Shamanism is experiencing a renaissance in Mongolia – and facing totally new questions: Is it acceptable for summoners of spirits to have a Facebook presence and promote themselves on TV shows?
One more step and Erdenebat Nansamlmaa would be in flames. The hem of his black robe is already dangerously close to the bonfire, and sparks are licking at his heavy boots as he spins, wilder and wilder, and beats on the goatskin drum at his chest. At the very last moment, an assistant pulls him back, and the man collapses into a trance on a cushion, emitting a sound somewhere between a throaty laugh and a creepy grunt. The man now cowering in the Mongolian steppes is not Erdenebat Nansamlmaa, 41, family man and hairdresser from Ulaanbaatar, the capital city an hour away from here, but Khokhchir Ulaach, ageless, shaman, ready to make contact with the spirit world.
The otherworld is omnipresent in Mongolia. It is alive in the mountains and rivers, in the yaks and wild horses, and as the souls of forefathers in heaven. These are the precepts of Tengrism, the ancient religion of the Turkic peoples of Siberia and Central Asia, for whom shamans have served as guardians and high priests for thousands of years. Today, one in six Mongolians again believe in spirits and that the “mediators between the worlds” – which is what “shaman” means – can make contact with them.
Until 300 years ago, no one in Mongolia would have questioned such beliefs, but then came wars and new rulers, bringing first Buddhism and ultimately Soviet Communism, and with it atheism. Threatened with prison or worse, the shamans hid in the country’s impenetrable forests and mountains. Officially, shamans no longer existed, and by the time the Mongolian Parliament wrote religious freedom into the Constitution in 1992, there were only 700 left. Since then, around 40 different religions have been practiced in the country sandwiched between Russia and China, and shamanism is experiencing its own renaissance thanks to today’s approximately 20 000 shamans.
“Our time has come,” Nansamlmaa said the night before, as he slipped his haircutting scissors into their case and closed the Barber and Cosmetic Shop before driving out through the smog of the metropolis into the wide expanses of the tundra. He was on his way to meet with some 100 men and women, some of them shamans from the Gobi Desert and the Changai Mountains, to celebrate the summer solstice there with rituals, gives thanks to the spirits for their aid and speak with the forefathers. Nansamlmaa was also intending to win over a few waverers. “The more people see us, the more people will acknowledge their Mongolian heritage again,” he says, “and the more attention shamanism will receive.” It is growing unhindered. The number of shaman practices all over the country is rising, and there are shaman magazines, and books and guides written by shamans are consistently high on the bestseller lists. TV shows – something like “Mongolia’s Got Talent” – pick the shaman with the best direct line to the supernatural. Nansamlmaa has also been on “Challenge of Mongolian Shamans.” A year ago he was on live prime-time television contacting spirits, asking them to help him identify objects inside sealed boxes or tell him which woman owned the bright red lipstick he was shown. Dubious marketing or desecration of an ancient heritage? Nansamlmaa regards such appearances as good PR in the service of shamanism. For the audience, the show is excellent entertainment, but they also believe that shamans can help in serious cases; shamans are regarded as teachers, doctors and priests all at once.
“Our shamanic tradition is so old and so strong that people are more likely to consult us than a physician or a psychologist. They also open their hearts to me, feel they can let go and weep with me, and talk about their concerns and problems,” says Nansamlmaa. For a small donation, he offers herbal concoctions and conversations with spirits in surroundings that are less than peaceful – his white yurt, cowering beside stacks of car tires and a pack of howling sled dogs in an unfenced gravel yard. This doesn’t worry his clients in the least. “The people who come to me are looking for a better life and solutions to their problems – and I help them.” Some miss their deceased loved ones, others are hoping for some advice or comfort from them. Others are sick, requesting a blessing for an upcoming exam or advice on how to cope with money worries. Politicans and captains of industry count among the clients of the most famous shamans. And they have no reason to fear for their livelihoods: They live in villas, drive luxury cars, and are courted as celebrities. An income of two million tugriks – that’s nearly 720 euros and almost twice the average monthly income – is a real possibility even for novice shamans and turns a tradition that’s been handed down over centuries into a lucrative business model. After all, life is expensive in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, home to half of the three million Mongolians.
