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… avec les écrits de Philippe Sagant

Death of a headman or the shaman’s logic

Philippe Sagant
Traduction de Nora Scott
Cet article est une traduction de :
La mort d’un chef ou la logique des chamanes

Notes de la rédaction

This text was written in 1993 for an exhibition catalog edited by Michael Oppitz and Gisela Völger (Ethnographic Museum, University of Zurich and Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum of Ethnography, Cologne), which ultimately was not published (LESC_FPS_3.3.4). Corrections of spelling and syntax made by the journal and by Gisèle Krauskopff.

Texte intégral

Standing stones, Mewa valley

Standing stones, Mewa valley

Standing stone in Bhote country (left); graves and standing stones in Thanku (right)

Photos Philippe Sagant, 1970; sources: LESC_FPS_7.1.12 et LESC_FPS_7.1.4

1The events that follow occurred in the sixties, in northeastern Nepal among the Tibeto-Burmese speaking Yakthumba, or Limbu as the Nepali call them.

2Two headmen, brothers, were locked in a struggle for power. The first, and eldest, had temporarily given up on local action. He was looking to a national position. The second, the unhappy hero of the tale, seized the occasion to consolidate his position: he rendered justice, extended his jurisdiction and grew wealthy. He was criticised for overstepping the remaining rights that the king of Nepal had left the Yakthumba headman of the time: he collected excessive fines and made use of violence. He held hostages unlawfully. And above all, he was accused of settling cases which should by rights have been judged in the Nepali courts.

3At long last a coalition of malcontents leagued together: they lodged complaints against him, and proceedings were instituted. At this time the whole country was in the throes of major reform which, among others, put an end to the powers of the Yakthumba headmen. A prefect sent by the king of Nepal arrived from Kathmandu. He took the Yakthumba headman with him to the neighbouring valley where he had just established his headquarters. And as punishment he sent him high into the mountains, near the Tibetan border, where, with the aid of a handful of Nepali soldiers, he was to set up a checkpost at the exit of the village of Walunchung and collect customs duties on the trans-Himalayan trade route.

4Unfortunately, there was a long-standing political feud between the household of the Tibetan headman of Walunchung and that of the Yakthumba headman. The Yakthumba headman stayed up at his checkpost for six months. And the Tibetan headman made him pay dearly for his former affronts.

  • 1 Concerning the connection between shaman and life force, cf. Sagant, 1996a: 21–23.

5When the Yakthumba headman came back down to his own village, he was a changed man. He who used to have boundless energy just sat on a bench in the sun, in front of his house, downcast, not saying a word for days on end. He was a broken man. People said “his face is hot”, or something more like “he has lost face”. They said that his life force,1 the force that dwells at the top of the head, had received a direct blow.

6Some weeks later, the Yakthumba headman was bitten, while in the forest, by a snake. The men with him made a tourniquet and took turns carrying him home as fast as possible. He was in pain. As soon as they got him back, they burned the wound deeply with a firebrand. His eighteen-year-old son immediately sent his men out into the valley with orders to bring back the greatest shamans, those reputed to be the most powerful. The headman from a nearby village even came with a Western-trained Nepali doctor, but not having the necessary medication, he could do nothing. And when the shamans began their ceremonies, he pretended to be asleep.

7Later one of the shamans gave me an account of the events. He felt that things had been badly handled from the start: before burning the wound, incense should have been offered to Yuma, the Grandmother, one of the major Yakthumba divinities, guardian of the house and the body: this had not been done, and Yuma had become angry. This reasoning seemed to me a subsequent reconstruction to make sense of events that had been learned only later.

8However that may be, all sorts of rituals were performed. The whole house was in an uproar. With the help of his mother and the neighbouring headman, the son had bravely taken matters in hand. He saw his father in increasing pain. He realised fairly quickly that the rituals were having no effect and that something else had to be done. He confronted the shamans with their responsibilities. A sort of council was held to try to save the patient; the shamans decided to kill a cow.

  • 2 On the five major crimes of the Nepali code of law, cf. Höfer, 1979: 197.

9Kill a cow! A stupefying decision! In Nepal, the last Hindu kingdom, killing a cow was one of the five major crimes in the legal code,2 equivalent to murdering a Brahman or the worst type of incest. It must also be pointed out that, in these times of political change, the Hindu gods were beginning to prevail over the Yakthumba gods, who had managed until then to preserve their potency.

