Alevtina Solovyova “A Pillow of the Hero, an Eye of the Genius of Nature and a Restless Place: Local Strategies of Mythologisation of the Environment in Mongolian Traditions”


The idea for this topic came during one of the folklore expeditions to Mongolia. Local mythology connected to natural objects (mountains, groves, springs) is one of the first questions that  seemed to be neutral enough and suitable for starting long conversations with the informants about traditional beliefs and customs. Thus, at the end we got a plenty of material (for several years of field-work in different parts of Mongolia) devoted to the elements of the local environment. A brief research of these materials showed some interesting regularities in the perception and the formation of the mythological view of the local landscape: Ties between natural objects, mythological personages, folk narratives and everyday customs, specific ways of mythologisation as bodily metaphor and some social and cultural pragmatic of local placelore.


First level

  1. Correlation between personage and object type. In folklore beliefs large, solid, important objects (mountain peaks and passes, frequently worshiped, small islands in the middle of the lake and so on) are connected with epic and heroic personages (epic heroes, strongmen and wrestlers of the past).
  2. Ties between personages and objects. Ties between personages and objects have the following principal representations: the objects regarded as a result of the hero’s actions (“the hero brought the pick of the mountain and put it here”, “the hero twitched and this pass is a track of his foot”, etc); the object is regarded as the hero’s property that frequently emphasizes his greatness (“when the hero went to sleep this mountain was a pillow for his head and that, opposite, one was a pillow for his legs”); the object is regarded as a part of the hero’s body or his animi (“and when the hero returned and died here, his shoulders became mountains, over there, and his head became a rock, that one…”, etc).
  3. Genre of the narrative. Mostly the narratives connected with the personages and objects of the first level could be identified as legend (etymological, epic).

The second level

  1. Correlation between personage and object type. Middle and small sized objects (small rocks, stones, groves, springs, especially separately situated objects – a lonely rock or tree in the steppe, also worshipped as a rule) are connected with the genius of nature (Mong. luss-savdag). They are spirits, masters of nature, water and earth, possessing natural objects. These personages have ambivalent characteristics and can be positive and negative (even dangerous) for a human according to the behaviour of the person (especially towards nature).
  2. Ties between personages and objects. Ties between personages and objects are represented in two general forms: The object is regarded as the personage’s property (“One man cut down a tree at that place and then became ill hardly for long period, no medicine could help. The cause is that place is a property of lus-savdag, it is forbidden to take wood from there.”), the object is regarded as part the personage’s body. But in opposition with the first level example, it is not a part of the body that became the object after the personage’s death. In this case an object of the environment is a part of body of alive personage at the same time (a story about local doctor who was called to help to lus-savdag of their village who suffered badly because one man drove a stake in the earth and hurt his eye).
  3. Genre of the narrative. The narratives connected with these personages and objects are mainly regarded as real cases of “our days” and identified (in Russian tradition) as memorate and fabulate.

The third level

  1. Correlation between personage and object type., Special places marked in the local tradition, places with a “bad reputation”, “haunted places” or “ghost-places”, as I noticed them and will try to explain below. These places can include different smaller areas in the steppe, forest or mountains. They are associated with ghosts, bad or bodily souls, demons (Mong. chotgor). The outcome for being in such places could be various – problems with transport, problems with business and health and even death.
  2. Ties between personages and objects. Ties between personages and objects are well represented in two general forms. The first is a kind of demonic possession (“At that place straggled one lama and one shaman, both of them were very strong and skilful and both of them were ready to fight till death. They died but their souls stayed on the earth. Sometimes people could see them in a shape of a white horse and a dark blue wolf. At that place very rich excellent grass, but nobody should take it and graze cattle there. Everybody knew it. Here was one man, who did not care about such things and did not believe in anything. I will tell you, he died cruelly at the end”). The second one is a kind of almost complete confluence of a personage and a locus. It is interesting when the place already is not just in a property of the personage but is itself a personage. In Mongolian it is called “guidaltai gazar” or “gazarin guits” – “area with movements, restless activity”. In passing such a place transport suddenly stops or breaks – “a horse stumbles, a car fails, even equipment of the plane which flying above that place becomes crazy”.
  3. Genre of the narrative. Narratives connected with this topic could mainly be regarded as ghost stories.

This sharply outlined model is steadily produced in different local traditions with variations in concrete details of content (names, personalities, cases). For the article it would be interesting to further research the strategies of mythologisation of the environment in Mongolian local traditions, correlations between elements of nature, personages and topics, considering these specific bodily images of nature objects, motivation and variants of pragmatic of this phenomenon.

This paper was financially supported by the Russian Scientific Foundation (RNF), grant No. 14-18-00590 “Texts and practices of folklore as a model of cultural tradition: А comparative-typological study”.