Mongolian Shamanism

Among the Mongol and Siberian indigenous peoples, the universe is conceived as a living organism. The polar star is a celestial nail, also called the Golden Nail, and the Altaic shamans decorate their drums with the symbols of Venus and the constellation of the Great Bear. In Buryat shamanistic symbolism, the World-Tree is connected to the World-River, which interlinks with all the three worlds. It must be traversed by the shaman in order to reach any part of the Otherworld.

In Siberian cosmology, the universe is also associated with animal concepts, such as the elk for the Middleworld, the bear for the Master of the Animals, or, among the Evenks, for the ethnogenic father. In addition, the universe has a tripartite structure consisting of the Upper, Middle, and Lower worlds, each one being a replica (imago mundi) of the other two. The Yakut shaman embarks on a soul journey by ascending progressively several celestial poles, the World-Tree. It is particularly important that the drum of a Siberian shaman be made from the wood of the World-Tree. The cosmological symbolism depicted on the drumskin, in conjunction with the whole drum, stands for the entire universe. All these types of symbolic devises are internalized by the shaman as his or her personal metaphors.

The origin of Mongolian shamanism is rendered by a traditional account from the Chahar region, undoubtedly of an aetiological nature - that is, an old myth attempting to explain the existence of a still older ritual behavior - which underscores the importance of the ancestor cult and the shaman's role as a socio-religious mediator. Shamanism was born in Mongolia, according to native legend, through the will of ancestral spirits, ecstatic seizures, and flying horses (the shamans' drums). Mountain tops have been the dwelling places of deities and spirits. However, in the face of the awesomeness exuded by the high sanctity of such places, coming from the numen of the residing supernatural beings, it is forbidden to utter the name of such a sacred mountain. The shamanistic attributes, if not origins, of the cult of the mountain gods can be observed unequivocally in the northwest corner of Mongolia, near the lake of Khoso Gol, where the shamans and other religious suppliants have venerated the mountain god, Khan Boghda Dayan Degereki Khayirkhan, in the form of the holy mountain. The designation khayirkhan, meaning "the loved, the beautiful," is a euphemistic allusion to this sacred topographic outcrop.

The name Mongol was not originally an ethnic name. It was the name of a single tribe, which grew politically to form a confederation with other tribes, giving its name to that confederacy. It is likely that Chingis Khan was from the Mongol tribe. The Secret History of the Mongols relates that Chingis Khan was born by the Onon River, some 200 miles northeast of Ulaan baatar. Culturally and linguistically, the Mongols are divided into East Mongols (Mongols proper) and West Mongols. East Mongols are comprised of many tribes, e.g. Khalkha, Chahar, Ordas, Qorchin, Tatars, and Buryats. West Mongols are known as Oirat and Kalmuck.


Shamanism of the Buryats

Chingis Khan and the Shaman Kokchu

"There was once a blue-gray wolf who was born with his destiny preordained by Heaven Above. His wife was a fallow doe."
- An account of the origin of Chingis Khan, from The Secret History of the Mongols.

At birth given the name Temujin (meaning "blacksmith"), the mighty Chingis Khan, 1167-1227, was a very strong believer in shamanistic powers, and genuinely concerned with his own guardian spirits and the will of the Heavenly Being, called the Everlasting Blue Sky. He frequently sought the counsel from the shamans, who would often augur the future. One of such ritual specialists was Kokchu (Kokochu), later to be known as Teb-Tngri, who belonged to a family somewhat related to that of the great Khan. The shaman Kokchu possessed high aspirations towards political leadership and a talent for Machiavellian machinations. He conspired against Chingis Khan by plotting to falsely implicate Qasar, the Khan's brother. Teb-Tngri, or Kokchu, informed Chingis Khan that the guardian spirits had appeared with a warning against Qasar, pointing him as a dangerous element to the cause of the Mongol leader, and consequently the shaman urged strongly that Qasar be eliminated.

