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An Excerpt from Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination

Note: Berghahn recently published Katherine Swancutt’s Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination, an ethnographic study of the world of Buryat Mongol divination. An excerpt from the book follows a note from the author which places it in the context of her larger argument.

It’s common knowledge that, when under duress, many people turn to religion. Yet the human penchant for inventing new magical practices during this ‘turn to religion’ is rarely revealed.

When I first went to Mongolia, I wanted to uncover how a shamanic cosmology comes to be reinvented over time. My plan was to document the shamanic practices – and especially the divinations (aka ‘fortune-tellings’) – undertaken by Buryat Mongols at the northeastern fringes of the country. These shamans manage everything from major health and business crises to everyday fluctuations in a person’s fortune, which, I learned, is not just a kind of luck-filled prosperity that can rise or fall dramatically. Fortune is also a driving force behind Buryat innovation-making.

This excerpt showcases my argument (in a nutshell) that both shamans and fortune are central to the invention of new magical practices among Buryats today. The book is packed with ethnographic case studies showing how, in moments of crisis, shamans create remedies that block harmful forces (such as curses or hauntings) from the home. These studies are grounded in both ‘the invention of culture’ approach pioneered by Roy Wagner and in ‘chaos theory’. But in the spirit of innovation-making, I take these a step further, revealing that Buryat shamans who introduce successful remedies attract ever-more opportunities to expand their repertoire. Beyond this, I show that Buryat fortune unfailingly follows the very same logic of ‘like attracts like’ – by attracting increasing amounts of (either good or bad) fortune to itself over time.

– Katherine Swancutt

Excerpt from Fortune and the Cursed: The Sliding Scale of Time in Mongolian Divination

Like strange attractors, those Buryat shamans who produce innovations actually set in motion a series of changes on social and cosmological levels, for instance by helping people to resolve village rivalries and by inspiring them to seek out further innovations for crisis resolution, whilst adding to the existing religious and magical repertoires. Over time, all these changes attract further follow-up innovations. As the main case study in this book shows, the shaman Yaruu, who produced several innovations, doubled as a strange attractor. Yaruu introduced a highly successful curse-blocking innovation in 2000 and then four years later managed to produce a couple of similar vampire-blocking innovations. Each of Yaruu’s innovations helped expel a hostile force from the home, such that her newer innovations built upon – and even were attracted to – her older ones, making her oeuvre exhibit what chaos theorists call a ‘fractal patterning’, meaning ‘the tendency of patterns or structures to recur on multiple levels or scales’. The recurrent pattern of Yaruu’s innovations was to ‘block hostile forces from the home’, whilst ‘curses’ or ‘vampiric imps’ comprised the multiple scales on which this patterning occurred.

Certainly this drive towards follow-up innovations was bolstered by the Buryat notion which I learned about from Ölzii in 2004, when asking about Yaruu’s curse-blocking innovation produced four years earlier. According to Ölzii, any given Buryat innovation is potent for two to three years. Moreover, when Buryat shamans adopt a shamanic spirit’s perspective and introduce an innovation, they often tell their inquirers what its precise potency life happens to be. Once this potency life has expired, the innovation can only be effective if it is refreshed with a follow-up shamanic ceremony. In Ölzii’s view, many innovations were discarded rather than refreshed once their potency was exhausted, since the crisis which made those innovations necessary in the first instance had already been resolved. After that, as Ölzii noted, Buryats prefer to obtain new innovations which would provide tailor-made resolutions to their new crises. Echoing the ‘boom and bust’ cycles of chaos science experiments, the Buryat preference for innovation-making thus propels their magical and religious repertoire towards the invention of culture, where variations on existing social conventions are constantly created. Note, too, that the Buryat shaman’s role as a strange attractor is echoed in divinatory modes of innovation-making further afield. René Devisch shows that among the northern Yaka of Zaire, ‘The diviner appears as the agent and the locus, the author (the psychic subject) and the scene of an innovative meaning production’.

Besides innovative shamans, another strange attractor in Buryat religion is the notion of fortune (khiimor’), which Buryats say rises (deerdene) or falls (dordone) in response to either a person’s own actions or some external influences, such as curses or innovative remedies that make fortune improve. Fortune is, then, the durative timescale along which Buryats experience important changes to their lives. Changes to fortune, though, ordinarily happen only after a period of delay. This book is centred on the Buryat notion of gradually changing fortune, which Buryats regularly use as the point of reference for resolving persistent problems that develop into crises. Ordinarily, each improvement in fortune makes a Buryat’s well-being, business prospects, success, happiness, health and quality of fortune improve even more, whereas each decline in fortune makes each of these things decline further. In this sense, fortune doubles as a strange attractor, because it induces a pattern of changes (consistent improvements or declines in well-being, etc.), which affects the magnitude of the change to fortune. Over time, therefore, fortune changes at a cumulative or even exponential rate, acquiring a magnitude of extremely improved or extremely declined fortune – which, in the case of fallen fortune, usually must be addressed with strong and recurrent at-home correcting rituals that are carried out over a suitable length of time.

Yet there are cases where Buryats hold many divinations to gauge the strength of their fortunes and implement numerous correcting rituals, without managing to improve their fortunes. In these cases Buryats usually seek out innovative remedies that cause fortune to improve at an unconventional pace, which has the double effect of encouraging both the speedy recovery of fortune and the production of follow-up innovations. Just as innovative magical remedies produced by shamans attract further innovations, Buryats claim that innovative remedies make fortune rise at an unconventional pace – so that fortune’s own rapid improvement attracts increasingly more improvements to it. When this happens, fortune improves along a spiral of increasingly good returns (see chapter 3). Thus fortune may double as a strange attractor along a range of scales, attracting different rates (gradual or immediate) and qualities (improved or fallen) of additional fortune to it, depending upon whether it has received no magical intervention, a correcting ritual or an innovative remedy.

Fortune (khiimor’) is a large concept in Buryat (and the wider Mongolian) cosmology – distinct from luck (az) and fate (khuv’ zaya) – although, as I will show in chapters 3 and 6, these are all registers within the Mongolian ontology of extraordinary time. Oftentimes, fortune is equated with its material representation on fortune flags, which convey prayers to the heavens on behalf of individuals and households . Further associations are made with the stone cairns (ovoo) on which some of these flags are planted

and where rituals to elevate the fortunes of a delimited territorial or homeland region are carried out. Beyond this, fortune is regarded as a part of a person – either external or internal to the body – so that in rare cases it also can be an ‘inherited thing’ (zalgamjladag yüm). Thus fortune has the impressive capacity of operating as a strange attractor in two main modes – as a durative time construct and as a part of one’s personhood – which need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, the Buryat person who is ‘with fortune’ (khiimortoi) becomes something of a strange attractor, drawing further similar qualities of fortune and personhood (or even fortune-cum-personhood) towards him or herself. But because this attraction of fortune to fortune (or personhood to personhood) occurs at varying boom-and-bust rates, it always remains distinct from the phenomena of luck or fate.


Katherine Swancutt is a Research Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford. She has carried out fieldwork on shamanic religion across Inner Asia, working among Buryats in northeast Mongolia and China since 1999, and among the Nuosu of Southwest China since 2007.