Spirtuality in Siberia: Shamanism on Lake Baikal (Olkhon, Russia)

“For Buryats Lake Baikal is a sacred and holy place. Historically, Baikal has given people food, fish, water, and there are many legends about Baikal,” says Masha Bambuyeva, a Buryat native of the north Baikal town of Severobaikalsk in Siberia, Russia.

Marc Olkhon (32)

While travelling in Siberia and reporting on the area surrounding the world’s deepest, oldest, and most voluminous fresh water lake in the world, I have heard as many tales of Baikal myths as I have witnessed breathtaking landscapes.

I am not the only one captivated by the majesty of Baikal. “The amazingness of Baikal,” reflects Marc Antemann, a Swiss traveler. “How big and peaceful, and quiet.”

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With the gorgeous scenery and peaceful solitude, one can imagine the effect Baikal had on its first settlers and inhabitants. It is not a reach to imagine that these settlers arrived during the short summer, but soon realized the harsh winter was just a price to pay in order to balance the gifts of the lake.

But it’s more than just beauty and fish and freshwater. Everyone is talking about how Baikal has a strong energy; some say there is magic.

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Sergei Redkin, who lives in Irkutsk, Siberia’s capita, echoes this idea: “Every time I go to Baikal I feel its power. I don’t know how to say it with words, you can only feel it.

“You have seen it, it’s magical, it’s quite amazing, like the whole world in a small area.”

Vladimir Hidekel, professor of ecology at Irkutsk State University, has a more cynical explanation. “Lots of people talk about the magic of Baikal, about the energy, feeling it,” he explains. “I think it exists… too many people talking; that’s why it exists.”

Indeed, perhaps the romantic notions of magic auras and spiritual energy are too abstract or subjective for a modern, scientific mind to acknowledge.

Nonetheless, the region has been inhabited by Buryats (an ethnic relative of Mongols) for centuries. The spirituality and religious customs of their culture are generally referred to as Shamanism and have distinct ties to the land.

“Buryat land is totally Shaman land,” explains Hidekel. “All this land belongs to Buryat people and Shaman people. Shamanism is still very strong, and it doesn’t conflict with other religions. It has existed like this from ancient times and it survives; in some cases it helps.”

“Shamans do almost the same as psychologists, as priests in the church,” he continues. “They take the list of commandments – Shamanism has the same Ten Commandments as the bible. They try to ask [the subject who needs counseling]. This is the method. They try to find what the person does wrong and to improve it a bit. Some people – even businessmen – ask about their life, why they do wrong things.”

Though Russia’s predominant religion is Eastern Orthodox Christianity people who need help in life continue to be attracted to a naturalist philosophy in Siberia’s great Baikal. This has created a demand for Shamans, and, unfortunately, an economic calling for imposters.

“Some Shaman people are not real, they just want money,” Hidekel believes. “Always the same – like 90% are not real Shamans. Some of them are real. Some say they do not need money, they can tell you everything: what and where and when.”

Constantine is from Angarsk, but works as a tour guide on the world’s third largest lake island, Olkhon. Olkhon is the Mecca of Shamanism in Siberia.

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Despite the problem of false Shamans, Constantine tells me that there is one thing that can make it difficult to be an impostor:

“Every shaman has some physical disorder that makes them different,” he explains. “Like six fingers or two thumbs on one hand.”

Like many tourists to the region, Constantine is fascinated by Shamanism.

“I have curiosity in their practices, but not belief. Generally, I don’t believe in Shamanism. I have seen some aspects like philosophy that is interesting.”

He tells me that tourism has brought about false practices performed by the visitors at holy and sacred Shaman sites.

“Tourists now do things with the trees and build pyramids for fun. They don’t understand that it’s [traditionally] forbidden to build pyramids and that it is not connected to any shaman beliefs.”

Tourists are also tying the popular Buddhist prayer flags to trees. “Tourists tie fabric to the trees to communicate with their gods. They say a prayer just to keep the connection open.”

“In some places it is really sacred place so they put ribbons so they can come back to this place again,” says Hidekel. “In some places it looks pretty ugly… pretty but ugly, because of such ribbons. Some tourists come back every year and put another ribbon. Eventually it almost looks like garbage.”

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It may be that people are captivated by the lake, and are willing to express their feelings of spirituality in any form that seems natural to them. Even non-believers of Shamanism aren’t willing to ignore the Shamans’ warnings.

“Women and children aren’t allowed on Shaman Rock,” Julia Ardnt of Irkutsk tells me as we face Olkhon’s famous rock cliff. “I don’t believe it, but I’m not going to mess with it by going out on it.”

She then tells me that she knows that some of this Shamanism has worked, most notably on the Peak of Love.

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The Peak of Love cliff resembles a woman’s lower half with her legs spread wide like she’s giving birth. One knee is for boys. It’s more difficult to climb despite the path being paved by trampling believers. The other knee is deserted: it’s for girls.

“I know people who have gone to this cliff and their wish has come true,” Ardnt reveals.

The odds of one in two are admittedly primed for success.

A different, more subtle and delicate Shaman practice, which requires keen observational skills of natural phenomenon, is more intriguing to the sceptic: weather prediction.

Kristina Komaritsina lives in Severobaikalsk and works with Hidekel during the summers with Great Baikal Trail. She shares her firsthand experience of a Shaman practice.

“I never saw it before, Shamanism stuff. I never believed in it, but when Vova [Hidekel] called for the wind to move the rainclouds, I didn’t believe it. But then after ten minutes the wind came I was like oh wow it works.”

Just a reminder: Hidekel isn’t a Shaman, or claims to be. Actually, he is far from a believer.

“You can predict sometimes the weather,” admits Hidekel.

