Sonom-Ish Yundenbat
Head, ICH Protection Division, Center of Cultural Heritage

The shamanism of the Mongols, based on the beliefs that animals and all things in nature have souls, originates in the worship of Father-Sky and Mother-Earth. Worshiping these elements has roots from the traditions of nature worship that also involves worshiping the souls of ancestors and magical power of the spirits (ongon), revering respect to the mountain and water deities through divine practices, and executing remedies and verses (shivshleg). People believe that a male shaman (boo) and a female shaman (udgan) are capable of averting and warding off misfortune and evil and taming any enemy by foretelling the future causes communicating with the ninety-nine deities (tengris) that exist in the heavens and the spirits of earth and water.

In Mongolian folk expressions, there is a proverb that translates roughly to ‘every shaman’s practice differs; every bunny rabbit’s running differs’, which expresses the idea that every shaman is an individual and the worship rituals are unrepeatable phenomena. Boo and udgan, indeed, have their own distinct characteristics related to worship, rituals, ongon, movements (dances), costumes, decorative ornaments, and tools. Shamanism, a primary religion of Mongols, is a cultural phenomenon that reflects many forms of tangible and intangible heritage. Shamanism is a folk knowledge that regulates the relationship between the human and non-human, a mentality to protect the nature and earth, and an original source of traditional Mongolian ideology towards universe. Shamanism, defining the limits of ethical norms of communicating with nature and earth, serves as the main subject of morality to manage human thoughts and activities.

For instance, it was strictly prohibited to harm the earth, rock, and trees; to pollute waters and rivers; and to annihilate plants and animals without reasons—instead worship at sacred sites takes preference. Traditions originating from these customs fall under the umbrella term shamanism, which is literally one of the main treasures of nomadic culture as an ecological culture.

As an ICH expression, shamanism is deeply absorbed in intentional and unintentional activities and behaviors of people in their daily lives. Many rites, such as conducting a milk (tea) libation every morning as an offering for the spirits, offering a piece of fat to the fire as a reverence of hearth, and adding a stone to the cairn (ovoo), have become routine behaviors out of tradition rather than practices of religion, and they have been transmitted from generation to generation. Shamanic rites, such as calling the spirits of humans and animals, purifying, consecrating of animals, and worshiping a sacred mountain, cairn, fire, or sun, each has its own distinct melodic chant and verse that have become an independent form of traditional oral literature, an important oral heritage of the Mongols.

For calling spirits, shamans perform ceremonies with dance movements while chanting melodic verses in rhythm with their tools, including tomor khil-khuur (musical instruments) and khetskhengereg (drums). This practice is considered rare, and it has become an outstanding heritage of folk performing arts of the Mongols.

Shamans respect their costumes, which are called khuyag (armor), and consider them living objects that possess their own soul and deity. The costumes, tools, and ornaments of shamans reflect the shamans’ distinctiveness with unique styles that vary not only among boo and udgan but also among localities, regions, and ethnic groups. These items are also considered products of traditional craftsmanship, possessing ethnographic values that reflect both tangible and intangible heritage characteristics.

Originating and developing between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and according to the unanimity of shamanic and Buddhist views about elements of nature, worshiping rites have a predominant role in shamanism, and they are a manifestation of the diversity in ICH expressions.