10The cow was killed. But the violation of this major prohibition had no effect. On the contrary, the patient began going downhill a short time later. In his delirium he said he heard a goat bleating. Those in the house understood: one of his souls had already left him to set out on the paths of the other world, the paths of unnatural death. And sure enough, the man died within the next two days.

11The death of the headman came as no surprise to anyone in the village. When I later returned to the village, those who spoke to me about it made three succinct remarks, often virtually the same. First of all, they said that “killing the cow was the only thing to do”. Above all, they repeated that “getting bitten by a snake, that was bound to happen”. And they would add: “It’s true, when someone has a ‘hot face’, he can’t live like that for long, something has to be done.”

12What interests me in this affair, then, is the relation the Yakthumba themselves see between three things: the transgression of a major prohibition, the notion of “hot face”, and the snakebite. Moreover, the consensus of the various testimonies seems important: if people offer the same explanation, there is no doubt some logic in the relationship they see among the three facts. It may be that this logic is different from ours, but I would like to understand it.

13To enter into this reasoning, I will have to say a few words about some very general frameworks of thought: first of all, time, which they conceive differently from us. Next, space, which, like time, is not the same. Finally I will try to show that the notions of life and death, health and sickness, life force, pride, wealth, power, and luck are loosely linked with ideas about time and space: and these elements are all bound up with one another. These notions can be apprehended as a highly ramified system, of which I will be presenting only a few aspects.

14The main object of this article is to compare: the logic behind this story about Yakthumba shamans applies not only to shamans and not only to Yakthumba ones; over and beyond shamanic cures, it underlies many other institutions in many other Asian societies, large and small, old and contemporary. I will try to evoke a few of these.

The age of catastrophes

  • 3 On cyclical time in Yarlung, cf. A. Macdonald, 1971: 360–366.

15In Tibet, during the reign of the Yarlung kings (7th-9th centuries), mankind was thought to go through different ages. These ages3 lasted thousands of years. There was the distant time of origins: a thousand legends tell how mankind emerged from primordial chaos. The founder of the dynasty appears on a mountain top: he kills a wild yak that has charged him, the whole population makes him their king. This era, when kings seemed to possess the strength of a wild animal, lasts ten thousand years. It is characterised by harmony, strength and vitality.

16Then comes the first decline. Until this time, a fiend named Zozo, had been kept captive underground. Unfortunately he is set free by king Bronzileg: the king’s body is stricken and two elements go out of him. This is the beginning of the fall. An evil religion makes its appearance. The power of the fiends is on the rise.

17Mankind goes from bad to worse. The fiends’ influence grows, bit by bit the gods withdraw, and because of the fiends, humans behave more and more badly: they forsake religion, their force declines, their lifespan shrinks; suffering, sickness and hunger increase. Their bodies grow smaller. This is a time of all­pervading feuds, political power is crumbling.

18Finally the age of catastrophes arrives. The earth shakes, the heavens begin to slip. Fiends overwhelm the sun and the moon: there is an eclipse. A red wind blows over the earth. Harvests fail due to a succession of hail, floods and drought. On earth a black-faced king has now seized power. Thieves are admired. When a rich man makes a joke, people laugh, even if it isn’t funny. Now everyone disregards the bonds of kinship that can tie people together. No one can tell an honest man from a rogue. Women become wiser than men, or at least that’s what they think. They are now the ones who make the advances. One lover after another passes through their bed at night, and they are still not satisfied. They make trouble everywhere they go. They set the son against his father. Bad times have come: men no longer know shame. They have no more power, no more religion. There are only two ways out of such a situation: either the disgrace remains and it’s the end of the world, or the disgrace disappears and the gods return.

19In Yarlung, then, there is a close tie between the king’s body, society and the cosmos. In the first age of decline, the king’s body loses its power. Society itself disintegrates, and with it the world. It is therefore logical to think that, conversely, if the king’s body is strong, society will go by the rules and the cosmos will remain in order: no eclipses, no mountains that crumble.


  • 4 On the eclipse in Ancient China, cf. Granet, 1968a: 81, 290; Granet, 1982: 19: “Any disorder in the (...)

20The idea that a human could have power over eclipses was already present in Archaic China, some thousands of years ago. It is also present in many small populations today.4

21A few years ago the Yakthumba, the ethnic group of the man who died of snakebite, used to say that the shaman was the master of the cosmos: if he raised a finger, rain would fall to make the fields rich. If he drew a line in the sky, lightning would not cross it. He could step over the rainbow.

