Published: December 2012

Shamans

Picture of a novice shaman making a milk offering at her initiation near Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Masters of Ecstasy

They are shamans—called by spirits to heal bodies, minds, and souls—and their numbers are growing.

By David Stern
Photograph by Carolyn Drake

Nergui stood in the center of the room, swaying from side to side, chanting, “Great sky, please come here.” His eyes were closed, and he gripped a cluster of multicolored cloth strips. His voice was rough and the melody repetitive, like an ancient ballad: “Oh, great blue sky, which is my blanket, come to me.”

Nergui is a boo, as Mongolians call male shamans. He believes himself to be an intermediary between the visible world and the hidden world of spirits and gods. Mystical figures like him are reviving old traditions throughout Mongolia, Central Asia, and Siberia and finding a receptive audience for their charismatic rituals. After meditation and chants Nergui moved into a trance, the moment when the spirit from the invisible realm would be free to enter his body. “Oh, my spirit, I would ride ten Mongolian cows to see you. Please let the golden cuckoo guide me to the spirit.”

Eight of us had gathered around, sitting on stools and metal-framed beds pushed up against the walls of Nergui’s one-room wooden cabin. Outside, the temperature on this mid-November day was 10°F. It was just after midday, the “horse hour,” according to the Chinese zodiac clock. For Nergui the noon hour is the perfect time to go on an otherworldly ride.

“Sky of the wolf, please help me. A man in need, with a heart of peace, has come. Great sky, please come here.”

Nergui is a slight, unassuming man with a hangdog look that reminded me of the actor Walter Matthau. He was unshaven and dressed in a dull brown del—a traditional Mongolian robe—with a yellow belt and a blue silk sash around his neck. A pair of faded blue corduroys peeked out from under his robe. On his feet were specially made reindeer-skin shaman boots.

He’s a Darhad, one of the ethnic groups indigenous to northern Mongolia, next to the Russian border. Numbering some 20,000, the Darhad have largely preserved their traditional nomadic lifestyle: Nergui’s day job, so to speak, is taking care of his cows, goats, sheep, and horses. The Darhad also practice shamanism in one of its purest forms, as an integral part of their lives. The region’s remoteness helps explain why little has changed. Getting here involved a jolty plane ride from the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, followed by a bone-shaking 13-hour trip in a rickety Soviet-era minibus over frozen rivers, icy mountain passes, and snow-packed tundra.

Nergui’s chanting picked up speed as his swaying became more like a dance. He made giddyap sounds and whipping motions with his strips of cloth, as if spurring on a horse.

Juniper twigs burning in a cast-iron stove gave off a fragrant scent; the smoke is believed to attract spirits. Blankets draped on the walls to keep in the heat made the room seem even smaller, and in the corner opposite the door was a collection of amulets, figurines, colored scarves, bits of cloth, and other talismans—a shrine to Nergui’s guardian spirits.

Suddenly he collapsed. Two helpers caught him, and he gave a wolflike howl. Then he cackled like the villain in a horror movie. “The spirit has entered him,” Zaya Oldov, my guide and translator, whispered.

They brought him to the back of the room, and he sat down, cross-legged, eyes still shut. One by one the members of our group approached him. The shaman—or the spirit speaking through him—described each person’s past and doled out advice.

Then it was my turn; I kneeled next to him. “You were a very quiet person when you were young.” Nergui’s voice was deeper now, more assured. “You love animals. Wherever you have gone, you have given things to people, and this put a smile on their face.” All this was true, but so general it could apply to almost anyone.

He continued, “You have a unique mark on your right side, under your armpit.” (Not true—my skin there is blemish free.) Other specific, cryptic comments followed. “A man with the sign of the dog and the sheep will soon help you.” Nergui then concluded: “By my power I will look after your family and your loved ones. Take these juniper twigs and burn them in your home.” After I took them, he reached for something and held out his hand. “Here is the anklebone of a wolf. Carry it in your right pocket—it will protect you from harm.”

He began to exit his trance, gyrating and flailing his arms. His eyes were full of fear (or was it pain?), and he was hyperventilating. His wife, Chimgee—a wiry woman in a gray-blue del and green kerchief—approached him and put a lit cigarette in his mouth. Still shaking, he chewed it, burning end and all, and swallowed.

Eventually Nergui calmed down. A second cigarette was offered, which he smoked this time. Chimgee smiled at her husband. “Did you have a good journey, dear?” she asked.

