Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia

Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia

by Manduhai Buyandelger

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ISBN-13: 9780226086569
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2013
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,316,563
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Manduhai Buyandelger is associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Tragic Spirits

Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08655-2


Mobile Histories

Hoimorin Högshin is a Buryat deity who protects children and families. The Buryats make her figurine, usually about twelve inches high, from copper and dress it in finery described in her evocation:

A red silk vest and blue degel with mink-trimmed sleeves
A beaver hat with a mink brim
And silver earrings frame [your] face
The great mother of all, please descend ...

It is then swaddled in layers of white sheep's wool and white cloth, like an infant, and a khadag (prayer scarf) is folded around it, as would be done with a sacred object. Cradled in a birchbark case that is then wrapped in felt, the figurine is placed on a family altar.

Of all the deities of the celestial court—a governing body of the spirit world—Hoimorin Högshin is the only one who is represented by a figurine rather than by poetic descriptions and symbols alone. As her name indicates, she is a högshin (elder) who resides in the respected hoimor (upper part) of a ger. Hoimorin Högshin is accompanied by her granddaughter Chandagat, a white rabbit. Her figurine, made of the fur of a white rabbit, is placed next to that of her grandmother on the altar. They are enlivened with a shaman's poetry and offerings of mutton, milk, and other delicacies.

The only female member of the celestial court, Hoimorin Högshin staves off death and illness and ensures the continuity of a family's lineage. Although she is a shamanic deity, even families who are indifferent to shamanism worship her. There is a generic Hoimorin Högshin for all Buryats, but each family makes and enlivens their own figurine, and sometimes one for each child. As caretakers of their families' previous generations (i.e., memories in the form of origin spirits) and, possibly, future origin spirits themselves, children are especially important for maintaining the links between families' past and present.

Like most spirits, Hoimorin Högshin is both a blessing and a burden. Once a family creates their Hoimorin Högshin, they must pass her down to successive generations to continue the rituals of respect. She requires the sacrifice of a sheep as often as every year—a heavy burden for most families. Yet if families fail or delay in staging the rituals, they begin associating illnesses and deaths in their families with her wrath. According to shamanic logic, in order to live, one must remember the past; otherwise, one joins it. Unlike in cultures where the past is predictably contained within history books, designated items such as family heirlooms, or architecture, the Buryats' past emerges almost inadvertently, woven through multiple media and mediators.

For one thing, in a shamanic realm, remembering is a multisensory act of carrying and caring for origin spirits. For instance, the acts involved in maintaining Hoimorin Högshin emulate the care that individuals give their loved ones throughout all stages of life from infancy to death. She is swaddled and cradled like an infant, adorned with fur and jewelry like a beloved daughter or wife, and worshipped like a family origin spirit. She is also physically transported by family members. I was told that in the past, during disasters and wars, the first thing leeing Buryats would shove into their övör (a chest pouch of the degel) to take with them was their Hoimorin Högshin.

Caring for an infant or an elderly person requires the physical labor of carrying the person in one's arms. It also necessitates the mental effort of remembering and prioritizing their needs and wants throughout one's daily activities. The Buryat (and Mongol) word for "to care" is hanaa (sanaa) tavih, which literally translates as "to put down one's mind to." The phrase "to care for an elderly parent" is best captured by the term örgöh, which literally means "to lift" or "to elevate." The noun hanaa (sanaa), which means "mind," has the same root as the verb hanah (sanah), which means "to remember and to miss," indicating the close relationship between caring and remembering.

Shamanic rituals expand these everyday and often taken-for-granted mental and physical acts of remembering and caring for one's past in ways that enable audiences and clients to be more mindful of it. When shamans become possessed by individual spirits, accompanied by beating a drum or shaking a bell, they tell stories of the past lives of those spirits—tragic tales of heroic battles on a horseback, leeing from enemies, the loss of loved ones, and being killed at border crossings. As I continued to attend the rituals and listen to these narratives, they began to come together into a shifting history that spread over the lands of the Buryats' ancestors and filled in the chronology that I had learned mainly from the official history.

The stories, which seemed random at the very beginning, began to make sense as connected to one another not only through events, networks, and gossip from the past, but also more concretely, through kinship, genealogy, and places. For the descendants of the origin spirits, these narratives constitute the family's past, while for outsiders they are part of a group history. Whatever concern initially brought an individual to a shaman—illness, bankruptcy, a legal dispute—might transform, fade away, or be resolved. The narratives, however, tend to take on lives of their own and are remembered and retold among various groups. My focus is these very narratives, the fragmented and detailed accounts of individual experiences. Inevitably interwoven with other representations of the past, such as paraphernalia, genealogy, myth, rituals, specific bodily acts, and individuals' dreams and imagination, they constitute the most detailed memories of the past. In this chapter, by selectively weaving together the narratives of spirits against a background of official histories, I compose a version of the Buryat past in place of the customary history chapter that usually begins most ethnographies. Because the Buryats were split up between Russia and Mongolia in 1729, I attend to the historical events that inluenced the faith of Buryats in both countries.

