Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols

Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols

Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols

Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols

Synopsis

Shamans and Elders is a major study of Mongolian shamanism and society, past and present. It presents a wealth of new information, and offers a fresh understanding of the widespread phenomenon of shamanism. This unique and detailed analysis of a fascinating subject combines a discussion of Urgunge Onon's memories of shamanism with Caroline Humphrey's text- and field-based analytical knowledge of Central and North Asian shamanism. It covers among other things: notions of gender in Mongolian society, including male and female traditions in ritual, female shamans, and goddess worship; attitudes to death, and funeral rituals; the importance of old men and of ancestors; and Daur notions of landscape within their direct experience (the importance of the sky, of the mountains, of the forest, rivers, etc.) and beyond. In covering these diverse areas, the authors depart from the general cultural models usually offered in discussions of shamanism, providing a new vision of 'shamanism' as made up of fragmentary, non-formularized parts. It presents much-needed insight on a little-known world, and points to an original new way of doing anthropology.

Excerpt

It was when he had become an elder, mettlesome and with every shining black hair in place but approaching the age of seventy, that Urgunge Onon suggested we explore his memories. He wanted a book to be written about the shamanism of his youth, a book which would explain shamanism both as an anthropological subject and 'from inside'. Urgunge is a Daur Mongol who was born in Manchuria in far Northern China and now lives in England. Our book is based largely on his recollections of his youth, up to the time when he left China in 1948. It therefore grounds the magical and difficult-to-grasp topic of shamanism in a specific region, period, and set of historical circumstances. But we hope also to explain shamanism in a more general sense, in particular to explain the holding of the practical understandings, the metaphorical ideas, the fears, and the defiance that give rise to it. Existing studies of North Asian shamanism are virtually all written in the unsatisfactory idiom of general cultural models, neglecting history, singular views, contexts, and disagreements, and above all ignoring how people hold religious ideas, their salience, and the extent to which people really hold to them in particular situations.

Urgunge was expectant and engrossed with his memories when we began our conversations. He wanted our talks to uncover his recollections and somehow make them meaningful for English-speaking people, because he holds shamanism to represent the best orientation for living in our times. Caroline Humphrey, an anthropologist who had worked in many regions of Inner Asia, had long wanted to delve further into the enigma of shamanism, which had so often been described to her as 'lying below' the cultural practices of Mongols, Buryats, Tuvans, and others. It had been difficult to carry out research on shamanism for many reasons, one of which was that people in the 1960s-1980s were--at one level at least--ashamed of it and frightened to acknowledge it. Shamans in Siberia, Mongolia, and Manchuria were imprisoned and killed by Communist governments; this fate was escaped only by some who made a more or less public recantation. From the 1930s onwards repressive propaganda campaigns had informed people that shamanism was a primitive superstition and must be abandoned. By the 1960s-1970s, when I (Caroline Humphrey) was working in the Buryat region of the USSR, a grimly familiar cloud would immediately descend if I brought up the subject, together with the sense that personal jeopardy attached to the smallest remarks; my questions died away. The great difference of talking to Urgunge was . . .

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