Becoming a Shaman

Shamans are distinguished from other people in that they have a shaman
spirit which selects and initiates them. This spirit is known by many
names, including utha, and onggor among the Buryat and Dagur. It acts like
an extra soul and is a source of power and controls the shaman’s encounters
with other spirits, some of which may also become helper spirits. While a
shaman may show a proclivity for shamanizing from an early age, the utha (I
use the Buryat term for simplicity) will manifest itself suddenly,
resulting in mental or physical illness. During the course of the illness
the shaman-to-be will have a vision in which the utha will initiate him.
Common elements in the vision include travel to the upper world and the
dismemberment and reassembly of the shaman’s body so that it will be new
and empowered for his work. When the new shaman falls ill, the shaman who
will examine him will recognize at once that he has been selected by an
utha spirit. At that point if he agrees to become a shaman he can be
healed, otherwise he will usually die. The training and initiation which
follow his recovery are only a confirmation of the initiation which he
experienced in the spirit world.

The duties of a shaman include healing, blessing, protection, hunting
magic, and occasionally weather magic. Healing is the most important of
these because spirits are the cause of illness. Spirits can also be called
to provide protection and improve luck. Hunting magic rituals put the
shaman in touch with the animal and nature spirits who provide or withhold
game. Weather magic usually involves rainmaking or sending lightning back
to the sky, and requires direct contact with Tenger. Some rituals such as
the oboo ceremony and ominan ritual last for several days and are meant to
promote the welfare of the entire community. Shamans’ work may vary from
simple fortunetelling to grand rituals lasting several days. Depending on
the difficulty of the task a shaman may invoke his spirits to help him or
to actually enter his body when a lot of power is needed. Shamans usually
sing, drum and dance during performances.

Shamans use several different tools in their work. Their costume and ongons
are actual residences of their helper spirits. A one-sided hand held drum,
usually 60 cm or more in diameter is used to drive the singing and dancing
which are a part of most ceremonies. After the drum the most important tool
of the shaman is the toli, a metallic circular mirror. A shaman will attach
many toli to his costume if he can obtain them, but one toli over the chest
is most important. A toli acts like armor, deflecting spirit attack, it can
reflect light to blind spirits, and is also absorbs energy from the
universe to increase the shaman’s power. Most shamans usually also have one
or two staffs that represent horses which he rides on spirit journeys.
Another tool which is found in many tribes is the dalbuur, a ritual fan
which is used to drive out spirits from patients. Other musical instruments
may be used by shamans, the jaws harp (aman huur) being the most common.
Shamans from some tribes use masks, but the most common one is the bear
mask used for the ominan ritual.

Back to The Course in Mongolian Shamanism