I Met a Mongolian Shaman, and We Chatted With 13th Century Spirits
For openers, the spirits demand vodka and cigarettes.
“Don’t be afraid,” Oyuka says, clutching my elbow.
Temujin, a handsome Mongolian shaman in his mid-20s, beats a skin drum slung over his forearm ever faster. Oyuka and his mother know what’s coming next. Their expressions are tense. I don’t have a clue.
The beating reaches a frenzied crescendo, and Temujin topples out of his chair onto the floor.
A righteous cacophony ensues—the drum, two large metal pendants around his neck, a spear covered in charms, and heavy cloak and headdress—all clang against the floor and each other. Temujin's mother frantically removes objects that might get destroyed amid the hullabaloo. A beat. A low groan.
Temujin sits up on the floor, and Oyuka pulls me down to his level. It would be rude to stand above a centuries-old spirit.
His voice is hoarse and very much unlike Temujin’s regular speaking voice. Oyuka explains that spirits typically don’t communicate using their voices; so the spirit must adjust to the concept of vocal chords. He immediately demands milk, then a cigarette, then vodka, then snacks. Without a body proper, he rarely has a chance to indulge in corporeal pleasures. And he’s a jokester. Oyuka and Temujin’s mother laugh and laugh at jokes that aren’t translated.
"In western religion, we pray to God and don’t expect an answer. In Mongolia, you can actually just sit down and have a chat.”
He immediately recognizes I’m not Mongolian and asks me about my origins. I present him with milk curds and vodka as an offering of goodwill. He’s disappointed. He was hoping for novel goodies from America that he’s never tried before.
He’s not too offended to offer me advice and some insight into my future. He tells me that I will be married in 400 days and have three children. He tells me I’ve seen perhaps beyond my fair share of troubles, and that I have ancestors nestled in their own pockets of the heavens watching over me.
He turns to Oyuka. For nearly an hour, she bows before the ancient spirit. With his hand on her head and shoulders, he imparts wisdom and advice.
Suddenly I’m roused from a weary trance by the sound of the spirit spinning his leather horsewhip round and round and round. Temujin collapses again. The really, really old timer’s gone back to the Eternal Blue Sky.
A beat. A groan. A new spirit has arrived in his stead.
Mongolia has seen a recent resurgence of Tengerism, an ancient animistic practice in which shamans channel ancestral spirits. The spirits literally use the body and mouth of the shaman—to provide advice, healing, community therapy, even ancient levity.
“This sounds very strange to a lot of westerners, but think about it this way: In western religion, we pray to God and don’t expect an answer. In Mongolia, you can actually just sit down and have a chat,” says Amalia Rubin, who recently graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Washington and has been researching Mongolian shamanism for the past three years. “It’s not God directly, but you can get one of his secretaries, and that’s pretty good.“
In a sense, Tengerism is monotheistic. Tenger, or the “Eternal Blue Sky,” is an omnipotent, omnipresent deity from which all power and knowledge springs. Ancestral spirits and other spiritual entities “hang out in the heavens—plural,” Rubin says. “They’re very close to Tenger.” That proximity affords them enhanced wisdom. A shaman is a person selected by his or her ancestral spirits to serve as a bridge between the spirits and regular folks.
"If you called Pentecostal Christianity shamanism, a lot of people would get really upset.”
Rubin says she “hates the word shamanism.” According to her, the only connection between Mongolian shamanism and, say, what’s practiced by the Lakota Native Americans in South Dakota is that they can interact with spirits. Shamanism in the U.S. or South America is only related to Mongolian shamanism in the same way that all monotheistic religions have one God.
“But we call them [all] shamanism, which is basically just westerners not wanting to give non-westerners an actual name to their religion,” Rubin says. “If we’re going to go by that definition, Pentecostal Christianity is definitely shamanic because they have speaking in tongues. But if you called Pentecostal Christianity shamanism, a lot of people would get really upset.”
The Communist Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party that reigned from 1921 to 1990 suppressed all religious expression. Some shamans kept the practice alive “underground,” but many family lineages’ traditions were lost or obscured. During the political violence that shook the country in the late ‘30s (mirroring the Soviet Union’s Great Purge), many people lost their parents and/or their handwritten genealogies, obliterating a connection between them and their more distant ancestors.
“How do you fill in that gap? I think that indigenous practices from long before there was outside influence play a very important role in rebuilding identity,” Rubin says.
Before coming under Soviet influence, cultural expression was repressed by the Qing Dynasty of China. Mongolians haven’t been free to express their indigenous identity for several hundred years.
