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Mongolian Mysticism

November 29, 2011

It’s been a slow process making friends in the soum, but I count myself lucky. I’ve got lots of acquaintances and most everybody knows my name, even if I don’t know them. Word about the one foreigner in town gets around quick.

A few relationships have taken on a more interesting shine this second year though. I’ve got a group of guys I truly enjoy. Many interactions with my co-workers and other people around town never leave the realm of what they need from me, or what I might need from them, but this group of three other guys is purely social, and our similar interests and temperaments is finally something that transcends the sizeable valley between our cultures and backgrounds. Who are they? Two traditional Mongolian wrestlers and a shaman, which, if you’re going to be the only foreigner in a town and the target of harassment, is probably the best team you can hope for.

On a Sunday morning, my friend Saikhna called me up and asked me if I’d like to come and watch Suren, the shaman, speak to the spirits. I told him, “Absolutely.” Mongolian Shamanism has been a part of my fascination with the country. After the breaking of the Soviet hold on Mongolia, the country has slowly been rediscovering it’s spiritual roots, namely Buddhism, but also the more ancient and native Mongolian shamanism. Mongolia’s brand of Buddhism comes chiefly from Tibet (and of course India before that), but the shamans and their traditions were born right here on the Central Asian steppe.

There have been a handful of times when I’ve felt connected in a transcendental way to the whole of human history that precedes my own life: walking the streets of Pompeii, listening to carols on Christmas Eve in Notre Dame Cathedral, standing beside cairn burials in Scotland and Ireland, being in the presence of Stonehenge…and this. I wandered over to my friend’s ger and found a comfortable spot to sit, out of the way. Other Mongolian guests began to trickle in seeking the counsel of the spirits for whom my friend Suren was about to become the conduit. The ceremony began with Suren’s mother moving around the ger and covering up mirrors and any reflective surfaces, including the flat screen television. I asked about this, and my friend explained that it’s because the spirits floating in the ger during the ceremony might be reflected in the mirror.

Once all reflective surfaces were covered, Suren and his mother opened the shrine at the back of the ger. A small table was covered in small bronze cups, the ankle bones of goats and sheep, figures representing the primary animals of Mongolia (horses, camels), incense burners, and a large bronze mask was hung just above the table, surveying it all. A chunk of mutton was resting in one side of the mouth of the mask, and Suren placed a cigarette on the other side as an offering of tobacco to the spirits. He also lit sticks of incense, and three old-fashioned tallow candles, representing the ancestors that aid him in speaking to the sky. He filled the bronze cups with milk, aruul (dried milk curd), and vodka, then he drenched all the figures of animals and ancestors in both vodka and milk.

When the shrine was prepared, Suren started to put on his shaman garb: a long robe draped in strips of cloth sewn to look like snakes, along with strings of beads across his chest and wrapped around his left wrist. On his right arm, he tied a shamanic totem made of bone and beads, and also the carved wooden mallet that would be the stick for his final accessory—the drum. As he was picking up the drum, Suren turned to me, smiled and said, “Ene minii tengeriin mashine,” meaning, “This is my car to the sky.” The drum was nine-sided, covered in cow-skin, with small bells tied at the apex of each adjoining piece of the wooden nonagon.

Suren’s mother and Saikhna then covered his clothing and the drum in milk and vodka, another purification. Then they offered him a small bowl of milk. Suren drank the whole bowl, and tossed the bowl on the ground. Everyone watched as it rolled and eventually landed face down. Suren’s mother picked it up again and filled it, Suren drank and tossed it in the same way—again it landed open side down. They continued this until eventually it landed facing up. This meant that Suren’s purification was complete and he was allowed to begin the ceremony.

Suren sat cross-legged in front of the shrine and started to beat the drum, with his face right behind it and I could hear him singing softly as he did so. After a while, Saikhna stepped up behind him as he took a pause in his drumming and drew an elaborate headdress down over his head. Black feathers stood up from his forehead, a black cloth with eyes sewn into it obscured his vision, long black threads covered the lower half of his face, and long trails of colorful cloth ran down his neck and over his back. Suren stood and drummed more intensely until he was taken by a spirit, at which point the drumming stopped and he stooped as if he were a very old man. Saikhna and Suren’s mother helped him sit and greeted him as a weary traveler. The spirit announced himself, told the room his age, and gave a ceremonial greeting. Saikhna offered him hot milk-tea, traditional Mongolian vodka, and an old-style pipe packed with aromatic tobacco.

What followed was a series of spiritual visitors, each one greeted anew, talking to the people that had come to the ger to speak with them. People asked about businesses, jobs, cars, newborns, grandparents, husbands, wives, boyfriends, and girlfriends. Each spirit had it’s own personality, some were elderly grandmothers, gentle and welcoming, some were dignified old men, and still others were angry and uncouth old warriors. One grandmother insisted that even I take a small drink of milk and ask for a blessing. When the spirits were finished, Suren finally removed the headdress, once again sat cross-legged before the shrine, and beat the drum to thank the spirits for their visit.

I’d love to tell you I had photos of all of this, but to me it just didn’t feel appropriate. I’d feel strange gawking and photographing such an ancient and sacred rite. And, as an armchair anthropologist, I was far too intrigued by what I was seeing to even spare a moment for fiddling with a camera.

These are my friends in Mongolia, similarity beyond culture and national identity: truly human brotherhood.

For a little more on Mongolian shamanism, look here.

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