Spirits of the Taiga
Sacred Trees in the Buryat traditions of Siberian shamanism
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A few years ago, my partner Vijaya and I organized a UK tour for a visiting Siberian shaman, Bair (pronounced Bah-eer) Tsyrendorzhiev, together we visited venues across Britain. Bair came from from Ulan-Ude, a city east of Lake Baikal, some 2000 miles east of Moscow.
The UK tour was part of the vision of Galina Vladi, a Siberian-born shamanic healer who now lives near San Francisco (see Sacred Hoop Issue 42), to bring together Native American and Native Siberian and Mongolian shamans, to one day peak in an Earth-healing ceremony in Siberia.
I was further attracted to this project by the call of the vast Siberian forest, the Taiga. Galina told me that Chinese logging companies are causing big-time destruction and that local timbermen who have to work for them are getting so worried that they have privately started to plant young trees in the clear-cut deserts, but that they need help. I hoped that the contact between the English and Siberian and Mongolian people arising from the expedition would help to establish a two-way relationship: Westerners reaping spiritual wisdoms from an ancient and almost uninterrupted nature spirituality; and in turn repaying those people by helping them to save the Taiga.
Bair belongs to the Buryat people, who although of Mongolian descent, now live in a region which falls into the confines of Russia and hence belongs to Siberia. Ulan-Ude is in the southernmost part, relatively close to the border with Mongolia.
Bair was a successful vet, until he developed epilepsy in 1992, where upon his doctor told him something that one would never hear in the West, that he had a ‘shamanic illness’ which could only be cured by a shaman.
After years of Communist persecution it was hard to find shamans, but luckily his grandmother used to be one herself, and so was able to find him someone to perform the ceremony. Bair was only cured from his serious condition (he was suffering up to nine fits per day) after the second ceremony, the one in which he was actually initiated as a shaman.
Today, Bair is a fully practising shaman and has up to 30 clients a day. He gives advice, counselling, heals with the traditional shaman’s metal mirror (toli), and performs ceremonies. His shamanic equipment and costume; shamanic wand, crown, dress etc., he inherited from his grandmother, and some of these are about 200 years old.
Each shamanic initiation ceremony (shanar) is separated by several years, and the highest level a shaman can reach is the ninth level, needing nine initiations.
As a sign of this, shamans wear a traditional set of shaman’s horns or antlers (orgay), made of metal with many colourful ribbons representing snakes hanging from them. Two fabric lizards ‘control’ the two antlers. The number of branches on these antlers corresponds to the number of initiations a shaman has had. Bair’s has three and he told us that one learns not so much from human teachers but through visions and revelations in these very ceremonies, when the spirits come.
Under the Soviet regime shamanism and all other forms of religion were heavily supressed, with Special Forces snooping about and readily killing people. There are reported cases from the early decades of the 20th century where a shaman was shot dead in a forest, and when the murderers came back the next day to pick up the corpse, the bullets were neatly lined up in a row next to the body. This could be interpreted as one might kill a shaman, but one cannot kill shamanism, one cannot kill the spirit.
During 70 years of supression, the practice gradually disappeared nevertheless, but as soon as Gorbachev’s perestroika loosened the iron grip and the iron curtain the spirits have been coming back. We were told that they literally knock on the doors of their descendants, calling them with nightmares, hauntings, or most commonly with ‘shamanic diseases’ as in Bair’s case.
Connecting Sky and Earth
In Buryat traditions, all trees are sacred because they connect Earth and Sky and because they are an antennae for cosmic energies. This only changed in the 1950’s, when Soviet government policies finally reached remote Siberia and the people were told by the government that it was OK to cut down any living tree they wanted.
This decimation of the trees was exasipated because the shamans, who were traditionally the protectors of the land, had effectivily gone because of the persecution. Today, locals worried about the impact of the Chinese logging companies sometimes remember this ancient role of the shaman and employ one to protect the forest.
Bair told us that at first the shaman will be fair, and warn the loggers that whatever they do to a tree might happen to them if the shaman is forced to call upon the spirits. But if the loggers don’t listen, then the shaman will perform a ceremony and ask the spirits for help, and soon after accidents and technical failures will start. But unfortunately the problems brought upon the loggers is not quite enough (yet) to stop the bigger picture of destruction that has started to unravel in the Siberian Taiga.