According to Mongolian-born MIT professor Manduhai Buyandelger, the spirits were not happy about being ignored for so long. In her 2013 book, Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia, Manduhai describes the marginalized, indigenous Buryat people of the northeast as inundated by angry spirits demanding propitiation via shamanic mediation following the sudden introduction of capitalism, which led to widespread poverty across the country.
When Mongolians propitiated forgotten origin spirits to cope with their woes, Buyandelger writes in her book's introduction, they "expanded almost inadvertently into a cultural production of history.”
As Rubin puts it: Those who 100-percent subscribe to the practice believe that the spirits returned and directly re-taught the traditions. Skeptics might deem it “imagined history, which is no less valid in recreating an identity and a religion. It’s only less valid from the standpoint of technical history.”
Around seven years ago, Temujin became the corporeal vessel for the spirit of his 23rd grandfather. Before that, he was just a regular guy growing up in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital city, which one million, or one third of the entire country’s population, calls home. Mongolia is the most sparsely populated independent country in the world. Outside the city, the empty steppes roll on endlessly.
Oyuka met Temujin around the time he began connecting to his distant grandfather, when they were in university together. On the bus ride from downtown Ulaanbaatar to Temujin’s place, she explains that in those days Temujin’s family was much better off financially. Now he’s living in the ger district—a poor settlement area outside the city center, where people live without running water or sewer systems.
“Before you ask, he will know the question. Like he’s inside you,” she tells me.
I met Oyuka just a week prior. When she found out that I was interested in experiencing a shamanic ceremony, she was eager to help me.
Temujin echoes the sentiment. At his house, he explains in limited English that he wants to help me comprehend the practice. (He stresses, “It’s not a religion. It’s understanding life.”)
“Do you understand the Eternal Blue Sky?” he asks. I shake my head no. “You will.”
His heavy cloak is covered in plush snakes, which protect him. When I touch one, he snaps at me.
(Many shamans refuse to be photographed or videotaped, although there is no hard rule against it. Temujin explains that he is allowing me the privilege in the hopes I will use the images “for good”—to present an accurate portrayal of the practice to non-Mongolians. All the images presented in this article were taken after the ceremony.)
Before we petition the spirits, Temujin carefully explains the function of each element of his ornate outfit, which is entirely handmade. An intricately carved spear with dozens of dangling charms is used to ward off malevolent spirits. The mirror in the middle of his headdress similarly deflects uninvited entities. The paper eyes flanking the mirror serve as his replacement eyes during the ceremony, when black tassels obscure his entire face. His heavy cloak is covered in plush snakes, which protect him. When I touch one, he snaps at me.
“It’s alive," Oyuka explains.
The snakes and other tools are “woken up” and purified by rubbing vodka on them. Felt is carefully rolled into wicks and lit. Herb incense is burned. Chanting and drumming ushers in an ancient world.
The second and last spirit to inhabit Temujin’s body was a warrior in Ghengis Khan’s army—in the 13th century. He looks at Temujin’s hands (temporarily his) and scoffs. His hands were this size at age seven, he says.
As the spirit explains the true significance of Genghis Khan’s conquests (not to wantonly destroy but to free the destitute from abusive rulers), Temujin’s mother answers her cellphone several times. Temujin’s seven-year-old sister totters in and out of the room.
Rubin believes Mongolian shamanism is “timeless”; the casual nature of the ceremony is inherent to the practice. “These are ancestral spirits. They are family,” she says. “Some of them get more pissed off about the phones than others, but at the end of the day, they are family. So it is casual.”
The practices may not have changed significantly over the centuries, but the problems have. Perhaps most significantly, most shamans need a day job to pay their bills.
Mongolia’s shift to neoliberal capitalism in the early ‘90s allowed long-suppressed shamanic practices to surface. But, as Manduhai explains in Tragic Spirits, “shamanism has not become a part of capitalism and created monetary profit, which is what many people want from their engagement with it, either as shamans or clients. Instead of bringing good fortune and the power to attract money, shamanism enables its adherents to build a mobile history through remembering.”
Temujin hangs up his cloak, headdress and tools. Sweaty and worn out after lending his body to two spirits for nearly four hours, he dons an Esprit tank top and sits at the kitchen table. Oyuka and I snack on dried milk curds while Temujin chows down on mutton stew.
He tells us his spirits were surprised to hear him speaking English before the ceremony. They had no idea he was bilingual. He shoots me a judgmental look as I pull on a cigarette. His ancestral spirits smoke like chimneys, consuming nearly half a pack during the ceremony using his lungs, but he loathes cigarettes.
Soon Temujin is back on his feet, pulling on trousers and a button down. He takes pains to style his hair just so. He finishes the polished look with a pair of aviator sunglasses.
We all set out to catch a bus toward the city center. Temujin has to go to work.
“We’re going to your world now,” he says with a sly smile.