Riding Windhorses: A Journey into the Heart of Mongolian Shamanismby Sarangerel
In traditional Mongolian-Buryat culture, shamans play an important role maintaining the tegsh, the “balance” of the community. They counsel a path of moderation in one’s actions and reverence for the natural world, which they view as mother to humanity. Mongolians believe that if natural resources are taken without/em>… See more details below
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In traditional Mongolian-Buryat culture, shamans play an important role maintaining the tegsh, the “balance” of the community. They counsel a path of moderation in one’s actions and reverence for the natural world, which they view as mother to humanity. Mongolians believe that if natural resources are taken without thanking the spirits for what they have given, those resources will not be replaced. Unlike many other cultures whose shamanic traditions were undermined by modern civilization, shamans in the remote areas of southern Siberia and Mongolia are still the guardians of the environment, the community, and the natural order.
Riding Windhorses is the first book written on Mongolian and Siberian shamanism by a shaman trained in that tradition. A thorough introduction to Mongolian/Siberian shamanic beliefs and practices, it includes working knowledge of the basic rituals and various healing and divination techniques. Many of the rituals and beliefs described here have never been published and are the direct teachings of the author’s own shaman mentors.
SARANGEREL, which means Moonlight in Buryat, was trained in the traditional Mongolian and Buryat shamanic traditions by native teachers who are free to practice again following the collapse of the Soviet Union. She was the foreign outreach representative of the Golomt Center for Shamanist Studies and the Mongolian Shamans’ Association. Born in the United States after her family had been forced to flee Siberia following the Russian Revolution in 1917, she returned to her ancestral homeland in the Tunken region of southern Siberia in 1991 to rediscover the shamanic knowledge of her ancestors.
experience . . ."
"Sarangerel includes many photographs and illustrations of the rituals and accoutrements used in ceremonies. There are many meditation techniques and mind training ceremonies included. I highly recommend Riding Windhorses to any student of shamanic studies and would-be shamans. There is practical information, which if followed carefully will allow you to awaken your own inner shaman."
"There is a feeling in this book of seriousness, of
experience . . ."
"Fascinating reading. An interesting book that gives a good introduction to this fascinating and important shamanic tradition."
"Sarangerel presents a complete guide to Siberian and Mongolian shamanism. An accessible, comprehensive, and important introduction to Mongolian and Siberian shamanic traditions."
"Undoubtedly one of the best books on contemporary shamanism in print today. Anyone interested in a vivid first-person account of the renewal of an ancient native culture and its relevance to twenty-first-century people will find this book a must read."
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Meet the Author
Sarangerel was trained in the Mongolian and Buryat shamanic traditions by native teachers who are now free to practice again following the collapse of the Soviet Union. She was the foreign outreach representative of the Golomt Center for Shamanist Studies and the Mongolian Shamans' Association.
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The universe of the Mongols can be visualized as a circle, notonly in the three dimensions of space, but also in time. Everythinghas a circular motion: the path of the sun from day today, the cycle of time from year to year, and the cycle of the spiritsof all living beings that return to the earth to live again and again.
Intersecting the circle are the axes of the four directions andthe axis of the center of the world, going up to the upper worldbeyond the eternal heavens and going down beyond Mother Earthto the lower world. Superimposed on this is the image of the universeas seen in the visions of shamanic journeys, in which theshaman can climb the World Tree or fly to the upper world, traveldown the spirit river to the entrance to the lower world in thenorth, or simply find a tunnel in the earth through which to travelbelow.
The Four Directions (Durvun Zug)
Awareness of the four directions is fundamental to the Mongolianview of the world. A few Mongolian friends have told me thatif they are not aware of their orientation to the four directions atall times, they feel ill at ease. The names for the four directionscorrespond to the words for "front," "back," "left," and "right."Until about 600 or 700 years ago, the "front" orientation of theMongols' world was to the east, but for some unknown reason itshifted to the south, where it remains today. Many Siberian tribesstill orient their dwellings to face east.
The Mongolian worldview looks from north to south. Forthisreason south is called the "front" (umnu, urid) direction. Correspondingly,north is called the "behind" (hoit, ard) in Mongolian.East and west are called "left" (zuun) and "right" (baruun), respectively.The right (western) side of the world is regarded asbeing male in essence, and it is the home of the benevolent skyspirits (tenger). The eastern, or left, side of the world is regardedas female, and the sky spirits of that direction are believed to bringdisease and discord. There are four colors associated with the fourdirections: the south is red, the west is white, the north is black,and the east is blue. There are also four essences associated withthe four directions: south is fire, west is earth, north is water, andeast is air.
