“Ossa sacra” — Sacred Bones in the Mongolian Customs and Belief System

Birtalan Ágnes

“Ossa sacra” – Sacred Bones in the Mongolian Customs and Belief System

(45th Meeting of the PIAC, Budapest 2002)

Different kinds of cattle and beast bones play an important role in nomadic or nomadic-hunting societies. Bones represent both continuity and mortality, and having a great variety of form they could be used in both profane and sacred spheres of life.

In the animistic and shamanistic belief system bones are considered as a place of the souls. E. g. the skeleton or particular bones of the sacrificed animal should be preserved entirely lest it should lose its soul and value for the gods and spirits. The shamans of some ethnic groups wear a symbolical skeleton on their ritual garment, representing their souls. Beyond these well-known phenomena we would give a survey of the sacrificial and quasi-sacrificial use of different kinds of bones in the Mongolian tradition.

Bones used as sacrificial objects: head and scapula of cattle for owoo-worship, with fertility purpose.

Bones used for divination: scapula, astragal, pelvis and probably originally the 25th vertebra (backbone) of the sheep, used recently for eloquent dialogue at feasts.

Bones (with a part of meat on it) are the basis of the distribution of festive food for the members of the family or the community, in keeping with the strong rules, particularly age, gender and relation to the family or community.

Bones used with ritualistic purposes on different occasions (in most cases in connection with fertility magic): i) birth, ii) wedding, iii) lunar New Year, iv) fire ritual, v) rituals, purposes of beckoning good luck, fortune.

Bones for the purpose of a trial of strength and skills, previously used in military (archery) practice: astragal, scapula.

Bones in adults’ and children’s games: astragal.

Bones in the everyday practice of nomads: E. g. aduu manax “guarding the horse”.

Bones in arts: ritualistic and non-ritualistic objects: predominantly in Buddhist-Lamaist art.

Most of the above listed spheres of using different animal bones could be observed in the contemporary life of the Mongolian nomads, so a part of the analysed material has been collected during fieldwork.