  • 5 For shamans and hail in Yakthumba culture, cf. Sagant, 1996b.

22More than a thousand years after Yarlung, the Yakthumba also were in the habit of saying that if someone commits incest, the wind rises, the tiger prowls around the village roaring, lightning strikes, the ground opens up. And hail begins to fall.5

  • 6 On the “concert of pots and pans” and the “law of silence and noise”, cf. for Tibet: Norbu (1977); (...)

23One year this actually happened: in April the first leaves of corn had just come out when a hailstorm fell on the fields. The old people began grumbling: “Hail in April, now! since when?” Later a wild cat wandered into the village in the middle of the night: people got up and in their darkened houses began to beat on pots and pans.6 Later again that season, the corn was ripe: a whirlwind devastated the crop: that was the last straw! The headmen and the shaman met on the terrace of one of the houses. They said: “We’ve got to find out what’s going on in this village.” They began to investigate. And a few nights later two young people ran away, a boy and a girl. They had been spending time together for several months, at night they danced, and they didn’t have the right. In the end they committed incest. And so the shaman, together with others, performed a major ritual: he “closed” the village; he purified it; he called back the gods.

24As we see, the ideas of Yarlung can be found among the Yakthumba: disorder in society attracts natural catastrophes: if incest occurs, then the hail falls, a wild animal wanders in the village, a whirlwind ravages the crops, etc. The shaman steps in: he tries to find out what is wrong. If a Westerner finds it hard to believe that incest brings on hail, it’s up to him! But he has to admit that hail leads to the flight of the incestuous couple. And so the village is closed once more: there is no longer any reason for hail to fall. Because of his power, the Yakthumba is indeed the master of the cosmos, like the king of Yarlung.

25This logic is not ours. But it is a logic all the same and it is the basis of efficacious practises. And its mechanisms are as old as Ancien China: as Granet once said: “It is no use acting on the outside if the inside is not in order.” No use trying to control hailstorms if there is incest in the village.


26At Yarlung it was also said that, in these times of trouble threatened with catastrophes, there are nevertheless still a few wise men who go on practicing the religion of old. But these survivors of a bygone era occupy an odd position: instead of advocating a return to a past order, they wish to speed-up the course of time. At their own risk, they take this task upon themselves. In order to hasten the advent of the age of catastrophes, they voluntarily become outlaws. In their own lifetime they act in such a way that lightning may fall, the mountain crumble and floods sweep away the village.

  • 7 Chesneaux, 1965: 171, 175, 181.

27These wise men who would speed the course of time are already in the midst of modern times. In 1840, at the time of the first opium war, Manchuria had just come through the Western gunboat blockade. The doors were now open to the colonial powers. Awakened from a long sleep, the secret societies were recruiting: Boxers, Triads, Red Spikes. They too had their wise men. Not only did they confront the foreign barbarians in the major ports, they also widely transgressed the Confucian order to hasten the day when the stars would fall from the sky and the earth quake: that would be the proof that the Son of Heaven had lost his heavenly mandate. Mankind could take its bath of youth in the primordial chaos and step out perhaps with the animal strength of its origins. And once again the world would be clear. In fact one of the boxers said as much himself:7 if he practiced boxing, it was to make the rain fall. Like the Yakthumba shaman or the king of Yarlung, through his art, he was master of the cosmos.

  • 8 Zimmer, 1951: 41.

28Of course the gods determine the course of time in the first place. In Ancient India, when Vishnu sees that the world order is disintegrating, the creator god turns destroyer, so that the dilapidated cosmos may recover its substance as quickly as possible.8

29But humans, too, can act on time: they can stabilise it as did the king of Yarlung at the height of his power or the Yakthumba shaman who drove the incestuous couple to flight.

30Conversely, by killing a cow on behalf of the Yakthumba headman bitten by the snake, the shamans acted like the Yarlung wise men who wanted time to go faster, or the Manchurian boxer who turned to banditry to hasten the age of catastrophes; they gave the Yakthumba headman two choices: either disappear, lock stock and barrel, struck down by lightning or swept away by the floodwaters, or recover the primeval force as quickly as possible.

Beyond the pale

  • 9 For comparative material on claustration ritual in Southeast Asia, cf. A. W. Macdonald, 1957.

