Sushi with a Shaman

Shamans close heaven's gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

Shamans close heaven’s gates in Ulan-Ude, Siberia.

I am getting phone calls from a shaman.

Actually, she is a shamaness. Newly initiated. We’re friendly. I met her about a week before her drumming in. The morning of our meeting, I briskly packed my camera in hopes of shooting the annual shamanic ritual called “Closing Heaven’s Gates”. The previous day, I spied an announcement about the rite taped to a window in the tram. Right then and there I knew, I was going to the shamans.

The mystique of shamans is legend here in Siberia. I am sure they prefer it that way, a little swirling mystery, the potential of tapping power inaccessible to most is good for business. Shamans get respect, even from those who do not believe, because deep down inside, we wonder if, or fear, or hope their power is real.

In an effort to sidestep all the myth surrounding shamans, all the dire warnings of religious prognosticators, I disengaged my worldview, my labels, and approached these men and women as, well . . . men and women.

After being delivered by bus to the East side supermarket, I started walking the quarter mile jaunt to the Shaman’s temple currently under construction. Striding the sandy roadside, rocking Coldplay’s latest, I was oblivious to all except the sun. Softly, surely, a poom-poom-poom swelled over the stereophonic sound pulsing through my ear tubes. Confused I plucked my headphones and stopped to run a system diagnostics of my sensory faculties. My ears had not betrayed. The air was alive with ricocheting drumbeats!

Quickening my pace, I cleared the squat, time darkened homesteads for my first view of the ritual. As if on the pages of a picture book, the scene opened upon a gentle decline into the Uda river. The city ascended the far bank; industrial, commercial, and residential belts scaled the uplands, who wore cedars for a crown. Clouds, like cotton ball exclamations rode powder skies. Banners, emblazoned with totem animals of Buryat tribes snapped on zephyrs. A crowd of all ages had placed their offerings of milk, vodka, sweets, and tea on a table, and now waited patiently for the shamans.

Photographing an event is one thing, understanding what you have witnessed quite another. While I photographed, I thought, “who can explain what I am witnessing?” That is how I found myself two weeks later searching for someone in a crowd, yelling through our phones at each other over the noise of celebration. On that Wednesday afternoon I needed two things: a quiet place to sit, and a translator of ceremonies, yes, someone to clue me in to what I had witnessed. The only option for peace from the blaring loudspeakers of another state sponsored holiday was a Japanese restaurant. Now I liked the sound of that. The only hitch was, Irina, shamaness of Shishkovka (region where I live), needed a lesson in chopsticks. So, with ninja dexterity, I oversaw Irina’s chopstick apprenticeship. Her apprenticeship accomplished, over fruit and chocolate “spring-rolls” and green tea, chopsticks flashing, she brought me up to speed.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Totem flags of the Buryat people ride the wind.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven's gates.

Scattering offerings to the North in preparation of closing heaven’s gates.

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

This smiling shamaness attests to the fact that while most shamans are Buryat here, not all of them are!

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

The people gather behind a table rich with their offerings.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

Shamans call the thirteen rulers of the Baikal basin into birch trees.

The ritual ground had been set up in a square, the Shamans perched shoulder to shoulder on stools like birds flocking a power line, beaks to the sun. Drumming they were, drumming, drumming. By and by the shamans rose to make their way East, South, West, and finally North. In each cardinal direction, a fire was kindled and an offering of tea and water flung heavenward. The shamans trooped clockwise from fire to fire, the crowd respectfully bringing up the rear; all this under the drum.

Around ten years ago, a woman, making her way to the Buddhist temple, felt compelled to exit the tram car on rundown and blustery Sverdlova street. Wandering down the street aimlessly, she halted before a severe building. Raising her eyes, she saw she had come to the offices of the Tengeri religious organization of shamans. She gasped in surprise, opened the door, and went in.

