The Different Types of Shamans

There are three different types of shamans- Black, White, and Yellow. The first two of these types are traditional and the third, a result of influence from Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism).

It is important to note that the designations of “Black” and “White” do not mean “evil” and “good”. There are different types of spirits that shamans work with and they reside within the four directions. In Mongolian tradition, each direction has a colour. A shaman’s colour is determined from which direction he gets his power.

Black Shaman Tradition

Black shamans are the most powerful of all the shamans and they get their power from the Northern direction. They are warrior shamans and overcome evil by battling might vs. might. They are the models of courage and discipline.

Historically, Black shamans had fulfilled roles in both times of peace and in times of war. In wartime, they boosted the soldiers’ morale and did ceremonies to help in battle. The power of the army was connected to the Black shamans, so these shamans were heavily recruited in times of war.

During times of peace, Black shamans served as advisors and conducted foreign policy by making peace and alliances. During the time of the Mongolian Empire, all treaties were ratified by shaman ceremonies.

Both historically and today, Black shamans do many other types of shamanic work. They do hunting rituals, healing work, protection, divination, and curse enemies. Black shamans have to be careful to stay in balance, for a shaman that curses too much, will lose their ability to heal and would become an outcast.

Black shamans


shaman types

White Shamans

White shamans get their power from the white Western direction. Because of this, they direct their prayers to the Western Heavens.

White shamans are shamans of peace and have a special relationship with the spirits of nature. Their main focus is on pacifying angry spirits and helping mankind to live in balance with nature. White shamans also do divination and blessings. One thing that they can not do is a shaman’s curse.

During the Mongol Empire, while Black shamans dealt with foreign affairs, White shamans dealt with local affairs and served as administrators and concerned themselves with the day to day lives of the people.

White shamanism in present time has Buddhist inluence in it’s trappings and style. Some chants are of Buddhist origin and White shamans burn incense instead of the wild plants that Black shamans burn.

It is an incorrect stereotype that all shamans use drums. White shamans do not use drums, but instead have a wooden staff and ring bells during cerimonies. White shamans also do not wear the antlered headdress of the Black shamans, but instead wear a cape called a nemerge.

Lamaism was the main cause of the decline in the numbers of White shamans. During the 17th to 19th centuries, the White shaman tradition suffered most among the Khalkha and Barga tribes, and throughout Inner Mongolia. In present day, white shamanism is returning.

White shamans

White shaman photos taken in Buryatia by Alexander Khantaev and the Yara arts group


Yellow Shaman Tradition

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, Lamaism (Tibetan Buddhism) imposed itself on the people of Mongolia. During this time, it was very difficult for shamans. Lamaists divided shamans into two catagories: Black and Yellow. “Black” shamans were those who kept the old shamanic traditions, and Yellow shamans were those who would submit to the Lamas and serve in a subordinate role to them.

Black shamans refused to submit to the foreign religion. White shamans were divided. Some submitted to Buddhist authority and became Yellow shamans. Other White shamans refused to give up their traditions. These shamans were thrown into the “Black” catagory by the Lamaists. Therefore, both Black and White shamans were in the same catagory between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Because of this, the distinctions between the two traditions was muddied in Lamaist dominated regions. Luckily, the tribes in the Northwest regions such as the Darhad and Urinahai had close contact and solidarity with Siberian peoples such as the Tuvans and Buryats who kept their traditions in tact.

Communism in Mongolia stopped the Buddhist attrocities, but was a step backwards for freedom of religion. When Mongolia changed to a democracy in the 1990’s, shamanism grew stronger in the region again.

“White shamans” have returned and are no longer forced into the “Yellow” catagory. The “Yellow” catagory is no longer a shaman classification.

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