Face Music – FM Suisse


– History –Shamanism (Tengerism) in Mongolia

- Catalog (in stock)
- Back-Catalog
- Mail Order
- Online Order  
- Sounds
- Instruments
- Projects
- History Face
- ten years 87-97
- Review Face
- our friends
- Albis Face
- Albis - Photos
- Albis Work
- Links

- Home

- Contact

- Profil YouTube
- Overton Network

P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

Text in German  

Ornament of Shamanism

"Ochir", a Mongolian shaman, early 20th century

Shaman burial – Siberia (Republic Altai)


The world of the shamans in Siberia and Central Asia, especially of the Mongol, Buryat and Tungus people (Evenks) is related with that of the Turk people in the High-Altai, the Altaic, Khakas and Tuva and with the Bon religion from Tibet. The tribes living in the northern part of Mongolia (Darkhad, Tsaatan, Khotgoit, and others), in the northeastern area of Mongolia (Buryat and Khamnigan) and in western Mongolia (Uriankhai) as well as some tribes living in Central-Mongolia, the Khalk still maintain the ancient shamanic traditions. These phenomena are still present today.

Shamans practise a form of animistic religion (animism - magic thinking belief - all humans, animals and all things in nature have a soul - spirit) with several meanings and with different characters. The difference between soul and spirit is explained in that only human beings had a soul, while spirit was an abstract notion that could be related to a wide spectrum of natural phenomena. The opinion is that animism must have developed from the dream experience, where people generally feel as if they existed independently from their bodies, flying in the other worlds. In short, the soul takes "journeys" outside the body. During such dream journeys they could meet dead relatives, friends, or their spirits (souls).
The central element in this is constituted by the worship of the Blue Mighty Eternal Heaven - "Blue Sky" (Köke Tengri, Erketü Tengri and Möngke Tengri). There are a total of 99 Tengris (sky-spirits) or heavenly creatures in the lower and upper world, in which Köke Möngke Tengri (Eternal Blue Heaven) is the supreme. He is the creator of the visible and invisible world. In the Asian mythologies such a monotheistic world is referred to by multiple Gods (Tengris, Burkhans and Lords). The next to Köke Möngke Tengri is the Qurmusata King. He has a special relation with the origin of fire. People said that: “Buddha struck the light and Qurmusata Tengri heated the fire”. The fire is sacred for this people. One of this rules (taboo) says: "Never stamp out the fire or put rubbish or water on it".

- More information on this you will find in the Epics of Geser or the Creator Ulgen.

Similar rules and traditions you will find with the indigenous people in North America, with references to Mother Earth and Father Heaven as well as spirits of animals and in the nature, which expresses respect for nature forces as well as respect for the elder people and the ancestors.

Tengers, spirits, human souls, the fire and water are the elements of the vast arch of the sky. The sun and the moon are Tenger's eyes. The sun is the fire, the moon is the water, this being one of the oldest religions and cultural traditions in our world. The Buryats and Mongols have understood that one of the important things to keep the world in balance is to revere respect to the sky, water and earth. The world is full of spirits and souls in all things and in all places. All animals and plants have spirits (souls) like we ourself have. The Mongolian word tegsh describes the condition of being in balance with all of them.

It is essential to maintain a correct way of living by being respectful and human (hun) to all these spirits (souls). The world will then be in balance and this will maximize our power (our windhorse - our psychic power), hiimori. Heaven and Earth with all of their spirits in nature and our ancestors will provide everything we need and protect us human beings. Shamans play an important role in restoring balance in our world.

The universe of the Mongols can be visualized by a circle, not only in the three dimensions, but also in time itself. Everything has a circular motion, the path of the sun from day to day, the cycle of time from year to year, and the cycle of all living spirits as they return to earth to be reborn again and again, the circle of the axes with the four directions and the center of the world: the axes to the upper world, the Eternal Heavens and down to the lower world, the Mother Earth. In a shaman's journeys the shaman can climb up the World Tree (the toroo of the world tree) or fly to the upper world, travel down with the spirit river to the lower world (the world river enters the middle world from its sources in the upper world), or the shaman can simply find a tunnel (channel) to follow it. The Dagur Mongols in Inner Mongolia used the word solongo (rainbow) for the shamans’ power dreams, which means that the shaman may be travelling in his sleep over the rainbow to the upper world.

- More information you will find about Traditional Shamanism - Circle of Tengerism
The Circle of Tengerism is an organization dedicated to the preservation of Siberian and Mongolian shaman traditions.
The purpose of this website is to educate Westerners about our ancient beliefs and to keep our traditions alive. The Circle of Tengerism is associated with Golomt tuv, the official shaman association of Mongolia.. - Homepage
- - More information about such a journey you will find i.g. in the Epic about the Shaman Nishan

- The Four Directions (durvun zug)
- The Ger and the Sacred Circle
- The Upper and the Lower World - the World Center
- Windhorse (personal psychic power) and Buyanhishig (Bayan)

- The World of Nature
- Father Sky, Mother Earth and Heavenly Objects
- The Ancestors
- Tenger, Chotgor, Otsoor, Ongon, Burkhan an
d other Nature Spirits
- Spirits of Animals, Totems, Animal Guides and Hunting
- Sacred Mountains, Trees and Ovoo

- The World of Spirits
- A Multiplicity of Souls, their Form and Function
- The Circle of Life and Water
- When Spirit touch the Earth - Customs, Taboos and Ongons

- What is Shamanism
- The Shaman
- Drumming, Hallucinogens, Paths to Ecstasy
- Riding the Cosmic Steed - Spirit Journeys

- Tengerism

- Healing and Causes of Illness - Healers

The Four Directions (durvun zug)

The four directions play an important role in life in the Mongolian world. The names correspond with the words "front", "back or behind", "left" and "right". In ancient times "front" meant east, but today it is the South.

