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Bečagbi was born in a village in Nlatak, the Itsenic confederachy along the lower Itseʔ river, sometime around 1210. He was the son of Gidičigana, chief of the makwenkwe or warriors. His birth name was Giweny ‘chipmunk’.

Itsenic society was divided into three classes— the warriors, the shamans, and the women— each of which was ruled by its own chiefs (dačigwinkwe). There was no notion of a third sex as among the Axunemi; warriors and shamans were subclasses of men, and both married women. (Homosexuality was widely tolerated, however.) The warriors were in charge of war, hunting, fishing, and trade; the shamans (maniʔjinkwe) took care of religion, but also medicine and crafts; the women raised the children, grew crops, cooked, and made clothing.


Itsenic man with a fox tattoo like Bečagbi’s

None of this was very important till puberty, when Bečagbi’s age cohort (gagwidziʔ) was organized. These were all the boys born within about a three-year span; that meant Bečagbi and five other boys. These would be his companions and living partners for life— adult Nlatakans lived with their gagwidziʔ, not with their families.

Their training in adult life lasted a year. It began with religious instruction from Gijebawgad the chief shaman, and then a hunting expedition with Gidičigana; these were largely tests of which subclass to put them in. Somewhat unusually for the son of a warrior, Bečagbi was clumsy and timid with the bow and arrow, while he was fascinated by the shaman’s tales and rites. He was therefore classed (with two other boys) as a tsimaniʔnyin, a future shaman, and he was adopted by Gijebawgad— he would henceforth call Gijebawgad father and Gidičigana uncle.

This was an adjustment, but no more than moving out of his mother’s house and into the witemanpa, the Instruction House, where the newest gagwidziʔ lived during its training; it also served as a sort of clubhouse for the adult males— no women were allowed inside. Bečagbi and his two fellow tsimaniʔnyinkwe spent long hours here learning everything a shaman needed to know, from the details of Nlatakan cosmology, to the uses of several hundred herbs and other medicines, to how to carve wood, to how to deal with women.

There were two major tasks to be accomplished during the year, one communal, one individual. The first was to construct a house for the gagwidziʔ . All the boys worked on this, though the tsimaniʔnyinkwe did some of the fancier woodcarving and joinery; the warriors in training meanwhile provided animal skins to cover the floors. In later years, as their skills improved and their wealth mounted, they might rebuild all or part of the house.

The other task was to learn to speak with the wasečganyakwe, the nonhuman spirits. This was something between a skill and an art: there were rites and rituals to follow— fasting, bloodletting, chants, vigils and treks, the use of hallucinogenic herbs— but these were merely to prepare the way; no one action was necessary and an experienced shaman was able to eschew them all. The important thing was to attract the attention of the wasečganyakwe and to be prepared to receive their messages.

A tsimaniʔnyin would meet many wasečganyakwe, but usually chose one— or was chosen by one— as his personal spirit companion (jagoskamad). The spirit world was vast, and this might be a superior or an inferior: one’s jagoskamad might be a god or might be a servant. Bečagbi’s was a type of fox; as it was restless he spent many days and nights tracking it in the wilderness, or walking alongside it as it spoke to him.

At the end of the year there was a week of rituals and ordeals, at the end of which Bečagbi was proclaimed a full maniʔjin or shaman— though a very low-ranking one. One of the marks of his adulthood was a tattoo on his face; he chose a very stylized representation of a fox’s face. He also received his final name (i.e. Bečagbi).

Sex and marriage

During his year of training Bečagbi was kept away from women, even his mother; and even afterward he saw little of them; though they had gagwidziʔkwe of their own, they continued to live with— and be closely guarded by— their mothers.

His first sexual experience was with another boy— not from his own gagwidziʔ, which was strictly taboo, but from the next oldest, known as the tsabmawan. It was not very pleasant, nor meant to be— the role of the next-elder cohort was largely to haze the younger boys, and boys of 16 or so can be quite imaginative and cruel; sexual demands were only one of their impositions. They were limited only by occasional adult intervention, custom (permanent harm was disallowed), and the ability of the younger boys to run away.

Once the next-younger cohort (gajinyiwan) was organized, of course it was fair game, and Bečagbi and his fellows devoted much time to hazing the new boys. (Their own tsabmawan was supposed to leave them alone now, and mostly did, since they were now preoccupied with work and new wives.)

Warriors married at about 19; but shamans not till they were about ten years older, reflecting the different ideals for each class: strength for the warriors, wisdom for the shamans. Both classes were required to marry out of their tsondaw (descent group or clan); as over half the village belonged to the same tsondaw that meant that most wives came from outside.

In theory maniʔjinkwe remained virgins till marriage. In practice there were opportunities for sexual play. Members of the gagwidziʔ (or even the next older or younger ones) might share their wives; girls engaged to men from another village were available so long as technical virginity was maintained; sometimes there were war captives or slaves. Engagements usually lasted a year, and it was sometimes possible to furtively visit one’s fiancée.

Finally it was Bečagbi’s turn. His adoptive father Gijebawgad found a girl named Nyibmigwa from the same village his own wife had come from; she was only sixteen and very shy and quiet. He couldn’t marry her till he had built a hut for her, close to the field she was assigned for cultivation. Likewise she had to sew two sets of clothes for him.

He continued to live with his gagwidziʔ, visiting his new wife at night. She brought him food every day, though she was not allowed to watch him eating it. She spent most of her time with the other women— a new wife did well to make friends fast. This became easier once she had her first baby; babies are good social glue.


