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.

Pink Steppe Girls

"Khatar" Dancers

A giggle from the girls, it’s their first photo session with a foreigner!

At the Surharban horse races, I trolled the infield speaking with racers and event staff to learn more about this fascinating steppe festival. I couldn’t help noticing a gaggle of pink girls hanging out in a van near the event HQ. They were so striking, I didn’t resist asking them for a photo shoot. Their bright smiles radiated their pleasure at being asked. They readily agreed, even performing one of their dances for me! Their traditional pink deels made the steppe gasp in awe as they moved rhythmically across her. Dancing flowers under the sun.Steppe Dancer 3Steppe dancer 1steppe dancer 2Steppe Dancer 4 Ailana, Surzhana, Alexandra and Uyan-Selmeg are flowers of the village “Upper Ivolga” and dancers in a group called “Hatar”. There are two traditional dance groups known as Hatar, a younger one and an older one. The girls are excited to join the older group who gets to travel to France to perform. Then they will be dancing flowers in Paris!

I love this shot, where you can see their tenny-runners under their outfits.

I love this shot, where you can see their tenny-runners under their outfits.

Riding a Short Horse

Practicing a tradition over 1,000 years old.

Practicing a tradition over 1,000 years old.

A middling breeze wafted churned dirt, dusting riders in dusty anonymity. Obscured, galloping hooves pounded past. The riders turned crosswind and stretched out over the plain conjuring a thousand year old picture in my eyes; the darkened silhouettes of nomads bolting over the steppe. Horse racing.

This horse is rarin' to run.

This horse is rarin’ to run.

A crowd of locals, and visitors from outlying regions mix in the stands and ramble trackside sizing up the horseflesh before they stake their bets. The flag drops; equine hustlers careen up the straightaway. Moms, Dads, kiddies, politicians, lamas, workers, drinkers, and gamblers find a perch on wooden seats or at the trackside rail. With each lap, the flock chirps encouragement and advice to their chosen champion. I meanwhile, scout the infield chatting up waiting racers and event staff alike to learn more about the traditions of Surharban.

Surharban is a sports festival annually celebrated by the Buryat people. It is the Buryat version of Naadam in Mongolia. Wrestling, Archery and Horse racing are the main events, complemented by concerts, dancing and singing and various other cultural traditions. Check out “Surharban: Hitting the Mark” to experience a day of festival under a mean Siberian sun!

Buryats are horse people, and are proud of their rides. There is a horse breed named for the Buryat people. They are related to the horses the Mongols conquered the world with and can be described thusly: longhaired short horses. The Buryat breed stands a hand or two higher than their Mongolian cousins, but they are still short. When racing these small statured runners, Mongolian peoples have deemed it proper to rock a pigtail between the horses’ ears. That is steppe style racing.

Proper racing stripes.

Proper racing stripes.

There are approximately twelve races of differing lengths at Surharban. The horseman who left a lasting impression on everyone was horsewoman Otkhon Zhargal, whom I have dubbed the “Determined Firecracker”. A young lady of 12 or 13, she rode in two races and masterfully controlled both, bringing home two gold medals. Otkhon Zhargal was a cool customer, managing each race with steely aplomb. Psychologically, she ruled the race. Physically she put down any crowding/jockeying shenanigans with a quick elbow and an iron will. Take that boys! You’d better practice all year if you wanna win the crown from Firecracker.

Determined Firecracker (the girl, not the horse) winning her second gold. She is the definition of determination.

Determined Firecracker (the girl, not the horse) winning her second gold. She is the definition of determination.

Otkhon-Zhargal recieves a lama's blessing on her win.

Otkhon-Zhargal recieves a lama’s blessing on her win.

Proud papa stands by as "Firecracker" speaks to a local news crew.

Proud papa stands by as “Firecracker” speaks to a local news crew.

Hotcake Hustle: Maslenitsa

Circling revelers revel at the culmination of "Butter Week".

Circling revelers revel at the culmination of “Butter Week”.

DO bears walk the streets of Siberia?

