Report on "Central Asian Shamanism: Past and Present," The 5th Conference of ISSR, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (Section One)

Daniel A. Kister (Seoul)


The Fifth Conference of the International Society for Shamanistic Research was one of the best that has been had in terms of good organization, adequate translation, balance of academic presentation with contact with on-the scene shamans, and the hospitality of the hosts. Section One of the conference had as its general theme, "Central Asian Shamanism: Past and Present" and was the venue for the presentation of twenty papers.

Shamans are generally thought of as persons with special psychic powers, healing powers, and powers in dealing with or manipulating spirits. The papers presented in Section One of this conference, however, said very little about such powers. There were papers dealing with the relation between present-day shamanic rituals and historical documents, between the rites and social structures, between the rites and epic narratives, and between the poetry of the narratives and modern Mongolian poetry. There were presentations on the meaning of ritual symbols, on the dance of shamanic rituals, on drumming and the significance of the shaman’s drum, on the mathematics involved in the shaman’s costume, on the poetry and metrics of shamanic chants, and on the light that shamanic chants can shed on the Mongolian language. There was only one paper, however, that of Professor Romano Mastromattei on Nepalese shamanism, that centered on the shaman’s special ability to enter trance and deal with the spirits so as to promote healing.

In private conversation toward the beginning of the conference, Gregory G. Maskarinec proposed the idea that shamanic activity in general deals mainly with language; and the papers presented in Section One point in this direction. The papers manifest very little concern about shamans’ manipulation of the spirits, but much about their manipulation of the imagination of ritual participants and about their manipulation of language–the language of ritual symbols, the language of poetry, the language of drumming and dance, the language of costume, the language of numbers. Probably without recognizing the fact, the presenters of Section One seemed to acknowledge that shamanism is, indeed, a matter of language. Their common endeavor was to understand some aspect of the language, or rather languages, of a particular shamanic tradition.

A person studying a foreign language–Chinese or French for example–has numerous comprehensive guides in the form of dictionaries, grammar books, and general linguistic studies that give him or her a sure grasp on the basic vocabulary and overall structure of the language. In the studying the languages of shamanism, however, we as yet have no such comprehensive guides that we can trust. Each researcher tries to understand the shamanic language that he or she finds most appealing and does so by probing just one small aspect of that language. This is at present the limitation of our method. At times, we see the larger dimensions of the whole in the small aspects on which we concentrate. Often, however, we end up with detached insights into isolated phenomena.

The twenty papers presented in Section One of the present conference sometimes point toward larger dimensions of the shamanist tradition, sometimes remain focused on isolated phenomena. Almost all seek to understand shamanism as a form of language. Fourteen of the papers focus on Mongolian shamanism, six on shamanism in other parts of Asia.

Most extensive in scope is the paper of Carla Corradi-Musi, from Italy. Entitled "Totemism and Shamanism in Asia According to the Vision of Thomas Salmon," her paper gives an account of Siberian shamanism as presented in the 1731 ethnological encyclopedia of Thomas Salmon, Modern History, or The Present State of All Nations. Corradi-Musi notes that Salmon’s dependence on the eye-witness accounts of travelers gives his work ethnological reliability and that his method of comparing data from various different peoples yields a matrix of Siberian shamanism that on several points still fits what we find in Asia today. She calls special attention to the worship of domestic totemic idols such as Salmon found common to the peoples of Siberia and Central Asia and also to practices associated with the archetypal tree of life and death.

Daniel Kister, from the United States, deals with a more limited historical question in "Modern Shamanist Rites and an Ancient Northeastern China Rite." He describes several modern Korean and Manchu communal seasonal rituals in relation to a communal New Year’s rite in honor of Heaven that was celebrated more than 2,000 years ago in the area of Northeast China that is commonly called Manchuria, but that is identified by Korean historians as the ancient Korean Kingdom of Puyo. The modern rites exemplify the drinking, eating, singing, dancing, and divination that an old Chinese document succinctly identifies as the characteristic activities of the ancient rite; but as they appear in the modern rites, these activities vary considerably as to their concrete form, context, atmosphere, and specific ritual purpose. Kister discusses the modern rites for the light they may shed on the ancient Puyo rite, but he cautions against reading any one of their modes of ritual expression into that rite.

Another scholar originally from the United States, Julie Ann Stewart, draws upon the text of the Geser Epic to elucidate aspects of present-day Buryat shamanism in "The Buryat Geser Epic and its Relationship with Buryat Shamanism." Stressing that the Buryat Geser is not just a variant of the old Tibetan epic, but a specifically Buryat cultural artifact, Stewart finds parallels between numerous features of the epic that reflect aspects of Buryat shamanism. She finds parallels, for example, with shamanist initiation rites, soul retrieval, the use of a scapegoat to cure illness, and magical flying horses such as are implied in the symbolism of the shaman’s drum.