The word “shaman” comes from the Evenki, a Siberian people, but shamans can be found in practically every corner of the planet—including in shamanic centers now in London, Boston, and many other Western cities. Shamans believe that unseen spirits permeate the world around us, act upon us, and govern our fates. By turns doctors, priests, mystics, psychologists, village elders, oracles, and poets, they are the designated negotiators with this hidden reality, and they occupy an exalted position within their societies.

There is no precise definition of shamanism. “It would be better to speak of ‘shamanisms,’ in the plural,” says Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, an anthropologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Beliefs, practices, and rituals vary from person to person, she told me, because the path to becoming a shaman is above all a highly individual one. Similarities do exist, though: The ecstatic trance, or soul journey, as it’s sometimes called, is a signature phenomenon. But how shamans employ their instruments and spiritual insights varies greatly, as can the ritual’s ultimate purpose. Many shamans work alone, while others join large urban organizations that act as trade unions; the Golomt Center for Shamanic Studies in Ulaanbaatar claims around 10,000 members.

Most shamans in Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where Islam predominates, regard themselves as devout Muslims, and their rites are infused with the mystic traditions of Sufism. Swathed in virginal white smocks, they conduct their rituals at Muslim holy sites, and every ceremony includes extensive prayers from the Koran. In Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism has merged with local Buddhist traditions—so much so that it’s often impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

In Ulaanbaatar I met a shaman, Zorigtbaatar Banzar—an outsize, Falstaffian man with a penetrating stare—who has created his own religious institution: the Center for Shamanism and Eternal Heavenly Sophistication, which unites shamanism with world faiths. “Jesus used shamanic methods, but people didn’t realize it,” he told me. “Buddha and Muhammad too.” On Thursdays in his ger (a traditional Mongolian tent) on a street choked with exhaust fumes near the city center, Zorigtbaatar holds ceremonies that resemble a church service, with dozens of worshippers listening attentively to his meandering sermons.

After Nergui had recovered from his trance, he opened the bottle of vodka I’d brought as a gift and poured us each a shot into a shallow teacup. I accepted the cup with my right hand—to receive anything with your left can be a grievous insult—and before drinking, I made an offering to the spirits in three directions. I lightly dipped my fingers in the liquid, flicked a few drops into the air and then toward the ground, and finally dabbed my forehead.

Shamanism is something you’re born with, Nergui said, slugging down a large shot of vodka. You can’t just decide to become a shaman—you must be chosen by the spirits. The shamanic calling is usually passed down from one generation to the next. “My father is a shaman,” Nergui said, adding that he was 25 when he became aware that he too had an aptitude for communicating with the spirit world. “I’ve been doing this 25 years, and I have 23 spirits I can call on.”

But, he added, a shamanic gift is just the beginning. All shamans must undergo an intense apprenticeship, learning the timeworn practices of their vocation. These rituals facilitate the shaman’s interaction with the spirit world—like the trance I had just witnessed—as well as dictate the methods used in paying respect to the spirits. Shamans invest their own special ritualistic equipment with a holy spirit; it becomes “alive.” Nergui’s includes a reindeer-hide drum, a mouth harp, the colored strips of cloth, and his costume.

During the Soviet era, all religion, including the shamanic tradition, was suppressed. Many shamans died in labor camps. “A shaman I knew named Gombo got caught during a ritual and was sent to jail for a year and a half,” Nergui said. By the time Nergui started practicing, the worst of the purge was over, but shamanism was still forbidden, and shamans had to perform in secret. “We hid our religion so that it wouldn’t fade away,” he said. “There were two places where we would do the ritual. The first one was at home, and we would have somebody sit by the door to see if anyone was coming. The second place was hidden in the mountains. Then around 1995, things changed, and we could practice freely.” Indeed, shamanism is now undergoing a great reawakening throughout its historic heartland in Central Asia, Siberia, and Mongolia—feeding a spiritual craving after 70 years of enforced atheism.

By this point Nergui was looking more hangdog than ever, and he seemed gripped by a deep melancholy. Shamanism is above all about serving the community, he told me. “When you become a shaman, you have the responsibility of taking care of people around you.” That takes a heavy psychological toll, and it may explain why alcohol abuse seems to be common among shamans. “Sometimes you have to do black things,” he said, falling silent.

As shamanism’s popularity has grown, its rituals have become major events—and even big business. On an August day in a sun-drenched meadow in Russia’s Republic of Buryatiya, in Siberia, some two dozen people in indigo robes from a local shamanic group called Tengeri (Sky Spirits) performed an energetic ritual called a tailgan, in honor of a sacred spot on a nearby mountain. Clouds of gnats and the smell of boiled mutton hung in the air. The sheep had been ceremonially slaughtered and quartered and was simmering away in a massive pot.

