Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac
In America, the first warm days and the first blushing buds bring the opening of the baseball season. And in Eastern Siberia, almost two months later, the same phenomena mean it’s time for the opening of the Shaman season.
Far from a game, the opening of the Shaman season is a solemn ceremony that marks the advent of a New Year, with all its opportunities to cast aside anything negative and embrace the future. And to ring in this new moment of rebirth, Shamans don’t gather in a stadium or a church or a Buddhist datsan. Instead, as the original “deep ecologists” who sense and respect the innate connections between humans and the natural world, they gather in the open air, rain (or snow) or shine.
In Irkutsk, we were privileged to be invited by our friend and practicing Shaman, Vitaly Baltaev, to witness and document this ceremony at the confluence of the Irkut and Angara Rivers, in a field along the riverbanks, where a section of the meadow had been carefully roped off, almost like a small playing field.
We had assumed that the ceremony would last an hour or two and that we’d have the rest of the day for other work. Instead, it played out over more than 6 hours as a group of about 10 Shamans from the area enacted a series of elaborate rituals calling on the great gods for help for the nation, for the community, and the for the people assembled, many of whom were Russian, not Buryat.
First, the Shamans spread out a series of gifts and food on altars, including a man’s shirt, leaf tea, vodka, candy, and cookies. The offering also included 9 different milk products, ranging from liquid milk to yogurt to butter to soft and hard cheese. The colorful and densely laden altars also featured candles dancing unsteadily in the breeze and smoldering native herbs.
Next, the Shamans invited the gods to descend, explaining the reasons for their prayers, including gratitude for good fortune in the past year, the chance to leave behind negative things, and the opportunity to enhance good actions in the New Year.
Then began a repeated process in which the Shamans entered an altered state of reality known as a trance. Wearing extremely vivid and elaborately decorated costumes that obscured their own faces, and aided by repetitive chanting and the powerful beats of their handmade drums, the Shamans suddenly rose from their stools, jumped repeatedly as if to shake off the envelope of their usual selves, and started speaking in guttural, whining and high-pitched voices that required interpretation from “helpers.” They often ran around the area that had been roped off as their helpers made haste to prevent them from falling or crashing into other people. Just as this process began, an enormous corona appeared around the sun, and the Shamans immediately noticed this and identified it as a positive sign.
After a series of prayers were completed, the Shamans “awakened” again through some pronounced hopping, and were seated back on a stool, exhausted and in need of recovery. This process was repeated several times for each Shaman, as they sought the solace and help of the gods. During the trances, local residents approached the Shamans while kneeling, receiving their direct intercession through a process of chanting and tapping on their bent backs with a multi-colored and fringed talisman.
After the trances concluded, there were still a series of additional prayers to be said, including prayers to help the gods ascend again and for the spirits of the vicinity in which the ceremony was held. And local people shared their own offerings, splashing vodka onto the grass and tossing cookies and candy in the same direction. Finally, the ceremony concluded with a sizeable bonfire fed with ribbons, tablecloths, and the fur of a sheep that had been slaughtered ceremoniously. The fire generated a thick, white smoke that changed direction with the wind, enveloping the territory.
As we made our way in the direction of the main road, a kind-hearted Russian couple, Ludmila and Yevgeny, offered us a lift. They have witnessed the opening of the Shaman season four years in a row and view it as proof that Russia embraces a wide variety of religious practices. In childhood, Ludmila’s family was not very religious, and she went to school in a place where there were 42 Buryats and she was the only Russian, so she feels a natural connection to Buryat culture.
But the most important thing drawing her to Shamanism was a serious illness she experienced for more than four years. Finally, when she had exhausted all traditional medical advice without any respite from the illness, she turned warily and distrustfully to a Shaman for advice. Her problem was quickly identified as a “Shaman illness,” or the illness that alerts an individual to the fact that he or she must practice as a Shaman. And as soon as a ritual was performed, the illness was gone and her life was transformed “as if I had just been born and the gates of heaven were open to me.” Ludmila’s is only one of many stories we have heard about a serious illness being solved with the assistance of a Shaman. For example, the celebrated Buryat artist, Dashi Namdakov, reports that he was freed from crushing childhood pain through a Shamanistic ritual.
When we first encountered Vitaly, a leading Shaman of the Irkutsk region, he was careful to recount the history of Soviet repression of Buryats, during which time practice of Shamanism was nearly impossible and had to be hidden. Now, in the post-Soviet period, he fears that some Shamans have become “Showmen,” more interested in publicity (or perhaps profit) than in the underlying meaning of their traditions. But he believes it’s all a matter of the pendulum swinging back and forth, and soon things will again be more balanced.
At the same time, Vitaly was one of the first to tell us that he believes Lake Baikal is incredibly strong, has the power to clean itself, and will withstand whatever humans do to it. Our research suggests that he’s correct -- Baikal is strong and it does have self-cleaning mechanisms. But as threats to the Lake mount -- including a recent proposal to relax regulations on the amount of contaminants that can be legally released into its waters -- we wonder if this view is overly optimistic. As evidence of serious pollution spreads in its shallow waters, and climate change makes creeping but real alterations in Baikal’s ecosystem, the impact of humans is more and more undeniable.
Ludmila also acknowledges that Shamans have a close connection to nature, but she is concerned that times are changing, and in cities like Irkutsk, that connection is increasingly lost by people who prioritize convenience more than a lasting connection to the environment. And people turn to Shamans -- or other religions -- only when they face problems in their lives instead of as part of a lasting commitment to natural principles.
As the ceremony for the opening of the Shaman season unfolded, we had the opportunity to keep our own fervent wishes for the new season in mind. We wished for strength for Vitaly, Ludmila and others who are making valiant efforts to preserve a culture that is endangered -- and one that places a strong emphasis on preservation of the natural world. To the extent that purity of belief will contribute to purity of water, land and air, we’re extremely enthusiastic. But we also hope and pray that humans never cause Baikal’s pendulum to swing so far in one direction that it can’t recover.