Mongol shaman

The Mongols of the Genghis Khan era were animists and shamanists who believed that medicine men-like shamans had the power to communicate with the gods, heal the sick and predict the future. The supreme Mongol deity was Tengri, the ruler of heaven. The Mongols believed that mountains were bridges between heaven and earth. Even today some Mongolia discourage the digging of wells and mines because they don't want to disturb, the spirits in the earth. Even today some Mongolia discourage the digging of wells and mines because they don't want to disturb, the spirits in the earth. Important animal symbols included: the hawk, Genghis Khan’s favorite bird, and wild geese, symbols of heros roaming the steppes in search of a home.

Horses sacrifices and divinization with bones was practiced. Horses are still sacrifice today. Their dried corpses are hung from long sticks in the Altai Mountain region of Mongolia. This ritual is performed because it is believed that only a sacrificed horse can carry the shaman to heaven.

The Mongols had thousands of gods. They worshiped the sun, moon, stars, rivers and mountains. Mongol shaman and priest communicated with the gods and relayed the information to Mongol leaders such as the Great Khan. Fire worship was a part of the burial ritual for Scythian and other horsemen.

Genghis Khan is thought to have been very superstitious and a believer in spirits. He consulted shaman and astrologers. One of the most important persons in his empire was a shaman, known as Tov Tengri, who ultimately betrayed Genghis by trying to install a rival khan and was killed by having his back broken in a staged wrestling match. When Genghis Khan was an old man he ordered a 71-year-old Chinese-Taoist alchemist to mix up an elixir of immortality at his camp in the Hindu Kush.

The Mongols were much more open minded about religion than people in Europe and the Middle East. They generally didn't plunder churches or mosques (although they did burn down a quite few and massacred people who taken refuge inside) and as a rule they did not persecute people because of their beliefs. The courts of the Great Khans contained Catholics, Nestorian Christians, Armenians, Manichaens, Buddhists, Muslims and animists like Genghis Khan. In the Mongol capital of Karakorum churches, mosques and temples stood side by side. As the Mongol empire expanded, many Mongols adopted the religion of their subjects, particularly Islam. The Western Mongols had largely accepted Islam by 1295.

Steppe Horseman Shaman

The religious life of steppe horsemen such as the Mongols, Scythians and Huns usually centered around the clan shaman — a man or a woman whose spiritual power was so great he or she had to be separated from society. When in a trance the shaman could communicate with dead, the gods, demons and natural spirits. He also could make out the form and destiny of a person's soul and heal illnesses with this knowledge.

Illnesses, the steppe people believed, were caused by straying souls who became influenced by demons. The shaman's objective was to bring the soul back, a task that was usually performed while in an ecstatic trance.

Shaman were believed to be reincarnated as birds, animals and warriors during ceremonies. The often used tambourines and wore clothes and hats that symbolizes bridged the world real world with spiritual world. To reach the skyworld the shaman often literally and figuratively climbed a ladder or pole.

In Kazakhstan, Islam, shamanism and animism have coexisted for a long time. Traditional pre-Islamic beliefs include cults of the sky and fir, ancestor worship, and belief in supernatural forces of good and evil, wood goblins and giants. Many Kazakhs to this day wear beads and talismans for protection against the evil eye. Kazakh shaman are called “bakhys” . They can be either men or women. Unlike traditional Siberian shaman who use a drums duirg their rituals, “bakhsy” use a bow and violin-like stringed instrument.


Ovoos are piles of stones, often with prayer scarves attached to them, that are still widely found in Mongolia, Inner Mongolia and Tibetan areas today. Originally the product of shamanistic practices, they are found scattered across the steppe and desert and in the mountains, marking sacred places or auspicious points on a journey or dwelling place of spirits. Some are just a pile of a few stones. Others are elaborate arrangements with prayer flags and poles with the skulls of yaks or cattle on top of them. Sometimes skulls of highly prized horses rest on top.

Some ovoos mark the sites of annual sacrifices set by the lunar calendar. Many have vodka bottles and scarfs left around them that have been left as offering. The land around the ovoos is regarded as sacred and hunting, digging or cutting down trees or any other disrespectful act is taboo. Mongolians believe that anyone who does such a thing will fall sick or even die.

Ovoos are usually built high on mountains. Most of them are piles of stones. Some are enclosed and built with wickers and filled with sand and soils. The Ovoo usually looks like a round bundle, and some have domes and square bases. Several poles and branches are stuck into the the top of the ovoo, with all colors of flags and silk lists hanging on them and strings tied between them and the ground. In the ovoo are food such corn, bows and arrows, and Budda figures. The size ovoos vary greatly. Most of them stand alone, but there are sometimes groups, consisting of 7 or 13 ovoos, with the main one in the center, larger than the others.

