(As a bit of background, Lake Khovsgol and the region surrounding it are an extremely spiritual place. As a result, the area is notorious for producing a greater number of shamans than any other region in Mongolia. Shamanism is a widely practiced religion or philosophy in Mongolia. After nearly a month of learning about the mixture of Shamanistic and Buddhist beliefs that shape the spiritual life of the average Mongolian family, I asked if I could visit a shaman. Our guide, Sena, worked hard to find a reputable shaman who would allow foreigners to not only witness, but participate in the ritual of speaking to the spirits. This was not an easy task as shamans believe that these practices are sacred and do not want to become a tourist attraction. Art was not keen on engaging the spirits, but I have a fascination with religion and am always curious to experience ancient traditions that are new to me. While I found some of the practices to be amusing, startling, and bizarre, they are no more peculiar than genuflecting, acolytes lighting candles, mass recitations of prayers and creeds, and being fed bread and wine by the pastor in the Christian churches I'm used to. Overall, I was most surprised by the positivity the shamans seem to spread. Sena said that it is very rare for them to give any news that isn’t spun in a positive light. Happiness is very important in Mongolian culture.)
Even with the above knowledge, I was not fully prepared for what would be one of the wildest experiences of my life! We (our driver, Ishva, our guide Sena, myself, and my husband Art) drove into the darkness near Lake Khovsgol and after about ten minutes of twisting and turning down pitch, black roads that seem to lead to nowhere, a 40 something year old woman appears. Her silver silk blouse and matching pants are illuminated by our headlights and shimmer as she waves us down. She's smiling and seems more chipper and friendly than the average Mongolian woman. She greets us in her native tongue and motions for us to follow her. Sena quickly asks if it is okay for Art to come with us. She says, “yes”. Ishva, who is normally ready to join in on any of our adventures opts to ‘watch the car’ as he wants no part in the supernatural event that is about to take place. An ominous start, indeed. We follow the woman behind a fence, through a small yard, and into a yurt also known as a ger (the nomadic tent homes common in Mongolia) that smells like sour milk. The woman’s teenage daughter and son dash in and out of the yurt fetching and delivering various objects at their mother’s request, sitting down in readiness between each directive. Through our guide and translator, Sena, the shaman asks my birthdate. I tell her and she directs one of her children to run and fetch a calendar from the neighboring ger. She tells Sena that according to the Mongolian calendar, I am a fiery rabbit. I have no idea how this factors into my upcoming conversation with the shaman, or what a fiery rabbit signifies, but I suppose that it can’t be bad based on everyone’s matter of fact reaction and, suggestively, I decide the description is apt. Art has been known to refer to me as “spicy” on occasion, a description of my “unique” attitude – so fiery pretty much nails it.
The mother then scurries about and moves some curtains at the north side of the ger and starts flinging milk on a bunch of scarves hanging on the back wall of the yurt. Obviously, this was the source of the sour milk smell. The milk has hardened into thick layers over the scarves to the point that they were now barely recognizable and rather petrified. The kids come back in from outside, burn some incense, and fiddle with hot coals from the fire placing them in bags and waving them around. Although my shaman is in more traditional dress, her son and daughter could be any teenager back home. The daughter is wearing an Adidas jacket and Levi high waisted skinny jeans. The boy has the familiar teen hairstyle now common the world over – super short on the sides and long on top. He's wearing slim jeans and a Nike hoodie. Having traveled in many remote places, I still never fail to be amazed at the traditional dress and manners retained by the elders in obscure locations contrasted with the striking modernity of their youth who, whether in the wide Mongolian plains or an obscure Ugandan village, look no different than any teenager walking home from school in New York or LA.
The mother begins beating a giant drum with a reindeer and moon painted on it. She suddenly puts it down and the daughter brings her some leather moccasin-like shoes. The mother holds the openings of them to her mouth and begins whispering into each shoe for a solid two minutes before putting them on her feet. Once her shoes are enchanted, the mother stands up and her children help her put on a very large, old, beaten fox skin coat that has all sorts of prayer scarves tied to it. The slight, young son is 4-5 inches shorter than both his mother and sister and struggles to lift the huge, engulfing, thick fur high enough for his mother to get her arms into it. Both of the kids laugh at his pitiful effort while their shaman mother retains her spiritual fervor, oblivious to her not wholly reverent children. As the sister finishes helping the mother into the coat, the brother picks up another sartorial piece – the shaman headdress. The headdress has tons of feathers that stick straight up and a leather mask on the front that covers the mother’s eyes, nose, and a little bit of her mouth. His sister helps him place this cumbersome mask on the mother’s head. The whole costume looks very similar to what I would imagine a Native North American/Canadian chief in traditional clothing might wear.
