Thursday, January 7, 2010

Buryat Shamanic Activities and Their Spiritual Background

Buryat shamans’ spirits are spectres of ancestors and individuals who used to live in the human world and practised as well-known shamans or were famous for other merits. Mongols believe that three or more years after their death, shamans become spirits (ongon) and are able to come back to the human world by seizing the body of another shaman, who is (in most cases) his/her descendant or apprentice. Considering the fact that certain people from the past can also come and take possession of a shaman, we might assume that the abilityof becoming an ongon is not only the shamans’ priviledge.

Spirits do not want to part from the world they used to live in. They do exert a significant influence on their descendants’ lives―either by taking care of them or by being angry with them. Spirits demand their descendants’ attention and want to be served and entertained by them on a regular basis. Since they do not have body, their only possible way to come to the living people’s world is to use one of them as a vehicle for appearance. That is why they choose and even force certain people to be their mediators, i.e. to become shamans.

Shamans have to be possessed by their spirits (ongon oruulax) regularly; else they become seriously ill. They are similar to artists, who also show sings of depression or even fall ill if they do not have the opportunity to produce works of art. An even more striking similarity between some features of shamans and artists, and also the fact that Mongols, too, closely associate them can be apprehended by considering that in modern Mongolian, the same expression (ongon orox “the spirit enters”) is used for the shamans’ trance and the artists’ inspiration. When someone, for example, does not feel like singing when recquired, s/he might make excuses saying: ongon oroogüi lit.: “The spirit has not entered”, which means: “I am not possessed by the spirit”. (A similar expression can be found even in English: “the spirit does not move me”.) According to the Mongol way of thinking, the creative/performing activity of shamans and artists is concieved as a meeting of the shaman/artist and the spirits. Considering their relationship, the spirit―or we could say “inspiration”―is undoubtedly predominant. Similarly to the poet who feels to be forced by his/her thoughts and feelings to put them down on paper, the shaman is forced by their spirits to invite them. Mongols hold that if the shaman does not fulfill the spirits’ requirements, they will be angry and might even kill him/her

In order not to offend the spirits, Buryat shamans have to perform their spirit- pleasing rituals three times a month. The ninth, nineteenth, and twenty-ninth of each lunar month are the days on which these rituals (called yühen “nine”) have to be performed by the so-called black shamans, whose mount is their drum and whose costume is regarded as their armor. White shamans2, who wear a blue brocade gown (xüxe xamba nümerge) and use a bell and a vajra instead of a drum and a drumstick, perform the same ritual on the eighth, eighteenth, and twenty- eighth, or on the second, eighth, and sixteenth day of each lunar month. These days are considered to be the descending days of the White Old Man (Sagaan übegenei buulttai üder), the patron deity of white shamans. Buryats refer to spirit- pleasing rituals as naima naimanai nagalga yühe yühenei yürgelge “swaying of the eighth, swinging of the ninth” indicating that these rituals are performed on the aforementioned days.

Spirit-pleasing rituals can be conducted indoors (yühengee xexe) or outdoors (taxilga). Those performed in the shamans’ yurt are of smaller importance than those celebration-like rituals observed in the nature at a sacred place, usually once a year. The main purpose of a spirit-pleasing ritual is to maintain the good relationship whith the ancestral spirits by inviting them to the shaman’s home and by entertaining them to food and drink. On the days spirit-pleasing rituals are conducted, rather the spirits want to be invited than the people want them to come.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

What Does the Shaman Sing?

I'm writing this post in the hope that I can get somebody helping me transcribe a song of a Buryat shamaness. I don't know the shamaness personally, I just happened to be around and recorded her while she was channeling her spirit. The shamaness was (and probably still is) a member of the Mongolian Shamans' Golomt Center which gave me the permission to make recordings of its shamans. The footage was made in April 2005 in Selenge province, Mongolia, at a ritual site called Mother-tree (Eej mod). The Mother-tree is a huge pine tree that was once struck by lightening but it didn't die, it still shoots sprouts every spring. In 2005 the shamans of the Golomt Center took me to the site where I made footages of several shamans' rituals. Every shaman had his/her own tree near the Mother-tree. They arranged an altar below their trees and started performing their rituals in front of them. I want to use the ritual of this shamaness for my PhD which is about Buryat shamanism in Mongolia, but I understand only bits and pieces of her song. I have transcribed everything I could understand, but as you'll see there are still a lot of indistinct parts. So if you are Mongolian or Buryat or somebody who understands these languages well and have the time, energy and curiosity to help me transcribe this song please do so!
Click here to find my transcription!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Khorchin Shamans 5.

