Shamans in Mongolia 5 May 2015
David Richards is a teacher working abroad, he explores his experiences of the new and old of contemporary Mongolia.
Situated between Siberia and China, Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world with three million people living in an area the size of Western Europe.
In the popular imagination, Mongolia brings up images of nomadic herdsmen living in yurts, or the great warrior hordes of Genghis Khan. In short, it is a quaint country disconnected from the modern world.
In reality though, half of the population live in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, and a big city similar to big cities everywhere.
As a teacher working in Ulaanbaatar, I live a very similar life to back home in the UK; I socialize with other expats, my colleagues speak English, I party on the weekends and spend far too much time online. I reside in an ‘expat bubble’ and tend to forget that I’m halfway around the world.
However, there is another more alien and fascinating side to Mongolian culture. You just have to be willing to look for it. A part of this world is shamanism, which has been making a revival since the fall of communism in 1990.
Shamanism is widely considered mankind’s earliest religion, and as such, the most universal. The rituals are a primitive, visceral experience. The Mongol shaman wears a headpiece that covers their face with braids. To start their transformation, they beat a drum while speaking a ‘secret language’ and imitating the cries of beasts and especially the songs of birds. After transformation, the shaman speaks in a deep, menacing growl.
The true shaman specializes in a trance in which his soul leaves his body and ascends to the sky or descends to the underworld. He or she is not possessed by spirits but employs them to serve a number of functions, including: inviting spirits to temporarily inhabit his body and communicate directly with the shaman’s clients, recovering the erring souls of the sick, and guiding dead souls on their journey to a new birth, to name but a few.
Most shamans are not driven by monetary gain, but by a desire to improve the fortune of their extended family and community. Dr. Manduhai Buyandelgeriyn studied shamans in Northern Mongolia, “The motives for becoming a shaman are embedded in a sense of fear, uncertainty, and despair and in an ongoing attempt to control the ﬂow of misfortunes.” To this end, shamans often call upon the spirit of a family ancestor in the hope of receiving guidance and practical help.
However, as their appearance suggests, shamans also have a more malicious side. They are, in a sense, spiritual tricksters who may interfere with other people’s lives. Some Mongolians hire shamans to curse others, for instance, cursing someone to lose their job so that they may take it. Advertisements on Mongolian TV feature people offering to help cure curses.
It is currently estimated that there are 15-20,000 shamans, a large figure in proportion to the population. Many Mongolians see the phenomenon as religious abuse, and term it the ‘the pandemic of shamanism’.
A pandemic is not a pleasant thing, and shamanism in Mongolia is often seen as a social problem. Anthropologist Ippei Shimamura writes, ‘According to local media, some crimes involving fraud, blackmail and/or injury resulting in death, have connections with shamans. For example, in August 2009, a young candidate-shaman died during her initiation after she was forced by her master-shaman to inhale boiled vodka. Another shaman caused a scandal when he claimed that the heart of an 18-year-old girl was needed for rituals against the drought.’
The government recently considered introducing legislation to punish ‘fake’ shamans; however the law was scrapped after being deemed unworkable.
Can Shamans Cure Disease?
Stories of shamans curing serious illnesses fascinate me the most. The first story I heard was from a woman whose brother had suffered from epilepsy. Her family got word about a shaman belonging to an ethnic group of reindeer herders who could cure the condition. They traveled to the isolated mountainous region where he lived to have the ceremony performed. Her brother hasn’t had a seizure since.
I asked Mongolian friends what they thought about such tales. One of them was Odno, a girl in her early 20s who presents an English language radio show for a major broadcaster. She surprised me by responding that not only were such stories true, but that a shaman had cured her of breast cancer.
I met her in a café to hear the full story. “I was diagnosed when I was 19. I sent the scans to Hong Kong and Singapore, because I didn’t trust the doctors here. All the results said that it was cancer… My family didn’t have money for the surgery.”
At the time of her diagnosis, Odno’s female cousin Ariunaa (pictured) was in the final stages of becoming a shaman. This fact in itself is astonishing, as Ariunaa was a 26 year-old unemployed single mother at the time. Odno insists that she makes no money from the practice.
Ariunaa organised a family gathering in the countryside for her first ceremony. During her performance she channeled the spirit of an ancestor named Boldiin Dendew, a man who had been a political leader 200 years ago.
Somebody needs to welcome the spirit when it arrives. This person also acts as a mediator, communicating between the spirit and those in attendance. The spirit chose Odno to fulfill this task and she welcomed him by offering dairy products and candies. “He spoke the ancestral language, which is like two hundred years old. He got angry at first that I didn’t understand. Then he spoke slower and explained everything.” He was curious about his surroundings, “He could see cars and asked lots of questions about them.”
After a while, he addressed her cancer, “He said, ‘this girl has a serious problem in her left breast. I will take care of it, but there are two conditions you must follow: one, she must always act as my medium when I call her, and secondly, you must all forget about her cancer from now on. Act as if she is perfectly healthy.’”
The ceremony finished and everyone returned home. Odno resumed her job and began to forget about her disease. A few months later she noticed that the lump was gone.
I originally came to Asia to escape the tedium of small town England. However, it is easy to feel bored and frustrated once the initial rush of adventure wears off.
On the surface, Odno seems to be a typical young woman, but she is having an on-going dialogue with a 200 year-old ancestor. In a recent meeting he expressed disapproval about her love life.
I don’t know what to make of it, but her story is a fascinating window into another world. Accounts like hers re-kindle my desire for adventure.