Now in full regalia, the mother starts singing, beating the drum, and swaying. Eventually, her voice changes and her singing increases in volume as the dancing becomes more furious. Thankfully, Sena gave us a short pre-brief on what might occur and we know that the mother/shaman is now inhabited by an ancient spirit or, as Art fearfully exclaimed in the car, “you mean she’s going to be possessed and I’m not supposed to worry!?” Although, the scene isn’t nearly as eerie as he had anticipated with the woman’s younger children so near. The son is sitting across the yurt from us watching benignly. He’s trying not to fall asleep.
The daughter then stands in front of the wood burning stove to keep her possessed mother/shaman from falling into it as her mother whirls, gyrates and careens hither thither, occasionally heading straight for the fire (which she clearly has done in the past because one of the poles that hold up the center of the yurt right next to the stove has been haphazardly repaired from being snapped in half). The sing-yelling and dancing mother/shaman is getting frighteningly close to the fire as if compelled to the gates of hell (that’s the vision I’m enjoying spooking myself with anyway) and the girl keeps pushing her away; however, in between the moments necessitating blocking mom from the fire, she admires her gold sparkly nail polish like any normal teenager girl during a pause in activity. She's obviously not remotely fazed by her possessed mother’s spectacle.
Abruptly, the frantic dancing and singing slows, and the spirit, via the mother, sits and starts demanding milk, vodka, and tobacco. I’ve long known that alcohol and tobacco or other smokeable plants are definitely foods of the gods, but milk is a new one on me. The son jumps up from his seat and runs around gathering all of these items. He screws up the tobacco part (he was supposed to put it in a pipe – I mean how else is one to smoke it?) and the possessed mother/spirit yells and throws it at him as he tries to dodge it and not laugh.
Done with her sips of milk and vodka, she gets back up and continues singing, dancing, and beating her drum in her weird spirit voice. Her back is facing all of us while she dances. I’m finally becoming lulled by the dancing and singing when out of nowhere she screams and throws her drum stick (which is basically a heavy mortar-like baton with all sorts of leather and prayer scarves tied to it) at me. I'm seated and it slams painfully against my legs. Our guide translates that she yelled "are you testing me with these foreigners?!?!?"
Her daughter runs over and grabs the stick and gives it back to her and she no sooner gets it back in her hand that WHAM, she throws it at me again! Her daughter says in Mongolian "they're not testing you! They just want to ask you some questions." Mothershaman gets back to her singing and drumming and stomping. It goes on for another five minutes. At this point, I'm trying so hard not to laugh or smile and keep a straight face as she continues. Then, she yells for me to come over and kneel at her feet. I oblige, and WHAM I get hit across the face with her damn, drum baton. I squeak and cover my cheek bone in pain.
I glance at Art and can tell he is ready to whoop the spirit's ass for hitting me. The daughter is translating to my guide who tells me. "It's ok. This is totally normal! You need to bow your head down to the floor". Then WHACK WHACK WHACK she hits me on the back with her instrument of spiritual torture and I shriek, "Owwww this hurts!!!" Sena and the daughter tell me not to freak out and attempt to assure me this is normal shaman behavior. The mother then covers my head in her smelly rotting fur robe as I try to protect it with my hands like I’m crouching under a school desk prepping for a tornado in Texas. She then begins swatting me with the tassel scarf end of the drum baton. My guide says, "she's just chasing away the bad spirits. She'll finish in a minute." I’m thinking there is nothing normal about this and these must be some nasty spirits if she has to beat them this hard to get them to leave!
The shaman/mother finally quits striking me and sits cross-legged in front of me. I'm still kneeling and semi-covered by her robe scarf/tassels. She's lightly beating the drum and singing softly, the daughter is kneeling next to her and my guide is next to me. She starts saying things and the daughter is translating to the guide. It's supposedly a weird voice. But it's not that weird to me because I can't understand anything in contemporary Mongolian let alone some ancient dialect so it’s all bizarre even if it’s not supposed to be. My guide tells me she said that I should not wear black and I will suffer a small injury but I will be fine. And I'm thinking, "That’s hardly a prophecy. She just whacked me across the face with that baton drumstick thing! Small injury indeed!"