The Mongolian world looks from the North down to the South. The South is called the "front". The North is called "behind". The right side (the western side) is the male world and the home of the benevolent sky spirits (Tengers). The left side (eastern side) is the female world and home of the sky spirits who bring disease and discord. (When a fox goes from left to the right side, you will have no luck today.)

The Ger and the Sacred Circle - see more information under: Yurte - Ger - Tshum - Summerhouse

The Upper and the Lower World - the World Center

The native people in Siberia as well as in America believe that there exist three worlds: in some ways the upper and lower world or simply a concept of parallel worlds. The ruler of the lower world (underworld) is Erleg Khan (or Erlik Khan - with evil spirit), son of Father Heaven. He has authority over the disposition of souls, when and where they will incarnate. The ruler of the upper world is Ulgen, who is also a son of Father Heaven (Blue Sky) and the Creator of the world.

The ger represents the center of the world. In reality, each person stands in the center of the world. The shaman locates himself in the center of the world during his ritual. The most familiar one is that of the place of the fire in the ger, which is the meeting point between the earth and the axis of the three worlds. Another is the toroo (tree top) of the World Tree, which also creates an axis as well as a pole as center of the world. The top of the toroo of the tree touches the sky at the Polar Star, the Altan Hadaas, the sky nail which holds up all Heavens (Tengers, Gods and Lords). Another image of the center of the world is the peak of Mount Sümer (see more information in what the Shambala - the Paradise is), the World Mountain. The peak at the center of the world is close to the Polar Star, and its roots rest upon a turtle in the lower world.

Windhorse (personal psychic power) and Buyanhishig (Bayan - load energy)

The personal psychic power is called hii (wind), or hiimori (windhorse). Shamans deals with personal power and bring good future; they bring you into the perfect center of the universe, supported by Mother Earth and Father Heaven, or any help spirits, with the cosmic soul (suns) as a bright white star, and the body soul (ami) as a red point of light. Shamans or other powerful people bring with their personal power (windhorse) balance into the universe and into all our daily life. People with evil spirits tend towards selfdestruction.

In order to keep your personal power (windhorse) in balance, you have to pray or perform religious practice, which may be performed in everyday life with simple acts like offering drinks, prayers or venerations to the Heavens (Tengers), Mother Earth and other spirits, to our ancestors and the nature. Sacred smoke from incense, sage, thymian, juniper or other herbs smoke is also used. This will help your with your journey with your windhorse or when shamans practice worships. Sacrifices are another way to help praying at holy places, or they are used at the occasion of traditional festivals.

Shamans use buyanhishig (bayan) when people bless Heaven or spirits. We lose buyan (energy - psychical power) by violating taboos, when we have no respect for spirits or our ancestors. When we kill animals for no purpose, we desecrate the spirits of nature. Personal buyan acts can be, for example, to give food and drink to our guests or when we donate good things, when people need our help. Buyan is also increased through living in a correct way (yostoi - following the rule of the religion), have respect for religious acts and make sacrifices. Father Heaven and the spirits can also be called through the dallaga ritual, the literal name of which is beckons buyan (when people collectively start a circle dance (yoro) with the use of the hands in a sunwise fashion and accompanied by the words "hurai, hurai, hurai!").
People have to learn to live in a yostoi way (following the rule of the religion - respect for taboos), which means that you have to respect all Heavens and spirits and do not violate taboos, thus upsetting balance in this world.

The buyanhishig from Heaven seems to vary directly with the moon cycle; the most powerful days are at the times when the moon is new or full. The sun cycle, the solstices as well as the equinoxes, is coordinated with the moon cycle to set dates for festivals. For instance, the White Moon Festival (Tsagaan Sar or Sagaalgan - meaning the white month) which starts the year is celebrated on the first new moon after the winter solstice, at the end of the 81 days winter period (February 27th). On the night of Bituun all the spirits are in the upper world. Mongols usually gather together as families to eat, drink, and prepare the customary foods for the White Moon Festival. The Red Round Festival is held on the full moon closest to the summer solstice (Ulaan Tergel). All rituals of the calendar are based on the moon cycles, rituals for water spirits (lus), ritual for ovoo and fire rituals.

The World of Nature

Nature has been an inspiration for the Turk peoples of Siberia and the Mongols. The endlessness of the steppe, the taiga, the forest and the blue sky – this all is the world of nature in Siberia. The Lake Baikal and the mountain range of the Altai, the Khangai and the Sayan. This way of life is well expressed in the word tegsh which means living your life in balance with the world of nature and with human society.

In the mythology of the Siberian peoples and the Mongols tales which parents tell to their children explain the reasons why things in nature are created (uliger). They explain that animals and trees have spirits (souls) in the same way as human beings. The forests, mountains, lakes, rivers, rocks and trees all have their spirits (souls) and they need our respect for the gifts they present to mankind in the form of foodstuff and shelter.