Layered Remembering: Russian Colonialism

The earliest known sources mention that the Khori were part of Chinggis Khan's empire in the thirteenth century. During a period of internal discord among the Mongol princes in the sixteenth century, the Khori Buryats became the subjects of Altan Khan, in western Mongolia. But Altan Khan gave them away as a gift to Buubei Beile as a part of his daughter's dowry. Rejecting their new master, the Khori escaped to the north and settled on the shores of Lake Baikal (part of the territories of the Khalkha Mongols). Most Khori Buryats trace their ancestral homelands to the shores of Lake Baikal, especially Oikhon (Ol'khon) Island and the Aga and Dul'durga steppes. Some contemporary Khori Buryats in Mongolia also claim a pre-Russian homeland in western Mongolia, where their ancestors had lived before leeing north; but the link to this distant past is weak compared to Buryats' deep nostalgia for their lost homeland in Transbaikalia.

Shortly after these Buryats settled in Transbaikalia, Russians began to explore the region's economic resources. Around 1625 they built fortresses on the western shore of Lake Baikal and subjugated the local population, forcing them to pay tribute to the czar in the form of mink, fox, and other furs in return for protection from attacks by Buubei Beile, from whom they had escaped (Humphrey 1979). But when the Russians' demand for tribute increased in the 1630s, numerous Buryats, including the Khori, refused to pay and moved, first from the western to the eastern shore of Lake Baikal and then farther east. The Buryats on the western shore of Lake Baikal (western Buryats) were soon subdued (Humphrey 1983). But the Buryats on the eastern shore (eastern Buryats), who had been a part of Chinggis Khan's empire, were skilled in fighting on horseback with bow and arrow, used the natural terrain to carry out ambushes, and waged guerrilla warfare in the forests (Forsyth 1992:87–89).

Given the Buryats' prolonged armed resistance to colonialism, which went on for centuries, it is no coincidence that a Buryat shaman adorned in full paraphernalia resembles a warrior in full armor. Humphrey (1995) calls the shaman "a citadel" (1996:204), "a fortified city" (1995:151), and "a world-conquering time machine" (1996:202). A shaman's paraphernalia mirrors military armament: for instance, the shaman's shield is a mirror; spiked armor is represented by an arhali (short cape), adorned with two giant snakes, that protects the shoulders, back, and arms; and the helmet is an uulen amitai (metal headdress covered with representations of snakes and crowned with antlers decorated with antique prayer scarves).

During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, many Buryats moved farther east to Mongolia and Manchuria, in northeastern China, to escape Russian colonialism (Forsyth 1992:92). Small-scale migrations continued sporadically throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The most recent notable move took place at the turn of the twentieth century, when many Buryats led from Russia to Mongolia to escape the turmoil of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and Russian civil war in 1905–1907. Divided between Russia and Mongolia, the history of the Buryats written by these two countries relects their political interests. The Russian empire considered the Buryats to be their colonial subjects and regarded them as a cultural other. The Soviets brought modernization, gave them the status of an autonomous region, and, in a political move intended to distance the Buryats from other Mongols, declared them a distinct nationality (natsia) with its own ethnogenetic roots, one that was unrelated to other Mongols. The Buryats who moved to Mongolia at the turn of the twentieth century ended up receiving little, if any, mention in the homogenizing history of the socialist state.

Although they are underrepresented in the official histories of these states, the Buryats carry their past in shamans adorned in full paraphernalia representing origin spirits, ancestral lands, and the spirit world. Each of the twenty-one separate objects of paraphernalia, from the coral bracelets to the metal headdress and the antelope-skin gown, belongs to a particular spirit and serves as a station for its descent. Since the origin spirits who occupy each piece of paraphernalia also possess the shamans who relay their narratives, the paraphernalia symbolizes an interactive history. Their geographical displacements have made the Buryats' connection with their past fragile. Yet they have developed ways to carry, care for, and keep in touch with their past through their portable and movable shamanism. Origin spirits play a special role in this process. By having settled their lost ancestral lands with their origin spirits when they led their homelands, the Buryats maintain their memories of their tragic past. Yet the spirits are mobile, so they are able to connect past and present, lost and settled lands, and human and celestial worlds.