Chinggis Kagan (Chingis Khan) depicted in old Chinese source.

For quite some time, the family of Chingis Khan, especially his brothers, endured indignations from the offices of shaman Teb-Tngri, while the latter took advantage of the Khan's respect and awe for shamanistic practices. Nevertheless, this situation could not continue indefinitely, for the authority of Chingis Khan was being indirectly challenged. Therefore, when the shaman arrogantly spread a new slander against the Khan's youngest brother, Chingis issued this time instructions that his brother deal with Teb-Tngri in any way he saw fit. The shaman died from a broken spine, and his death marked the demise of the last considerable opposition to the confederated authority of Chingis Khan.

A special tradition had developed, and then assembled, known as The Secret History of the Mongols, written circa 1240, the original of which has not survived. It is the oldest Mongol historical source and resembles secret shamanic lore, of which it is probably a by-product. Hence, when a religious cult was established around the apotheosis of the historical Chingis Khan it was nothing other than the application of an old, basic tenet of shamanism known so well to the Mongols.

(The above section on Chingis Khan and Shaman Kokchu is excerpted and adapted from M. Ripinsky-Naxon, The Nature of Shamanism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993; pp.57, 59.)

The Secret History of the Mongols survived as a Chinese transcription of the Mongolian text, written in Chinese characters representing phonetically the Mongolian spoken words, including a gloss translation of the original into Chinese. The latter carries the title of Yuan Ch'ao pi-shih. The copy from which the Chinese transcription and transliteration were done had been kept in the secret archives (hence, the Secret History...) of the Mongolian Dynasty in Beijing (Peking). The document was discovered during the Ming Dynasty, after the fall of the Mongol rule, and a representative of the ruling Ming Dynasty entrusted changing the text of the chronicle into a manual of the Mongolian language for the use of Chinese officials dealing with the Mongolian threat on the northern frontiers.

Shamanism after Chingis Khan

It may be stated that the Mongols actually never abandoned shamanism completely. The shamanistic elements became integrated into the subsequent forms of the dominant religious institutions. Even the personal religion of Hulegu, the founder of the Ilkhanate, was a continuation of the old shamanistic tradition, even though he is believed to have favored Buddhism. At his funeral in 1265, human sacrifices were still offered.

After the fall of the Mongol (Yuan) Dynasty in 1370, the Mongols abandoned Buddhism and reverted back to their old shamanistic beliefs. However, between 1578 and 1580, Altan Khan reintroduced Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia. This particular religion was a reformed variety of Tibetan Lamaism, associated with what is called in the West the Yellow Hat sect. Sadly, the misunderstanding by the West of the practices and symbolisms connected with shamanism prompted many western scholars to explain this politico-religious change, exemplified by the reintroduction of Buddhism into Mongolia, in terms of moral and cultural imperatives rather than seeing this act as a political maneuver. The views of western historians resulted in such unhappy and prejudiced comments as, for instance, the "growing dissatisfaction" with the old religious institutions "was making itself felt with the barbaric notions of shamanism, its bloody sacrifices, its primitive cosmology, its unattractive revelations of the world beyond, and its complete lack of organization which made it useless as an instrument of political power and did not provide the careers and dignities offered by a hierarchical church." (C.R. Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia. London, 1968; p. 28.)

One of the first European descriptions of a Mongolian shamanistic performance is found in a report written by a Flemish Franciscan monk, William of Rubruik, who was sent to Mongolia by King Louis IX of France in 1253-1255.

Copyright © 1999 Michael Ripinsky-Naxon
® All Rights Reserved

Additional Bibliography

Mongolian Shamanistic Mythology

The Seven Suns

Long ago, when the earth was new there was not one sun, but seven suns, and it was daylight all the time. Sometimes it got too warm, and animals had to run into their burrows to protect themselves. At that time there was a great archer, his name was Erhii Mergen (Wise Thumb). The animals came to him and complained that they were suffering, that because there were so many suns it was too hot all the time. Would he please kill a few of the suns so that the earth would not be so hot?