Father Sky, Mother Earth and Heavenly Objects

In shamanism Father Heaven (Tenger Etseg) and Mother Earth (Gazar Eej - Etugan) constitute the central figures. Father Heaven is the timeless and endless blue sky. He is not visualized as a person, and he has two sons: Ulgen (the creator of the world) and Erleg Khan (evil spirit - the power of the underworld).

Mother Earth (Gazar Eej - Etugan), like Father Heaven, is not visualized. She is also called itugen, and the names for shamans, especially female shamans, are variations of her name (yadgan, utgan, udagan, etc.). Her daughter, Umai, is the womb goddess and goddess of the body souls (ami), similar to the World Tree. Umai is also known as Tenger Niannian, which comes from the Tungus word for "soil". Trees are a manifestation of Mother Earth’s power, and worship for her may be performed at trees which suitably reflect her power and beauty. Mother Earth and her daughter Umai are appealed to for fertility. Another daughter Golomto, the spirit of fire, is reborn by flint and iron.

Tenger is the creator and sustainer of balance in the world, the nature, the weather and the seasons. Lightning is Tenger’s form of showing displeasure or an indication of high spiritual power. When the light comes from displeasure, a shamanist ritual or yohor dance is performed (circle dance).

Objects struck by lightning, meteorites or ancient artefacts are called Tengeriin us (Heaven’s hair). They contain a spirit (utha) which is a concentrated package of Heaven’s power. Objects struck by lightning (nerjer uthatai) and meteorites (buumal uthatai) can be placed in milk or liquor to energize the liquid with the spirit of the object. Shamans drink this liquid to incorporate the power of the utha spirit (Heaven's power). Another form of Tengeriin us is the bezoar stone, which is used for rainmaking magic.

The sun and the moon are the eyes of Tenger; they are also seen as two sisters, and their essences are fire and water. Their light represents the power of Tenger shining eternally upon the earth. The cycles of the sun and the moon demonstrate the circularity of time and all processes in nature.

Several other Heavenly bodies are considered to have spiritual power. One is the planet Venus (Tsolmon) which can appear both in the morning or at night. It is often painted on shaman drums to invoke its power. Tsolmon is the sender of comets and meteors, which are called "war arrows". The Big Dipper is called the Doloon Obgon (Doloon Uvged - the seven Ubgen - the Seven Old Men or seven stars). Their position points out the location of the Polar Star (Altan Hadaas), which holds up the sky. The observation that the constellation rotates around the axis of the Polar Star through the year led to the creation of the temdeg symbol, which superficially represents the swastika but actually represents the position of the Big Dipper in the four seasons. The Pleijades (Mushid) are revered as another group of powerful spirits, and it was also the place where the sky spirits of the western direction met to decide to send the eagle as the first shaman down to earth. During the White Moon festival fourteen incense sticks are kept lit, seven for the Seven Old Men, and seven for the Pleijades.

No shamanist ritual starts without the invocation of Father Heaven, Mother Earth, and the ancestors. Everyday activities acknowledge Tenger’s presence, and he is integral for living one’s life in balance with the universe. When a new bottle of liquor is opened, the top portion of the content is poured into a container, taken outside, and offered to Father Heaven, Mother Earth, and the ancestors. This ritual is called tsatsah. Housewives also offer milk and tea in the same way, walking around the ger flicking the liquid three times in each of the four directions. Tenger’s role in determining fate is acknowledged in everyday languages by means of phrases such as Tengeriin boshig (Heaven’s will). Women are required to keep their kitchens and cooking utensils clean because if they get dirty this is seen as an insult to Father Heaven. Prayers and offerings are made to Tenger on holidays and at times of sacrifices to the mountain spirits. There is also a special sacrifice to Father Heaven in times of emergency which is a private ritual. Rainmaking rituals are directly addressed to the Tenger, and they are held at ovoo (stone hill - shrines), also dedicated to local spirits (Tengers) or the mountain spirits. Every human being has the right to appeal or pray to Tengers directly for help; however, when balance has been disrupted by calamity or the intrusion of a powerful spirit, the shaman will use the power of his spirits to restore his patient’s connection with Tengers or help spirits and bring all into balance with the universe.

The crown of the head has a small piece of Tenger residing in it; it is the point of connection between the individual standing in the center of his world and Heaven above. This point receives energy from Tenger which flows down the center of the person’s soul sphere. This piece of Tenger in a person’s crown has a counterpart star in the Heavens. The star shines brighter or dimmer according to the strength of the person’s windhorse (personal power). At death, the star goes out.

The Ancestors

The spirits of the ancestors are used in all rituals with Father Heaven and Mother Earth. The shaman tradition sees the soul as consisting of multiple parts, usually three, each of which has a different fate after death. One sub-soul, known as the suld or unen fayenga, remains on earth forever as an ancestral spirit. Ancestral spirits remain in contact with their descendants and other relatives, as protectors and helpers. Their residence will be in a natural place such as a rock, spring, or tree. They can be called by shamans as helper spirits during rituals; and they usually settle in an ongon (spirit house, shaman tools or totems).

Ancestors for Mongols are the Blue Wolf or Red Deer and for the Buryat Mongols the mythical Bukh Baabai Noyon (Prince Father Bull). The bear is an ancestor of many Siberian tribes; the Mongolian word for bear is actually baabgai and means "father", too. Genghis Khan is an ancestor spirit for the Mongolian people. He is worshipped as a patron of the nation and a protector of marriage.

