I gotta write these three entries I wanted to write before something else happens and I forget it all!
I wanted to write about shamanism, because I have been having quite a few encounters with this belief system recently. And through these encounters, I noticed my distinctly analytical, scientific bent trying to desperately sort these experiences into my cultural schemata. (sorry I do talk like this in real life) so here goes.. tell me what YOU think!
People tell me Buddhism is still officially the most common religion in Mongolia. And from the frequent visits of the Dalai Lama and the populace’s reaction to them (including to his ‘secret’ visit a few weeks ago) there is still quite a following. But since the fall of socialism in Mongolia, a nation as devoutly dedicated to their cultural roots as this one is experienced a revival in all things ancient, i.e. Mongolian medicine, astrology, herding techniques, music, songs, poetry, ancient script and also belief systems. Shamanism has been experiencing a resurgence and from my personal experiences in Mongolia… shamanism is everywhere.
Mongolian Shamanism is in essence the belief in ancestral spirits that guide and help you through life. This belief system ties very well into the collectivist, nature-oriented history of Mongolia, since there are no overarching, omnipotent Gods, but rather just the earth, sky, people, and the harmony of living and non-living beings acting together. It brings families together, makes them appeal to and appease their ancestors, and teaches them to work collectively and harmoniously with one another.
People commonly appeal to shamans, who each have a repertoire of spirits (depending on their power) that grant advice, protect, give them good dates for events like marriage and the first cutting of a child’s hair (this is very big here, since the hair represents part of the soul and the wrong usage of hair can hurt the child – the same reason for why nomadic women always have their hair tied back, so that it doesn’t blow away).
For example, this summer the equivalent of 40 dollars got stolen out of my bag, and the woman I was staying with at the time called a shaman to figure out whodunit. Several people I know appeal to shamans whenever they have boyfriend trouble. And one of other ladies I stayed with this summer asking a shaman when a good time was for her to learn English (of all things…).
I also had the good fortune of being able to interview a young shaman in the city recently for my research. She was a woman who went out and got drunk on the weekends and looked very modern for all intents and purposes (Sorry, I am not allowed to post pictures…).
But when she finished college she was overtaken by an intense disease that wouldn’t go away (this is the most common introduction for most shamans… they have the ‘shaman illness’ that only goes away once they accept their ‘fate’). Another shaman told her family that it was their ancestral spirits trying to enter her and that she had to accept her calling. So, she did, and now she earns enough money from her shamanizing to make a living. Oh, modern shamanism…you even have tax deductions for it. (apropos the business nature of Mongolian shamanism: here is a great article from the NY Times on it)
I think one of the craziest things to me is how common shamanism is amongst the most modern of modern people in this city. A lot of the things shamans say and do seem so crazy and extreme to me, yet because of its history and place in Mongolian society, it is believed and followed readily by a very large segment of the population.
I do not believe in shamanism myself, because I have had a lot of shamans tell me things that either did not come true, were half-truths (that could have gone either or) or things that were so incredibly abstract. I would have had to search in my head and analyze to make them true.
But, I still want to describe my experiences.
In my last entry, I talked about how I ended up quite by accident in the apartment of a hotel owner in an aimag (state) center. Well, unbeknownst to me when I agreed to stay there was that we would enter the apartment in the middle of a shamanizing ceremony. As soon as we entered, Zaya and I noticed the alter and the preparations preformed by this young, gentle looking woman (probably around our ages… 25?). Every shaman has several drums, an alter, a circular disk or talisman worn around the neck, and an outfit that has several dread-like looking threads hanging off of them. The more threads, the stronger the shaman. Everything on the alter is incredibly nature based; lots of skins or claws from animals, and offerings of vodka, milk, tea and sweets.
When we entered, the young woman was wetting all the threads with milk, a cleansing ritual. Zaya didn’t want to stay for personal reasons and left the room, but I asked the shaman if I could participate (why the hell not! … I was already there). So, she sat down after all the milk-tea, vodka offerings, sniffing tobacco offerings, and candy had been prepared, and starting singing/chanting her song.
Anyway, it was really beautiful listening to her sing, really light and birdlike. But after singing for ten minutes, her head dropped and she started banging her drum to the song. And then she started shaking and swinging and getting louder and angrier.
Just for the record, I was raised a staunch atheist. I don’t adhere to any religion, nor do I find it necessary to think about such things when we have an entire earthly world that needs fixing. But the sight of this dainty, lathy woman start to swing in trance with the rhythm of her drum, first slowly and then gradually until she was flailing crazily in every direction, which culminated with her entire body doing a half-flip across the room to land in the wide-legged, sturdy stance of an heavy-breathing old man with cane is SUPPPER FREEEEEAKY.
Anyway, it freaked me out so much I had to leave the room and drink two vodka shots with Zaya before returning.
The reason why they had called the spirits on this particularly evening was because the husband of one of the hotel workers was having heath, and ahem, sexual issues and needed guidance. So after appeasing the spirit through offerings of vodka (which it drank in copious amounts), milk and sniffing tobacco (which the shaman or spirit straight-up dumped down its nose…ew), it was ready to hear the issue. And what ensued seemed to be completely normal for the all the Mongolian cultural actors in the room… only for me it was incredibly weird.
Apparently, Mongolian shamans and shamanists believe that spirits will hover around certain parts of your body that are having problems. And in this case, a bad spirit was following the man, so the shaman/old man spirit told him to bow in front of him so that his back was showing. After swallowing a lot of milk –which has a pure, cleansing symbolism in Mongolia- the shaman spit it all over the man’s back, and then took his whip/cleansing tool and hit him on the back over and over again to drive the leaching spirit away. And then all the remaining people had to leave, because the spirit instructed the man to remove all his clothes so that he could proceed with the cleansing ritual around his ‘private’ area.
Again, I think it is a testament to the power of culture that one action –the whipping and the spitting of milk onto the body of a grown man in order to fix sexual prowess- that seems so normal and matter of fact to a group of people can be so ludicrous to me.
Anyway, as I sat there, participating, my head starting running wild with explanations for this behavior. The woman completely transformed in a way that defies all acting experience and was beaten out of the trance a few times, at which point she would run to the toilet and throw up for five minutes. Obviously, something intense was happening to her body and mind, which leaves me in awe at the power of… the brain? …culture? …spirits?
I have no idea, nor will I ever know. I am just gonna focus on what I do know… female body ideals.
But I still hope I got you to think!