Archive | May 2013

Fun Fact

Believe It or Not

More than 80% of people will start having sarcastic conversations with themselves when people are ignoring them.

Fun Fact

Believe It or Not

The average person would have to walk 2 hours non stop to burn off the calories in one can of Coca Cola.


Restoring Your I-sight: How the Soul Unites the Senses in Healthy Seeing

Figure 1 – The sense of colour in vision. The spectrum in the rainbow.

Figure 1 – The sense of colour in vision. The spectrum in the rainbow.


Much of medical science deals strictly with the body, while denying – or at least largely relegating to the background – our inner soul essence. This view is particularly prevalent in conventional vision treatment where eyesight is considered to be a camera-like process which creates an image that’s either in or out of focus. Such a one-tiered approach results in a lopsided notion of what is normal. Eyeglasses are so commonplace in our culture, they’re considered virtually natural extensions of the human anatomy. People seeing clearly with their own eyes are becoming a rare breed.

In more recent years, the quest for a novel approach to vision treatment took a technological leap with the advent of refractive eye surgery, also known as laser eye surgery, or by the acronym of LASIK, a popular procedure. In a way, this technology is turning full circle back to Mother Nature’s design, touting 20/20 vision (or very close to it) with a natural appearance and no fuss. According to the industry, these purported outcomes involve minimal risk and have high patient satisfaction rates.

However, more cases of patients with negative outcomes – ranging in scale from continual annoying symptoms to disabling complications and worsening eyesight – are coming to the forefront in the media and on the Internet. Tragically, a few cases have ended in suicides.The furore prompted the US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) last year to publicly hear statements from affected patients. The FDA panel reiterated that refractive eye surgery, like any surgery, has its risks but has an excellent overall track record. Nevertheless, to bolster the safeguards, they recommended enhanced patient screening methods and further post-operative studies by the industry. (Interestingly, the eye doctor who chaired the FDA panel wears glasses. Although she regularly performs refractive eye surgery, she chooses not to undergo the procedure herself, citing one of the reasons as an aversion to any level of risk.)

Lost amid the allure and debates over technological treatments is an obscure alternative called natural vision improvement (NVI). As the name implies, it’s a more nature-centred approach, a holistic mind-body method that seeks to reverse an imbalance induced by a response to stress. It introduces a psychological component, counter to most prevailing notions that the physical eyes somehow just “go bad” with no hope of improving. For those attuned to esoteric traditions – or the “Perennial Philosophy” as writer Aldous Huxley put it – the psyche is simply a secular name for the soul.

To understand how NVI succeeds on the personal soul level, the work of spiritual scientist Rudolf Steiner offers some insights. While embodied within a physical form, our soul is said to be a link between the “lower” physical world and the “higher” world of the spirit in which we simultaneously participate. Steiner further suggested that a portion called the sentient soul is responsible for our experience of sensation. He also distinguished between the terms perception and sensation; perception comes first and is fleeting, but the sensation which follows lasts.

When external light reaches us, the eyes initially register myriad perceptions from our environment. Then something lights up in the sentient soul when certain perceptions are filtered and sensations come alive with personal vividness and quality. For example, when you behold a red object with your eyes, you initially perceive the colour. However, this colour perception ceases once you look away, but the sensation that it makes upon you continues to linger in your soul. It’s a lasting impression that may be later recalled, whether to ponder its meaning and significance or to rekindle nostalgic sentiments and feelings.

Because our sensations illuminate internally in a unique and private way, Steiner contended that this soul activity is not a mere brain process. Science can describe the various light, chemical and nerve stimuli along the chain from the eye retina to the brain, but he noted that nowhere can our actual sensations be found in this chain. The sentient soul is said to also partake in the intrinsically private activities of feelings, emotions, drives and instincts, as well as willing, where our soul flows outward through actions.

Such a perspective of soul activity aligns with other researchers’ distinctions of mind and brain. Neurophysiologist Wilder Penfield once determined that no amount of electronic probing in the various areas of the brain would elicit a person to believe or decide. He concluded that the mind seems to work independently of the brain, analogous to a computer programmer acting independently of the firings within the computer. Penfield suggested that the mind has its own energy that is different from the neurons that travel the pathways within the brain.

Michael Polanyi, philosopher of science and social science, arrived at the same conclusion when he stated that thoughts and neural processes are two completely different things.

Religious author Huston Smith concurs, suggesting “the brain breathes mind like the lungs breathe air.”

We typically think of having five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – with sight generally considered to be the most important in its ability to perceive shades of lightness and different colours. However, Steiner recognised that we have at least seven more than these basic senses. By the term sense, he meant a perception which provides us with immediate information without the involvement of a thought process. One of the additional senses he noted was what he called movement, what is nowadays termed proprioception. Movement is that special sense which indicates whether we’re still or moving, providing direct feedback where our joints, tendons and muscles are in space.

Steiner also recognised how the various senses work together, not in isolation. Although each sense may be categorised for the sake of definitions, our soul reunites the separate perceptions into a unified whole that provides coherent inner meaning. Of particular note, he was well aware that vision encompasses more than the sense of sight. In 1919, he knew the important role that the sense of movement plays in visual sensation:

We nearly always see things so that when they give the colours to us, they also show us the boundaries of colours, namely, lines and forms. We are not normally aware of how we perceive when we perceive colour and form at the same time…. At first you see only the colour through the specific activity of the eye [sense of sight]. You see the circular form when you subconsciously use the sense of movement and unconsciously make a circular movement… When the circle you have apprehended through your sense of movement rises to cognition, it is then joined with the perceived colour. You take the form out of your entire body when you appeal to the sense of movement spread out over your entire body…. Today, official science is not at all interested in such a refined way of observation, so it does not distinguish between seeing colour and perceiving form with the help of the sense of movement… In the future, however, we will not be able to educate with such confusion. How will it be possible to educate human seeing if we do not know that the whole human being participates in seeing through the sense of movement?

