Shamans of Buryatia frequently describe themselves as being “white” or “black.” Unlike Western magicians, who use the terms to describe the moral nature behind their magic, Buryat shamans use these definitions based on the type of spirits they draw their power from.
Direction plays an important part in Buryat-Mongol cosmology. Each of the four directions has its own unique religious attributes, including color and natural element, as well as its own type of spirit. The directional spirits called upon in times of need depend on the nature of the petition, as some spirits are better at some things than others, and it is important that the right type of shaman is consulted to engage the spirits appropriate to the petition. The corresponding color of the west is white, and the color of the north is black. Although it is possible to be both a black shaman and a white shaman at once, only a black shaman may call upon black spirits, and vice versa.
Popular opinion on black shamans is very similar to that of the Western “black magician”: they are “known” to curse, kill, and cause harm. However, modern Buryat shamans are required to take an oath, much like some modern Western pagans, to harm none, and it is thought that too much cursing will result in a loss of power. Rather than cursing, black shamans are generally thought of as “spirit warriors” who are called upon for strengthening, and in times of war. Black spirits are thought to be fast, strong, and aggressive, though not outright evil . In times of war, it was customary for a black shaman to call upon the northern spirits for strength, and to ask for their assistance in military matters. Unsurprisingly, the costume of a black shaman is a martial one, containing armor, a helmet, and a whip. Both the shaman’s whip and armor are covered with small metal tools, such as keys and knives, which assist the shaman in his or her workings. Each implement serves a different purpose, whether for protection, divination, or the invocation of the northern spirits, and a black shaman’s power is defined by the number of magical implements worn on his or her armor.
While black shamans are often regarded with mistrust, white shamans, who are unable to lay curses, are sometimes derided as “bonesetters” by the Buryat, due to their capacity for healing, and less militant nature. Indeed, healing plays a prominent part in the role of the white shaman, with white spirits often being personified as shamans of the past who became Buddhist lamas during their lifetimes. Buddhism has strongly influenced the tradition of the white shaman, with many rituals taking on Buddhist elements, such as chanting and the burning of incense, and the number of white shamans dropped during the 17th-19th centuries, as prospective shamans instead became lamas. This must have been discouraging to the Buryats of that time period, as the rules for becoming a white shaman are much more stringent than those for becoming a black one. The role of a white shaman is an inherited one, and an initiate must have several white shamans as his or her ancestors, sometimes known as a “white shaman’s root”. In post-Communist years, however, white shamans are making a comeback, as Buryats seek to return to their spiritual roots, as well as reconnect with nature.
Unlike black shamans, white shamans do not wear armor, or a headdress, as befits their more passive nature. Instead, white shamans wear a cape called a nemerge, or a white coat, and ring bells instead of banging a drum. Aside from their cape or coat, white shamans are often indistinguishable from an average Buryat dressed in traditional clothing.
Buddhist influence, though more visible in the white shamanic tradition, has certainly been profound on Buryat religious tradition overall, with many modern Buryats subscribing to the Buddhist paradigm. Shamanism, however, survives; even among those who consider themselves to be Buddhists, as many desire to reclaim their ancestral beliefs. Both types of shamanism continue to thrive in Buryatia; proving that, even in the modern world, there is still the need to connect with one’s roots, and a non-dualistic view of black and white.