Shamanism has been practiced in Mongolia and its surrounding areas (including Buryatia) at least since the age of recorded history. In the earliest known stages it was intricately tied to all other aspects of social life and to the tribal organization of Mongolian society. Along the way, it has become influenced by and mingled with Buddhism. During the socialist years of the twentieth century it was heavily repressed and has since made a comeback.
Yellow shamanism is the term used to designate the particular version of shamanism which incorporates rituals and traditions from Buddhism. "Yellow" indicates Buddhism in Mongolia, since most Buddhists there belong to what is called the Gelug or "Yellow sect" of Tibetan Buddhism, whose members wear yellow hats during services. The term also serves to distinguish it from a form of shamanism not influenced by Buddhism (according to its adherents), called "black shamanism".
Mongolian shamanism is an all-encompassing system of belief that includes medicine, religion, a cult of nature, and a cult of ancestor worship. Central to the system were the activities of male and female intercessors between the human world and the spirit world, shamans (böge) and shamanesses (idugan). They were not the only ones to communicate with the spirit world: nobles and clan leaders also performed spiritual functions, as did commoners, though the hierarchy of Mongolian clan-based society was reflected in the manner of worship as well.
Spirit world and class
Klaus Hesse described the complex spiritual hierarchy in clan-based Mongolian society based on sources that go back to the 13th century. The highest group in the pantheon consisted of 99 tngri (55 of them benevolent or "white" and 44 terrifying or "black"), 77 natigai or "earth-mothers", besides others. The tngri were called upon only by leaders and great shamans and were common to all the clans. After these, three groups of ancestral spirits dominated. The "Lord-Spirits" were the souls of clan leaders to whom any member of a clan could appeal for physical or spiritual help. The "Protector-Spirits" included the souls of great shamans (ĵigari) and shamanesses (abĵiya). The "Guardian-Spirits" were made up of the souls of smaller shamans (böge) and shamanesses (idugan) and were associated with a specific locality (including mountains, rivers, etc.) in the clan's territory.
The difference between great, white and small, black (in shamans, tngri, etc.) was also formative in a class division of three further groups of spirits, made up of "spirits who were not introduced by shamanist rites into the communion of ancestral spirits" but who could nonetheless be called upon for help—they were called "'the three accepting the supplications' (jalbaril-un gurban)". The whites were of the nobles of the clan, the blacks of the commoners, and a third category consisted of "the evil spirits of the slaves and non-human goblins". White shamans could only venerate white spirits (and if they called upon black spirits they "lost their right in venerating and calling the white spirits"), black shamans only black spirits (and would be too terrified to call upon white spirits since the black spirits would punish them). Black or white was assigned to spirits according to social status, and to shamans "according to the capacity and assignment of their ancestral spirit or spirit of the shaman's descent line."
Various aspects of shamanism, including the tngri and their chief deity Qormusata Tngri, are described in the thirteenth-century The Secret History of the Mongols, the earliest historical source in Mongolian. Sources from that time period, though, do not present a complete or coherent system of beliefs and traditions. A much richer set of sources is found from the seventeenth century on; these present a Buddhist-influenced "yellow" shamanism but in the opinion of many scholars they indicate the continued tradition of an older shamanism.
Buddhism first entered Mongolia during the Yuan Dynasty (thirteenth-fourteenth century) and was briefly established as a state religion. The cult of Gengis Khan, who had been accepted into the tngri, the highest pantheon of spirits in Mongolian shamanism, became annexed into Buddhist practice as well. Mongolia itself was at a political and developmental standstill until the sixteenth century, when after the conversion of Altan Khan Buddhism re-established itself. In 1691, after Outer Mongolia had been annexed by the Qing Dynasty, Buddhism became the dominant religion of the entire area and shamanism began incorporating Buddhist elements. Violent resistance in the eighteenth century by the hunting tribes of Northern Mongolia against the (Buddhist) ruling group, the Khalka Mongols, led to the foundation of black shamanism.
During the Soviet domination of the Mongolian People's Republic, all varieties of shamanism were repressed; after 1991, when the era of Soviet influence was over, religion (including Buddhism and shamanism) made a comeback. Recent research by anthropologists has indicated that shamanism continues to be a part of Mongolian spiritual life; Ágnes Birtalan, for instance, recorded a series of invocations and chants to the important deity Dayan Deerh in 2005 in Khövsgöl Province.
The territory of the Buryats, who live around Lake Baikal, was invaded by the Russian Empire in the seventeenth century, and came to accept Buddhism in the eighteenth century at the same time they were recognizing themselves as Mongol; to which extent Buryat shamanism mixed with Buddhism is a matter of contention among scholars. A nineteenth-century division between black and white shamanism, where black shamanism called on evil deities to bring people misfortune while white shamanism invoked good deities for happiness and prosperity, had completely changed by the twentieth century. Today, black shamanism invokes traditional shamanic deities, whereas white shamanism invokes Buddhist deities and recites Buddhist incantations but wears black shamanist accoutrements. White shamans worship Sagaan Ubgen and Burkhan Garbal (the "Ancestor of Buddhism").
An important attribute for Mongolian shamans is shared with all other shamanisms of Inner Asia. Mongolian shaman drums may incorporate the shaman's ongon or ancestral spirit, as in a drum described by Carole Pegg, where the drum handle represents that ongon. The drum's skin was often made of horse skin, the drum itself standing for "the saddle animal on which the shaman rides or the mount that carries the invoked spirit to the shaman."
- Birtalan, Ágnes (2005). "An Invocation to Dayan Dērx Collected from a Darkhad Shaman's Descendant". In Kara György. The Black Master: Essays on Central Eurasia in Honor of György Kara on His 70th Birthday. Otto Harrassowitz Verlag. pp. 21–33. ISBN 9783447051866. Retrieved 14 August 2012.
- Hesse, Klaus (1986). "A Note on the Transformation of White, Black and Yellow Shamanism in the History of the Mongols". Studies in History 2 (1): 17–30. doi:10.1177/025764308600200102.
- Hesse, Klaus (1987). "On the History of Mongolian Shamanism in Anthropological Perspective". Antrhopos 82 (4–6): 403–13. JSTOR 40463470.
- Мелетинский, Е.М. (1998). "ЦАГАН ЭБУГЕН". Мифология (4th ed.). Большая российская энциклопедия.
- Pegg, Carole (2001). Mongolian Music, Dance, & Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities. U of Washington P. ISBN 9780295981123. Retrieved 13 August 2012.
- Shimamura, Ippei (2004). Yellow Shamans (Mongolia). In Walter, Mariko Namba; Neumann Fridman, Eva Jane. "Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture". Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture 1. ABC-CLIO. pp. 649–651. ISBN 9781576076453.
- Bira, Shagdar (2011). "Regarding the history of Tngri cult of Mongols". III Международная научно-практическая конференция — Тенгрианство и эпическое наследие народов Евразии: истоки и современность, 1 по 3 июля 2011 (in Russian).