Decades later, Steiner’s comments appear to have been validated by Alfred Yarbus, a psychologist who studied the eye movements of people looking at natural objects and scenes. In the 1950s and 1960s, he recorded the rapid saccadic eye movements that occur within milliseconds and demonstrated with remarkable images how the eyes subconsciously scan forms and outlines with incredible speed. Figure 2 has examples from Yarbus’ work.

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Figure 2 – The sense of movement in vision. Rapid eye tracing movements corresponding to images viewed (Yarbus, 1967).

Steiner’s observations are also quite extraordinary when related to NVI fundamentals of proper vision. William Bates was an eye doctor who broke from the mold of orthodox teachings and single-handedly established the field of NVI back in the early 1900s. Two of Bates’ guiding fundamentals are what he called shifting and apparent movement (also called the swing), both which involve our sense of movement.

The eyes, which move by different sets of surrounding muscles, must continually shift from point to point to prevent the strain of fixation. Otherwise, the subconscious saccadic movements become sluggish and vision begins to blur within seconds. It’s analogous to grasping a heavy object in your hand and holding it tightly in an extended arm position. The muscle strain cannot be held long before you lose your hold and drop the object. If we fixate for too long in an attempt to “hold” a point in our sight with intense concentration, the effort backfires and we lose the clarity of sight.

As for oppositional movement, stationary objects in our peripheral field of vision must have the appearance of moving in an opposing direction. This swing is a natural consequence of the first fundamental, the shift.

Bates explains the illusion of the swing: “Your head and eyes are moving all day long. Imagine that stationary objects are moving in the direction opposite to the movement of your head and eyes. When you walk about the room or on the street, notice that the floor or pavement seems to come toward you, while objects on either side appear to move in the direction opposite to the movement of your body.”

If one attempts to stop this illusion of oppositional movement, Bates claimed it caused vertigo or dizziness. That’s because our sense of balance also comes into play for effective vision. Coordinated body movements and eye movements depend on good balance, controlled by the organs in the inner ears.

In more recent years, the role of movement and balance in visual perception has been recognised in a speciality field called developmental or behavioural optometry. They have made the connection between visual difficulties, mental development, and emotional behaviour, with such problems as dyslexia, slow reading and poor comprehension, ADHD and juvenile delinquency. Some children have difficulty reuniting the individual senses as a unified whole, causing a jumbled imbalance of sensations, thoughts and emotions.

The importance of training which integrates the senses with whole-body movements is a hallmark of this specialised field of optometry. The training typically incorporates bouncing on the trampoline with rhythmic arm and hand movements and visual interaction with special wall charts. Or the child could be instructed to call out answers to rapid-fire mental tasks – like mathematics or spelling – while jumping on the trampoline. Balance beams are also used in combination with sensory, physical and mental tasks.

In a separate field of study, psychiatrist Harold Levinson treated thousands of cases of learning disabilities and phobias and discovered a common physical correlation. Over 90 percent of his patients who were dyslexic or phobic had a malfunction of the inner-ear system. These more recent findings validate what Steiner suggested back in his day: mental disorders are linked to physiological disorders.

“But one will find over and again,” he wrote, “that especially in so-called mental illness – which actually has been, as such, incorrectly named – physical processes of illness are present in a hidden way somewhere. Before one wants to meddle. . . with mental illness, one ought actually, with the proper diagnosis, to determine which physical organ is involved in the illness.” Thinking, feeling, and willing – soul activities which follow from our senses – are all interrelated and interdependent.

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Figure 3 – The sense of balance in vision. The inner ear regulates balanced eye movements.

In our highly technological era, we are intently centred on the physical realm, bombarded with sense data from the external environment. Such sensory overload may induce responses in an individual’s soul, such as fear and anxiety, while causing overconcentration and staring. The net result can lead to a habitual strain pattern that restricts movement and negatively impacts the healthy functioning of the eye-focusing muscles. School age children are especially prone to such problems and begin to develop vision problems early as a result.

One of the most fascinating aspects of improving eyesight naturally is a “flash” of near perfect vision that spontaneously occurs from time to time. I experienced flashes several times prior to having any knowledge of the phenomenon. They appear very early in the vision improvement process for many people, even for those with a high degree of initial blur. I liken the experience to a flash of inspiration or intuition from the spiritual realm, a Divine Perfection pouring into the soul, reminding the eyes how to see clearly again without strain. It’s also a reminder to step back from the stressful demands of a society fixated on material ends and become more in touch with our higher spiritual nature.

Quantum physicist Arthur Zajonc chronicled the scientific study of light and visual optics from the time of the early Greek philosophers to our current age and laments at the gradual demise of artistic and spiritual insights in the endeavour. Throughout the centuries, Plato’s light of the soul in visual perception was eventually excised by science to the point we are today – a pure neurophysical model – even though the nature of light is as enigmatic as ever.

We’ve become so steeped in material pursuits that we’ve “lost sight” of the spiritual side. If physical light is the counterpart of spiritual light, perhaps the visual blur that’s endemic to modern culture is a manifestation of spiritual myopia?

