We could say that Shamanism in Mongolia has almost disappeared as it has happened in many other parts of the world these days, but some parts in the north of the country are trying to keep alive this religious tradition, and they are doing it mainly because it is a popular believe among Mongolian people that shamanism actually works, and also because it is a good source of revenue from tourism national and international.
Knowing that the Ice festival in Khovsgol was holding a shamanistic ritual the night of its first day, I was looking forward to be there and watch it. Of course I was aware that this was not a purist exhibition of tribal ancient shamanism. What I was interested in was experiencing an event like this as it is performed nowadays, I was thinking in a mix of spectacle and healing ritual.
During the day visiting the festival I had a short visual introduction when I saw some folk sculptures depicting shamans in trance.
The Ice festival is hold on a large area of the frozen lake Khovsgol so it is the shamanic ritual. Cars and buses park on the frozen lake too, and from the parking place we had to walk on the ice in the dark among crowds of people, food and beverages stands, electronic music bars and whatever was happening in a popular festival at night. Once we got to the event place everything was even more chaotic: hundreds of people around the ritual space delimited by a fence, at the middle a kind of Native American teepee (I apologize for my ignorant comparison), but only made of long and dry tree branches with attached colourful ribbons, and around that kind of tent I counted other four smaller dry bushes all prepared to be burned; people walking from one part to the other inside the fence area preparing something that I couldn’t know exactly what; also there journalists, photographers and even a TV crew with their lights and mics making interviews.
Trying to find a good place where to watch I kept myself going from one place to another during the whole event, staying at the best a few minutes at one spot before being literally pushed away by other spectators.
There was a voice of a man all the time speaking with a microphone (later that night the guide told us that this man was giving information about what was happening, only in Mongolian, but from his point of view it was an excess of information), like narrating a sport event in real time.
After a few minutes in that chaos I could differentiate the image of the shaman, a woman. She was walking all around the place looking to the floor and to the sky; she started to spit some liquid from her mouth and then with a bottle flicking the liquid to the audience who reacted at unison, all shouting the same words and trying to reach the flicked water with their hands. Not much after that the shaman was moving quicker, jumping; also being hold by other people she was fainting. From afar I could observe her face, she was in a trance, with her eyes closed and making rhythmics noises with her voice. Jumping again -always in a very rhythmic way- her dress, made of pieces of clothes and animals, gave me the impression of an expanded body, like feathers, like growing wings. Then some of the men around made her to wear a mask and a kind of hat (or tocado) made with two long feathers, looking from afar it looked possibly like a rabbit, but I’m sure it was more like trying to be some kind of bird, probably an eagle. The last addition was a hand drum, a large circular hand drum, which she started to play rhythmically while singing. A sound that even with the noisy crowd surrounding us we all could listening to very clear. The small bushes were already on fire.
The now transformed shaman started to dance or moving rhythmically all around the place touching some people, hitting some others with the drum and with the stick, sometimes falling to the floor and going again to jump rhythmically. Someone lighted the main bush and a great fire took the main stage. Probably it was the night, the wind or the movements around, but that great fire got to my eyes the shape of some human and animal forms: the animistic world was there and think we all there were living in it as well.
I guess watching the next images you will agree with me about those shapes of the big fire that night.
My hands were almost frozen and even with my boots -made especially for very low temperatures- I was feeling my feet very cold. The Mongolian men and women usually bigger and taller than in other regions of the world could easily push me back, and in one moment I was totally out of any good visual point. I had seen enough for that night. I had spent two hours there and it was impossible to watch more in the middle of that chaos and extreme cold.
The guide was looking for me and took me with the other people from the group to a ger to feel warm, drinking a hot beverage and resting a little before going back to the camp.
My thoughts all that night were in that impressive experience. It had been visually powerful, yes, rich in sounds, my mind was twisted from the conscious to the unconscious world. It had been a theatrical spectacle, a real live performance, a touristic event, but, I cannot exaggerate this, also a powerful ritual with a main shaman-performer who transformed herself -and the space around her- exactly in front of me.
I noticed that I was a spectator, but also a participant with all the other locals and tourists. Also, in my ignorance of the reasons for this event, I was participating in a ritual and in a spectacle.
I had the references of a bunch of documentaries, books about shamanism (you know, Eliade and company), teachers talks about the origins of the theatrical performer, and my own experience with some kind of sessions with healers in Mexico, but I had never experienced anything like this in such a remote place of the world: a mix between theatre, ritual and an anthropological happening.
Yes, my personal research about the sources of Butoh and the performer itself has brought me to many impressive parts of the world, and this is one is a memorable one.
(Hvoglod Lake, Northern Mongolia. Saturday March 2nd, 2019)
Days after that experience went to the National Museum in Ulaanbaatar and I could see some dolls with costumes similar to that of the shaman in lake Khovsgol. Here the photographs.
(All photographs by Gustavo Thomas © 2019)