The Ger and the Sacred Circle
The ger, known in the West as the yurt, is the traditional dwellingof the Mongols. It is constructed of a framework of poles (uni)radiating from a center smoke-hole ring (tono), which is lashed tothe top of a circular latticework wall. The structure is coveredover with felt in Mongolia, although the gers of some Siberiangroups are covered with skins. In Buryatia and in some other areasan eight-sided wooden ger is made of logs with wood laid overthe roof instead of felt. It bears a very strong resemblance to thehogan of the Navaho of the American Southwest. Also, many Siberianpeoples, including the Tsatang and Urianhai Mongols, livein tepees. Gers and tepees (uurts) are designed to be easily assembledand taken down as required by the nomadic life of their owners;nevertheless, the imagery and meaning of the ger remain the sameno matter where it is erected, and the orientation and symbolismof the ger is the same for all Mongolian groups.
The ger is not only the center of the universe but also a microcosmwithin it. In fact, it is a map of the universe at large, and thevault of the heavens is reflected in the arched shape of the interiorof the ger roof. The entrance always faces south, since that isthe front of the ger. The north side, called the hoimor, located behindthe fire, is the most honored spot in the ger. It is here thatthe sacred objects, ongon spirit dwellings, and other religious imagesare placed on a table. The sitting place next to the hoimor isthe next most honored part of the ger and is occupied by elders,chiefs, shamans, or other respected guests. The right, or west, sideis the male side and is the sitting place for men and the storageplace for men's tools, saddles, bows, and guns. The left, or east,side is the sitting place for women, and cooking utensils,cradleboards, and other women's objects are placed there. Sincethe south side is the least-honored spot, young people are usuallyseated there, to the left and right of the entrance.
Movement in the ger is "sunwise," that is, in a clockwise direction.The reason why this is regarded as the path of the sun becomesreadily apparent if one watches the track traced by sunlightshining through the smoke hole during the day. Whenevera person moves inside the ger, it must always be in a sunwise direction.This same sunwise movement is also required in shamanicdances, worship, and ritual. The only exception is the movementof women between the door and their section of the ger, which iseasiest to get to by walking to the right upon entering the door.This short counterclockwise path is contrary to sunwise and iscalled "the direction of the moon."
The center of the ger is the most sacred place of all, the galgolomt; or the place of the fire. It is the dwelling place of the daughterof Father Heaven, Golomt Eej, and is to be treated with theutmost respect. As the ger is the center of the world, so the placeof the fire is the center of the universe represented by the ger itself.The vertical axis represented by the column of smoke risingfrom the gal golomt also represents the turge or World Tree thatshamans ascend to the upper world, with the smoke ring (tono)corresponding to the gateway to the upper world. In some shamanistrituals, such as the initiation of shamans in Buryatia, atree will actually be erected inside the ger, beside the gal golomtand passing through the smoke hole. Among some Mongoliangroups, such as the Buryats, the shaman literally climbs the tree;in others, such as the Dagurs, the shaman drums at the base andonly ascends with his spiritual being. As the shaman ascends thetree in his ecstatic state, he describes his journey to the upperworld. Also, even in the absence of an actual turge tree, the shamanwill still travel to other worlds after exiting through thesmoke hole, often after his spirit has metamorphosed into a bird.
The ger, therefore, can be seen as a parallel to the Native Americanmedicine wheel, a physical representation of the sacred circleorientated to the four directions and the universe at large. Thecircular pattern and alignment to the four directions are also retainedin outdoor shamanist ceremonies, such as the walking anddancing around the sacred oboo cairns erected to mountain spirits,or the yohor dance around a turge tree by which the dancersraise a spiral of energy to carry the shaman to the heavens. Sunwisecircular movement is also used in the dallaga blessing ceremonyand in all types of shamanist dances.
