* Buryatia: ensouling

Let’s travel to Siberia to visit Buryat culture where we explore ensouling as a theme of natality.  The Buryats hold a belief in a multiplicity of souls that inhabit humans, animals, trees and all of nature.   I visited Buryatia in 2002 to experience the confluence of Buddhist and shamanism in local culture.  I had opportunity to meet with Buryat shamans, writers and artists.

Biocultural Heritage

IMAGE_map_buryatia_Credit USRBC Land. The Buryat people are indigenous to the Eastern Sayan Mountains in Siberia.  The Republic of Buryat is a semi-autonomous region within Russia. It borders the south and east shores of Lake Baikal and Mongolia to the south.  Lake Baikal is the oldest and deepest lake in the world; it has unusual features that make it legendary.

Language. Buryat is a Mongol language, reconstructed from Middle Mongol, the language spoken at the time of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire (13-14th centuries). Buryatia’s indigenous neighbours, the Kyrgyz, Altai and Tuvans speak languages that belong to the Turkic language family.  Some scholars consider that Turkic and Mongolic, together with Tungus, Korean and Japanese, comprise the Altaic family, but this theory is still being debated. The Buryat language is listed as “severely endangered” because it has been eclipsed by the Russian language. Buryat is not a language of instruction in schools, and there are no newspapers or TV stations in the Buryat language. Buryat is a culture “to which you can belong without language proficiency” (Agha, 2012, p.98f).

IMAGE_MaltaBuret Credit Jelinik 1972

Figurine from Ma’lta-Buret. Photo Jelinek. Source: Donsmaps.com

History.  Moving south of the ice sheets, humans reached Siberia from the west by 35,000 BCE. The archaeological site known as Mal’ta-Buret’ near Lake Baikal belongs to the Upper Palaeolithic (22-21st century BCE) and holds mobiliary art, stone tools, jewellery made of mammoth bone and ivory, including 30 female figurines as well as figures of waterfowl and bear.  Some figurines emphasize mothering bodies; others are thin and delicate.  Some are nude; others have etchings that denote fur clothing.  They differ from European figurines in that they have greater facial detail (Tedesco, 2000; Hermitage Museum, 2011; Haarmann & Marler, p.72).  Most have tapered bottoms, presumably to stick upright in the ground. These Palaeolithic figurines appear to symbolize women’s birth-giving powers and the respect given to women at all stages of life.  The number of female figurines at Mal’ta-Buret’ indicates that these artefacts carried symbolic meaning and that they were meaningful cultural markers in the communities of early hunter-gatherers (Haarmann and Marler, p.38).

By 1865, the Tsars had conquered all of Central Asia, imposed Christianity and seized the best agricultural land. The Trans-Siberian Railway reached Ulan-Ude in 1900, bringing thousands of ethnic Russian settlers to Buryatia and many new problems.

The Soviet Union (1917-1991) implemented ethnic cleansing pogroms, using execution and deportations as strategies for weakening indigenous cultures and preventing the political re-unification of Turkic and Mongol peoples of Central Asia.  During the Soviet era, the Buryats became a minority in their own land and comprised only 24% of the population at the time of the Soviet Union‘s collapse.  In 2010, they comprised 30% of the population.

Natureculture.  The Buryat way of life was communal long before the Soviet regime imposed its style of communes and collectivization. “The Buryats were once nomadic, moving with their herds of cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and camels—referred to collectively as ‘the five animals’—and living in yurts (circular, felt-walled tents); however with the advent of Russian hegemony the Buryats settled into villages and now live in typical Siberian log houses” (Cherrington, 2006, np).  Buryats are eager to reclaim and revive their culture and frequently travel to Mongolia and China to study with shamans, learn rituals and ceremonies, and buy traditional livestock, particularly the fat-tailed sheep which are native to Buryat and far more winter-hardy than the French breeds introduced by the Soviet system.

IMAGE_Shaman drumming at Baikal220px-Khagdaev_02

V.Hagdaev, shaman at Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal.  The colour aqua-blue is sacred to Buryats.  Photo: Arkady Zarubin, Creative Commons.  Source:https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22978894

Soviet pogroms persecuted shamans but when the Soviet Union collapsed, “shamanism exuberantly burst forth” after seven decades of repression.  Nadia Stepanova was the first to come out as a practising shaman, and others followed.  By 1992, the Khese Kengereg Association of Shamans had been organized in Buryatia (Tedlock, 2005, p.272). At the Tibetan Medicine Clinic in 2002, I met with a doctor certified in both western allopathic medicine and Tibetan Medicine, who referred patients to a shaman who also practiced in the clinic if she determined that an illness was caused by spirits.  Olkhon Island in Lake Baikal is a centre for shamanic activity on behalf of the collective Buryat culture. Today, shamanistic practise is more muted and occurs primarily in the private sphere.