Chanting and beating on circular animal-skin drums, the shamans sat in a line facing the holy site, Bukha-Noyon, a treeless patch on the mountainside said to house holy spirits, including the male ancestor spirit of the same name. In front of them were tables bearing candles, multicolored sweets, tea, vodka, and other spirit offerings. Vendors sold buuza, succulent Buryat dumplings, from the back of SUVs, and children played in the parched grass. Above Bukha-Noyon two eagles circled—indicating, I was told, that the spirits were descending.

I stood behind the shamans in a half circle of about 200 onlookers. The crowd was mixed: ethnic Russians, members of the local Buryat community, and a number of Westerners. Oleg Dorzhiyev, one of the shamans, hunched forward in concentration as his chanting and pounding accelerated to fever pitch. All at once he stopped and stood up. The crowd fell silent. A spirit had entered him.

Dorzhiyev approached one side of the group. His headdress was like a warrior’s helmet, and his face was a murky shadow through a veil of thin black tassels. He walked slowly, mechanically, and his breathing sounded labored. People averted their gaze. “It is forbidden to look a shaman in the eyes when a spirit is in him,” said a man next to me, staring resolutely at the ground. “Bad things can happen to you.”

A helper brought the shaman-spirit a stool to sit on, and a crowd of about 20 people massed around him, some kneeling, others prostrating themselves on the ground. They asked him questions. Why am I unsuccessful in business? Why can’t I get pregnant? The shaman responded in a low, gravelly voice.

Around us other shamans were also entering trances, stumbling around and holding court. The scene brought to mind a Siberian version of Night of the Living Dead. Near me, a shaman with horns on the top of his headdress channeled a spirit that chain-smoked and demanded copious amounts of vodka. Another spoke in a high-pitched voice, as if possessed by a woman. After about 20 minutes it was time for Dorzhiyev’s spirit to leave. Helpers led him a few feet away and made him jump up and down. He removed his headdress and blinked in the summer sun. Trance over.

I met with Dorzhiyev later at his spartan, dimly lit office in the Tengeri headquarters on the outskirts of Ulan-Ude, the sedate capital of Buryatiya. Outside the low wooden building stood a huge sculpture shaped like a Christmas tree and bedecked with blue banners, moose horns, and a bear skull.

“As you start to fall into the trance, you feel some force of energy coming closer to you,” he said, his voice rising. “You can’t see it—it’s like a human form in the fog. And when it comes even closer, you see who it is, that it is a spirit. Someone who lived long ago.

“He enters you, and your consciousness departs,” Dorzhiyev continued. “Your consciousness goes to somewhere beautiful. And the spirit takes over your body. And then when you’re finished, it departs, and your consciousness returns. And you feel such a tiredness—it takes a long time for you to recover.”

Before he became a shaman, Dorzhiyev was a lawyer working for the Justice Ministry—and from his reasonable, unruffled manner, this was easy to imagine. “I wore a white shirt and necktie,” he said. “My salary was good.” Twelve years ago, when he was 34, he was struck by what’s called a “shamanic illness”—an extended period of intense psychological, professional, personal, or physical difficulties, when the spirits are thought to be sending a sign. The problems persist until the person finally relents and picks up the shamanic mantle.

“My head hurt, my back hurt. Since I’m a fairly rational person, I went to a doctor,” Dorzhiyev said. But the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. “I felt guilty, as if I were faking it.” The discomfort lasted four years, until a shaman friend entered a trance to cleanse him. During the ritual the spirits revealed that Dorzhiyev was one of the select. He has been a practicing shaman for eight years now, and the pains have ceased.

Dorzhiyev helped found Tengeri in 2003 because he wanted to feel part of a community. The organization has recently come under heavy criticism. The unspoken code is that shamans never demand money, but a number of prominent Buryat shamans have accused Tengeri’s members of charging exorbitant sums for their services and of being publicity seekers, whipping up circuslike spectacles for an impressionable public. The shamanic community, it should be said, is riven by factions and competing groups, so some of the ill will might be attributed to jealousy.

“We don’t have a salary—we live on what people decide to give us,” Dorzhiyev said. While I was with him, he seemed to take his professional responsibilities very seriously, and I never saw him ask clients for money. He; his wife, Tatyana; and their two sons and a daughter live in a modest, two-room apartment in a building Tatyana manages. “We get by. We have enough for bread,” he said, laughing.

