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Traditionally, the religion practiced by the Mongols is Shamanism, worshiping the blue sky. However, Tibetan Buddhism (also called Vajrayana Buddhism)  gained more popularity after it was introduced in the 16th century. 

Tibetan Buddhism shares the common Buddhist goals of individual release from suffering and reincarnation. 

The Dalai Lama of Tibet, who lives in India, is the spiritual leader of the religion, and is highly respected in Mongolia. 


As part of their shamanistic heritage, the Mongols continue to practice ritualistic magick, nature worship, exorcism, meditation, and natural medicine.


At the beginning of the 20th century, Mongolia had hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and about 30 percent of the men were monks. The Communists waged an anti-religious campaign in the 1930s which nearly destroyed the extensive monastery system. Under communist rule, atheism was promoted and monasteries were closed, yet shamanistic practices survived. From 1945 to 1990, only one monastery (Gandan in Ulaanbaatar) was allowed to operate.


Democratic reform that began in 1990 allowed religious freedom; well over 100 monasteries have reopened or are being rebuilt, and Kazakh Muslims are allowed to practice Islam. Many young people are being educated by these traditional learning centers, and cherished traditions and worship can once again be practiced without fear.  


There is a significant minority of Sunni Muslims in the far western regions of Mongolia,  most of them being of Kazakh origin. 




For some, a word that evokes spirituality, perhaps even in its most archaic form… for others, witchcraft, magic or worse, deception!

As we can see, shamanism leaves no one indifferent… Its definition has changed in turn according to the vision that our societies had of it, and the value judgments they passed on the phenomenon.


The term shaman only reached us in Western Europe in the 28th century, when Johan Gottlieb Georgi, a learned German encyclopaedist, commissioned by Peter the Great to explore his empire, published the first reasoned synthesis on shamanism, illustrated _cc781905-5cde -3194-bb3b-136bad5cf58d_ superb watercolor engravings. It is an ethnographic encyclopaedia à la Diderot which will subsequently arouse in Western thinkers, artists and readers a craze for the “romantic” character that they all recognize in the shaman.

Later, the rise of psychoanalysis and sociology soon led to a pathological interpretation of the character.


The first appearance of the word shamanism, meanwhile, dates back to 1895 and seems to be linked to the English translation of the comparative essay published by Mihajlovski. The author wanting to constitute the shamanic practice in “shamanism” and extend it to other continents.

But assimilating this concept to a religion seems however excluded because the shamans are supposed to act according to what the spirits inspire in them. They intercede with them to obtain protection, healing and luck, which subjects the practice to an obligation of result. Everything is played in the “here and now”. Hence also the precariousness of the place of the shaman who is not sure of keeping his position and his power.

There is therefore no hierarchy, no more than no postulate and even less dogma or possible salvation!


In 1951, we witness the rehabilitation of shamanism thanks to Mircea Eliade, who until now is the only one to have written such a comprehensive work on shamanism. An almost essential reference: Shamanism and the archaic techniques of ecstasy. Payot, Paris, 1951.

Mircea Eliade will exalt the mystical approach through notions of travel, magical flight, mastery of spirits, trance and ecstasy. It is therefore by overcoming his own madness, his psychological fragility that the shaman is able to heal others. The encounter with the spirit taking place outside the body of the shaman, there can be no question in all this of possession. The translation of Mircea Eliade's book into English would have enormous significance for the various counterculture movements in America in the 1960s.

Carlos Castaneda was inspired by this model for his spiritual quest. He also exalted taking hallucinogens and psychoactive plants to achieve this.


Exalted at one end of the planet, shamanism was on the other hand castigated in countries subject to communism.

From the 1920s, there will be a radicalization supported by the partisans of the hard line of communism. The shaman, like the priest or the Buddhist monk, are only the symbols of a privileged caste to be destroyed. Popular beliefs are relegated to the rank of cultural backwardness.

At the end of the 1970s, we could therefore believe that shamanism had been practically eradicated...

And yet, it ended up resurfacing in Siberia and Mongolia after the fall of the communist Soviet regime!

Deprived of landmarks, but also free to reconnect with their own traditions, the Siberian peoples   turned to their past, pushed by the local elites and supported in a certain way by the Western current idealizing the shamanism. Be that as it may, we can only speak here of a resurgence, often more folkloric than real.


Among the Evenks and Yakuts of eastern Siberia, shamans have almost disappeared.

Who to contact then, for the rituals to be carried out? We are now witnessing collective rituals, reconstituted on the basis of 'pre-Soviet' sources and staged in shows.

This gives rise to great popular rejoicings which no longer have anything to do with the rituals performed in the past. Note that the disappearance of shamans is also one of the corollaries of sedentarization. Shamans, whose ritual activity is linked to hunting, cannot essentially practice in an urban environment… Never mind, it is now possible in large cities to consult shamans by appointment!

