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Altai – The Altai Kizhi, Telengits, Teles, and Teleuts are pastoralists of mixed Turkic-Mongolian descent. After the great changes brought by Russian colonization in the 18th century, there arose shamans who, not bound to traditional clan structure, took on spirits of deceased shamans as their guardians, or helper-spirits, and conducted healing rituals (Vinogradov 2003). As noted in A. Anokhin’s (1924) important early work on Altaic shamanism, the clan-based white shamans conducted rituals and had “heavenly patrons,” who were the benefactors of the clan they belonged to and represented. Anokhin advocated that there were also black shamans, as well as “black-white” shamans, but other ethnographers, such as Wilhelm Radloff and Leonid Potapov, did not record such distinctions. Altaic cosmology consisted of three levels—a “tiered cosmos,” consisting of an underworld, middle world, and upper world—and shamans interacted with the other-than-human persons of all these realms. Impressive Altaic ceremonies featuring a richly costumed shaman beating a drum and entering a trance in order to travel to other worlds and communicate with the spirits were observed by several ethnographers. Most famously, Radloff’s account has been quoted in numerous subsequent studies, leading Mircea Eliade to consider Altaic shamans, in the locus classicus, as the most archetypal of all shamans. During Soviet times, Potapov published work on Altaic shamanism, a topic of study not considered worthy by the antireligious authorities— shamans, along with all religions, were put down with great persecution. The indigenous revitalist religious movement of Ak Jang, the “White Faith” (which had emerged in the Altai in 1904), was initially opposed to shamanism, but itself survived persecution and emerged in the post-Soviet era as a religious and cultural revitalization movement with an ambiguous identity. On the one hand, it now accepts some elements of shamanism, but on the other, it defines itself as nonshamanic (Krader 1956; Dugarov 1991; Vinogradov 2003). There is interest among contemporary Altaians in reclaiming their shamanic past, but there is also a strong push toward reviving Altaic culture and spirituality through Ak Jang. In addition, the books of Carlos Castaneda were available in the former Soviet Union, and the Altai has become a destination for neo-shamans seeking shamanic gurus and Shambhala (Vinogradov 1999, 41); in Entering the Circle: Ancient Secrets of Siberian Shamanism Discovered by a Russian Psychiatrist (1997), Olga Kharitidi meets a Don Juan–like female Altaian shaman, thus establishing herself in the West as the “Castaneda” of Altaic shamanism.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007

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