22 June 2010

Is shamanism just a sham?

(Guest post from Audrey)

Allow me to be smug: Not many tourists get to see shamans. Like Stephen and myself, most tourists come with a sceptical mind, and shamans are too proud to show their crafts to ignorant, hostile non-believers. We only got the chance through a friend from London, who in turn introduced us to her aunt who is a close relative to the shaman we visited.

I went in trying to be as objective and academic as possible. From this perspective of the curious “investigative journalist” who bombarded the shaman (called Gonchitsuren) with batteries of questions, it was easy to come to premature conclusions from his sensible responses and eloquence. Yes, shamans square each other up by studying the shades of colours emanating from their head; yes, shamans have the grave responsibility of teaching younger, lost generations “the right way”, as well as pray for rain during periods of draught. And yes, there is some gravity, and substance to what he said.

And yet the costume looked too flashy and the rituals too orchestrated for me not to question the ingenuity of it all. First of all you have the gadgets: mirrors hung about the chest and tummy to protect the inner soul and deflect evil spirits during the vulnerable trance session; rattles to impress and attract the attention of the selected spirits; eagle claws and bear paws to establish the bridge between the realms of mankind and spirits; seven-coloured strips, a bit like Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat for I don’t know what...

And then there is the trance itself. Gonchitsuren fell into trance way too quickly! Maybe I was being harsh – just like any disciples of 21st century civilisation I might be too ready to denounce the whole ritual as a performance (and a shaman does not dance his dance in order to prove himself to us anyways), but how can you beat the drum for just a minute and have the selected spirit come into you so quickly? (But then Gonchitsuren has already forewarned us that “spirits travel more quickly than our thoughts.”) How can you alter your state of mind in just a snap? As Gonchitsuren beat the drum his dance rhythm became more frantic, and then with a sudden jerk of movement he collapsed to the floor, only to be pulled up by his two assistants who stood close by.

There came an eerie silence – the drumbeat has stopped – and then came the croaks of an old man. For a minute I was suspended in surprise and awe: Maybe it is real after all, for how can Gonchitsuren feign this voice (or could he)? His two assistants started chatting to the spirit in a homely, casual manner, as you would when you are on the phone with granny. “Was the journey tiring? Want some cigarettes? We have guests with us here today!”

The spirit was slow in his speech, but burnt through two packs of cigarettes in his 45-minute visit. One by one he summoned members from the audience to seat beside him and receive his blessings. Stephen and I didn’t have to speak to the spirit, although in hindsight I probably should have said my name and “Thanks you, Good Bye!” at the end of our blessing. The spirit, however, told us not to be afraid (I wasn’t scared in the least bit – Gonchitsuren was feigning after all!) and swiped his whip down our back, beat us slightly on the bum and thighs, and pressed his hand on my head, while muttering something else. My friend translated his words afterwards: The spirit realised that we were travellers from afar (without being told by anybody) and told us to roll around in a mountain before leaving Mongolia, an advice that not even my friend made much fuss of. In the end the spirit blew some air on a small bowl of goat milk and handed it over to me, which I gulped down.

One by one we receive blessings from Mr. Old Man Spirit. I wished I could understand some Mongolian as he continued with his muttering, but our friend later explained that the spirit used such an ancient language that even she had difficulty understanding half of it.

So Mr. Spirit drank, smoked and sat there muttering for 45 minutes. Without much drama it eventually became tedious and repetitive, and made me understand what Stephen must have felt when he visited my Granny, who speaks no English. My mind started to wander, I started to pick holes and wonder whether I could have spent this hour more effectively elsewhere. After what seemed like eternity, the spirit decided to fly home. Gonchitsuren beat his drum again, and in a few second’s time returned to his normal human self. “Other spirits wanted in, so I had to hurry the last bit to block their way.” When my friend commented that he smoked a lot during the trance, he replied casually, “Why, this is my first cigarette of today! Ancient spirits are used to smoking pipes using self-rolled tobacco. They have to smoke more to compensate for the much diluted modern-day cigarettes.”

I rolled my eyes.


pok said...

Audrey - you are as cynical as the Irish - and and it is probably like talking to our Granny to - I tried it on the phone yesterday!

Talk soon.

King prawn said...

Hmmm interesting post (written with elegance and style, as usual;).

When you ask is Shamanism just a sham, I would say that the answer is yes and no.
It's as much a sham to us as Christianity is a sham to them.
Shamanism is part of there identity, like all religion's it's designed to give a sense of hope and comfort and to keep people in line.

They where bought up with it and understand it. I'm absolutely positive that if you asked a Mongol if Shamanism is real, they would answer yes with perfect faith and pure innocence.

If it was me there with you two, I would have done my best to look very agreeable and like a man who takes a cold bath every morning and keeps his mind clean (while keeping one eye on the girl with tits like footballs).