Shamanism in Mongolia has remained ingrained in the nomadic spirit of its people since ancient times. Originating in the time of the Stone Age hunters during the Paleolithic age over 40,000 years ago. Shamanism has managed to survive against enormous odds, centuries of persecution by Buddhists and Stalinist efforts to eradicate this ancient tradition. Shamanism is once again forming a prominent place in the psyche and spirituality of the Modern Mongol today, after the total ban of all religion throughout the time of Soviet rule. Shamanism is the oldest religion recorded in Asia, which was once a single cultural area extending over Mongolia, Russia, China, India, Tibet, Nepal and Persia more commonly known as Iran. Indeed it is without a doubt one of the oldest religious and cultural traditions in the world. However this religion worships without scripture and is a faith, which has no books. Shamans whom we in the western world have called medicine men and witch doctors are the keepers of a remarkable body of ancient techniques that they use to achieve and maintain wellbeing and healing for themselves and members of their communities. These Shamanic methods are strikingly similar the world over, even for peoples whose cultures are quite different in other respects, and who have been separated by oceans and continents for tens of thousands of years. Shamanism is a vast mental and emotional adventure, one in which the patient as well as the Shaman healer are involved. Through brave journey and efforts, the Shaman helps his patients transcend their normal ordinary definition of reality, including the definition of them selves as ill. The Shaman shows his patients that they are not emotionally and spiritually alone in their struggles against illness and death. The Shaman shares his special powers and convinces his patients, on a deep level of consciousness, that another human is willing to offer up his own self to help them. The Shaman's self-sacrifice calls forth a corresponding emotional commitment from his patients, a sense of obligation to struggle alongside the Shaman to save ones self, caring and curing go hand in hand.
The Shaman is a kind of a priest or medium who acts as a conduit between the human world and the realm of the gods, demons and spirits of ancestors. Becoming a Shaman is often just as much of a curse as it is a blessing, shamans are chosen by the spirits at birth. Those with the potential for Shaman hood are called butuur meaning ‘cocoon’, most often those thought of as cocoons have Shamans ancestors in the family. To become a shaman is to be dismembered as a person and to be reborn into something else. There are two ways of arriving at Shaman hood; the first is great sickness, where a messenger from the spirit world selects the Shaman for the job. The arrival of this representative is usually announced by the chosen person falling seriously ill or suffering hallucinations. A shaman called in to cure the sick person, would pronounce the patient possessed by a spirit, indicating that he or she had been chosen to be a shaman. The second is to be literally hit by lightning.
Ura is a Mongolian Shaman who came to her calling late in life at the age of fifty; previously she had trained and practiced as a medical doctor for twenty years. Her symptoms came upon her suddenly, when she started hearing voices loud and clear, it was her five spirit helpers calling her. She and her family thought she was going mad and she suffered with the voices talking to her for many months. It was not until her health hit rock bottom, to a point where medical doctors could give her no answers or help, that she sort the services of a Shaman. Who told her that she was a being called by her spirit guides and if she did not become a shaman she would die. She is now 65 and practices as a Shaman regularly, has been doing so for fourteen years. She travels the countryside in northern Mongolian province of Khövsgöl Aimag curing people for anything from spirit possession to alcoholism. Ura is supported by her husband, he is her faithful consort and comes with her on all her travels. She is in grave danger if he is not with her when she enters trance, as evil spirits are always on the ready to posses her if he is not there beside her to scare them away. He helps her to dress into her spectacular shaman costume and head dress, which are all an important part of protection to the shaman. Ura’s ceremonies always take place at night and she must never go outside after a ceremony has taken place because she is still at risk of possession. In fact whenever she goes outdoors she must wear a hat on her head for protection from bad spirits. Ura begins her ceremony on a dark spooky night, the Gerr is lit with only a few candles, her Shamans alter is decorated