The Ancient Religious Beliefs
Mongolian scholars classify the religious beliefs of the early Mongols as fetishism, totemism, and animism.
Fetishism involved the belief that objects possessed magical powers or were inhabited by spirits, in connection with the belief that the outward appearance and internal, basic characteristics of any object were inevitably interrelated. Thus the colour, odour, texture, and sound of objects and animals were believed to express important characteristics; the colour white, for example, came to be associated with purity, a property attributed to all objects of that colour. Likewise unusually-shaped trees, mountains, animals and so on were considered to be sacred, as their form was thought to express special (or magical) internal features. The worship of unusual trees, animals, geological formations and so on persists to this day; similarly the symbolism of form and colour continues to be respected by traditional Mongolians.
Totemism involves a perceived connection between the origin of a group or clan and a defined totem, most often an animal. The wolf and deer are the most familiar of totems; according to the Secret History, Chinggis Khaan’s lineage was descended from a union of these two creatures. The deer is represented prominently on the bronze-age ‘deer stone’ monuments found throughout the north of the country, as well as in artworks such as the famous Hun-period felt embroidery excavated from the Noyon Uul grave, indicating an almost certain early religious symbolism of the deer figure. The wolf is less commonly represented in prehistoric art, but the custom of treating the wolf as a sacred creature has more or less persisted to this day. It is considered good luck to encounter a wolf, especially when travelling or searching for lost animals. Although wolf populations are nowadays often culled to prevent their killing of livestock, traditionally it was considered a taboo to kill a wolf. Bear-worship was also common among some ethnic groups, particularly those living in eastern Siberia, for whom it was a main totemic symbol. Ancient Mongolians would worship the bear by tying a figure of the bear’s head to the posts of their home and dancing around this figure.
Animism is the belief that everything has a particular spirit. Mongolians today still worship the spirits of the sky, mountains, water, and the ground, making offerings of dairy products, vodka, biscuits, and tea, in the hope that the mountain spirit will bring help to them. The main ceremonial form of sacrifice was the ovoo-worship, while routine sacrifices of milk or airag (mare’s milk wine) would be made with the tsatsal a wooden ‘offering-spoon’ used in sprinkling the best portion of each portion of fresh milk into the wind, as an offering to the spirits of nature. Both of these traditions are still followed today; many Mongolians continue to believe in the existence of natural spirits, in particular mountain spirits.