“You can put to work the schedule of the weather, this is the main thing,” he says. “It sounds crazy a bit, but if you feel it the level of intuition… if you know this place, like after five years, you know that after lunch will be rain because atmosphere takes all the water and it should run a little bit every day. If it doesn’t run for several days it means soon it will be huge rain. We had exactly that.

“It’s mathematics, you know. Everything can be understood,” emphasizes the rational Hidekel.

I witnessed his wind dance. He poked holes in a pea can and attached a string to it. He filled the can with burning acorns and proceeded to swing it around like a cowboy with a lasso.

“This is an interactive thing,” Hidekel explains of the wind call. “If people start believing in this thing, not just you, but several people start looking at this ritual – it is mostly just ritual – but ritual will help to believe for several people. I think that if it works I can do it.

“You may try this windmill thing and if it works, you’re like a Shaman. If doesn’t, they didn’t really believe anyway.”

Then he reveals the secret to his weather-predicting trick: “I started this activity by feeling my biorhythmic, and also by feeling nature, for example birds. Birds start activity before the rain comes or when the rain ends, they start singing or they start activity not very typical of them for time of day. Maybe it is somewhere in the mind, so I take this ritual tool and make it very quick and start doing this. I started this activity just like a bird, because I feel that something will be changed.

“So if they active during this time it is a sign that the weather will change,” he continues. “And in this area the weather can change only with the wind. So when I feel this I can go and ask for the wind.”

Marc Olkhon (138)

Baikal is known for spontaneous weather changes.

“Many times I observed how fast the weather changes in Baikal,” explains Redkin from Irkutsk. “It’s just magic. Olkhon, for example, has its own ecosystem.”

He then tells me a legend about the three winds that cross near Olkhon.

“So the legend has it that Sarma is a wild and pretty girl, Vekhovik and Barguzin are boys and they both like Sarma. They argue and quarrel for the heart of Sarma. They made a competition with each other: they put a barrel in the center of Baikal and see who can blow it to the other side. They compete to find out who is stronger.

“The barrel wasn’t moving because they are the same strength. When the barrel was still in the middle, Sarma decided to interrupt the competition and blew it to the other side of the coast breaking it into small pieces. So Sarma stays independent and is still the strongest and didn’t accept any of them.”

Sarma’s wind is still known to be unpredictable and of great force. As Redkin suggests, “It’s like hurricane. In the winter, seven ton trucks are blown, and are moved on the ice by the Sarma wind.”

There are countless myths. Myths to explain various phenomena or simply the actions of animals. Komaritsina shares a story about bears.

“The bear was a god, and walked on two feet like a man,” she begins. “Once, he came down to earth and spent his night with a human girl and got her pregnant. Another god punished him by turning him into an animal, a beast. A Siberian Bear. They are angry, not happy to be a bear.”

The tour guide Constantine brought me to a stream and shared this tale:

“Two springs: husband and wife were always capricious asking the gods constantly for things. The gods granted them everything until one day they turned furious and refused. They turned them into two springs, masculine and feminine. Now they will give forever. The moral is very Shamanic: don’t be greedy, everything in measure.”

Upon coming to a view point on Olkhon, Ardnt points out a rock cliff shaped like a woman in profile.

“There was a Shaman and the gods loved him so much and presented him with a castle. His wife was pretty and very jealous, and she demanded to have a castle for her too. He went to the gods and said, ‘my wife wants a castle like this too, and could you give it to her?’ And the gods turned her into stone here on this mountain cliff and said that she will be a woman again only when there is no more jealousy in the world anymore.”

And lastly, Bambuyeva shares the well known myth about Lake Baikal and the Angara river. It is so well-known that there is a Russian ballet based on the tale.

“The most famous legend is about Baikal and Angara,” she says. “There are 365 rivers that come into Baikal and only Angara leaves. Angara is Baikal’s daughter. Baikal loved her very much but she fell in love with the Yenisei river, and ran away. Baikal then throws the rock to stop her, and there you can find the Shaman rock between Baikal and Angara. It’s actually not that big.”

In Baikal, storytelling does not necessarily need a beautiful backdrop for its meaning and morals. However, as convenient tools, the surrounding landscapes and creatures help communicate the experience.

“In the past Shamans used such beautiful places for their rituals, because the beauty of the place gives more power for the ritual,” Hidekel explains.

The Swiss traveller, Achermann, enjoyed the myths as stories, but isn’t convinced of the spiritual aspect many others claim to experience.

Marc Olkhon (82)

“Nothing too spiritual about it. I felt the beauty; maybe you can call it magic, how everything was natural, and relaxed. It is freedom, peace of mind.”

Hidekel came across as a bit cynical in belief earlier seems to change his postion somewhat. At the end of our interview, Hidekel seems to have relaxed his cynical tone. Maybe he is more on the fence about Shamanism then he likes to admit. The apparent phenomena surrounding the rituals seem to captivate even skeptics.

Hidekel recalls these experiences with Shaman rituals. “The main ritual is what you put in the fire, thanksgiving for the gods or spirits of the place,” he explains. “For example, in one case, you are driving in a car and you pass a sacred place where you should stop and offer vodka. Then you ignore the sacred place, and the car will stop working. It will stop for one hour and people can’t do anything.”

“No reason why it stops. They check everything, nothing works. They sit down and one hour later the car just works, no problems. It can be dangerous. People start burning the wheels, the rubber in minus 35 degrees to heat themselves; it is very difficult.

His last words may serve well as a warning or advice to the sceptic.

“It is better to follow the ritual than to have such problems. It doesn’t matter how it works.”

Originally published for Dispatches International

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6 thoughts on “Spirtuality in Siberia: Shamanism on Lake Baikal (Olkhon, Russia)

  1. Pingback: Mirror Reflections – New Caledonia & Russia | Life in Russia

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