mongolian shaman


The following are photos from my research on young shamans in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. All photographs are with permission for publication and full approval of the shaman.  

The shaman prepares to put on protective mirrors prior to calling his ancestral spirits

A family member, acting as attendant, helps the shaman adjust his massive ceremonial regalia, weighing betweeen 40 and 50 kg (88-110 lbs)

Fully possessed by a Grandfather Spirit (male ancestral spirit) , leaning forward to give consultation and advice. The blue mat is where private consultation attendees can sit to directly address the spirit.

The shaman prepares his drum by anointing it with milk and/or vodka

Wearing a different maihavch, or mask/headdress, grandmother spirit addresses an attendee (cropped for privacy)

Prior to becoming possessed by his spirits, the shaman drums to call the spirits into the sacred area. His attendant burns ganga (wild mountain thyme) around the sacred area.

As the shaman begins to drum, the attendant braces his. At the moment the spirit enters his body, his movement will become very strong.

Grandfather Spirit addresses the collected attendees


1,2) Front and back view of an Evenk shaman’s headdress/crown

4) Embroidery detail on the Evenk shaman’s headdress/crown

Cultural Influences in Temur

 A quick disclaimer: There are dozens and dozens of Mongolian and Siberian people groups, many of which either still practice, or are in the process of reclaiming, forms of shamanism. I’m adding the disclaimer to this post because, more so than the others, I will be speaking in broad terms that give a general overview, since the varied nature of these forms of shamanism mean that, though certain aspects may apply to most of these groups, they will not always apply to all. I will be using a general “Mongolian” or “Siberian” when it is a majority aspect, and give more specific names when necessary.

Siberian shaman ~1950’s

Rattleclaw Mystic

 As with the Temur, shamans were particularly important to the nomadic tribes of Mongolia and Siberia. Mongolian shamanism was, in its earliest form, an all-encompassing way of life which emphasized reverence towards the natural world and ancestor worship.  Shamans have a wide range of functions, with speaking to the spirits, protecting their tribes, predicting the future, and healing among the most important, though other duties might vary from tribe to tribe. Similar to the Temur, many shamans wear headdresses that cover the eyes, though the reasons differ; rather than the symbolic significance of the Temur, shamans cover their eyes to protect onlookers who would be put in danger if they looked into the eyes of a shaman while a spirit was entering them.

Death and the Ancestors

In much of Siberia, the hard permafrost makes above ground burials a necessity; some groups wrap their dead in cloth, others in wooden boxes. Among the Samoyeds, Mansi, and Ostjacks, tree burials are common–platforms were placed on trees, out of reach of bears and other predators.

In both Mongolia and Siberia, there is a belief that the soul is split into multiple parts and that, after death, one part of the soul stays behind as an ancestor spirit to remain in contact and help descendants. These are the spirits that are summoned by the shamans, although certain animals, such as bears, ravens, and wolves, are also considered “ancestors” (in fact, legend claims that Genghis Khan was fathered by a wolf).  These spirits, when no longer attached to their descendants, will then be bound to nature; rocks, trees, or rivers are common. They can still be spoken to by visiting the location and a shaman can bind the spirit into an amulet or carving, known as an ongon (this is the name of both the spirit and the physical representation).

Temur and Bears: “Play the Bear”

The Temur have a respectable relationship with bears (despite the image above) and regard them as family. Among Mongolia and Siberia, certain tribes hold bears in an almost deified position and, as already mentioned, revere them as an ancestor. In East Siberia (among the Tungusic tribes of the Orochon, the Ulcha and the Oroch), this idea of the bear as family culminated in “playing the bear.” This was a lengthy ritual where newborn bears were taken and brought into the tribe to be raised for several years as one of their own children. After three to four years, the bear was cleaned, taken to a special area a little ways away from the camp, and slaughtered. The body was brought back to camp, boiled and eaten, and then the bones smoked and buried. 

She of Quantumland

travels elsewhere
to a town of the Seven Sisters
with a download of eurasian silhouettes

running wild galloping with a wind of violent fury
on sun-drenched lacquered steppes dancing with
mad mongolian shamans where the horizon is a navajo

jutting into the
eyes of the moon …

full of the evening’s silky zeitgeist
silvered in soft milkweed mountains …

calling the Mirror People
of her stringent Illusions

to bloom
a thousand flowers
from ghostly divine
songs …

She of Quantumland
is the shepherd of my erratic
intoxicating self-experimentation …

in waves/particles
and the marvel of
the Pleiades

her feathers
sweep the night
blowing away the
in this
the claws of trusty crows
where Blake’s delight of
laughs away
Nietzsche’s will to power …

She of Quantumland
weaves a cosmic vessel
for which to bathe in … and

i live there
on a thread
of awe & wonder …

nothing changes
but nothing remains the same …

i just fly
reading the psalms
in these palms of her
golden guiding wings … this is all i need to lose myself

in this wind
in this illusion
of this moth Muse …. this is …

the grand
equation of being

at home … this is Everything.