Observe the symmetry in the word “eye” itself. I view it as a symbol of our threefold nature. One “e” represents the exoteric, or physical realm, while the other “e” represents the esoteric, or spiritual realm. The “y” in between is the soul with three branches, two linking body and spirit, while the third points to the “I” (pronounced the same as “eye”) that is the centre of our soul. Window of the soul, indeed!

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William H. Bates, The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses, New York: Central Fixation Publishing, 1920. Reprint, Pomeroy, Wash.: Health Research Books, n.d.
William H. Bates, “Perfect Sight,” Better Eyesight, September 1927
Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945
LASIK Complications website,
Harold N. Levinson, Phobia Free, with Stephen Carter, New York: M. Evans and Company, 1986
Wilder Penfield, The Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness and the Human Brain, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975. Quoted in Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 64-65
Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958. Quoted in Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 63
Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions, New York: Harper Collins, 1992
Rudolf Steiner, A Psychology of Body, Soul, and Spirit: Anthroposophy, Psychosophy, & Pneumatosophy, Translated by Marjorie Spock, Herndon, Va.: Anthroposophic Press, 1999
Rudolf Steiner, Polarities in Health, Illness and Therapy, Lecture, Pennmenmawr, N. Wales, August 28, 1923. Spring Valley, NY: Mercury Press, 1987. Rudolf Steiner Archive.
Rudolf Steiner, The Foundations of Human Experience, Translated by Robert F. Lathe and Nancy Parsons Whittaker, Herndon, Va.: Anthroposophic Press, 1996
Rudolf Steiner, Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos, Translated by Catherine E. Creeger. Herndon, Va.: Anthroposophic Press, 1994
Alfred Yarbus, Eye Movements and Vision, New York: Plenum Press, 1967
Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind, New York: Bantam Books, 1993


DOUG MARSH, a professional engineer and vision education advocate, has extensively studied natural vision improvement and the mind/body interface as it relates to eyesight. He is the author of Restoring Your Eyesight: A Taoist Approach. The natural Taoist approach has greatly reduced his nearsightedness while also relieving the symptoms of a TMJ/inner-ear disorder. Most days he experiences brief, spontaneous “flashes” of near 20/20 eyesight, an encouraging sign that his vision continues to heal. He lives in Canada and his website is

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 114 (May-June 2009).

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This entry was posted on May 29, 2013. 1 Comment

Siberian Shamanism

Secrets of Siberian Shamanism



Today, especially in New Age circles, the term ‘shamanism’ is often used in a generalised way to describe all kinds of indigenous magical practices in a wide range of cultures worldwide. It has also been projected back into a past that it never had, so we can find modern books on so-called ‘Celtic shamanism’ and even ‘Ancient Egyptian shamanism’. Modern writers on the subject such as Dr. Michael Harner have also created what is called ‘core shamanism’ or ‘urban shamanism’. 

This takes the essence of shamanic beliefs and practices and repackages them in a safe, sanitised and often diluted form that is acceptable for Western seekers of alternative spirituality. In this article, however, we examine and describe the real ‘core shamanism’ as it has been practised for hundreds of years in its homeland of Siberia and the Turkic-speaking areas of Mongolia, and where it is now being revived.

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries the area known as Siberia was colonised by the Russians. They were led there by its abundance of wild animals that created a flourishing trade in animal skins and furs. The Tsars used the income from this enterprise to boost their economy and access the foreign currency that helped create the Russian empire. The influx of Russian hunters, fur traders and merchants drastically affected the local population, which consisted of many different tribes. By the 1900s the native population had dwindled to about 10% of the total people living in Siberia. Along with the fur traders there also came missionaries and, in later times, anthropologists. The former were interested in converting the indigenous population to Orthodox Christianity, while the latter wanted to study their tribal culture, spiritual beliefs and ritual practices. Both these groups of outsiders contacted the tribal shamans of Siberia and, for totally different reasons, recorded and commented upon their religious observances.

The earliest references to magical practitioners that could be described as shamans in fact date back to the 13th century. It was then that the first Western travellers penetrated Central Asia and visited the court of the Mongol rulers. The explorer Marco Polo, for instance, met magicians who were healers and could diagnosis diseases by the use of divination. Polo says they became possessed by what he described as “a devil,” who then used their vocal chords to speak through them.

However, it was an English explorer called Richard Johnston in the 16th century who first described what sounds very like the activities of shamans proper. He reported witnessing a tribal priest wearing animal skins and playing a drum “shaped like a great sieve” in “devilish rites.” During the ritual the drummer fell into a trance and was possessed by “evil spirits.”

In 1692 another Western explorer, Nicholas Witsen, described seeing a “shaman” or “priest of the Devil.” He was clad in ritual regalia, consisting of an antlered head-dress and a richly decorated robe, and chanted and beat on a drum to attract the spirits. Generally, reflecting the Catholic culture they came from, these Westerners regarded the shamans as fanatical “devil worshippers” who forced their ignorant and uneducated followers to serve evil spirits and demons.

What is Siberian Shamanism?

The meaning of the word ‘shaman’ is shrouded in linguistic mystery and various explanations have been put forward for its origin. One theory is that it is possibly derived from an ancient Chinese term for a Buddhist priest or monk. The Oxford English Dictionary defines its meaning as “a priest or witch-doctor [sic] of (a) class claiming to have sole contact with gods etc.” It says the word comes from the Russian “shaman” and is a translation of the Tungusion word “saman.” In Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism was known as Tengerism, meaning a reverence for sky spirits. It reflected an animistic belief system where everything in the natural world was alive, permeated by spirit force or, in simple terms, inhabited by spirits.

