Sacred Mountains and Trees

Mountains, streams, forests, and individual rocks and trees are all part of Mother Earth, but are also the home of gazriin ezen, nature spirits. Some, if not all, of them were once souls of human beings, ancestors from so long ago that their numerous descendants no longer remember them and the spirits no longer has any connection with them. Looking back on the hundreds of thousands of years of human history it is easy to imagine how many of these spirits exist out in nature. A mountain or tree of great majesty will be said to have suld, which is the same word that is used to refer to the soul which remains in nature after death. Unusual rocks or trees are believed to have strong spirits and are respected or given offerings of tobacco, food, money, liquor, or ribbons tied on branches. Because these spirits are found throughout nature it is considered taboo to offend them by needlessly damaging natural features or mutilating trees. An angry nature spirit is very powerful and can create many problems for a person or community until a shaman can placate or control it. When a dead person’s suld soul goes out into nature, it may come into conflict with gazriin ezen spirits if it tries to settle in a place where other spirits are already living; certain prayers are thus said at funeral ceremonies in order to allow the deceased person’s spirit to settle in a place peacefully.

Mountain spirits are considered to be very powerful, and they represent not only the individual power of the gazriin ezen of the mountain but also the abundance of food plants. These ceremonies are usually held around the times of the equinoxes and solstices and are often done by the elders of the local clan or tribe. The wolf apears to be especially connected with mountain spirits, because when a horse or other herd animal is stolen by wolves it is the custom to say, “It has been taken by the mountain god.”

Mountain spirits and other powerful gazriin ezen spirits are worshiped at special shrines called oboo, which are tall piles of rocks and tree branches. An oboo is roughly conical in shape, about 6-10 feet tall. When passing by an oboo travelers are required to walk around it three times and place a rock on it. In doing this not only is a person showing respect for the spirit, which would be the least required of him, but in symbolically by adding to the spirit’s power by adding the rock he is receiving windhorse and good luck for his journey. In order to get more windhorse (hiimori) and buyanhishig a person might also make and offering of liquor, milk, or butter. Sometimes car parts will be hung from the tree branches to assure that there will be no brakedowns.

Above: A mountain spirit leaps out of the oboo and runs to the aide of the shaman who invoked him.

Among the Buryats oboos are also made from cut birch trees, often intricately carved and decorated with horsehair and ribbons. Instead of adding rocks, worshipers will tear off a strip from their clothing or bring a piece of cloth with them fro this purpose. A variation on this are the turge and serge, cut birch trees used in various shamanist rituals, all of which symbolize the World Tree. Most commonly the celebrants of the ritual will do a yohor circle dance around the serge in order to raise energy for various purposes. This custom is thousands of years old and is depicted in ancient petroglyphs. A similar ritual also exists among the Dene tribes of Alaska, where it is known as the Stickdance. A special kind of serge is erected next to cave entrances and is carved to look like a phalus. This type of serge is called Baabain Mungun Bagana (Father’s Silver Pole) and is placed by caves because caves represent the womb of Mother Earth; the pole balances the feminine energy of the place with the male energy of the phalic symbol.

Below: Birch trees have special significance. Here is a sacred spring with adorned trees.

Oboo are also the sites of several ceremonies during the year that nearby families or clans would celebrate in honor of the local spirit as well as Father Heaven and Mother Earth and other shamanist spirits. During the celebration of the lunar New Year, or White Moon (Tsagaan Sar), an oboo is made of snow and offerings are made to Father Heaven. Nearby a fire is built that is not allowed to go out for a month; this fire is called Tengeriin oboo (oboo of Father Heaven). Oboos not only represent mountains, but by their upward pointing nature they also represent a point of closer contact between heaven and earth, just as a mountain top is considered to be closer to Tenger and therefore spiritually powerful.

In Mongolia and Siberia certain mountains and mountain ranges are considered especially sacred. One of the most famous is Burhan Haldun, which lies in the region where Chinggis Khaan was born. It has been sacred since prehistoric times, and burial sites for shamans dot it’s slopes. The Altai Mountains in Mongolia, Tuva, and southern Siberia are considered sacred, and the spirit of the Altai is known as Altai Aab (Father Altai). When shamans in the Altai region travel to visit the clan spirit, they may first travel to the ger of Altai Aab to pay respects. The Sayan Mountains on the border of Buryatia, Mongolia, and Tuva are home to several powerful spirits, and a special type of shaman, the hadaasha, performs rituals to honor these spirits. The thirty-three baatar of Bukhe Biligte Tenger in the Tunken Valley of the Sayan Mountains are an especially important family of spirits. The capital of Mongolia, Ulaan Baatar, was founded at it’s present site almost 400 years ago because of it’s location in a spiritually powerful spot. It lies in a circular valley surrounded by four holy mountains that are revered throughout Mongolia. The four mountains include the Bogd Uul (literally, “Holy Mountain”) to the south, Songino Hairhan to the west, Chinggeltei to the north, and Bayanzurh to the east. Of these, the southern and western mountains are especially interesting. The Bogd Uul is the home of the thunderbird Han garid, a huge bird that can cover the sun and moon with it’s wings and fly into outer space. Songino Hairhan is the home of the spirit of the shaman Songino, who is said to have lived at the time of the founding of Ulaan Baatar. The siting of this city in a circle among four holy mountains located in each of the four directions ensured it’s protections and blessings from all the spirits residing in such a spiritually powerful place.

