Mongol Religions

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MONGOL RELIGIONS . If stereotypical reports from early times are taken into account, the religious forms of the Mongols have been influenced by the religions professed by all ethnic groups who have lived in what later was to become Mongolian territory prior to the emergence of the Mongols. The oldest of these religious forms was shamanism, which was the religion of the Liao empire of the Kitan (9071125) and their usurping successors, the Jurchen (11151234). There have been accounts of Buddhist influences in the steppes since the Chinese Han period (206 bce220 ce), while Iranian influences are attested among the Turkic peoples of the region. Nestorian Christianity is reported as early as the twelfth century among the Turkic neighbors and later compatriots of the Mongols, the Kereit, Naiman, and Önggüt. This nourished contemporary Western beliefs that located the realm of the fabulous Prester John in their territory. Later conversions of Mongols by Catholics even led to the foundation of a bishopric in Khanbaliq (Beijing), but this development was short-lived. Renewed Christian missionary attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have again failed to leave recognizable traces in Mongol popular religions.

In addition to the influences of Nestorianism, Manichaeism, with its dualistic ideas of light and darkness and good and evil, also played a role in the religious history of the region. It had strong footholds in the oasis towns of the Uighurs, which were incorporated into the Mongol Empire under Chinggis Khan (11621227). The Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazdā was an Iranian import who in Mongol popular religion became Khormusta Tengri, with a retinue of thirty-three heavenly beings (tengri ). All these professions have been of temporary influence, however, while shamanism has remained the perennial dominant religious practice of the Mongols.

In contrast to the abundance of studies on the shamanism of the Siberian ethnic groups and of the Buriats, shamanism in Mongolia has not yet received the scientific treatment needed to form a well-founded opinion of this religious manifestation. Following the trends of research on Siberian shamanism, the emphasis of investigation has been placed on such external paraphernalia as drums, ceremonial dresses, and idols. But unlike the Yakut and Buriat shaman songs, both of which show important Mongolian components, only a very small number of invocations from Mongolia proper have been published; an even smaller number of these incantations have been translated. Recently published materials, however, show shamanism still in existence in the northwestern parts of the Mongolian People's Republic and in eastern Mongolia. A number of invocations gathered in 1982 in the eastern part of Inner Mongolia and among the Daghurs of northwestern Manchuria also testify to the continued existence of shamanism. Some studies on these forms of shamanism have been published.

Mongol shamanism developed into its current state in various phases. In the original phase, fear of natural powers that were thought to be caused by evil forces led to the worship of the spirits of ancestors. One of the few remaining chronicles about the origin of shamanism, a text from the Chahar region, states that the living "made offerings of one wooden bowl of tea, one wooden bowl of water, and one bowl of milk brandy on the first, seventh, and ninth days of each new moon; saluted; and worshiped," attempting thereby to obtain the protection of the ancestral spirits. Through these actions one would combine forces with the masters of places and the waters, thus becoming powerful enough to fight the detrimental forces. The shamans (male, böge; female, idughan/udaghan ), however, by their worship and incantations became the mediators and the means of communication with the forces to which all life was exposed. In addition to the spirits of ancestors, the spirits of unfortunate people who had not found a natural end, having been killed by accident, murder, or suicide, were thought of as possessing particular powers. They were added to the group of helpful powers that were manifest in the venerated idols called ongon s. Because personal ongon s were transferred into a greater unit through the merger of smaller ethnic groups or through marriage, the number of ongon s of the individual shaman increased. (A shaman who marries obtains the ongon s of his wife's clan.) The more ongon s a shaman possesses, the greater is his power. This explains the diversity of incantations and the varying names of the invoked spirits and ongon s. The functions of shamanism, as explained by the shamans themselves, are to invoke the ongon s, to shamanize with their help, to intercede on behalf of ill persons, to exorcise evil and the powers creating calamities and illness, to expel these into effigies that are then destroyed, and to pronounce charms and prognostications by scapulimancy and other divinatory methods.

Shamanism thus appears to have developed out of the needs of a primitive economic society for the preservation and protection of the means of subsistence (health, fire, food, game, and livestock, as well as human labor, i.e., children), all of which were obtained through the help of the ancestors. People seek shamanic assistance for immediate concerns; there is no belief in its efficacy for retaliation or reward in another world or in a future life. Shamanism, lacking any moral incentive, is a matter of this world, using combinations of natural means to achieve supernatural results. The culmination of all shamanic practice is the ecstasy the shaman experiences when the protective spirit enters his body. The shaman then acts in the spirit's power and speaks in its voice. The ecstatic state is achieved in part by self-hypnosis, and in part by constant turning around in circles, inhaling burning juniper, and gulping large doses of alcohol; no other use of drugs and stimulants is traceable among Mongol shamans. In this state the shaman travels into another world, searching for the soul of the ill person, fighting with evil powers for it, and trying to win back the victim's health. The fate of the person in whose behalf the shaman acts is uttered by the protective genius through the mouth of the shaman.

