It was pitch black by the time the Jeep finally arrived. Flames from the campfires lit up the night sky.
The sacred summons was about to begin.
One by one, Mongolian shamans dressed in buckskin gowns and headdresses appeared, chanting and beating drums to beckon the spirits.
Only two westerners were allowed to observe the centuries-old ceremony: Dr. Richard Noll was one of them.
“I was stunned, I mean literally stunned,” says Noll, associate professor of psychology at DeSales University. “I was seeing figures walk out of the darkness into the area of the firelight that were shamans, figures that I had only seen in old photographs from a hundred years ago. And here this was in front of me alive.”
Noll made his first trip to Mongolia at the invitation of the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. He arrived with two goals: to see first-hand the situation on the ground and to establish contacts and relationships with fellow academics as well as shamans and Buddhist lamas.
He presented to the academy and also conducted fieldwork alongside Leonard George, a psychologist from Capilano University in Canada. Noll’s presentation combined anthropology with a new hybrid discipline known as the cognitive science of religion. “It was a concerted effort to try to come up with a good theory as to why these things we call religion, beliefs, why they appear in every single human society. How does this arise from a scientific point of view?”
Mongolia is in the process of rebuilding its educational system, after years of Soviet rule, and is lacking in many areas, including experimental psychology. “They’re just hungry for anything that’s going on in the west,” Noll says.
It was through connections Noll made on the ground that he and George were granted access to the invitation-only fire ritual celebrating the summer solstice, a tradition that predates Genghis Khan.
But the invite wasn’t a sure bet. After waiting for hours, they finally got the call late that afternoon — they were in.
They hired a driver and slowly made their way into the unknown. “If you go outside the capital, it’s nothing,” Noll says. “There are no roads really, so we took the main road as far as we could.”
Finally, they saw the glow of the fire and knew they had arrived. They were granted an audience with the head of the organization of shamans and the chief shaman. “They’re checking us out. I was speaking their language. We clicked.”
Then came the celebration. One by one, shamans came out of the darkness and into the firelight. And one by one, they began drumming different beats to summon the different spirits.
The shamans wore traditional buckskin gowns complete with mirrors and bells.
Their gowns are considered a form of armor — protecting them from bad spirits while also allowing them to be seen in the spirit world.
Their headdresses contained animal features such as feathers and deer antlers. Once the shamans were in their gowns and entered into their trance, they were able to call the spirits.
“It was over three hours, I felt it was 20 minutes,” Noll says. “The drumming was intense and loud. The whole ground shook. My body vibrated for two days afterwards. It was like being too close to the speakers at a Rolling Stones concert.”
Noll’s love of Mongolia dates back to his childhood. He used to collect exotic stamps and became fascinated with the country at a young age.
“There’s something about Mongolia,” he says. “There just is. To them, they have pride in the fact that they are these small tribal folks who basically live with horses and are nomads and they had such an impact on the world.”
Noll began studying shamanism back in 1980, after being introduced to it by the anthropologist Michael Harner. In 1994, he traveled to Manchuria and Inner Mongolia in the People’s Republic of China and interviewed the last living Tungus Siberian shamans.
So, what fascinates him about this ancient spiritual practice?
“Shamanism is the origins of religion but also it’s the origins of medicine,” he says. “I'm trying to understand how people can be healed in the absence of modern science and technology.”
Next up for Noll is a trip to Japan, where a prominent anthropologist has invited him to deliver a series of presentations on shamanism and to conduct fieldwork in Okinawa.
But Mongolia is never far from his thoughts. He plans to return to the country to visit remote areas and continue studying both shamans and Buddhist lamas.
“Even now as I go throughout my day, it’s in my mind,” he says. “It’s like falling in love. My mind keeps going back to that — to the sky, to the landscape, and the people I met.”
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