31Having started with the notion of cyclical time, we are now in possession of a few facts about space: in the account of the hailstorm, it is said that the shaman draws a line that the lightning cannot cross. When the wild cat enters the village, the people in their houses beat on pots and pans: if there is an inside, this means there is an outside. And once the incestuous couple has gone, the village is closed behind them by a “closing ritual” led by the shaman.9

32It is on the notion of space that I would like to concentrate my analysis. What is called the age of catastrophes is the result, in terms of space, of the passage from an enclosed world, protected by the gods, to a world that has become open: as the result of the transgression of a taboo, a rampart has fallen. The forces from “beyond the pale” come sweeping through, or those of the “forest” or those of the “wild world”.

  • 10 Granet, 1968b: 285.
  • 11 Martin, 1989: 133.

33Civilization, and the strength, wealth and “luck” that go with it, is always an enclosed world. Granet expresses the same idea, when he says: “The world is in order only when it is enclosed, like a dwelling.”10 Then the gods stand guard. The idea is valid for the whole of Asia and, so it seems, well beyond, down to the present day: in Cambodia, for instance, in 1970, during the civil war, when Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge were fighting at Lon Nol, Sihanouk had a helicopter lay down around the city of Pnom Penh a protective line of sand that had been blessed by Buddhist monks.11


34In other words, when the village closed behind them, the two incestuous young Yakthumba were condemned to advance beyond the pale. Can one come back alive from such a journey?

35Another Yakthumba, Motta, told me that one year he joined a small group of migrants to try to earn a little money across the border in Sikkim. They left their village, which was near the border, and walked through Chyangthapu forest. Night was coming on and it looked like rain: they took shelter under a boulder. Sometime around midnight an exceedingly violent storm broke. Lightning fell, and the clap was so loud that two of the men remained deaf until the next day. In the morning, the sky was blue again, and the forest calm: they were curious to see where the lightning had hit and, next to their boulder, they discovered the bodies of two young people, struck down by the bolt, a boy and a girl. A few hours later they came to the other side of the forest: there was a village nearby, and they raised the alarm. The villagers said that they already knew: the day before, at nightfall, the young couple had run away. They had committed incest.

  • 12 Granet, 1968a: 248; Lévi, 1977: 97.

36Motta said that, until the lovers are separated, lightning, wild beasts, the earth opening up are a constant threat: they are like banished criminals who have lost the gods’ protection, condemned to live in the terror that drives people mad. As Granet says again, writing on Ancient China: “To banish a man beyond the pale is to kill him.”12 And the Yakthumba say of such a man “hara shi”, “he dies fast.”


  • 13 Aris, 1980: 60–82.

37And yet people are banished and manage to return alive and well from beyond the pale: in Bhutan, for instance, there is a “hidden country” inhabited by a small population called Gdung, of which little is known: these people claim that their ancestors came from Tibet a long time ago, as companions of a Yarlung prince, son of king Thisong Detsen, who built the Samye monastery in Lhasa in 775. The prince’s name was Murum Tsanpo, also known as Khyi-kha Ra-thod.13

38The texts say that Thisong Detsen had four wives and that Khyi-kha Ra­thod was the offspring of the fourth. The king honoured each of his wives in turn. In the case of the fourth wife, however, three years went by without a visit from the king. And yet, it became obvious that the queen was expecting a child. Everyone at court wondered who the father was. But a shepherd and a beggar were the only ones who knew. The shepherd had seen the queen in her palace coupling with a billy goat on the lower floor. The beggar, on the other hand, had seen her on the upper floor, with a dog. When the ten lunar months had elapsed, the queen gave birth to a child, which she kept with her. It was not until he was nine years old that the boy was presented to the king. And then, in the yard in front of the Samye monastery, the whole court saw that the child’s skull was shaped like a goat’s (ra-thod) and that his face was like that of a dog (khyi-kha). The king was horror-stricken. The birth of such a monster was the sign of imminent catastrophes for Tibet. It was decided to banish the child and mother, and the mother’s attendants. The bon-po priests and Buddhist monks presided over the banishment on the occasion of an important annual ceremony. Each of those banished was given a sack of seed. And they were expelled into the pale, that is beyond the borders of the kingdom of Yarlung, as the incestuous couple was sent beyond the borders of the Yakthumba village.

39There is, however, an important difference between the incestuous couple and king Khyi-kha Ra-thod. The incestuous lovers never came back from the pale, they were struck down by a bolt of lightning. King Khyi-kha Ra-thod, on the other hand, managed to establish himself in Bhutan. And the Gdung, who are the descendants of the queen’s attendants, are still there today, proof that the prince of Yarlung, after his long crossing of the lands beyond the pale, reached the other shore, alive, and was taken once again under the protection of the gods.


40It is therefore not possible to state, like the Yakthumba, speaking through Motta, and the Ancient Chinese, speaking through Granet, that to banish a man beyond the pale is always to kill him. And yet the absolute conviction expressed in these two instances cannot but raise a question. If we are to understand the dangers a man encounters on his journey beyond the pale, we would do well to learn more about the nature of this place.

  • 14 Stein, 1941: 214.

41In Tibetan, the word mtha’ designates the border, the enclosure. R. .A. Stein’s etymological study of the term and of others associated with it14 sheds light on the nature of those lands bordering the enclosed space where the world is in order and the gods stand guard.

42The land beyond the pale is perpetually wrapped in a thick dark red, almost black fog which is reminiscent of the red wind that sweeps over the earth in the age of catastrophes.

43There is life beyond the pale, there are beings. But those who live there are thick-skulled barbarians, the dregs of the population, lowdown evil-minded beings, primitive and diabolical, who live in a state of heresy, low-life idiots, blind from birth or worse, people who don’t even know how to talk.

44The man who wanders beyond the pale also has red eyes. Weighed down by a kind of torpor, he is preyed upon by terrifying boredom, eaten away by melancholy overwhelmed by a deep depression. His soul is deprived of light. Driven by terror, he gives himself up to violence. He is on the verge of going mad.


45It is with space as it is with time: the worlds are “encased”.

46“The world is in order only when it is enclosed like a dwelling. Then the gods stand guard.” What is true for the Manchurian empire, the kingdom of Yarlung or the Yakthumba village is also true for the human body. The body, too, is in order only when it is enclosed like a dwelling. On the inside the rule is applied: and so the gods stand guard, on the shoulders and the head. The person is lively and joyful, bursting with health, vitality and strength. He is “lucky”.

47Conversely, beyond the enclosed orderly world lie the lands beyond the pale where barbarity holds sway. These spaces of torpor and terror are in the grip of wild beasts and epidemics. They lie open to bombardment by the cosmos: lightning, the crumbling mountain, the slipping heavens, the hailstorm, the rising flood waters: the gods have vanished.

  • 15 On the “open body”, for China: Granet (1968a: 360); Tibet: Stein (1956: 110); India: Bonnerjea (192 (...)

48And so, too, it is with the human body. The man beyond the pale lives with his “body open”.15 Following the transgression of a taboo, a return to barbarity, his souls have forsaken him. A rampart has fallen. Then weakness, illness, terror, confusion of mind, prostration, shame make their appearance. And the body is laid open to every aggression, as the village is to hailstorms or Manchuria to foreign arms.

49The man with an “open body” is a common notion in the literature; such a man is logically doomed to an unnatural death. When a Yakthumba falls to his death from a bridge, the first thing the shaman does when the corpse is found is to “close” the bodily orifices. For the dead man obviously had an “open body”. Otherwise he would not have died. And that is why it is thought that those who die an unnatural death deserved what they got: no one knew, but somehow they were living outside the law of the land.

50Let us return to the death of the Yakthumba headman: the shaman’s decision to kill a cow can be understood in terms of time. But it is in terms of space that the snakebite must be explained. The man had an “open body”: no one can live for long in such a state.

The primeval force

51As we advance, we are obliged to recognise that in trying to answer two simple questions, on space and on time, material from a variety of populations has been piling up and becoming increasingly burdensome, dragging at our footsteps like a ball and chain, and raising questions that have not even been formulated. Let us therefore try to pose some of them.

52Wondering about the logic behind the slain cow made me think about other shocking transgressions. Twice incest came up. And bestiality, with the king with the skull of a billy goat and the face of a dog, a being that was neither altogether human nor altogether animal. Now if we join Lévi-Strauss in considering that the incest taboo is what founds human society, we begin to see a common thread running through all these transgressions. They all send a civilised human back to the barbaric state of the pale, back to a time before his separation from the animals and the gods: life was there, but man did not yet exist.

53Other material raises the question of a constant ambiguity: wise men attempt to tip the scales towards the age of catastrophes, but unlike the others, they do it in the name of law and order. This is also true of the headman bitten by the snake: he is placed in the situation of a man who accelerates the course of time the sooner to bring back the golden age. But at the same time, he has a “hot face” and an “open body”, and he remains downcast like a wild barbarian.