Ovoos Rituals

When encountering an ovoos one is supposed to walk around it three times add three stones and say a prayer. Many are placed along roads. When encountering one of these you are supposed to drive on the left side. At large ovoos Mongolian drivers often stop and say a prayer and make an offering. Festivals are held at major ones to celebrate the new year and pray for rainfall and grass for animals. These events usually include feasting, prayers by monks and traditional sports.

The Mongols have traditional had many sacrificial offering ceremonies, such as to Heaven, to Fire, to Ancestors and to ovoos. Of these the ovoos is the most important one. Originally, they marked the boundary of a nomads pastures or served as cairns for a road or trail. On the boundaries of nomads, the historian Qing Hui Dian wrote: “If there is no hill or river which serves as the sign, a heap of stone will do that job, which is called Ovoo". Afterwards, such heaps were considered as the residence of the gods and objects for people to worship and offer sacrifices to. Under these conditions, road signs became places to offer sacrifices to god of mountain, god of road and other gods who protected villagers. Such places were sometimes built according to people's needs. In ancient times, each Qi, Sumu and temple had its own public Ovoo. Some rich families built their own Ovoos, each with their own name. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, ~]

In the past, the ceremonies of offering sacrifices to Ovoo were often held between fifth and seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, when the grass was lush and the herds were healthy. At that time, the chief of clans and tribes and villages and herders under them gathered around the ovoo and feasted on hada, mutton, fermented milk and nomad foods. They first presented the hada and offerings, them a lama read sutras and everyone prayed. After that stones were added to the Ovoo and wickers were mended and new prayer flags and sutra streamers were tied on. on it. Finally, all the participants circled the Ovoo three times clockwise, and pray to god to bless them, and make both themselves and their flocks and herds prosper. After the ceremony, there were usually some horse races, wrestling, archery, Bulu throwing and other traditional sports and games. ~

Mongolian Shamanism

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Shaman's drum
Shamanism is the traditional religion of the nomads and horsemen that occupied Mongolia. Mongolians have traditionally believed that shaman had the ability to “soul travel” and cure the sick. This belief helped them deal with the unexplained aspects of their natural world and its unanticipated hardships. Shamanism is still practiced by the Mongolians and practiced by minorities such as the Tsaatan, Darkhad, Uriankhai (Tuvans) and Buryats.

In Mongolia both men and women can be shaman but a distinction is made between hereditary ones and those who have become shaman after suffering a serious illness. Shaman have traditionally been sought out to cure sickness and act as intermediaries between the human and spiritual world, often by going into a trance sometimes for hours at a time. During the Great Sacrifice, traditionally held on the third day of the after the lunar New Year, shaman divined the future from cracks made in heated sheep shoulder blades.

Shamanism also remains alive in common daily rituals such as rubbing holy stones together and the traditional blessing of dipping a finger in milk and flicking it towards the sky in honor of local spirits. After a statue of Stalin was removed, peasant sprinkled milk on it to "prevent his angry evil spirit from returning to haunt them. "

Before making important decisions many Mongolians consult a shaman. They make an offering fo meat, sweets and vodka and the shaman conducts a ceremony. Tibetan Buddhism practiced in Mongolia is influenced by shamanism. During Tibetan New Year’s celebrations shaman have traditionally presided over parades in which Buddhist images were pulled on carts with the head of a magical green horse.

David Stern wrote in National Geographic: In Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism has merged with local Buddhist traditions—so much so that it’s often impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. In Ulaanbaatar I met a shaman, Zorigtbaatar Banzar—an outsize, Falstaffian man with a penetrating stare—who has created his own religious institution: the Center for Shamanism and Eternal Heavenly Sophistication, which unites shamanism with world faiths. “Jesus used shamanic methods, but people didn’t realize it,” he told me. “Buddha and Muhammad too.” On Thursdays in his ger (a traditional Mongolian tent) on a street choked with exhaust fumes near the city center, Zorigtbaatar holds ceremonies that resemble a church service, with dozens of worshippers listening attentively to his meandering sermons.” [Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012 ]

As was the case with all religions, shamanism was brutally suppressed in the Soviet era. Stern wrote: “Many shamans died in labor camps. “A shaman I knew named Gombo got caught during a ritual and was sent to jail for a year and a half,” Nergui said. By the time Nergui started practicing, the worst of the purge was over, but shamanism was still forbidden, and shamans had to perform in secret. “We hid our religion so that it wouldn’t fade away,” he said. “There were two places where we would do the ritual. The first one was at home, and we would have somebody sit by the door to see if anyone was coming. The second place was hidden in the mountains. Then around 1995, things changed, and we could practice freely.” Indeed, shamanism is now undergoing a great reawakening throughout its historic heartland in Central Asia, Siberia, and Mongolia—feeding a spiritual craving after 70 years of enforced atheism.


