Capturing the Treasured Wisdom of Female Shamans in Russia
In the Russian wilderness of Tuva, female shamanism is alive and well—and visiting the local healer is as commonplace as a day out at the beach.
All photos by Anastasia Ivanova
Located in southern Siberia on the border with Mongolia, the Russian republic of Tuva is home to ancient shamanic traditions practiced by women as well as men. Tucked away behind Sayan mountains, Tuva attracts a great number of visitors drawn to its unique landscapes and on a quest to discover its spots of cosmic energy and take part in rituals. Russian photographer Anastasia Ivanova first travelled to Tuva when she was studying in London, completing a paper on artists identifying as shamans and cultural healers. Enchanted by its landscapes, bonfires, and sacred songs, she has kept coming back since.
"I've been to Tuva three times: At first I came to photograph shamans, and later returned to visit them, walk around places I grew to love, listen to the chants," she recalls. "Getting here is not easy: Tuva is surrounded by Sayan mountains and one has to take a route through the neighboring republic of Khakassia. There are not even regular flights to Tuva's capital Kyzyl from Russia."
Despite Russia often being regarded as very white and Orthodox Christian, the spectrum of religions, cultures, and beliefs within its vast territory is incredibly diverse, from organized religions such as Buddhism and Islam to the rituals of the Mari people, who are regarded as the last pagans of Europe. An authentic local tradition of spiritual practices has been going in Tuva for centuries.
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"Shamanism is officially recognised and is not considered a sect or cult," Ivanova explains. "During Soviet times the rituals were banned but the tradition was still passed on, and in mid 90s completely re-emerged from the underground thanks to Mongush Kenin-Lopsan, now the head shaman of the republic and a respected historian, writer and poet. This year he is 90 years old."
In Tuva rituals play important role in people's everyday lives, and shamans are integral to life of the community. The supernatural and everyday are closely intertwined. "Visiting shamans is a common practice," says Ivanova. "Some travel from distant villages to see a certain shaman. People usually ask to perform rituals to bring health, wealth and good luck, children or family prosperity, or ward off the spirits of illness.
"Once I was in the queue to see Kenin-Lopsan and met two Tuvan women who came from a tiny village. They travelled so far because a few days ago a bird [had] flown into the house of one of them, and they wanted to ask the shaman what does it mean. Locals can pay shamans with food, milk, meat, anything they have. These days shamans are very organised, have a price list and an office. In their daily lives they use mobile phones, drink Coke and live in ordinary five-storey blocks of flats or village houses, nothing special."
Shaman culture, however, still has its mystical appeal. "I am most mesmerized by rhythmical drums and chants and the costumes shamans usually make themselves: Some wear eagles feathers, some a bear's paw or fox's tail. Shamans are true performers, there are lots of books about it."
Being a shaman in Tuva is open to both men and women. On her first trip Ivanova met female shaman, Tatiana, who's become one of her favourite subjects to photograph. "Tatiana speaks both Russian and Tuvan, and she is a treasury of myths, legends, tales and all kind of Eastern wisdom. You can ask her about anything and get mind-blowing answers to any questions. She was showing me incredible places and telling its legends.
"In the shaman's world every rock, every mountain, every river has its own story and purpose. I filmed one of her rituals on the sacred mount Khaiyrakan. The atmosphere there is out of this world. The foundation of this mountain consists of special minerals and ores which create magnetic fields, so time there flows in a different way than in the rest of the world."
Tuvan society gives a great example of how ancient shamanic traditions could exist in contemporary context, raising awareness of a national heritage and the preservation of nature. The landscape of the republic is mapped with sacred places crucial for shamanic practices and communal worship. "Every shaman has his own place. A tree, a rock, a mountain, a stream—something they've come across when they decided to become shamans and where they come back to perform important rituals," Ivanova says.
"There are also places of public worship with different functions. There are places of female energy where women come to ask for a child if they have troubles conceiving, bring toys and food for the spirits. There are places which could bring wealth, health, courage. There was a spot where I've seen a lot of toy cars—guess it was a special place for people to ask the spirits for a new car."