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Shamanism, Memory, and Gender in Contemporary Mongolia
336 pages | 24 halftones, 3 maps, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2013
The collapse of socialism at the end of the twentieth century brought devastating changes to Mongolia. Economic shock therapy―an immediate liberalization of trade and privatization of publicly owned assets―quickly led to impoverishment, especially in rural parts of the country, where Tragic Spirits takes place. Following the travels of the nomadic Buryats, Manduhai Buyandelger tells a story not only of economic devastation but also a remarkable Buryat response to it―the revival of shamanic practices after decades of socialist suppression.
Attributing their current misfortunes to returning ancestral spirits who are vengeful over being abandoned under socialism, the Buryats are now at once trying to appease their ancestors and recover the history of their people through shamanic practice. Thoroughly documenting this process, Buyandelger situates it as part of a global phenomenon, comparing the rise of shamanism in liberalized Mongolia to its similar rise in Africa and Indonesia. In doing so, she offers a sophisticated analysis of the way economics, politics, gender, and other factors influence the spirit world and the crucial workings of cultural memory.
Paul Stoller, author of The Power of the Between
“Tragic Spirits is a rich, enviably nuanced ethnography filled with details about Mongolian history and the impact of Mongolian history on Buryat shamanistic practices. The author’s capacities as a ‘native anthropologist’ have enabled her to comprehend a myriad of complex and multilayered interactions, but perhaps more impressive is how she derives her analysis through the interpretation of narratives. We learn about the twists and turns of Buryat experience through the trenchant stories of people, many of whom are either shamans or the clients of shamans. This strategy is admirable, for it foregrounds experience and renders the text a memorable evocation of the human condition as well as a powerful exercise in social analysis. Such a synthesis is a rare achievement.”
Peter Geschiere, author of Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust
“Manduhai Buyandelger’s accounts of Mongolians’ anxious attempts to enlist the help of new shamans to find their lost dead, against a background of deep disruption by socialist terror followed by a failed neoliberal ‘shock therapy,’ are deeply moving. They also raise challenging questions of a more general purport: the ‘reality’ of spirits that seem to be out of contact, the expertise of specialists who have to start from lost knowledge, and the tricks memory can play offering relief nonetheless. A powerful analysis of common sense, the supernatural, and innovative creativity.”