Mention the word “soul” and it is likely to elicit a wide variety of responses. For contemporary Americans, for example, the term may conjure up images of a very popular African-American music, a festive Halloween celebration, or even a delicious southern style meal. And for individuals with a religious bent, ideas about personal salvation and the afterlife are likely to be called to mind.
In Mongolia however the term has a unique history of its own. Its meaning is similar to the contemporary English word, yet there are very specific ideas about the souls’ relation to the individuals’ state of health.
Like medieval ideas about the existence of evil spirits that were a part of many European communities, the Mongolian tradition provides detailed examples of malevolent forces that can enter the body and cause physical harm in the form of sickness. Elaborate religious for the exorcism of these evil spirits were common in many parts of the world. Mongolia does however have a very intriguing ritual that is perhaps separate from these traditions and it has had a lasting impact upon many of its people to this very day.
Not only can malevolent spirits infiltrate the body but also the soul of an individual can be summoned by evil spirits to leave the body, as in the case of death. As means to counter these threats, elaborate religious rituals are performed by local shaman to call the soul back to the person’s body.
In a fascinating report of this activity, a British anthropologist, C.R. Bawden documented a Shaman’s attempt to call the soul homeward. The shaman said:
“In your wisdom, do not go beyond but come, hither. What will you go to Erlig* for?
Come leaning on the arms of the demons and sprites in the south. Do not let your soul go into the ground.
Take and partake of this blessed pure water.
Qung** Your …. is here. Your mother is here.
Your homeland is here. Your elder brother is here. Your younger brother is here.
Do not go beyond, beyond. Come hither, hither.
What will you go to the realm of Erlig for? Oh my dear come here!
Qung! Your sister is here. Your father’s elder sister is here. Your good clothes are here. Do not go beyond, beyond.
Come hither, hither. Oh my dear, come hear.
Good clothes of yours are here. Your’ dear loved ones are here. Why will you go to the realm of Erlig?
Do not go beyond, beyond. Come hither, hither.”
The Social Significance of Summoning Souls
A. Amarsanna, a cultural anthropologist at the National University of Mongolia, says about the process:
“Summoning souls is a very important social phenomenon as it is the product of an ancestral culture. The soul is connected to a person’s relationship with his or her ancestors. This is very significant, as there is a widespread belief that departed souls, and particularly the souls of ancestors, may have a tremendous influence upon daily life.
When evil spirits cause the soul to leave the body, a shaman will perform various rituals to not only restore health, but to reduce any fear that may be caused by the onset of the illness. From a psychological standpoint this is very important for the individuals’ state of mind and the well being of the greater community as well.
These rituals are performed because there is a belief that sickness is caused by malevolent spirits or forces. This is in contrast to modern scientific theories about the chemical and molecular causes of illness. And as Mongolia is influenced by a great diversity of ideas both traditional and modern, concepts like these often co-exist”.
A Contemporary Shaman at Work
B. Zorigtbaatar, a local shaman, explains his attempts to summon the soul back to a sick person’s body: ” The soul may escape when someone is shocked or becomes afraid. This may cause the person great harm or may even cause death. And because I have special powers, I am able to call the soul back to the body to restore the person’s health. I receive my abilities from heaven … I can see the soul in a person’s eyes. And I am able to see the souls of our ancestors … my special power comes from the moon, the stars and the sun.”
While Zorigtbaatar spoke in a rambling, even incoherent voice, he certainly seemed to lack no conviction about his ability to communicate with souls, spirits and a variety of celestial bodies. During a ceremony packed with people he acted like a man possessed by some sort of supernatural power. He banged upon his drum and shouted in a deep gravelly voice: “Spirit please come back! Return to our hearth and home! Again spirit please come back! Return to our hearth and home!”.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Zorigtbaatar’s performance was his imposing, even intimidating appearance. The bearded robust shaman weighs perhaps 140 kilos. And as he performed a series of short dance steps, someone with an active imagination could even claim to have heard thunder.
Yet it was Zorigtbaatar’s emotional intensity that left the deepest impression. As his gritty voice rose and fell with tremendous differences in volume, it was accompanied by a quivering tone that seemed connected to some sort of religious fervor. And as I watched alternating facial grimaces that were perhaps indicative of excruciating pain and blissful ecstasy, I wondered whether this shaman was in fact in touch with some sort of deep magical experience.
I also wondered about the people who had come to witness this very surreal event. Were they in serious trouble? Were they merely trying to bring good fortune for themselves? Or were they just attracted to the sheer spectacle of this colorful happenstance.
Summoning Souls in the Twenty-First Century
As I left the shaman’s sweltering ger after witnessing this dramatic event, my feelings were quite difficult to describe. I asked myself about the significance of such a ceremony in our very modern world. I also wondered about its impact upon the local people, whether good or bad. And I also wondered about the extent to which this ceremony matched similar rituals that had been performed elsewhere in the very distant past.
With all of this in mind it is fascinating to consider the thoughts that lie behind this ancient ritual. Ideas about the material existence of mankind are surely a part of this event. A tendency to apply supernatural causes to explain ordinary daily events would seem to be a part of this process. Perhaps they are just ancient rituals performed as a means to provide concrete answers to various human problems, in a world that may prove only too bewildering.
And for modern people who enjoy the prospect of attempting to understand the psychology behind these behaviors, and most importantly the ancient traditions of a nomadic people, the opportunity to witness such a ceremony is indeed gratifying. It is at the same time however somewhat ironic that such activities are now again becoming increasingly prevalent as Mongolia enters the twenty-first century. We can only ponder what these activities might mean in the not so distant future.
Bawden, C.R., Calling the Soul: A Mongolian Litany, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 25, No. 1/# (1962), pp 81-103.
* Erlig: a) king of the underworld, the underworld, to die, to kill; b) a demon of the underworld, angel of death; C) enemy, bane.
** Qung: There is uncertainty about the transcription of the term “Qung” in the aforementioned text. There may have been an error when copying the term from the original transcription. The author believes that it is most probably an exclamation.