Her grandma, Shage had been a great shamaness of the Khongodor tribe. In 1966 Irina, girl of 18 or 19, dreamed of grandma. For three consecutive nights, Shage, delivered a message from beyond the veil. She reminded her grand daughter of her ancestral homeland near Kukunur lake, reminded her she was shaman-born, reminded her of obligations to help her progenitors and progeny alike. Here family history collided with the political reality of Soviet Russia. You might think that back corners of Siberia were places one might get away with “anti-soviet” behavior. Not among native communities, where word travels by tongue at jet fighter speed. Memories of the thirties, when Shamans were labeled enemies of the state, were hunted down and murdered by zealous communist converts, remained branded in peoples psyches. Becoming a shaman was not something one did. And so in late middle age, after the pale of communist life had receded, Irina began pursuing the life of a Shamaness.

During the closing heaven’s gate ritual, one of the Shamans had made it known I had an all access pass, which I took full advantage of. And that is how I met Irina, who approached me to clarify. In my artistic exuberance, I had trespassed into territory exclusively reserved for spirits. Graciously she accepted my apology, we traded introductions, and phone numbers. And that is what lead to sushi with a shaman.

With directional prayers properly dispensed, the company collected within the angles of their sacred space. Now rocking on their dragon staffs, thrumming drums escort them into communion with their ancestors. After attuning their ears to the needs and advice of familial spirits, the sapphire clutch circumambulates a standing grove of recently cut birches. Spinning round, kicking up dust, they call to the 13 master-spirits who rule the Baikal basin. This is an invitation to the birch grove; a grove provided for the masters occupation.

In earnest then, they begin praying. Embroidery eyes gawk on heads in a confusion of flashing color. Forged amulets sound against polished discs and golden tiger bells. Other worldly, their appearance camouflages the voyage between worlds, faces extinguishing in black tassel. The tempo of drum beats quicken, quicken until they lurch up from stools burdened in trance. Hissing, they stalk stiffly about. Assistants and seekers of blessings both genuflect before the channeled presence. When a shaman delivers what blessings and messages the spirit had, she leaps up, up and again until the spirit takes leave. Spent, she sinks to a stool in the helping arms of other shamans.

The implements of a shaman rest for the moment.

The implements of a shaman rest, for the moment.

Bukha Noyon visits the people he protects.

Bukha Noyon, protector of the Buryat people, visits Ulan-Ude, capital of the Buryat people.

A shaman gets his trance on.

A shaman gets his trance on.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

This shamaness, deep in trance hisses as she channels a spirit.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

People bow before a shaman as she bestows blessings.

A commotion of shamans, constantly releasing from or slipping into trance; that is what chaos repeating itself looks like. Numerous people temporarily throng about one or another shaman, punctuating the ebb and flow of ceremony, and disperse back into the encircled crowd. Finally this action metamorphoses into a throbbing shaman drum team congregated about the most experienced shamans who call the thirteen into themselves. Like a delirious sunbaked octopus desperately shuffling for the sea, the host shaman staggers under the presence of spirit. Spirits answer questions and bestow their blessings of health and welfare for the winter months. The last spirit to appear is Bukha Noyon, the head of the thirteen and the protector of the Buryat people. After he is properly honored and thanked, he goes back into the birch trees, and after the trees have been paraded around the sacred space where the people may honor which ever spirits they care too, the trees are burned along with a sheep slaughtered for the occasion. The eternal blue sky welcomes these spirits into their winter domiciles, and heaven’s gates close. After the sun’s hibernal rest, the shamans will reopen it in spring.

Earlier I stated that I wanted to interact with the shamans on a human level. My reasoning was, if chose to see them first as shamans, my western scientific education would label them quacks, while my church upbringing would label them instruments of the devil. Both of these judgements seem unjust to make about people I have never met. But do you know what? Deep down, I confess, I still expected to meet conniving, drunken, shifty shamans. Imagine my surprise when instead, I met pleasant, gracious, smiling people! People I could shoot the breeze with over coffee. People who might be friends. People.