Tengers (sky spirits), Chotgors, Otsoors, Ongons, Burkhans and other Nature Spirits

There are many different types of spirits in the sky and in nature; some are very strong and cannot be mastered by shamans; others are relatively easy to control. They can be called for assistance during shaman rituals. The sky is also home to the endur spirits, who are the suns souls of humans that have lived such outstanding lives that they do not return to the lower world. They are not as powerful as Tenger spirits, but live in clouds and cause rain to fall.

The strongest of the nature spirits are the sky spirits (Tengers) who live in each of the four directions. The eastern and western Tenger are associated with the black and white shamans. The western Tenger is Ulgen, son of Father Heaven and Lord of the spirits of the upper world. He created man, the dog, and all the animals. The eastern Tenger is Erleg Khan, Ulgen’s brother and Lord of the spirits of the lower world. He created the eagle (forbidden to eat) and brings about disease spirits (evil spirits). Usan Khan, the Lord of the water spirits, is invoked from the southern direction; Keiden Khan, also known as Tatai Tenger, is invoked from the north, he is the controller of violent weather, lightning, and tornados.

The earth is the home of a great variety of spirits, including Chotgor, Otsoor, Ongon, Burkhan, and Gazriin Ezen. Among many Siberian tribes these nature spirits are known collectively as the aazy spirits. Chotgor spirits, also known as kut or abaasy, frequently bring along disease, mental illness, or confusion. Some Chotgor are suns spirits of dead people who did not find their way to the lower world or came back from the lower world. Other spirits have never been incarnated but simply exist in nature and can be used for help in rituals. Otsoor, Ongon, and Burkhan spirits are generally neutral in their effects for people, but still can make problems. Otsoor and Ongon spirits are frequently suld souls of ancestors; they are freely wandering about in nature. They are the most important help spirits. A special type of Ongon spirit, known as the utha, follows shaman lineages and behaves like an extra soul as well as a guide. Burkhan spirits are very strong and usually cannot be mastered by a shaman but may simply be urged to leave a patient alone if it causes illness. Shamans with very strong spirit helpers may be able to gain control of a Burkhan; in such a case it is tamed into a less powerful Ongon spirit. Gazriin Ezen are the master spirits of places on the earth, including mountains, bodies of water, rocks, trees, settlements, buildings, even countries. They sometimes come in conflict with ancestor spirits that want to inhabit the spots in nature that belong to them. Some funeral customs are directed at reconciling the suld spirit of the deceased and the Gazriin Ezen so that the ancestor spirit will be able to reside in nature peacefully.

Spirits of Animals, Totems, Animal Guides and Hunting

The world of the forest and water is the home of wild animals. They are called amitan, "having an ami soul" like humans. Animals reincarnate as being reborn of their species. They have personalities, language and psychic abilities.

The master spirit of all the hunting animals is known as Bayan Ahaa (rich older brother). The highest ranking animals are the Siberian tiger (amur), the snow leopard, and the bear. Buryat call the tiger Anda Bars (best friend tiger) and pray to him for good hunting. In Siberia the bear is seen as master of the animals and revered as an ancestor. Many tribes have special ceremonies for honoring the bear after it is killed.

This respect for animal spirits dictates certain rules for hunting. Hunters also apologize to animals when these are killed, saying that they needed to take the meat and hide for their survival. Domestic animals are also killed in a respectful manner. Heads are not chopped off because cutting the throat injures the ami soul. The head, throat, lungs, and heart, which is collectively called the zuld (tsuld), is the residence of an animal’s ami (soul) and should be removed from the body as one integral piece. When an animal is killed for a sacrifice, the hide and the zuld are hung up on poles pointing to Heaven. After bears are eaten, the skull or sometimes the whole skeleton is placed on a pole or platform in the forest.

Certain animals are considered to be totems or symbolic ancestors for tribes or clans. The most famous are Blue Wolf and Red Deer, the mythical ancestors of the Mongols. The Buryat also recognize a bull as their ancestor. Throughout Siberia the eagle is also looked at as a totemic ancestor. The individual Yakut clans recognize a specific mammal or bird as its totem animal. The Dagur Mongols (Inner Mongolia) say that porcupine, snake, fox, weasel, spider, and pheasant are especially likely to be shamans who are soul travelling; most of these are normally not eaten. Animal spirits are also guides and teachers for shamans.
Frequently the totem is an animal, but sometimes it may also be a plant. The people believe that their mythical ancestor or creator is embodied in the totem.

Rivers, lakes, rivulets, springs, and the ocean are the residence of the water animals as well as a passageway for spirits. The loon and goldeneye duck are considered to be special water birds. There is a legend among many Siberian peoples that in the very earliest time the earth was covered with water, and that the loon and goldeneye duck brought up mud from the bottom of the sea and piled it up until land appeared. The water is full of spirits and the loon above all other birds is believed to communicate with the souls in the water. The cry of the loon is frequently imitated in the songs of Mongolian and Siberian shamans. Among the fish the pike is considered powerful, and images of this fish are used in shaman rituals from the Samoyedes in the west up to the Tungus people in eastern Siberia.