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Yukaghir shaman
Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word “shaman” comes from the Evenki, a Siberian people. It means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia.

Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors.

David Stern wrote in National Geographic: “In shamanic thinking, the universe is a unified whole—a giant network in which we humans are linked to mountains and lakes, just as we are to each other and to our ancestors.” The Siberian Buryat shaman Oleg Dorzhiyev had told Stern” “For us, our gods are foremost our grandfathers and grandmothers, who are our guardian angels. They’re real people. And our love for them is strong. This is the love of children for their parents, and parents for their children and grandchildren. And this energy never disappears.” [Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012 ]

Northern Mongolia Shaman

David Stern wrote in National Geographic: “ Nergui is a boo, as Mongolians call male shamans. He believes himself to be an intermediary between the visible world and the hidden world of spirits and gods Nergui is a slight, unassuming man with a hangdog look that reminded me of the actor Walter Matthau. He was unshaven and dressed in a dull brown del—a traditional Mongolian robe—with a yellow belt and a blue silk sash around his neck. A pair of faded blue corduroys peeked out from under his robe. On his feet were specially made reindeer-skin shaman boots. [Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012 ]

“He’s a Darhad, one of the ethnic groups indigenous to northern Mongolia, next to the Russian border. Numbering some 20,000, the Darhad have largely preserved their traditional nomadic lifestyle: Nergui’s day job, so to speak, is taking care of his cows, goats, sheep, and horses. The Darhad also practice shamanism in one of its purest forms, as an integral part of their lives. The region’s remoteness helps explain why little has changed. Getting here involved a jolty plane ride from the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, followed by a bone-shaking 13-hour trip in a rickety Soviet-era minibus over frozen rivers, icy mountain passes, and snow-packed tundra.

“Shamanism is something you’re born with, Nergui said, slugging down a large shot of vodka. You can’t just decide to become a shaman—you must be chosen by the spirits. The shamanic calling is usually passed down from one generation to the next. “My father is a shaman,” Nergui said, adding that he was 25 when he became aware that he too had an aptitude for communicating with the spirit world. “I’ve been doing this 25 years, and I have 23 spirits I can call on.”

“But, he added, a shamanic gift is just the beginning. All shamans must undergo an intense apprenticeship, learning the timeworn practices of their vocation. These rituals facilitate the shaman’s interaction with the spirit world—like the trance I had just witnessed—as well as dictate the methods used in paying respect to the spirits. Shamans invest their own special ritualistic equipment with a holy spirit; it becomes “alive.” Nergui’s includes a reindeer-hide drum, a mouth harp, the colored strips of cloth, and his costume.

“Shamanism is above all about serving the community, he told me. “When you become a shaman, you have the responsibility of taking care of people around you.” That takes a heavy psychological toll, and it may explain why alcohol abuse seems to be common among shamans. “Sometimes you have to do black things,” he said, falling silent.”

Mongolian Shamanist Rituals

Ovoos in Tibet
Describing a Mongolian shaman named Bajlmaa, Yoon Suh-kyung wrote in the Korean Herald, "Dressed in a dark brown frock draped with ripped cloth and sparkling materials, she was an overwhelming presence...As her assistant scurried about preparing the ritual table with incense burners, wine goblets, plates of food, Baljimaa continued speaking in a booming voice...When the preparations were complete, she stood at attention with her big brass gong and mallet-like stick in hand."

"Hitting the gong rhythmically and chanting in the guttural tines of Mongolian," Yoon wrote, "Baljimaa walked back and forth across the stage, calling for the gods to possess her body. For more than 30 minutes she chanted, rousing the crowd to the height of expectation. Then suddenly, she started to throw up, or at last, it sounded as of she was throwing up, crouched at the corner of he stage with her back to the audience. 'My body has been tainted by people in the audience. Is there anybody who has had a death in the family recently or is thinking bad thoughts about this ritual? If so leave," she growled.

"After yet another round of preparations by the assistant, which included trying to get a larger flame to form on the burner that had been installed to take the place of a real fire, Baljimaa returned to walking sedately back and forth on the stage, banging the gong in hypnotic rhythm. But after another 15 minute, with not a spirit in sight, Baljimaa there up her gong, staying, "It's not working...we need to guide the spirits, they are refusing to find their own way here."

