Shamans of Mongolia

In The Nation, Manote Tripathi enthusiastically reviews a Bangkok art gallery exhibit in a piece called “The nomads lose their way.” The works are platinum prints, the making of which is an advanced form of photographic art. The people depicted are Mongolian shamans, and the photographer is anthropologist Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, an American of Iranian ancestry. Traveling by camel, reindeer and horse, Sardar-Afkhami documented the vanishing ways of a vanishing people, the nomadic inhabitants of Outer Mongolia. He learned Mongol and Tibetan, and spent a decade living with the people and observing their customs. Tripathi says:

He set out to record the nomads’ spiritual relationship to their totem animals, focusing on the seasonal rhythms of migration across the steppes, deserts and mountain forests, following shamans, bandits and hunters.

Sardar-Afkhami found that the “nameless mysticism” of the nomads blends seamlessly with some progressive social ideals, but is otherwise hard to pin down. While Buddhism was quashed by the Communists, along with some brands of shamanism, the ancient spiritual values of the nomad culture survived precisely because of that lack of regimentation. But if, among the nomads, there were such a thing as a codified religion, and if it had a priesthood, the individuals he photographed would be those priests.

The anthropologist was most impressed by the still-thriving perception of humankind’s basic unity with nature, especially with animals. He saw hunters capture and train eagles as if they were falcons, then release them back into the wild. He met a man who could call wolves to his door with an ages-old song. Hunters and healers still follow the old ways, and there is a deep bond between humans and their spirit animal or totems. Some of Hamid Sardar-Afkhami’s photos can be seen online at the Galerie Thierry Marlat.

Here is an amazing trove of information all gathered in one article, titled “An Overview of the Model of Mongolian Shamanism”  – we’re talking about serious scholarship, presented soberly yet attractively. The author is Sarangerel Odigan, and the site was designed by Kit Latham. It lists the basic characteristic shamanistic beliefs, beginning with:

Living beings live happy productive lives by promoting balance in the world and observing the customs of respect toward Father Heaven, Mother Earth, and the spirits.

This overview is only a part of a web site called “The Epic of King Gesar.” It’s an outrageously knowledgeable resource, especially when you consider that its topic is the monumental cultural icon in much of Asia, including Tibet. It’s also the world’s longest literary work, approximating 20 million words. Actually, all its parts have never been gathered together in one place. But if they were, it would resemble a novel that would fill up more than a hundred normal-size books.

Sometimes one normal-size book is enough. May we recommend Awakening to the Spirit World? There’s a lot of information about helping spirits, and some of them are animals. Here’s a little sample from Sandra’s book:

The most common types of spirits who work in partnership with the shaman are animals, plants, or spirits who appear as teachers in human form. The ones who appear as animals, or as combinations of animal and human form (therianthropes), are commonly known as ‘power animals.’

And here’s a power animal worth paying attention to. Last year, a movie was released called The Horse Boy. It’s about an autistic child named Rowan, whose mother is a developmental psychologist and whose father happens to be a travel writer. The parents are open-minded and anxious to help their son, so the idea of taking him to Mongolia to consult with holy men strikes them as doable. To enhance and introduce the shamanic therapy, they go part of the way on horseback, because horses are about the only thing Rowan responds to.

A film crew went along and documented a spectacular transformation. While the boy remained autistic, he was freed from the most awkward and debilitating symptoms that had formerly separated him from society. Here’s the fascinating part, as related to us by Lucille Redmond in The Herald:

The Isaacsons now run a children’s horse-therapy centre at their Texas home. Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) is increasingly popular for children with developmental difficulties. Advocates say the rhythm of riding stimulates parts of the brain that other exercises don’t, and that horses secrete the calming neurohormone oxytocin in their sweat.

Source: “The nomads lose their way,” The Nation, 02/11/10
Source: “An Overview of the Model of Mongolian Shamanism,” “The Epic of King Gesar,”
Source: “Awakening to the Spirit World”, Sandra Ingerman,
Source: “Horse power for active healing,” The Herald, 02/15/10

Image by ssppeeeeddyy, used under its Creative Commons license
Image by crug06, used under its Creative Commons license.

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