There were vocations within the maniʔjin class. All of them had spirit companions and cultivated a certain wildness. A shaman, even a craftsman, could talk nonsense or not at all, disappear for a week on some errand for his jagoskamad, grow a long beard or suddenly shave it off, or wear nothing but jewelry and tattoos. A little irrational behavior was expected, and perhaps served as a defense against the frankness and occasional violence of the warriors.

Bečagbi’s path was the purest of them all, that of pure shaman. As such he had no responsibilities except to the spirits, but he was sought out for medicine (for ailments both physical and spiritual), for blessings and curses, and counsel. Bečagbi achieved some fame with some unusual feats, such as curing a boy who had gone mad, finding a murderer, and predicting an unsuspected attack by Kleʔmet’ tribesmen.

In the normal course of things, he might expect to become daniʔjyan, chief of the local shamans once Gijebawgad died, and a member of the dapnenyamnam or grand council that ruled the confederacy of Nlatak. But the fox spirit had other plans.

Mission to Uytai

Bečagbi had long been a wanderer, exploring not only the wilderness but other lands. He spent time in the Dnetic lands along the upper Itseʔ and learned the local language; then (around 1255) he crossed the Nyan mountains to the Nyoi valley, a Dnetic land now ruled by the strange Uytainese people.

He never looked back. He was fascinated by the Uytainese and, as soon as he had learned enough of their language to talk back, the interest was mutual. He spent much time in Phetay, the Tsyeʔ valley, and also made what we might call a lecture tour of central Uytai.

Uytai seemed strange to him: rigid, dense, full of extremes, fiercely hierarchical, almost a hive of insects rather than a community of human beings. Its cities were more crowded— and far noisier and dirtier— than anything he had known; its luxuries and machines wondrous, its infinite gradations of class and rich protocol baffling. The common people struck him as mouselike; the lords as aloof, arrogant, and yet daintily fastidious. Even the language was strange— in place of the long mellifluous Itsenic words that each told a whole story, these people barked out single atomized syllables. Where Nlatakan was almost all morphology with barely any syntax, Uyseʔ was the opposite.

The Uytainese were little interested in his own culture, which they considered savage; what they wanted to hear about was magic. The Uytainese had no knowledge of the wasečganyakwe. Some just wanted to hear about them; others wanted lessons, or even wanted to find their own jagoskamad. They talked to shamans among the Dnetic peoples they now ruled, but those were mostly mistrustful and said little; they shook their heads and doubted that the dašiwe, the no-noses or Uytainese, could even have a spirit companion.

Bečagbi by contrast was eager to talk, but canny. He was quick to see how Uytainese clerics made their living. Magic was not something to write down in books, another odd custom of these people, seemingly a way to transfer knowledge right out of the brain, since it could be recovered by re-reading but till then was forgotten. He would take disciples, but only if his needs were well met.

For many years he supported himself in style this way; he had a mansion in Tueʔ, titles (and thus state support) equivalent to priest of a temple complex, and clients across western Uytai. Like many an interreligious guru, he took advantage of the interest of women, sleeping with many of his female disciples, explaining that this was itself a form of spiritual training.

Later years

And like many such gurus, he outlived his celebrity. By the mid 1270s, he was no longer a novelty, and had competitors— mostly Dnetic shamans who had learned from his example and often advanced their own fame by badmouthing him. As well, books now appeared explaining shamanism, and as he had never learned to read or write he was unable to influence the intellectual conversation.

His income dropped, and he was no longer able to maintain his fine mansion. Unwilling to live in reduced straits, he took his gold and returned to Nlatak. But this suited him even less. He had lost his seniority among the maniʔjinkwe; his wife (thinking him dead) had remarried; his gold was of little use. (There’s only so much gold that a small village can use, especially in a social system where people supply nearly all their basic necessities by themselves.)

After less than two months he declared that his fox jagoskamad had remained in Uytai and he must rejoin it. He made his way back to Tueʔ; with the double journey he had been gone for half a year, and now explained that he had been on a vision quest and gained new insights and powers. This was news enough that he was able to resume his guruhood, though on a more modest level.

He was said to be quite poor by the time he died, in 1284. His death however caused an outpouring of sentiment— he had had many disciples, and many of them were now in prominent positions. In the Uytainese way, they arranged for a lavish funeral feast and a small public monument above his burial place. It wasn’t appropriate to make him an uywar; rather, his remains were given to Dnetic shamans, who cremated them in a way entirely unlike Nlatakan burial.


Bečagbi was not the only conduit of Itsenic and Dnetic shamanism to Uytai, but he was the first and one of the most influential. He is still cited, under his Uytainese name Petsapi, in Uytainese works on magic.

He distorted Itsenic teachings to some extent, either to adapt them to Uytainese ears or following his own whims. For instance, he allowed that ancestors might become wasečganyakwe, and adopted the Uytainese model of discipleship and clerical organization rather than anything resembling Itsenic age cohorts or councils. Uytainese magicians also gravely followed his practice of ritwar ‘body teaching’— spiritualized sex.

Uytai, perhaps alone of Almean nations, made a systematic and extensive practice of magic, if an individual magician was unreliable, a thousand of them were not. It fully naturalized the ideology of magic; it takes a historical scholar to see connections between bookish, state-run Uytainese magic and the flamboyantly individualistic shamans, between the dread but earnest purhyet ‘good powers’ of Uytai and the unpredictable Itsenic wasečganyakwe. Nonetheless Bečagbi, or his fox spirit, helped create this vast imperial institution.