DO bears walk the streets of Siberia?

Maslenitsa, Maslenitsa! Have you been to Maslenitsa? If only for the love of pancakes (blini – something like a cross between a hearty American flapjack and a delicate French crepe) you should kick up your heels at Maslenitsa. Possibly translated as “Butter Week”, Maslenitsa is a festival that falls prior to lent and an official kick in Winter’s pants on her way out Russia’s door. Granted, Spring is still only a dearly guarded hope in the hearts of a frozen people who collectively seem perfectly pleased to shiver in the cold Siberian wind just for the chance to kiss Winter goodbye. Well, that and to strip down to their underoos and scale a gaily ribboned wooden pole for prizes tied on top, cheer on pancake relays, engage in some old fashioned tug o’ war (even Grandmas got in on that fun), watch Cossack sword dances, strain at lifting 30 kilo weights before a cheering crowd, scarf blini and condensed milk (a treat that makes Russians moan in ecstasy, really I have seen it!), mount a balance beam to take shots at each other with weighted gunny sacks, and finally burn lady Maslenitsa in effigy! This is a decidedly Russian experience.

Think you can handle the ladies? They don't mess around.

Think you can handle the ladies? They don’t mess around.

Not only do they race their pancakes . . .

Not only do they race their pancakes but . . .

You flip your flapjack while you scamper.

If you drop that 30 kg weight on your head? You are out till next Maslenitsa.

If you drop that 30 kg weight on your head? You are out till next Maslenitsa.

These bunnies are FIRED UP to be here!

These bunnies are FIRED UP to be here!

Historically the roots of Maslenitsa are pagan, but Orthodox influence has changed it enough for it to become an steaming, eclectic mix of pagan and Orthodox Christian tradition. A week long event, nowadays Sunday, the last day of the festival is when Russians come out in force. Sunday is known as “Forgiveness Day”

Ahhh, the sweet sweet sounds of saber dancing.

Ahhh, the sweet sweet sounds of saber dancing.

Dancing with 3 and a half feet of sharp spinning steel? Man, that is EASY!

Dancing with 3 and a half feet of sharp spinning steel? Man, that is EASY!

The Cossacks came to Buryatia, and now we have Buryat Cossacks.

The Cossacks came to Buryatia, and now we have Buryat Cossacks.

Kickin' it Cossack style!

Kickin’ it Cossack style!

The weapons that won the East.

The weapons that won the East.

On Forgiveness Day, I made my way to the Ethnographical Museum of Ulan-Ude. Full of festive ardor, people streamed into the festivities between cars packed into the turn off to the museum. Smiles and laughter flitted through the crowds, making otherwise reserved spirits bright. The continuous creek of people flowing toward the celebration site encountered a menagerie of humanity dressed as bears, goats, fools, musicians, bunnies, and people in traditional Russian or Cossack dress. The milling crowds attended to different cultural ensemble’s dances and songs, played traditional games and cheered on participants in the strong man contest. My favorite group was the six and seven year old white clad bunnies whose fuzzy ears rivaled the snow in brightness. They didn’t seem sure they were in the right place, but there hopping, carrot wielding antics warmed my cold heart. The turn toed Cossack dance avec swirling saber captured my wonder. Cossacks always cut striking figures. I was pleased that they were dancing, smoking and laughing rather than chasing me down whip and sword. When the song and dance no longer kindled my bones, I shivered my way over to the culinary promenade. Flinging everything I could at my chills, hot pozi, hot tea, hot blini, my body temperature rose to lukewarm.

Crazy Russians scrumming for pole position.

Crazy Russians scrumming for pole position.

This fella is bold, cause it was COOOOLD!

This fella is bold, cause it was COOOOLD!

He topped out through naked determination.

He topped out through naked determination.

The slivers are worth it if the prize is.

The slivers are worth it if the prize is.