in silk scarves biscuits, sweets, vodka and mares milk which is called arig; these are all offerings to her spirits as a sign of respect. She begins the ceremony playing the jews harp, or mouth harp, the music of it drifts through the Gerr eerily. Ura’s husband warms her drum by the central fireplace and then hands it to her. She beats her drum first softly then works up to a frenzy, beating intensely, whilst chanting, ‘hoorar, hoorar, hoorar’. Her huge frame twirls and dances with great speed she twists and leaps. Chuckling madly she pauses abruptly, there is a definite change to the atmosphere of the room, the spirits have arrived and have entered her body. She drops to the floor with a thump. The drum in front of her body reverberating throughout the Gerr like a heart beat. The spirits begin to talk through Ura’s body, the voice is different to hers and they speak hastily. Ura’s daughter busily writes down what they have to say. All of a sudden Ura is up again and the hasty dance continues her body is thrown with enormous energy, chaotically dancing all around the Gerr, striking the drum with great might. In no time at all the ceremony draws to an end, with the drum beat becoming slower and slower. Suddenly Ura plummets into the arms of her husband and a large gentleman who is a patient, completely unconscious she falls with all her weight. Abruptly she awakes sheepishly appearing self-conscious and embarrassed, she looks frail. She is completely unaware of what has taken place and asks us to tell her all about it. Her husband helps her out of the Shaman costume and places a hat on her head for protection. Whilst her daughter prepares a feast as she is famished and must eat, whilst listening intently to the stories and advice that the spirits have given.
Mongolian shamans are no slouches when it comes to falling into trances and flying away on spirit journeys, however there are fascinating elements to their religion, which are much less sensational. Shamans have understood the importance of keeping the world in balance, to revere the air, waters and land. That the world is not a dead place but vibrantly alive with spirits and souls in every thing and in every place. Respect for the spirits of nature and living things shaped this religion, life ethics that minimizes negative impact on the earth. For the many thousands of years that man has lived in Mongolia and its surrounds, there was minimal negative impact on the environment. Currently a radically different philosophy exists throughout Mongolia and most of the world, which orbit’s around exploitation. Shamans consider that this outlook is the root of all our environmental problems today, whether in the United States, Europe or in other parts of the world. Until humankind remembers this connection we will continue to endanger our own future. It is well known that pollution of the earth, air, and water is the biggest threat to human health today, and this will only become a progressively more severe unless we take a different course. Shamans are not anti-technology, but call for a reconsidering of how it is used.
Mongolia’s most famous and honored Shaman is Zaarin Byambadorj Dondog. Byambadorj was born in 1947, high in the Altai Mountains in western Mongolia. He is descended from the ancient noble clan, to which the mother of Genghis Khan belonged. When he was born, a yellow snake came into the family Gerr, which was considered an omen that he was to become a great shaman. He learned shamanism from his maternal uncle Vanchindorj. The spirits of his shamanic lineage started calling him in 1967, and he suffered much illness until his shaman uncle empowered a ‘jews harp’ and gave it to him to use for shamanizing. As soon as he started his studies he was able to do work to heal disease and spiritual ailments. Byambadorj, works with seven shamanic spirits passed down from his ancestors, and does shamanic work at sacred sites. Including his Gerr (Mongolian round tent) in central Ulaan Baatar, where he holds clinics much as a medical doctor would everyday. He has made a name for himself as a great weather controller. He reveals, ‘at this present time the human race is out of touch with mother earth, father heaven, and the natural world. By relating to them wrongly, by defacing and polluting nature, it is a great offense to mother earth, father heaven and the nature spirits. There is great danger of fire, snowstorms, floods, and earthquakes. For this reason the shamans of the earth need to work together to bring cleansing and healing to the earth, to do ritual’s together to restore balance. Because this cleansing and healing has not been done the present state of the earth is the root cause of many problems and illnesses. This is the great work that shamans are now required to do.”
