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Explore the Secret History of the Mongols

Modern writers on the subject such as Dr. This takes the essence of shamanic beliefs and practices and repackages them in a safe, sanitized and often diluted form that is acceptable for Western seekers of alternative spirituality. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries the area known as Siberia was colonized by the Russians from Mongolia.

They were led there by its abundance of wild animals that created a flourishing trade in animal skins and furs. The TSAR used the income from this enterprise to boost their economy and access the foreign currency that helped create the Russian empire. The influx of Russian hunters, fur traders and merchants drastically affected the local population, which consisted of many different tribes.

Along with the fur traders there also came missionaries and, in later times, anthropologists. The former were interested in converting the indigenous population to Orthodox Christianity, while the latter wanted to study their tribal culture, spiritual beliefs and ritual practices. Both these groups of outsiders contacted the tribal shamans of Siberia and, for totally different reasons, recorded and commented upon their religious observances.

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The earliest references to magical practitioners that could be described as shamans in fact date back to the 13th century. It was then that the first Western travelers penetrated Central Asia and visited the court of the Mongol rulers. The explorer Marco Polo, for instance, met magicians who were healers and could diagnosis diseases by the use of divination. However, it was an English explorer called Richard Johnston in the 16th century who first described what sounds very like the activities of shamans proper.

One theory is that it is possibly derived from an ancient Chinese term for a Buddhist priest or monk.

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It reflected an animistic belief system where everything in the natural world was alive, permeated by spirit force or, in simple terms, inhabited by spirits. These spirits had to be respected and appeased or else the land would become infertile and barren, the animals relied upon for food would disappear and eventually the world would come to an end. To achieve this essential and vital balance between humans, nature and the spirit world, a magical specialist was required and the shaman took that role.

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He or she acted as an intermediary or middle person between humanity and the Other, and a caretaker of cultural and magical tradition. Their job involved conducting blessings, especially on new-born babies, performing rituals of protection, divining the future, healing the sick, exorcising ghosts and demons, overseeing the burial of the dead, and generally communicating on behalf of the tribe with the spirit world and its denizens. Initiation into the shamanic cult could be achieved in several different ways.

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The easiest was the hereditary route where magical knowledge, power and skill were passed down from grandfather or father to son or, more rarely, from grandmother or mother to daughter. Sometimes children were chosen at a very early age or even at birth by the spirits and instructed by them through the medium of visions and dreams. Young people who suffered a serious illness or disease or from epileptic fits, were introverted and dreamy, or had any form of mental condition or disability, were regarded as natural shamans who had been specially chosen by the spirits.

In later life those who felt a strong calling to become a magical practitioner would retreat from society, usually to a remote place in the wilderness, and undergo a vigil during which they invited the spirits to contact them and teach them the shamanic ways. Often these initiations by either another shaman or the spirits involved a traumatic visionary death and rebirth experience. The ritual regalia given to the new shaman reflected the fact that he or she was a special person who was separate and different from other members of the tribe.

Head-wear consisted of a conical or pointed cap made from felt or fur or the antlers of a reindeer.


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Some shamans wore iron-shod fur boots so when they stamped their feet they could drive away evil spirits. The majority of shamans carried a ritual drum similar in shape to the traditional Irish bodhran. These were made from an animal skin stretched over a wooden frame and decorated with feathers and magical symbols representing spirit journeys to the Other world or the shamanic cosmology. The drum was very important and represented the symbolic and magical steed that enabled the practitioner to travel from Middle Earth to the realm of the spirits.

It was also a magical object in its own right that contained and focused spirit force or energy. By playing it the shaman could both attract spirits and exorcise them. In addition to the drum a magical staff was often carried. This was made of either wood or metal and was decorated with feathers, bells, ribbons and the pelts of small woodland animals.

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The shaman-healers were often female and they specialized in health matters connected with human and animal fertility, sexuality and children. They were recognizable by their distinctive skirts made from animal hide and brightly colored woolen hats. Instead of the ritual drum used by the male shamans, they carried a silk fan and prayer beads. Unfortunately when Buddhism came to Siberia and Mongolia many of these female healers were ruthlessly persecuted and exterminated by the misogynist monks.

As a result their extensive knowledge of herbs and plants used for natural healing was either lost completely or taken over by Buddhist healers and only practiced in a debased or diluted form. Another female practitioner was the shaman-midwife, who inherited her power from the maternal line of familial descent. As well as ensuring that babies entered this world safely in a physical sense, she was also responsible for their spiritual protection from evil influences during birth and their well-being as children.

In this sense she took on the role of a human fairy godmother. Immediately after a birth the shaman-midwife cut the umbilical cord and then purified the new-born baby with salt water and fire. Any female only witnesses to the birth could only be present if they had first been ritually purified by the midwife with fire and water.

Explore the Secret History of the Mongols

The Tsam symbolized the battle of the gods against the enemies. In animism, the oldest form of religious belief e. Human beings and animals are surrounded by good and evil spirits. The Mongols worship an important god of fertility, who is represented by the mask of an amiable, white-haired and white-bearded old man with waggish and cunning features.

He is considered the master of earth and water. His attributes, such as white clothes and a wand with a dragonhead, are reminiscent of shamanism. He is the main figure in the Tsam mask dance, in which he appears in the role of a clown and dolt. Mongolian masks symbolizing the actual presence of a deity never have their eyes pierced. The performers therefore had to look through the mouths of the masks, adding extra height to the performer. As the temporary residence of gods and demons, masks are like statues and treated as sacred objects.

When not in use, they were stored in monasteries and worshipped in daily rituals. Shaman Dance is performed by shaman sorcerers or witches by praying to gods, sacrificing, dispelling evils and curing diseases. It is called Tiaodashen by common people. The kind of dance was popular among northern Chinese tribes, a result of primitive hunting, fishing and totem worshipping activities.

In the clothes, musical instruments and dance movements of shaman today, one can find relics of primitive cultures. Do we conclude Chinggis told this story? Perhaps he took as his example the stone inscriptions left by the Blue Turks, that are a monument to great times and to glory, yet are strangely honest and not uncritical. They analyse where the Blue Turks went wrong and where they went right.