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The Surprising Story of Mongolian Shamanism

MIT anthropologist finds that after Soviet domination, a rebirth of shamanism helped Mongolia rewrite its own history

By Peter Dizikes

In 1990, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, Mongolia, long a satellite of the U.S.S.R., regained its independence. Socialism was out and free markets returned. Religion — in the form of Buddhism, shamanism, and other folk religions — became officially accepted again in Mongolian society. That, in turn, produced another unexpected change: The return of shamans, religious figures who claim to have a supernatural ability to connect with the souls of the dead.

Indeed, as MIT anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger chronicles in a new book, the revival of shamanism has shaped Mongolia in surprising ways in the last two decades. From storefronts in Ulan Bator, the nation’s capital, to homes in rural Mongolia, shamanism has become a growth industry.

In the book — “Tragic Spirits,” published this month by the University of Chicago Press — Buyandelger both documents this surprising phenomenon and analyzes its meaning. The return of shamanism, she asserts, represents more than the straightforward return of a once-banned religion to Mongolia. And it is more than just a convenient method for people to earn a little income by working as shamans.

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