence, universal tales of vampires and the invisible malevolent dead as well as the need to propitiate the dead with offerings and local taboos against defaming them or even saying their names. Moreover, Nudan not only travels to the land of the dead but also engages in a physical altercation, another taboo cognate with "tabu on fighting in fairyland," F210.1. Finally the legend also addresses the historical rivalry between Tibetan-Mongolian lamaism and Manchu shamanism, painting the lamas in a poor light. Motifs: F81,"Journey to the land of the dead."

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