Healing and Causes of Illness

The root cause of all illness is imbalance of a person’s souls caused
either by intrusions by foreign spirits or outright soul loss caused by
spiritual or physical trauma. Shamans are aware of the fact that the
physical symptoms of illness must also be treated, and herbal medicines are
administered by shamans in addition to the spiritual healing. The spiritual
aspect of the illness however is important because the physical symptoms
alone are not the true problem. Spirit intrusion and soul loss suppress the
body’s natural capability to heal itself, so unless the spiritual ailment
is cured the physical disease will never truly be healed.

Spirits that cause illness may be chotgor, hostile ancestor spirits,
burhan, or evil shamans. Chotgor, ancestor spirits, and other less powerful
nature spirits can often be cured by singing or waving of the dalbuur over
the patient. The disease spirit may also be removed by sucking or pulling
gestures that draw it out of the body. More powerful spirits or hostile
shamans will require going into trance. Burhan are the most powerful and
may need sacrifices to make them go away. The shaman may use knives, a red
hot iron, or a bow and arrow to scare the disease spirit or blind it with
reflected light from his mirror. An ongon or the toli may be used to catch
a spirit in order to keep it from jumping into another person when it is
expelled, or the shaman may temporarily absorb it into his body. In such
cases the shaman travels part of the way to the lower world and then bids
the spirit to return to the lower world and leave the patient alone. If a
temporary ongon is used it is then thrown away in a natural place or
destroyed so that the spirit will not return to it.

Some healings actually involve spiritual warfare. A shaman may physically
struggle violently with a stubborn spirit, even using weapons, and his
spirits fight alongside him to subdue or drive away the intruder. A special
nature spirit may be called specifically for the healing and housed in an
ongon that will protect the patient. When a hostile shaman is causing
illness an ongoing war between the local clan shaman and that of an enemy
clan may ensue. These spiritual battles may last for long periods of time
and may result in the death of the weaker shaman. Shamans who routinely
aggressively attack other people may lose their ability to heal, however,
and such shamans lose their status within the community or are even killed

Soul retrieval is usually necessary in cases of severe and chronic illness.
The absence of the ami or suns souls make it practically impossible for a
body to function normally. The ami soul remains in this world and can
generally be easily found and returned to the body by a shaman. The suns
may linger near the body, but if it goes on to the lower world a difficult
and dangerous journey by the shaman is required to return it. When a lost
soul is found it is placed in the shaman’s ear or inside the drum for the
return trip, then shaken out back into the body. When a spirit has stolen a
soul the shaman may need to fight it to let it go. Soul retrievals are the
most dangerous work for shamans because they have to travel outside their
bodies for long distances and they are vulnerable to attack and soul loss
themselves during the journey.

Back to The Course in Mongolian Shamanism