These spirits had to be respected and appeased or else the land would become infertile and barren, the animals relied upon for food would disappear and eventually the world would come to an end. To achieve this essential and vital balance between humans, nature and the spirit world, a magical specialist was required and the shaman took that role. He or she acted as an intermediary or middle person between humanity and the Other, and a caretaker of cultural and magical tradition. Their job involved conducting blessings, especially on new-born babies, performing rituals of protection, divining the future, healing the sick, exorcising ghosts and demons, overseeing the burial of the dead, and generally communicating on behalf of the tribe with the spirit world and its denizens.

Initiation into the shamanic cult could be achieved in several different ways. The easiest was the hereditary route where magical knowledge, power and skill were passed down from grandfather or father to son or, more rarely, from grandmother or mother to daughter. Sometimes children were chosen at a very early age or even at birth by the spirits and instructed by them through the medium of visions and dreams. Young people who suffered a serious illness or disease or from epileptic fits, were introverted and dreamy, or had any form of mental condition or disability, were regarded as natural shamans who had been specially chosen by the spirits.

In later life those who felt a strong calling to become a magical practitioner would retreat from society, usually to a remote place in the wilderness, and undergo a vigil during which they invited the spirits to contact them and teach them the shamanic ways. When a person was actually taken on by another shaman as his assistant or sorcerer’s apprentice, a formal initiation rite was often carried out. The candidate offered an animal sacrifice, called on the spirits to aid them in their task, took an oath of loyalty to their shamanic master or spiritual clan, and accepted the special ritual regalia of a shaman’s office.

Often these initiations by either another shaman or the spirits involved a traumatic visionary death and rebirth experience. Sometimes this included a journey to the underworld, meetings with deities and the would-be shaman’s body being dismembered and then put together again.

The ritual regalia given to the new shaman reflected the fact that he or she was a special person who was separate and different from other members of the tribe. Siberian shamans wore robes made from animal hide and fur and decorated with embroidery, bird’s feathers, silk tassels, ribbons, bells, small mirrors, jewellery representing symbolic motifs such as the World Tree, and assorted metalwork such as copper discs. Headwear consisted of a conical or pointed cap made from felt or fur or the antlers of a reindeer. Some shamans wore iron-shod fur boots so when they stamped their feet they could drive away evil spirits.

The majority of shamans carried a ritual drum similar in shape to the traditional Irish bodhran. These were made from an animal skin stretched over a wooden frame and decorated with feathers and magical symbols representing spirit journeys to the Otherworld or the shamanic cosmology. The drum was very important and represented the symbolic and magical steed that enabled the practitioner to travel from Middle Earth to the realm of the spirits. It was also a magical object in its own right that contained and focused spirit force or energy. By playing it the shaman could both attract spirits and exorcise them. In addition to the drum a magical staff was often carried. This was made of either wood or metal and was decorated with feathers, bells, ribbons and the pelts of small woodland animals.

Different Types of Shaman

Although Westerners used the generic term ‘shaman’ to describe all the tribal magical practitioners of Siberia and Mongolia, in practice they were divided into several different types, categories or classes with specific magical duties and responsibilities. Using English terminology, these included ‘conjurors’ who summoned and controlled spirits, prophets or psychics who foresaw the future, sorcerers who practised ‘black magic’, trance-workers who travelled in spirit form to the Otherworld, healers who were experts in folk medicine and herbalism, and guides to the dead who laid out corpses and conducted funeral rites.

The shaman-healers were often female and they specialised in health matters connected with human and animal fertility, sexuality and children. They were recognisable by their distinctive skirts made from animal hide and brightly coloured woollen hats. Instead of the ritual drum used by the male shamans, they carried a silk fan and prayer beads. Unfortunately when Buddhism came to Siberia and Mongolia many of these female healers were ruthlessly persecuted and exterminated by the misogynist monks. As a result their extensive knowledge of herbs and plants used for natural healing was either lost completely or taken over by Buddhist healers and only practised in a debased or diluted form.

Another female practitioner was the shaman-midwife, who inherited her power from the maternal line of familial descent. As well as ensuring that babies entered this world safely in a physical sense, she was also responsible for their spiritual protection from evil influences during birth and their well-being as children. In this sense she took on the role of a human fairy godmother. Immediately after a birth the shaman-midwife cut the umbilical cord and then purified the new-born baby with salt water and fire. Any (female only) witnesses to the birth could only be present if they had first been ritually purified by the midwife with fire and water. During the first few weeks of a baby’s life it was very important that the proper rituals were performed to protect the child until its spirit was fully established in the material world. If they were not performed properly then the baby’s spirit might return from whence it had come. These essential rites were the responsibility of the shaman-midwife and her assistants.

Another type of shamanic healer was a bone-setter who called upon spirit guides to help them in their healing work. They mainly repaired broken and dislocated bones and torn ligaments, healed back pain caused by spinal injuries or disease and also skin infections such as boils, rashes, psoriasis and eczema. These gifts were inherited from the paternal side of the family and, because the bones of the human body were considered to be spiritually ‘masculine’ in nature, these shamanic bone-setters were always male.