After the ritual Mr. Shaman took us back to Baolongshan. The next day he came again with Mrs. Shamaness and took us to the folk-artist who treated us like the most venerable guests one can ever have visit his home. He prepared a table laden with a variety of fruits and asked us to sit at it. I was offered the most comfortable seat, my wife sat on my left and Mr. Shaman on my right. The folk-artist announced that he would entertain us with his performance of some songs well-known among the Khorchins. First he introduced us the traditional musical instruments that he had at his office - which I guess was his home as well.

The instruments: first on the left is called towshuur, the second is morin huur (horse-headed fiddle) the third is called chuur and the last one I don't know. The chuur is said to be a very ancient type of instrument and it is unknown in Outer-Mongolia (The Mongolian Republic).
The folk-artist explained that a knife or a piece of iron, possibly pointed or sharp should be slipped in between the strings and the body of the instrument so as to frighten away evil spirits.
The folk-artist first sang a song about Maozedong, Marx, Engels and Dengxiaoping in Mongolian then he embarrassed me with the question whether Hungarians were also as devoted to communist ideas as the Chinese. I answered with a quick no and asked about the material of which the instruments were made. He answered my question with enthusiasm (wood, horsetail and bone) and continued his presentation with a passage from the Geser epic, and then with another song called Sanjei mama. He instructed his assistant to play the cymbals and Mrs. Shamaness to dance.

After the performance panel the folk-artist and his wife served us a lunch with vodka, beer and tea. The cymbalist drank vodka from a plastic bag and got drunk enough to start talking to me half Chinese half Mongolian with an accent that I could hardly understand. The folk artist noticed my inconvenience and told him to shut up, which made me feel more inconvenient.

Mr.Shaman turned to me and said that next morning he would take us to another shaman in another village nearby. I said: "Ok thank you". After a few seconds of silence he said that there was a little problem, notably that we had forgotten to give money to the spirits the shamans invoked the previous night and stressed that it is not the shamans to whom one should give money but their spirits. I apologized and said that the day before when we visited him we didn't know that we were going to visit other shamans as well and that's why we were unprepared. I said that I was willing to give money (In fact we had bought some presents too) and asked him to come to our hotel for the money and give it to the spirits and that I would also give some money to him for his efforts and expenses. He said ok, and added that one or two years before some Japanese who themselves were also shamans, visited the same shamans in Yaolinmaodu and when the first spirit possessed the shaman they gave 1000 RMB and when the next spirit appeared they offered 2000 RMB. The folk-artist warned us that it that shamans' spirits can easily be offended and so could they wreak vengeance on anybody. I said we didn't have that much money as the Japanese but we would give some. After the lunch the folk-artist gave us traditional Khorchin costumes and asked us to put them on and to have some photos taken with them in front of their home.

The next morning Mr. Shaman and Mrs. Shamaness came to our hotel and I explained that in Hungary it is an offence to give money as a present -which is true- that's why I had been thinking of buying something instead and give it to the shamans before we leave. I gave Mrs. Shaman 600 RMB and told him to give 200 for the shamans in Yaolinmaodu, 200 for himself and 200 for Mrs. Shamaness. I told him I knew it was not a big amount of money but we could not afford to give more. They looked a bit disappointed but thanked for it politely and left the room without mentioning the other shaman in the other village nearby.
We didn't tell them what we thought: If they had told us how much money they had expected us to give to the spirits we would have had the choice to make a decision of attending only one ritual in Baolongshan. But the fact is that in China and I think it is pretty much the same in Mongolia too, people are very concerned about their reputation and afraid of loosing face, that is why they never ask for money unless they don't get automatically. They don't ask for it but they do expect to get and they do everything for a guest with extreme politeness not letting him or her reject anything they offer. I'm not saying that they do it purely for money, they do it mainly in order to enhance their reputation as a good host a good guide or good entertainer. When you ask a Mongol to help you, you give him or her (but mainly him) an opportunity to prove that s/he is the right person to turn to. Asking for help without providing this opportunity I think would be considered discourteous. The price of the service is hardly ever discussed in advance (unless you hire a car, a guide etc.) and at the end you also have your opportunity to prove your generosity by valuing the services with a decent amount of money.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Khorchin Shamans 4.

After the ritual Mr. Shaman took us and Mrs. Shamaness to a small village called Yaolinmaodu some 50kms from Baolongshan to meet an old shaman. It was already late at night around 10 pm. and it was raining so heavily that our car almost got stuck in the mud. We got off the car and started our quest for the old shaman in an ocean of mud and in complete darkness. Finally we found the house. It was dark inside, just like in every other.I told Mr. Shaman that we didn't want to wake the old shaman up, lets go back to Baolongshan and come back tomorrow daytime.He said: "No problem he will wake up for a while and he will sleep back soon." We went in and saw the old shaman waking up and getting ready to recieve us. He lived with his wife and with a young girl who was probably his grand-daughter. We sat down on the kang, where he'd been sleeping and started to ask our questions. The old guy looked strange and I couldn't decide whether he was drunk or just very tired. May be both. He said that he had quitted shamanizing because he was too old, but he sang a short passage of his invocations for my request. I coudn't understand a word of it. Actually it was extremely difficult to understand him even when he was speaking. Nor did he understan much of what I was speaking with my thick Khalkha accent. We soon realized that he was very tired and coudn't tell us too much about Khorchin shamanism so we decided to give him the sweets and fruits that we'd bought for Mr. Shaman and left soon. As we stepped out from the old shaman's home Mr. Shaman announced that we were going to visit another shaman who lived nearby and took us to another house where a relatively young couple lived with their two teenager children, a boy and a girl. The husband brought in a table and placed it in the centre of the room while his wife prepared food for all of us. It all took approximately an hour till we all finished our meal and started to speak about shamanism. A shaman's drum and drumstik was hung on the wall and some images of Buddhist deities were enshrined opposite the entrance. Mr. Shaman told us that wife was a white shaman, which could be seen from the streamers of her costume (alag deel). He explained that the black or white colour of a thin line along the edges of each streamers inditace whether the shaman is black or white. White shamans as he said whorship Buddhist deities while black ones worship other spirits. The shaman's husband brought in his wife's costume:

Khorchin shaman in her costume.

Mrs. Shamaness and the shamaness we visited (the smaller one) both donned her costumes, took their drums and started performing the ritual:

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Khorchin Shamans 3.

The next day we bought some presents and went back to the shaman's house. A middle aged man opened the door, and we said that we were looking for Mr. Shaman (lets call him this way). He did not say he was the shaman, just invited us into his living room where he'd been sitting with his wife. First I thought he must had been a younger brother of the shaman since we'd heard he was in his mid-late fifties. We told him that we wanted to learn about Khorchin shamanism and ask Mr. Shaman to show his paraphernalia. He said that he would call his spirits and perform a ritual so that we can see him and the paraphernalia in action and ask our questions. Before that, we wanted to ask some general questions concerning how he had become a shaman, his spirits etc., but he said that we had to ask all of our questions directly from the spirits. It was around one o'clock daytime and Mr. Shaman told us that rituals can only be conducted after sunset so we decided to go back to the centre and come back around six. He said no and took us in his car to his apprentice Mrs. Shamaness who lived in the centre. I guess except for her master and her close relatives and friends nobody knew in the township that she was a shamaness. As we experienced it most of the locals was not aware that shamanism was actually flourishing in their neighbourhood.
Mr. Shaman, and Mrs. Shamaness took us and some relatives of Mrs. Shamaness to a restaurant where of course we had to order all of the food and they didn't allow us to pay for even the salads. We were embarrassed and promised that next time we would invite them for anything they would like to have. Mr. Shaman told me that he would take us to other shamans as well and we would not have to pay anything for it. I said it wasn't right and I almost besought to let us pay at least for the fuel, but he was uncompromising. Me and my wife thought it just wasn't right and agreed on giving him some money and presents at the very end.
After the lunch we all went back to Mrs. Shamaness's home where they started to prepare themselves for the ritual. Mr. Shaman announced that we had to wait for his son in law whom he wanted to record the ritual with his camcorder. It took him three long hours to come. Around six o' clock the ritual finally started; Mr. Shaman and Mrs. Shamaness brought in their costumes and tools and put them on the kang. they arranged everithing with meticulous care then stood next to eachother and started donning their costumes with orderly motions. There was only one light bulb in the room without a cover, which made it very difficult to make a footage of satisfying quality.
The shamans performed two rituals that evening, each lasting a bit less than an hour. Mr. Shaman was the first to get possessed by his spirits and Mrs. Shamaness assisted him.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Khorchin Shamans 2

Later browsing my notes I discovered that our firend had also given us the name of a folk artist, so we started looking for him hoping that he might know how to find the shaman. We found the home of the folk artist easyly, but only his wife -a kind old lady was- at home. She told us that the shaman lived in the outskirts of Baolongshan and helped us to find a ride. It took more than an hour to find the shaman's house though the adress the lady had given prooved to be correct. In this part of the township people lived in chinese-style adobe houses with 2-4 rooms and with a big garden. Where the build-up area ended we could see nothing but cornfields and a few poplars in the distance. As we got off the three-wheeled vehicle that had taken us there, we bumped into a small group of Mongol girls. The oldest one - she was in her mid-twenties- told us that the shaman was not at home but he would probably come back in an our or two and inveted us to her home that was just 50 m away. She spoke with a very thick and -to us- very funny Khorchin accent but it wasn't difficult to understand her. She had a chinese husband who could speak a little Mongolian too, and they had a small kid. In their living room we discovered a poster on the wall with Christian symbols. They told us that they followed the Christian faith and that they have a recognizable Christian community in Tongliao. The girl said she didn't like the shaman for in her opinion she was an unprincipled person and she didn't believe in shamanism what she regarded as sheer superstition. Nevertheless she didn't want to dissuade us from meeting him.
Hours passed and the shaman still hadn't come, so we decided to go back to our hotel and come back tomorrow.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Khorchin Shamans 1

The Khorchin-Mongols live in south east Inner-Mongolia (Xing'an and Tongliao prefectures) and sporadically in the adjacent Provinces (Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning). Shamanism is mostly practiced in two banners -Khuree and Darkhan- in Tongliao prefecture. Some say that there are Khorchin shamans in Jilin province in the Gorlos-Mongol Autonomous County near Songyuan.
In 2008 my wife and I visited these places in an effort to meet Khorchin shamans and make interviews with them. We set out from Qinghai for Huhhot the capital of Inner-Mongolia where we met our Mongolian firends and blissfuly got acquainted with a scholar who had conducted some fieldwork research on shamanism among the Khorchins. He told us that most scholarly activities on Khorchin shamanism had been carried out in Khuree banner, though shamanism he thought was more popular in Darkhan banner. In 2006 in Darkhan, he made a video footage one of the last rituals of an old and famous shaman Seerenchen who died soon after. He told us that Seerenchen had lived in a village called Yaolinmaodu (the vulture's tree in Mongolian) where we can probably find his desciples. He also gave the name of a township (Baolongshan) and the name of a relatively young shaman he had never met, but he knew that he lived there. In Khuree there was only one old shaman he knew of.
First we travelled to Tongliao (The capital of Tongliao prefecture) and than to Baolongshan. The township was two small for a town but it was two big for a village where people would know each other and it'd be easy to find a shaman. It took us two or three days to find the guy. Our new friend in Huhhot warned us that it wouldn't be wise to inquire about shamans from people we don't know because if the aouthorities get wind of strangers on a hunt for shamans they wouldn'd appreciate our efforts on investigating China's minority cultures. After two days of futile quest we gave up to abide by this rule and accosted everyone who looked Mongol, but nobody seemed to know anything of our guy. A girl said that there weren't any shamans in Baolongshan and suggested that we went to the remote steppe where Mongols were still leading a traditional way of nomadic life. There she said we could find shamans. (to be continued)

The god of wealth
(Chinese: caishen)
in our hotel in Baolongshan