Spirits of Animals,Totems,Animal Guides, and Hunting Magic

The world of the forest and waters is the home to the wild animals upon which man relies to survive. Animals are called amitan, “having an ami soul”, because like human beings they possess an ami body soul that provides the breath and warmth of the living body. Ami souls of animals usually reincarnate as newborn members of their species, thus deer return as more deer, seals return as seals, bears reincarnate as bears. Since they have souls animals are considered to have personalities, language, and even psychic abilities just like humans.

The master spirit of all the hunting animals is known as Bayan Hangai. Hunters appeal to him for luck in finding game. The highest ranking animals of the forest are the Siberian tiger, the snow leopard, and the bear. Buryats call the tiger Anda Bars (best friend tiger) and pray to him for good hunting. In much of Siberia the bear is seen as a master of the animals and is revered as an ancestor. As mentioned earlier, in Mongolian his name, baabgai, is a form of the word for “father”. Many Siberian tribes have special ceremonies for honoring the bear after he is killed.

Because animals possess reincarnating souls, there are many rules regarding the killing of game so that their souls will not be offended. Otherwise, they may become angry and refuse to return to the tribal hunting grounds, or they may tell other animal spirits to stay away. When a small animal is killed for it’s fur, the hunter will put the animal in his hat and wave it around sunwise three times, saying “hurai, hurai, hurai”! This pleases the animal spirits and brings buyanhishig to the hunter through the dallaga gesture. When a large animal is killed or a large fish is caught, the hunter or fisherman may cry over its death to appease the animal spirit. Hunters also apologize to animals when they are killed, saying that they needed to take the meat and hide for their survival. Domestic animals are also killed in a respectful manner. Animals are never struck on the head because animals also have a small bit of Tenger in the crown of their heads. Sheep are killed in an almost bloodless fashion by cutting the belly open and pinching the aorta. Heads are not chopped off because cutting the throat injures the ami soul. The head, throat, lungs, and heart, which is collectively called the zuld, are the residence of an animal’s ami and should be removed from the body as one piece and boiled together before being cut apart to be eaten. When an animal is killed for a sacrifice the hide and the zuld are hung up on poles pointing to heaven. After bears are eaten the skull, or sometimes the whole skeleton, is placed on a pole or platform in the forest, a custom known among the Buryats as baabgai yoholol.

This respect for animal spirits is the reason for certain rules connected with hunting. First, when entering the forest one should act reverently and not laugh, run, or yell, but rather move gently and stealthily like an animal. Throwing sticks in the woods is an insult to Bayan Hangai and the forest spirits and therefore taboo (nugeltei). Urinating or throwing rocks into bodies of water is likewise forbidden. Animals should never be killed except for food or fur, and the killing should be done in a quick and humane way. Game must be shared in the community and not hoarded, and the carcass must be butchered in a customary (yostoi) manner. Following these simple rules ensured the return of game and a good relationship with the animal spirits
Rivers, lakes, streams, and the ocean are home to the water animals as well as passageways for spirits traveling between the worlds. The master spirit of the waters, Usan Khan (King of Water), also known as Uha Loson, is revered by praying to the South. Lake Baikal in Siberia is the home of a very powerful spirit that is called Burhan or Mother Baikal, and offerings are made by the Buryats to placate the spirit and ensure against fishing accidents. The loon and goldeneye duck are considered to be special water birds. There is a legend among the Mongols and many Siberian peoples that in the very earliest time, when the earth was covered with water, the goldeneye duck brought up mud from the bottom of the sea, and when Tenger placed it upon the waters, the first dry land appeared. The loon is a special water bird because of its diving habits. Water is full of spirits, and the loon above all other birds is believed to communicate with the souls in the water. The cry of the loon is imitated in the songs of Mongolian and Siberian shamans.
Among the fish the salmon trout is considered powerful and images of this fish are used in the shamanist rituals throughout Siberia. The seal which lives on Lake Baikal in the Buryat Mongol homeland as well as in the Pacific Ocean, is considered to be a special animal, and it’s remains are placed in the forest like those of the bear.