Birch – the shaman tree
When I asked Bair about sacred trees his first answer was the birch.
In olden times shaman’s corpses were hung up in birch trees and left to the elements and the wildlife. The quicker the skeleton of a shaman would disappear the more powerful he was said to have been. His spirit was understood to use the birch as a gateway to the spirit world, but could also use it anytime as a channel to come back when called or needed.
The birch is considered the most sacred of trees because it is the purest. In simple folk tradition for example, when a host had a guest, he would bind the reins of his guest’s horse to a birch nearby the house, instead of putting it in the stable. This would indicate a special welcome.
The birch not only serves the spirits of ancestral shamans as the gateway to travel to the spirit world after death, it is also the tree that marks the beginning of any shamanic career; for it is a birch grove in which all shanar initiations take place.
For these ceremonies, the trees are actually cut and replanted in a special pattern. On one side of the grove are three special trees, on the left the ‘father tree’ (esege), on the right the ‘mother tree’ (eche), and between them the one that bridges to the spirit world, and up which the shaman in trance will climb during the ceremony. These three trees have to be at least five metres tall.
In front of these are a neat square of nine trees called ‘wings’ (derbilge). Nine is the most sacred number. At the bottom end of the grove is a single tree called ‘the hitching post’ (sirge), for the shaman to tether his spirit horse at his return. The ‘wings’ and ‘the hitching post’ are small trees of about 1.7 metres high. Altogether the number of trees makes thirteen, the second most sacred number.
The ceremony takes several days to complete, and has many parts to it, including one called ‘Bringing up the Dust (tohorulkha) where the initiate has to run around the grove time and time again. Bair ran for two days and two nights without stopping.
This is the setup for the first initiation as a shaman. For each higher stage, another nine ‘wings’ are added. Hence there would be nine times nine trees (plus the three at the top of the grove and ‘the hitching post’ at the bottom of the grove) for the ninth level. After the ceremony the trees are burnt.
Tools of the shaman
The main instrument of a shaman is his frame drum. A Buryat shaman’s drum is made of birch, and so is the direction of the compass or a specific sacred place on earth.
Thirteen of these Chate spirits live on Ol’hon, a sacred island in the middle of Lake Baikal. This island is honoured as the heartland of Siberian shamanism, because of the thirteen Chate, and because many of the greatest shamans in history have been buried there.
Blessing at the Yew
I asked Bair towards the end of our tour across Britain if he would be willing to perform a blessing ceremony for a tree I knew. I had in mind an old yew tree in Hayley’s Wood north of Cirencester in Gloucestershire, England – the only old yew I knew which is not in a churchyard. He readily agreed. So we busily prepared all the offerings he requested and set out; Bair, Galina, Vijaya and I and others – in all seven people for one tree.
After a little, appropriate ‘pilgrimage’ through the ups and downs, lefts and rights and which-way-nows of Hayley Wood we grew silent as we walked down a magical avenue of yew trees, towards the elder yew at the far end. We cleaned the space around the tree a little, and then Bair placed us south of the tree, and, with the tree to the north, he set up his altar with two silk scarfs (khadags) and bowls filled with offerings: one with milk, one with vodka, one with hot tea, and one with an assortment of delicious cakes and biscuits all soaked with all three of the liquids.
Later, in the ceremony, we sprinkled these offerings while walking around the massive trunk of the yew, three times clockwise. He put on his fringed shamanic journey cap (shapke or maykhabsha) which hid his face and which shields a shaman’s physical eyes so they can focus better on their inner sight, and started his drumming and sung invocations to the spirits.
Bair’s particular tradition works with spirits and ancestors, but not with animal or plant spirits. Nevertheless Bair, seeing my honest quest for growing ever closer to trees, tried to communicate with the spirit of the yew, although he freely admitted afterwards that he was not very able to do so because ‘their language is very different’.
So instead he called upon the familiar spirits of Ol’hon, the sacred island in Lake Baikal, and the spirits came and told him the age of the yew (500 years) and gave a personal message for me regarding my search to learn more about the language of trees.
Needless to say it was a very powerful and memorable experience for everyone. I am very glad to have made this connection and hope that one day we can invite Bair again for a blessing ceremony in a sacred grove protected by our charity Friends of the Trees.
Article by Fred Hageneder in Sacred Hoop, August 2007