Eva Jane Fridman, also from the United States, discusses what she calls the "rebirth of Buryat shamanism" in "Buryat Shamanism: Home and Hearth–A Territorialism of the Spirit." Focusing on rites performed in the vicinity of Lake Baikal in 1996, Fridman stresses that such rites insure both a common closeness to nature and the particular territorial identity of each clan as determined by the spirits of the clan ancestors buried at a particular local.

With particular reference to Tuva shamanism, the German scholar Ulla Johansen, in "Shamanic Mathematics," calls attention to the fact the Western Siberian peoples of earlier times counted by sevens, forty-nine being the perfect number. She then goes on to show how concerned Tuva shamans have been with the symbolic language of mathematics implied in the arrangement of pendants and other items on their costumes. In the costume Johansen principally focuses on, groupings in nines are most significant, followed by groupings by sevens; but she stresses that no two costumes are alike. Each reflects aspects of the particular vision of the shaman who possesses it.

From quite a different view from these and all the other papers presented in Section One, Romano Mastromattei, from Italy, focuses on the special state and powers of the shaman in "The Ecstatic Condition Among Tomang Shamans of Nepal." Mastromattei states that present-day Nepalese shamanism is very much like classical Siberian shamanism. He calls attention to ecstatic shaking as a mark of the descent of the gods in the case of Tomang shamans; and he stresses that without ecstasy, we have no shamanism. He stresses, too, that the Nepalese shaman is not, strictly speaking, a healer, but rather fights against spirits who cause specific ailments.

The other fourteen papers presented in Section One all deal with Mongolian shamanism. Eight are by Mongolian scholars, five by Chinese scholars from Inner Mongolia, and one by a Russian scholar. The paper of Ch. Dalai, "Mongolian Shamanism as an Intangible Culture," identifies several trends in the study of shamanism by Mongolian scholars over the past forty years. That of T. Sodnomdargya, "General and Especial Aspects of Mongolian Shamanism" treats of shamanism as the religion of a nomadic people that underlies the "common sense" ethics of the Mongolian people.

Of the six scholars from Russia scheduled to make presentations in Section One, only L.L. Abaeva succeeded in attending the conference. Her paper, "Khadashi: Their Role and Place in the Culture of Central Asian Shamanism," focuses on the language of specific ritual symbols. It discusses the polysemantic meanings of the sacred mountain and sacred tree in Mongolian sacrificial rites. Abaeva notes that there is very little difference between sacrifices performed by a shaman and those performed by a person who is not a shaman.

Gereljav, a scholar from China also focuses on a specific symbolic usage. Drawing upon Chinese sources of 2,000 years ago, he discusses "The Wolf-Totem of Mongols and Turks." His compatriot G.H. Hurchabilig likewise relates a particular symbolic usage to the Chinese tradition in "The Cultural Meaning of the Custom of Replacing Altan-gadas with the Human in the Cult of Genghis Khan." Hurchabilig argues that the Mönghe Tengger (Eternal Heaven) worshipped by Genghis Khan is the anthropomorphised supernatural constellation Altan-gadas (North Star), and he finds that northern Chinese tribes also had the custom of worshipping Mönghe Tengger. Focusing on the language of ritual dance, the Chinese scholar Midagmaa notes similarities between the shaman’s dance and Mongolian dance in general in "Invoking Acts of Shamans as an Ancient Form of Mongolian Dance." Midagmaa demonstrated one ritual dance herself.

The Mongolian scholar G. Gantogtokh, in "Phrases of the Spirit of the Hunt, Khoshoongin" stresses the need to approach shamanism from a semantic point of view. He describes rituals honoring Khoshoongin and provides quotations of invocations to this spirit in English. J. Enebish, in "Some Rituals Related to the Shaman’s Drum," gives detailed descriptions of the construction and ritual animation of a Darkhad shaman’s drum, calling attention to the symbolism of the drum’s animation as the taming of a new horse. He, too, quotes ritual chants as a part of his full English text and also includes some musical notations. For his part, D. Bum-Ochir gives a detailed description, also with the complete English text, of "Smoke Ceremonies in Mongol Sacrifices." In these ceremonies, which customarily conclude the main sacrificial rites, the shaman feeds lesser spirits with the smoke of burnt bones and roast meat. The ceremonies go under various names and employ various customs. The bones themselves have various symbolic meanings, but commonly entail some form of impurity.