Buryats have a long history of living in harmony with the land.  For thousands of years, the peoples of Central Asia “have found their spiritual balance with nature.  Traditional concepts of respect for the guardian spirits form part of those behavioural patterns that have proved to be successful over many generations.  Nowadays, the balance of nature is under pressure” from industries that intrude into traditional herding lands to exploit natural resources (Haarmann & Marler, p.57).   Russian law protects indigenous lands only if those lands meet the definition of “territories of traditional nature use.” In order for indigenous people to obtain legal rights to their traditional lands, they must initiate a claim and prove that they use it for hunting, fishing or other traditional uses. Mining and oil companies can set up and operate until the government rules that the indigenous land claim is legitimate (Cherrington, np).

Video:  The Spirit of Baikal


Lake Baikal is the world’s oldest, biggest and deepest lake. Shamans, Buddhist monks and Orthodox Old Believers as well as international scientists explore the region’s secrets, both above and below water.  The scientists respect the ancient beliefs that belong to the Buryat people who live around the sacred lake. Features shamanic ritual and Mother Tree rituals.

Uploaded Nov. 2013.  Duration: 24:30 (long but excellent!)


Myth, Ritual, Sign and Symbol in Buryat Culture


The indigenous culture is shamanic with aspects of animism and ancestor veneration.  Tengriism, with its cosmology, is embedded in the Geser Epic which valorizes a Buryat folk hero.  Buddhism inserted a patriarchal layer by denigrating the female body and the sacred places where women made rituals.

Umai is the Womb Mother who enlivens every infant and animal with an ami (soul).  She tends the mythological World Tree where the ami wait to be born. The ami live as birds in the branches of this immense tree. In another variation of the myth, Umai is the Goddess of the Sun who radiates sparks or rays of light down to Earth to enliven infant humans and animals, providing life until the spark of light goes out when they die.  It is a divine power that connects humans to the Sky and is a gift freely given by the Tengri (Bezertinov, 2000, p.71f).  The possibility of cultural contact between Turkic/Mongol peoples and the Indo-Aryans is suggested by the similarities of Umai to the Indo-Aryan deity Uma/Ambika who is assimilated with Durga, a Himalayan mountain goddess (Dexter, 1990, p.85).

According to Buryat mythology, when an ami soul descends from the sky and reaches the Earth to grow in the body of an unborn child, it is still weak and helpless, so Umai guards the child in the womb.  As the time of natality approaches, Umai helps the child to arrive, pulling the child to herself, and intervenes to remove any obstacles to a healthy delivery.  Umai ensures the umbilical cord is cut properly and cleans the infants’ eyelashes.  As the infant grows, Umai entertains and educates the child, talking to the child in her own special way.  Umai is a constant presence in the child’s life while it learns to walk and talk (Bezertinov, p.71f).

Many cultures honour a deity who ensouls new life. Ngolimento is a Toga goddess who cares for the spirit of a baby before it is born. Ajjyst is a Yakut Mother Goddess who attends the birth of a child and brings the soul of the child so that a complete human being can be born. Neith uses her bow and arrows to shoot particles of her vitalizing moon fire into pre-natal bodies (Rigoglosio, 2010, p.27, 42; Griffis-Greenberg, 1999, np).


Shaman tree

Shaman rock near Burkhan mull. Baikal

The toroo (World Tree) is located on the shores of the River of Life and connects earth and sky.  It is like an axis that intersects the Upper World, Middle World and Lower World.  Wherever it touches earth is the world center where all times, places, and potentialities converge. For this reason, certain trees are regarded as sacred trees and become ritual sites known as Mother Trees (Stewart, 1999, p.92).


Rituals around Mother Trees (IMAGE) involve circumambulations, prayers and offerings of ribbons, vodka and milk.  The rituals serve the purpose of maintaining relationship with nature spirits by expressing gratitude for blessings received and committing to a life lived in harmony and balance with nature.  Additional research is required to determine if there is cultural continuity between the Mal’ta figurines, Mother Umai mythology and the contemporary ritual practises around Mother Trees.  Serge trees are symbolic trees used by shamans for hitching windhorse, the steed that helps shamans journey to spirit world.

