Fortune and the Cursed

Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination

Katherine Swancutt
Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 284
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qch08
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  • Book Info
    Fortune and the Cursed
    Book Description:

    Innovation-making is a classic theme in anthropology that reveals how people fine-tune their ontologies, live in the world and conceive of it as they do. This ethnographic study is an entrance into the world of Buryat Mongol divination, where a group of cursed shamans undertake the 'race against time' to produce innovative remedies that will improve their fallen fortunes at an unconventional pace. Drawing on parallels between social anthropology and chaos theory, the author gives an in-depth account of how Buryat shamans and their notion of fortune operate as 'strange attractors' who propagate the ongoing process of innovation-making. With its view into this long-term 'cursing war' between two shamanic factions in a rural Mongolian district, and the comparative findings on cursing in rural China, this book is a needed resource for anyone with an interest in the anthropology of religion, shamanism, witchcraft and genealogical change.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-483-6
    Subjects: Anthropology, Religion, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Cast of Characters
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Preface
    (pp. xv-xx)
  7. Chapter 1 A Race Against Time: Mongolian Fortune and the Anthropology of Magic
    (pp. 1-48)

    The lunar New Year celebrations of February 2000 marked a turning point for three shamanic households in Bayandun, a Buryat Mongol district in rural northeast Mongolia. After several days of visiting extended relatives and friends for feasts and the exchanging of gifts, Yaruu, the shaman whose household I lived in, became ill. As she relaxed on her bed, she suddenly retracted her limbs tightly against her body (in an illness reflex known as ‘tatasan’) and called out that she was dying from a curse. Her two daughters started crying, and her mother, Ölzii, who had overheard the commotion in an...

  8. Chapter 2 Buryat Cosmology and the Timescales of Religious Practice
    (pp. 49-99)

    Almost every Buryat shamanic ceremony, divination or correcting ritual can be traced to a series of ‘chaotic’ misfortunes, which compel Buryats to seek out remedies that will make their lives orderly again. Yet Buryat religious specialists and their inquirers only obtain these remedies when carrying out tasks which sustain the religious practice and even comprise the ‘backdrop’ to it. While living among Buryats, I frequently observed them deftly divide their attention between the spirits, other people, the religious implements or even the practice as a whole – so that the ‘work’ of the ceremony consisted in meeting the demands of these...

  9. Chapter 3 Fortune, the Soul and Spiralling Returns
    (pp. 100-126)

    This chapter shows how two related phenomena – fortune (khiimor’) and the soul (süns) – can be mutually influential, affecting Buryats in an increasingly good or bad way. Buryats hold that a person’s fortune and soul respond in a similar way to hostile forces, such as curses, and this sometimes makes it diffi cult to distinguish whether the fortune, soul, or both have been adversely affected. Due to this ambiguity, Buryats in Bayandun carry out divinations and use a method for detecting soul loss to gauge whether their fortunes or souls have been harmed. Then they often seek out correcting rituals to...

  10. Chapter 4 Curses, Khel Am and the Omnipresence of Witchcraft
    (pp. 127-153)

    The two main causes of fallen fortune and soul loss during my stay in Bayandun and Shinekhen Baruun Sum were curses (kharaal) and gossip that has curse-like effects (khel am). Buryats in both of these districts told me that although curses andkhel ammay cause similar types of harm, they work according to different scales of time. Whereas curses strike their victims immediately,khel ammay harm people both immediately and after a period of delay. Curses andkhel amthus fall into the larger Mongolian ontology of ‘bad speech’ (muu yaria), which is comprised of a sliding scale...

  11. Chapter 5 Divination and the Inextensive Distance to Cursing Rivals
    (pp. 154-184)

    One recent leitmotif in the anthropology of religion has been the ‘intersubjective’ relations that people, spirits, animals and other ‘subjects’ produce through their face-to-face interactions. A growing corpus of ethnographic works has shown that, through intersubjective relations, people and other subjects adopt the same intentions, assumptions or outlook onto the situation at hand, which underpins the efficacy of their magical or ritual practices (Willerslev 2007, 94–105; Bird-David 2004, 335; Devisch 1991, 120–23, see also 125 and 129–30; Whyte 1997, 68–77; Parkin 1991, 183–84, see also 187–88). Intersubjective relations are also central to the process...

  12. Chapter 6 An Unconventional Timescale: The Immediate Rise of Fortune
    (pp. 185-222)

    Here we return to the idea that no Buryat wants to wait out the gradual length of time that fortune usually takes to recover. So when Buryats learn that their fortunes have declined but fail to improve them with divinations and correcting rituals, they usually seek out innovative remedies to raise their fortunes immediately. Yaruu’s group, which had faced recurrent curse attacks for several months, therefore produced a new curse-blocking remedy that immediately raised the group’s fortunes, resolved the cursing and diffused the rivalries leading up to it. This chapter gives ethnography on both the curse-blocking remedy and an innovative...

  13. Glossary of Vernacular Terms
    (pp. 223-240)
  14. References
    (pp. 241-247)
  15. Index
    (pp. 248-263)