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Shamanistic Elements in Mongolian Deer Stone Art

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In traveling throughout Mongolian steppe, one soon becomes aware of the beautiful art found on the region's deer stone monuments. These monuments, which feature deer-figured art, are known as 'deer stones' in Mongolian archaeological books and research studies. The largest concentration of deer stones occurs in the Asian and European steppe zone, where approximately 700 have been found associated with historically unique archaeological sites dating to the Bronze and Early Iron Ages dating from 2000 BC to 700-300 BC. Archaeologists have been researching deer stones for more than a hundred years. In Mongolia, the Lake Baikal area, and the Sayan Altai and Altai Mountain regions, there are 550,20,20, and 60 deer stones respectively. Moreover, there are another 20 deer stones in Kazakstan and the Middle East (Samashyev 1992) and 10 in the far west, specifically in the Ukraine and parts of the Russian Federation, including the provinces of Orenburg and Kavkasia, and near the Elba River (Mongolian History 2003).

There are different viewpoints about the origins of deer stone art. According to H.L. hlyenova, the artistic deer image originated from the Sak tribe and its branches (Chlyenova 1962). Volkov believes that some of the methods of crafting deer stone art are closely related to Scythians (Volkov 1967), whereas D. Tseveendorj regards deer stone art as having originated in Mongolia during the Bronze Age and spread thereafter to Tuva and the Baikal area (Tseveendorj 1979). D.G. Savinov (1994) and M.H. Mannai-Ool (1970) have also researched deer stone art and have expressed other conclusions.

Pazyryk mummy tatoo decoration.

Figure 3.1. Pazyryk mummy tatoo decoration (after Rudenko).

The purpose of this article is not to discuss the various opinions held by the above scientists, but rather to propose some new ideas about understanding some aspects of deer stone art. The deer stone is a specially-decorated and vertically-aligned rectangular shaped rock whose surface is divided into three parts. On opposite sites at the top of most stones one usually finds a carving showing one or two large and one or more smaller round rings, beneath which are shown smaller geometric forms. Between these small uppermost carvings and the usually cross-hatched lower border band there are pecked engravings of one or more beautifully illustrated deer, or, occasionally, some other figures like horses, leopards, wild goats, men, fish, or pigs. These other animals may appear with or without the image of a deer. Additionally, a number of different weapons and tools are shown hanging from a broad border band or belt, and nearby carved bows and arrows and other motifs such as a chevron or 'hard palate-shaped pentagonal figure' may be illustrated. Some deer stones have no animal figures and display only border lines and weapons.

Typical deer images on a deer stone fragment

Figure 3.2. Typical deer images on a deer stone fragment.

It is clear from the distribution and geographic locations of deer stone sites that this art has been created by nomadic peoples. But it is interesting and significant to understand the spirit of its creation. Researchers have many different ideas about why deer and other objects were illustrated on deer stones. To take a specific example, it is noted on page 120 of the first of the five-volume History of Mongolia (2003) that "Deer are largely concentrated and found throughout the Central Asian regions and their fur, meat. and horns are traditionally used. Also, deer do not harm human beings. Therefore, it has been an honorable and symbolic animal for a long period of time." On the other hand, as said by researcher S. Dulam, "While ancient inhabitants used to believe in their family representative (symbolic object or totem) as their origin, they also believed that the deer was the symbol or spirit of their creator. In other words, the image of the deer on the stone is related to ancient belief that human beings originated as deer" (Dulam 1989).

Furthermore, American scientist William Fitzhugh speaks about the developments in deer stone rock art research as expanding our knowledge of human face art and early Asian and some European mask-making traditions. Images in deer stones may indicate a long tradition of protective body ritual and decoration related to tatoo use and shamanism. Overall, he supposes that the deer stone monuments represent a spiritualized human body (Fitzhugh 2002).

In order to understand the human spiritual belief regarding deer it is necessary to consider the religious convictions of people of that time. It is likely that ancient human beings had very simple explanations for natural phenomenon and reacted to unfamiliar creatures with surprise and fear and even regarded some beings as superior to them Researchers have suggested a link between deer stones and shamanism and the beginning of religious faith dating to 700 BC (Purev 1999:19). Consequently, it is logical to understate their intelligence and religious ideas by researching shamanism. Clearly, in a corresponding manner, contemporary traditional knowledge can be of assistance as well.

I would like to briefly describe shamanistic spirituality as it relates to deer. First of all, one of the main items of shamanic paraphernalia is the ongodiin unaa hengereg - the spirit receiving drum - which is made of deer hide (Jamyan 1998:3 L). Aritual hymn to make the spirit lively is: "Guiding our life and happiness; a young deer is just coming by..." After singing and performing a particular ritual ceremony, the shaman takes off his coat, puts on his shaman attire and starts evoking the spirit. In this manner, the shaman's steed, the female deer (sogoo in Mongolian), comes to life and says things like, "In separating from its own herd (family), the female deer transformed itself in order to bring success to the conqueror," and "it leaps into the sky through the power of the chosen hero" (Jamyan 1998:33-34). The idea of this extraordinary and mysterious deer deserves special attention with regard to deer stone imagery.

