Shamans from Siberia: How Russia’s mystics do magic for money

Valentin has six fingers on his right hand. An abnormality, medics say; but for religious shamans living in Siberian wilderness along Russia’s Lake Baikal, having an extra digit signifies something sacred.

“My great-uncle, a respected shaman, once said, ‘Our boy is born with a sign from heaven,’” Valentin recalls.

As fate would have it, those words appear nothing less than prophetic. Valentin Khagdaev, a 51-year-old man of Buryat (Mongol) ethnicity, is chief shaman of Olkhon, the largest island in the world’s oldest and deepest lake.

Beating his drum made from animal skin while mumbling magical spells, Valentin hopes to reach an altered state of consciousness to enter into a shamanistic seance.  

Shamans act as healers and magicians, as intermediaries between human, natural and spiritual worlds — a tradition dating thousands of years. Their faith is rooted in a belief that plants, animals, rocks, clouds and rivers have souls.

For Valentin, everyday life consists of performing rituals for visitors, especially for tourists coming to the Lake Baikal region. But being a shaman is almost a job in itself.

“He is not a real shaman,” locals clamor. “We call him ‘Showtime Shaman.’ He runs shows for tourists and then collects the admission fee.”

Tamara Shantanova, a female shaman from Ust-Orda, 37 miles from Irkutsk, gets requests for rituals by cell phone and e-mail.

“I never say no to those calling me,” Tamara says. “And I never ask them to pay. But some people bring 50 rubles ($1.60), while others pay 5,000 ($160).”

Officials say the numbers of shamans posing as genuine ones is rife. However, while the demand of something authentically Siberian, the shamans are here to stay.

Modern shaman’s genuine cause

While there may be those who no longer regard Siberia’s shamans as holy mystics, but as heinous moneymakers, the Olkhon chief believes that the sacredness of genuine healing is still at the fore.

“A person can be a driver, a teacher, can work in the fields,” Valentine said, “while at the same time possess truly unique abilities. … I receive many requests, particularly right now, I often perform rituals to cure my dearest ones of alcohol and drug problems. But if the person does not want to be cured, then he will receive nothing.”


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