Friday, December 28, 2018

Shamanism, Daoism, and the Kargaly Diadem

The Kargaly Diadem is a magnificent golden artifact from a nomad tomb in the Tian Shan region of Kazakhstan. In 1939 it was "found by chance in a heavily disturbed burial in a crevice in the Kargaly valley." In 2012 it was part of "Nomads and Networks," a traveling exhibit of objects from Kazakh museums that toured the US and Europe. Oddly the museums hosting that exhibit did not feature it among the highlights you can see online, and the Times also ignored it. I discovered it last month while perusing a Tumblr of random beautiful objects. It dates to between 200 BCE and 100 CE.

What got me about this diadem is this figure. What is that? It looks like a sprite from one of the Victorian fairy books. And riding a dragon? Did that action ever appear in art before 1880?

And there are more such figures on the diadem. Who are these mysterious beings riding deer and goats through this fantastic forest?

I searched around online but all I could find were a couple of references to the catalog for the Nomads and Networks exhibition. Not seeing any alternative, I ordered a copy, and it came today. It is magnificent and full of strange lore.

The catalog told me that Chinese sources of the Han Dynasty make frequent mention of the Wusun, a nomadic people who were often Chinese allies against more hostile tribes such as the Xiongnu (Huns). The tombs in the Kargaly Valley show strong Chinese influence and may represent the Wusun leadership. In 105 BCE a Han princess married the Wusun king, taking with her "imperial carriages, clothing, and equipment for royal use, and a rich store of gifts," perhaps including jewelry like this diadem. (Illustration shows a gold plaque from the Tenlik Mound, thought to be a Wusun burial.)

The catalog calls the sprites "winged furry creatures," and it suggests that they resemble Yuren, "winged people", from the art of Han China. The Yuren were one species of Xian, "Immortals," beings who populate heaven. This sent me scurrying around the web looking for sources on the Yuren. I eventually found just what I was looking for, a 2011 article by Leslie Wallace titled "Betwixt and Between: Depictions of Immortals (Xian) in Eastern Han Tomb Reliefs," which you can find on JStor. Sadly the illustrations are these low-resolution black and white things, but the text is marvelous.

Wallace writes:
Immortals (xian 仙) are depicted as feathered sprite-like or dragon- or snake-tailed figures climbing stylized mountains or floating in swirling cloudscapes on tomb reliefs from the Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 CE). These images represent immortals as transient figures moving through an intermediate realm where they are often joined by deer, tigers, dragons, birds, heavenly horses (tianma 天馬), and other animals. 
analyzes the physical hybridity of immortals, their transitory existence, and their role as shaman-like intermediaries, demonstrating that Eastern Han representations of immortals repeatedly emphasize their liminal nature and close connection to the animal world. Their position betwixt and between physical forms and realms of existence was the basis of their spiritual power, enabling them to assist the deceased in their transcendent journey to paradise.
There is a Han encyclopedia called Shanhaijing, "Classics of Mountains and Seas", which seems to be the Chinese version of Pliny the Elder. It describes several classes of hybrid beings, including the Yuimin or "feathered people."

The earliest textual  source describing immortals as winged creatures is found in Yuan Yu, "The Far-Off Journey," a poem from the famous Chuci or "Songs of the South", a compendium first written down around 100 BCE.
Having heard this precious teaching I departed,
And swiftly prepared to start on my journey.
I met the winged ones on the hill of Cinnabar;
I tarried in the ancient land of Immortality.
In the morning I washed my hair in the Valley of the Dawn,
In the evening I dried myself on the shores of heaven.

The early Daoist immortals were much like ancient shamans. (Modern illustration above.) They flew through the air, often mounted on animals like these dragons; they journeyed to heaven and the land of the dead; their travels were often fueled by sacred mushrooms. On their journeys they met many strange peoples, including the Yuren, whose prominence in tomb art suggests that they inhabited the borderlands of death through which all souls passed.

More Chuci:
I visited Fu Yue on a dragon's back,
Joined in marriage with the Weaving Maiden,
Lifted up Heaven's Net to capture evil,
Drew the Bow of Heaven to shoot at wickedness,
Followed the Immortals fluttering through the sky,
Ate of the Primal Essence to prolong my life.
So from this mountain tomb comes a remarkable object indeed, a golden crown woven with spirit beings from the mystic realms where shamans wandered. Its inspiration is Chinese, but it may actually have been made on the Steppes, which means that Wusun artisans shared this lore with the Chinese. Perhaps they had a different interpretation of these beings from the Shamanistic netherworld, but then again perhaps their new queen explained it all to them. Was she a priestess herself, a wanderer in those lands? Surely whoever wore this diadem engaged in rites related to those shadow realms even if she did not journey there herself. But it is more fun to imagine the queen or her daughters donning this crown as they inhaled the sacred smoke or chewed the sacred mushrooms, preparing for the long journey into the twilight lands in search of wisdom, or to guide lost souls toward their final homes.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating. That whole world of Daoist immortals and alchemy and Chinese mythology is an unknown country to me. Thanks.

John said...

Thanks for sharing this great post.