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The fateful landing of the hoopoe

Omens from the world
Caroline Humphrey


This paper analyses the omen as a particular technique by which human subjects attempt to understand the uncertainties and misfortunes of their lives by way of receiving signs from the world. This method folds a singular event into a social form, a stabilized way of perceiving and responding to intimations of something about to change in the future. It is argued that perceiving omens is a practice of cosmological engagement and hence that its character is different in monotheist environments from those in which the world is conceived to be composed of disparate and separate elements, such as in in Mongolian regions. In the latter, the things and beings in the world that produce, or ‘offer’, omens are equivalent agents to the people who receive them. Both agents come with temporal and spatial attributes that collide in the event of the omen.

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1Long ago when she was a student, Tania was spending the weekend along with a Buryat-Mongolian friend, Ayuna, at the country cottage (dacha) near Ulan-Ude of a senior female Buryat academic, who was away at the time. One morning they went out into the garden and there was an extraordinary happening: they spotted a hoopoe (R. udod, B. oboljin, M. bövööljin), which is a very rare bird in these parts, alighting by the door. Ayuna gave a cry of horror. In Buryat culture, a hoopoe when it lands near human habitation is a terrible omen presaging disaster or even a death. To Tania, who is Russian, the bird meant nothing (“This was not my culture”) but Ayuna was frightened. Her fear was not on her own behalf but on that of the professor, because it was the latter’s garden that the bird had invaded. Ayuna made a libation of milk to the four cardinal directions, hoping this would avert the misfortune. According to Buryat recollections of this event – which went on circulating in the city for years, this professor died unexpectedly two months later.

  • 1 By ‘Mongolian regions’, I refer to the lands in which the Mongol language and culture are prevalent (...)

2Omens are events that break into people’s lives: it is not just that they can be seen from outside as a disturbance of the even tenor of customary activities, but uncannily they seem to be targeted, to be a message to me from something in the world out there. Thus, omens are not best understood simply as a “cultural system” of signs. Understanding an omen requires taking into account a relational constellation. This comprises at a minimum not only a particular subject – the one who perceives some happening to be an omen and not just an ordinary or irrelevant occurrence – and an external agent that manifests this out-of-the-ordinary incident (the omen), but also the life change anticipated, any explanations offered, and the subject’s response. It will be argued here that the omen as a “form/event” (Keck 2014, see discussion later) is an apt technique of life management when cosmology is understood, as in Mongolian regions,1 as a dynamic concatenation of transformations. Both the perceiver and the omen-agent take part, and timing and situation are of the essence. The punctual event, the realization “this must be an omen”, signals a disturbance in the life course of the receiver of a portent, but it is also a distinctive moment in the timing proper to the omen-agent, whether this be an animal, an atmospheric event, a plant, or even an artefact. Of course, the very definition of “omen” is that it points to a future consequence for a human subject, collective or individual, and therefore analysis should address the fact that there is a trajectory, a past, present, and future, to that person’s existence. But it is less often noticed that identifying something as an omen involves also having firm ideas of the operating pattern of the omen-agent, which is suddenly identified as a portent precisely because it has done something not proper to its own purposes. Rather, this erratic act is seemingly related to my (the perceiver’s) interests. In a cosmology made up of expectations of the usual trajectories of others, an image becomes an omen because it is anomalous, a prodigy, which therefore must be propelled by some unknown dynamic that imposes its own kind of swerve. Yet people recognize that presuppositions of normalcy are in fact provisional and that all beings, including themselves, consist of unseen, incorporeal energies as well as their overt appearance and physical presence.

3Eduardo Kohn has argued persuasively that anthropology should reorient itself to transspecies engagement and open itself to “the many ways in which people are, in fact, connected to a broader world of life and the ways in which this [reorientation] changes what it might mean to be human” (2007: 5). The relations he is concerned with are those between humans and that category of nonhumans held to be “selves”, that is, animals, the co-inhabitants of the forest ecology, which are capable of intention, representation, and communication on their own account. I am very much in sympathy with this “anthropology of life” for its emphasis on the dynamics of embodied processes and its consideration of how different kinds of sign (symbol, icon, and index) constitute transspecies communications. Omens, however, present a wider world of engagement. True, portents very often do take the form of actions by birds or animals. But in Mongol regions, many other phenomena can be omens, from the eclipse of the sun to an image in a nightmarish dream. In fact, it is difficult to think of anything that could not become an omen, given the necessary condition that it can be conceptually singularized and identified as a particular “thing” whose usual pattern of activity has switched, with seeming implication for the future. The fact that “un-self-like” nonhumans, such as lightning, are often experienced as omens extends our investigation beyond the more reciprocal, mutual “noticing” of human–animal relations discussed by Kohn. But, for Mongols, as I describe later, even a lightning-omen or an artefact-omen (such as a jacket left lying on the ground) is understood to have its history, and I shall argue that the form of the omen involves the antecedents as well as the consequences of the event itself. This point coincides with the more general argument Kohn makes that it is only the belief that we can know the patterns of the things in this world that allows us to act, and that it is dangerous to fail to recognize that they have inherent abilities and horizons which we humans do not have (2007: 7). In this context, it can be said that the omen-perceiver and the omen-maker are both temporal agents in a common cosmos.

4Mongolian regions provide a rich field for analysing this cosmological aspect of omens. In the precarious and finely tuned practice of pastoralism, it is vitally important for people to observe the behaviour of animals, birds, the weather, strangers, insects, in fact everything around them, for indications (shinj) of what will happen in the future. Vigilance does not cease when people move to towns. Decades of socialist education and the tumultuous post-1990 “age of the market” have culminated in a Mongolian practice of modernity in which “science” and “the occult” are combined; people routinely consult diviners who use calculators and attribute seers with hyper-scientific abilities, while shamanism is a boom industry (including shamans whose spirits make an appearance in blurry images on their laptops). Few people resolutely ignore completely sayings, affects, and emotions that surround omens, while some people are beset with one occult warning after another. In the countryside, a herder from Hövsgöl said that he was not at all religious, but it was “the nature of a Mongol to fear omens”, meaning that life for him was lived in constant awareness of omens (Oberfalzerova 2006: 22).