The remaining five presentations all focus on verbal texts, but give no English translations of the texts. The Chinese scholar Erdemtü discusses "The Problem of Shamanic Space in the Jangar Epic. He stresses shamanic influences in the epic, citing spatial concerns involved in the construction of a Mongolian ger, shamanic characteristics of good and bad characters in the epic, and moral considerations about human activity as something which always remains under heaven and unable to "pass through the door of heaven." Kh. Sampildendev studies libation texts in "Ritualistic Folklore and Its Relationship with Shamanism." P. Khorloo stresses the importance of poetry of shamanic invocations in "Invocations of Dayandeerkh Shamans." He calls attention to the terse, laconic style, vivid description, and typically Mongolian versification of these invocations. D. Tsedev, in "The Poetic Peculiarity of Mongolian Shamanic Invocations," turns to shamanic resonances in a modern poem, "My Birthplace," especially resonances that come to the fore through the analysis of poetic meter. Finally, Ts. Shagdarsüren, in "A Semantic Study of Shamanic and Epic Texts and Its Linguistic Importance," calls attention to the importance that shamanic texts have both for the study of the history of the Mongolian language and the correction of errors in modern Mongolian.




Report on "Central Asian Shamanism: Past and Present," The 5th Conference of ISSR, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (Section Two)

Peter Knecht (Nagoya)


Section two was divided into two large areas, one being "Shamanic Cosmology" the other "Shamanism in Transition." The majority of papers dealt with areas of Asia (Mongolia, Nepal, Korea, and Japan), but other areas such as North America and even Greenland, were also included.

The central topic of the first afternoon was cosmology or the interpretation of the world. Our attention was drawn to the importance of the landscape’s natural features, in particular mountains and waters (rivers and lakes). They are considered to be the abodes of protecting spirits. It was, however, pointed out that the sphere of influence of these spirits has changed over time (O. Sükhbaator). In particular mountains may also be seen as the dwelling places of ancestral spirits, and as such they may at certain times be ritually reconstructed in a house, as for example in Japan (Peter Knecht). Over mountains and rivers looms the blue sky (tengeri) inhabited by numerous spirits (tengeri). The ambivalent meaning of the term tengeri appeared in several papers, but no attempt at a definition was made. J. Tsoloo seemed to think of tengeri as spirits who decide the fate of humans and even dwell in certain parts of the human body. B.S. Dugarov discussed the Ungin version of the Buryat Geser epic, in particular the section about Geser being sent from heaven to intervene in the struggles of humans that seem to reflect the very struggles of the heavenly tengeri.

On a different and more abstract level, the significance of the human body and its constitution as female and male for the interpretation of the world was pointed out. A Nepalese blacksmith shaman ritually builds the cosmos by building the human body (G.G. Maskarinec), while it can be argued, as Tu Wulji did, that in ancient Mongolian shamanic thought the sexual dualism of female and male is the concrete foundation for concepts such as "Father Sky" and "Mother Earth." A more practical interpretation of cosmology was related by Kim Seong-nae for the Cheju Islanders who reinterpret mythology as a framework for their real experiences and sufferings. D. E. Kahn, finally, showed how the shaman of the Inuit (Dorset) defends his clients against the evil forces of tupilac, spiritually powerful objects.

The afternoon’s last contribution, by G. Gerelbaatar, provided both a look back at the changes in the concepts of shamans concerning spirits and ancestors under the influence of other religions or how they were interpreted by them (including Christianity), and a bridge to the general topic of the next day: "Shamanism in Transition".

As it was with the term "cosmology" so it was with that of "transition": the speakers interpreted it in different ways. Perhaps the most obvious one was a historical interpretation like that by Choiroljav. He traced the changes in Khorchin shamanism under the influence of Buddhism and also saw a revival of especially black (traditional) shamanism at present. R. Otgonbaatar reported the recent discovery of a shamanic text in a Buddhist sutra. According to him, this text indicates how shamanic rites can survive embedded in a Buddhist framework because the text was apparently used embedded in such a framework.

T. Sasamori described another transition: from shamanism to theater, or vice versa. He analyzed the Japanese dance drama Kanemaki and showed how it reflects the relations of shaman and spirit in the rite Yori.

A transition of a quite different kind was the topic of B. Tedlock’s paper. She argued for a transition not in shamanism but in the way we look at shamanism, saying that so far the role of women has been left out or overlooked. In order to come to a more complete understanding of shamanism it must be seen as a complementary and dynamic relationship between male and female shamans, that strives for a balance between male force and female calmness. Interestingly enough, this paper underlined the significance of contributions like that of Tu Wulji.

The papers of the last day were, if I understood them correctly, less confined to the formal theme of the meeting, and instead covered areas we could roughly designate by the terms "description/ethnography" and "interpretation/symbolism." On the ethnographic side, L. Altanzaya advocated a more specific consideration of Oirat shamanism for which he provided short descriptions of some of its main spirits and rituals. H. Hasumi suggested, that in spite of the popular support for Eliade, the study of shamanism should pay more attention to folk oral history and local beliefs of the people.

