In Siberia

Shaman
Every summer the shamans meet on the island of Olkon in Lake Baikal

Choy Ka Fai

Given my fascination with spirits, I kept asking myself how can we still get to know this endangered species that represent the oldest vision of humanity? At best, they are considered as revenants who cavort in virtual reality, in comics, in painting, and on stage, because they embody that yearning to make contact with the beyond.

Throughout Asia Shamans are still invoking spirits. My first experience of coming in contact with ghosts was in Japan when I climbed Osore-zan, an extinct volcano  with a majestic volcanic crater lake, not so distant from the nuclear waste repository of the Fukushima reactors. Up there on the lakeshore, small, colourful plastic windmills point to Bodai-ji, a Buddhist temple marking the entrance to the Underworld where spiritually endowed mediums, locally known as Itako, commune with the dead.

They are mostly blind women who, after having trained in severe ascetic practices, are said to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead. After paying a fee of 4000 yen, (some thirty euros) I asked one of those blind practitioners to summon Tatsumi Hijikata, founder of Butoh who died in 1986. He answered through the Itako, who knew nothing about this legendary dance creator: “I have been grieving ever since my body ceased to matter.” Silence followed. The practitioner in the traditional kimono squatted on a tatami mat, tapping her long black pearl necklace in order to ensure better reception from the Underworld.

Japan in Sibirien Itako Schamaninnen
Japan in Sibirien Itako Schamaninnen

“Hijikata-san, would you work with me? Would you want to do a play with me?” I enquired. The Itako bent her body back and forth a few times. “Well, I guess so. I think I could contribute some inspiration now and then.” Hijikata’s spirit leant toward me. I asked, “You called your dance Ankoku Butoh, Dance of Darkness. Why darkness?” The shaman visibly enjoyed conveying his answer: “Darkness is hell, darkness is gloomy and disregarded. That is why saints seek out perfect darkness. That is why I named that dance Ankoku.”

Shamanism has its origins in southern Siberia, a vast land north of Mongolia, whose temperatures range from freezing cold in winter to intensely hot in summer. Two provinces in particular can boast of this animistic religion: the autonomous Republic of Tuva, particularly around the city of Kyzyl, and the adjacent autonomous Republic of Buryatia in the vicinity of Lake Baikal. We tend to imagine shamans as dancing in shaggy costumes, as chosen members of ethnic groups such as the Khakass, Buryats, and Turvinians who live in the foothills of the Mongolian Plateau. Another image that comes to mind is a plant that thrives particularly well in that region, the Steppe Rue which contains the psycho-active substance harmine , of which the whole world has been convinced since the literary exploits of the likes of Mircea Eliade to Carlos Castaneda during the 1960s, that natural drugs and feather-adorned shamanic dances in natural surroundings form an integral part of this legendary primal religion.

Choy Ka Fai

Shamanism first spread from Siberia to China and to the Korean peninsula, then across to the Aleutian Islands and subsequently to the Americas and southwards to Australasia. Just in the way that yogis or the Bhagwan cult were fashionable some decades ago, Shamanism’s durability and belief in spirits make it so attractive today, even for those seeking a meaning to life in the metropolises.

Basically, Shamanism is about ancestor worship and has constantly helped ethnic minorities to preserve their identity. Only a fraction of the Siberian population is of indigenous descent. From as early as 1580 until well into the 19th century, Russians settlers colonised these sparsely populated hinterlands at a time when other European empires were actively pursuing their overseas conquests.

Not without reason, Shamanism claims to be able to “do magic.” All the oppression and injustice experienced down through the centuries ultimately led to the fondly cherished desire: to be able to take supernatural revenge whenever faced with overwhelming problems. The answer was for a shaman to cast a “counter spell.” As “supernatural killers,” they could put a curse on their adversaries in order to re-establish a sense of justice or reparation. To do this, they need – in popular belief – influence over the powers in the afterlife. With their skillfully formulated oracles, ostensibly transmitted by the spirits of their ancestors and the Gods, shamans often enact a well-staged conflict resolution.

Choy Ka Fai

The shamans’ lure and power becomes manifest in dances where they step out of themselves, forging a link to the supernatural authority of spirits or their ancestors, a sacred act which, on attaining ecstasy, attests to contact with the Gods. The fact that these shamanic rituals bear certain similarities, for example, to the equally ecstatic Yoruba dance in Benin or the Candomblé in Brazil, only goes to show to what extent Shamanism is a trance-oriented primal religion whose beginnings can be dated back to the migration of peoples from Africa.

What is far more important is not what we know about Shamanism or want to draw from it, but rather how Shamans themselves view the world. That’s what took me on this fascinating quest to Siberia.

in Sibirien Shamanen

On Olkhon Island

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We are on Lake Baikal, a huge lake in Siberia, and the deepest one in the world. To the West, Irkutsk some thirty hours travel from Berlin. Tourists flock here from everywhere, from Siberia as well as from the rest of the world, at least in summer. And, it’s only a mere hop to Phuket in Thailand, or Bali, and ideal for Siberians to escape winter.

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