The very idea of a shamanic organization strikes many observers as odd—heresy even—since shamans have traditionally been a rural phenomenon, working independently in their villages and nomadic tribes. Tengeri’s members counter that if they were not a registered association, they’d be overwhelmed by the mainstream religious groups that have gained a foothold since the end of communism. “Religion is marketing,” Dorzhiyev said.

Shamanism represents more than spiritual rebirth and good business. It is also a catalyst for the post-Soviet cultural revival among the native peoples of Buryatiya. On the shore of Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest body of fresh water and one of the most sacred sites in Siberia, I witnessed shamanism as self-determination—a ceremony by Buryats for Buryats.

Buryats are a Mongol people who also practice Buddhism and Christianity. About 300 years ago the Russian Empire swallowed them in its inexorable expansion across the Eurasian landmass. During the Soviet period they, along with the region’s other indigenous groups, suffered massive population losses, and their culture was smothered. In Buryatiya today Buryats make up less than a third of the population.

With Baikal’s waters lapping just beyond a small ridge, under a sky with clouds so low it looked as if you could reach out and grab a puff, three shamans wearing green, purple, and blue robes had gathered to ask the spirits for a good harvest and for unity. They stood to the side and, almost imperceptibly, murmured invocations, sprinkling milk and vodka into a small campfire. There were no trances, no spiritual fireworks, just the whisper of prayers offered and the sizzle of liquid meeting fire.

Next to me was Petr Azhunov, a hyperkinetic sprite of a man with a ponytail and wispy beard who is both a shaman and an anthropologist. For him shamanism is as much a political statement as a religious movement—an effort to restore a Buryat sense of nationhood after Russian hegemony. Under communism, Azhunov said, rituals like this sometimes had to be held in the dead of night. Still, many local communist officials tolerated shamanism, and some even visited shamans. “Moscow is afraid of authentic shamans like us,” Azhunov said. “Muslims are controllable, Buddhists are controllable, organized groups like the Tengeri are controllable—but real shamans cannot be controlled.” He poured to the ground an offering of a few drops of the local brew, tarasun—a pungent drink made from fermented milk—before taking a sip.

Azhunov is a traditionalist who believes that women should be barred from certain shamanic rites. “Your photographer, Carolyn, cannot photograph this ceremony,” he said apologetically. “Women are at risk of being unclean.” The men nearby nodded gravely in agreement.

A few hundred yards away at another sacred spot, Carolyn Drake and I encountered three female shamans conducting their own ritual. Their leader, Lyudmila Lozovna Lavrentiyeva, wearing a yellow scarf, red pants, and jangling necklaces, laughed at the idea that only men could be shamans. “The Buryats believe that once upon a time an eagle was flying and saw a pregnant woman sleeping under a tree and filled her with a holy spirit. She gave birth to a boy who became a shaman. So you see,” she said with evident satisfaction, “the first shaman was actually a woman.”

Leaving Baikal, I thought about something Oleg Dorzhiyev had told me. In shamanic thinking, the universe is a unified whole—a giant network in which we humans are linked to mountains and lakes, just as we are to each other and to our ancestors. “For us,” he said, “our gods are foremost our grandfathers and grandmothers, who are our guardian angels. They’re real people. And our love for them is strong. This is the love of children for their parents, and parents for their children and grandchildren. And this energy never disappears.”

I was moved by this idea, just as I had been stirred by other aspects of shamanism—its strong sense of individualism, deep respect for nature, and connection to the past. At its worst shamanism is quackery, and potentially dangerous, as when I saw a shaman tie a cloth strip tightly around the head of a man who may have suffered a skull fracture. The man’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he cried out in what sounded like excruciating pain. Some shamans claim that they can cure cancer, which strains credulity.

Adherents swear that it is genuine, recounting life transformations and miraculous cures. In 2007 author Rupert Isaacson and his wife, Kristin, took their five-year-old son, Rowan, who has autism, to a Tsaatan shaman in Mongolia named Ghoste. When I spoke to Isaacson recently, he conceded that he can’t prove that the shaman helped his son—all he can do is point to the change that occurred almost instantaneously: “When we went out,” he said, Rowan was “incontinent, had tantrums all the time, and was unable to make friends. And when he came back, he was without those three dysfunctions.” Rowan continues to do better.

On balance I’m not about to convert to shamanism. But I still have that wolf anklebone the shaman Nergui gave me—just in case.

Based in Kiev, Ukraine, journalist David Stern concentrates on Central Asia. Photographer Carolyn Drake, a frequent contributor, works out of Istanbul.
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