Most shamanic rituals employ several techniques together in order to bring the shaman to the trance state. The beating of the shaman drum is the most powerful way to induce trance. Scientific studies have shown that repetitive rhythms at certain frequencies can induce a hypnotic state similar to the trance of shamans. Mongolian and Siberian drums are generally large in diameter and have a deep resonating sound that will vibrate through the shaman’s body. The drum is frequently held near the face or over the head so that the beat will resonate through the head and upper body with great force. To the shaman the spirit world is not much different from the physical world. Spirits are in everything and everywhere. The Shaman trance entails travel on the spiritual plane of existence. To get there most Shamans have a spirit guide who is an animal and takes them there. The mount, which a Shaman rides during his travels, is usually a horse, deer, eagle or owl. The Shamans animal is always represented on his drum. The animal will carry him to the place where he or she is needed. There are three worlds in the shamanic belief system they are the earth, the lower and the higher world. Most rituals and ceremonies will require the shaman to travel on earth or ascend to the upper world. Lower world journeys are the most difficult and only the strongest shamans can go there safely. The Shamans drum drives the vision by its steady beat and is literally the steed upon which the shaman rides to his destination the pictures on it depict which animal is the Shamans guide. Shamans share the belief that all entities, animate and inanimate are imbued with a holistic life force and claim an ability to harness extraordinary forces, entities or beings whose behavior in the alternative reality of trance effects individuals and events in our ordinary world. It seems to be an actual physical process that these shamans go through, like hypnotism, something with definite triggers and symptoms. Shamans believe that spirits have physical bodies that they can fly and travel anywhere with tremendous speed; they can see and sense things over great distances or in the past or future.
Dr Batzorig is an eighty five year old practicing Shaman originating from Tuva. He is a professor of Shamanism at Ulaan Baator University and lives in Mongolia’s capital. Dr Batzorig specializes in power to harness the cycles of weather and the personal power of the individual. He explains the cycle of human life as he sees it, “rain falls on the earth and water flows from the ground springs to the lower world, it flows into the rivers and oceans, where water once more comes to the heavens and will fall again as rain. In the same way, human souls will be born follow the world river to the ocean, once more to emerge at its source in order to incarnate again.” On a sparkling clear summer day where the clouds look so close that you could touch them. Dr Batzorig climbs to the top of a high sacred mountain where the horizon seems to go forever. The journey is in order to locate an Ovoo, which is a heap of stones and bones and other sacred offerings and is the equivalent of a Shamanists shrine. Spirits of the locality inhabit them and protect those asking for fortune. In Mongolia when passing by an Ovoo travelers must walk around it in a clockwise direction three times. They might also place a rock, coin or bone on it, in doing so they add to its power symbolically and they receive ‘windhorse’, which is good luck. The climb to the Ovoo is steep and takes over an hour, but the eighty five year old takes it in his stride and says that he enjoys such climbs as they keep him young. The journey to the Ovoo complete locals appear as if out of nowhere and ask for his assistance to bring forth good weather for a long journey they will take shortly over the isolated steep of Mongolia’s vast wilderness. All the locals and our party, his daughter and her disabled daughter, do the walk around the Ovoo three times, to show respect, whilst Dr Batzorig quietly dresses into his Shaman costume. He like all Shamans is protected against supernatural negative forces by the magical properties of the tools of his trade. Such as his costume, which consists of headgear decorated with eagle feathers and small pieces of bone. The upper garments have on them metal objects symbolizing armor many colorful pieces of fabric, bells, mirrors and feathers symbolizing wings. Dr Batzorig has chosen this hard to reach Ovoo as it is a powerful site for ceremonies, the local spirits, father heaven, mother earth and other Shamanist spirits inhabit this Ovoo. He commences the ceremony by building a small fire at the base of the Ovoo, throwing rosemary sprigs into the fire creating an intense and beautiful aroma. After that he wanders around the Ovoo spattering vodka randomly all over it. He holds his drum close to the fire to warm and empower it, then thrusts the drum dramatically to the sky and begins to beat it intensely. The drum calls upon the spirits and he gently sings a melodic tune to lure them to the location. He scampers around the Ovoo encircling it many times the patients follow him around. He instructs the people to place the fingers of their left hand at the base of their necks in order to feel the beat of their hearts. He continues to beat the drum and it sounds like a heart beat. He explains later that this aspect is an important phase to his type of ritual. That when his patients feel and concentrate on the beat of their hearts it empowers the drum’s strength and the two beats become one. The setting on top of this mountain is spectacular it feels separate from the rest of the world; it is not hard to imagine that it is a first-rate place to harness spirits. The Shaman’s pacing comes to an end and one by one the patients are seated around the base of the Ovoo. One by one they are bought in front of the Shaman and beaten with his Shaman decorated hallowed stick like instrument. This consecutively is to bash out bad spirits, any disease and old curses that might be dwelling inside them. Each patient takes a swig of his bowl of vodka for good measure and in order for more cleansing to occur. The ceremony draws to an end with more walking around the Ovoo and everyone throws a little vodka and places little stones on it. Dr Batzorig promptly undresses from his costume and neatly packs it away. He holds court with all the people there that feel so fortunate to have come across this powerful Shaman seemingly by accident.