Stumbling toward the “maypole” I contemplated collective chaos as a scrum of young men climbed over/on one another at the pole’s base. After a scrabbling struggle, some ascendant fellow would begin inching his way top-ward giving out somewhere between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way up. And the climbing scrum scrabbled again vying for pole position. After several prizes swinging from the top had been hard claimed the last successful pole crawl was completed by a champion in briefs. The crowd stepped back in respect upon seeing his literally naked determination. Unfazed by a future certain of sliver picking his birthday suit, this Vanya made fast work of the nearly unconquerable pole to claim his prize. He descended to hearty cheers for his audacity.

Lady Maslenitsa being carried to her demise.

Lady Maslenitsa being carried to her demise.

The afternoon was waning and Maslenitsa had yet to be burned. A procession bearing the effigy made its way through the crowd to install the colorfully garbed paper maiden on her funeral pyre.

Adios to winter! Even if it remains another month.

Adios to winter! Even if it remains another month.

Doused in kerosine she stood unknowing and serene, dripping flammable. The fire dancers circled spinning their torches ever nearer the gassed maiden until . . . smoke and fire inflamed her pyre. I ran ahead of everyone making for the gates to the warm transport waiting to carry revelers back to the city.

Sunny Skies of Siberia

The Clouds on Tea Road

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

A blue khadak finds temporary rest under the eternal blue sky of Mongolia.

The Great Tea Way begins in a stone gate in the Great Wall of China, wends across the Gobi sands, intersects the great and remote steppe of Mongolia and Siberia, Russia’s massive Boreal forests in Asia and Europe, and by way of Moscow’s shining cupolas perseveres on toward the Baltic coast and the white nights of St. Petersburg. Tea Road is the places and the people who lived and live along that route. I have spent ten years living on Tea Road, in three cities that played a major role in the tea trade, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude (formerly Verkhneudinsk) and Ulaanbaatar (formerly Urga). Each city has it’s own flavor and group of characters that contribute to the history and culture of Tea Road. On the pages of this blog you will find many of their stories. So come to the Siberian Orient, it’s yours for the opening here.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Chopping Baikal ice for camp fire tea, always and essential in wintertide and sumertime alike.

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. Yes, one of those tents is mine!

Clouds and stars compete over the vast frozen basin of Lake Baikal in March. We are sleeping on the ice.

Siberia and Mongolia’s azure skies are steeped in the myth of antiquity. Their legends and beliefs are wrapped in the vault of the sky. The first story I recall is the Buryat tale of the archer who finds a wife. Three celestial sisters decided to descend to the earth for a bath. They lit on the beautiful waters of lake Baikal as swans, and then shed their swan clothing to bathe. Seeing these lovely maidens, the archer was enchanted. He hid away the cloths of one of the sisters, and she became his wife. After bearing him many children, she tricks him into returning her swan attire and off she flies back into the heavens. Ghengis Khan himself worshipped Tengri, Eternal God of the blue sky. Blue is a holy color to the Nomads of Asia. When you go to visit, especially to people who are more traditional, you will recieve a blue khadak, a scarf of silk as a sign of honor.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

Golden Buddha stands under a lovely sky in Zaisun, Ulaanbaatar.

There are more days of sunshine in this area than virtually any place in the world. This vast oriental blue sky is a majestic backdrop on which winnow scudding white billows, above green or fawn hills and the camps, caravans or cabins of the people, who make Tea Road place. Here are some images of clouds and the skies they sail upon over the place called Tea Road.

When I first came to Siberia, this seen from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

When I first came to Siberia, this scene overlooking Pervomaiski from Universitetski, the region where I lived, seemed to me the edge of the earth.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker "Angara" on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

Ice skaters revel in the chill, next to the historical icebreaker “Angara” on the Angara river, Irkutsk.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

A gloaming sky over the ancient capital Urga, now Ulaanbaatar.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

The Angara River Embankment in Irkutsk, a place for people to stroll and chat.

Older than the Old West, it's the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Older than the Old West, it’s the Ancient East, Terelj, Mongolia.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.

Orthodox churches bid farewell to the sun in Irktutsk. Many churches in Irkutsk were built by the fortunes of Tea Merchants.