Shamans in the city: a way of living

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Text: Johnas Bickelman
Photos: Moritz Küstner
Video: Liisi Mölder, Moritz Küstner, Fabian Weiß

The Buryat shamans perform their rituals near the Irkutsk hippodrome. A small estate with functional, newish buildings.  A sign on the wall surrounding says «Шаманский центр»– Shamanic Centre. If it weren’t for that, it might just as well be another kind of public or commercial building in this quiet district of the city. In the hallway, fish bob up and down in a large aquarium, otherwise it’s an undecorated room with a few doors and a staircase. We meet Vitaliy upstairs to learn how he became a shaman.

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Vitaliy is a man in his forties. His wife chaffed about the portrait our photographer took, he tells us, saying that it made him look older. Anyhow, he now uses it as his new profile picture for WhatsApp. The room he receives us in contains a wardrobe, a few chairs, a doctor’s style couch, a small desk, a television and a bear costume. Posters on the wall show scenes from Buryat stories and a shaman genealogical tree. People come here to have psychological, physical and social problems treated. They bring food, cigarettes, vodka and other offerings. Vitaliy chants in the Buryat language and plays his drum wearing a blue coat and an embroidered headdress.

Vitaliy became a shaman nine years ago

Becoming a shaman is a process that is never finished, Vitaliy tells us. As the descendant of a Buryat family with many shamans, his mother and other relatives had already told him as a child that he would eventually face the challenge of becoming one later in life. The blood of a shaman-to-be is marked by the spirits before the child is born, the Buryats believe. The fate is inescapable but the exact moment when someone realizes that he is a shaman can occur early or late in life. The individual usually goes through a personal crisis referred to as “shaman’s illness” before he or she reaches enlightenment. In Vitaliy’s case, one aspect of the crisis was alcoholism. He says that it might have been the numbing effect of alcohol that got him addicted. From an early age he was very sensitive to the outerside world. Growing weary of his strong empathy, he craved something to inhibit it. Alcohol helped him not to see, hear and feel. Vitaliy tells us it was part of the process of becoming a shaman to realize that not all people have the gift of being so sensitive.

Items that will be used during a shaman ceremony

Speaking of a gift is misleading though, as Vitaliy stresses more than once. It is more of a duty than a choice, an ordeal that one doesn’t chose voluntarily as it brings many challenges. Being a shaman is also not a position like being a president or a priest. Based on Vitaliy’s description, it seems most accurate to describe the shaman as someone who is responsible for the welfare of his family and contributes to it by performing traditional rituals. The family has an immense value in Buryat culture; it takes precedence over the individual. The shaman’s own well-being relies on that of the family and this is why he is forced to carry out his tasks as well as he can in this specific sense. Whenever he makes a mistake, it will come back to harm him like a boomerang, he says.

The drum is an important element to get into a state of trance

Shaman Mikhail

The Boldokhonovy family came to the Shaman to get into touch with the ancestor

Since being a shaman is so demanding, Vitaliy resisted his fate till he was in his thirties. With hindsight, the problems he faced earlier in life now seem like the crisis it took for him to become a shaman. Apart from the alcoholism, he was also struggling financially. Eventually he stopped resisting and accepted being a shaman as his personal obligation. He describes one situation as a key moment on his way to enlightenment: his nose was bleeding for 24 hours and didn’t stop until he went to see a shaman and heard the sound of his drum. Of course, his problems didn’t all disappear immediately after that, but he witnessed a few differences: a loan he couldn’t get before was approved of and the financial situation of the whole family improved. Today he has sufficient means for making a living but emphasizes the fact that he is not rich financially. He considers his new understanding of the world as his true wealth.

A Shaman’s work is also part of the work of a psychologist. He listens to people’s problems

The bearskin as a reminder about the Shaman's connection with nature

When asked what the necklace is used for, Vitaliy just shrugs and answers: “It’s just to look nice!”

The shaman Valeriy conducts a ritual to baptise a new car to make it safer

Natalia has performed a ceremony to clean her soul and leave her past behind. For that she has to throw sweets away

The shaman center “Baikal” is in a suburban area between a small business center and a car repair shop.

We’re trying to present Vitaliy in a way that avoids the two worn-out frameworks Westerners have usually employed to describe cultural traditions like shamanism: insanity and romanticism. The first approach devaluates the unknown from a jingoistic perspective whereas the latter turns it into a cliché that is supposed to be the opposite of everything bored affluent Westerners have grown tired of. They look for the archaic and mysterious. Vitaliy is aware of the expectations tourists and journalists have of him. He has dealt with a few of them in recent years and reminds us not to forget our microphone as some of the visitors did.

Mikhail is leading the ceremony for the Boldokhonova family

The family has come to sacrifice a sheep to please their ancestors
 
 
The sacrificed sheep is burned during the ceremony

Vitaliy attaches great importance to the fact that shamanism is not a religion. If a label is required, it could be “way of living” but Vitaliy doesn’t seem to care very much about what others call his practice. There’s no need to justify it with theory. It is an end in itself. Our attempt at understanding it, can hardly succeed, he explains. Shamanism must rather be experienced.

When we ask him if he would like to add something to give us a more complete idea of what he does he looks at us and says that trying to understand shamanism like that would be like explaining what an iceberg is to someone who has spent all his life in an African country. He would like to answer our questions but much remains a mystery to himself. He ends the interview by offering the advice “Don’t look for meaning faraway, find it in yourself.”