5Practical observations have been culturally standardized into countless “indications of the future” that are handed down through the generations: for example, the Buryat adage “If the mice build their nest high up in the hay stack it is a bad sign: there will be deep snow in the coming winter” (Khangalov 1960: 67). The mice already know something we do not know. Understandably, they are building their nest high above the snow to come. This kind of low-key portent acknowledges that the mice are more attuned, or more capable, than us humans in their awareness of the forces that determine atmospheric changes. However, a traditionally educated Mongol will also know countless “signs” (beleg) that can be related to one another more abstractly, in the fashion of astrology, also indicating a future outcome for his//her activity for good or ill. These signs can be auspicious/inauspicious numbers, sounds, colours, graphic shapes, spoken words, bodily gestures, artefacts, atmospheric events, animal behaviours, or bird calls. When encountered in life, they are not seen as absolutes with invariant meaning but interpreted relationally. This is done by calibrating the characteristics of the perceiver and his/her activity, such as a hunt, journey, or business deal, with the characteristics of the sign, by means of relating each to cosmic alignments such as the cardinal directions, the path of the sun, the time of day, or the date in the lunar calendar cycle. A Mongol ethnographer has devoted at least six books, including a five-volume set (Dulam 1999–2002), to categorizing and describing these beleg, but even so his work could never be complete, for in practice the actuality is the countless singularities consequent on aligning the diverse bundle of characteristics that compose the perceiver with those of the sign and with the nature of the encounter (seeing, touching, hearing, etc.).

6Yet the beleg, especially those given by animals, birds, or other living creatures, are not divorced from ordinary human life and they have an ethical dimension. In explaining this, I am reminded of what the chess-master Garry Kasparov said when explaining how he had to adjust to playing against a computer: “As a professional chess-player you are used to identifying moves with personality. This time the moves were coming out of a black hole – literally a black hole. It’s like there’s something there, but you don’t know exactly what it is” (Appleyard 2017, emphasis added). In the everyday understandable world of Mongol herders, the activities of wild animals and birds are like the chess moves of a human opponent: characteristic of the “personalities” of those species, which are judged by the same criteria as applied to people, such as bravery, fierceness, weakness, intelligence, and so forth. As Bernard Charlier (2015: 81–87) has shown for the fox and the wolf, rural communities in western Mongolia have crystallized highly complex mental portraits from observing and judging the behaviour of these animals, and these have become items of culture that can be deployed in advice to children, poetry, rituals, and so forth. In the case of foxes, identification of their habits as cunning, destructive, self-serving, and thieving has established them as muu sanaatai (having bad intentions), and this colours any incident of sighting a fox, which, as Charlier discovered, is considered a bad sign in any circumstances, but especially so for someone setting out on a hunt (2015: 81–82). These animal temperaments are reinforced by proverbs, legends, parables, and so forth, such as the story of a fox that tricked a wolf by making it feel so ashamed it withdrew and thus the fox was able to grab the piece of fat they were both after (2015: 83). I suggest that such stories are important to the analysis of transspecies omen encounters because they form the back-story or the genealogy of the animal and establish it in this sense as equivalent to the human actor with his or her character and life-story. The disturbing perception that a meeting of the two is a portent thus brings into play two parallel “histories”, or motivated complexes of on-going activities, whose clash has implications for the future. I will argue later that one way to think about such an encounter is in terms of dynamic interference patterns, though this idea does not capture all of the implications of omens.

  • 2 Ovoo bosgoogüi bol, shaazgai suuhgüi (Weigert 2006: 84).

7The English word “sign” has to do extra work in the case of beleg, since what is at issue is not just semiosis but a specific effect of something in baigal – “what exists”, a concept that includes humans and their activities. A nonhuman beleg, let us say that brilliantly white hare that suddenly runs in from the east, may betoken an idea, but its own visual impact is what affects the recipient. The animality, the whiteness, the suddenness, and the direction are the shock that converts an ordinary scene into one of expectation or foreboding oriented to an unknown change. Mongols also recognize that however extraneous and unexpected an omen appears to be, the perceiver contributes to its existence by being ready for it, or even inciting it. There is a saying, “If you don’t build an oboo [a sacred cairn of stones], the magpie can’t sit on it,”2 the magpie (shaazgai) being a bird whose call from such a sanctified perch must certainly be “speaking” to humans. Some people are especially prepared for, or attuned to, beleg by their faculty of intuition or presentiment (zön), and one such woman said: “All that is good and positive comes to me from magpies (lit. the magpies take me and go). […] When magpies croak and I am struck by a horror (lit. when cold comes into my aorta) [knowing that] something bad will happen to you – that is how I am tethered to baigal. I’m the kind of person that lives my life by intuition” (Oberfalzerova 2005: 18–19).

8This article will be concerned with the doom-laden presages that Mongols call muu yor (“bad omens”). These stand out among the other signs in that they are so freakish, or so scary, or so absolutely identified with a forbidden action that people sense an instantaneous aversion, fear, and foreboding (sejigle-). Mongols say, “A thing that should not happen [is] a bad omen thing” (bolohgüi yum – muu yoriin yum, Oberfalzerova 2006: 18). Since this formula is reversible and the word bolohgüi can equally be translated “cannot happen” or “impossible”, we can also understand the idea in the following way: a “bad omen” is an impossible thing, that is, not possible in the accepted understanding of how things should happen. To witness a terrible traffic accident is a muu yor, so is physical contact with any item associated with a death; so is seeing a forbidden/impossible act like an animal mating with another species. It has been recorded among Buryats in the mid-twentieth century that even seemingly trivial acts, like a dog urinating while standing on all four paws, is a very bad omen (Natsov 1995: 114). Any human behaviour that is not intentional but “by itself” makes others feel horror, disgust, or disquiet is also a muu yor (Humphrey 2013). One Mongol told me that if her mother noticed her moping, she would say sharply, “Stop it! Don’t be a bad omen!” In such ways, a person’s “behaviour” or dream image can also seem to come from “beyond” rather than from him/herself. Mongols call this disquieting behaviour a “thing” (yum) that “reveals itself by images” (Oberfalzerova 2005: 16), which is an indication of something wrong with the world and a herald of impending disaster. There is no universally accepted unifying explanation for such “shouldn’t happen” events: there is no Satan, no Providence, nor an all-seeing God who “sends” omens; nor are omens thought to be created by malevolent human powers such as witchcraft or sorcery. People turn to shamans, Buddhist lamas, local sages, seers, and prophets for diagnosis of the agency, the “hidden thing” (daldyn yum) that lurks within the omen and resonates with the incorporeal elements of other beings (“souls”, “spirits”, “destiny”, hii yum “immaterial things”). But it is known that these specialists disagree with one another. There is always an essential doubt (Delaplace 2014). Someone who is suddenly “assaulted” (halda- , as Mongols say) by a muu yor is in a state of existential suspension, even if he or she hopes that the right way to “correct” it or “repel” it has been found.

