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Ilya and the Shaman

June 4, 2009 at 8:40 am
By Travis Raines, Charlie Gamble

For much of our time on Olkhon, we were guided around the island by Ilya, a resident of the island for forty-four years.


What struck me most about Ilya was that he was an interesting representation of the wide variety of religious traditions that had influenced the area over the years. Some of his discussions thoroughly confused me, as many places we visited on Olkhon were important to the area's shamanist tradition--however, Ilya repeatedly mentioned shrines to buddhas and activities of Buddhist lamas on the island, often participating in ceremonies together with shamans, and, in one case, where both groups worshiped at an Orthodox chapel. He himself was a Muslim.

 While difficult to understand at the time, in looking back, Ilya's seamless melding of different religious traditions with one another was an excellent illustration of how the local people have encountered, adapted, and fused parts of the various religious influences on the area over the century: native shamanism, Buddhism from the time of Mongol rule, and Orthodox Christianity under the Russians.

 Ilya was not shamanistic or Buddhist, but he did know a lot about the local religion and myths associated with Olkhon island.  He took us to several rocky capes and told us the Buryat stories about them.  One story was about a cape that was made up of three giant boulders.  According to legend, these three boulders were the father of Baikal's three sons.  They were thrown into the lake as punishment for not having the heart to find their sister, who had run away after her love.  The northern most point of the island, Khoboi cape, had a lot of importance to local shamanists as well it had signs warning visitors that they must be prepared to talk with spirits before entering to area. Ilya also took us to several "burkhans,'' pieces of wood that shamanists make gifts to and tie strips of cloth to.

 We got to meet a real shaman the evening of our third day on the island.  Unfortunately he was difficult for us to understand because he talked quickly and softly.  I thought the meeting would be just a simple discussion, but it was actually somewhat religious.  He started with several ceremonies to purify us before we began our meeting.  He used a variety of bells and smoke and said some prayers and then talked for more than a half hour, telling us about his belief in general and occasionally going into stories in verse in Buryat (he then told us them in Russian). 

We got to ask him questions afterwords, one was about the belief in more than one religon that is present in the area.  He held the opinion that all religions have their truth, and drew several comparisons between Judeo-Christian belief and his.  According to him shamanist holy places are just like Christian churches, both being designated as sacred. He also told us that shamanism too believes in a creator-God, from who all of the spirits decend from from.