With this clear in my mind, it was so easy to set my agendas aside, and sit down with Irina to listen to her life. With nothing to prove or defend, I found it easy to laugh. I left that day knowing one soul on this earth better, my new friend, the shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

The shamaness of Shiskovka.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

A long exposure to capture the feeling of what it is like to walk between worlds.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

Shamans escort birch trees about their sacred space, before releasing the spirits into heaven. The ritual is near completion.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

The birch trees used for hosting the spirits become the wood for a burnt offering. The offering, a sheep, lies on blue material amidst smoke.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

Gathering for a communal send off, the shamans escort the spirits through the gate and into heaven.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

White and black shamans in prayer overlooking Ulan-Ude.

Shamanism: Old & New

A young Buryat shaman flings an oblation of milk during opening of the Yordinkski games on the shores of Lake Baikal.

A young Buryat shaman flings an oblation of milk during opening of the Yordinski games on the shores of Lake Baikal.

Shamanism, sometimes known as the black faith, originated in and has been practiced for millennia in Siberia. The term Shamanism is poorly understood in the West. Generally we lump shamans in with witchcraft and New Age religion, writing Shamans off as charlatans practicing throwback beliefs from the ancient past.
Contemporary Shamanism is alive and well, going through a period of change and expanding its influence in Siberia as native cultures experience a needed resurgence. When interacting with indigenous locals, you will find differing perspectives on the value and practice of this worldview. Some will participate quite actively, some only on relevant holidays. Some practice shamanism out of respect for their family, or cultural worldview, while others will consult shamans before any serious life decision is made. Healing from sickness is the most common reason people will ask a shaman to come minister to them. Shamans will tell you they influence spirits or fight with them to attain a positive answer concerning any problem you might have be it health, work, fortune or other. Generally for the favor of their services, you bring them a gift, whatever you can afford.
Shamanism is difficult to nail down, for even from the mouths of shamans you hear different explanations of what is a white shaman, black shaman, yellow shaman, or blacksmith shaman.
Historically there are two predominant types of Shamans; white and black. Westerners immediately think to themselves, “aha, white shamans are good and BAD shamans are black!” Nothing of the kind! Nor would you know the difference by their dress. I find most present-day Buryat Shamans wear blue. Traditionally white and black shamans had different roles; black shamans battled evil spirits, sickness, curses and could travel in the nether world. White shamans led public ceremonies, interceded for the whole community regarding harvest, well being etc. White shamans had more responsibility to general society while black shamans dealt with individual problems and requests. These roles in contemporary shamanism are in flux as shamans/shamanism reboots after seventy years of communism. Urbanization in modern Siberia is also changing the roles of Shamans, putting them much more in the public eye of city dwellers, and in a position to influence culture.
In an effort to cast aside abundant preconceptions and misconceptions about other religions and cultural practices, and instead meet at the intersection of humanity, we will be exploring Shamans and shamanism in the coming months in Siberia. I expect a series of unexpected revelations about the people behind the mystery of drum and spirits.

Here is what other bloggers believe about belief.

Redeeming Masha’s* Fate

Buryat home group.

Wednesday night Yulia and I took part in a Buryat home group meeting (Christian fellowship). We enjoyed the spirit of unity we immediately sensed with the Buryat believers, most of whom we did not know. Cup after cup of tea went down amidst laughter, and a discussion on the practical side of living as a believer and Buryat here in Ulan-Ude.

Masha, a young lady who recently asked Jesus into her life, related some difficulties to us. Upon Masha’s birth, she stopped breathing and died. Her parents got a hold of two Shamans, who came and were able to revive Masha. Because of this strange birth, and because among elder generations of Masha’s family there were Shamans, Masha herself was expected to be a Shaman.

Recently, Masha has been sick. It is very typical for people who are supposed to become Shamans to get sick if they are refusing their “destiny”. They begin to see strange visions, spirits, and generally suffer from different sicknesses until they give in and become a Shaman. People have been known to die, if they continue in their refusal.

Because of this, Masha’s parents are beside themselves with worry and have been trying to force her to become a Shaman. They are afraid if she doesn’t obey, the spirits will kill her. Last year Masha’s cousin died, and her family has taken this as a warning that the spirits are going to punish Masha for refusing to obey. Join us in prayer for Masha’s health and protection.

*Not her real name.