  • 3 For further discussion of such a void, see Pedersen (2007: 324), who argues that it has a constitut (...)

9The muu yor actually imposes a double imponderability: not only is there the forbidden/uncanny jolt of the omen-event itself just described, but there is also the definitional feature of the omen – that it foretells an outcome that is by ordinary criteria entirely unrelated to itself. You see a fox and your sister falls ill. Omens thus reveal the existence of a void of unknown potentialities,3 which we could liken to Kasparov’s “moves coming out of a black hole”, that transform known characters and actions into intimations of something skewed that is about to happen.

Studies of omens and comparable phenomena

10Anthropologists have rarely focused on omens as a way of relating to the world. Thomas Beidelman’s essay on Kaguru omens (1963) was perhaps the first to consider this category of unusual event as an aspect of cosmology and to attempt to differentiate omens from other supernormal phenomena. The Kaguru distinguished omens from large-scale catastrophes (famine, flood, epidemics, etc.), which were thought to be sent from God, and also from misfortune caused by malevolent humanoid agents (witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and evil spirits). They were, rather, the coincidence of some unusual natural phenomenon with “a certain social situation in which a person is highly sensitive to how his affairs will go” (1963: 47). They included the calls of various birds, monkey shrieks, insect activities, a wild animal such as a zebra or giraffe entering a human house or cattle-pen, human accidents and physical abnormalities, and also human immoral acts such as bestiality that were thought to depart from the basic order of the world. All omens required immediate remedial action by the people involved or witnessing such events (1963: 51). In general terms, Kaguru omens seem remarkably similar to Mongolian ones. However, Beidelman’s essay, which is basically descriptive, was not followed up to my knowledge, and other studies of the period tended to dissolve omens in broader categories of analysis, such as religion, divination, or rationality.

  • 4 In Mongolia during the Qing Dynasty, high lamas used dire omens as one means of inveighing against (...)

11If we wish to consider the omen as a distinct type of event, it is helpful to look to history, if only to clarify its place alongside comparable phenomena in different periods and cultures. A large literature on omens in ancient China and Japan, surveyed by Bender (2013) distinguishes omens from prophesies and oracles (spoken through a priest) and from divination (manipulated by a practitioner). While some studies see omens as primarily ethical, concerned with deciding on right conduct in precarious situations (Loewe & Blacker 1981), the main focus of the East Asian historians is on the dynastic incidence of omens and their political role. Auspicious omens were sent by Heaven as a sign of approbation for an emperor’s activity, while omens predicting famine, flood, war, and so forth, were interpreted by the omen-bureaucracy as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure and the impending weakening of a dynasty. Theologically, omens were understood as a response to a sovereign’s moral/immoral actions (Bender 2013: 62).4 Studies in Christian and Islamic contexts have highlighted a further range of comparable phenomena: miracles, marvels, apparitions, and magic (Jones 2010). This clarifies that omens are different from miracles (demonstrations by God of divinity), apparitions (visions of holy persons), and magic (the intentional use of supernatural means), nor are they marvels, which presume a background of naturalistic science against which a given phenomenon is amazing and wondrous. In the history of medicine, a further discrimination is helpful. Analyses of the mediaeval language concerning the Black Death (Carmichael 2008; Horrox 1994) discuss the conceptual landscape wherein the omen, a portent of divine vengeance for the sins of mankind, was distinguished from the emerging idea of the “symptom” that began to appear in proto-scientific medical texts. While both “omen” and “symptom” were indications of the impending, not directly perceptible, epidemic, the symptom was endogenous to the disease, the outward appearance of an inner change, whereas the “sign”, or still more the “omen”, was radically exterior, having been sent by God.

12In this brief discussion of how ideas akin to the omen have made an appearance in the work of historians, we should also consider the “clue”. In the micro-historical approach of Carlo Ginzburg, the clue was a method. “It meant starting an investigation with something that did not quite fit, something odd that needs to be explained. This peculiar event or phenomenon is taken as a sign of a larger, but hidden or unknown, structure. A strange detail is made to represent a wider totality” (Peltonen 2001: 349). The very oddity of the clue leads thought in an unexpected direction, reveals connections, exposes some secret, a crime, or a fracture in society. The clue seen in this way has similarities with the omen as I try to frame it here. First, there is spatial condensation: Ginzburg (1979) argued that it is only on the micro scale of a single event or object that the historian can draw together the relations between systems of values, beliefs, representations, and social affiliations. And then there is the temporal tension, which is created by “the collision of an exceptional event with the long historical structure of popular culture” (Peltonen 2001: 350). However, if this comparison with the clue helps suggest a broader vision for historical analysis of omens, it also shows that for the actual practitioners the two are different. For detectives, one clue leads to the next, a chain that must be pieced together by the forensic rationality of the sleuth attempting to imagine the intention of the criminal, whereas when a Mongolian herder encounters one omen after another, these are conceived not as the traces left by a single intelligence but as separate moments whereby dislocations in the world are communicated to him.

