A man, huddled on a low stool, rhythmically beats a large leather drum. A thick, richly decorated coat flows down his shoulders. The man’s head – hidden under a pointed hat with feathers – sways steadily to the beat.
From under the veil of black tassels covering the face, comes an ever faster and louder chanting. The drumming accelerates along with the intonation. Suddenly, the man stands up. He swirls and heavily falls back on the stool. Then, a low, hoarse voice comes from under the veil. The voice of a spirit that has taken over the shaman.
We reach the outskirts of Ulgii – a town near the western border of Mongolia. Our guide – Munkhbayar – directs us to a large, sandy courtyard. At one of its earthen walls, stands a small, whitened hut with protruding brick teeth. We pass it and head towards a nearby ger – a traditional tent of Mongolian nomads and shepherds.
“This is Ganzorig, a local shaman. He will be hosting us today”, explains Munkhbayar, pointing to a figure bent over an open hood of a somewhat dilapidated car.
Ganzorig is a short man with a sizeable belly and a nice, trustful face. He is about forty years old and entirely unlike my image of the shaman – surrounded by an aura of incredibleness, an older, grey man with a stern look.
Ganzorig leads us to the ger, where a ceremony of summoning the spirit is to take place. My imagination again collides with reality. Instead, a dark, mysterious place, smelling of herbs and black magic, we enter a simple living area filled with a scent of milk and boiled mutton. A stove stands in the centre. Next to it – a table with treats: hard cheese and salty milk with water. Against the walls lean wooden chests of drawers, a large industrial refrigerator and metal beds with thick mattresses. On one of them, Ganzorig’s wife is breastfeeding an infant. At her feet plays a two-year-old boy with a crotch-ripped romper and soot-smudged forehead. The ripping serves a well-known purpose, and the dark spot is a protection against evil spirits that may want to kidnap the child. When they see the soot, they will take the boy for a spotted rabbit and leave him alone.
The only piece of furniture that stands out is an old cabinet on the northern wall of the ger. Its sketched ornaments and a red coat of paint already faded, but one can still feel its importance. At the top of the cabinet stand a bottle of vodka – an indispensable attribute of important holidays and celebrations and an unspecified object wrapped in a blue ceremonial khadag – an artefact belonging to the sphere of deities, therefore hidden from the human eye.
“These figurines are a bull, a deer and a horse”, explains Ganzorig, showing other objects on the altar. “The bull represents five types of livestock in Mongolia – goats, sheep, camels, horses and cows. It is considered their father. The deer is a link to an area where my ancestors lived. During the ceremony, I call upon deer’s liveliness. The horse is an animal very important for the Mongols. It is rooted in our tradition and history so deeply that it even appears on our state emblem. Besides, my Spirit Guide is someone who lived and died in the saddle”.
To all these items the shaman adds three burning oil lamps.
“These are oblations. The first one is for Durlug – our ancestors, the second one – for Noyod – kings, people who ruled this land, and the last one is devoted to everything that surrounds us – the Mongolian land”.
Once we know the meaning and significance of ceremonial objects, Ganzorig goes on to explain what we will experience today.
“In a moment I will go into a trance and summon my Spirit Guide. It is a ceremony I can perform almost every day and at any time. It differs in every aspect from a shamanic ritual, which is more powerful. The ritual is worshipping the deity of nature: mountain, land or river. In its course, the trance is so powerful that the shamans can levitate. Even to one meter above the ground. To be effective, the ritual must take place on a specific day and at a specific time. Shamans have two calendars to check when, which ritual can take place. The summoning of the Spirit Guide also requires entering the trance, but not so powerful one”.
Once everything is ready, and in place, Ganzorig dresses in shamanic robes. Turning his back on us, he drops a T-shirt and sweatpants in which he was repairing the car and changes into sapphire pants and a caftan. Shaman’s teenage son helps to put on a thick, shamanic coat richly decorated with gold embroidery, pieces of fur and emblems, including a swastika – a symbol of luck and prosperity.
Ganzorig’s head disappears under a pointed cap that looks at us with big stitched eyes. There is a golden circle between them. Through these, the spirit which takes over the shaman can see everything – the present, the future and the past. He sees human karma. The sides of the cap are decorated with vulture feathers – a bird in Mongolia venerated. Also, the feathers mean that the shaman can move between worlds – like a bird across the sky. Finally, Ganzorig’s face is obscured by a veil of black tassels attached to the cap brim. They will hide the face of the shaman who, during the trance, changes beyond recognition.
Once the teenaged assistant passes the drum, the shaman falls into a trance accompanied by rhythmic intonation. Behind him – the wife is breastfeeding the infant.
A moment later, a harsh, low voice comes from under the veil. We do not talk with Ganzorig anymore, but with his Spirit Guide.
A teenage assistant gives the ghost a bowl of milk, then shot of vodka and finally a lit cigarette in a long pipe – gifts we brought at the request of the shaman. A sign of respect and appreciation for the reception.
Finally, the Spirit asks us what troubles us.
The locals treat a shaman as a healer of body and soul. People ask him for advice in any life aspects – from tips on how to start a business, to love life, to healing. And like a medic, the shaman advises consults and cures. Only instead of a stethoscope, he uses the help of mystical power – his Spirit Guide.
