When Spirit and Earth Touch: Customs, Taboos, and Ongons

As I stated earlier, the spirit and physical worlds are not really
separated since they touch in many places everywhere. However, there are
certain situations where the spirit world and this world touch in dramatic
ways that require special notice and are regulated by specific rules of
behavior. This can be embodied in a person, such as a shaman, a newborn, or
a deceased individual. Physical sites where spirit and earth touch are in
sacred sites such as mountains, trees, or oboo, or in a specially devised
dwelling place for a spirit called an ongon. Contact with spirits can be
beneficial or detrimental depending on the type of spirit involved and its
character. It can also present some danger to the well being of a person’s
souls because they may be tempted to follow spirits into other worlds.

While contact with a shaman is normally quite safe because his spirits are
employed for beneficial purposes, other people with contact with the spirit
world can be quite dangerous. Spirit possession or influence can cause
illness or insanity, and must be ended quickly. Newborn children and their
mothers are sequestered for a certain amount of time following birth, not
only to protect the newly entered souls of the child, but also because the
entry of the souls through the mother makes her slightly other-worldly and
dangerous to other humans. In the same way the household of a person who
has died as well as the persons who dispose of the body become temporarily
taboo because of their presence at the exit of souls from the world. The
name of a dead person may remain taboo for a period of time lasting from a
few days to forever. It is believed that the mention of the dead person’s
name may call him or her back from the lower world or cause it to stay
around. This is dangerous because dead people may try to take the suns
souls of the ones they loved.

Spiritually powerful places in nature require respect of the spirits that
dwell there. Insults to the spirits can result in their attack on the
offending person or his community. On the other hand, honoring the spirits
of these places bring good luck and prosperity.

A special site of contact between spirits and the physical world are
ongons, specially created houses for spirits. These are beneficial as long
as they are treated with honor. Ongons are one of the most important
shamanist tools in Mongolia and Siberia, and almost all tribes use them.
They come in many different forms; they can be carved out of wood, painted
on leather, mounted on a wooden hoop or made out of metal. The materials
used to make ongons includes wood, leather, felt, rocks, paper, fur,
feathers, and metal. Some ongons are abstract and some resemble dolls.
While the ongon may be made by ordinary people they are enlivened by the
shaman who calls the spirit to occupy it. Most ongons are occupied by
ancestor spirits or animal spirits, but some contain very powerful nature
spirits. After being quickened an ongon is honored by being placed in the
sacred place of the ger and fed offerings of liquor, blood, milk, or fat.
Two of the most important ongons which are found in Mongolian households
are Zol Zayaach and Avgaldai. Zol Zayaach is depicted as a male-female pair
and is a protector of the household and herds; Avgaldai is a copper mask of
the bear ancestor and is occasionally worn by a shaman in the triennial
ominan ritual which honors all of the spirits and initiates new shamans.
Shamans normally have a large set of ongons which house their helper
spirits; in fact the shaman costume itself is an ongon of the shaman’s utha
spirit. Special ongons may be created for healing and soul retrieval
ceremonies and left with a patient in order to carry on the healing process
and protect the patient’s souls. Temporary ongons of wood or grass are
sometimes used in rituals to hold a disease spirit which is then released
when the ongon is discarded out in nature afterward. Ongons are passed down
from generation to generation because the spirit will continue to live in
them and neglect of the spirit may make it turn hostile.

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