When Degi, a 24-year-old web designer in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, hit a pedestrian in July 2008 with his Daewoo sedan, his luck took a turn for the worse. His company didn’t get a contract he was hoping for, and misfortune seemed to hover over his personal life. The family of the victim extorted money from him, threatening to sue and warning him that they had connections in the courts. So Degi, like many Mongolians, took his troubles to a shaman.

Shamans -- people who purportedly have a direct link to the world of the spirits of dead ancestors -- have an ancient history among Mongolians. During the Communist era in Mongolia, shamanism came close to disappearing. In the early 1990s, there were only a handful of shamans -- perhaps 10 -- practicing in the country, according to Bumochir Dulam, the chair of the social and cultural anthropology department at the National University of Mongolia.

Over the last 15 years, though, shamanism has been making a comeback. And over the last year, it’s boomed. Shamanism is a decentralized practice, and there are no statistics measuring the numbers of shamans and those seeking help from shamans, but "it’s unbelievable how much the number has increased," Bumochir said. Shamanism is now reentered the mainstream in Mongolia, even among the urbane youth of the capital Ulaanbaatar. It’s reached a point where shamans advertise on television, and even well known actors are becoming shamans. "Everyone is talking about shamanism these days," Bumochir said.

Explanations as to what’s driving the trend depend on your level of belief in the phenomenon, Bumochir said. "Like many Mongols, I am between believer and non-believer," he added. The most cynical explanation is that the anything-goes new world of capitalism in Mongolia has created opportunities for charlatans. And there are no doubt many charlatans among today’s new shamans, he said: "It’s a very easy way to make a lot of money, to buy a Land Cruiser and an apartment and have a nice life."

But that doesn’t explain everything, he added. Shamans usually accept their calling after a period of "shamanic sickness," in which the person (and sometimes his or her family members) undergoes a difficult period of bad health and bad luck. The afflicted person then consults with an experienced shaman, who uses his or her links to the spirit world to convey the message that one of the afflicted’s ancestors needs a conduit to the human world, and has chosen that person to be a shaman. "Some of them accept their destiny as a shaman, and some of them fight," Bumochir said.

Some who accept their fate are from rich families who have nothing to gain by becoming shamans. Bumochir said he knew of one prominent Mongolian diplomat who was serving in the United States, whose teenaged child came down with shamanic sickness and eventually had to move back to Mongolia and become a shaman. "What about these people? They don’t have any reason to become a shaman. So we have to look for other answers," he said. "Shamans are asking too, ’Why now do we have so many shamans?’"

Bumochir offered a traditionally Mongolian take on the situation: he explained that a clash in the spirit world may be going on between "black heaven" and "white heaven."

"When black and white heaven fight, the one who has more spirits is more likely to win. So now those spirits are recruiting new, let us say, soldiers," he said. Others have attributed the rise in shamanism to economic and cultural factors, saying the modernizing ways of many contemporary Mongolians is conflicting with the traditional, nomadic ways of their ancestors.

Udval, a 28-year-old woman in Ulaanbaatar, became a shaman in 2008 after a long period of shamanic sickness. To her, it was an experience of a troubled adolescence with some time as a street child, followed by an attempted migration to Turkey, where she got a job in a textile factory. She suffered chronic headaches and was itchy and hot all the time. "I thought maybe I was having allergies, or problems with the food," she said. But she moved back to Mongolia and the problems persisted. She visited a shaman, who told her that a male ancestor eleven generations back wanted her to become a shaman. "I was so frightened and cried for a long time," she recalled. But she was won over by pity for her ancestor. "He told the other shaman’s spirit ’I’m here alone in the empty desert,’ and so I decided to have the spirit."

Becoming a shaman involves very little learning, she said. "Before, I thought there might be courses to study," she said. "But the spirit leads everything," she said: She just had to learn a song to perform to get the spirit to enter her body. She is now a shaman and advises people on issues ranging from business problems to advice on what color car to buy.

Through word-of-mouth, Degi arranged a session with Udval to discuss his problems stemming from the car accident. On a Friday night, he brought along a friend (and this reporter) and drove the bumpy dirt road to Udval’s house just north of Ulaanbaatar’s center, where she lives with her mother, husband and baby daughter. (She learned she was pregnant just after accepting her ancestor’s spirit). While her mother cooked dinner and listened to the radio in the kitchen, Udval changed from a sweatsuit into a blue silk del (the traditional Mongolian dress) that her spirit had instructed her to make, accented with black ropes draped all along the chest and back, representing snakes.

She sat on a plastic stool in her living room, next to an altar with oil lamps and several bowls of aaruul, a curdled milk snack. She began to bang on a skin drum, slowly making it louder and louder, then softer. After several minutes she jumped out of the stool and began to hobble, and her husband gently led her to a cushion on the floor, where the normally shy and girlish woman took on a gruff demeanor and a man’s open posture, legs crossed, tapping her boot. Her husband served her -- now the spirit -- milk tea, the traditional Mongolian gesture of hospitality for guests.

Eventually, she, or the spirit, asked Degi to come forward and explain his situation. "This could be difficult," she said. But she told Degi what the spirit wanted him to do: she put a white thread and a black thread in some milk, told him to drink the milk and then keep the threads "until the grass grows again," the next summer. She gave him a small bowl of water, told him to take it outside the house and throw it out under his left arm, toward the northeast. She gave him some small stones and told him to carry them with him and drop one every three days, and also sacrifice a small amount of vodka and chant an incantation every night. And he was to gather any "black and shiny" clothes he had and use them as a pillow for the next seven days.

Looking dazed, he asked his friend to write down the list of instructions, and when Udval was finished he took the list and studied it intently. He reverently placed a 5,000-togrog note (a little more than $3) on the altar and quietly thanked her. As to whether he felt it would help, he didn’t say. Udval, too, looked dazed after coming out from the trance, as if she had just woken up. She looked at this reporter, and asked: "So, did that look strange?"

By Joshua Kucera,

Editor's Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.


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