Call for Papers: "Millenarianism and religious innovation in North Asia"

Call for Papers for Special Issue of the journal Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétainеs

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This special issue aims to bring together anthropologists and historians to draw the first global comparison of milleranianisms and messianisms in North Asia.

North Asia is often portrayed as a preserve of very ancient traditional systems of thought, Shamanism, Animism, and Buddhism. Nevertheless, some innovative religious movements, short-lived yet intense, have also sprung up in the region, in connection with the expectation of new times. Sometimes they left a durable imprint in the local political structures and in the collective identity of the peoples.

At the turn of the 20th century, Minussinsk Tatars, Altaians and Tuvinians were awaiting the return of Oirot khan, or Amursana, the leader of the Western Mongolian empire that collapsed in the 18th century. These expectations gave rise to a political and religious movement in the Altai region, Burkhanism (ak jaŋ, “white faith”), which opposed traditional shamanism as much as any Russian influence.

At the same period, in Mongolia, a Kalmuk monk, Ja Lama or Dambijantsan, claimed to be a reincarnation of Amursana. He raised troops, won battles against the Chinese, and established a bloody dictatorship until he was murdered in 1923. In the same years of civil war, the Baltic baron Ungern, who led White armies in Mongolia, was recognised as a reincarnation of the epic hero Geser and of Chinggis Khan.

Earlier, in the last decades of the 19th century, among the Mari of the Volga, arose the movement known as “Big Candle” (kugu sorta), which promoted a return to “white pagan faith”. This faith involved a rejection of both the Orthodox Church and current indigenous animist practices.

In the middle of the 20th century, an Inuit woman said she had ascended to the sky and received commandments concerning the Inuit people. A transient religious movement was formed, following the numerous prophetic and millenarianist movements that had sprung up in the Inuit world since the 18th century.

In the 1990s, Yakut intellectuals of the Kut-Sür movement laid the groundwork of a “faith of the ajyy”, supposed to be a synthesis of ancient Turkic traditions, of which Yakuts would be the sole repositories. This “faith”, opposed to Orthodox “religion”, was meant to bring salvation to Yakuts, wounded by the communist regime.

Nowadays, among several Siberian peoples, evangelical and Jehovah's Witnesses communities are being created. New converts break up with the local ethnic traditions, but also take position against the Orthodox Church which they regard as pagan.

The doctrinal content of these movements is very diverse: messianic, eschatological, or prophetic expectations, announcements of ongoing events, claims for a radical change and/or for a return to the origins. Some leaders are previous shamans or lamas, others are intellectuals drawing on their knowledge of culture and Russian law, others again are illiterate herders. The social forms taken by these movements are very contrasted: mere diffuse rumours, claims modelled on the colonial administrative structure, armed uprisings. The comparison of phenomena emerging in different cultures, in such a diversity of form and in such varied contexts, might seem a hazardous project. However, formal and even structural similarities are undeniable. Certain recurring features can be identified: the idea of a collective purification needed to react to the shaking of traditional society; an imitative rivalry with an exogenous model (Christianity or communism) associated with a rejection of traditional indigenous practices; the elaboration of innovative ritual configurations.

Responses to Christianity and colonialism

Appearing as resistance to Christianisation, these movements paradoxically borrowed Christianity’s idiom and concepts, so much so that it could be described as a form of “internal conversion” (Geertz, ‘Internal Conversion' in Contemporary Bali, in The interpretation of cultures, New York, 1973, pp. 170-189). The notion of “faith” introduced by missionaries was appropriated and subverted. A rationalised monotheist cosmology was established. The development of a doctrine equivalent to Christianity, yet different from it, justifies the claim for the rejection of the official Church. Along with Christianity, it is often all the effects of colonial presence that are condemned, and most of all manufactured goods.

The Inner Asian millenarianist movements in the beginning of the 20th century have fascinated certain Western occultists, who appropriated some of their myths, such as that of the Shambhala kingdom. Today, paradoxically, the quest for Shambhala attracts a growing number of Russians to the Altai, after its popularisation by an Altaian anti-Russian tale. In Mongolia, Westerners seduced by the myth of the Shambhala gather for a pilgrimage around Khamariin Khiid monastery (Dornogov Aimag).

Challenging indigenous traditions

Millenarianist movements condemn some local traditions in the name of a return to the purity of the lost faith of the ancestors. Numerous spirits and divinities have been abandoned as malevolent entities. The movement of Big Candle, as well as Burkhanism, disapproved of bloody sacrifices, considered as displeasing to God. Millenarianist movements might draw on existing tensions between different religious modalities within a single society (Hugh-Jones, Stephen, 1997, Shamans, Prophets, Priests, and Pastors. Pp. 32–75 in Shamanism, History, and the State. Edited by Nicholas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey). They often claim an origin in the epic tradition. In the Altai, Burkhanists found their inspiration in the epic pantheon to reject the polymorphous shamanic pantheon. In the beginning of the 20th century, Selkup people hoped for the return of their epic hero It’a, the enemy of Christ, “father of the Russians”. Characters such as the epic hero Geser, his Tibetan equivalent Gesar, or the Altaian hero Maadaj-Kara, lent their features to the expected messiahs (R. Hamayon, Reconstruction identitaire autour d’une figure imaginaire chez les Bouriates post-soviétiques, in J. -C. Attias, P. Gisel, L. Kaennel éd., Messianismes: variations sur une figure juive, Labor et Fides, 2000, pp. 229-252).

Ritual innovation

The religious movements that we propose to compare have established new ritual forms, more or less codified. The new rituals and the messianic expectations associated with them spread with astonishing speed. How do they circulate, how do they stabilise, and how are they routinized? Do the forms of ritual communication that are established contribute to the propagation of the movement (see C. Severi, Capturing imagination: a cognitive approach to cultural complexity, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2004, 10, pp. 815-838)? What new identities are attributed to the participants of the ritual?

According to Whitehouse (Arguments and icons: divergent modes of religiosity, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2000), innovative religious movement establish cults with an imagistic character, that is using highly evocative images, as opposed to a doctrinal mode of religiosity based on semantic memory. Is this true also of North Asian religious movements? Do these operate a combination between these two modes? How does the paradoxical relationship of these millenarianist movements with tradition and Christianity reflect in their rituals?

Towards a new society

The heralding of a new time by millenarianist movements has a performative effect, which sometimes turn them into self-fulfilling prophecies. The new rituals establish original distribution of skills and relationship with the supernatural, which subverts the opposition between shamans and lay people. Women, often excluded from the major traditional collective rituals, are now included alongside men, on an egalitarian basis. New social relationship and new conceptions of personhood arise.

The tendency towards individualism in these movements is often balanced by the obligation to prepare collectively for the coming of new times, as shown by Joel Robbins (Becoming Sinners. Christianity and Moral Torment in a Papua New Guinea Society,Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004). Unlike simple divination, prophecy heralds events with a social importance: it spreads the conception of a time open to new causalities, creating a collective destiny (R. Empson ed, Time, causality and prophecy in the Mongolian cultural region, Folkestone, Global Oriental, 2006). This may have political consequences. In the Altai, the expectations spread by the Burkhanist movement have been appropriated by the government of Karakorum, and then by the Soviets to summon up the natives and have them subscribe to a political movement through a national identification unknown until then. Do millenarianist movements contribute to the emerging of a collective consciousness, of a sense of ethnic or national belonging?


Abstract of 200 words should be submitted to information(a) and charles.stepanoff(a)

Closing date for Abstract submissions : August 15th 2010
Submission deadline for full article: December 31st 2010
Instruction for contributors:
Languages: French, English, Russian.

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