The Buryats' displacement and the loss of their lands, combined with their nomadic lifestyle, prevented them from building tombs and cemeteries, maintaining archives and libraries, and erecting statues and monuments—the usual memorials created by sedentary populations. The shamanic paraphernalia are the tangible and objectified representation of the origin spirits. Each piece of paraphernalia is animated by an origin spirit. In order to summon these spirits, the descendants must remember each one's identity and identification. Each origin spirit has a name, kinship and social identifications, earthly and celestial titles, and huudal buudal—"addresses," or places of birth, death, residence, and visitations. These addresses point to multiple locations that mark the life passages of those who have become origin spirits: their birthplace, where they lived and died, and their rites of passage from burial through cremation to degdeh (ascent to the celestial world). The spirits also have buudaltai (places of descent) and naadamtai (places of play), shungalagtai (rivers and lakes to bathe in and streams to drink from) and guideltei (paths to run along, where they often cause mischief). The origin spirits also have institutional identities, since when they ascend to the celestial court they take on work—for example, serving deities such as Higan Tengri (the deity of warfare), Arin Arvan Gurvan Noyod (the Thirteen Lords of the North), or Darhan Dorlik (the deity of blacksmithing). The most common positions are haalgachin (door keeper), tulhuurchin (keeper of keys), and tahilch(in) (altar attendant). As shamans summon the origin spirits one by one, poetically reiterating the names, geographical locations, and social positions and relations with which they are associated, they recreate lost ancestral lands, fragments of the client's clan genealogy, and (parts of) the celestial world. Remembering the spirits means knowing these identities and addresses so that a shaman can evoke them. Each time a shaman reiterates a spirit's identifications—name, clan name, kinship affiliations—he or she reconstructs a piece of Buryat genealogy; with the reiteration of the huudal buudal (addresses), usually mountains, ravines, steppes, cliffs, rivers, and lakes where each spirit may ascend, descend, play, run, bathe, and drink, the shaman reconstructs the lost ancestral lands; by naming the origin spirits' celestial titles and the deities they serve (such as "key keeper of Burhan Garval"), a shaman reconstructs the Buryat celestial court; by summoning the spirits to descend into and take possession of their designated paraphernalia, a shaman reconstructs his or her full paraphernalia as well. By putting on the paraphernalia, a shaman brings the spirits into intimate association with his or her body, making him- or herself ready to be possessed by spirits. Adorned in spirit-saturated paraphernalia, the shaman appears as a condensation of the past.

There is, however, another important space to which the origin spirits descend, and it needs special mention. The clients and audiences attending the ritual make up the social space to which the spirits come. During the evocation, the shaman must introduce every participant, even visitors, to the spirits (which is why these introductory evocations alone can last an entire day). Every person at the ritual must inform the shaman of his or her name, age, ethnic group, parents' names, names of ancestors three generations back, clan name, and clan's uraa (cry). The shaman (or his or her assistant) writes down all that information in a notebook or on a piece of paper; he or she then introduces the participants to the spirits in chant by reiterating multiple times the identifications of each individual. The uraa, as the shaman Tömör puts it, is "parole"—a password used to identify members of the lineage and detect enemies. Each uraa is purposefully counterintuitive. For instance, the Bodonguud (wild boar) lineage has the shono mergen (wise wolf) uraa, and the Galzuud (crazy) lineage has the daagan (steed) uraa. In the past, during chaos and war, the uraa most likely was kept secret within a clan; today, however, it is a part of one's lineage identification, uttered openly during rituals. The introductions, although meant for the spirits, are actually culturally distinctive public introductions of all participants to one another.

Such introductions lead to another layer of remembering. During the possession of the shaman by origin spirits, audience members are told about their past—which is also the client's past. They then retell those stories to others outside the ritual; I often learned about individual families' origin spirits and their narratives from their acquaintances, neighbors, and friends. It was common for individuals to know about the origin spirits of other members of their community without necessarily getting to know those members themselves. By sharing their past with the larger community at rituals, individuals increased their chances of maintaining their past even if they died or forgot—even though this was almost never the original impetus for sharing. The ritual sharing of one's past adds another layer to ensuring the remembering. In the past, chaos and war made it necessary to deposit one's memory in as many media and mediators as possible, including relatives and clansmen, paraphernalia, and the mediator-shaman—to ensure that a memory would live on even if one of these people, places, or things were killed, destroyed, or lost. Oral histories tell of the displacement of children and a widespread loss of kin. When lineages reunited, especially for the purpose of fighting a common enemy, it was important to be able to distinguish relatives from foes based on the clan's uraa and stories about an individual's past.

Excerpted from Tragic Spirits by MANDUHAI BUYANDELGER. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

List of Abbreviations xiii

Note on Translation and Transliteration xv

Introduction The Return of the Suppressed 1

1 Mobile Histories 39

2 Technologies of Forgetting, State Socialism, and Potential Memories 67

3 Genealogies of Misfortune 99

4 Thriving and Silenced Stories 131

5 Ironies of Gender Neutrality 169

6 Persuasion and Power 203

7 Incomplete Lives 233

Notes 267

Glossary 281

References 283

Index 303

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