Mongolian Shamanism: A Return to the Beyond

The revival of an ancient religion has taken Mongolia by storm. Decades of oppression and religious conversions could not stop Mongolia’s first religion, Shamanism, from surviving. The hundreds of years of Chinese influence over Mongolia before the turn of the 20th century brought in the heavy pressure for the region to convert to Buddhism. A majority of the area took to the reform, but their original religion continued to hold on in the back ground. Practices and rituals stayed preserved through the generations by underground teachings of the traditions. The more difficult time period to survive was the Soviet era during the first half of the century. The Soviets suppressed both Shamanism and Buddhism for decades by killing off shamans and monks and destroying sacred ritual sites. The native religion seemed to disappear until Mongolia regained its independence in 1990. Shamanism returned to the spotlight in full force holding onto many of their original traditions, but with a new time brings a new set of shamans who decide not follow the traditions as closely as others.

Shaman Dance

Traditional dances are performed during rituals
(Credit: Google)

The return of Shamanism was bound to take place. A religion so embedded into the origins of a country could not stay suppressed forever. The shamans may have had to hide their practices for hundreds of years and teach their children, grandchildren, and apprentices in secret, but their faith was not lost. A majority of the original traditions survived along with that faith. Shamans today still take on the responsibility of communicating with the spiritual world. They become a channel through which people can talk to their ancestors. Mongolian people, even those that have doubt of a shamans true abilities, have taken to visiting shamans over the last couple decades in order to get a glimpse of what parts of their past got wiped away during the Soviet regime. By talking to the spirits of a families ancestors through the spiritual conduit they can reestablish a family archive. Spirit and ancestor communication is just the tip of the ice burg of what a shaman can do for a person.

Relaying spiritual messages may be one of the main elements of what a shaman does, but they can do much more with the power they possess. Another of the aspects of Shamanism in Mongolia involves natural healing. This natural healing does not just involve giving an ill person medicinal herbs, or chanting over them in an effort to cure the person’s energy fields. Shamans believe that the sick person carries an underlying supernatural evil or a natural harmonious imbalance that causes the illness. A shaman seeks out the help of spirits to find where the disharmony or evil comes from in order to help an ill person. The spirits also protect the shaman as he embarks on his supernatural journey. The more spirits that help the shaman the more powerful the shaman’s work will be.

To seek the help of spirits a shaman must make a voyage into the spiritual realm. These journeys begin with rituals that follow specific procedures. A shaman may need to go into two separate trances in order to help a person fully recover. The first of these happens in the day time and can be referred to by some groups as “shamanizing on foot,” or “daytime shamanizing.” This journey consists of a divination and would only involve finding what the underlying problem includes and what it would take to solve the dilemma.

Shamanizing with a drum (Credit: mongolian-ways.com)

Shamanizing with a drum
(Credit: mongolian-ways.com)

The other half of the ritual would need to take place at night, and this ritual is referred to as “shamanizing with a drum.” Sometimes the trances that a shaman enters to speak with the spirits during this part of the rituals becomes induced by large amounts of alcohol or by smoking specific herbs. During the ritual a shaman will wear a full traditional costume consisting of a gown known as “armour.” Accompanying this costume a shaman would wear a head dress made up of either deer antlers, eagle feathers, or owl feathers. Magic tools such as arrowheads, mirrors, bells, and a staff are carried by the shaman as well. Costumes and magic tools help to protect the shamans from any supernatural being that wishes to inflict harm unto him during his journey. If all goes well during this part of the ritual the disharmony of the ill person would return to a balanced state.

Restoring a persons harmonious imbalance helps that person in need. Helping people in need is part a shaman’s calling. An unspoken part of that vocation involves helping people without asking for anything in return. The reformation of Shamanism in the past few decades has led to people getting the help previously unavailable to them, but unfortunately the newer shamans have began charging for their services. Many groups of shamans or centers for shamanism education have popped up within the last couple decades. These groups have become one of the main reasons that shamanism in Mongolia has come under much criticism. This newest component of shamanism has been termed Neo-Shamanism.

(Credit: Carolyn Drake)

(Credit: Carolyn Drake)

The criticism of these Neo-Shamanism groups evolved from the groups having differing views from traditionalist shaman practices. These new groups began creating empires in many Mongolian towns after Shamanism started to become popular again. The growth in newer shamans came from the lack of people with jobs. Becoming a shaman was a way to gain a job, and going to a shaman was a way to put the mind at east that there existed a future even after everything seemed to have fallen apart. Offices with fully running staffs popped up all over the region that offered shamanic services. Though  against original Shamanism tradition people would pay for the services they were provided. One of these newer shamanic organizations refers to themselves as Mongol Böögiin Golomt Tow, or “The Hearth of Mongol Shamans.” This group doesn’t follow the original traditions in every aspect, but they do use the same basic shaman magic to help others.

The larger groups of the new era of Shamanism do not follow the traditional ways but some of their ideas do have positive aspects. The Mongol Böögiin Golomt Tow group in Ulaanbaatar make a profit from their service to people but they are also trying to create an organization to help educate the future practitioners of their religion and come up with rules and regulations to be followed. Some experts believe that there no more “genuine” shamans left in the world. The teachings that have been the basis for the revival are believed to be accounts from people who have heard stories, but none have gone through the true apprenticeship with a true shaman. This reason give the idea of educational organizations a better stand point.

Mongolians live in rural desert areas, this is where traditional shamans practice. (Credit: DailyMail)

Mongolians live in rural desert areas, this is where traditional shamans practice.
(Credit: DailyMail)

Being appointed as a shaman by an organization is not the only way a person could follow the shamanic path. The traditional determination of a shaman still takes place in Mongolia. The ones that still follow the traditional path are chosen by a spiritual messenger. The person will fall to an illness like no other they have ever experienced. They may suffer from terrible pain, epileptic seizures, falling into unconsciousness, or a variety of other sufferings. It takes a shaman himself to diagnose the person as a chosen one. Many that truly posses the shamanic powers try to resist in the beginning because they know how deep the responsibility is that the job holds. The sufferer will not feel relief until they decide to take up the practice and become an apprentice of the shaman that diagnosed them, so many people give in and follow their predestined path. The ones chosen in this original way usually follow tradition and do not charge for the service they supply. They usually live on only the basics of having a roof over their head and little food in their stomach. They do not mind this since they know it is their calling to provide for others.

Mongolian shamans perform rituals for many different people.  (Credit: Dan Livan)

Mongolian shamans perform rituals for many different people.
(Credit: Dan Livan)

Shamanism consists of a variation of factors that are not well understood by everyday people. To have the ability to talk with spirits and heal people with the help of those spirits can frighten people. The traditional Mongolian practice of shamanism once had the label of being an evil practice due to the need for the Soviets to control the region. The practice was banned and persecuted. Generations of underground teachings have kept the religion alive. With the recent founding of independence shamans can come out of hiding. Children and grandchildren can take up where their elders left off. Helping others in ways that modern medicine can’t.

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Linsey ArpadLinsey Arpad is working toward a bachelor’s degree in Nursing. She plans to travel all around the world one day and immerse herself in as many cultures as possible while practicing nursing in other countries.