The Upper and Lower Worlds
and the World Center
Throughout Siberia, as well as among many Native Americangroups, people believe that the universe consists of three worldslaid one upon the other. In some ways, ideas about the upper andlower worlds seem to imply a concept of parallel worlds, ratherthan that of three worlds stacked, literally, like the layers of a cake.While the sky is believed to be infinite in depth, shamans neverthelessinsist that there is a doorway to go beyond the heavens. Inthe same way, while the earth is believed to be deep and solid,there are many passages that allow spirits and shamans to penetrateinto the lower world. Another view holds that the upperand lower worlds are similar to the earth, or middle world, in thatthey too have a sun, a moon, forests, and humanlike inhabitants.The dwellers of the upper and lower worlds are invisible in ourmiddle world, and people traveling from here to those worlds arelikewise invisible. The presence of such intruders will be betrayedby a sudden crackle in the fire, the barking of foxes, or by theirbeing visible to shamans.
The lower world is basically similar to this world except thatits inhabitants have only one soul, rather than the three possessedby human beings. (The three human souls are the suld, ami, andsuns souls. See chapter 3 for a more detailed explanation of theirfunctions.) The ami soul, which causes breathing and warmth inthe body, is lacking, so lower-world dwellers are cold and havedark blood. Furthermore, some of the dwellers in the lower worldare actually the suns souls of human beings awaiting reincarnation.The sun and moon of the lower world are not as bright as inthis world; the Samoyed say it is because the sun and moon of thelower world are actually half, rather than full, orbs. The lowerworld has forests, mountains, and settlements, just like this world,and its inhabitants even have their own shamans. The ruler ofthe lower world is Erleg Khan, son of Father Heaven. He has authorityover the disposition of souls, when and where they willincarnate. Shamans often must appeal to him when recoveringsouls that have prematurely wandered away to the lower worldbefore the body has died. Outside of these situations, people fromthe middle world rarely enter the realm of Erleg Khan, except afterdeath.
Travel to and from the lower world takes many routes. Oneroute is by way of the World River, known as Dolbor or Engdekit,which flows roughly from south to north. In the far north theriver flows into the lower world, and its entrance is protected bythe giant Mongoldai Nagts, who prevents suns souls from enteringthe lower world before the bodies in which they were ensouledare truly dead. Nevertheless, sometimes souls occasionally do slipthrough and must be retrieved before the illness caused by thesouls' absence causes permanent damage. Travel along the WorldRiver is perilous, and the river is full of rapids. It is said thatwhen a shaman falls dead during a lower-world soul retrieval itis because the trip was too dangerous and his soul was lost. Duringhis journey to the lower world the shaman may confront andneed to placate Mongoldai Nagts and Erleg Khan to convince themto let the soul return. The lower world may also be entered throughcaves, whirlpools, springs, or one of the many tunnels throughthe earth that lower-world beings use to travel up to this world.
The upper world, like the lower world, appears very similar tothis world. The upper world, however, does not normally housethe spirits of human beings, although shamans may travel there.It is brighter than this world, and some legends say that it hasseven suns. Descriptions of the upper world say that it resemblesthe earth, but nature in that world is still unspoiled, and its inhabitantsstill live in the traditional ways of the ancestors. Theruler of the upper world is Etseg Malaan Tenger, who is also a sonof Father Heaven. Sometimes the brightness of the upper worldwill be revealed when the doorway between the worlds is opened,as when rays of sunlight are seen shooting out from behind theclouds; prayers said when the doorway is revealed are especiallypowerful.
Travel to the upper world requires the ability to fly, and shamansoften change themselves into birds in order to make thejourney. They may also ride upon a flying deer or horse. The routemay be straight upward, or toward the south, to the source of theWorld River. Some accounts of shamanist initiations involve travelto the upper world and initiation by the spirits there before theshamans' initiation in this world. Another way of travel to theupper world is for the shaman to climb the turge, the World Tree,mentioned earlier. Sometimes he is spurred on by a yohor circledance around the tree intended to raise his windhorse energy andpropel him upward.
Yet another route is suggested by the Dagur Mongol word forshamans' power dreamssoolong. In standard Mongolian solongomeans "rainbow," and the shaman may be traveling in his sleepover the rainbow to the upper world in order to retrieve the informationthat is brought back from the dream. In the Buryat shamans'initiation this is symbolized by a rainbow made from ribbonsor ropes extending from the top of the ceremonial turge treeto a tree outside the ger where the initiation is taking place. Informer times some shamans would actually walk on these ropeswhile in an ecstatic state. In the Geser myth people travel to theupper world on a rainbow on several occasions.
