Monday, August 08, 2011


 I think I've mentioned before that one of my sitemates, Ben, has a host father who is a shaman. Last weekend, Ben's family invited us over to watch him do his shaman thing.  About five of us, plus a handful of Mongolians, were there for the evening. His mom fed us fruit, eggs, and cookies while we waited for his dad to get home from work. (He's a carpenter.)

Mongolian shamanism predates Buddhism, but has now incorporated a lot of Buddhist symbols/deities, as well as other gods from around the world. Ben is a Christian, and when he discussed religion with is family they explained that they honor Jesus as well. The shrine in their house looks similar to the Buddhist shrine in my apartment, but with some extra stuff added on.

Neither of Ben's host parents speak English, so we could really ask questions or understand a lot of what was said. So I'm going to write about what I observed without too much effort to explain what was going on.

First, Ben's host dad got home, chatted with us briefly while he got his shaman outfit on, and then went out to the yard to throw shots of vodka to the sky. He did this three times, and then came back in the house. He went into a small room with a shrine, blowtorched his leather drum, and then beat it while chanting for a long time. His wife attended him throughout.

After the chanting was over, we all headed back out into the yard. The shaman was walking like an old man, stooped over, and sat down on the ground slowly. When he spoke, his voice also sounded like that of an old man, and was difficult to understand even for the Mongolians. His wife gave him airag, vodka, cigarettes, and dried cheese curd whenever he asked. She addressed him as "Grandfather." One of the Mongolians in attendance did know a little English, and said he was a 300-year-old ancestor. He  asked Ben to sing. All of these hospitality things (food, drink, entertainment) seemed to be part of showing respect to the spirit of the ancestor that was hanging out with us for a bit. Ben did an excellent job of singing a Mongolian song his family had taught him.

After a while, Ben's host mom called him over. She handed him some sage rolled up in toilet paper that she lit the end of, and showed him how to wave it around his body in the proper direction and blow on it so it wouldn't go out. Then we all passed the sage around. The shaman put his hands on Ben's head, said some things we couldn't understand, and slapped him on the back three times. Then we all went down the line, approaching the shaman, letting him put his hands on our heads, and accepting the dried cheese curd he gave us afterward.

When it was my turn, the shaman didn't say anything at all and didn't slap me on the back. He did give me dried cheese curd, though.

Two of my friends were asked to sing. Koty was the first one put on the spot, and there was a cute Mongolian language moment. The word for "finished" and the word for  "sing" sound similar, and even though she knew they were asking her to sing, she hopefully asked "Do you mean I'm finished?" in Mongolian, to which the shaman's wife replied, "No, no: SING." And she did. Chris sang "You Are My Sunshine" while we all tried really, really hard not to laugh. (Laughing was okay. His wife laughed a lot of the time, too.) Leo wasn't asked to sing, but the shaman spontaneously beat his huge drum right next to Leo's head.
He had a lot to say about some people, but nothing we could understand. I don't know what sorts of things are usually said by shamans in trances channeling ancestors. But the Mongolians were smiling, so it must have been good.

After this, the Grandfather drank some more vodka, smoked some more, beat on his drum, and hit himself (not hard) with whips that his wife poured water on. This went on for a while. Some people left. Ben explained to us that the shaman usually came out of the trance by beating on the drum, same as he went in. So as he'd beat the drum, then slump over for a bit, his wife would ask him questions to see if it was still the Grandfather or if we were done. It got to be pretty funny after the fifth or so time, because she'd ask a question and then get an answer in the old-man voice, usually a request for more vodka or another cigarette, and she'd laugh and give it to him.

Eventually, he beat the drum for quite a long time, then pulled his headdress off and stood up, old man body language gone. His wife asked if he was okay, and he walked a ways off, jumped up and down a few times, and threw up. Then we all went back into the house, Ben's dad ate some fried eggs, and joked with us in Mongolian about who was dating who in our training group.

The whole thing took a little over two hours, but sometimes it takes as long as four. We were very lucky to be invited to witness it; a lot of Mongolians have never seen a shaman before. Ben's host family was great and very excited to have us there.


I only have one week left at my training site. On August 15, I will find out where I will be living for the next two years!