views updated


ONGON . In all Mongolian languages, the term ongon is applied to the dwelling-place of a spirit or sacred being. In the traditional shamanistic context it refers to any spirit, together with the object in which that spirit resides. There is a great variety of such dwellings. Some are natural (e.g., lakes, trees, living animals, skinned animals), and hence certain scholars refer to the notion of ongon as totemism. Others are artificial (e.g., drawings on rock, wooden or felt figurines, drawings on cloth); for these the collective form ongot is reserved. Some are suspended and clearly visible either in or outside the yurt; others are locked away in sacks or caskets.

A ritual act, usually carried out by a shaman, is required for each of these natural or artificial mediums to become an ongon. For natural ongon s, this consists of establishing a relationship with the spirit that animates and is indistinguishable from the natural being; and for artificial ones, the rite is one that introduces the desired spirit into the created receptacle. A spirit must be fastened down so that humans can have contact with him and control him, for on the one hand a wandering spirit may be dangerous, and on the other an empty receptacle is in danger of being filled by an undesirable spirit.

The ritual treatment of all categories of ongon s is essentially the act of feeding them. Food is given to living animals; meat, butter, or cream is either set down beside the figurines, placed in their mouths, or rubbed on them. Tobacco offerings accompany the food, and the practitioner smokes a ritual pipe. The sanction for failure to feed the ongon is sickness or death, which has led certain writers to attribute a primarily medical function to the ongon s.

The ongon cult is based on the conception of a structural similarity between intrahuman relationships on the one hand and relationships that tie humans to nature for sources of the former's subsistence on the latter. Everything that happens in one domain inevitably has consequences in the other. Like humans, the animals are conceived as being organized in clans. Furthermore, relationships between humans and animals are modeled on intrahuman relationships. These relationships are both interclan (involving alliance and vengeance) and intraclan (involving filiation or descent). For humans and animals alike, being excluded from a clan creates frustration and therefore the desire to seek revenge, a cause of trouble for the whole community. Hence, in addition to clan ongon s, there are also ongon s representing isolated or unaffiliated spirits, which may receive the cult either from one family or from several clans.

The various modes of access to natural resources are what determine the most significant differences between ongon s. Situated within the confines of the forest and the steppe, the Mongolian peoples have all made their living by hunting. Only subsequently did they adopt pastoralism to a certain extent. When it is hunting that provides sustenance, the relationship between humans and nature is conceived of as based on the model of a marriage exchange, wherein the hunter is to the spirit dispenser of game, Bayan Khangay ("rich forest"), as a son-in-law is to his father-in-law. The hunter takes game from Bayan Khangay just as a man takes his wife from his father-in-law: He is a taker, proud of his catch, yet guilty for not having given anything in exchange. First, the ritual of the hunt aims to reduce the capture of game to a capture of food. The skeleton and the respiratory organs containing the vital breath of life are disposed of in such a way that the animal is allowed to be reborn. Next, the real compensation for the food (i.e., game taken from nature) is made by feeding ongon s either small tamed animals (eagles, cygnets, etc.) or figurines or drawings representing animals, skins of animals, or the like. Thus this system of food exchange is similar to the exchange of women in the marriage alliance system: a man accepts his wife from one family, and in return offers his sister or daughter in marriage to another. This feeding of ongon s is primarily intended to ensure that the hunt will not be hindered by the vengeance of decimated animal clans or the revenge of deceased unlucky hunters. In the event of an unsuccessful hunt, the ongon that is considered to have failed to carry out its part of the contract, although correctly fed, is reviled, beaten, destroyed, thrown out, and replaced by a new one.

Pastoralism, on the other hand, switches the nature of human-spirit relationships from one of alliance to one of filiation. The attitude of an exacting contracting party that prevails under the alliance model gives way to an attitude of veneration on the part of the filial descendent. This is because there is a patrimony (herds and grazing rights) to protect and hand down. In addition, sacrifices are made to one's ancestors in order to guarantee pastoral legitimacy. The compensation for the resources taken from the herd is the food given to the ongon : living consecrated animals (mature males that are raised within the herd, then slaughtered before growing old and replaced by younger males), zoomorphic representations (accompanied by a human silhouette fashioned in tin, representing a soul) or anthropomorphs (primarily representing women who died without experiencing childbirth, a check to filiation that results in the herd being stricken with epizootic diseases). As early as the thirteenth century Giovanni da Pian del Carpini noted felt dolls suspended from two sides of the yurt, made and honored by the women to protect the herds. In addition, the body of the shaman itself is a medium for spirits during the Buriat shamanic séance called ongo oruulkha, "introducing the spirits."

As a result of their primary function of linking the social, economic and religious worlds, the ongon s and the shamans themselves have been subjected to severe persecution from Lamaism. This persecution dates from the time when Lamaism penetrated into central Mongolia (seventeenth century) and the Buriat Republic (nineteenth century).

See Also

Buriat Religion; Mongol Religions; Shamanism.


Harva, Uno. Les representations religieuses des peuples altaïques (1938). Paris, 1959. A rich and well-documented presentation that suffers from an awkward separation of fact from context.

Heissig, Walther. "Die Religionen der Mongolei." In Giuseppe Tucci and Walther Heissig, Die Religionen Tibets und der Mongolei. Stuttgart, 1970. Translated as The Religions of Mongolia by Geoffrey Samuel (Berkeley, Calif., 1980). A fine historical presentation that illustrates the struggle of the lamas to suppress shamanism and explains the emergence of a syncretic religious form.

Zelenin, D. K. Kul't ongonov v Sibiri. Moscow and Leningrad, 1936. Translated as Le culte des idoles en Siberie by G. Welter (Paris, 1952). The only comprehensive work on ongon s, still valuable because of its abundant documentation and recognition of contractual relationships with the ongon s. In its evolutionist perspective and insistence on the term totemism as a classificatory rubric, however, the work is now outdated.

New Sources

Bawden, C. R. Confronting the Supernatural: Mongolian Traditional Ways and Means: Collected Papers. Wiesbaden, 1994.

Birtalan, Á. Die Mythologie der Mongolischen Volksreligion. Stuttgart, 2000.

Heissig, Walther. "New Material on East Mongolian Shamanism." Asian Folklore Studies 49, no. 2 (1990): 223233.

Hesse, Klaus. "On the History of Mongolian Shamanism in Anthropological Perspective." Anthropos 82, nos. 46 (1987): 403413.

Zhugder, C., and G. Luvsantseren. Mongold feodalizm togtokh ueiin niigem-uls tur, gun ukhaany setgelgee: ertnees XIV zuun khurtel. Ulaanbaatar, 2002.

Roberte Hamayon (1987)

Translated from French by Sherri L. Granka
Revised Bibliography