Most of the shamans worked with what modern New Agers call animal allies or spirit-helpers in animal form. These entities assisted them with their magical work and also taught them. For instance, the shaman-midwives described above worked with an animal spirit in the form of a mountain fox. The first bone-setter is supposed to have been taught his skills by a snake so that creature was sacred to the clan. Other shamanic practitioners were assisted by reindeer or wolves for attacking and destroying evil spirits, and ravens for getting rid of diseases. Other important animal spirit helpers included owls, wild ducks, geese, squirrels, bears, frogs and toads, dogs, seagulls and eagles.

One of the most important and respected types of magical practitioners was the shaman-smith. In all cultures all over the world from Europe to Africa the smith took a central role in tribal society and was regarded as a powerful magician or sorcerer because of his mastery over fire and skill in working with metal. There are many legends about blacksmiths making pacts with demons, gods or the Devil or tricking and outwitting them to acquire their skills. There are also many smith gods in ancient mythology who were magicians, made weapons for the Gods or acted as cultural exemplars by inventing agricultural tools. In Siberia the shaman-smiths made and magically consecrated the ritual metal objects used by other shamans. They were only chosen by the spirits and instead of a drum they used their anvils to communicate with the spiritual realm.

‘Black’ & ‘White’ Shamans

As well as the different types of magical practitioner, the shamans were also divided into two separate, but sometimes overlapping, categories – ‘black’ or ‘white’ shamans. The former were regarded as the most powerful of the two and were sometimes known as ‘warrior-shamans’ because they battled evil forces and were consulted as military advisors. They obtained their power from the north (possibly the North Pole or the North Star) and could be easily identified as they always wore black robes with very little, if any, decoration. The primary function of the black shaman was to deal with demons and the dark gods on behalf of their clients. In this role they were hired to curse their enemies and blight their crops and livestock.

In wartime the black shamans attached themselves to the army rather like the modern padres and helped to win battles using their occult powers. In peacetime they took a more positive role as diplomats, political advisors and emissaries and they oversaw the preparation and signing of treaties with the appropriate magical rites. Black shamans were greatly feared, even after their deaths. In the 19th century when a famous one died she was placed in a coffin made from the ‘unclean’ wood of an aspen. Her corpse was then nailed down with aspen stakes so she could not become a ‘night walker’ and haunt the living.

In contrast, the so-called ‘white’ shamans obtained their magical power from a westerly direction, the home of the benevolent deities and spirits. They operated at a tribal level almost exclusively as healers and diviners and they only had dealings with beneficent entities. It was their role to pacify angry or evil spirits, exorcise them if they possessed human beings and help the tribe live in harmony with their natural environment and the spirit world. To this end on a physical level they were often employed in an administrative role to oversee tribal affairs.

The Yurt, the World Tree & Spirit Flight

In Siberian and especially Mongolian shamanism the yurt, a traditional dwelling constructed from a framework of wooden poles covered with animal skins and with a central smoke-hole in the roof, was a microcosmic symbol or representation of the universe. For this reason all movement inside the yurt was conducted, if at all possible, in a deosil or sunways direction. This also reflected the traditional direction of movement used in shamanic rituals and dances. The centre of the yurt, where a fire burnt in a hearth and was seldom extinguished, was symbolic of the actual centre of the world or universe. The column of smoke that drifted up from the fire and left the yurt through the central smoke-hole in the roof was symbolic of the axis mundi – the World Mountain, World Pillar or World Tree. This links the underworld below with the heavens above and ends at the North and Pole Star around which all the other stars revolve in the night sky.

The shamans believed in three worlds of existence connected together by the World Tree or Tree of Life. They were the lower world or underworld inhabited by the dead who are awaiting reincarnation, the middle world or Middle Earth, the material plane of existence in which human spirits are incarnated, and the upper world or Heaven, the dwelling place of the Gods. Numerous non-human spirits also inhabit each of these three worlds. The shaman can access these other worlds in trance by means of spirit travel. His soul body ascends the column of smoke from the fire and passes through the aperture in the roof of the yurt. It is interesting to note that in medieval times European witches were supposed to fly to their Sabbats by ascending the chimney on their broomsticks. It is obvious that this was not done physically so they also were practising a shamanic type of spirit flight.

Shamans can also fly through the air when they spirit travel, either by shapeshifting into the form of birds (such as geese) or by riding on the back of a flying deer, horse or some other large animal. Again, there are many woodcuts dating from the Middle Ages depicting witches riding through the night sky on the backs of goats and rams. Sometimes the shaman visited the spirit world by ascending the World Tree itself or by travelling along a rainbow. This is another symbol that is found in Northern European paganism where a rainbow bridge connects Midgard (Middle Earth) with Asgard, the realm of the Gods.

One of the methods used by the Siberian shamans to achieve trance and spirit travel was the hallucinogenic fungi amanita muscaria or fly agaric. This red capped white-spotted toadstool has a symbiotic relationship with both birch and fir trees, which grow profusely in northern and arctic climes. It is so closely associated with magical properties in myth and fairy tales that it is frequently depicted in illustrations to modern children’s stories about woodland elves, faeries and goblins. Fly agaric is reputed to be able to open up the ‘crack between the worlds’ and experiments in the 20th century by the two well-known ethonomycologists Gordon and Valentina Wasson revealed the ethenogenic qualities of this most famous of ‘sacred mushrooms’.

In Siberia fly agaric was sometimes fed to reindeer and then the animal’s toxic urine is drank. The shamans said that taking it put them in touch with the spirit of the plant, who appeared as small mushrooms with eyes and arms and legs attached. Needless to say that in large quantities fly agaric is highly poisonous and can be deadly. It must, as with all hallucinogenic plants used in magical practice, be used in small quantities, treated with respect and only taken after the proper spiritual preparation and then only under expert supervision. It should also be noted that in many countries fly agaric and other psychedelic fungi are classified as dangerous drugs and the possession or partaking of them is illegal.

