Baksy (Kazakhstan)

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Baksy 🇰🇿
Kazakhstan map.png
Location: Kazakhstan
Definition: A healer, prophet and communicator with the spirit world, originating in the ancient Kazakh culture
Keywords: Kazakhstan FSU Central Asia Occult Healthcare Gender
Author: Lyazzat Utesheva
Affiliation: Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Lyazzat Utesheva, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

The Kazakh term baksy stands for a shaman, defined by Cambridge Dictionary as a person with special powers to influence spirits and as a form of religious belief. Although the word shaman also exists in Kazakh, the word baksy is more commonly used. Etymologically, the word baksy originates from a common Turkic root ‘bag/bak’, which means ‘to look, peer or see’. Scholars write about baksylyk, referring to a shaman's path (Wood, 2016) and explain the meaning of the word baksy as ‘looking out for the soul of the patient’ (Kuspanova 2019). The main difference between baksy and a healer (yemshí) is that baksy is engaged not only in healing but also in prophecy and communication with the spirits (Stasevich 2009). The word baksy may also include other meanings associating man with cosmos or eternity, expressing their predetermined connection (Kokumbayeva 2012). Baksy act as mediators connecting the world of people and the world of spirits.

Baksylyk is an integral part of the ancient Turkic shamanic tradition and the ancient Kazakh culture that go back to the pre-Islamic era (Kulsariyeva et. al. 2016). Kazakhs believe in the extraordinary gift endowed to baksy by spirits. Some baksy learn their destiny in early childhood, others seek training or discovering their gift late in life.

According to Kazakh folklore, only someone able to tame evil spirits (zhyn) and defeat them in oneself can become a real baksy. A baksy should both succumb and control the spirits, one being the reverse of the other (Naumova 2016). According to such beliefs, there are good spirits – the spirit of the ancestor (aruak), angel (perіsh), and fairy (perizat), and there are evil ones (zhyn), devil (shaitan), and other demonic creatures (albasty) (Somfai-Kara et al. 2006). While the former may protect people, the latter people should seek protection from. Embodying the spirits, and mastering them, is what makes a baksy. If the spirits left the baksy, they would become an ordinary person. In order to acquire and maintain a reputation of a ‘strong’ shaman, baksy must continuously demonstrate the power of making the spirits help. Otherwise, they could not count on the respect of others (Kandyba 1988).

The patron of Kazakh baksy is Korkyt (or Korkut), both a real character and a mythical one. Their canonic text is The Book of My Grandfather Korkyt, written around 15th or 16th century. Korkyt was a legendary epic narrator of Oguz tribe, conveying the worldview of shamanism (Konyratbay 2016). He led a pious way of life, was a sage and blessed the Khans on military campaigns.

The baksy had significant influence on society and were respected by the rulers of Asian states. According to some sources, the supreme rulers of the nomadic empires resorted to the help of baksy. Since people, feeling their helplessness before nature did not know another way of salvation from diseases and misfortunes, they relied on baksy for guidance (Abdimomynova 2015). All this has strengthened the perception of power of baksy among people. Baksy were attributed to the ability to communicate with the forces of the other world, predict the future, heal, besiege, and prophesy.

During the rule of Islam in 15th century, the baksy in the territory Kazakh Khanate (Qazaq handyǵy) lost the role of regulating the life of society and were limited mainly to healing. Traditional Islam considers shamanism to be a sin (Bersnev 2014). Although the existence of demons, devils, and spirits are recognised in Islam, establishing communication with them was tabooed. As a result, Islam has reduced social and ritual functions of the baksy. The healer's function remains to be the main for Kazakh baksy until the present day. As such, the practices of healing did not contradict the norms of Islam, since the mullahs and imams themselves were engaged in healing during the Soviet Union (Larina 2016), in contrast to the practice of divination and prophecy condemned by representatives of the Muslim clergy which is forbidden by Islam.

The policy of the Soviet government in Kazakhstan (1936-1991) also presented an obstacle to the development of the institution of baksylyk. Since the Soviet Union persistently fought any religious manifestations and conducted active anti-religious propaganda, it undermined and weakened traditional shamanic practices. Shamans were repressed, forced to renounce their faith and cease shamanic activities, as well as donate to museums or destroy their shamanic attributes (Kharitonova 2003).

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kazakhs turned to their traditions and values, and the baksy became perceived as martyrs of the Soviet regime and symbols of the rebirth of the nation's ethnic identity. Healers and baksy re-launched their healing practices on a grand scale, with sessions with thousands of participants organized at large stadiums and in concert halls (Essy 2006). At the same time, in the 1990s, the overall economic and social situation in Kazakhstan deteriorated sharply, unemployment and poverty increased, especially in rural areas. The Soviet-era healthcare system was in crisis, hospitals and polyclinics in villages were closed, and doctors left their jobs because they did not pay. Neither the government nor the official Muslim clergy could alleviate the suffering of people, left to bear the cost of the post-Soviet transition. The baksy picked up the burden of people’s despair. They spoke the language understood by ordinary people and relied on shamanic traditions to offer help of the spirits in solving all social, economic, medical, and psychological problems of people (Penkala-Gawęcka 2013).

In the 21st century, the baksy in Kazakhstan are as popular as hundreds of years ago. They are mainly engaged in healing but also practice divination. Some Kazakhs still believe in their ability to foresee the future, manage human destiny, recognize thoughts, openly talk about the past, cause changes, call out spirits. Modern Kazakhs do not see contradiction while turning for help to baksy when they need some good luck, help in decision-making, or assistance in business and family problems. Most commonly, baksy are asked to cure diseases such as alcoholism, tuberculosis, paralysis, childhood diseases, female infertility. They can also install protection or remove damage from ‘an evil eye.’ The methods of treatment of contemporary baksy are varied: they use spells, prayers and touch healing. For example, many baksy bring their patients to the graves of saints for the treatment of female infertility. Others practice from their homes. During ‘treatment’, they can also fumigate a patient with smoke, use candles, sprinkle various essences or give mixtures to drink.

From the traditional range of shamanic attributes, present-day baksy use a whip (kamshy), a protective measure against evil forces and for expelling diseases from the patient's body. According to Wikipedia, kobyz and dombyra, in the past the main attributes of Kazakh baksy to communicate with the spirits in the past, are no longer in use. At present, the main attribute is the Koran. Perhaps, paradoxically, the legacy of Islam on the tabooed traditional Kazakh institution of baksylyk includes, firstly, the use in ritual practices of reading the Kuran, prayer formulas and appeals to various saints (Stasevich 2009) and, secondly, the obligatory ritual washing of the healer and the patient before the beginning of the session (as before namaz). The tension of Islamic beliefs and Kazakh pre-Islamic tradition of baksy is somewhat resolved by gender. The religiosity of men is closer to the ‘classical norms’ of Islam, condemning the practice of folk healing (Rakhimov 2009), while the majority of baksy are female. According to research, Kazakh women are more than men oriented to the preservation and use of pre-Islamic ideas and cults, which may be interpreted as specificity of modern religiosity of Central Asian or within a wider set of Eastern religious dualism. It is noteworthy that appeals to baksy tend to be secularised and normalised. The Kazakhs do not consider the baksy ‘abnormal’ people, cynics may view them as shrewd businessmen, and observers did not see them as people with an upset psyche. Eyewitnesses emphasized sincere faith baksy in the reality of the world of spirits (Zenin n.d.).


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