Sacred Mountains, Trees, Serges and Ovoos

Mountains, springs of streams, forests, and individual rocks and trees are all part of Mother Earth, but they are also the home of Gazriin Ezen, place and nature spirits. A tree symbolizes the world center, where Heaven and earth touch, where all times and places converge. They may be honored by tying on pieces of cloth. The lone birch, the "shaman tree", is called ongonmodon, for these trees are believed to be the home of the shamans' helper spirits, Ongon. Trees are also symbolic of the World Tree, which is usually visualized as a birch or willow. The Buryat have wooden ovoo (shrine) which are also a symbol for the World Tree. Another type of ritual tree is the serge, which is made from a young birch.

Some of them were once souls of human beings, ancestors from a time so long ago. A mountain or tree of great majesty will be said to have suld, which is the same word that is used to refer to the soul which remains in nature after death. Unusual rocks or trees are believed to have a strong spirit and are respected or given offerings of tobacco or liquor. Mountain spirits are considered to be very powerful, and are prayed to in order to provide good hunting and abundance of natural food plants. These ceremonies are usually held roughly around the times of the equinoxes and solstices and are usually performed by the elders of the local clan or tribe. Mountain spirits and other powerful Gazriin Ezen are worshipped at special shrines called ovoo, which are tall piles of rocks and tree branches, roughly conical in diameter.

Ovoo (hill), heap or cairn, is the equivalent of a shaman's shrine (altar). This is a heap of bones or stone formed by man. They would be inhabited by spirits of the locality, local deities (nibdagh and shiddagh) of the Mongolian people. When passing by an ovoo, travellers are required to walk around it three times (clockwise) and place a rock on it. By doing this, they symbolically add to the spirit’s power, as by adding the rock he receives energy for his windhorse (personal psychic power) and good luck for his journey. Ovoo are also the place of several ceremonies during the year which nearby families or clans would celebrate in honor of the local spirit as well as Father Heaven and Mother Earth and other shaman spirits.

The barisaa (prayer tree - shrine) is an important site of worship. This ritual brings peace and reduces violence in whatever place it is performed in. It needs to be done in as many places as possible, especially in places that were sites of deaths because of war or violence. It also calls the nature spirits to bring inspiration, calm people's hearts, and create thoughts of peace and love. This is the act of performing ariulga, this is cleansing your soul from the evil nature spirits. The ritual for the calming (reducing of negative energy) of the spirits will have a permanent effect from which all people in the community where it is done, not only the participants, will benefit. The tree has now become a barisaa, a shaman shrine for the nature spirits.

Mongolian shaman in Sukhbaatar
at the River Selenge

Tuur a shaman drum with drawings
(World Tree with the Blue Sky, the Upper and the Lower World)
The World of Spirits

The spirit world of the shamans is not much different from the physical world. Spirits are in everything and everywhere. Spirits have physical bodies, they can fly and travel anywhere with tremendous speed and see and sense things over great distances or in the past or future. Westerners explain such phenomena with the terms telepathy or psychic abilities, talents to sense things using the abilities of the spirits which inhabit human beings. Shamans use spirits during their rituals, to fly to other places or sense things far away or in spirit form through the aid of their utha (Heaven power) and other spirit helpers (Ongons).

A Multiplicity of Souls, their Form and Function

All humans and animals possess more than one soul; multiple souls are required in order to inhabit a physical body. Throughout Siberia and Mongolia it is believed that all humans possess at least three souls; some groups such as the Samoyedes believe there are more, four in women and five in men. Animals also possess two souls, the ami body soul and the suns soul, both of which reincarnate.
  • The suld soul, which resides in nature after death
  • The ami body soul, which reincarnates
  • The suns soul, which also reincarnates

The three souls reside in the field of energy that envelops the physical body. This sphere has an upright axis within it, pierced by seven holes that correspond to the seven chakras (these are the seven energy points of a human being). The suld soul resides at the crown of the head, where there is a direct connection to Father Heaven through the small Tenger that is also located there. The other two souls oscillate back and forth through the holes of the body axis in a sine wave pattern. In order to be perfectly balanced, the suns and ami souls should always be on opposite sides of the axis. When a person becomes excited, the circulation of the souls through the seven holes speeds up, causing the heart to beat faster and thus creating a feeling of high energy or tension. The balance of the suns and ami souls can be thrown off balance by spiritual attack or physical trauma. In the most serious cases, the ami or suns may get knocked out of the body, and if this continues for a long time, this will result in illness or mental confusion. In cases of soul imbalance or loss a shaman’s help is needed to restore order.

The suld is the most individualized of the three human souls. It lives in a physical body only once, then takes residence in nature. After death it remains around the body for a while, and some groups create Ongon (they live in the spirit house) for these souls in order to keep them near and have their aid and protection.

The ami is the soul that enlivens the body. It is related to the ability to breathe, amisgal (animals). It returns after death to the World Tree, where it roosts in its branches between Heaven and earth in the form of a bird. Ami souls tend to reincarnate among their relatives. They are under the care of the womb goddess Umai (daughter of Mother Earth), who dispatches them on spirit horses, omisi morin, to enter the body at the time of birth. While the ami may be temporarily displaced during illness, the ami does not leave permanently until after death.