Video:  Nadia Stepanova: Siberian Shaman


Nadia Stepanova is a Buryatian shaman who is reviving shamanic ritual ceremonies that for centuries have ruled the life in the taiga.  During all long years of communist rule, government oppressed shamanism.  Nadia Stepanova hopes that the young people will again be aware of spirituality and of the gifts that Mother Nature bestows us.  Released 2001.  Preview 1:28 uploaded 2015.  Full video 30:24


The word Umai (alt.sp. Umay, Ymai) first appears in the Old Turkic inscriptions on the Orkhon monuments in Mongolia (8th century).  In Mongolian, umay means “womb” inclusive of uterus, placenta and umbilical cord (Sinor, 1987, np).  Umai is invoked in many ways by Siberia’s indigenous people. In prayers, she is often addressed as Umai-ana (Mother Umai).   In the Western Buryat tradition, wedding folklore invokes ekhn altan umai (Golden Mother’s Womb) and esegn mungen serge (Father’s Silver Post) whose union leads to the continuity of the people.

Ensouling – exploring incarnated charisma and memory

The notion of soul is central to Buryat cosmology and differs significantly from the Christian view.  It applies to everything that is alive on earth – plants, animals, humans, even rocks – as well as to ancestors.  “The soul is believed to be the focus and criterion of life; it is a life-force that abides in everything.  The soul links all things in the universe – an idea that is especially manifest concerning the transition to other worlds in shamanic beliefs” (Burnakov, 2007, p.151).  Buryats believe in a multiplicity of souls.  In addition to the ami soul, humans are animated by an ancestor soul that reincarnates, and by a nature soul that provides strength, charisma and a unique personality (Kollmar-Paulenz, 2012, p.248).

Arendt’s notions of soul draw, in part, on Augustine’s work.  Western culture tends to trivialize ‘soul’ as natural endowments (talents, intelligence, creativity, personality).  Does a belief that all things are ensouled enhance our capacity to “love the world” as Hannah Arendt did?  Is a reciprocal relationship with nature dependent on the belief that all of nature is ensouled?  Augustine’s concept of soul and his doctrine of original sin may not be congruent with indigenous concepts of soul, which are intertwined with shamanism.

Haarmann insists that ancient motifs in mythology, ritual, sign and symbol repeat into modern times, interconnecting ancestral knowledge, indigenous people and animistic traditions. “The last two decades of research into animistic beliefs has produced insights into the deep structure of the shamanistic mindset.  Approaching the world of shamanism requires more of the modern observer than open-mindedness.  It requires a readiness to leave the constraints of western thinking behind and to get familiar with a divergent system of conceptualizations about the world” (Haarmann & Marler, p.55).  Shamanism is

Nadia Stepanova, Buryatian shaman

Nadia Stepanova, Buryatian shaman

integral to indigenous Buryat culture, as it is to most indigenous cultures. Since the 17th century, indigenous Buryat culture has been syncretized with Lamaist Buddhism, which has many shamanic elements in itself; however, patriarchal   Buddhist teachings may have had the effect of muting Buryat culture’s subtle underlying matriculture.  An outstanding question is whether shamanism, as a technology, is integral to practises that sustain biocultural diversity through reciprocal relationship? Basic shamanism, viewed as technology, informs the process for facilitating unitive experience with nature, which is fundamental to reciprocal relationship with nature.  Research by Michael Winkelman (2011) informs us the human brain, in general, has the capacity for unitive experience, therefore shamanism is not an elitist or magical occupation.  This leads me to conclude that shamanism is a relevant technology for climate change adaptation, but it may need a new name before it finds acceptance in Western culture.

See Reference page for details on citations.

In summary, the Soviet regime fell less than 20 years ago, so it is too early to ascertain if Buryats can reclaim enough cultural knowledge to sustain the continuity of their culture, given the language loss and the current political ideology that gives free rein to Russian developers of oil, gas and mining until Buryat claims for traditional land use are approved.  Further study is required to determine if there is matricultural continuity between the Mal’ta-Buret’ figurines, Umai the Womb Mother and the contemporary rituals at Mother Trees. Even though Buryats continue to perform their ancient matricultural myths in rituals at Mother Trees, it appears that there may have been some culture loss insofar as the rituals are more propitiating in nature than engaged in reciprocal relationships.

Reflect on this:  does loss of language cause a culture to die?

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