In common with indigenous folk beliefs in the West, it was accepted in shamanism that the spirit world was not entirely separated from the material one. There are special places in the natural environment – sacra loci – where the two realms meet and touch and interconnect. These can be a sacred mountain or hill, a stone, a river, a lake, a forest or any natural landmark in the countryside. While the shaman may be able to access such ‘gateways’ or ‘portals’ between here and there easily, lesser mortals may be unaware of them or, if they are sensitive, they may feel they are ‘different’ or ‘other’. Spooky places, whether natural sites in the landscape or buildings, associated with folklore, paranormal phenomena and hauntings are usually spirit gateways.

In shamanistic belief all inanimate objects were inhabited or possessed by spirit energy or force who controlled their environs. Some shamans taught that living beings, especially human ones, could have more than one spirit inhabiting their physical body. Many accepted that humans had an etheric, astral or spirit double and this could be projected in trance or spirit travel to roam over the Earth and also enter the Otherworld. The shamans believed that the soul of a human being resided in a spherical or ovoid energy field that surrounds each of us. It is probably what Western occultists would refer to as the auric field or aura. It was this energy field that was attacked by demons or black shamans when they psychically attacked their victims and in that way they could cause illness or death. It was the task of the white shaman to redress the balance by healing the damaged aura and if possible bring the victim back to full health.

Earlier we saw how animals were important clan totems and spirit guides to the shaman. Before the 20th century and the rise of industrial scale food production, hunting was widespread on the Siberian steppes and in the forests. Unlike Christian belief, it was accepted without question that animals had souls and when hunting them down and killing them it was essential that their sprits were respected and appeased. If they were not, disaster and misfortune could befall the hunter, his family and tribe. When a hunter killed his prey it was always despatched quickly, cleanly and without cruelty. Before it was killed the hunter apologised for having to do so and after death its remains were treated with care and respect. The same rule applied to domestic animals. A master animal spirit ruled each species and prayers and sacrificial offerings of incense and fire were made to them before the hunt began. Hunting purely for pleasure, as practised in the West, was an unknown concept.

Buddhism & the Stamping Out of Shamanism

Despite the early arrival of the fur traders and merchants in Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism survived. In the 16th century, however, a Mongolian ruler called Altan Khan invited a Tibetan Buddhist mission to the country. His motives were political as he wanted to consolidate his own position as the supreme tribal leader by claiming to be the reincarnation of the great Kubla Khan. The Buddhists agreed to recognise his claim and in return the Khan gave the head of the Buddhist Order the spiritual title of Dalai Lama, which of course exists today even though the present holder is in exile in India. As a result of the Khan’s one conversion, he passed laws banning shamanic rituals and granted the Buddhist priesthood a special status in society and privileges that were not granted to the shamans.

In the 17th century attempts were made by the Mongolian rulers to eradicate shamanic survival entirely. The black shaman brotherhood refused to submit to the new religion and many were killed. Some of the white shamans came to an accommodation with it. This led to the creation of a third way called ‘yellow shamanism’ that submitted to the control of the lamas and combined shamanic beliefs and practices with Tibetan Buddhism.

During the 18th century in Siberia, Buddhist, Orthodox Christian and Muslim missionaries attempted to convert the native population and opposed the practice of all rival religions. Considering their modern peaceful and pacifist image, the Buddhist monks were the most severe in this respect and they hunted down shamans, beat them and destroyed their sacred sites, replacing them with their own image-filled shrines. The Russian Orthodox Church also forced the pagan tribes to accept baptism at the point of a sword and they flogged or imprisoned anyone who dared to practice shamanic rites such as divination and animal sacrifice.

Despite this religious persecution, shamanism survived the forced conversions and it continued underground in remote rural areas. Sometimes shamanic elements were incorporated into an unorthodox form of folk Christianity that flourished despite the censure of the priests. This movement produced hybrid sects who coincided their sacrifices with Church festivals and made offerings to saints. Some shamans accepted the patron saints of Russia, SS George and Michael, as their deities. St Michael was even given the honorary title of ‘Master of the Shamans’ and blood sacrifices were made to his icons.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, shamanism had a brief revival as the power and influence of the Orthodox Russian Church and Buddhism in Siberia faded away. However, with the beginning of the bloody Stalinist regime in the 1920s, the new policy of agricultural collectivism caused drastic changes in Siberian society. The Soviet communists regarded the shamans as an example of primitive superstition and social inequality and they were condemned as enemies of the state. There are horrific stories of KGB agents throwing shamans out of helicopters to prove to their followers that they could not fly and also randomly executing them by firing squad. In 1980 the central government in Moscow claimed that shamanism was extinct in Siberia.

When Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University visited Siberia in the early 1980s he was told by experts in the field that there were no more shamans alive and shamanism had died out. At the time he accepted this, but later he came to believe that a number of former shamans had managed to survive the pograms. With the collapse of Soviet communism in the later 1980s and early 1990s there was a revival of traditional culture among the ethnic peoples of the former USSR. Professor Hutton has described an encounter by some British musicians visiting Siberia in 1997 with a person who claimed to be a hereditary shaman. He said he had inherited his powers and knowledge from his grandfather, who had been a blacksmith, and he used his skills for healing and exorcising evil spirits.


