Coming Together:Buryat and Mongolian Healers Meet in Post-Soviet Reality
In late afternoon in June 1996, Lake Baikal was blue-gray and wavy, still too cool for swimming. Men, women, and young boys were unloading a boatload of fish onto shore in a huge net, and then tossing them into a truck. Buryat and Mongolian shamans, as well as academics from around the world, had gathered in the Baikal region for a conference on Central Asian shamanism. It had been a good day for fishing and a good day for purification ceremonies to the spirits of nature—the air was warm and the sun had shone all day. At the end of the day the eagle had flown across our site—not only flown, but dipped and circled and returned several times before flying off over the lake. The eagle was considered an excellent omen of acceptance of our rituals by the spirits of Baikal, the eagle, and the sacred mountain on Ol’khon Island—as much as the horses galloping across the beach the day before had been a sign of approval of that day’s initiation ceremony. The forces of nature were in harmony with our appeals.
Never had so many healers gathered since the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the total suppression of shamanism. And never had Buryat and Mongolian healers met with rituals and prayers in such a large group setting. The political boundary between Russia and Mongolia was breached and people were able to move freely back and forth. The participation of Mongolians was not only significant because it embraced the wider world of Inner Asian shamanisms, but also because it reconnected the Buryat to a historical consciousness of their identity and strengthened the emerging Buryat shamanistic movement.
Around five o’clock the previous afternoon, Buryat and Mongolian shamans at the conference had prepared for the initiation ceremony. Tseren-Zaarin, a famous and well-established healer from Dornod province in eastern Outer Mongolia, held the ceremony for two other Mongolian boo (shaman) of lesser degree, Bair-boo and Bazar-boo. The midsummer sun was still high in the sky as we were informally organized in two lines perpendicular to the beach, up on the meadow near a small wood.
Two poles with a line stretched between them were erected in front of the trees. A young scholar from Mongolia had hung ritual garments, a mask, headgear, long strips of silken multi-colored cloth with heavy iron bars, chains, iron circles from which bells or keys hung, a miniature iron ladder, and the metal silhouette of a cow. Shamanistic healers—dressed in typical Buryat-Mongolian garb, with Mongolian-style side-closure silk robes (deli) and pointed hats of red or blue silk with black velvet brim—were laying bottles of vodka, tarasun (a milky drink), and other refreshments on a small table. The clothesline held Tseren-Zaarin’s robe, headdress, face covering, mask, and drum, and the headdress, face covering, and drum for Bazar-boo, as well as wands with cloth strips and small metal objects.
Tseren-Zaarin sat in his dark-blue Mongolian robe, sashed around the waist, with a shaman’s special mirror hanging on his chest. He sat facing Lake Baikal; on his left were the Buryat shamanistic healers—eight men and five women. The audience was dispersed on either side, leaving a wide passageway for the connection to the spirits on the land and water. Two Mongolian assistants helped Tseren-Zaarin into his heavy robe covered with bells, keys, chains, and bars of iron reaching around his side like ribs. They tied his large horned headdress to an iron ring on his robe, and then placed on his head a cap with its attached fringe covering the face. His horned headdress was pulled upon his head and then, holding the mask of a spirit-face in his hand, he prayed over it in front of his oval drum, then put it over his face and began to drum, chant, and dance. Bazar-boo was helped into his face-covering and headdress; he also started beating a round drum and dancing while helpers were shaking wands, ringing bells, and fluttering colorful cloths. Bair-boo rang a large bell, made a libation of some milky liquid to the spirits, and began to drum.
Drumming, chanting, and dancing was followed by a more formal part of the initiation in which the two initiates approached the other healers, and held out their drum while a blessing in the form of a praise-poem or prayer was sung over them. Tseren-Zaarin held out a blue scarf, and after the prayer, he placed the scarf and some paper money on the drum. After he had given praise while standing at the small table with the food and drink offerings, the audience approached him one at a time and gave small donations (1000 roubles, about U.S. $1). He in turn stroked each person’s head, blowing on and kissing each cheek.
