Tragic SpiritsShamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia

Tragic SpiritsShamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia

Manduhai Buyandelger

Print publication date: 2014

ISBN: 9780226086552

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


When state socialism collapsed in Mongolia and the chaos of neoliberal “shock therapy” took hold, like most other herders throughout the country, the ethnic nomadic Buryats were left without means of livelihood on the edge of an impoverished state. Attributing their misfortunes to their ancestral origin spirits, who were suppressed during socialism but now returned to take revenge for forgetting, the Buryats sponsor shamanic rituals in hope of taming these spirits. What results is a gradually unfolding and constantly shifting history of their tragic past. This history is incomplete and unsettling as well as unsettled; acknowledging the spirits seems to allow more to erupt and provoke. Both shamans and clients seek knowledge of how to placate these spirits, much of which was lost to the socialist state’s disruption of the transmission of shamanic practice. As clients search for the most reliable shamans, shamans hustle for recognition through flamboyant rituals of spirit possession. Together they perpetuate the very practices that they aim to tame. Despite the ambiguity of shamanic powers and reality of spirits, the narratives of origin spirits assume life of their own as shamans pitch them simultaneously as communal histories and individual memories. Yet many spirits remain unknown -- with identities and voice lost -- due to centuries of violence. More, revealing the link between gender and memory, female ancestors—absent from genealogical record and forgotten --are prone to turn avaricious and haunt their descendents. Tragic Spirits documents this shamanic proliferation and its context, economics, and gendered politics.