Shamans tackle a wide range of illnesses, principally psychological conditions including mental illness, schizophrenia, epilepsy, interpersonal problems, soul loss, and curses. They also treat physical conditions such as growths and skin conditions, headaches and heart and liver problems. Treatment rituals eclectically combine many different activities, using altered states of consciousness to consult with and influence spirits, drumming, chanting and prayers, emanating healing bioenergies from the shaman’s hands. Ritual offerings of sacrificed sheep, vodka, and colored cloth, rituals in nature, especially at springs and cleansing baths. Most of these healing practices take place on an individual basis, in the “office” of the healer, much as the practice of a psychotherapist in western models of healing.
Soyun is the oldest shaman in Mongolia at 102. Like her mother and her grandmother before her she is a ninth generation shaman. To go to the spirits the shaman needs some kind of transportation. Soyun sometimes travels by playing the mouth harp, but that, she says, can take her only so far. She says, “The most powerful transportation is the drum. A drum is like a horse. It can take you anywhere.” Soyun is a tiny woman, ancient, with bad knees, who lives high in the mountains on the border of Siberia and Mongolia with a tribe of nomads whom have been domesticating reindeer for the last 4000 years. She struggles in her oortz, which is a teepee like tent, to move between her sleeping platform and the kettle of salty milk-tea on the stove. When she steps outside, which isn’t often, she walks with the aid of two crooked sticks. But they say that when Soyun performs her full Shamanic ritual, those long nights, when she pounds the drum until the trance begins and the ‘ongots’ or spirits enter her body, they say then she leaps and dances like a child. Her drum is kept behind a curtain, in the place of honor opposite the door of the tent. Soyuns story is typical of those chosen for the Shaman life. She was seven years old, when she became ill, falling to the ground with seizures. Her grandmother performed a Shaman ceremony for her, dressing Soyun in her own costume. After that, Soyun developed the ability. Now her grandmother, Urel, is Soyun’s most important spirit.
Clearly, shamanism is an integral part of human nature, effectively fulfilling basic human needs or it would probably not have survived for at least 40,000 years. The current interest in Shamanism is just one more indication that whatever shamanism is, it is something that enriches human life.
When Western travelers and explorers first encountered Shamans in tribal cultures, they did not know what to make of them. Whether viewed from a religious perspective, which was typical in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, or from a psychological standpoint, as characterized by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the shaman appeared strange and dangerous. From a traditional Christian perspective, Shamans dealt with spirits that Christianity did not recognize or consider to be accessible and beneficial to human beings: the spirits of animals, the land, the elements, the dead. Usually the Shaman’s helping spirits were misinterpreted by Christian observers as ‘evil spirits’ or ‘demons’. When viewed in the modern mental health terms, Shamans seemed sick, delusional or outright crazy. A Shaman talks to trees, rocks and other supposedly non-intelligent entities and claims to shape shift into other forms, to visit invisible realms and to consort with the dead. It took several centuries of contact with tribal peoples for Westerner academics to overcome their misconceptions and appreciate Shamans for their healing abilities, insights into human behavior and the role in maintaining harmony within their communities.