Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tengriism or the New Mongolian God

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I was mildly amused and somewhat disappointed with Sergey Bodrov's "the Mongol". Was. Now I hate this movie. Not just because of the liberties it takes with Mongolian history, but because it perpetuates misinformation about the Mongols and create couch-historians who overnight become experts on the history of Chinggis Khaan according to the Gospel of Bodrov.

What irks me is the reception to the portrayal of Chinggis Khaan's faith. All of a sudden, people are writing we Mongols worship Tengri the Mongolian Thunder God, or Tengri the Sky God or Tengri the God of the Blue Sky. The main problem lies not so much with the portrayal but its interpretation. The word "god" is so deeply associated with Christianity and other monotheistic religions and their visions of a personal God, that when Tengri the God of the Blue Sky is mentioned, people automatically think of a dude sitting atop a flock of clouds, wielding his Thor-axe (hee), regulating weather and wars.

Tengri literally means sky in old Mongolian. Nowadays it's written and pronounced something like "Ten-ger". Тэнгэр is how it's written in cyrillic. In animism, there is no personification of a natural force, the force itself is god. So the sky is god, there is no god of the sky. Same goes for all other forces and expressions of nature. Mongolians ask a Mountain's forgiveness before doing anything that will damage the earth on the mountain. I found a wiki article here.

Unfortunately, what will happen as a result of this movie is a proliferation of amateur historians who will perpetuate the notion that Mongolians worship some Thor-like personal God, who also manifests himself as a wolf at whim. Too much is sacrificed for dramatic effects and visuals, too little is done to explain.

It is only a movie after all, but this day and age, people rely on the mass media for education and information. History is learnt from movies. How many people knew about Oskar Schindler before they made a movie about him? Mostly historians and those he had rescued. I can safely say that many youngsters nowadays would never have known about the Titanic before they made a movie about it. Come to think of it, most probably still think Titanic is just a movie and would be surprised to find out that the backdrop of the movie is historical. I have met people who believed that "300" was a historical movie. I asked them "Have you noticed the goat-headed chimera playing some sort of a sitar in Xerxes' tent at some point in the movie? How about the demon-faced ninja Immortals?". Of course that is only one of the many mythical elements to that movie. I am sure many Greek historians were outraged. As a Frank Miller fan, I loved "300" and the movie's cinematography, which to me was no more than a comic book come to screen, and not a historical depiction of Sparta and what happened at the Battle of Thermopylae.

I suppose the problem is, history is never as glamorous and heroic enough to be depicted undistorted. Too many character flaws in the heroes, too gruesome and violent, too political in that not-so-intriguing sort of way, boring clothes, incomprehensible language...

Speaking of language, I thought what Mel Gibson did with "The passion of the Christ" was an original idea, to have people speak Aramaic and Latin. Until I saw the movie. That movie was so unnecessary. 2 hours of torture? What are we, sadists? Even horror movies take breaks between the violence. Same with the Mongolian spoken in "The Mongol". I mean, Mongolians are not extinct yet, and we still speak Mongolian. We have actors. Instead, we have a Japanese actor praying to a wolven God of Thunder in broken Mongolian, while Chinggis' best friend Jamukha, portrayed by a Chinese actor (the irony, I wonder if they will get another Chinese actor to play Chinggis' general in a movie depicting Mongols' conquest of China) swaggers and spits out incomprehensible Mongolian. Hey, whatever sells, I guess.

To be honest, if I were a director about to make an epic movie about Chinggis Khaan, I'd probably get someone famous too. Perhaps Mel Gibson as Chinggis Khaan. With enough makeup he may yet end up looking as asian as Steven Seagal but still retain that box-office Mel Gibson-y quality.There were rumors that Steven Seagal planned to make a movie about Chinggis Khaan... with himself as Chinggis! This is true. He even visited Mongolia, where he was treated like a royalty by starstruck government officials. Mongolian journalists, I remember, were outraged that he would come to a government reception at the Parliament wearing a pair of jeans.

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