Animals who appear in nature are sometimes actually shamans who take on animal form while traveling in spirit to do their work. They may take the form of birds, mammals, reptiles, or even fish. Some old stories recount occasions when a hunter has killed an animal and a shaman falls dead while conducting a ritual because the animal had actually been his soul. Ancestor spirits or ordinary people’s souls may also occasionally take on animal form. The Samoyed believe that a man’s soul may take the form of a grouse when out of the body, and one story tells of a hunter who shot a grouse that was actually his own soul. He immediately fell ill, and a shaman saved his life by giving him an egg to house his ami soul for the rest of his life. The Dagur Mongols say that certain animals are especially likely to be shamans who are soul traveling; most of these, including the porcupine, snake, fox, weasel, spider, and pheasant, are not normally eaten.

Some animals are said to be able to extend their lives by special breathing techniques. It is said that if an animal stays out only at night and breathes in a special way while gazing at the moon it can become practically immortal. After doing this for a thousand years it will turn completely black and be able to appear in human form at will. If an animal continues to do this for ten thousand years it will turn white and become very wise. The animals capable of this feat are the fox, sable, spider, pheasant, and porcupine.

Certain animals are considered to be totems or symbolic ancestors for tribes or clans. The most famous are Blue Wolf and Red Deer, the mythical ancestors of the Mongols. The western Buryats also recognize a bull, Buh Noyan Baabai, as their ancestor. Other Buryat totem animals are the swan, wild boar, and the burbat fish. Throughout Siberia the eagle is regarded also as a totemic ancestor, and in Mongolia the eagle is associated with the shamanist tradition. The hawk was associated with Chinggis Khaan and his lineage, and Chinggis Khaan was said to have received messages from Tenger through a hawk that would land on his shoulder and speak in his ear. Among the Yakut, individual clans recognize a specific mammal or bird as their totem animal. The name of the animal is taboo, and it is referred to in everyday speech by other names. In Mongolian the lack of a literal name for the bear is probably a result of this custom, given that the bear is recognized as an ancestor by almost all Siberian peoples. The name of the wolf is also taboo among many groups in Mongolia; this animal is called by other names such as the “mountain burhan”.

Animal spirits are also teachers and protectors of shamans. As a shaman grows in power, he will add to his collection of animal spirit helpers. A Mongolian shaman’s outfit normally has whole skins or pieces of fur from several different kinds of animals. These skins are not simply for decoration, but are spirit houses for the spirit helpers to which they belong. At the commencement of a ritual the shaman can call their spirits to come into the skins so they will be available to help him in his work.

Of the birds, the eagle and raven are thought to have a special relationship with shamans. As one of my teachers used to say, “The raven is the shaman’s friend”. I have noticed that ravens often appear during shamanist ceremonies. The eagle is revered because the eagle was the first shaman.

Hunting is a special sort of interaction with the animal spirits that is regulated by many different customs designed to allow for the use of animals without offending their spirits. If animal spirits are angered by carelessness or waste, a hunter or even a whole community may be punished with poor luck in finding food. Siberian hunters have a great understanding of the habits of their game animals and attribute human like characteristics to them. In the past, hunting trips to gather furs and meat often lasted for weeks, even months and today some tribes still send large groups of hunters into the forest in pursuit of game. The hunt is always open with prayers to Bayan Hangai, master spirit of the forest. At each campsite a snowman or carved image on a tree is made to represent him, and offerings of animal blood and liquor are presented to him in order to bring luck on the hunt.

In many tribes shamans do not generally go on the hunt because their spirits are so strong that they may scare away nearby animals. Even so, shamans still perform rituals before the hunters leave the village in order to guarantee hunting luck, and they can also determine if someone in the community may have done something to offend the animal spirits. The spiritual leader in the hunt who does the rituals to bring favor from Bayan Hangai is usually an elder. Among the Dagur Mongols, the elder will start the hunt by walking a short way into the woods, shooting three arrows into the forest, then returning to the village. This is called “opening the hunt”. While in the forest, hunters will move stealthily like animals and may disguise themselves by wearing whole animal skins covering the upper body and head. When animals are found, they are killed respectfully and the meat is shared equally; in that way the balance between the community and the natural world is preserved.