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Valentin the Shaman

June 1, 2012 at 6:45 am
By Dylan and Mara

One of our academic focuses in Siberia was the study of shamanism and native Siberians. On one of our last days on Baikal we finally had the chance to meet a shaman. Valentin Vladimirovich Khagdaev came to our camp on the island of Olkhon, talked to us about shamanism, and performed some shamanist rituals.

This meeting wasn't quite what we expected. Valentin arrived in modern clothes and then later changed into his traditional costume, which created a strange juxtaposition of modern and ancient tradition. In the same way, one of the biggest surprises was hearing his cell phone ring, which happened three or four times during the meeting. His ring tone was the same basic tune we had heard from phones all over Moscow, but with a surreal New-Age twist. Valentin is clearly a busy and popular shaman- he even handed each of us his business card. On our return flight to Moscow from Irkutsk we even found a picture of Valentin in our in-flight magazine as part of an article about Baikal. And if you can believe it, Valentin has his own page on the Russian Wikipedia!

 One of the centerpieces of our meeting with Valentin was the ancient Epic of King Gesar. There are twenty-four version of the poem and it is a central spiritual text in many Central Asian cultures. The poem is extremely long –100,000 lines –and takes nine days and nine nights to recite in full. Gesar tellers recite the poem entirely by memory, and Valentin recited a few excerpts during our meeting. There are twenty four versions of the poem and we heard the oldest version, in Buryat, as well as a Russian translation. According to Valentin, this oldest version existed in Buryatia and Mongolia long before Buddhism arrived in the early 17th century.  

The poem begins with a creation story. At first, everything is darkness. Then the Earth is created by the Great Mother God. Initially the Earth is covered in water and the Creator sends a duck out to find land. The duck returns with clay, which the Creator uses to make other animals, including the first human, who is a hairy creature on four legs that possesses claws and fangs. The first human was very unhappy, so the Creator and other animals gathered in a counsel and decided to make him walk upright, take away his claws and fangs, and in return give him a mind. A moose who had missed the gathering later reacted with despair when he learned man now had a mind.

 These short excerpts from the Gesar resemble other common stories and myths from around the world. For example, many creation stories begin with darkness before the creation of the Earth. But more specifically, the tale of the duck sent out by the creator to find land reminded us of flood stories in the Old Testament, Quran, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and more. The first human gaining a mind also recalls the Old Testament and the story of Adam and Eve, but with one big difference- in the Gesar the Creator and animals choose to give the human knowledge and no Satan figure is involved. Another aspect of these Gesar excerpts that sets them apart is the Great Mother Creator and the many animals she treats as equals.

 One of Valentin's central messages to our group was the universality of shamanism. It is the world's first and thus oldest religion. Shamanism is practiced all over the world and its fundamental ideas are the same from continent to continent. It was created by people for themselves, and has never been forced on others. As an example, Valentin described how the Mongol Empire was famous for religious tolerance. While Europeans were in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, mosques, synagogues, churches, and shamans peacefully coexisted in the enormous Mongol Empire.

Valentin told us about a trip he took several years ago in which he traveled throughout the United States and met with many Native American tribes to discuss issues important to native groups in both Russia and America. Though they live on different continents and have different histories, native groups in the two countries share many of the same problems, including alcoholism and the loss of language, culture, history, and land. Valentin told us one very surprising anecdote about his time in America. He met with a Navajo shaman whose native language was so close to his own native Buryat language that they could communicate with each other. Shamanism is so universal among native peoples around the world that Valentin met other shamans in America who performed similar or even the same rituals that he does back on Olkhon on Lake Baikal.


For more information on Shamanism in the Baikal region:

For more information on the epic Gesar: