For thousands of years, the Mongolian shaman has been the intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. Shamanism was suppressed for 70 years under communism. Now it’s back in the open, competing for customers in a market that’s crowded with alternatives.
Talk to Ghoste. That’s what everyone says. There are three shamans here among the nomadic reindeer herders of northern Mongolia. Or maybe six, depending whom you believe. But Ghoste is the real deal, the most powerful. They say you should talk to Ghoste, and then in the same breath, they say “but Ghoste doesn’t like to talk.”
Soyun is the oldest shaman, at 100. She’s a tiny woman, ancient, with bad knees. She struggles in her oortz, or teepee, to move between her sleeping platform and the kettle of salty milk-tea on the stove. When she steps outside, which isn’t often, she walks with the aid of two crooked sticks.
But they say that when Soyun performs her full shamanic ritual, those long nights, when she pounds the drum until the trance begins and the spirits – the ongots – enter her body, they say then she leaps and dances like a child.
Her drum is kept behind a curtain, in the place of honor opposite the door of the tent. She will not show it to a visitor. In fact, she is tired of all the questions. Talk to Ghoste, she says, talk to Ghoste.
Soyun was born across the border in Tuva, which is part of Siberia, and though the children now all speak Mongolian, Soyun still prefers the Tuvan language. During Mongolia’s communist period, her own daughter, Tsend, briefly made a living in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, as a singer of Tuvan folk songs.
Tsend is about seventy now, and nearly blind. She has long returned to the taiga, high in the mountains where the reindeer herders live. Tsend, like her mother and her grandmother before that, is a shaman.
One bright and frigid morning, Tsend came out of her oortz, in her long green tunic and bare feet, to welcome some visitors. It had snowed the night before, and the visitors, having just ridden over a high mountain saddle, were swathed in gloves and wool hats and layers of synthetics. Tsend laughed about the cold. Her face is permanently etched with a squint and a smile. Bare feet, she said, are good for your health.
A shaman is a conduit to the spirit world. Shamanism is among humanity’s oldest religions. Not everyone can become a shaman, and Tsend’s story is typical. She was seven years old, when she became ill, falling to the ground with seizures. Her grandmother performed a shaman ceremony for her, dressing Tsend in her own costume. After that, Tsend developed the ability. Now her grandmother, Urel, is Tsend’s most important spirit.
To go to the spirits, the shaman needs some kind of transportation. Tsend sometimes travels by playing the mouth harp, but that, she says, can take her only so far. The most powerful transportation is the drum. A drum is like a horse. It can take you anywhere.
She does her ritual only once each season, or when someone comes to her with an illness or some other problem. When that happens, a shaman cannot refuse. Tsend agrees to play her mouth harp, but says it is not the right phase of the moon to show the drum.
Only about 200 nomadic reindeer herders remain in northern Mongolia. Geographically, they are divided into two distinct groups, known as the East and West Taiga. Tsend lives in the East; her mother and Ghoste in the West. She is happy to hear that her mother is well. Of Ghoste, she says, “he’s very strong.”
Ghoste is a striking man, about 50, with a broad face and high cheekbones. His eyes contain a glint of mischief, but also something a little frightening. He lives a little apart, higher up the mountain than the other reindeer herders. “Probably people think, because I live all alone in the wilderness,” he says, “that I am a wild man.” But he explains that this way is better for the reindeer. Later, he will say privately that it also helps him avoid the curiosity of outsiders. For several days, he avoids visitors. Eventually, though, he agrees to talk.
His tent is barer than most of the others. Reindeer skins and old pieces of canvas cover the floor. Tea is poured and a bowl of reindeer cheese offered around. A basin of bones and meat bubbles on the stove. Ghoste smokes constantly, rolling his cigarettes in pieces of torn newspaper.
“It is not easy being a shaman,” he says. A shaman receives many people who are struggling with sickness. “I cannot refuse. If I do, the spirits get weaker.” Ghoste says he has a responsibility for the people in the community, people who come and ask for help and believe with their hearts. If they believe, it will work for them.
He says the shaman’s job is to help people who have lost their hemur, or good fortune. The shaman can call it back for them. “I can’t cheat anyone or it would harm my family,” he says. “That is what happened in my life.” Ghoste is divorced. His son is dead.
“Once someone who was becoming unconscious came to me for help. I helped them, but they didn’t give me any offerings. That was bad for me, being the mediator in between. That’s why my son died.”
There are things Ghoste will not talk about: the ritual, his spirits. And, of course, he cannot show the drum. “This is not play,” he says. “Some people treat it like theater.”
It is customary and polite to give a gift to a person who has shown hospitality. So, the interview concluded, a few small things are produced, including a bottle of vodka. The translator leaves. The visitor goes outside to stretch, and then, a few minutes later, ducks back from the bright day into the dim tent, to say goodbye.
But instead, Ghoste motions him to return. Ghoste pats the ground in front of the green curtain. The visitor sits. In silence, the drum is produced. The shaman costume is unpacked: bundle after bundle of cloth strips, a feathered headdress, solid iron bells or clappers that hang across his shoulder blades. The skin drum is round, large, open on one side. Ghoste grins, and plays it ever so softly, like a heartbeat: thump thump, thump thump.
– Allan Coukell
Thanks to translators Binderiya Dondov, Badamtsetseg Tsedennyam, and Hosbayar Enkhtaivan (translators); Professor Gurbadar Purvee (Mongol Business Institute), Daniel Plumley (Totem Peoples Project), Judith Hangartner (Institute for Ethnology, University of Berne), and Nansalmaa Myagmar (Mongolian State Veterinary Laboratory).