The shaman's drum serves as the vehicle of this spiritual journey, having the function of a horse or a boat. Some Mongol shamans explain the streamers on their vestments as feathers enabling them to fly on the spiritual journey. Others call these streamers snakes. To transport themselves to the spirit world, certain shamans from Inner Mongolian tribes use wooden or iron staffs, each crowned with a horsehead and terminated with a carved hoof, and adorned with rattling iron rings and little stirrups. Beating the drum and shouting and singing loudly with the assistance of helpers is part of the shaman's ritual; these actions are intended to frighten and scare away the evil spirits and demons. Such an aim is already attested for the Kitan shamans of the tenth and eleventh centuries. Once exorcised, the evil originators of the illness are banished into effigies that are burned or buried.

To become a shaman a person must have the calling. The mental instability, resulting in a long period of initiatory illness, that is often reported for the Siberian and northern Eurasian shamans is rarely mentioned in Mongolia. Such a nervous and feeble condition would not accord with the historical fact that until the time of Chinggis Khan, the shaman (böge/bägi ) often was the head of the clan and therefore was not only its spiritual leader but also its political and military leader. Mongol shamans seem to be perfectly healthy individuals. The prospective shaman is singled out by an old shaman who becomes his teacher (bagši ). From the bagši the student learns the names of all the ancestral spirits, which eventually are all bequeathed to him. The young shaman thus becomes a link in an age-old chain of religious and ethnic tradition. The continued existence and activity of the bagši is still being reported. One famous bagši died as recently as 1970 in the Bulghan district of northern Mongolia; in 1983 the incantations of a sixty-one-year-old bagši and his pupil (šabi böge ) were recorded in eastern Mongolia. The costumes of Mongol shamans furthermore lack any of the female symbols and emblems reportedly common among Siberian and Central Asian shamans.

In the thirteenth century Mongol shamanism was influenced by administrative measures when the first Mongol emperor in China, Khubilai Khan (r. 12601294), established by imperial decree the office of the state shamans. These shamans were responsible for offerings in memory of Chinggis Khan and his house as well as for the worship of fire. According to the Yuanshi, the official Chinese history of the Yüan dynasty, these shamans pronounced their prayers and invocations in the Mongolian language. Judged by the evident longevity of the Mongolian oral tradition and its extraordinary reliability, it seems certain that some of the prayers still used today at the so-called Eight White Yurts, the center of worship of the deified Chinggis Khan in the Ordos territory, contain remnants of these early shamanic prayers and supplications. Tradition has outlived the destructive influences of the fratricidal warfare of the Mongols in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as well as more recent attempts at annihilation. The faithful handing down of the clan-bound names of the ancestral spirits from one generation of shamans to the next is proof of the age of the many different extant samples of shaman invocations and poetry. The Yuan government's early administrative measures regulating religious affairs may also account for a certain conformity of expression in the shamanic supplications. The mention in invocations of Chinggis Khan's son, Čagadai, and Čangqulang, one of Čagadai's spouses, testifies to the continued inclusion of historical personages of the Mongol imperial line in the realm of the powerful ancestral spirits and ongon s. The same holds true for the mention of members of the Mongol imperial family among the persons lauded in the fire prayers for having brought the flame to life by striking sparks from flint and steel.

The ephemeral contacts of Buddhism with the ruling strata of the Mongol nobility during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and later did not lead to any decisive intrusion of Buddhist notions into the religious conceptions of the bulk of the Mongol populations. Shamanism remained dominant. Only when Buddhist missionary work began among the Mongols in the sixteenth century did shamanism come under heavy attacks. Biographies of Buddhist missionaries such as Neyiči Toyin (15571653), who converted the eastern Mongol tribes; the lamas who were active in the southern part of Mongolia ruled by Altan Khan of the Tümet (15071583); and the western Mongol Zaya Paita (15991622), who spread Lamaism among the northwestern Mongol groups, show clearly the methods of conversion. All of these missionaries had recourse to the persecution of shamanism and the shamans and to the sequestration and destruction of their idols, vestments, and paraphernalia, using ruthless force, persuasion, and bribes. The conversion aimed particularly at prohibiting bloody offerings of animals and the worship of the ongot, the collective term for ongon figurines. Princes and overlords sustained the missionaries by donating horses and cows to converts while burning the confiscated shamanic idols in iconoclastic purges. Thousands of the idols were destroyed in this period, and the shamans had to renounce their profession and faith. Many fled during the sixteenth century into more remote regions, even as far as the territory inhabited by the Buriats.