Some trees are considered sacred. Often a tree that stands alone (gants mod) is believed to have a powerful spirit that causes the tree to flourish where others have not. Also trees by springs, at mountain passes, and in other special places are recognized as ongon mod (ongon tree), or ezetei (having it’s own spirit). These trees are recognized as shrines in their own right and are called barisaa. At barisaa, like at oboos, it is customary to tie ribbons or ceremonial silk scarves (khadag) to the branches and to leave offerings of money, food, dairy foods, tobacco, or liquor. Trees that are struck by lightning are sacred because they have been specifically shown to be powerful trees by Tenger. In some places there are sacred groves of trees, known as aikha or zuun mod (“hundred trees”), that are used by shamans as sites for their ceremonies.

Certain trees with unusual growth (often caused by lightning strikes) are traditionally recognized as shaman trees. A shaman tree is a tree whose main trunk’s vertical growth stops not far from the ground, and the rest of it’s vertical growth has been taken over by one or more limbs so that the crown has a cup like shape. A shamanist tree is a tree where one limb has taken over the vertical growth of the tree, giving it an almost S-like shape. Form my experience I have noticed that a good amount of these shaman trees have been larches, but I have also seen oak trees with this unusual growth pattern. The symbolism of the trees maybe related to the fact that a shaman’s initiatory experience is like the lightning strike that killed the top of the trunk. Once a person becomes a shaman his future life is shaped by his relationship with the spirit world and the spirits influence his future development. While a lightning strike often kills a tree, a shaman tree has recovered; similarly, a shaman may have a life-threatening illness or a near death experience at the time when the spirits call him.

Some types of trees are considered special in Mongolian shamanism. Among the Dagur there are twelve sacred trees, called duwalang, each with it’s own special bird. In most Mongolian and Siberian traditions, however, the number of trees considered sacred is much less. The pine tree is considered to be sacred because it has “blood”; when it is cut, it bleeds. Therefore cutting pine trees is taboo, and cutting a pine tree will shorten a person’s life, according to Buryat tradition. In the past in Siberia the pine tree was used as a burial site for shamans. The bark was carefully peeled back and a resting place for the shaman’s body or bones was hollowed out from the living tree. After the shaman’s remains were interred the bark was carefully folded back, and within a few years the shaman was completely encased in living wood. The suld of the shaman will become the ezen of the tree, and the tree thus becomes a sacred site. The Fir is also connected with shamanism and it’s needles are burned for purification in some ceremonies. As mentioned earlier, the World Tree is thought to be a willow, but the willows of Siberia and Mongolia grow much straighter than the willows of North America. Elms (uliaas) are revered in Inner Mongolia, especially large ones with broad crowns. Called the “big branchy tree,” an elm of this type is used for three types of ceremonies. In the earliest times the “big branchy tree” was a sacred site for Mother Earth, and in some places large-crowned trees are still used for worship of Mother Earth. Some of these trees are also called tengeriin mod, “tree of heaven,” and are sites of worship for Father Heaven. In fertility ceremonies, the third type of worship done at these large-crowned trees, the tree is called “the grandmother tree” and the ceremonies are directed to Umai.

The birch, by far the most common broad-leaved tree in Siberia, is used in numerous ways in shamanist ceremonies, from making serge and turge trees to making wooden implements for handling sacrificial meat. the Buryats refer to the birch as ekhemodon, “mother tree,” and treat it with reverence.

In Buryat custom, as well as among other Mongols, the unnecessary cutting of a tree is taboo, and the wasting of a tree is said to shorten one’s own life, especially if the tree is a pine, birch, larch, or cedar. Overall, trees are important because they are a reflection of the nurturing power of Mother Earth, and they are a symbol of every being’s relationship with Father Heaven and Mother Earth, for they draw energy from Tenger above as well as from Mother Earth below. Furthermore, the tree, especially the toroo, is a symbol of death and regeneration, for the roots are a mirror of the crown and the roots reach back in time, as the crown reaches ever upward in the future into the eternal blue sky.

Porcupine quills tied to branches in a ceremonial place in the forest.