Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Beginning of the ritual © Abaeva Liubov Lubsanovna

Healing Rituals of Buryat “Shamanism”

Background

In the Buryat tradition (and in the Mongolian as well), “shamans” were not pure shamans in the classical sense of the word. Those involved with medical affairs were considered mediums between the lower sphere of the Eternal Blue Sky (Khukhe Monke Tengeri) and land inhabitants. Eternal Blue Sky worship was a traditional religious belief of Mongolians. Cross-cultural influences with the neighboring Tunguso-Manchurian people, whose religious traditions may be identified as classical forms of shamanism, introduced the ideas of ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanism’ to the Mongols.

It is now known that the Mongols, before adopting Buddhism, were followers of the Tengrianic religious system and had rituals similar to the shamanic rituals of the Evenks and Manchus. The mediators between people and local deities and different protectors in the Buryat tradition were called boo (male) and udagan (female). In the classical form of shamanism among the Evenks (the Tungusians), a mediator is called cam, and the Manchu term, saman. Evidence accumulated over the past thirty-five years indicates that the term and phenomenon of ‘shamanism’ in the context of the Buryat religious traditions is based on an anthropological mistake of labeling the rituals of the Buryat, Evenks, and Manchus traditions under a single umbrella term “shamanism.” This oversight is the result of the European missionaries’ ignorance of indigenous people’s lifestyle, ethnicity, etc. Regardless of technical issues with the nomenclature, I will use ‘shamanism’ and related terms because they are already established in the cultural anthropology field.

Buryat Healing Rituals

Buryat healing rituals in so-called shamanic culture developed mainly from popular Buryat folk medicine. The healing ceremonies are fixed and subdivided into rituals connected to the psychological state of the patient and those related to the physiological state of the patient. Rituals related to psychology include calling to the spirit of a yet-to-be-conceived baby of infertile parents, pacifying mentally ill patients, and extending a patient’s life cycle. Physiological rituals are for treating internal disease, exchanging the life of a patient with the life of an animal, trimming a patient’s hair at a predetermined age, etc.

In Buryat beliefs, the Eternal Blue Sky is a Universal Supreme deity on which everyone’s life and health depends and the shaman is an intermediary between heaven and earth. So, the shaman per forming the healing ceremonies and rituals is possessed with special transcendental abilities or can enter a transcendental state during rituals.

Rituals to treat general malaise or to target specific internal diseases involve covering the patient with the warm internal organs of a specially butchered animal, often a sheep or horse, and wrapping the organs against the body of the patient with the animal’s hide. For example, to treat liver disease, the shaman would place the warm liver of a just slaughtered sheep on the patient and then wrap the organ against the patient’s body using the sheep’s hide.

Rituals to induce pregnancy in women having trouble with conception involved presenting gifts—usually white dairy products to symbolize heavenly origins—to the deities, reading prayers, and attaching color tape to tree branches. Through the ritual, the winds inform the gods of the patient’s desire to have a child.

Another kind of ritual is for the health of an entire family. In these cases, the shaman would select one animal from the family’s herds—usually a goat or horse—and attach sacral tape to the back of the animal. Once the animal goes through the ritual, it is considered sacred, and the family is no longer allowed to use it for work or other economic gain.

The healing rituals presented here are just a few of a larger and quite varied repertoire of traditions used by Buryats.