Mongolian Shamanism: experiencing an ancient ritual deep in Mongolia’s Mini Gobi Desert

Mongolian shaman at the family prayer stand the morning after his ritual

Read about my experience staying with a Mongolian Shaman in the Mini Gobi Desert.

In the middle of the mini Gobi Desert a dust storm began to form outside the ger my two friends and I were staying in. It was just after dinner as we were enjoying a game of cards with one of the children that his brother, a shaman, became possessed by two spirits. Little did we know that on this full moon, as a dust storm pounded the outside of our ger, we were going to become a part of a shamanist ritual.

Experiencing Mongolian throat singing was a treat but finding out your host family’s son was a shaman and possessed by two spirits is something completely different. It was just after dinner when we heard a drumming sound from outside the ger. With a full moon and a dust storm building outside we were surprised when the families 16 year old son came stumbling in from outside. Quickly ushered to the side of the ger by our guide Solyolo we were told that the boy was a shaman and would be performing a spiritual ritual.

Nomadic family ger in the Mini Gobi Desert, Mongolia

Sitting along the side of the ger we watched the boy, as if drunk, stumble around the ger almost falling into the centrally located wood burning stove several times. During this tirade his father, who is also his sponsor, rushed to help him put on his costume; a vibrant emerald green outfit embroidered with gold Mongolian symbols, wolf skin topped with an eagles scull, and maroon hat with a yellow stitched face its black strings flowing down to covering the shamans face.

During the ritual two spirits entered the shaman; the first was an old man. After a dance like enactment the shaman sat down at the back of the ger while his father prepared a cigarette for him. Talking in a low hoarse growl like tone the boy invited his family members over to talk with him as he smoked. The cigarettes were put into a cigarette holder and the first one he had seemed to disappear in a single breath.

Periodically as the ritual progressed the shaman would rise from his sitting position at the back of the ger hunched over and struggling as if he were a hundred years old. Once on his feet he would use a wooden shaft to beat an animal skin drum as he spun in circles in a dance like trance. The purpose of this act was to channel the other spirit; an old woman.

The landscape around the ger located in the Mini Gobi Desert, Mongolia.

She was different from the first spirit and spoke in a raspy high pitched voice that made it seem old. Again different family members were summoned by the shaman and kneeling in front of him he spoke to each of them in an ancient voice. As he spoke different drinks were prepared for him including vodka and at one point boiling hot milk, of which he chugged a bowl.

Several times during the ritual he became sick and on a few occasions spoke in tongues, a language that only he and his father could understand. After the ritual we were told that he was telling his family members how to live good lives and advice for their future. When the ritual finally came to an end the boy took a red hot iron tool from the stove and quickly touched it to his tongue several times before dipping it in water.

Solyolo informed my friends and I that the spirits were ancient family spirits of the past and had possessed the shaman boy several months back. Visits by these ancient spirits are unplanned and even the shaman doesn’t know exactly when to channel them. As Solyolo said, we were lucky to witness this ancient ritual. A religious ceremony that Chenggis Khan would have witnessed as he too was into shamanism, a religion that Solyolo told us has recently been gaining more popularity in Mongolia.

Mongolian nomadic family. The shawman is wearing a gold outfit posing in the middle of the picture

For the family, this boys calling to be a shaman was important as it caused his alcoholic father to quit drinking in order to focus on his job of being a good sponsor to his shaman son. For us it was a glimpse into an unfamiliar religion and an ancient Mongolian practice that dates back to the days of Chinggis Khan.
That night when the nearly two hour ritual was over our hosts prepared mats for us on the ger floor and my three friends and I settled for bed as the winds of the dust storm howled outside. Unfortunately, the central part of the roof ripped off causing dust and cold to fill the one room house. Meanwhile, the shaman boy slept on a bed next to us groaning and calling out into the night as he did when the spirits were leaving his body at the end of the ritual. It certainly was a night to remember.

Ian Yacobucci

Traveling the Trans-Siberian, mountaineering the Himalayas, or teaching in Tokyo, I'm always trying something new. As a someone who's worked, studied, and traveled to 40+ countries around the world, I'm here to share my experiences so you can do the same.

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