While the political implications of bringing Buryat and Mongolian shamans together in connection with an international scholarly conference were unique, for the healers the personal connection and celebration of rituals to the Buryat spirits of nature were most significant. This celebration could be seen most dramatically in the Baikal purification ceremonies that started the morning following the initiation and lasted until early evening. Three ceremonies took place, each with a sheep sacrifice: one for the Baikal, one for the eagle, and one for the sacred mountain on Ol’khon Island. Whereas the initiation ceremony had focused on the development, installation, and affirmation of the shaman himself, these ceremonies on the edge of the Baikal were connected to the deepest layers of shamanic thought, to the indivisible tie with the spirits of nature—spirits of the water, mountains, and air. With the singing, drumming, and invocations to the spirits of the lake and mountain, the sheep were cooked, cut up, and offered, and the Buryat practitioners engaged in individual healing activities. A number stood in the meadow, facing the Baikal, mirrors on their chests, healing women of various pains and ills.
Currently, Buryat healers address a wide range of illnesses, principally psychological conditions including mental illness and schizophrenia, epilepsy, interpersonal problems, soul loss, and witchcraft. They also treat physical conditions such as growths and skin conditions, headaches, and heart and liver problems. Treatment rituals eclectically combine many different activities: using altered states of consiousness (ASC) to consult with and influence spirits; drumming, chanting and prayers; emanating healing bioenergies from the shaman’s hands; ritual offerings of sacrificed sheep, vodka, and colored cloth; rituals in nature, especially at springs; and cleansing baths. Most of these healing practices take place on an individual basis, in the “office” of the healer, much as the practice of a psychotherapist in Western modalities of healing. In addition, as these healers have rediscovered their traditions and utcha or roots, they have become active in preparing rituals for the benefit of clans. Such rituals are similar to the ceremony that took place at the conference, with appeals to ancestral shamans and local deities of the surrounding environment, and a sheep sacrifice to satisfy these deities and bring blessings and prosperity to the clan-group for the coming year.
Transformations of Buryat Shamanistic Practices
The scenes from the Baikal in summer 1996, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were a prelude to post-Soviet changes in shamanism. Shamanic practices in the pre-Soviet period in the Buryat Republic showed the classic traits of core shamanism (see page 12 this issue). But despite its enthusiastic reemergence onto the scene of public and private life, the present-day, post-Soviet practice of shamanism in Siberia, specifically Buryatia, is a phenomenon closer to that of shamanic healing. Among Buryat shamanistic healers I did not hear of extensive ASC experiences, soul flights, death-and-rebirth experiences, control of animal spirits, or hunting magic. Most were saddened that they were not as powerful as their ancestors, that they could neither fly nor transform themselves into animals. Considered from this viewpoint, the new practices in Buryatia could be described as closer to shamanistic healing then core shamanism.
Between 1996 and 2000 many elements stood out as I spoke with and observed these healers and their practices for individual patients, their rituals for clans, and their initiations for new practitioners. Most noticeably, although the healers said that they went into ASC and contacted their ancestral or local spirits, these moments of ASC were short and almost imperceptible. They clearly interpreted illnesses as being caused by spirits, however, and used symbolic ritual manipulations such as those of the Baikal ritual for healing. All the shamanistic healers I spoke with told of mysterious illnesses that plagued them until they accepted their calling, and many recounted special visions, dreams, or other phenomena that indicated that they had a special calling. With the exception of one woman who took on her husband’s ancestral spirits, all credited their shamanic ancestry with determining their capacity for the profession. One individual recounted vivid conversations he had in the sky, where he participated in conferences among spirits, goddesses, and his ancestral shamanistic healers.