Erhii Mergen agreed to help and so he mounted his horse with his bow and a full quiver of arrows. Very quickly he shot down one, two, three suns, and kept on going until there was only one left. The last sun was frightened, and ran away across the sky, and Erhii Mergen chased it and chased it but could never get close enough to shoot it down. For this reason the sun got into the habit of traveling across the sky and then disappearing during the night, for even to this day Erhii Mergen continues to chase it. However, after so many years of chasing the sun he and his horse have become very tiny, and have turned into the kangaroo rat, which hops around like a horse and rider.
(Source: A tale of the Halh Mongols)

The First Shamans

Long ago, when Ulgen Tenger created mankind people were very happy and lived without any trouble or disease. His brother, Erleg Khan, chief of the spirits of the eastern direction, was unhappy with this situation, and sent disease and unhappiness to human beings. Suddenly people started becoming ill and dying, and Ulgen and the spirits of the western direction were troubled and met together in the Pleiades to discuss how to correct this problem. They decided to send Eagle to be a shaman to mankind.

When Eagle came down to earth from the upper world, he tried to communicate with humans and tell them that he had come to be a shaman for them. But because he had originally been created by the spirits of the eastern direction he did not know the human language, and, discouraged, he returned to the upper world and told the western sky spirits he could not help humankind. They told him to return, but this time to find a woman, mate with her, and the child would be the first shaman. So Eagle, flying back to earth, saw a beautiful woman sleeping under a tree, mated
with her, and then her son became the first shaman. Even today shamans remember the flight of the eagle in their dances and fly up to heaven when they shamanize.

In those days, shamans were very powerful, and could travel about the earth with the speed of lightning, and perform the most amazing tasks. One of the most famous shamans was Hara-Gyrgen, and Ulgen Tenger, seeing
the arrogance of this shaman, decided to test him. Tenger took away the soul of the daughter from Hara-Gyrgen's clan, and the girl became like dead. When the shaman arrived he saw at once that the girl's soul was lost, and he shamanized and flew up to the upper world. He came to the dwelling place of Tenger and saw that the girl's soul was in a bottle and Tenger was holding it closed with his thumb. Hara-Gyrgen turned himself into a bee, stung Tenger on the cheek, and when Tenger dropped the bottle to slap the bee, the shaman grabbed the girl's soul and flew back to the earth. Ulgen Tenger was angry and punished the shaman for being too powerful. He made Hara-Gyrgen jump up and down on a mountain forever, and when the mountain has worn down shamans will no longer have their powers. After hundreds of years of jumping on the mountain, Hara-Gyrgen is becoming tired, so now shamans are not as strong as they used to be, and people no longer understand many of the shaman songs.
(Source: A Buryat Mongol Tale)

Creation of the Middle World

Long ago Father Heaven had two sons, Ulgen Tenger and Erleg Khan, Ulgen became the lord of the upper world and Erleg Khan became the lord of the lower world. At that time the earth was covered with water, there was no land.
Ulgen Tenger asked the loon to bring up mud from below the water to create land, he was not able to do so, and he was punished by having his legs broken so he could not walk, and the goldeneye duck was called next to bring up land. The duck created a small piece of land that Ulgen was able to lay on. Erleg Khan seeing that his brother had fallen asleep on the new land, tried to pull the land out from under him, but instead the land stretched out in all directions as he pulled it.

