National Geographic : 2012 Dec
the air and then toward the ground, and nally dabbed my forehead. Shamanism is something you're born with, Nergui said, slugging down a large shot of vodka. You can't just decide to become a sha- man---you must be chosen by the spirits. e shamanic calling is usually passed down from one generation to the next. "My father is a sha- man," Nergui said, adding that he was 25 when he became aware that he too had an aptitude for communicating with the spirit world. "I've been doing this 25 years, and I have 23 spirits I can call on." But, he added, a shamanic gi is just the be- ginning. All shamans must undergo an intense apprenticeship, learning the timeworn practices of their vocation. ese rituals facilitate the sha- man's interaction with the spirit world---like the trance I had just witnessed---as well as dictate the methods used in paying respect to the spir- its. Shamans invest their own special ritual- istic equipment with a holy spirit; it becomes "alive." Nergui's includes a reindeer-hide drum, a mouth harp, the colored strips of cloth, and his costume. During the Soviet era, all religion, including the shamanic tradition, was suppressed. Many shamans died in labor camps. "A shaman I knew named Gombo got caught during a ritual and was sent to jail for a year and a half," Nergui said. By the time Nergui started practicing, the worst of the purge was over, but shamanism was still forbidden, and shamans had to perform in secret. "We hid our religion so that it wouldn't fade away," he said. "There were two places where we would do the ritual. e rst one was at home, and we would have somebody sit by the door to see if anyone was coming. e sec- ond place was hidden in the mountains. en around 1995, things changed, and we could practice freely." Indeed, shamanism is now un- dergoing a great reawakening throughout its historic heartland in Central Asia, Siberia, and Mongolia---feeding a spiritual craving a er 70 years of enforced atheism. By this point Nergui was looking more hang- dog than ever, and he seemed gripped by a deep melancholy. Shamanism is above all about serv- ing the community, he told me. "When you be- come a shaman, you have the responsibility of taking care of people around you." at takes a heavy psychological toll, and it may explain why alcohol abuse seems to be common among sha- mans. "Sometimes you have to do black things," he said, falling silent. ' has grown, its rituals have become major events---and even big business. On an August day in a sun-drenched meadow in Russia's Republic of Buryatiya, in Si- beria, some two dozen people in indigo robes from a local shamanic group called Tengeri (Sky Spirits) performed an energetic ritual called a tailgan, in honor of a sacred spot on a nearby mountain. Clouds of gnats and the smell of boiled mutton hung in the air. e sheep had been ceremonially slaughtered and quartered and was simmering away in a massive pot. Chanting and beating on circular animal- skin drums, the shamans sat in a line facing the holy site, Bukha-Noyon, a treeless patch on the mountainside said to house holy spirits, includ- ing the male ancestor spirit of the same name. In front of them were tables bearing candles, multicolored sweets, tea, vodka, and other spirit o erings. Vendors sold buuza, succulent Buryat dumplings, from the back of SUVs, and chil- dren played in the parched grass. Above Bukha- Noyon two eagles circled---indicating, I was told, that the spirits were descending. I stood behind the shamans in a half circle of about 200 onlookers. e crowd was mixed: ethnic Russians, members of the local Buryat community, and a number of Westerners. Oleg Shamans invest their own ritualistic equipment with a holy spirit; it becomes "alive. "