13Most relevant for this paper, however, is the figure of the “sentinel”, which has become central to diagnosis of potentially catastrophic environmental futures that are invisible to humans, such as climate change, radiation, or emerging epidemics. Sentinels are animals or detection devices that provide the first warning signs – the canary in the mine that is extra-sensitive to gas, or the polar bear perched on shrinking ice. Frédéric Keck conceptualizes the sentinel as a “form/event”: it folds “event”, referring to an image that contains within itself both past and future, into “form”, defined as stabilized ways of raising problems, producing affects, and defining subjects of responsibility (Keck 2014: 47–49). The omen is in many ways similar to a sentinel thus defined: it involves both receivers and senders of a warning; like the sentinel it brings up the issue of perception (how do we judge if it is one or not?) and it produces a characteristic subjectivity; it involves the crossing of barriers; and it poses an uncertain temporality. In both cases, there is the predicament of the appropriate response when a threat has been made visible (Keck & Lakoff 2013). Still, if we consider the sentinel in the practice of the life-sciences, there is a difference: sentinels are like symptoms, in that they are located at the border of the suspected disease, and the connection between them and the impending effect is in principle scientifically traceable or conceivable virtually in statistical projections or phylogenetic trees; whereas omens are not an edge-index of some larger whole but are radically different from the impending threat. They are practices in an “ontology” (Descola 2013) in which relations are drawn on different principles. Before I describe this, it is appropriate to situate this article in relation to earlier work on Mongolian omens.

The context of the present study

14By comparison with other regions, there has been fertile discussion of omens in Mongolia, no doubt because the phenomenon is important to people there. In an early paper on Buryats (Humphrey 1976), I made a critique of Roberto da Matta’s structuralist analysis (1970) of omens among the Apinayé, arguing that it is overly reductionist to understand omens as he did in terms of an opposition between two blocks, Nature and Culture, that events are only recognized to be omens in respect of the interests/anxieties of a specific recipient, and that the connection between the omen-event and its eventual consequence is not causal in any simple way. I suggested that discursive explanations – in effect the threads across the “void” mentioned above – are created in multifarious ways, of which my article discussed six. Here I mention just one of these social temporalities that link unrelated things – synchronicity – in order to explain why I saw such relations as non-causal. Mongols have the idea that the arrival of migrating birds should coincide with the time when the herds begin to give their milk in spring. Therefore, the springtime sight of geese (or for that matter a hoopoe) flying in from the south is a good omen, because it heralds what should be the synchronic appearance of the longed-for milk. My paper received a riposte from Roberte Hamayon (1978), who made some just criticisms but basically defended the Nature/Culture opposition, arguing further that omens have an intrinsic sign value and that they are causal in the sense that the sign entails its consequence, to which I replied (Humphrey 1978). After this debate, it was not until the 2000s that there was a flush of excellent monographs, many of them mentioning omens though without focusing on the topic. Three publications with more direct relevance then appeared: da Col and Humphrey (2012) on conceptions and practices of fortune and luck; Empson (2006) on the political and didactic role of “prophets”, exceptional people who may deploy omens among other occult phenomena to influence a population; and my own study (Humphrey 2013) on the management of fear in Mongolia, one section of which was devoted to the emotional significance of omen-events and the ways in which people use them in retrospectively reorganizing their understanding of their misfortunes.

15These existing studies provide the context in which this paper attempts something different: to understand omens as a specific framework for dealing with the enigmas of life in the world and the implications of this for social relations and moral judgements. In Mongolian regions, the omen occurs in an utterly different cosmological configuration from those of Christianity and Islam; instead of a single divine cause, the cosmos is made up ab initio of separate and ontologically different elements (Humphrey 1996: 76–77; Pederson 2007) that can be associated in diverse ways. Even one element, let us say a mountain or a human being, has multiple components and these are combined in heterogeneous ways, including physical continuity or reproduction, but also metamorphosis, rebirth, and a-temporal reiterations. An example is the herdsman who said, “As for myself, I consider myself to be the soul of the mother of my father” (Oberfalzerova 2006: 20). In general, this mode of cosmological thinking is “analogical” in Philippe Descola’s terms: that is, composed of self-sufficient entities whose intrinsic differences are retained but are “attenuated by multiple relations of correspondence and cooperation” (2013: 279) and in which cosmos and society are equivalents, almost to the extent of being indiscernible (2013: 268). Mongolian regions provide ample evidence of the “obsessive particularism” of analogism, in which people attempt to recompose entities in always incomplete networks of partial similarities (2013: 376). This paper suggests that the omen not only has an affinity with this way of thinking but can also be considered a technique characteristic of it. And further, examination of the omen as a form implying certain practices and concerns opens dimensions beyond the purely conceptual recomposing of entities: the real-life interface in which cosmological spatialities/temporalities are recognized (or not), the delineation of permissible and impermissible kinds of boundary-crossing, and the revelation of ethical dilemmas – as I hope will become clear in the ethnography to follow.

Interference patterns

16As an example of spatio-temporal dynamics, let us return to the hoopoe and the professor. We can picture this omen as occurring at the point where the field comprised of the hoopoe’s activities crossed the quite different field of the professor’s activities. It would be quite possible to represent the event by the old image used by Mary Douglas (1966) and Edmund Leach (2000: 231), where the overlapping section becomes ambiguous and hence a source of purity/danger.

Illustration 1. P and not-P image

Illustration 1. P and not-P image

Caroline Humphrey, sketch

17But if we are to understand how omens disrupt social life, the idea I am trying to grasp is better illustrated by the notion of “interference pattern”. In physics, this is what occurs when two energy sources of light, sound, or liquid, and so on, produce waves that superimpose to form new patterns of greater or lesser amplitude and intensity. The advantage of this as a heuristic – and of course, it is only intended as an initial aid to my explanation – is (a) that waves, like birds’ and humans’ activities, are in motion, and (b) that waves of different substance deform when they meet one another, thus producing unexpected effects. Further, even in the case of two similar waves, both let us say sound waves of equal force, their superimposition results in numerous contact events, and not just one static space as in the Douglas–Leach image:

Illustration 2. Model of interference pattern of sound waves

Illustration 2. Model of interference pattern of sound waves


Enrique Zeleny

18This is a distant analogy of course because the human/bird activities I refer to do not have a wave structure, and furthermore they are composed not of homogeneous, equally weighted energy sources but of variegated components. Still, the idea is helpful in clarifying that when such different and jaggedly composed orders collide there may be several points of contact of varying intensity, as Illustration 2 suggests; as I will show later, omens affect not just one person but whole social arrangements.

