Women, Transsexualism and Transgender in Traditional Siberian Shamanism;
or, An Anthropologist Who Actually Got It Right for Once.
A Polish anthropologist named Maria Antonina Czaplicka* spent years doing fieldwork in Siberia toward the end of the Czarist period, only a few years before Soviet collectivization began to destroy the shamanist traditions. So her legacy is an invaluable document of the past.
She found that the origin of ancient shamanism was first attributed to women:
Among the Palaeo-Siberians, women receive the gift of shamanizing more often than men. The woman is by nature a shaman, declared a Chukchee shaman to Bogoras.
Taking into account the present prominent position of female shamans among many Siberian tribes and their place in traditions, together with certain feminine attributes of the male shaman (such as dress, habits, privileges) and certain linguistic similarities between the names for male and female shamans, many scientists (Troshchanski, Bogoras, Stadling) have been led to express the opinion that in former days, only female shamans existed, and that the male shaman is a later development which has to some extent supplanted them.
She adduced some interesting linguistic evidence in favor of attributing original shamanism to women and their connection to the Goddess:
Neo-Siberians nearly all have a common name for the woman-shaman, while each of these tribes has a special name for the man-shaman. The Yakut call him ayun; the Mongols, buge; the Buryat, buge and bo; the Tungus, samman and khamman; the Tartars, kam; the Altaians, kam and gam; the Kirgis, baksy; the Samoyed, tadibey. The Yakut, it is curious to note, though they have the word khamma, nevertheless do not call the shaman by a name similar to that in use among other Neo-Siberians, but give him a special appellation. This, according to Troshchanski (p. 118), may be explained by the fact that when the Yakut appeared in the present Yakut district they did not possess a man-shaman, but they had already a woman-shaman, for whom all these tribes have a name in common. Among Mongols, Buryat, Yakut, Altaians, Turgout, and Kirgis, the following names for the woman-shaman occur, utagan, udagan, ubakan, utygan, utügun, iduan, duana. All these words come from a root the meaning of which has not been certainly determined. In some Tartaric dialects üdege, 'female shaman', means also 'housewife' and 'wife'. In Tungus, utakan means 'sorcerer' and 'cannibal'; but utagan seems to be a Mongol word in origin According to Potanin and Banzaroff, the term in question is etymologically connected with the Mongol word Etugen, hearth-goddess' (Etugen-eke 'mother-earth'). Potanin further connects the word for Earth-Goddess among different Altaic and Finno-Ugric tribes with the names of constellations, especially with the two bear constellations. In one Tartaric dialect utygan means 'bear'. According to ancient Mongol and Chinese myths, the gods of certain constellations are connected with the protective spirits or the family hearth, just as they are connected with the goddess of the earth. Thus these terms for female shamans are related to the genesis of certain goddesses.]
She goes on to present evidence from several ethnic traditions that shamanism as practiced by men originated from imitation of women's practices. Moreover, she found that women's primordial shamanism was paralleled by that of transsexual women. Also, there were male crossdressers who imitated the women and transsexuals.
Czaplicka clearly and correctly distinguished between transsexuals and crossdressers in her book Aboriginal Siberia: A Study in Social Anthropology published in 1914, based on her fieldwork, years before Magnus Hirschfeld and Harry Benjamin discovered this. Her remarkably accurate analysis of gender identity is in Chapter 12, "Shamanism and Sex:"
All that has been cited concerning the feminine habits of the present-day shaman was taken by Troshchanski as proof of his theory of the evolution of the 'black' shaman from the 'black' shamaness and by Jochelson as 'traces of the change of a shaman's sex into that of a woman'.
Jochelson thus binds together the two questions dealt with in this chapter-the relation of the shamaness to the shaman', and the 'transformation of shamans', called also 'the change of sex'. This latter phenomenon, following J. G. Frazer, I should prefer to call 'the change of dress', since (with the exception of the Chukchee, perhaps) the change of dress is not nowadays, at least, followed by what the physiologists would call 'change of sex'.
The change of sex is called in Chukchee 'soft-man-being', yirka-laul-vairgin, 'soft man' (yirka-laul) meaning a man transformed into a being of the weaker sex. A man who has 'changed his sex' is also called 'similar to a woman' (ne uchica), and a woman in like condition 'similar to a man' (qa cikcheca).
The 'change of sex' is met with only among the Palaeo-Siberians, whilst among the Neo-Siberians only does the shamanistic dress more often resemble female garments.
What's significant is how she clearly delineated the difference between "change of sex"—i.e. transsexualism— and "change of dress"—i.e. crossdressing.
Hirschfeld was a physician and a sexologist, not an anthropologist. His book Die Transvestiten published in 1910 had failed to distinguish transsexualism as a very different phenomenon from crossdressing. By 1923 when he published Die Intersexuelle Konstitution he had learned the difference. But Czaplicka had already learned it from Siberian shamans several years previously. The Nazis destroyed Hirschfeld's work, so it remained for his colleague Harry Benjamin to fully develop a clinical theory and practice of transsexual care.
Another early writer who distinguished between the two on the basis of gender identity was the 13th-century scholar of Islamic jurisprudence Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawi.
So for me Maria Czaplicka is a counterexample to the usual misunderstandings by anthropologists. I suspect it helped that as a woman she was able to get closer to the people she was studying and understand them more empathetically than was the norm in the male-dominated sciences of her day. She related to them as people like herself instead of with the objectification of regarding them like scientific specimens under a microscope.