In the 1990s a neo-shamanic movement known as Tengrism arose in Central Asia and the new Russian Federation. It quickly organised itself and now claims a rather inflated membership of 500,000. One of its prominent leaders is a Kyrgyzstan Member of Parliament called Dastan Sarygulov, who also runs an international scientific centre for Tengrist studies. Its members have a political agenda and attempt to spread their beliefs and ideology in government circles. Apparently they have had some success as a former Kyrgyz president and the present President of Kazakhstan have both declared that Tengrism is the natural and national religion of the Turkic population.

Unlike the shamanism of former times, Tengrism is a monotheistic form of religion with a cosmology that is suitable for the modern world. It is firmly based on trendy ‘green’ or environmental concerns and believes that humanity should live in harmony with the natural world. Forgetting or ignoring the persecution of the past, it also preaches tolerance towards other religions and seeks to co-exist with them in the spirit of interfaith. Strangely it is also a religion without dogma, prayers or a priesthood. The American academic Marlene Larvelle, who has studied Tengrism, claims that it has been influenced by the atheism of the Soviet years and contemporary ideas about modernity. Its political agenda calls for a recognition of Turkic national ideals and the ultimate unification of all Turkic-speaking peoples.

The revival of shamanism in its modern Tengrist form would seem to hearken back to a romantic past that probably never existed in reality. Its increasing popularity among urban Russians is based on an idyllic image of yurts on the steppes, a nomadic lifestyle and living in harmony with nature. This is in direct contrast to the struggle of daily existence in a modern neo-capitalist and corrupt society governed by autocratic rulers.

An inner desire to reconnect with the natural world and follow spiritual values in a technocratic consumer society, a romantic view of the past and an urge to ‘save the planet’ is also the driving force behind so-called ‘urban shamanism’ in the West. However, the Siberian shaman and his Mongolian counterpart were not so much interested in preserving the environment than surviving day by day appeasing the spirits they believed inhabited it. In that sense the shamanism of the past was an essential part of daily life.

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Select Bibliography

Dr. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princetown University Press, USA, 1972)

Professor Ronald Hutton, Siberian Shamanism and the Western Imagination (Hambledon and London, UK, 2001)

Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods: A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution (Bantam Press, USA 1992)

Marlene Laurelle, ‘Tengrism: In Search of Central Asia’s Spiritual Roots’ in Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Analyst, (22 March 2008), and


MICHAEL HOWARD has been studying occultism, magic, folklore and witchcraft for over forty years and lives in England. He is the editor and publisher of the witchcraft magazine The Cauldron and can be contacted by writing to BM Cauldron, London, WC1N 3XX, England or emailing:

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 110 (September-October 2008).

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Baron von Ungern-Sternberg

The “Bloody” Baron von Ungern-Sternberg: Madman or Mystic?

Ungern-von-sternbergBy DR. RICHARD SPENCE


My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is true and what is false, what is history, and what is myth.1
Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg, 1921

In Mongolia, there was a legend of the warrior prince, Beltis-Van. Noted for his ferocity and cruelty, he spilled “floods of human blood before he found his death in the mountains of Uliasutay.”2 His slayers interred the corpses of the Prince and his followers deep in earth, covered the graves with heavy stones, and added “incantations and exorcism lest their spirits again break out, carrying death and destruction.” These measures, it was prophesied, would bind the terrible spirits until human blood once more fell upon the site.

In early 1921, so the story goes, “Russians came and committed murders nearby the dreadful tombs, staining them with blood.”3 To some, this explained what followed.

At almost the same instant, a new warlord appeared on the scene, and for the next six months he spread death and terror across the steppes and mountains of Mongolia and even into adjoining regions of Siberia. Among the Mongols he became known as the Tsagan Burkhan, the incarnate “God of War.”4

Later, the Dalai Lama XIII proclaimed him a manifestation of the “wrathful deity” Mahakala, defender of the Buddhist faith.5 Historically, the same individual is best known as the “Mad Baron” or the “Bloody Baron.” His detractors are not shy about calling him a murderous bandit or an outright psychopath.

The man in question is the Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg. His exploits can be only briefly sketched here. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, Baron Ungern found himself in eastern Siberia where he aligned himself with the anti-Bolshevik “White” movement. However, his extreme monarchist sentiments and independent ways made him a loose cannon in that camp.

In 1920, he led his “Asiatic Mounted Division,” a rag-tag collection of Russian, Mongol, Tatar and other troops, into the wilds of Mongolia, a land seething with unrest against Chinese occupation. Rallying Mongols to his banner, in early February 1921 Ungern scored a seemingly miraculous victory by wresting control of the Mongol capital, Urga (today Ulan Bator), from a large Chinese garrison. He then restored the Mongols’ spiritual and temporal leader, the “Living Buddha” Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu Bogdo Gegen, or, more simply, Bodgo Khan and established himself as warlord over Outer Mongolia and the scattered White Russian detachments that had taken refuge there.

Surrounding himself with an inner circle of murderous sycophants and fortune-tellers, he instituted a reign of terror that claimed as victims Jews, real or suspected Reds, and hundreds of others who somehow aroused the Baron’s wrath or suspicion.6 In June of the same year, he launched an ill-fated invasion of Soviet Siberia which ended with his capture by the Red Army and his subsequent trial and execution on 17 September.

This article focuses on Baron Ungern’s real and alleged mysticism and its influence on his actions. A key question is whether his perceived “madness,” in whole or in part, was a misreading of his devotion to esoteric Buddhist, and other, beliefs.