Northern Mongolian Shaman Ritual

David Stern wrote in National Geographic: “Nergui stood in the center of the room, swaying from side to side, chanting, “Great sky, please come here.” His eyes were closed, and he gripped a cluster of multicolored cloth strips. His voice was rough and the melody repetitive, like an ancient ballad: “Oh, great blue sky, which is my blanket, come to me.” After meditation and chants Nergui moved into a trance, the moment when the spirit from the invisible realm would be free to enter his body. “Oh, my spirit, I would ride ten Mongolian cows to see you. Please let the golden cuckoo guide me to the spirit.” [Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012 ]

“Eight of us had gathered around, sitting on stools and metal-framed beds pushed up against the walls of Nergui’s one-room wooden cabin. Outside, the temperature on this mid-November day was 10 degrees F. It was just after midday, the “horse hour,” according to the Chinese zodiac clock. For Nergui the noon hour is the perfect time to go on an otherworldly ride. “Sky of the wolf, please help me. A man in need, with a heart of peace, has come. Great sky, please come here.” Nergui’s chanting picked up speed as his swaying became more like a dance. He made giddyap sounds and whipping motions with his strips of cloth, as if spurring on a horse.

“Juniper twigs burning in a cast-iron stove gave off a fragrant scent; the smoke is believed to attract spirits. Blankets draped on the walls to keep in the heat made the room seem even smaller, and in the corner opposite the door was a collection of amulets, figurines, colored scarves, bits of cloth, and other talismans—a shrine to Nergui’s guardian spirits...Suddenly he collapsed. Two helpers caught him, and he gave a wolflike howl. Then he cackled like the villain in a horror movie. “The spirit has entered him,” Zaya Oldov, my guide and translator, whispered. They brought him to the back of the room, and he sat down, cross-legged, eyes still shut. One by one the members of our group approached him. The shaman—or the spirit speaking through him—described each person’s past and doled out advice.

“Then it was my turn; I kneeled next to him. “You were a very quiet person when you were young.” Nergui’s voice was deeper now, more assured. “You love animals. Wherever you have gone, you have given things to people, and this put a smile on their face.” All this was true, but so general it could apply to almost anyone. He continued, “You have a unique mark on your right side, under your armpit.” (Not true—my skin there is blemish free.) Other specific, cryptic comments followed. “A man with the sign of the dog and the sheep will soon help you.” Nergui then concluded: “By my power I will look after your family and your loved ones. Take these juniper twigs and burn them in your home.” After I took them, he reached for something and held out his hand. “Here is the anklebone of a wolf. Carry it in your right pocket—it will protect you from harm.”

“He began to exit his trance, gyrating and flailing his arms. His eyes were full of fear (or was it pain?), and he was hyperventilating. His wife, Chimgee—a wiry woman in a gray-blue del and green kerchief—approached him and put a lit cigarette in his mouth. Still shaking, he chewed it, burning end and all, and swallowed. Eventually Nergui calmed down. A second cigarette was offered, which he smoked this time. Chimgee smiled at her husband. “Did you have a good journey, dear?” she asked.After Nergui had recovered from his trance, he opened the bottle of vodka I’d brought as a gift and poured us each a shot into a shallow teacup.”

Buryat Shaman

The Buryats are the largest indigenous group in Siberia. They are a Mongolian people that practice Tibetan Buddhism with animist and shamanist elements. Buryat shaman are still active. Most shaman work at day jobs such as farming, construction or engineering. They are connected to the past through a chain of priests that stretches back for centuries. Buryat shaman traditionally have gone into trances to communicate with gods and dead ancestors to cure diseases and maintain harmony. A Buryat shaman named Alexei Spasov told the New York Times, "You drop, your pray, you talk to god. According to the Buryat tradition, I'm here to bring some moral calmness...It's not when people are happy that they come to a shaman. It’s when they’re in need of something---troubles, grief, problems in the family, children who are sick, or they're sick. You can treat it as a sort of moral ambulance." "

Buryat shaman communicate with hundreds and thousands of gods, including 100 high-level ones, ruled by Father heaven and Mother Earth, 12 divinities bound to earth and fire, countless local spirits which watch over sacred sites like rivers and mountains, people that died childless, ancestors and babushkas and midwives that can prevent car accidents. Describing an elaborate ritual that began with sequence of 12 prayers to babushkas, ancestors, spirits and gods,

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, "Relatives have prepared hard boiled eggs, cheese, mashed potatoes, pig fat and curds. They sit, smoking drinking tea. Every one wears a hat or scarf; to go bareheaded is a serious faux pas..."In the center of the room sits the beset couple, side by side, their chairs forming an 'L' with those of Mr. Spasov and a wizened family elder who has an honored seat. On the floor is a pot filled with glowing members...Next to the pot are the seven remaining bottles of Russkaya vodka and two other of uncertain lineage. Mr. Spasov drops a handful of brotherworst in the pot, and sweet-smelling haze, not unlike marijuana drifts up to eye level and hangs. He pours vodka into a bowl, sprinkles a few drops on the embers then takes a sip himself."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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