The shaman whispers some things and then my guide starts asking the possessed mom (aka shaman) in native tongue, via her daughter, the questions to which I seek spiritual guidance. My guide tells me she'll translate everything at the end because the spirit is impatient. So in between the shaman mother’s singing and weird voice answers, Sena reads the questions we prepared in advance and stored on her iPhone notes. After the question answer session, the still possessed Shaman tells Art to come and kneel next to me and she lightly beats him with her drum baton and then she puts the drum over both of us. Art wanted no part in the speaking to the spirits, but now that he’s in the yurt as a voyeur he can’t decline participating in the ceremonies when asked. The drum she puts over us is about 3 feet wide. She is beating it and singing as we are bowed down, heads touching the ground. Our guide whispers that this is not just a song, but a protection incantation intended to guard us from evil and those who wish us ill will. Then, the mother/shaman starts howling like a wolf and cawing like a bird. I'm trying so hard not to laugh and thankful I'm kneeling and bowing so no one can see my face. She eventually finishes making animal sounds and the daughter lets our guide know that we can sit back down.
The shaman gets back to singing and dancing and then our guide whispers that the spirit is leaving. It, the spirit/mother/shaman, starts screaming. The kids are running back and forth getting their mother's del (which is a traditional overcoat that all of the Mongolian women and men wear) and her hat and belt. The daughter then runs to get more milk and makes kissy noises to get her mom's possessed mask face to turn near her so she can put the silver bowl of milk to her lips. Suddenly, the mother/spirit flings it away and the daughter quickly starts a tandem act of pulling the crazy coat with scarves and fur off of mom and getting her back into her del. The daughter hands the fur scarf coat to the brother who, again, can barely carry it. Now they've lost the hat in the shuffle to get clothes on and off of mom and the brother is running everywhere looking for it. He finds it and pulls the mask off of his mother and puts the hat on her head, but mom is still possessed, despite the loss of her spirit dress, and demands her drum baton. She's waving it about yelling and singing. The brother is now clearly at a loss. The sister yells at him and pushes him to go get the bundle of dried thyme which he lights on fire, but it ignites like gasoline and he can't blow it out and he’s only making the fire bigger by waving it around. As he’s about to light the yurt on fire, he shouts "help!" in Mongolian to his sister who quickly blows it out like it’s a birthday cake covered in candles. He waves the now smoking thyme around his possessed mother who suddenly faints backward as the daughter sort of catches her and lays her on the floor.
The mother begins to regain consciousness as the brother is waving the smoking thyme around and the mother sings a bit more before falling silent at last. The mother twitches a little bit and they take her drum baton and our guide declares "the spirit is gone!"
Finally, our guide, Sena, begins to translate the answers to my questions the shaman had delivered when possessed. The “don’t wear black” was unsolicited advice, but Sena told me that most shamans say this. They aren’t fans of dark colors in Mongolia and associate black with evil. As far as she has experienced, I won’t be doomed for wearing black. (Good news, because 80% of the clothes I packed are black.) She also clarified that the earlier prediction of the small injury I would receive would be to my right leg, would be in the near future, but would not be grave. These earlier warnings aside, the answers to my questions were all positive. We will gain increasing financial stability and prosperity over the next 3 years. We'll have some small bumps in the road, but nothing major. We'll have two kids, but we won’t have the first for two years. The kids won't be close in age. She said my life will be a little unpredictable for the next year, so the spirit that possesses her is going to watch over me and protect me for the year. She put a protection over both Art and me to ward off people with malicious intent. She said she talked to my grandmother's spirit and that my grandmother’s spirit likes to visit with my dad, but she will stop doing that soon because she is no longer needed. She also said that my grandmother had a curved back. Overall, she said that I need to stop worrying about the future because my life will be happy with my husband and I will be successful. I can’t help but think that this is just the sort of insight I might have received a good deal less painfully and chaotically from a quiet fortune teller with a deck of Tarot cards or crystal ball. I’m still processing the wild scene and find it hard to believe so much happened in just less than a mere hour. However, we only live once, so I’m determined to leave no spiritual stone unturned in my journey through life, and this will long be an experience to remember.
By this point, the shaman mother is sitting on the carpet at the north side of the ger somewhat frazzled from the possession, chanting, and dancing, but smiling and pleased with her efforts. She asks if I’m okay (does she remember beating me while possessed?) and if I have any more questions. I told her that I was happy to receive good news and that I was concerned for her after her fall while possessed. She replied that she was fine and just a little tired and that the fall left her unscathed. I thanked her, like any dutiful supplicant, for her time and for letting me talk to the spirit. She wished us a good night, and we left to return to our home for the night.
If you ever make the trip to Mongolia, and it should be on your must visit list, definitely set aside an hour to spend with a spirit-filled shaman – and don’t forget your knee pads, shinguards and batting helmet.