Riding the Cosmic Steed

Shaman trance entails travel on the spirit plane of existence, and the
shaman usually experiences this as either flying or riding an animal which
will carry him to the place in the three world where he is needed. These
spirit journeys may take the shaman to places in this world, or may require
him to travel to the upper or lower worlds. Lower world journeys are
usually only required in cases of soul retrieval or bringing a dead
person’s soul to Erleg Khan. Most other rituals will require the shaman to
travel on earth or ascend to the upper world. Lower world journeys are the
most difficult, and only the strongest shamans can go there safely.

Spirit journeys usually start by moving upward, and even when going to the
lower world the trip will start with flight, frequently out through the
smoke hole of the ger. The shaman may take the from of a bird or ride a
flying supernatural mount. During the course of the journey the shaman may
change form several times, at one point being a bird, at the next in human
form, and then taking on the form of a bear, depending on which spirits are
guiding him or entering his body. The shaman may utter animal sounds as he
goes through these transformations. He may appear to be unconscious during
the journey, or may remain conscious but in a trancelike state and will be
capable of moving around, dancing, or even telling his audience about what
he sees. While in this state of mind the shaman is capable of acting
completely out of character and can perform dangerous feats that he would
be incapable of doing otherwise such as stabbing himself or walking on
fire. Most Altaic shamans speak of passing nine landmarks (olohs) during a
journey regardless of which world they are traveling in.

The mount which a shaman rides during his travels is usually a flying horse
or deer. These are physically represented by the one or two shaman staffs
which he keeps handy during the ritual, or may be represented by his drum.
Before a ritual starts the drum is warmed by the fire, this is called
amiluulah, making the drum come alive. The drum not only drives the vision
by its steady beat, but is literally the steed upon which the shaman rides
to his destination. Upon returning from his journey the shaman will cough
or belch to expel the spirits which were riding with him inside his body.
He then sings in praise of his spirit helpers before completing the ritual.

Back to The Course in Mongolian Shamanism