The suns soul, like the suld soul, contributes to the formation of a person’s personality, but carries the collected experiences of past lives within it. The suns is an inhabitant of the lower world between incarnations but may return as a ghost to visit friends or relatives. Erleg Khan, ruler of the lower world, is responsible for the disposition of the suns souls, and determines when and where it reincarnates. If a soul was extremely evil during its life on earth, he may send it to Ela Guren, a part of the lower world where souls are extinguished forever. The suns soul may also temporarily leave the body and sometimes wander as far as the lower world, which may require a shaman to negotiate with Erleg Khan for its return.

The Circle of Life and Water

Rain falls on the earth and water flows from the ground springs to the lower world. It flows into the ocean, where water once more comes to the Heavens (Blue Sky) and falls down again as rain. In the same way, human souls will be born, follow the World River to the ocean, once more to emerge at its source in order to incarnate again.

When Spirits touch the Earth - Customs, Taboos and Ongons (spirits in the house)

The spirit and physical worlds are not really separated: they touch each other in many places everywhere. There are certain situations where the spirit world touches the earth. This is regulated by specific rules of behaviour. This can be embodied in a person, such as a shaman, a newborn, or a deceased individual. Spirits and earth touch in sacred mountains, crowns of trees, ovoo, or in a specially devised dwelling place for a spirit called an Ongon (spirit house).

Newborn children and their mothers are sequestered for a certain amount of time following birth. 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.

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 brings about 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 shaman tools (spirit house) 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. Materials used to make Ongons are wood, leather, felt, rocks, paper, fur, feathers, and metal. Some Ongons are abstract and some resemble dolls. 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 (tools) which are the house of their helper spirits; in fact the shaman costume itself is an Ongon of the shaman’s utha spirit (Heaven power). 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.

What is Shamanism

We in the Western world use the word "shaman" for the ancient spiritual people from Mongolia and Siberia. They talk about Tengerism. Shamans are not to be worshipped, but shamans are merely respected as priests of Tengerism.

In Tengerism, the world is alive full of spitits. The plants, animals, rocks, mountains and water, all have a soul. These spirits must be respected to be in the balance with all of them. Balance is an important thing to keep harmony within yourself, the community, and the environment. When things get out of balance, there are harmful effects. This is when we need a shaman for help. Tengerists believe in a concept called buyan (physical power) that is very close to the belief of karma (fate). The shaman loses buyan (buyanhishig) by violating taboos, when he has no respect for spirits or our ancestors.

The Shaman

Western people believe that a shaman is something like a “medicine man”, "holy priest" or “magic doctor”. But in Mongolia and Siberia the shamans are not simple doctors (folk doctors), they are very spiritual people. There exist many different kinds of healers in this homeland, and they are masters in their field. There are otoshi (healers), barishi (bone-setters), and bariyachi (midwives). All of these specialists are believed to have some sort of help from the world of spirits.

It is the shaman, however, that is the true master of knowing really well the spirit world. The shaman is chosen by the spirits at his birth, and it is then that an extra soul called utha enters this person. This soul helps shamans to gather the help of other spirits. Without this protection, rituals and other spirits, the world journeys are dangerous. The main function of the shaman is to restore and maintain balance in his community. Shamans conduct blessings, rituals of protection, hunting magic, rain making and divination. They also cure sicknesses that have spiritual causes. Shamans are also the caretakers of traditional culture. With their knowledge of ancient tradition, their counsel has been sought throughout the ages.

Some tribes have more than one type of shaman, among some groups they are ranked by their power, or they will be differentiated as white or black depending on what spirits they use and where they travel to.

Hunting magic rituals put the shaman in touch with the animal and nature spirits. Weather magic usually involves rainmaking or sending lightning back to the sky; this act requires direct contact with Tengers (sky spirits).

Shamans use several different tools for their work. Their costume and Ongons (tools) are the actual residences of their helper spirits. A one-sided, hand held drum (tuur), usually 60 cm or more in diameter is used to drive the singing and dancing which are part of most ceremonies. Apart from the drum, the most important tool of the shaman is the toli, a metallic circular mirror. A shaman will attach many toli to his costume if he can obtain them, but one toli over the chest is most important. A toli acts like an armor, deflecting spirit attacks; it can also reflect light in order to blind spirits, and it also absorbs energy from the universe to increase the shaman’s power. Most shamans usually also have one or two individuals who represent horses which he rides on his spirit journeys.
Another tool, which is found in many tribes, is the dalbuur, a ritual pendant (amulet) which is used to drive out spirits from patients. There are more musical instruments which may be used by shamans, with the jew's harp (hel khuur) being the most common.
Shamans from some tribes use masks; the most common one, however, is the bear mask which is used for the ominan ritual.