Next, Ulgen Tenger created animals and humans out of mud and he spread them out to dry. He created the dog to keep watch over the bodies of the new humans while he was gone. Erleg Khan, unhappy to see that his brother was creating humans, came to see the new bodies. The dog would not let him come close, at that time the dog could talk but had no fur. It was cold, and snowing, so Erleg Khan tempted him, saying that if the dog allowed him to see the humans' bodies he would give him a beautiful fur coat. The dog agreed, and was given a shiny beautiful coat. Erleg Khan then spat on the bodies so that humans would have diseases and not be immortal. When Ulgen returned he saw that the dog had fur and that the humans had been damaged, so he punished the dog by making his coat smelly, taking away his voice, and by making the dog follow humans in order to get its food.
(Source: An Evenk Tale)

The Tree, the Silver Girl, and the Sun and Moon

Long ago, the sun, moon, and the silver girl were three women living together on the new earth, and the tree was
their servant. One man fell in love with the silver girl and wanted to marry her. One day, however, when he came,
the silver girl was gone, and the tree put on the silver girl's clothing and went away with the man and married him. When the silver girl returned and found out what happened, she was very angry and chased after the man and the tree
until she found them. She made the man catch a deer and tie the tree-girl to the deer. The deer ran back and
forth across the earth, and the seeds which fell from the tree-girl fell on the ground and the forests sprang up from them.

The silver girl then married the man, but after a while the man became tired of her. The sun and moon girls had gone
to live in a different place, and the man's wife forbade him to go see her two sisters. However, the man went to the dwelling of the sun and moon, fell in love with the moon and took her as his wife. The silver girl flew into a rage, turned herself into a hawk, and attacked her sisters. The man tried to defend the sisters, and they ran about trying to avoid the attacks. The man's arrows struck the talons of the hawk, for this reason there is a red spot on the hawk's foot. The ruler of the upper world intervened and took the two sisters to the upper world and made them lights for the day and the night and they never met their sister or brother in law again.
(Source: An Evenk Tale)

The Swan People of Lake Baikal

Long ago, a hunter was walking through the woods near Lake Baikal when he saw a swan fly down and land on the lake. The swan swam to shore, and walked up on the beach. Suddenly, the swan took off its skin, and underneath was a beautiful woman. She set the skin aside, and then went into the lake to bathe. The hunter immediately desired to make the woman his wife so he stole her swan-clothing and hid it. When the woman came out of the water he took her home and married her and they had many, many children.

Even though they loved each other, as time went by the wife longed more and more to return to her own people. Finally, after 20 years had passed, she begged her husband to let her return to the swan nation, and so he reluctantly returned her swan clothing. After putting her swan-skin back on, she flew up through the smoke hole of their dwelling
and went back to the swan people, never to be seen in human form again. Her children, and all of her descendants among the Buryats who live on Lake Baikal, continue to remember their swan heritage, and for this reason greet the return of the swans every year with songs, offerings, and shamanist ceremonies.
(Source: A Buryat Mongol Tale)

All rights reserved ® 1997 Golomt Center for Shamanist Studies

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Indiana University houses outstanding library resources on Central Eurasia in both the Main Library and several specialized collections. The Main Library estimates that the number of holdings relevant to Inner Asian and Uralic Studies is approximately 100,000 volumes. Of this figure, approximately 28,000 volumes directly concern Uralic studies (Finland, Estonia and Hungary), 6,500 deal with Turkey, and 32,000 are directly relevant to Inner Asia (Central Asia, Tibet and Mongolia). The remaining volumes do not fit neatly within this categorization scheme, crossing geographic and subject categories.

Unique among IU's specialized Central Eurasian collections is the Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies (RIFIAS) library. The primary aim of the RIFIAS library is to make available to researchers and students in a single location two broad categories of materials relevant to Inner Asia: 1) basic reference works, textbooks, grammars, and dictionaries, and 2) rare books and manuscripts. The Central Asian Archive holds microfilms and bound photocopies of out-of-print publications on Central Asia (primarily in Russian) and microfilms Oriental manuscripts. The RIFIAS library also has a special collection of rare Tibetan books and a Turkish Folklore Archive consisting of audio recordings.


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Where Heaven and Earth Touch

Shamanistic Myths and Legends of Mongolia

History of Buryatia (Ar Mongol)

Native Peoples of Siberia and Mongolia

The Yurt and the Ger: Traditional Dwellings of the Mongol and Siberian Peoples


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