Shamans in Mongolia

In the film “Horse Boy” a married couple takes their autistic son, Rowan to Mongolia.  Both husband and wife traveled the world with their jobs before having their son and since then their lives have changed dramatically.  The husband, Rupert is a journalist and had reported on shamans for many years.  After discovering that horses (and other animals) were the only things that calmed their son and prevented tantrums, they decided it might be helpful to visit the shamans where horse riding originated, Mongolia.

The shamans they saw seemed to be highly respected members of their isolated horse or reindeer communities.  Some of them dressed in elaborate decorations and danced while playing drums in a ritual that lasted four hours.  Another more simply interacted with Rowan and made a motion over the boy’s head as if he were pulling “bad spirits” out.  Also, the shamans at times discussed the illness together and with the parents.  They decided it was being caused by a troubled spirit on the mother’s side that was holding onto Rowan.  Another similarity between the various shamans was that they included the parents in the rituals, as if they were healing the family and not just alleviating symptoms of the boy’s autism.  I thought this was an important point because the trip was not just for the son – the family as a whole seemed to need a sort of spiritual healing.

I think that the shamans showed in the film were somewhere in between the popular and folk sectors.  Though I don’t think they were included in an organized national healthcare system, they were welcoming to these visitors from America who sought them out.  Like I said, they definitely took a holistic rather than a physiologic approach to healing and shared the cultural beliefs and practices of those herding societies.  In the end, Rowan’s tantrums lessened, he became more independent of his parents and began learning important skills.  The parents were divided on how to explain this definite improvement, though they agreed it doesn’t matter exactly what caused it.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thuy-Tien Giap says:

    Hi Dan,

    So what I got from your summary is that the Shamans performed dances, drum ceremonies, wore elaborate costumes during rituals, and these appeared more as art form. As you said, Shamans also included family members along with the one who was inflicted in their rituals. In contrast, biomedical doctors wear less showy outfits in their simple scrubs or lab coats. Doctors also prescribe drugs for almost every diseases, and only treat those who are affected with a disease, not the entire family.

    I liked that you found it important for the shamans to include the family when treating Rowan since their approach was holistic, thus healing every aspect of the impact the disease had on the family. Although only Rowan had autism and tantrums, but his caregivers experienced stress from the situation no less, so it was a good idea that they were apart of the healing.

    The Shamans seemed credible (and respected) in Mongolia because there were many tribes of them. People must believe in their power in order for them to exist, eg. Rowan’s family traveled all the way from their homeland, rode horses, rode in vans, to find these Shamans.. They were from a totally different culture and sought the Shamans out to help cure their son. Whether their rituals were effective or not, I think, is purely due to believe. If his parents believed there was change for the better, then they would see it. I think it was effective because Rowan’s tantrum reduced, and he was involved in other tasks.

    Well done!

  2. Elaina Clark says:

    Shamans of Mongolia are very different from biomedical doctors in the United States. Shamans associate illness and disease with bad spirits and other external forces acting on one’s body, whereas biomedical doctors often associate illness and disease with genetics and other biological factors. Like you mentioned, shamans seemed to focus on the family as a whole and biomedical doctors focus on individual biological traits. The shamans, however, do compare to the clown doctors of NYC that we read about. The use of clown doctors isn’t extremely common in hospitals around the United States, but their shamanic like behavior and defiance of culture norms proves that the biomedical aspect isn’t the only factors being considered when treating patients.

    At first when I watched the movie, I didn’t think the Mongolian shamans would be able to cure the boy or even help the boy with his autism. After finishing the film, I viewed the shaman’s powers differently. At one point in the movie, the shamans informed the parents that their son would never be the same after the ritual. Afterwards, the boy, in fact, never was the same because his tantrums and overall behavior improved. So, I’ve deduced that shamanic rituals do appear to be effective. There are more aspects to medicine than just the biomedical aspect. I believe that rituals to treat psychological aspects and other illnesses are important to consider as well, and are credible in treating these types of conditions.

  3. Alex Chavez-Yenter says:

    At least within the cultural context of the U.S., shamans would not be as well respected and trusted as a professionally certified biomedical physician. The scope of practice of the shamans is centered on a personal, or spiritual level whereas biomedical physicians mainly focus on biophysical indicators for healing. The shamans do, however, address and care for a niche that modern health care often cannot physically reach. Rural and isolated communities rely on the health care that is offered within a reasonable distance, as is the situation with the Mongolian horse/reindeer communities. To me, the shamans offer more than simply ritualistic dance, music, and garb, but they provide their patients (and family) with hope and psychological healing. This is something that biomedicine sometimes fails to provide.

    In terms of credibility and legitimacy, I would say this is entirely dependent on the shaman. Some shamans have vast knowledge of plants and herbs passed down through generations that do happen to have significant pharmacological effects and could be providing physiological healing, as well as spiritual healing. Others, however, seem to put on a show that merely appears effective and have a sort of placebo effect on patients and family. Although the effect is limited biophysically, I do believe it can enhance mental health and improve patient outlook on an illness. This is especially true of cultures with their own “illnesses” that require treatments only available by shamans.

  4. Ashley Hall says:

    I really enjoyed reading your interpretation from the movie you watched about Shamans. I think it really helped me have a better understanding of the medical profession I read about which was Clown Doctors in New York. Comparing Shamans and clown doctors was mentioned in my reading and I found that in fact, they really are similar. However, I think that shamans are typically more respected in their community than a clown doctor is in western society. This makes logical sense to me since it really comes down to our culture and what we have grown accustomed to as we grow up. However, the U.S. really does have a system that tends to focus on the physical opposed to the mental or emotional turmoil associated with disease. Even mental illness, for example, is a less recognized disease because it isn’t something that necessarily shows concrete symptoms. The U.S. responds to facts, whereas the shamans believe there is something more than what we are able to see. I think that both treatments work, however, because of where I’ve grown up and the people I’ve grown up with, it’s hard to assert faith as a form of viable treatment for an ill person. Just as some grow up with shamans as their healers, I grew up with a doctor as my father. Whenever I had a pain or illness, I just asked him what was wrong and how I should treat it. Since his focus was on neurological problems, I think he definitely leaned more towards a side of healing through not just physical means but also mental. I believe that if there is proven progress with any kind of treatment, if one puts in effort and really believes in it they will have better results than merely taking a pill or having a surgery. I think that the shamans have a point, just as the clown doctors, and typical western doctors do.

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