54A similar ambivalence characterises the fate of those who are condemned to wander beyond the pale: banished or having run away for fear of banishment, they all start from the same point: backed against the wall of a civilised world that has closed the door on them, leaving no choice but to advance towards the land of torpor, engulfed by the red fog of the pale. But the very night they ran away, the incestuous couple of Chyangthapu forest was struck by lightning. Whereas king Billy-goat-skull Dog-face survived: when all have committed a major transgression, why a violent death for the ones and a kingdom for the other? Is it only a matter of chance, as Westerners might think?

55Whatever the answer may be, one thing is certain: one goes beyond the pale with a “hot face”, downcast, sometimes in a state of terror that can lead to madness. But those who manage to come out alive return with the “animal force” of primeval man: they have conquered confusion of mind. There is no middle ground: there is only an unnatural death or renewed vitality with health, strength and wealth. Between the two, beyond the pale, something happens then. And that is what has intrigued me from the start.


56In Asia or in other parts of the world, there are still communities that say their founding ancestor came from somewhere else, suddenly emerging from beyond the pale and settling in the land where his descendants live today. They even sometimes say that the ancestor was pursuing a wild animal with horns and that he built his house on the spot where the animal was slain, thus demonstrating that he was once again protected by the gods.

57In these small societies, each year at the changing of the seasons, it is said that the gods leave the country, which becomes “open”, like the barbarian lands beyond the pale. It is then indispensable that at least one man be able to repeat the ancestors feat, if not, the community will vanish, lock, stock and barrel. Like the ancestor, this man sets out into the forest, in search of a wild animal.

  • 16 On Sharwa ritual hunt, cf. Karmay and Sagant (1998) ; for China, cf. Maspero and Balazs (1967: 3, 1 (...)

58These “ritual hunts”16 are attested in ancient times. They were already highly elaborate in the fifth BC, among the Salva of Ancient India. They also existed in Archaic China several thousand years ago. They were found over an enormous geographical area: in Asia and Europe, as well as America.

59This type of hunt was still in existence a short time ago among the Sharwa of Amdo, in eastern Tibet. In the springtime, when the animals would go up to pasture, the little spot of civilization on the valley floor was left “open” to the “wild” world of the forest. In the fall, when the herds came back down, the place had to be “closed” once more and the protecting gods recalled: this was the object of the ritual hunt.

60These hunts are considered to be very dangerous. Not just anyone may set out. There were two or three men among the Sharwa, or three or four, depending on the year. Only one needed to succeed for the local god to return.

61One morning at dawn they would set out from the village with several weeks of provisions. They rode all day through the forest towards the mountain where the altar of the local god was located. The first night was spent by the fire singing their Epic. At day break they would perform a short ritual. They would look to the sky and shout their request: “A stag! A nice fat one! With big antlers!” At the same time they would ask for the energy and strength needed to succeed in the hunt.

62They would leave at the crack of dawn. They would track their prey, sometimes for over a month, not on horseback, but on foot and without dogs. This particular morning the hunters would pay close attention to the signs in the forest. And if they saw a crow flying towards them, they would say “I have a friend”. That was the first important moment of the hunt.

63The second was when they saw the animal for the first time. One year there were four hunters. They came out of the forest, they climbed up through the high pastures: one of them, Anyok, climbed the ridge to look over the other side: he found himself face to face with a stag. It is said that it is the stag who allows himself to be seen.

64The third important moment was when the hunter killed the animal. As soon as Anyok saw the stag, he ran as hard as he could towards the pass, higher up. Just as he reached it, the stag came running up the other side straight towards him. It is said that the gun goes off by itself, that it is the stag that allows itself to be killed. That day Anyok won the reputation that he kept into old age: “Anyok, the man as fleet as a stag.”

  • 17 On “creative dismemberment”, cf. among others A. Macdonald (1971: 265, 276) for Yarlung Tibet; Shir (...)

65The stag was then dismembered on the spot. The hunter who made the kill no doubt ate the heart. The head and the hide were his by right. The others shared out the “bottom” of the carcass: this was the “creative dismemberment”,17 a crucial time for the little society: “the pale had been brought under control.”

66The return of the hunters was not greeted with any particular ceremony. When they emerged from the forest and enter the village, the people were watching from the house terraces. And the news spreads: “the hunters are back. Anyok is carrying the head of a big stag behind his saddle.” They also said: “Anyok has forced the friendship of the god of the land, and the god of the land has given him strength.” And because of this strength, Anyok was made headman until the following year: he was the headman elect of the gods and tacitly acknowledged by men.