Considered by both the Lamaist clergy and most princes to be a meritorious deed that would further the spread of Buddhism, such persecution has been repeated again and again up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Cases of rounding up, mistreating, and burning shamans were reported among the eastern Khalkha Mongols in the nineteenth century and in the remote northwest of Mongolia in 1904. Yet shamanism and related forms of popular religious worship have not been totally subdued. Forced during the periods of worst suppression into some camouflaged forms, it found a new, more syncretic expression by adding and adapting objects and forms of Buddhist veneration. The old, true forms of "black" and "white" shamanism were supplemented by a third, "yellow" shamanism or semi-shamanism that included praying to Buddhist and shamanic numinous representations. In addition to the traditional objects of veneration (the ongon s; the sun and moon; Köke Möngke Tengri, the "eternal blue sky"; Khormusta and his thirty-three tengri; and the lords of the places, mountains, and waters), a new pantheon was worshiped.

While shamanism calls itself a "faith without scriptures," there exist a great number of written prayers and invocations for this other group of venerated numinous images. Most of these are directed toward obtaining help, blessings, and consecration through the instrument of incense offerings (sang ). The structure of the sang follows the pattern of Buddhist incense offerings, but, shrouded in some Buddhist phrases and verses, contains ancient pre-Buddhist conceptions. This development was due to the necessity of creating a prayer that would appear to be a genuine work of Buddhist liturgy, a practice engaged in by both famous Buddhist ritualists and stout shamanic believers. The former intended to use these new scriptures to expel shamanic ideas completely, while the latter hoped to preserve essential parts of the old belief under the veneer of the new Buddhist religion. The Buriat scholar Dorzi Banzarov, the first to study the popular religion of the Mongols, described this practice: "The Lamas collected prayers which survived on the lips of the people, added to them new ones more in conformity with the new religion, and again distributed them among the people" (Banzarov, 1891, p. 2). In the sixteenth century a process thus began that resulted in the creation of numerous prayers and hymns of semi-Buddhist character, which became an inexhaustible mine of information concerning the conceptions of old Mongol religion. The Hungarian scholar Alice Sárközi has aptly stated the importance of these texts for the history of religions: "Every new text, or even new variants of already known texts can enlarge our knowledge of popular native beliefs and can shed a light on details which up to now have not been quite intelligible" (Sárközi, 1984). Analysis of such materials has yielded insights into the rather complex figure of a fire goddess who developed out of one of the oldest rituals into the worship of mountains and heights (obogha ) and into the existence of a triad or pentad of gods of fate, headed by Möngke Tengri and Atagha Tengri, all considered to be "a late hypostasis of Eternal Heaven," as Sergei Iu. Nekliudov phrased it (Nekliudov, 1982, p. 500).

These divine representations, as well as those of Chinggis Khan and Geser Khan, the hero of a widely known epic, present an iconography related to the Tibetan "enemy gods" (gra lha ), wearing the armor of Central Asian warriors of the first millennium ce and mounted on horses of varying color. All of these equestrian deities have protective functions. In addition to Köke Möngke Tengri, Čaghan Ebügen ("white old man") is venerated as the personified creative power, the lord of all earth and water, protector of animals and guarantor of longevity. He is certainly one of the oldest deities of the Mongol pantheon. Prayers to him refer to a legendary meeting between the White Old Man and the Buddha in which the Buddha confirmed him in his functions, testifying to this deity's pre-Buddhist origins. All requests addressed to these numinous representations of the popular religion are requisite to the nomadic/seminomadic pastoral way of life and its additional economics. The prayers ask for the same things as the shamanic invocations do: health; fertility and children; multiplication of livestock; protection against evil, dangers, war, and robbers; prevention of droughts, inundations, and blizzards; and safe roads, journeys, and caravan travel. In regions of additional or expanding agriculture, requests for augmentation and protection of crops are added, but the formulas of the prayer remain the same.

In more recent times the healing activities of the shamans have been more and more predominant, the shaman personnel being divided into real shamans (böge/udaghan ) and non-shamanic healers and singers. The method of healing employed tends toward a kind of group therapeutic treatment of psychic illness (andai ), which consists of shamans, helpers, and a crowd of laymen singing and arguing with the patient as a means of restoring him to his normal psychic state. In eastern Mongolia this singing therapy has been practiced since at least the mid-nineteenth century.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Mongolia; Chinggis Khan; Erlik; Gesar; Ongon; Shamanism; Tengri; Ülgen.


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Nekliudov, Sergei Iu. "Tengri." In Mify narodov mira, edited by S. A. Tokarev, vol. 2. Moscow, 1982.

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New Sources

Bold, Bat-Ochir. Mongolian Nomadic Society: A Reconstruction of the "Medieval" History of Mongolia. Richmond, U.K., 2001.

Nassen-Bayer, and K. Stuart. "Mongol Creation Stories." Asian Fold Studies 51 (1992): 523534.

Young, R. F. "Deus unus or dei plures sunt? The Function of Inclusivism in the Buddhist Defense of Mongol Folk Religion against William of Rubruck." Journal of Ecumenical Studies 26 (1989): 100137.

Walther Heissig (1987)

Revised Bibliography