For Buryat shamanistic healers, the most important aspects of their work are kinship and locale. As demonstrated during the Baikal rituals, these practices are a religion of nature and locale—and, therefore, are particularly susceptible to dissolution when those who practice the religion suffer physical displacement and lose connection to ancestral kinship and territory. Because the traditional function of the Buryat shaman was primarily to be an intermediary to, or intercessor with, the spirits on behalf of his community, the disruptions of the 70-year Soviet period clearly had a profound effect on the practice of shamanism. Several ethnographic sources report that some shamanic activity continued during the later Soviet period. Tailagans, outdoor rituals for the clan, were celebrated in nature and were similar to the purification ceremony at the Baikal. Photographs from the period of 1950 to the late 1980s by Taras Maximovich Mikhailov, ethnographer at the Institute of Social Sciences in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia, record celebrations in nature with small rituals, tailagans in the woods with sheep offerings, and other offerings and prayer rituals that were clearly shamanistic in nature and intent. However, Mikhailov wrote in 1965 that “these days among ‘believers’ there is no complex of ideas, no defined system of rituals and sacrifices, but only fragmented, vague images, illusions, and thoughts, haphazardly called into being by events.” (Humphrey)
In 1996, 1999, and 2000 Mikhailov characterized current shamanic practices in Buryatia as having acquired many characteristics of neo-shamanism. He felt a need for shamanic practice, which was totally focused on individual clan rituals and healing, to be more centered in a location where shamanistic healers could practice. Following the example of the Dungur (drum) Society in Tyva, he tried to establish such a center in Ulan-Ude. Contrary to pre-Revolutionary practices, the new direction of shamanism has become more institutionalized and organized. In Tyva (Tuva), shamanistic healers receive a license to practice as members of the Dungur Society (much like the licensing procedures for various medical professions in the United States). These new aspects underscore its primary function as a profession of healers with special connection to spirits. With the restrictions and limitations of the Soviet period removed, shamanistic healers have returned to their connections with kinship and natural locale. But knowledge was lost during the Soviet period as kinship lineages were disrupted and older healers were unable to transmit their knowledge to younger generations. Buryat shamans told me that they now go to the library and read the accounts of ethnographers who observed shamanism in the early 1900s—then reconstruct their practices based on these accounts. Fortunately, the natural locale, and the places sacred for shamanic offerings to the spirits, still exist.
Tseren-Zaarin said that as he traveled the day after the purification ceremony to Ol’khon Island for a tailagan, he saw a sky that was open, wide, spacious, and with long roads. In a dream, he had met a great ancestor and many deities had come to him and the other shamans. At 11 p.m. on the day of the tailagan a large bird approached in the sky—like the one that had approached the fishermen the day before—and three sacred birds flew over the Baikal toward the shamanistic healers on Ol’khon.
Eva Jane Neumann Fridman is a practicing psychotherapist and anthropologist. She is co-editor of the forthcoming The Encyclopedia of Shamanism and author of the forthcoming Sacred Geography: Shamanism Among the Buddhist Peoples of Russia. She has conducted fieldwork for several years in Russia (Siberia and Kalmykia regions) and in Mongolia.
References and further reading Eliade, M. (1974). Shamanism. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. Fridman, E.J.N. (Forthcoming). Sacred Geography: Shamanism among the Buddhist Peoples of Russia. Budapest: Bibliotheca Shamanistica series, Akadémiai Kiadó. Hamayon, R. (1990). La Chasse a l’ame. Paris: Société d’ethnologie. Harner, M. (1990). The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper & Row. Humphrey, C. (1983). Karl Marx Collective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Kharitidi, O. (1996). Entering the Circle. San Francisco: HarperCollins. Sarangerel (Stewart, J.A.) (2000). Riding Windhorses. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books. Winkelman, M. (1990). Shamans and Other “Magico-Religious” Healers: A Cross-Cultural Study of their Origins, Nature, and Social Transformations. Ethos 18(3), pp 308-352.