Unfortunately, as we do not have significant problems at hand, the Spirit takes the initiative. First, he calls over Andrzej. The Spirit examines his pulse and decides that there are some problems with the heart. Nothing serious, but it is better to have a doctor to check it.
Then it’s my turn. I sit in front of the Spirit, careful not to point my feet towards him, which could be perceived as an insult. As with my husband, the Spirit first examines pulse. Strong, cool fingers encircle my wrist. Then the hoarse voice tells me to turn around, and the same cool fingers press my spine. I also have to go to the doctor to check what’s going on there, just in case.
Finally, the Spirit asks how many children we have. We do not have children. I am called back for the further examination. Our guide is blushing to the tops of his hair because the Spirit asks when is my period due. Once he gets the crucial information, the Spirit examines my abdomen and simultaneously through my mind flashes a thought: ‘Has anyone ever slapped a spirit?’. When the situation does not develop any further, no one is slapped, and I – most certainly – avoid being cursed.
The Spirit, however, already knows how to heal us and ensure offspring. Of course, neither to the Spirit nor to anyone present in the ger – raised in the traditions of large and multi-generational families, where the younger are obliged to take care of the elders – occurs that our lack of offspring is entirely deliberate.
Deep in thoughts, the Spirit wipes his face hidden under the tassels and gives instructions to his teenage helper. Now and then, the boy gives him the required object: a bag with wheat grains, a bowl of milk, gauze and impregnated skin of a white ermine. The Spirit soaks the gauze in milk and pushes it into a gaping, dead mouth of the animal. Wheat seeds follow the gauze. Each gesture is accompanied by drumming and our names woven into the chant. Finally, the bag with the remaining grains goes to Andrzej. He has to scatter them three times around Ovoo – a pyramid made of stones dedicated to spirits. I get the ermine. I have to ‘feed’ it again with gauze soaked in milk, wrap it in a khadag and place it over our bed. According to the Spirit assurances, the first child will appear next year. There will be three of them in total.
Thanking for all the help, we retreat from the ger. The Spirit stays with Ganzorig’s family, for whom he also has a handful of instructions and advice.
Soon we hear rhythmic drumming again. It’s getting faster and louder to stop suddenly without warning.
We go back to the ger. On a low stool again sits Ganzorig. Drops of sweat sliding over the slightly pale face of the shaman are the only reminders of the Spirit Guide summoning.
Shamanism – or rather, Tengerism, as the followers prefer to call it, to emphasise the fact of worshipping gods (tngri), and not the shaman – is a philosophy of life, which is based on a belief that everything lives and is connected to each other. In Mongolia, Tengerism has been practised since the beginning of time, despite being a victim to other religions as well as political situations. Communism almost exterminated it, as did Tibetan Buddhism. In spite of everything, Tengerism – albeit in a slightly modified form – lives and is getting better and better.
According to Tengerism, Tengri – the God of Heaven – created worlds, both visible and invisible. As the works of the supreme deity, each of them requires respect. There are spirits in each of them that exist in harmony and balance with each other. They are everywhere: in animals, mountains, forests, rivers and people – these are called the soul. The balance disorder is the greatest offence and can have catastrophic consequences. If this happens, interference of the shaman is necessary, as he communicates with the angered spirits. He is a negotiator in disputes and a liaison with the invisible world.
“The spirits choose the shaman”, Ganzorig explains. “Usually, their choice is revealed in a severe ‘shamanic disease’. It was also my case. Since 2002, I have started to have health problems. I had severe kidney issues. I even was expelled from school due to health problems”.
“Finally, my parents took me to a healer who knew that I had the ‘shamanic disease’. He advised me to go to Ulaanbaatar, where I can find shamans who will help me. At that time, my health was getting worse and worse. I had constant migraines, backache. I could not function. Finally, I came across a female-shaman native to my land, who advised me to go to my ancestral burial place and to connect with my Spirit Guide there. It happened in 2013”.
Since then, Ganzorig has been serving people because, in his opinion and according to Tengerism, it is the primary function and calling of the shaman. He does not receive any salary for his services. He supports himself with what people give him in exchange for his help.
“Thinking about what people can give me, it is not important. Important is how to show that they appreciate what I do for them. It is not always about the money. Sometimes, people do not have money, but they bring a packet of biscuit or milk. It’s about showing respect for a man who is trying to help them. It hurts when somebody speaks only a few words to you if you talked for hours. It is the same – if you ask someone for help, you know that you should give something in return. Actually, it is always good to bring something as a gift, even when you go with an ordinary visit. In Mongolia, we have a saying: ‘To clean someone’s hand’. There is a black spot on each hand. When we give something to someone, we clean the place”, Ganzorig concludes, smiling.
Munching on hard, sour cheese and salty milk, at the end of the visit, we ask if we can help the shaman in return.
“In a way, you’re already helping. You show the world our culture and customs. You show that neither Tengerism nor shamans need to be afraid of. One should come to them without fear because they are here to help. It does not matter if you are from one country or another, no matter what language you speak and what you believe in. After all, we all have red blood and live under the same sky”.
The echo of a simple but powerful message still hangs in the air, when Ganzorig puts on his stained sweat suite, returns to the dusty yard and bends over an open hood of a somewhat dilapidated car.