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Shamanism, memory and gender

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This book presents an impressive and nuanced exploration of the way in which memory is negotiated in contemporary Mongolian shamanism. While ostensibly it is an account of shamanism as it is practiced today in the northwest of Mongolia, in the Buryat settlement of Bayan-Uul, it deals more with the social, spiritual and emotional repercussions of the decades during which shamanic practitioners and believers were persecuted by the State machinery. In opening this window onto a little-known aspect of Mongolian religion, Manduhai Buyandelger – as Christopher Kaplonski has also recently done with his book The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014) – has exposed the tense and unhappy relationship between religion and politics in Soviet-era Mongolia. Buyandelger’s book, having been researched in the present, goes further and shows how the unhappiness is gradually being assuaged and the many wounds of this period healed.
The tragedy of the spirits is that they have been forgotten, and it is the present-day shamans, whom the author interviewed and to whom, in some cases, she grew close, who are charged by the spirits with reviving their memory. This memory is contained in rituals and in the shaman’s paraphernalia and in the language used by the spirits to communicate with the community. It is a memory compromised by time and by its being all but annihilated during the Socialist era. That the book is set in the present day, almost a quarter-century after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Mongolia, shows how the tragedy of the suppression of shamanism is being played out even today.
Shamanism in today’s Mongolia takes place between those shamans who practice with the intention to make money and those who practice because they cannot do otherwise, between those through whom the “black” spirits of warriors and protectors manifest and those through whom the “white” spirits of healers appear. The former require considerably more effort than the latter – “attending to the black spirits required heavy paraphernalia made of steel and animal fur, loud rituals with drum beating, and the sacrifice of sheep” (210) – and for this reason shamans with neither the financial nor emotional wherewithal and support to worship the black spirits opt instead to concentrate upon the white spirits. The result of this, as we hear in the account of the shaman Molom, who lived through the repression of the 1930s and the anti-religion propaganda campaigns in the later Socialist period, and who died in 1997, was that “either his black spirits would take revenge on him for having abandoned them or some other harm would reach him because his black spirits were not there to protect him.” (211)
This intimate relationship between the spirits and the shamans extends to that which develops between the shamans and their clients. This speaks to what Buyandelger calls “the official and unofficial technologies of forgetting during the state socialistic period. Intertwined with those moments of forgetting are the politics of gender, which inflict forgetting in their own distinctive way.”(20) Indeed, it is the presence of female shamans which is one of the book’s most distinctive characteristics. Largely ignored by those in power – and the author offers an excellent guide to the complex positioning of women within Mongolian society during the Socialist and post-Socialist periods -  women were able to stay under the radar and function as shamans in many ways more effectively than their male counterparts. Buyandelger’s account of the shaman Chimeg’s personal transformation from downtrodden wife to a shaman alternately respected and pitied shows how Buryat shamanism – indeed Mongolian shamanism as a whole – gauges a female shaman’s reputation in relation to other, more powerful, male shamans, and can thereby ruin or confirm her. Thus, whether driven from within the mechanism of socialism or of capitalism, gender is shown to be key to the social development of shamanic practice in Mongolia.
This is a book which stands at the intersection of several trajectories. It deals, as I say, with how memory is created, but also how it is understood. It addresses how the past can be changed through deliberate acts of forgetting, the relationship between the shamanic worldview and both Soviet atheism and post-Soviet apathy. And it addresses the complex interplay between shamans, their clients and their spirits. Buyandelger, an anthropologist at MIT, makes a most convincing argument for the dynamic interplay of these many trajectories in contemporary Mongolian society, and I would recommend her book to anyone seeking a personal and intellectually challenging ethnographic account of how shamanism shapes and is shaped by the society which supports it.
A few words in conclusion about the book as an academic artefact. I would have preferred more photographs (including perhaps a color section), specifically showing examples of the shamanic paraphernalia and rituals. I should also say that the text suffers occasionally from careless proof-reading, but this does not detract significantly from the enjoyment of reading it. Tragic Spirits offers a valuable contemporary perspective on a phenomenon all too rarely discussed, and, as a scholar working on the contemporary Mongolian society, it is for me a most welcome contribution to Mongolian Studies.

Simon Wickhamsmith, Rutgers University (swickhamsmith@gmail.com)

citation: Wickhamsmith, S. 2016. Review of Buyandelger, M. 2013. Tragic Spirits: Shamanism, Memory and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia, published on 29 April 2016: http://newbooks.asia/review/shamanism

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