Barishis - bone-setters can use mentally dissociative states and spirit-helpers in their healing work. (They are unable, however, to master spirits). A barishi’s main work is setting bones and fixing dislocations. They also work with back pain, boils, sores, and other skin diseases. It is said that a barishi can see a broken bone as accurately as a diagnostic device.
Bariyachi means “the one who takes hold”; bariyachis are women. Her job is part physical and part spiritual. Along with the usual midwife duties, the bariyachi ties the umbilical cord with an animal’s vein and then washes the baby in salt water. Bariyachis invoke the spirit of Auli Barkhan in their work. The name means “mountain spirit” but it is the name of a wild fox, too. The spirit of the fox is the power of the bariyachi.
Smiths - This is a specialized type of shaman. The smith makes and puts power to the shaman's equipment that is made of metal. Metal toli (mirrors), jingle cones, staffs and headdresses are some of the items. The fires of their forges represent the Gol (fire spirit), the hearth, and they often use an anvil instead of a drum.
Shaman Assistants - a good assitant is invaluable to a shaman. In Mongolian legends such as Nishan shamans show how the right assitant can make a ceremony succesful.
A shaman assistant’s duties vary, ranging from warmning the drums by the fire, over helping with the equipment up to drumming, which constitute some of the most common duties. Shaman assistants are usually people who are very spiritual but have never had a specific calling. They do not wear specialized regalia, but often the shaman they work with gives them a protective talisman as a gift.
Payments for shamans - had to change as well. The tradition has evolved into giving the shaman three things.
- One would be to supply the shaman with all the things he needs for the ceremony. This would include botttles of vodka to make arshaan (energy water) out of as well as smudge material, travel expenses, etc.
- The second would be a khadgas (khadak - a ceremonial scarf) for him to honour the spirits of his equipment with this cloth.
- The third would be a present according to what the person can afford. Once again, the payment is made in order to honour the spirits and not the shaman himself.
Becoming a Shaman - is often just as much a curse as it is a blessing. Shamans are chosen by the spirits at their birth. When a shaman is struck down, this means that he is dismembered as a person and has to be reborn into something else. There are two ways of being struck. The first is the shaman’s sickness and the second is lightning. This does not mean that everyone who has a near-death experience is a shaman. Those with the potential are called butur. Butur means “cocoon” in Mongolian. In order to become a shaman, a person must accept the calling and be recognized and trained by an elder shaman. The second way to be struck down is to be hit by lightning. It is often impossible to become a shaman without having shaman-ancestors in the family.

Shamans have not called themselves "shamans" - this denomination came from the West and some neo-shaman revival. Traditional shamans in Siberia are usually like a doctor, teacher, or public figure in their community. They have never been a big, mysterious or secret person.

Drumming, Hallucinogens, Paths to Ecstasy

Although shamans are noted for going into trance for doing their work, most rituals employ several techniques together in order to bring the shaman to ecstasy. The people attending the ritual can help the shaman reach a trance state by echoing parts of his song, beating drums, or shouting along with the drumming. Circle dances can raise energy and propel the shaman into the upper world.

The beating of the shaman drum is the most powerful way to induce trance. Scientific studies have shown that repetitive rhythms at certain frequencies can induce a hypnotic state similar to the trance of shamans. Shaman’s drumming, however, does not have a metronome-like steadiness, but rather will slow down or speed up, get louder or softer depending on the state of the shaman’s mind at a given moment. Mongolian and Siberian drums are generally large in diameter and have a deep resonating sound that will vibrate through the shaman’s body, and the drum is frequently held near the face or over the head so that the beat will resonate through the head and upper body with great force.

Intoxicants may be consumed before or during the ritual. Shamans frequently drink alcohol before shamanizing and pause at points during the ritual to smoke tobacco. Juniper, which is mildly hallucinogenic, is used in practically all rituals in Mongolia and in many parts of Siberia. The fumes of juniper will be waved in the face and inhaled, and the air of the ger will become thick with juniper smoke during the ritual. Sacred smoke is believed to help to raise the windhorse (psychical power) in journeys and will please the spirits to provide help. A more potent hallucinogen, the muscaria mushroom, has been connected with Siberian and Mongolian shamanism from ancient times.

Climbing the toroo (crown) of the tree is another path to ecstasy. In Mongolian the words to go out and to go up are the same word, garah. By symbolically ascending the representation of the World Tree, the shaman is literally going out of this world into the world of spirit. The toroo of the tree has nine steps, and as the shaman climbs higher and higher and at the same time the singing, the drumming and the encouragements of his audience will bring him to the ecstatic state.

Some shamans will show their contact with the spirit world by singing höömij (overtone or throat singing), which consists of a base note and a whistling overtone note. The overtones represent the contact with the spirit world while remaining physically on earth (represented by the base tone - bordun).

The shaman's transformation into the animal or the bird is connected with his helping spirit and his guardian spirit. The Buryat, for example, name the shaman's guardian spirit khubilgan, which could be translated as 'metamorphosis' (compare with the verb 'khubilkhu' - 'to change oneself'', 'to take another shape'). In most cases the imitating of animals is classified as a dance, such as imitating ritual dances and ecstatic ritual dances. In case of the imitating ritual dance, there is the transformation into zoomorphic spirits into which the shaman changes himself on his journey.

The imitating of the uttering sounds of animals may be a whistle, a cry, a howl, cuckoo's calling, etc. The natural imitations have practical importance above all. The uttering sound of birds are imitated by means of a falsetto and different whistling techniques. Sounds of animals are produced by means of a nose-throat articulation based on one respiratory cycle, which enables to provide hoarse voice, grunts, roars, etc. In several Indian tribes both in North America and South America it is compulsory for the shamans to acquire the imitating skills during the initiation period.
Below you can see great examples - click on an icon - Enjoy!
Riding the Cosmic Steed - Spirit Journeys

Shaman trance entails travel to the spirit place of their existence, they usually experience this as either flying (by transforming themselves into a bird - metamorphosis) or riding an animal which will carry them to the place in that of the three worlds where they are needed. These spirit journeys may take the shaman to places in our world, or may require him to travel to the upper or lower worlds. Lower world journeys are usually only required in cases of soul retrieval or bringing a dead person’s soul to Erleg Khan. Most other rituals will require the shaman to travel on earth or ascend to the upper world. Lower world journeys are the most difficult, and only the strongest shamans can go there safely. Spirit journeys usually start by moving upward, and even when going to the lower world the trip will start with a flight, frequently out through the smoke hole (upper ring - tonoo) of the ger. The shaman may take the form of a bird or ride a flying supernatural mount. The mount which a shaman rides during his travels is usually a flying horse or deer.

