at the Tsam festival in Ulaan Baatar (before 1937)
The nomads of the vast expanse of the Mongolian steppes shared
a vision of the universe and the world of human experience that
was characterized by religious concepts, rituals and magical practices
that came to be known as shamanism from the word "shaman."
The shaman was a kind of a priest or medium who acted as a conduit
between the human world and the realm of the gods, demons, and spirits
of ancestors. A person didn’t choose the profession of shaman but
was selected for the job by a messenger from the spirit world. The
arrival of this representative was usually announced by the chosen
person’s 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 chosen person was initiated by an older shaman of the same tribe
into the lore of magic formulas and the songs and dances, which
the shaman used to combat the supernatural sources of evil. During
the initiation rite, the newly chosen shaman was given a staff.
Its finial was often carved in the shape of a horse’s head, its
lower end in the shape of the hoof. When the new shaman had practiced
rituals for a few years, the staff was replaced with a drum. Other
paraphernalia of the shaman were successively added to his arsenal.
Any sort of misfortune that came a Mongol’s way, from hunger and
sickness to natural disasters, was seen as devilish mischief caused
by malicious demons. Timely offerings, virtuous conduct, and strict
observance of taboos would usually be enough to ensure the benevolent
attitude of the ancestral spirits. However, on occasion, peace and
harmony were disturbed by evil spirits. This was the moment when
a shaman’s assistance was required.
The shaman did not face the forces of evil by himself. He was assisted
by an army of auxiliary spirits that protected the shaman and helped
him to avoid the traps set by adversaries from the spirit world.
It was the number and might of these helpful spirits that ultimately
determined the magic and healing powers of the shaman. In a trance
induced by alcohol and the smoking of herbs, the shaman undertook
his voyage to the dark realm of the demons to subdue the spirit
that was the source of the problem. The shaman could also bring
back to earth the spirit of someone thought to have died.
deer at the Tsam festival in Ulaan Baatar (before 1937)
The shaman was protected against supernatural negative forces by
the magical properties of the tools of his trade. His headgear was
often decorated with the antlers of deer, which gave the shaman
speed and versatility. A headdress decorated with eagle feathers
gave the shaman strength, while owl feathers endowed him with the
power to see at night. To the shaman’s upper garments, metal objects
symbolizing armor such as arrow heads, bells, and mirrors were attached.
Feathers, symbolizing wings, were also attached to the sleeves of
his dress. The shaman’s staff crowned with a horses head or his
drum, the handle of which was also carved in the shape of a horse’s
head, symbolized his mode of transportation.
When Lamaism was introduced in Mongolia, Buddhist monks undertook
efforts to convince the people to abandon their shamanist beliefs
in favor of Buddhist doctrine.
Differences in the two religions were marked by the ways shamans
and Buddhist monks dressed. While shamans’ dress displayed all kinds
of regional and even individual differences, the monks’ garb was
more or less a uniform. Nevertheless, there were striking parallels
between shamanistic and Lamaist rituals. Some of the same religious
functions could be performed by either shaman or lama. For example,
both shamans and lamas dressed in costumes with a stylized decoration
suggesting a skeleton when they performed the role of Citipati,
or Lords of the Charnel Grounds, in Tsam dances, and the ritual
dagger of the monk, like the shaman’s staff, is crowned with a horse’s
Shamanism, however, was not an organized religion. Although there
were "grand" and "lessor" shamans, there was
no elaborate hierarchy of the kind recognized by the Buddhists.
The shamans’ individualism served them well in times of persecution
and suppression when they remained hard to catch. Buddhist monks,
concentrated in large monastic communities, on the other hand, were
more vulnerable to suppression.
White Old Man taming a lion at the Tsam festival in Ulaan Baatar
In traditional Mongol society, women took the men’s place when
they went off to war and had to be skilled in all aspects of animal
husbandry and hunting. So it is not surprising that a fundamental
equality between men and women existed and that the important functions
of the shaman could be performed by men and women alike.
Shamanism in Mongolia, embedded in the nomadic life style of the
people since ancient times, has managed to survive against enormous
odds, including centuries of persecution by Buddhists and Stalinist
efforts to eradicate this ancient tradition.