It is quite well known how important dreams are for shamans, but D. Tedlock demonstrated how complex the situation is where dreams are narrated or enclosed in other narrations in which dreamer and narrator or myth and reality become closely linked. Svetlana Daribazarov proposed that shamanism should be seen as a system of beliefs concerning nature rather than like a traditional religion. She further said that such beliefs should be seriously reconsidered for their social values.

The day’s and this section’s last paper was an interpretation of the magic or mythic significance of the horse (or horse head) that adorns the Mongol string instrument morin khuur. Dulaan pointed out the horse’s role in chasing away evil spirits, and how it serves as the shaman’s mount in rites of soul retrieval.

One more paper has to be mentioned, that of J. Dolgorsüren. In a very abstract and philosophical manner she analyzed shamanism as a cultural phenomenon. Her presentation found one of the liveliest responses from the audience and it was a pity that time did not allow us to pursue the topic further.

In general, more time would have been appreciated by many. While some speakers were lucky enough to have more time because another paper in their section had been cancelled, some had to severely cut their prepared texts to finish within their allotted time. For those not familiar with Mongolian, like the present writer, or with English, the papers presented in one of the two languages posed a problem of appropriate understanding. It was at least in part solved by the efforts of the Mongolian translators and Julie A. Stewart. Their untiring support was certainly a great help in making our section a rewarding experience. At least in the opinion of this writer, their effort paved the way, even if it was necessarily limited in scope, for a better understanding of each other’s arguments and positions; it also initiated several conversations that continued after the official sessions. Nevertheless, I am not sure whether I understood some of our Mongolian colleagues’ presentations sufficiently, in order not to misrepresent them in this report. If I did misrepresent them, I apologize for my shortcomings and ask for their understanding. In spite of such shortcomings, the conference provided a wonderful setting that encouraged us to look beyond our accustomed horizons.

Participants of the conference received a copy of Central Asian Shamanism (Past and Present), Shamanic Cosmology (Worldview and Mythology), Shamanism in Transition (Tradition and Innovation). Papers and Abstracts for the 5th Conference of the International Society for Shamanistic Research. August 2—8, 1999, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Edited by S. Dulam and D. Bum-Ochir. Centre for the Studies of Nomadic Civilizations, School of Mongolian Studies, National University of Culture and Arts. Ulaanbaatar. 1999.



Minutes of the General Assembly of the ISSR, Held in the Hall of the Scientific Council of the First Building of the National University of Mongolia, Ulaanbataar, Mongolia, 6 August 1999.

By Gregory G. Maskarinec (Honolulu)

At 3PM the meeting was called to order by its chair, Dr. Peter Knecht, who invited the acting President, Dr. Mihály Hoppál, to deliver the presidential report.

a. A moment of silence was observed by the assembly for the memory of Dr. Vladimir Nikolaevich Basilov (1937—1998).

b. Society History. Dr. Hoppál outlined the history of the society, recalling the previous meetings, including the initial meeting in Zagreb, 1989 (before the ISSR was officially founded), the first official meeting, in Seoul 1991, followed by meetings in Budapest 1993, Nara 1995, and Chantilly 1997, as well as relevant non official meetings held in Venice, Yakutsk, Newcastle, and Tempare. Publications sponsored by the society were also listed.

c. Financial Report. Membership in the Society peaked at 62 dues-paying members in 1993, declined to 42 in 1995; there at present 15 dues-paying members of the ISSR, an untenable situation for which no solution was presented.

d. Membership Drive. Proposals to increase membership in the society, such as by allowing practicing shamans to join, were, as at previous meetings, inconclusively debated. Ways to coordinate the organization with existing and future organizations of practicing shamans will be explored.

e. Internet site. Dr. Daniel Kister raised the topic of increasing international awareness of the society by having a homepage on the world wide web. Members agreed that this was a good idea, and it may be explored in the future.

f. Society Elections. A motion was made on behalf of the scientific committee by Dr. Ulla Johansen nominating Mihály Hoppál for president of the ISSR. This was seconded by Dr. Gregory Maskarinec, who in turn nominated Dr. Sendenjaviin Dulam for the position of Vice President, a motion seconded by Dr. Daniel Kister. Both officers were elected unanimously by votes of 24 to 0, with no abstentions.

g. Next Meeting. It was decided that the society would plan to meet in Copenhagen in 2001.

h. Report of the Organizing Committee.

Prof. S. Dulam made the report of the organizing committee. N Enkhbayar, Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, expressed the support of the party and presented the Organizing Committee with a subvention of 500,000. The well known Buriat shaman Ch. Tseren sent felicitations to the conference. Gifts were presented to various members of the association by the Dharkhad Mongol shaman, Chinbat.

Professor Dulam concluded the meeting by presenting gifts from the Organizing Committee to all the participants.

i. Conclusions. The meeting was concluded with thanks from all to Professor Dulam for having organized a most successful conference.

(Published in Shaman 7/2. 177-186)