The shaman may utter animal sounds as he goes through these transformations. He may appear to be unconscious during the journey, or may remain conscious but in a trance-like state and will be capable of moving around, dancing, or even telling his audience about what he sees. Most Altaic shamans speak of passing nine landmarks (olohs) during a journey regardless of which world they are travelling in. Before a ritual starts, the drum is warmed by the fire, this is called amiluulah, making the drum come alive. The drum not only drives the vision by its steady beat, but it is literally the steed upon which the shaman rides to his destination. Upon returning from his journey the shaman will cough or belch to expel the spirits which were riding with him inside his body. He then sings in praise of his spirit helpers before completing the ritual.


This kind of religion and ritual has been made common in Europe through paganism.

In a nomad society, the mother is central to the family. Men come and go due to hunting and war obligations. It is the mother that keeps the hearth going and is a steady influence on the family. Therefore, the woman is represented by the golden sun who is constant and beautiful. The man is represented by the moon which is quiet and powerful, yet comes and goes on his journeys in the sky.

Tengerism may date back to the Stone Age. Petroglyphs have been found showing shamans performing ritual. It is amazing how little has changed over the millennia that this tradition has existed. Tengerism has had its troubles, however. Over the last few centuries it has suffered persecution. The ruler Altan Khan was the most destructive of these usurpers. In 1577 he became Buddhist. In the Communist time of Russia, shamans' possessions were confiscated, and they were often imprisoned or even killed. In many places throughout Siberia, the faith continued as it has since the beginning of man. Now, with the end of Communism in Mongolia and Siberia, freedom of religion has returned. Many people who once were afraid to practice their beliefs have returned to their ancient, traditional faith.

Healing and Causes of Illness - Healers

Shamans are aware of the fact that the physical symptoms of illness are also to be treated, and herbal medicines are administered by shamans in addition to the spiritual healing. The spiritual aspect of the illness, however, is important because the physical symptoms alone are not the true problem. Soul retrieval is usually necessary in cases of severe and chronic illness. The absence of the ami or suns souls makes it practically impossible for a body to function normally.

Spirits that cause illness may be Chotgor, hostile ancestor spirits, or Burkhan, evil shamans. Chotgor, ancestor spirits, and other less powerful nature spirits can often be cured by singing or waving of the dalbuur (pendant, amulet) over the patient. The disease spirit may also be removed by sucking or pulling gestures (zolgoh) that draw it out of the body. More powerful spirits or hostile shamans will require going into trance. Burkhan are the most powerful and may need sacrifices to make them go away. The shaman may use knives, a red hot iron rod, or a bow and arrow to scare the disease spirit away or to blind it with reflected light from his mirror. An Ongon (spirit house) or the toli (mirror) may be used to catch a spirit in order to keep it from jumping into another person. An Ongon is used to place him in a natural place so the spirit will not return. Some healings actually involve spiritual warfare. A shaman may physically struggle violently with a stubborn spirit, even using weapons, and his spirits fight alongside with him in order to subdue or drive away the intruder. Shamans who routinely aggressively attack other people may lose their status within the community or are even killed.

Folk medicine has always been important in Mongolia and Siberia. Herbalists, healers and their traditions vary from tribe to tribe and from region to region. Despite these small differences, healers were always an important part of society. Here we have healers in two traditions that have withstood the test of time and are still being practiced among the indigenous peoples.
Among the northern Mongolian peoples, the term for a folk healer is Aradai-emshe. This is basically translated as a medicine person who heals with the help of herbs.
The northern tribes do not have as strict gender roles as the southern tribes because the Chinese influence is much weaker up north. Male healers are just as common as female. These people are very spiritual and have great knowledge of plants and remedies.
The Uyghurs traditional medicine has a very high standard, and you can still find at street stands herbal medicine being offered.

Otoshi comes from otachi (doctor) and okin (daughter / girl). Unlike the bone-setters and midwives, the otoshi do not inherit their calling from family lines but from the will of the spirits.
Otoshis are almost always female, but males are also known to have been called. These healers specialize in fertility and child health issues but also tend to other physical ailments.
Otoshis wear a skirt made out of animals hide and a distinctively coloured hat. Instead of a drum, they would often use a colourful fan with silk strips. Some also carry prayer beads.
These healers are guided by the spirits of the wind and the trees. Because of this, they are not buried in the earth but given a "wind burial" by placing them in a tree.
Otoshis have always been strong feminists. The Buddhists really hated them as they believed that feminist views challenge the social order. These Buddhists destroyed them in great numbers throughout Central Asia. The Buddhists then took over the people’s need for herbal remedies. Otoshi tradition is preserved today only by the Dagur Mongols (Inner Mongolia).


© Albi - Face Music - March 2006 - Revised by Hermeldinde Steiner - October 2008