National Geographic : 2012 Dec
assured. "You love animals. Wherever you have gone, you have given things to people, and this put a smile on their face." All this was true, but so general it could apply to almost anyone. He continued, "You have a unique mark on your right side, under your armpit." (Not true--- my skin there is blemish free.) Other speci c, cryptic comments followed. "A man with the sign of the dog and the sheep will soon help you." Nergui then concluded: "By my power I will look a er your family and your loved ones. Take these juniper twigs and burn them in your home." A er I took them, he reached for some- thing and held out his hand. "Here is the ankle- bone of a wolf. Carry it in your right pocket---it will protect you from harm." He began to exit his trance, gyrating and ail- ing his arms. His eyes were full of fear (or was it pain?), and he was hyperventilating. His wife, Chimgee---a wiry woman in a gray-blue del and green kerchief---approached him and put a lit cigarette in his mouth. Still shaking, he chewed it, burning end and all, and swallowed. Eventually Nergui calmed down. A second cigarette was offered, which he smoked this time. Chimgee smiled at her husband. "Did you have a good journey, dear?" she asked. " " comes from the Evenki, a Siberian people, but shamans can be found in practically every corner of the planet---includ- ing in shamanic centers now in London, Boston, and many other Western cities. Shamans believe that unseen spirits permeate the world around us, act upon us, and govern our fates. By turns doctors, priests, mystics, psychologists, village elders, oracles, and poets, they are the designat- ed negotiators with this hidden reality, and they occupy an exalted position within their societies. ere is no precise de nition of shamanism. "It would be better to speak of 'shamanisms,' in the plural," says Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer, an anthropologist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Beliefs, practices, and rituals vary from person to person, she told me, be- cause the path to becoming a shaman is above all a highly individual one. Similarities do exist, though: e ecstatic trance, or soul journey, as it's sometimes called, is a signature phenome- non. But how shamans employ their instruments and spiritual insights varies greatly, as can the ritual's ultimate purpose. Many shamans work alone, while others join large urban organiza- tions that act as trade unions; the Golomt Cen- ter for Shamanic Studies in Ulaanbaatar claims around 10,000 members. Most shamans in Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where Islam predominates, regard themselves as de- vout Muslims, and their rites are infused with the mystic traditions of Sufism. Swathed in virginal white smocks, they conduct their ritu- als at Muslim holy sites, and every ceremony includes extensive prayers from the Koran. In Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism has merged with local Buddhist traditions---so much so that it's o en impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. In Ulaanbaatar I met a shaman, Zorigtbaatar Banzar---an outsize, Falsta an man with a pene- trating stare---who has created his own religious institution: the Center for Shamanism and Eter- nal Heavenly Sophistication, which unites sha- manism with world faiths. "Jesus used shamanic methods, but people didn't realize it," he told me. "Buddha and Muhammad too." On ursdays in his ger (a traditional Mongolian tent) on a street choked with exhaust fumes near the city center, Zorigtbaatar holds ceremonies that resemble a church service, with dozens of worshippers lis- tening attentively to his meandering sermons. from his trance, he opened the bottle of vodka I'd brought as a gi and poured us each a shot into a shallow tea- cup. I accepted the cup with my right hand---to receive anything with your le can be a grievous insult---and before drinking, I made an o ering to the spirits in three directions. I lightly dipped my ngers in the liquid, icked a few drops into Based in Kiev, Ukraine, journalist David Stern concentrates on Central Asia. Photographer Carolyn Drake, a frequent contributor, works out of Istanbul.