The handle of a shaman drum on display at the National Museum of Mongolian History.

Figure 3.3. The handle of a shaman drum on display at the National Museum of Mongolian History.

The interior of the NMMH shaman drum.

Figure 3.4.The interior of the NMMH shaman drum.

Likewise, O. Purev, a Mongolian researcher of shamanism, believes that "for a long time, shamans of Mongolian tribes and ethnic groups considered the female deer as heavenly steeds" and identified them with their shamanic paraphernalia and implements. One might therefore expect to find some correspondence between the role of deer in Mongolian shamanism and on deer stones. From our point of view, the practice of shamanism, tattoos on the frozen man from Pazyryk (Figure 3.1), and the deer image on deer stones (Figure 3.2) might be similar and may relate to deer as magical-fantastic stallions that lead dead people's souls to heaven, the "dark space."

Another interesting image illustrated on deer stones is the 'palate-shaped pentagonal figure' as conventionally described by researchers. A number of scientists have researched this figure and proposed various ideas. For example, V.V. Volkov and Novgorodova consider this pentagonal figure as an armor shield or something similar to a human chest skeleton found in shaman's ritual clothing (Volkov 2002; Novgorodova 1975). D. Tseveendorj and D. Erdenebaatar have expressed similar opinions, regarding it as representing an armor shield (Tseveendorj 1976; Erdenebaatar 2000), whereas M. H. Mannai-Od sees similarity to the image of a wooden house found in the Boyarskii Rock art site (Mannai-Ool 1970). D. G. Savinov agrees with the idea of a shield but believes new research may suggest alternative interpretations. For instance, he supposes it could be some kind of 'container' for the dead to inhabit during the transition before becoming re-animated again (Savinov 1994).

This image has been in dispute among researchers and scientists for a long time but heretofore has not been interpreted with respect to traditional shamanistic practices and implements. It struck us that this palate figure was very similar to a similar design on the grip of the shaman's drum as seen by its image and symbolic concept. According to shamanistic belief, human or animal body parts including a "main spine, four tsol (consisting of the liver, stomach, heart and kidney), 10 joints, and 80 vessels" and objects symbolizing the Four Elements were commonly embodied in the shaman's drum (Purev 1999:250-251). In view of this ritual, there has been the tradition to carve pentagonal palate designs on shaman drum beaters to represent a spiritual steed's spine and ribs. Another piece of evidence supporting our explanation is the illustration of animal spines and similar figures found on the handle of a shaman's drum on display at the National Museum of Mongolian History (Figure 3.3 and 3.4). Furthermore, during the 2004 expedition of the Mongolian-American Joint Deer Stone Project 2004, we recovered several old implements of shamanic paraphernalia which had been defaced and rusted by nature on Angarkhai Mountain near the town of Sumber in Arbulag (Figure 1.28). These shamanic belongings have been preserved and are now displayed at the National Museum of Mongolian History. Among these implements is a drum handle that displays the palate design. A similar design is also carved into the a drum beater recovered at the same site (Figure 3.5). Apparently the custom of illustrating the palate design on the inner part of the drum is a common and long-standing tradition in Mongolian shamanism.

Additional facts supporting this idea may be seen in a wooden shamanic implement in the state museum of Bayan-Ulgii province that carries this design. This image is quite comparable to the image found on deer stones (Figure 3.6). One of the traditional ritual ceremonies practiced by shamans is to transform a dead shaman's drum into a spirit drum by cutting the drum's crosspieces (handles). The cut drum is commonly   buried with a dead shaman so that he or she would not be carried to hell (Purev 1999:326).

The drum handle and drum beater of the Angarkhai Hill shaman drum.

Figure 3.5 The drum handle and drum beater of the Angarkhai Hill shaman drum.

Thus, we suppose it is no coincidence that the 'palate-shaped pentagonal figure' (Figure 3.7) on deer stones and the images on shaman drum handles, beaters, and other implements are so similar to each other. From this point of view, we suggest that the pentagon figure on deer stones is neither a shield nor a skeleton; instead, it is the general image of a spine representing a generalized animal body. In other words, this image is closely related to the ritual of a dead person's next life and its soul and spirit. It is interesting to note that there are similar portrayals in ornaments commonly called "unjlaga" (dangler) by researchers. These ornaments are from Bronze Age archaeological sites and are mostly found in Mongolia and elsewhere in the Euro-Asian region. Hence with future study we may find new ways of interpreting and understanding deer stone art and ritual with better knowledge of Mongolian shamanism and its symbolism and paraphernalia.


Shamanic figure from Bayan Ulgii.

Figure 3.6 Shamanic figure from Bayan Ulgii.

Palate-shaped pentagonal figure.

Figure 3.7 Palate-shaped pentagonal figure.

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