67With the stag’s hide Anyok made himself a cloak. And when he went to the big festivals that brought all the Sharwa together in the forecourt of a bon-po monastery, people made way for Anyok and the men attending him. And as he passed, people would murmur: “That’s Anyok, the wild boy. That’s Anyok, the son of the mountain god.”

68These hunts are dangerous, Pachenpo can vouch for that. Once Pachenpo was a young man with a future. He was courting political power. One fall day, he announced that he was going out alone to hunt stag. People said: “If Pachenpo kills a big stag, he will be a man of the first order, like Anyok.” That year Pachenpo spent several weeks in the forest. One day he emerged, but empty handed. People said: “When you shout from the rooftops that you are going to hunt stag, it’s not to come home empty handed.” And they added: “Pachenpo was very lucky to come back alive.” Pachenpo never went hunting stag again. He said it was too dangerous. But he enjoyed hunting and he went out for bear. It said that hunting bear, even one that is wounded and in its den, is much less dangerous than hunting stag.

69Why is stag hunting regarded as so dangerous? Because the mountain god is the “master of wild animals”. All the big antlered herbivors, stag, blue sheep, wild yak, are his: these are his herd. It is an act of overweening pride on the part of a hunter to brave the gods! Only a hero or a madman dares throw down such a challenge!


* *

70One ventures beyond the pale like a criminal banished for transgressing the law of the land, like a wise man, with a will to speed the course of time, or like a Sharwa hunter, driven by necessity: each year he must prove he is capable, like the original ancestor, of subjecting the gods of the land, or see his community vanish. Each is in the same situation, however: forsaken by the gods, they do not know what their fate will be.

71At best, the only way to return from beyond the pale is through a new transgression, a defiant act of overweening pride thrown down by man before the gods. In this case, one returns with the primeval animal “force”, bringing back to one’s own people civilization and the gods who watch over them. It is a sort of trial by fire. There is no middle way. Either the man is recognised as a son of the gods or he dies a violent death.

72Let us now come back to the death of the Yakthumba headman and to the shamans’ attempts to save his life. The underlying logic is the same as that of the Sharwa ritual hunt: following his humiliation on the Tibetan border, the headman has a “hot face”. It is as though he has been banished and forsaken by the gods. His life force is diminished. Back home he remains downcast, doesn’t react. It is therefore no surprise for anyone in the village that he is bitten by a snake: no one can live for long with an “open body”. Whence the shamans’ decision, in an attempt to make him react, to transgress a major taboo on his behalf. Did they really think that they could save the man? Probably: killing a cow is no worse than slaying one of the mountain god’s wild animals.

73Whatever they may have thought, the cure exhibits the three features analysed in the article: cyclical time, a space that is open or closed, and ideas about the life force: these are all closely intertwined. One can see the shamans’ idea: acting on the course of time can have an effect on the life force.


74I have tried to show that the logic underlying the shamans’ action can be found point for point in institutions other than the cure. The same logic is present in the ritual hunt, the search for the “hidden country”, the capacity to make it rain, social banditry, banishment, subjecting the gods of the land. And many others: depositing the child on the ground, etc.

75Moreover, despite the extreme refinement of theories that have developed here and there over time, political life is conceived in the same way everywhere, at least for those populations that worship mountains: the legitimacy of political power is always founded on ideas that flow from the notions of “head held high”, “life force”: this is true of the Sharwa hunter as it is of the “great man” of the Nepali Sherpa or the Kafir of the Hindu Kush. It is true of the Yakthumba village headman. It is also true, in Bhutan of king Khyii-kha Ra-thod, of the Tibetan kings of Yarlung, of the Ancient Chinese Son of Heaven. The most colossal examples of centralised political power have been realised in the name of the prince’s monopoly of the strength of the wild man.

76Lastly, the notion of life force seems, after thousands of years, still to be the central issue in both minor and major religions. Like the Sharwa hunter, every great man used to be capable of recovering the primeval force without the help of any celebrant. Over time those we call shamans managed to impose themselves as mediators between the civilised world and the wild. Thereafter it was they who would travel every year to the very frontiers of the country to restore the life force of their clients, now become “laymen”. Then, one after the other, came the Buddhist hermit who had “mastery over wild animals”, the taoist sage who was capable to make contact one again with the “undifferentiated”, the bon-po who by his ritual guaranteed the legitimacy of the king of Yarlung, etc.

  • 18 Cf. Sagant, 1988; Michailovsky and Sagant, 1992.

