Buryatia – Located in south-central Siberia along the eastern shore of Lake Baikal, and part of the Russian Federation, Buryatia is home to the nomadic hunter, herder, and pastoralist Buryat, of Mongol descent and the largest ethnic minority group in Siberia. Buryat peoples live well beyond this border, however, since a historically attested nomadic lifestyle has facilitated movement throughout Outer Mongolia, as well as exchange with the Oirots, Khalkha Mongols, Evenk, and others. Until the latter part of the 17th century, present-day Buryatia and adjacent Buryat Mongol regions were an integral part of the Mongolian Empire and had been since the time of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan.

Buryat shamans undergo a series of initiations (šanar) and attend to a ritual place comprising a specific arrangement of birch trees. They engage with the “spirit masters” of the landscape (mountains, valleys, trees, water, etc.) via their ancestor-protector helpers known as ongod (sing. ongon) in order to maintain harmony between communities of humans and other-than-human persons. The shaman also plays an active role in communal sacrificial rituals. Caroline Humphrey (1974), for example, documents the lineage ritual for Buxa Noyon, Lord Sky Bull, whereby the shaman calls down Buxa Noyon from the sky to briefly inhabit the shaman, who then imparts a blessing of Buxa Noyon to the attendees. While in other areas, the positions of shaman and chief are distinct, Buryat shamans have been both chief and shaman at the same time.

Tibetan Buddhism and Orthodox Christianity have had an impact on indigenous Buryat shamanism. Although the Lamaists have treated shamans harshly, Buddhism has become an important part of Buryat life and there are now “yellow” (Lamaist) shamans. There is a tradition of “white shamans” and “black shamans” among the Buryat, as there is among the Mongols, and there are also white and black smiths. Distinctions between them can be ambiguous but scholarly classifications have tended to reify black and white shamans into ahistorical and universalist abstractions. Mircea Eliade, for example, in his search for universal features of shamanism, characterizes white shamans as being able to journey only to the upper world, while black shamans can access only the underworld. Moreover, there are cases whereby calling a Buryat a “black shaman” is tantamount to the label “witch” in post-Reformation Europe, with the same brutal consequences.

In the history of scholarly work on Buryat shamans, the Buryat scholar Matvei Khangalov is an important source of late 18th- to early 20th-century ethnography. More recently, Lawrence Krader and Taras Maksimovich Mikhalilov have published notable critical surveys of Buryat shamanism. Since the formation of the Buryat Republic in 1992, a post-Soviet restoration of shamanism has flourished. The assistance of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies and its idiosyncratic core shamanism has raised issues of neocolonialism for some scholars. Meanwhile, the Circle of Tengerism promotes Buryat shamanism among Westerners, saying: “There are no taboos. The spirits choose who they will.” Also, there is an official organization entitled the Mongolian Shamans’ Association.


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