In recent years, we have witnessed the emergence of a neo-shamanism understood as a method of personal enrichment with a psychotherapeutic aim. This form of spirituality, with its search for happiness and personal well-being, with its affirmation of universality, therefore affects every individual, anywhere in this world, and thus joins ecological currents through its affirmation of understanding, proximity to nature and the species that inhabit it.

You can also discover the wizard, the healer who sleeps in you in ten sessions, in courses offered via the Internet!


…but let’s go back   rather to the sources.



What did the word shaman originally mean?  


The etymology of the word shaman has also sparked some debate...

Let's just remember what Roberte Hamayon, renowned specialist in the field, says about it, for whom chamane comes from saman, a Tungus word. Tungusic is spoken by several ethnic groups in Siberia, northern Mongolia and northeastern China. These groups being mainly hunters or herders of reindeer. The Tungusic word 'saman' conveys the idea of movement, essential in the shamanic practice of trance and flight. This same idea is   also found in the Mongolian verb 'samakh', in Turkish, and in other Siberian languages.



The shaman or… «  The man who speaks in the ear…of the spirits!!! »


The survival of the peoples of the Taiga has been intimately linked, from the start, to hunting.

Game and men belonging to a common universe where the principle of exchange between species prevailed.

The animals, animated by the spirits, served as food for humans characterized, in their spiritual dimension, by the soul.

There is no question when hunting, to take, to steal, without some gift in return. Reprisals from animals will not be long in the opposite case.

Indeed, if human beings feed on animals, the spirits of wild animals might as well consume the life force of humans...

The role of the shaman is to temporize, to obtain more luck, game, but also to restore human vital force as late as possible.

The shaman therefore enters a trance by beating a drum with his beater, singing, imitating the cries of animals. During this ritual, he identifies himself with a large deer, imitates the animal in its virility and "marries" the daughter of an animal spirit to become her husband and obtain more promises of game. At the end, he stretches out, motionless, offering himself to the animal spirits, thus delaying the repayment of the debt in his community.

For the Siberian herding peoples, in the tundra or the steppe, there is also a need for the transmission of herds or pastures. The ancestors are “stakeholders”. We turn to them to venerate them and implore their help.

The shaman therefore also addresses the souls of the ancestors, invokes them, makes them speak to ask them to stop disturbing the living if necessary.

The shaman also predicts the future using bones. He chooses for the one who consults, the most propitious moments to undertake a journey, for example.



The shaman's costume 


A shaman without a drum, beater and costume cannot be a real shaman!

The beater gives rhythm to incantations and dances, or even predicts the future thanks to the spirit sculpted at its end. The shaman interprets the way the beater falls to the ground...


The costume is far from having revealed all its secrets. Discovering one in a museum is an experience in its own right and is impressive by the weight of all the paraphernalia (no less than forty kilos!) as well as by the number and diversity of the charms hanging from it! Mirrors, metal plates or cones, iron antlers, bear claws, raptor claws, feathers…leather laces.

However, interpretations are risky, especially when we know that the same shaman can give different meanings to the same object! But after all, isn't that the primary role   of the shaman to precisely "interpret" signs of illness, bad luck or strange phenomena that others cannot manage to to understand.

We can also ask ourselves the following question: isn't it in a shaman's interest to cover his tracks to keep his place and his power in the community... It may not be good either to reveal his secrets . Each object must be symbolically charged or even “inhabited” by protective spirits. Let's not forget that for the shaman it is a journey into the world of the spirits and that it is not without danger.

An excellent shaman, effective for his community,   stands out among the number of   “pendants”, laces… that he wears. These are all distinctive signs of his power and the respect that his community shows him.

The suit could also be noisy armor that protects him against attacks by evil spirits, a kind of breastplate. It may also be a bird costume that allows flight or, a reindeer to better “marry” the spirit of the animal… 



Shamanism in Mongolia


As we have seen, marginalized and influenced by Buddhism, eradicated by the communist atheist policy which saw in shamanism a form of cultural backwardness, the rituals had officially disappeared in Mongolia. However, the daily life of the Mongols has kept deep traces of it: the ovoo, a stony mound, a place of offerings to the spirits, around which any traveler cannot fail to turn three times, before setting off in order to attract good graces of the spirits… the drops of milk thrown in the wind, at the four cardinal points… to name but a few.

No wonder, therefore, that with the fall of communism, we witnessed in Mongolia a resurgence of shamanic beliefs or rather, the emergence of a neo-shamanism.

And according to the excellent article by Laetitia Merli (  The revival of shamanism in Mongolia , Religions and History, n°5), two concepts now appear: buyanxishig or "good fortune", "grace and, süldxiimor or "vital energy". The role of the shaman is to restore their active principles through rites. There would be three types of possible disorder: astrological, relational or linked to the revenge of spirits neglected for too long. We consult the shaman to attract luck, healing and success in business.

In Mongolia, this shamanic revival, which finds its raison d'être in a search for landmarks, for anchoring, is also linked to the cult of Genghis Khan, the still venerated founder of the Mongolian nation, and to that of the god Tenger, the Eternal Sky. . 


Anne Hennard


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