19With this in mind, we can picture one “energy source”, that of the hoopoe, as consisting of an imagined pattern of nesting, laying eggs, feeding, hopping around, calling, flight, migration, and so forth, all having their proper space and time, which for the Buryat is that of the dry steppe and the summer months. The other “energy source”, the professor, is equally complex: she has a number of patterns, one of which consists of visiting her countryside dacha, its kitchen, veranda, garden, fence, and so forth. The omen happens when a forceful element of the hoopoe ensemble intrudes into the centre of the professor pattern, jolting it into a new shape. The professor was a powerful senior academic with a strong personality and several enemies. The immediate consequence of the hoopoe’s visit was that suddenly, in Buryat eyes, the ensemble of her elements was transformed into vulnerabilities: her problematic past was remembered, she might die or become ill, her dacha might burn down, her political status might be attacked, and so forth.

Illustration 3. Common hoopoe (Upupa epops)

Illustration 3. Common hoopoe (Upupa epops)


Photo by Rajiv Lather, Karnal, India, 2006

20Let me pursue the spatial aspect further. Birds and humans are co-present in the world, but in principle un-joined to one another – they may be in relation, but that relation is one of discontinuity. Mongols tend to exemplify conceptual separateness in real spatial terms. This means that each notional element, which may be conceived at different scales, is understood to exist in its appropriate space that should not be violated by others. Touching another person, for example, can only correctly take place as part of a pre-understood scenario of interaction; if you accidentally touch your foot against a Mongol person’s foot, you should immediately offer your hand in apology/friendship, as even a mere grazing is a violation of his/her spatial order. If you sit in a car seat still warm from a previous occupant, something of their bodily presence will seep into you – which is felt to be polluting. Understanding these everyday norms enables us to picture a rough division of space into “mine”, “no one’s”, and “theirs”. If we return to our case, a distancing zone should obtain between the hoopoe’s steppe domain and human settlement. Let us say the professor ventures into it: she exits her garden gate and goes for a walk, and she comes across a tiny element of the hoopoe ensemble, a black and white feather. She would not regard this as an omen (if she noticed it at all), as the pastures are a neutral space intermittently shared by people and birds. But if she came across a hoopoe nest, she would have already strayed into its space, where it is absolutely forbidden for humans to touch the nest, or take or destroy the eggs. In fact, this is a strict injunction with regard to all wild birds. Birds can be dangerous adversaries. With their “horn mouths” (beaks), which Mongols find unpleasant, they are apt to issue curses (haraal) that cause untold misfortune to humans.

21Countless interdictions or “taboos” (tseer) have the effect of maintaining distance between cosmological elements. For example there are tseer which keep apart in proper respectful relation – that is, forbidding direct non-ritualized connection – the domain of the Sky (tngri) and that of humans (hün), such as the injunction that you must not look at the Sky while urinating; fire a gun at the Sky; sprinkle ordinary water in the direction of the Sky, as distinct from a valued liquid like milk which is seen as an offering; and whistle or cry loudly on a windy day, as these air-filled actions of mimicry will anger the Sky and make it turn the wind into a tempest. Misfortune will result if such separation prescriptions are ignored. In principle, the avoidance of cosmological elements is reciprocal. Thus, the landing of the hoopoe was a serious infringement, since the bird ignored its proper haunts and boldly alighted right inside the professor’s domain. It is consonant with this that the hoopoe can be regarded as a good omen when it is met out in the wild, that is, in its own territory.5 Its metaphorical associations are now benign: its orange crest is likened to a Buddhist lama’s hat, its hoop-hoop song and white-black feathers recall the chanting of holy texts, and, similarly to many other migrating birds, its arrival in spring heralds the good times of warmth and plentiful milk.6 This indicates that the hoopoe becomes a “bad omen” only when it behaves improperly by interfering in the human domain. But it also shows that the hoopoe, for all its benign metaphorical associations, is not a symbol of something else when it becomes an omen: it is the bird itself and the impingement of its order into the domestic domain that is the problem.

22To see how this relates to cosmological thinking, we have to imagine this situation multiplied by the vast number of different beings thought to exist in the world.

Illustration 4. Interference patterns of light waves

Illustration 4. Interference patterns of light waves


23This image of interference patterns of light waves with separate sources7 has a structural similarity to the cosmos of discrete beings, as can be seen from the Mongolian painting below.8 Here the creatures are depicted, one of each kind; they are close, yet pay no attention to one another, and not even to the large female demon who squats in the middle.

Illustration 5. Mongolian cosmological painting (19th - early 20th century)

Illustration 5. Mongolian cosmological painting (19th - early 20th century)

Source: Caroline Humphrey, private collection

  • 9 Pedersen suggests that all that can be done is to ‘jump’ between them, across a spatial liminality (...)

24As I have argued elsewhere, the elements of the cosmos are incommensurable and comprise virtual beings, such as gods and mythic creatures, as well as animals met with in life (Humphrey 1996: 76; 2016: 156–159).9 The relations between them are conceived cosmologically as virtual or occult. This may explain not only why avoidance in everyday life take the form of cryptic taboos (tseer), but also why, when it is imagined that the mobility of creatures is transgressive, their paths are conceived as ghostly and invisible “running tracks”, which are called güidel, a term that refers also to “current”, as in electrical current. Nevertheless, a central conceptual foundation for imagining virtual or occult movements is perceptions of the actual world around. Thus, the Mongols seem to make an ideational parallel between areas of land criss-crossed by the tracks of actual wild animals and the scary areas that are said to be traversed by spirits and other abnormal creatures. Both are called güideltei gazar (“lands with invisible running tracks”). Such lands are haunted and avoided: people are said inexplicably to get lost there, or lose their minds (Urad Mongols), or they go there to commit suicide (a zone near Har Horin in Halh Mongolia, famed for this reason).