As mentioned above, the ger represents the center of the world.In reality, each person stands at the center of the world in his orher own consciousness. In doing their work and during their ritualsshamans also locate themselves in the center of the world. Manydifferent images are associated with the center of the world. Themost familiar one is that of the place of the fire in the ger, which isthe meeting point between the earth and the axis connecting thethree worlds.
The other important symbol of the world center is the turgetree, which creates an axis as well as a pole for ascent and descent.Siberian and Mongolian traditions locate the tree at the center ofthe world, but also in the south, where the upper and middleworlds touch. The tree is tended by the goddess Umai, and theami souls of living things waiting to be born are believed to live asbirds on this immense tree. By the World Tree, which some say"stands at the border of day and night," the World River entersthe middle world from its sources in the upper world. Accordingto the traditions of the Altai, Bayan Ami, lord of the forest animals,will be encountered during the ascent of this tree and willgrant the shaman geese to assist him on his journey to the upperworld. The top of the turge tree touches the sky by the Pole Star,the Altan Hadaas, the sky nail that holds up the heavens.
The other image of the center of the world is the peak of MountSumber, the World Mountain. The peak at the center of the worldis close to the Pole Star, and its roots rest upon a turtle in thelower world. Many Buryat legends speak of a golden tree or groveof trees on the summit that stand next to a spring from whichflows the Water of Life. The leaves of this tree and the water healall illnesses. This tree, also known as the "nine-branched brightyellow tree," is another form of the turge tree. It is symbolized bythe Buryat shamanist myth of Abai Geser, which consists of ninehalaa, or "branches," corresponding to the nine branches of theturge.
In the Geser myth the image of the fire, the world's center,and the World Tree are beautifully united in one scene. The hero'swife, the warrior woman and shamaness Alma Mergen, makes anoffering to the fire goddess Golomt Eej, who was born at the timeof the separation of Father Heaven and Mother Earth. When AlmaMergen makes the offering a golden willow tree springs forth fromthe fire. The World Tree is said to be a willow. This is interestingbecause the willow is a water-loving tree, and water is believed inSiberian tradition to be a passageway for spirits. Thus the goldenwillow was none other than the turge tree presenting itself to theshamaness who had made the offering to the fire! As one Buryatshaman said to me, "Wherever I go, there is the center of theworld."
Windhorse and Buyanhishig
Shamanism is concerned with personal power and bringing goodfortune into one's life. In the context of the cosmology describedabove, one must remember the saying, "Everyone has his ownuniverse, everyone has his own path." While every day brings anindividual into contact with the personal worlds of others, thecore issues of life lie within one's personal universe. In this individualaspect of the cosmos, a person stands at the perfect centerof the universe, supported by Mother Earth and enveloped in theclear blue vastness of Father Heaven. At the center one's cosmicsoul (suns) shines as a bright white star, and the body soul (ami)is a red point of light. One can fly freely within the vastness ofspace or travel upon the earth. Because one has his or her ownpath, one is ultimately responsible for his or her own actions.
Personal psychic power is called hii (wind), or hiimori(windhorse). This force resides in the chest and will vary instrength according to how one uses and accumulates it. Verystrong windhorse allows one to think clearly and analytically andsee through deception. Windhorse is the force that allows shamansand other powerful people to accomplish what needs to bedone simply and easily. The concept of windhorse is also foundin Tibetan religion and has essentially the same meaning. Thisoriginates from ancient Central and North Asian religious traditionswhich developed into the Bon religion in Tibet and shamanismin Mongolia and Siberia.
Use of one's personal power for harmful ends or to upset thebalance of the universe depletes windhorse, which is one reasonwhy truly evil people tend toward self-destructive behavior overtime.
On the other hand, windhorse can be increased through religiouspractice and by actions aimed at restoring balance in theuniverse. Simple everyday actionssuch as offering drink toheaven, earth, and the ancestors; prayer; and veneration of heaven,earth, and the spirits of the ancestors and naturefosterwindhorse. Sacred smoke from incense, sage, thyme, juniper, andother herbs can raise windhorse during shamanist worship. Sacrificesare another way to raise windhorse if made for specificpurposes or at the traditional festivals.
Excerpted from Riding Windhorses by Sarangerel. Copyright © 2000 by Julie Ann Stewart. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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