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Not Quite Shamans

Not Quite Shamans: Spirit Worlds and Political Lives in Northern Mongolia

Morten Axel Pedersen
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Not Quite Shamans
    Book Description:

    The forms of contemporary society and politics are often understood to be diametrically opposed to any expression of the supernatural; what happens when those forms are themselves regarded as manifestations of spirits and other occult phenomena? In Not Quite Shamans, Morten Axel Pedersen explores how the Darhad people of Northern Mongolia's remote Shishged Valley have understood and responded to the disruptive transition to postsocialism by engaging with shamanic beliefs and practices associated with the past.

    For much of the twentieth century, Mongolia's communist rulers attempted to eradicate shamanism and the shamans who once served as spiritual guides and community leaders. With the transition from a collectivized economy and a one-party state to a global capitalist market and liberal democracy in the 1990s, the people of the Shishged were plunged into a new and harsh world that seemed beyond their control. "Not-quite-shamans"-young, unemployed men whose undirected energies erupted in unpredictable, frightening bouts of violence and drunkenness that seemed occult in their excess- became a serious threat to the fabric of community life. Drawing on long-term fieldwork in Northern Mongolia, Pedersen details how, for many Darhads, the postsocialist state itself has become shamanic in nature.

    In the ideal version of traditional Darhad shamanism, shamans can control when and for what purpose their souls travel, whether to other bodies, landscapes, or worlds. Conversely, caught between uncontrollable spiritual powers and an excessive display of physical force, the "not-quite-shamans" embody the chaotic forms-the free market, neoliberal reform, and government corruption-that have created such upheaval in peoples' lives. As an experimental ethnography of recent political and economic transformations in Mongolia through the defamiliarizing prism of shamans and their lack, Not Quite Shamans is an attempt to write about as well as theorize postsocialism, and shamanism, in a new way.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6093-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Note on Transliteration and Translation
    (pp. xii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-41)

    As the 1990s drew to a close in the northern Mongolian outpost of Ulaan-Uul (Red Mountain), households often spent the evenings in a state of constant alert. Older children equipped with binoculars were stationed on rooftops to monitor the movements of agsan persons. Any trace of alcohol was eradicated from the home. The old and the very young were put to bed early, beneath the family altar. If possible, male relatives or friends were mobilized from other households. In some cases homes were temporarily abandoned for preventive reasons. People, mothers in particular, were tense and found it hard to sleep....

  6. 1 Shamanic States
    (pp. 42-80)

    Once, the vice governor of Ulaan-Uul was beaten up after spending a drunken evening with a local strongman (ataman). The surprising thing about the incident—more so than the vice governor’s partaking in late night vodka sessions—was that, despite having been badly hurt, he did not take any punitive measures against his aggressor. “It was my own mistake,” he explained from his sickbed the following day. “I was drinking with the ataman,” he sighed, “and then we started discussing local politics. The next moment he turned agsan. And as you know, I am no fighter. I am just an...

  7. 2 The Shamanic Predicament
    (pp. 81-114)

    “Some years,” Gombodorj told me, “the bears go crazy. Usually there are plenty of berries in the taiga during late summer and early autumn, and the bears will stuff themselves before hibernating in October. But some years the berries are scarce, and the early autumn becomes a very dangerous time.” At first, he explained,

    the hungry bear will try to compensate by eating red ants. But when these enter the bear’s stomach, they turn into worms—really big, hungry worms. When the bear tries to eat, it is not really eating. The worms are eating it from within, so it...

  8. 3 Layered Lands, Layered Minds
    (pp. 115-147)

    “There is a kind of uranium [uran] around here,” a prominent hunter from Ulaan-Uul told me.

    Nature [baigal′] contains it, and the flowers and wild animals receive it and pass it on to humans. For example, a mountain goat may have the uran and rest where the blueberries are growing. The blueberries receive the uran, and their taste and color become extremely nice. So people eat them and receive the harmful things. Their eyes become light blue and their eyesight turns bad. I think if we could avoid this influence from nature [baigaliin nölöö], Darhads would live for two hundred...

  9. 4 The Shaman’s Two Bodies
    (pp. 148-182)

    One key issue that remains largely unexplored, and therefore still unresolved, in my account of shamanic agency in northern Mongolia in the age of the market is the question of the shamans themselves. Although no one was considered a “genuine shaman” in Ulaan-Uul in the late 1990s, the situation was different elsewhere in the Shishged, as I have noted. The standard complaint voiced by people in Ulaan-Uul was that, because of the lack of shamans in their community, “we have to travel all the way [around 110 kilometers] up to Tsagaan Nuur in order to see a shaman.” (Indeed, on...

  10. 5 Mischievous Souls
    (pp. 183-215)

    “These people joke about everything, so it is impossible to know when they are telling the truth [ünen] and when they are telling a lie [hudal].” These were the words of a young man from Ulaanbaatar, in whose brand-new Russian GAZ jeep I once traveled to the Shishged. It was his first visit to Hövsgöl province. As we approached the Shishged, he began to express a number of practical concerns about going further, for the area is renowned for its truly awful roads and flooded rivers. It soon became clear, however, that his worries also stemmed from more intangible fears....

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 216-224)

    “Morteeen! where are you? i am going to kill you!” Over and over again the threat was hurled across the boggy grasslands of Baga Bilüü to the muddy pit that served as my hideout. The words struck me like a hammer to the head. It was the perfect summer night, and a productive day of fieldwork had been drawing to a close when I found myself being chased across the steppes by an agsan-afflicted man wielding a Kalashnikov.

    I began this book by recounting an iconic event from my time in Ulaan-Uul in the late 1990s: a village community besieged...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 225-238)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 239-240)
  14. Index
    (pp. 241-250)