Crossing the void: the omen of the marmot man

  • 10 Baasanjav Terbish, personal communication based on his memories of Ulaanbaatar at the time.

25Next I illustrate these points further and discuss how these scary infringements of categorical separation affect social life. One day in the 1990s, a lorry driver was going past Zaisan in the Ulaanbaatar suburbs. Suddenly he saw a tiny man appear from a marmot hole at the side of the road. He was a tiny complete Mongol, dressed traditionally in deel (Mongol gown), hat, and boots, and carrying a knife. This little man ran across the road in front of the lorry and disappeared into another marmot hole. The lorry driver was amazed, and as soon as he got to the avtobaza (transport depot) he told all his friends. The story flashed around the city, was taken up by the press, and appeared as a TV news item. In the next few days, people began to flock to Zaisan to spot the little man, and schools and factories emptied as crowds went off to investigate. Photographers stood at the ready outside the marmot hole. In the end, the disruption was such that the government had to issue instructions to people to return to school and work.10

26There are several interesting points that can be derived from this case. First, the tiny man was assumed to be real and the driver was not credited with any supernormal abilities of perception. Second, although the incident was taken to be a bad omen – a human, but the wrong size, and behaving like an animal – the subject to be afflicted was not the driver in particular; he was merely the conduit. This point can be related to the two separate cases of perceiving “little humans” described by Grégory Delaplace and Rebecca Empson (2007), where in each region it was a daughter-in-law who both saw and dealt with the strange tiny creatures. The resulting effect, harm (in one case) and good (in the other), came not so much to the daughter-in-law herself as to the whole family. What Delaplace and Empson emphasize is the interstitial place occupied by the daughter-in-law in social organization – between her natal and her husband’s families – which gives her the possibility of alternating perspectives on familial relations (2007: 207) and makes her a suitable conduit for transmission of the omen. Perhaps it can be deduced that just as the daughter-in-law moves between two spatially separate families, the lorry driver has a similar intermediary role at a wider scale, since he pursues the mobile profession of moving between towns and cities. At any rate, it was these geographical dimensions that provided the subject of the omen: as Mongols said, it was feared that what the marmot man omen presaged was that the city itself, or at least the district of Zaisan, was becoming a güideltei gazar – a haunted place running with weird creatures.

27A very small person in Mongolia is known as a dwarf (odoi) or marmot person (tarvagan hün). At one level, people say that they use the epithet “marmot” simply because the person is unusually small, marmot-sized. But maybe there is more to it than that. For a start, the origin of the diminutive size can be derived from a wrongful mixture of natural elements.

Illustration 6. Newspaper interview with ‘marmot’ Ichinhorloo

Illustration 6. Newspaper interview with ‘marmot’ Ichinhorloo

Zuuny Medee, 18th March 2013

  • 11 Zuuny Medee newspaper, 8 March 2013.

28In 2013 a newspaper carried an interview with a “marmot woman”, who was indeed known as Marmot Ichinhorloo, aged 63 and only 65 cm tall.11 She was asked, “Why are you so little?” She replied that it was due to the poison/harm of the local spirits (savdag horlol). “I was born near water, a spring or a river, and when my mother gave birth she must have spilled some blood into the water and polluted it. The savdag (water spirits) got angry.” Mixing blood with naturally flowing water is one of best known of Mongol prohibitions (tseer). This interview indicates the tendency to relate the unfortunate anomaly of animal-like size with the pollution (buzar) of one cosmic element by another. Putting this together with the “tiny Mongol” event at Zaisan, we can note, as with the dual meanings of güideltei gazar, the possibility of an imaginative elision between the small people met with in everyday life and the uncanny sighting that caused such an uproar in the city.

  • 12 The story of the archer is well known, as it is taught in schools as part of the Mongol culture cur (...)
  • 13 The appearance of Garuda in Mongol legends is testimony to the wide and ancient cultural influences (...)

29Integral to the marmot as an omen is it temporal genealogy as an animal. It is associated with an origin myth (domog),12 according to which the animal species originated with a man, a famous archer, who undertook to save the earth from the four suns that were scorching it. He shot down three suns, but aiming at the last his arrow accidentally hit a small bird that happened to be flying past and cut its tail in two (this bird became a swallow). Furious at himself for this mistake, the hunter cut off his thumb (marmots have only four toes), buried himself underground, and turned into a marmot. Alternatively, the arrogant hunter hit the wing of Garuda, the mythical king of birds, see Illustration 5 top centre),13 who was angered, cut off his thumb, and condemned him to become a marmot, to live in burrows, hibernate, and whenever he appeared above ground become the helpless prey of wild animals and hunters (Potanin 1883: 179–180). Even if people have only hazy knowledge of such legends, the ordinary animal marmot can be thought of as having some kind of human aura, or at least of having had a human pre-existence. Mongols hunt and eat marmots with relish, but they carefully cut out a whiteish gland in the armpit that is deemed inedible/taboo as it is supposed to consist of human flesh (Lynteris 2016: 74–75, quoting ethnographic descriptions) – a practice which does not merge human and animal into one indistinguishable combined being, but carefully separates out these distinct categories as different kinds of flesh. These “back-stories” of the marmot, as with other animals and birds that become omens, constitute dynamic genealogies that render them cosmological counterparts to humans in an omen-event. As we see, this knowledge of antecedents has a narrative form, which employs occult transformations not only as cosmic possibilities but also in the service of implicit or explicit ethical injunctions. In the following section, I show how this can affect a human ensemble, the receiver of an omen.