Because there aren’t many well-paid jobs around, more and more men and women who work as teachers, taxi drivers or sales assistants, have become part-time shamans to earn a little extra – or a little more. That’s because some of them immediately start training novices: They instruct young people in the arts of fire and dance, show them how to attract the spirits’ attention with a jaw harp, or teach them which copper plates keep out unwanted energies by acting as a mirror. As Nansamlmaa explains, for a true shaman, the learning process only ends at death. He bemoans that more and more copycats are handing their pupils certificates after just a few months and raising them to the rank of ulaach, or young shaman in return for a suitably generous consideration.
Nansamlmaa just wrinkles his nose, but another man is following this development with great concern. His name is Jargalsaikhan – just the one name – but he holds a mighty office: President of the Mongolian Trade Union of Shamans. It demands that charlatans be prevented from practicing. Only “genuine” shamans should be permitted to make contact with the spirits and thus fulfill their millennia-old duty, namely that of helping people to live in harmony with themselves and their surroundings. Awareness for this still exists. That’s why foreign mine companies sometimes also ask the village shamans to obtain permission from the spirits of the local forefathers before extracting gold, copper or oil from the ground – and for their forgiveness for the deep wounds their excavators and drills cut into the rocks and earth. But is the shaman competent? Can the shaman sitting in his tent in the city really communicate with the grandfather? Who or what is it that speaks through him? Does he bring his clients inner balance and peace of mind or nothing but chaos and financial ruin?
To find that out, Jargalsaikhan moved into an office on the second floor of one of the countless tower blocks in Ulaanbaatar. There’s just enough space in the tiny room for a chair, a desk, a huge flatscreen TV and a map on the wall, on which the locations of the over 100 shaman groups in the various provinces are marked. “We take care to ensure that the tradition is preserved and that there is continuity from generation to generation,” says Jargalsaikhan, a short, stout figure. He regularly visits the different groups’ meetings to check that no bribes are changing hands, that herbal mixtures contain the correct herbs in the correct quantities, that rituals are followed faithfully and that no other rules are being broken. But sometimes groups will also want to know the correct procedure for a ceremony. It is no longer a given that the old knowledge is there.
It seems that some modern trends are unavoidable: “Tradition doesn’t cover new phenomena, such as TV shows with shamans or Facebook posts,” says Jargalsaikhan, explaining the dilemma, “but no one could have foreseen their arrival.” Is it acceptable for spirits to express themselves on social media channels because shamans film their sessions and post them online? Is it acceptable for rituals to be seen on video? Is it acceptable to earn money with closely guarded ceremonies? Jargalsaikhan doesn’t have the answers yet, either. “First, we have to rediscover our identity,” he says. But one thing is certain, that shamanism will help in the search for it.
Nansamlmaa has profited from his TV appearances, but he also insists that “the purity of our teachings must be preserved.” For him, shamanism is both career and calling; he did not find it, shamanism found him. Some years ago, he was plagued by bad headaches, fever and nightmares. Nansamlmaa, a regular guy who left school at 18, completed two years of military service, then became a hairdresser and today has four children to feed, believed he was seriously sick. “It was a struggle,” he recalls, “and only when a shaman told me that I had uk flowing in me – a Mongolian word for source – could I acknowledge my destiny.” It told him to become a shaman and take up the battle with the spirits – because there are good ones, that he welcomes, and malevolent ones from which he wants to protect himself – with rings and amulets on his robe. “Heaven will ultimately decide whether a shaman is good or bad. But a shaman who abides by tradition and knows the correct ceremonies and rituals will remain.”
That is why, the previous evening, when his trance began beneath the vast skies above the steppe, like the forefathers before him, he had a leather mask pulled down over his face with leather strips hanging down like a curtain. Two white ovals on the upper edge look like substitute eyes, symbols for looking inward. One by one, visitors sit down in front of the shamans to hear the messages the spirits have for them. If there are spirits, Nansamlmaa cannot see them, but he can feel their presence: “The body of a shaman is like a window,” he says, “when a spirit steps inside, I become very light.” It feels like he could fly, he adds.