Ask Baikal

Hi there! My name is Maxim Milyutin. I am based in Irkutsk, Russia's Siberia. Traveller, organiser of local travel talks, and owner of Irkutsk hostel. Travel for me is not necessary movement to some place far away from home, it's a state of soul. That's why I like to travel around my home region and and abroad as well. I'm happy to share my knowledge about Baikal with everybody! Feel free to ask me about Lake Baikal via the contact form Tatiana Baksheeva, our previous blog runner, remains with us as a contributor.

Everything has its own deity! Shamanism at Lake Baikal.

He belongs to the Buyan family that has been living in the Baikal region over 400 years. Legends say that there have been 19 generations of shamans in his family, shamanistic knowledge being transferred from generation to generation. The totem of the Byans is a white-headed eagle, the major large bird of the Olkhon Island. The sixth finger on Valentin Khagdaev’s right hand is a sign of being predestined to become a shaman. A baby with six fingers on a hand is given birth in every second or third generation of the Buyans.

Valentin Khagdaev

During the centuries, the nomad tribe of the Buyans family had traveled from the Onon River in the Transbaikalia toward Lake Baikal and settled down at the Kuda and Irkut Rivers in the Pribaikalie and at the Olkhon Island. The family legend says: «They descended off the rainbow ladder that is linking the external and internal worlds, to the waters that are as blue as the sky, as spacious as the sky, as worshipped as the sky».  Cattle- and horse-breeding and hunting were the major activities of the family. They also bred sheep and goats. For hunting they would come to the northwestern shores of Lake Baikal. By the way, Peter the Great, a famous Russian Tzar of the XVII century had a woman-shaman in his retinue. She belonged to the Buyans family. In fact, it was quite common for women to be shamans. Shamans were the healers of spirits as well as of the bodies of people in their village, clan or tribe.

The basic shamanistic belief is that the Universe is a three dimensional space including the upper, middle and lower worlds. The upper world inhabitants are «Tangari», divine or celestial beings. The major deity [di:iti] is the Creator of the World and of all living creatures in the world. His name is Aa Hairan (Mercy). He is the founder of life and death, richness and poverty.

People and other creatures of the Earth planet inhabit the middle world. They are subjected to various perceptible sufferings; life is granted to them as a trial: everybody is being tested in perfecting him/herself, improving and developing the best and noble traits of his/her character. Everybody is aware that punishable acts are recorded and that you are accounted for them and must be punished for sins by the lower world’s spirits.

So, the lower world is for hell spirits that make punishment for men for the sins made during life in the middle world. The Master of the lower world has a number of spirits responsible for keeping records of everybody’s good and bad deeds and thoughts. This record gives grounds for the Creator to conclude whether a person requires praise or punishment after death.  A person’s spirit can become a bird, an animal or a plant or it may be given to a mountain, water stream or other natural phenomenon in the middle world.

The world is full of various spirits that differ in appearance, function, character and attitude to people. They are in everywhere: in waters, mountains, dwellings…  Everything – fire, wood, and stone – has its own deity or spirit. Spirits substantially affect life, well-being, household crafts and trade.

  • Spirit of Fire – a source of life and energy. In every Buryatian dwelling, a fireplace is the primary saint area of the house and family.  Fire holds miraculous powers of purification and healing. One has to follow certain rules while tending a fire: it was forbidden to spit into it, pour water on it or throw trash or sharp objects into it. Before every meal and sacrifice to other spirits, Buryats were required to make a sacrifice to the Spirit of Fire. According to common belief, he is a kind, red-haired old man wearing red robes.
  • Spirit Mongol-Burkhan – the deity patronizing cattle and horse breeding.
  • Spirits of Great AncestorsOngones) – a source of the soul’s eternity, patrons of families and mankind’s generations. The spirits of ancestors are especially respected. To enable Buryates to appeal to the spirits with prayers, shamans provided guidance in making sacred images – “ongons”. After each image was made, the shaman would invite the spirit into it.
  • Spirit of the Master of mountains, mountainous area, river valleys and lakes.
  • Spirits patronizing a tribe or its territories; the tribe’s spirit provides persistent protection and help to his tribe’s people.
  • Spirits of Sons and Grandchildren of «Tangari», celestial beings. Once they descended the heavens to save men and other living creatures and to protect them from evil demons; they won the battle with the demons and decided to stay on the Earth with people.
  • Celestial beings «Tangari» are sovereigns of the life and death of every men and every living creature in the world.
  • Mother Nature named «Atugan». It is the power of nature, the top-most deity above which there is only the Sky. She charitably gives us the harvest and provides for abundance on the Earth, being a source of treasure.
  • Creator of the World who has many names: Mercy, Eternal Blue Sky, Creator, the Greatest God. Destinies of all other gods and spirits depend on the Greatest God. It is the eternal source of life.

During the solemnities, a shaman feels the presence of these spirits.  As soon as cold shudder passes down the shaman’s spine, he loudly whispers: «They have come. They have come to help us».

Spirit of deceased ancestors and shamans are called out by prayers that may sound like wolf’s wailing. In the Buryatian language, wolf is «buryu»; so «buryats» are wolves, wolf people.

Among the most popular ongons were those of blacksmiths. In Buryat mythology, the craft of blacksmithing is a gift given by the gods.  Blacksmiths, along with shamans, were considered spiritual leaders of their communities.

Fortune-telling was one of the ways for the shamans to strengthen his authority among believers.  According to Buryat mythology, fortune-telling using a ram’s shoulder blade, already picked clean began when a ram ate the Book of Fates that belonged to the first shaman of the Buryat people, who had fallen asleep. The content of this book supposedly seeped into the ram’s shoulder blade. There also existed fortune-telling customs for foreseeing luck and fate. The shaman would throw a cup of wine in the direction of the rising sun and wait to see how it landed. If the cup landed right side up, it meant a life of prosperity, but if landed on the ground overturned, misfortune. As long as the results of the fortune-telling are bad, the shaman will repeatedly throw this same cup in the opposite direction until it falls right side up. In this way the shaman tried to eliminate the negative prediction of fate.

The text is mainly based on an interview with Valentin KHAGDAEV, Shaman of the Olkhon Island, Post-Graduate of the Buryat University, Philosophy Faculty (adapted from “Wanderings’ Time» Journal for Leisure, No. 2(3),  2000). A picture is taken from

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