Cosmological imagination

30In Mongolia, human knowledge about cosmological disturbances is not sequestered in a mythic time-warp, but is constantly added to in the present. One main source is the genre of “it really happened” (bolson yavdal) stories. These appear in newspapers, radio broadcasts, blogs on the Internet, social media, and so forth, and can spread rapidly in social assemblages. They are especially popular among young people, who sit around and discuss them as extraordinary but real happenings. Their temporality refers to something that has just happened, and the stories are always supplied with names, places, dates, and realistic starting scenes. Bolson yavdal are exciting because they tie the everyday to the unknown dimensions of the cosmos – to what really might be the case, given the strange and improbable things that happen to people. The story of the lorry driver at Zaisan is typical of the genre, and the rush of crowds to spot the marmot man shows that many people accept such eye-witnessing as valid. Bolson yavdal bring into play all kinds of animals, ghosts, zombies, demons, metamorphoses, and transmigration of souls, but to keep some continuity in this article I now cite one concerning marmots.

31A bolson yavdal story of 2016 concerns Lhasbat, who, although he was born as the reincarnation of his highly respected grandfather lama, was a hunter, an over-zealous killer of animals, and therefore dangerously close to being a sinner in Buddhist morality. He was avid for the delicious meat of marmots. Someone caught sight of an extraordinary marmot not far away from Lhasbat’s tent. It was white and striped like an African zebra. Lhasbat determined to kill it. His wife Dolzodmaa said, “No, no, that striped marmot all on its own must be a spirit animal (lusyn amitan). If it doesn’t bring misfortune to you, it will to your children.” “Shut up,” replied the husband, “Lie down and go to sleep, I’ll go and get it in the morning.” Next day the sons stayed at home with Dolzodmaa, but Lhasbat went out early, found the creature and shot it, and brought the corpse home. Dolzodmaa was forced to skin and cook it, the tears pouring down her face. Nothing happened that day, but next morning the family was woken up by marmot squeaking. They looked round and there was Dolzodmaa sitting up, squeaking, her hands crossed over her chest like a marmot. Lhasbat slapped her cheek, but she only squealed more. And now a sound rose around their tent. Crowds of marmots had appeared, standing up, all of them gibbering and shrieking. It was a deafening, heart-breaking, ghastly sound. Terrified, Lhasbat and his sons set off on their motorbikes via Tsaidam, through Khashaat to Kharkhorin to get help. But when they came back a day later Dolzodmaa was nowhere to be seen. They never found her.14

32If we think of this story through the analogy of the interference pattern, we see how Lhasbat’s entire family was shattered (above all by the wife’s transmogrification) when he ignored the omen and intruded murderously into the marmot domain. But the tale is revealing also of Mongolian suppositions about human domestic order: that its members are differentiated and do not share the same attitudes, that nevertheless a patriarch will prevail over a wife, that one person’s act will affect the others, and, more cosmologically, that a family has a provisional character and is vulnerable to merging with animals and a loss of humanity. Meanwhile, the event also transformed the marmots. This is disclosed by the re-configuration of the marmot population into a kind of society – they are no longer haphazardly encountered game but achieve the unison of a human-like tragic chorus, bewailing their persecution.

Omens that turn on the self

33I cite the following “it really happened” story to investigate the reasoning by which human artefacts can become omens (see Humphrey 2013 for further cases). In 2011, a blog on the Mongolian Internet described how a man found a beautiful black leather jacket lying on the street. This was extraordinary, for no one in their right mind would abandon such a valuable thing. The man brought the jacket home and put it on. His wife asked where he got it, but he lied to her, saying he bought it on the black market – he was well aware that it is not good to bring home things you just find. But then his dog started to bark for no reason. Both the jacket and the barking were omens. But the couple mistakenly supposed something was wrong with the dog and thought no more about it. Next day, the man found his dog had jumped on top of his ger (felt tent). This was unmistakably a transgression, by which the dog polluted the tent and everyone inside,15 and the man decided he should kill the dog, which he did – ignoring the fact that the dog’s act was an extremely bad omen (muu yor). A few days later, the man’s daughter died, and his son started vomiting. Then his son also died. The man decided to go and consult a lama. The lama said: “You have a bit of dark clothing that is not new and is clung to (horogdson) by a spirit/soul (süns). If you don’t get rid of that haunted thing, something terrible will happen to your wife.” Then the man realized that his dog had been a good guard; it was barking at the dead soul to drive it away, and he bitterly regretted having killed it. He asked the lama to say a prayer to repel the spirit, went home, burned the jacket by fire, and used arshan (holy water) to purify his ger.16

  • 17 It was explained to me that another lama might have invoked a different set of relations for the ja (...)

34The story tells us about more than that omens are events that, as soon as they are recognized, push people to respond by powerful ritual means to avert their impending destinies (Humphrey 2013). It indicates that when material objects become omens, they too, as in the case of animals or birds, concentrate in one object a before and an after. The “before” of the jacket was understandable to any Mongol. It is assumed that no one would willingly leave a beautiful leather jacket lying in the road; therefore assumed that the owner must be dead, and, further, that he did not die in a good way. The implication of such a wrongful death is that the owner’s soul must be still hovering in this world, clinging to the jacket, rather than disappearing to a proper destination. This soul would certainly take vengeance on the person who usurped his jacket. This series of deductions17 relates to Mongolian notions of personal possession and bodily-physical attachment to things – an attachment that, according to Buddhist ethics of detachment, should be ritually severed just before a good death, because only a soul freed from such ties can be liberated to take up a proper rebirth in a different body (Humphrey 2002). It is someone’s most treasured thing (horogdson yum) above all that should be consciously repudiated and disposed of in a proper ritual way. The fact that a valuable black jacket had been abandoned in the road suggested that this whole normal sequence had not happened. Some unknown violence was probable. With a soul clinging to it, the jacket would in some sense belong to the world of the dead, not the living human world.