77A last word about the Yakthumba shamans’ cure: it is wholly oriented towards a single goal: to restore to their client, who is in the state of weakness inherent in having a “hot face”, his “life force”. In two other accounts of cures,18 I tried to show that this passage demanded that the sick man effect a complex analysis of himself. Getting rid of “confusion of mind” is the sole aim of the cure, which is a sort of reconstruction of the past, or as Granet might say, an attempt to “see” what is wrong inside. In this article I have tried something different: I have tried to show that the logic behind the Yakthumba shamans’ cure is common to Asia as a whole: no use looking for the runaway soul or trying to extract the sickness if the patient does not try to find out what is wrong inside. No use acting on the outside if the inside is not in order.

78Perhaps there is some relation between the effort demanded of the shamans’ patient and that of the mystics of the great religions: they too go into the wilderness in the hope of acquiring powers.

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1 Concerning the connection between shaman and life force, cf. Sagant, 1996a: 21–23.

2 On the five major crimes of the Nepali code of law, cf. Höfer, 1979: 197.

3 On cyclical time in Yarlung, cf. A. Macdonald, 1971: 360–366.

4 On the eclipse in Ancient China, cf. Granet, 1968a: 81, 290; Granet, 1982: 19: “Any disorder in their customs would have disorganised the entire universe.” Needham (1973: 48) writes that, from the 5th century BC, a systematic connection was made between these phenomena.

5 For shamans and hail in Yakthumba culture, cf. Sagant, 1996b.

6 On the “concert of pots and pans” and the “law of silence and noise”, cf. for Tibet: Norbu (1977); for China: Chavannes (1910: 478–501); for India: Crooke ([1896] 1978: 62, 167, 22). Comparisons can be made with America: Lévi-Strauss (1964: 292–300); France: Gaignebet (1974: 127), etc.

7 Chesneaux, 1965: 171, 175, 181.

8 Zimmer, 1951: 41.

9 For comparative material on claustration ritual in Southeast Asia, cf. A. W. Macdonald, 1957.

10 Granet, 1968b: 285.

11 Martin, 1989: 133.

12 Granet, 1968a: 248; Lévi, 1977: 97.

13 Aris, 1980: 60–82.

14 Stein, 1941: 214.

15 On the “open body”, for China: Granet (1968a: 360); Tibet: Stein (1956: 110); India: Bonnerjea (1927: 90); Central Asia: Lot-Falck (1971: 119), Harva (1959: 201–202). The notion also existed in medieval France.

16 On Sharwa ritual hunt, cf. Karmay and Sagant (1998) ; for China, cf. Maspero and Balazs (1967: 3, 12; 12th century BC), Chavanes (1910: 510), Granet (1981: 91, 93, 107, 162; 1982: 179); for Tibet, cf. Pelliot (1961: 2), 6th-7th century, according to Chinese sources, but we do not know whether or not these hunts were “ritual” in the sense of our definition: he writes that the Tibetans “when they give a feast”, “always track sown a yak that they allow their host to kill with bow and arrow, and they serve the meat at the banquet”; for India, cf. Przyluski (1929). For contemporary ritual hunts, cf. among others A. W. Macdonald (1955: 101–118), for central and northeastern India.

17 On “creative dismemberment”, cf. among others A. Macdonald (1971: 265, 276) for Yarlung Tibet; Shirokogoroff (1935: 219–220) for Manchuria; Randa (1986: 190) for the Inuit. Mus (1935: 116) points out that “the myth of dismemberment is the oldest myth of the Indian Aryan corpus”; Kaltenmark (1959) shows that the dismemberment of P’an-Kou is connected with the Man (Yao) myth of origins; Esnoul (1959) makes the same demonstration for India with the dismemberment of Prajapati and Purusha. A. W. Macdonald (1980) demonstrates the link between the dismemberment of a yak and the origin of the Sherpa clans.

18 Cf. Sagant, 1988; Michailovsky and Sagant, 1992.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Standing stones, Mewa valley
Légende Standing stone in Bhote country (left); graves and standing stones in Thanku (right)
Crédits Photos Philippe Sagant, 1970; sources: LESC_FPS_7.1.12 et LESC_FPS_7.1.4
Fichier image/jpeg, 638k
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Philippe Sagant, « Death of a headman or the shaman’s logic », Ateliers d'anthropologie [En ligne], 49 | 2021, mis en ligne le 11 janvier 2021, consulté le 25 janvier 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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