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Tools of Shamanism and the Legend of Geser

June 1, 2009 at 9:31 am
By Tigan and Mark

Siberia is a conglomeration of several ethnic groups, cultures, and religions.  Throughout our travels in the Lake Baikal area we saw Buryats, Russians who had arrived recently, descendants of Siberian exiles, and illegal Chinese immigrants, among others.  One common thread between our various stops was the shamanistic influence, a uniquely Siberian element that has withstood the powers of time and invasive European and Asian cultures.   And in many of the places where we found shamanism, we found links to the Buryat folk hero Geser.

Geser hilltop site

Buryat legend regards Geser as something of a mix between a Saint Dmitri and a Paul Bunyon, a man as revered as he was rugged, who rode a strong, giant horse around the entire Lake Baikal region.  We saw sacred sites attributed to him both in Buryatia and the Irkutsk Oblast and heard his name mentioned yet again while exploring Olkhon Island.  Our first exposure to Geser came on the second day in Siberia, when we climbed a hill where Geser supposedly stopped on his travels. Scattered around this sacred place were tributes to the hill’s guardian spirits, to which we contributed a portion of our lunch food.  We next saw Geser’s influence several days later on our way to Olkhon Island, where we stopped to pay our respects at one of Geser’s serge, or horse-hitching posts.  Such wooden posts driven into the ground were an oft-encountered aspect of Buryat society, possessing both practical and spiritual significance. To the uninformed observer, these posts might look like simple wooden posts with colored flags tied to them, but as we learned, they are far from simple.  Aside from serving as a place to tie horses, serge were a sort of claim to a piece of land, and the number of notches carved into the post corresponded to the number of sons born to the owner. The shape of the notches, cones pointing downward, directed bad spirits into the earth, while the upward-pointing cone made at the top of each post directed good spirits up, toward the heavens.  The practice of tying ribbons, or haddak, to serge (and other totems) has unknown origins, but each color of ribbon has its own unique purpose—yellow for wisdom, white for purity, red for physical health, and green for abundance of food.  In holding with the shamanistic belief in sanctity of place, these once-practical markers have evolved into sacred sites where passers-by (like us) pay their respects to the spirits.

Serge on Olkhon 

Other wooden manifestations of shamanism were outside a replication of a shaman’s hut at the Buryatia Ethnographical Museum.  Several logs in the shapes of wild animals crowded behind the dwelling: reindeer, dogs, birds, and a bear.  However, in front lay the most important ensemble of nine wooden fish, which were believed to carry the shaman between the earthy and spiritual realms and were therefore some of his most important ritualistic objects.  Coming away from the shaman’s tent, we were confronted by an eight-foot-tall wooden man who straddled the path, blocking our way.  According to shamanist tradition anyone able to walk between his legs was promised safe travels.   We also encountered similar statues on Olkhon, including a lifeline between a mother and son, an anatomically correct male figure, and several rough-hewn animals. 

As we traveled through Siberia, certain aspects of shamanism resonated with us.   The beauty of the surrounding countryside—the hills, lakes, rivers, mountains, and forests—were undoubtedly worthy of the worship given them.  We all came away with fond memories of the area and felt that we had left a part of ourselves behind to reside among the ancient spirits and legends.