35As in the previous story about the marmot, the omen expresses a clash between two histories, but in this case the moral faults on the human side are most clearly exposed. Consider the following: the man who could not resist picking up and wearing the jacket, the lie he told his wife, the faithful dog that barks to warn the household that something is terribly wrong, the misrecognition of the two omens, the wanton killing of the dog, the disaster befalling the daughter and son, the recourse to a lama, and the use of fire and sanctified water to restore things to their proper order. The story assumes readers who will be able to decode the morality and relate it to a regrettably common family scenario with which they might identify: husbands who are thieves and liars, wives who turn a blind eye, profitless male violence. Yet the message in both omen-stories is that these people have it coming to them anyway – otherwise, why would the weird striped marmot/haunted jacket have presented themselves to male protagonists? The initial human failings are very ordinary ones: greed for delicious marmot meat and picking up something from the street. Perhaps Mongol thinking concerning this situation would be less about moral faults and more akin to what Ghérasim Luca wrote about the “objectively offered object” (an idea that I borrow here at some remove from Luca’s own argument that such an object, with its weird attraction, allows the introduction of an active collective unconscious into conscious relationships), namely to see the omen as an object not merely found but freely offered to a person by the world/cosmos. “For a found or made object to be transformed into an offered object, and for it to be able to transform its nature in line with the new relationships established in the interior life of the individual seeking a new balance between the internal and external, the setting-pretext to this transformation must have an interpretative value that is, if not always negligible, at least very limited” (2008 [1945]: 26). In line with this, we could see the omen form as providing such a setting-pretext. Like the “offered object”, it has the fortuitous character of an encounter brought about by objective chance, yet its actuality as an object/animal/bird delimits chance in a dramatic way through its lyrical and emotional appearance, through its interpretation, and above all through the total transformation it imposes on relationships between people (2008 [1945]: 31). If the fundamental attitude to an omen is not “I found it” but rather “it found me”, the real fault is not to recognize it as an offering, not to respond.

36This paper has tried to explain omens as a particular technique of self-transformation, in which both human subjects and “things” of the world are assumed to be active agents. As distinct from interpretations that would see omens as delusional, or imposed by a religious theology, the argument here is that omens make good sense for people dependent on, and constantly interacting with, unpredictable others, and surrounded by the classifications, signs, boundaries, and prohibitions that are their means of imposing order on phenomena. These very means, however, imply the existence of escapees from ordering. Understanding the device of the omen as cosmological sheds light on the underlying philosophy. For omens are not just escapees, unexpected anomalous events such as the flight of the hoopoe into a forbidden spot. Recognition of such a moment as an omen is at the same time to recognize the incorporeal aspects of all things – that they cannot be comprehended separately from their time (this moment as a point in their timing), their places, their singularity, and whatever forces impelled them to this point.

I am very grateful to Baasanjav Terbish, Sayana Namsaraeva, and Uranchimeg Borjigin for their help in preparing this paper, to Giovanni da Col, Laurent Legrain, Vera Skvirskaya, and other participants in the “Hiccups” workshop for comments on the first version of this paper, and to the reviewers for Terrain for their very helpful guidance in revising it.

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1 By ‘Mongolian regions’, I refer to the lands in which the Mongol language and culture are prevalent: Mongolia, Inner Mongolia in China, and Buryat-inhabited lands in Russia.

2 Ovoo bosgoogüi bol, shaazgai suuhgüi (Weigert 2006: 84).

3 For further discussion of such a void, see Pedersen (2007: 324), who argues that it has a constitutive role, being a ‘virtual negativity of being, which makes the actualisation of discrete beings possible’.

4 In Mongolia during the Qing Dynasty, high lamas used dire omens as one means of inveighing against the population for its sins (Empson 2006).

5 Consulted January 2018.

6 Consulted January 2018.

7 Source: Consulted January 2018.

8 Source: Caroline Humphrey, personal collection.

9 Pedersen suggests that all that can be done is to ‘jump’ between them, across a spatial liminality (2007: 317).

10 Baasanjav Terbish, personal communication based on his memories of Ulaanbaatar at the time.

11 Zuuny Medee newspaper, 8 March 2013.

12 The story of the archer is well known, as it is taught in schools as part of the Mongol culture curriculum (Baasanjav Terbish, personal communication).

13 The appearance of Garuda in Mongol legends is testimony to the wide and ancient cultural influences that have crossed Asia. Originating in Hindu mythology Garuda is a giant bird with a human body, and Mongols count it one of the ‘four powerful ones of the universe’ along with the dragon, tiger, and lion.

14 Consulted January 2018.

15 A dog’s place is on the ground and outside the ger. On the roof, it has wrongly placed itself above humans and its unclean genitalia will pollute whoever is beneath.

16 Consulted April 2016 (no longer active).

17 It was explained to me that another lama might have invoked a different set of relations for the jacket omen, focusing on its material qualities: the fact that it was clothing, black, and made of leather. These attributes would enable the lama to assign it a place in various astrological series, linking it to calendars, the movements of planets, and other symbolic systems that predict when ‘black’, ‘leather’, and ‘clothing’ are appropriate for use by given astrological subjects – the relevant subject in this case being the man who picked it up. The lama would decompose this man also into elements, such as his date of birth and physical birthmark (menge) signs, these would be totted up against ‘blackness’, ‘leather’, and so forth, and an unfortunate conjunction deduced to be the reason for the disaster.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Illustration 1. P and not-P image
Crédits Caroline Humphrey, sketch
Fichier image/png, 20k
Titre Illustration 2. Model of interference pattern of sound waves
Légende Source:​InterferencePatterns/​
Crédits Enrique Zeleny
Fichier image/png, 176k
Titre Illustration 3. Common hoopoe (Upupa epops)
Légende Source:​birds/​Upupiformes/​Upupidae/​eurasian_hoopoe.htm
Crédits Photo by Rajiv Lather, Karnal, India, 2006
Fichier image/png, 992k
Titre Illustration 4. Interference patterns of light waves
Légende Source:
Fichier image/png, 214k
Titre Illustration 5. Mongolian cosmological painting (19th - early 20th century)
Légende Source: Caroline Humphrey, private collection
Fichier image/jpeg, 268k
Titre Illustration 6. Newspaper interview with ‘marmot’ Ichinhorloo
Crédits Zuuny Medee, 18th March 2013
Fichier image/png, 273k
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Référence électronique

Caroline Humphrey, « The fateful landing of the hoopoe », Terrain [En ligne], Terrains, mis en ligne le 13 février 2018, consulté le 25 avril 2018. URL :

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Caroline Humphrey

University of Cambridge

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