When Worlds Touch

As stated earlier, the spirit and physical worlds are not really separated since they touch in many places. There are certain situations, however, where the spirit world and this world touch in dramatic ways that require special notice and that are regulated by specific rules of behavior. The worlds can touch in a person, such as a shaman, a newborn, or a deceased individual. Physical sites where spirit and earth touch are in sacred sites such as mountains, trees, or oboo, or in a specially devised dwelling place for a spirit called an ongon. Contact with spirits can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the type of spirit involved and its character. It can also present some danger to the well being of a personís souls because they may be tempted to follow the spirits into other worlds.

While contact with a shaman is normally quite safe because his spirits are employed for beneficial purposes, for other people, contact with the spirit world can be quite dangerous. Spirit possession or influence can cause illness or insanity and must be ended quickly. Newborn children and their mothers are sequestered for a certain amount of time following birth, not only to protect the newly entered souls of the child, but also because the entry of the souls through the mother makes her slightly otherworldly and dangerous to other humans. Similarly, the household of a person who has died become temporarily taboo. Those who dispose of the body are taboo as well because of their presence at the exit of souls from the world but this taboo does not extend to their families unless they happen to also be blood relatives of the person who died. According to Mongolian custom, only the pallbearers are present at the burial. The name of a dead person may remain taboo for a period of time lasting from a few days to forever. It is believed that the mention of the dead personís name may call him or her back from the lower world or cause him or her to stay around. This is dangerous because dead people may try to take the suns souls of the ones they loved.

Spiritually powerful places in nature require respect of the spirits that dwell there. Insults to the spirits can result in their attack on the offending person or his community. On the other hand, honoring the spirits of these places bring good luck and prosperity.

An important site of contact between spirits and the physical world is the ongon, a specially created house for spirits. Ongons are beneficial as long as they are treated with honor. Ongons are some of the most important shamanist tools in Mongolia and Siberia, and almost all tribes use them. They come in many different forms; they can be carved out of wood, painted on leather, mounted on a wooden hoop or made out of metal. The materials used to make ongons includes wood, leather, felt, rocks, paper, fur, feathers, straw, and metal. Some ongons are abstract and some resemble dolls. While ordinary people may make an ongon, it is enlivened by the shaman who calls the spirit to occupy it. Ancestor spirits or animal spirits occupy most ongons, but some contain very powerful nature spirits. Some ongon spirits are the suld souls of people who died tragically and have been called and mastered by shamans in order to heal their unhappiness and direct their energies into helping people. Many of these spirits had been unhappy because they were unable to have children, and thus by becoming ongon spirits they are adopted as virtual ancestors. Other ongons house the suld souls of shamans whose souls have not become udha spirits or zayaans.

After being quickened an ongon is honored by being placed in the sacred place of the ger and fed offerings of liquor, blood, milk, or fat. Some tribes place ongons outside or in a special house. Buryats put some ongons inside poles that are placed on hilltops in order to watch over the land and animals. The Dagur Mongols place their ongons in a special building separate from their dwelling because they believe that some ongon spirits become angry if people have sex in their presence.

Ongons are ritually fed, some daily, and some on special occasions. If the ongons fail to perform their duties, such as by not bringing prosperity and protection, a household may ďpunishĒ them by not giving them offerings. Some ongons, especially those of the Zol Zayaach and Umai, have decorations added to them as a way of expressing thanks for their help. Dagur Mongols give their ongons feathers to help them fly during their journeys in the spirit world. Since most ongon spirits have lived as humans or animals in the past, they are believed to have human like emotions and memories, and so they are treated with respect. If in a future time a spirit is no longer useful or desired, they ongon is either burned respectfully or placed out in nature so the spirit can return to the natural world from which it had been called.

Left: A photo of an ongon.


Any spirit can be represented by one or more ongons that may be present in multiple places. This is usually related to how well an ongon spirit is known or recognized to be powerful. For example, a certain departed person may be housed in an ongon and used as a household protector or as a helper of a certain shaman; if the spirit often reveals itself to shamans or seems to have special magical powers, additional ongons may be made for it, depending on the needs of certain individuals or shamans. There are many recorded cases of this happening in various parts of Mongolia and Siberia. Many of the ongon spirits were real historical persons and the cult of honoring them usually spread from their own families or villages to other areas over time, as people came to understand what their special powers were. Some ongon spirits may be good for protection, health of the livestock, hunting luck, assistance in lower world travel, safety from floods, and so forth. The fact that the spirit can be present and exert itís effects through the ongons in many places at once is rooted in the basic idea in Mongolian shamanism that time and space are irrelevant in the spiritual world- all ongons of any given spirit are part of one whole rather than functioning as many separate entities.

Two of the most important ongons which are found in Mongolian households are Zol Zayaach and Avgaldai. Zol Zayaach is depicted as a male-female pair and is a protector of the household and herds; Avgaldai is a copper mask of the bear ancestor and is occasionally worn by a shaman in the triennial ominan ritual that honors all of the spirits and initiates new shamans. Shamans normally have a large set of ongons that house their helper spirits; in fact, the shaman costume itself is like an ongon of the shamanís udha spirit. Special ongons may be created for healing and soul retrieval ceremonies and left with a patient in order to carry on the healing process and protect the patientís souls. Temporary ongons of wood or grass are sometimes used in rituals to hold a disease spirit. These temporary ongons are usually made in the form of a man or a dog. The spirit thus held is then released when the ongon is discarded out in nature or afterwards destroyed. Ongons of shamanic helper spirits are passed down from generation to generation because the spirit will continue to live in them, and neglect of the spirit may make it turn hostile.

Many Siberian tribes also have a tradition of making animal ongons, usually horses or reindeer. The animal will be marked by a ribbon or hadag (ceremonial silk scarf), passed through the ear or tied on the mane. This custom is known as seterleh. These living ongons are usually created at the time of some major shamanic ritual, and they cannot be killed afterwards. Some tribes also forbid that the animals be ridden while some allow only men to ride them. In a similar way a tree may become an ongon as well, but many times these ongon modon (ongon trees) will already be recognized as possessing powerful spirits before they are consecrated. A tree chosen for consecration as a prayer tree usually has some unusual physical characteristic that is understood as an omen that the tree is connected to the spirit world.