Background and Early Years

While the Baron spent most of his life in the service of the Romanovs, he was almost entirely German by blood. He entered the world as Robert Nicholaus Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg on 10 January 1886 (new style) in Graz, Austria. In Russian-ruled Estonia, his father, Teodor Leonard Rudolf von Ungern-Sternberg, enrolled his son in the Tsar’s nobility as Roman Fedorovich. The Ungern-Sternbergs were an old and illustrious family. The Baron dated his line back at least a thousand years and boasted to his Bolshevik captors that seventy-two of his ancestors had given their lives in Russia’s many wars.7

There is a suggestion of mental instability, even madness, in his immediate line. For instance, one late 18th century ancestor, Freiherr Otto Reinhold Ludwig von Ungern-Sternberg, earned infamy as a ship-wrecker and murderer who died in Siberian exile.8 Roman’s own father had a reputation as a “bad man” whose violence and cruelty led to divorce and a ban on him having any “influence” on his children.9

As regards Roman von Ungern-Sternberg’s mental state, obviously a diagnosis of insanity can be made only after examination by a psychiatrist, something impossible in this case.10 However, Dmitry Pershin, an eye-witness who took a somewhat positive view of the Baron, still felt that Ungern suffered from a “psychotic abnormality” which made him lose his temper at the “least provocation,” often with terrifying result.11

Later stories claimed that Roman’s aberrant behaviour was the result of a sabre cut to his head, but he manifested rebellious, violent tendencies much earlier. His school days were marked by constant problems; at the elite Naval Cadet Corps, he racked-up no less than twenty-five disciplinary charges before withdrawing in the face of certain expulsion.12 His education left him with a life-long aversion to “thinking” which he equated with “cowardice.”13

As a junior officer before and during World War I, he established a reputation as a violent troublemaker with a penchant for hard-drinking. However, he also earned medals for wounds and reckless bravery. In the words of one superior, the young Baron was a “warrior by temperament,” who “lived for war” and adhered to his own set of “elemental laws.”14 The latter were influenced by an interest in mysticism and the occult, especially of the Eastern variety.

The Baron as Mystic Warrior

Just when and where this interest began is uncertain. Ungern’s personal brand of faith, if it was Buddhism at all, adhered to the mystical Tibetan Vajrayana or Tantric sect. Young Roman got his first taste of the East as an infantryman during the Russo-Japanese War, and he spent 1908 to 1914 as a Cossack officer in Siberia and Mongolia. It was then, he later claimed, that he formed an “Order of Military Buddhists” to serve the Tsar and fight against the evils of revolution. The rules of his Order included celibacy and the “limitless use of alcohol, hashish and opium.”15 The latter was to help initiates overcome their “physical nature” through excess, but as the Baron confessed, it did not work quite as he had planned. Later, in Mongolia, he enforced a strict ban on drink. Still, he asserted, he gathered “three hundred men, bold and ferocious,” and some who did not perish in the fighting against Germany and the Bolsheviks were still with him in 1921.

Ungern resigned his regular commission at the end of 1913. Alone, he headed into the vastness of Outer Mongolia which had proclaimed independence from China. By one account, he rose to command the cavalry forces of the fledgling Mongolian Army, while another holds that he joined the marauding band of the bloodthirsty anti-Chinese rebel, Ja Lama. At some point, Ungern ended up in the western Mongolian town of Kobdo (Khovd) as a member of the guard of the local Russian consulate.

One of his comrades recollected that “when one observed Ungern, one felt himself carried back to the Middle Ages…; [he was] a throwback to his crusader ancestors, with the same thirst for war and the same belief in the supernatural.”16 Another recalled that he displayed “a great interest in Buddhism,” learned Mongolian and took to frequenting lama fortune-tellers.17 According to Dmitri Aloishin, a later, unwilling member of the Baron’s army, Ungern’s “Buddhist teachers taught him about reincarnation, and he firmly believed that in killing feeble people he only did them good, as they would be stronger beings in the next life.”18

The parallels between aforementioned Ja Lama and the Baron seem too close to be mere coincidence. Also known as the “Lama with a Mauser,” Ja Lama briefly made himself master of western Mongolia. Another “militant Buddhist,” he earned a fearsome reputation for ripping out the hearts of unfortunate captives and offering them up in skull-shaped bowls as bali (sacrifice) to the “Tibetan terror gods.”19 One such “Tantric” ritual slaughter occurred in Kobdo in the summer of 1912, just before Ungern arrived on the scene. In February 1914, the Russian consul in Kobdo arrested Ja Lama and Cossack troops, possibly including Ungern, and escorted the captive to exile in Russia. Did Ja Lama become a role model for the Baron, or even a religious inspiration?

A Tibetan angle figures prominently in Ungern’s subsequent Mongolian escapade. The Living Buddha was himself a son of the Land of Eternal Snows, and a small Tibetan community dwelled in Urga. A hundred or so of these men formed a special sotnia (squadron) in the Baron’s forces and played a critical part in the assault on Urga by snatching the Bogdo from under the noses of his Chinese guards. The Chinese and Mongols were convinced that the feat had been accomplished through sorcery. These Tibetans maintained a distance from the rest of the Baron’s army; apparently others were put off by their habit of dining out of bowls made from gilded human skulls, perhaps the same sort of vessels used in Ja Lama’s sacrificial rites.

The Tibetan nexus also provided the Baron with a link to Lhasa and the Dalai Lama, to whom he addressed personal letters. After his power in Mongolia collapsed, Ungern dreamed of leading the remnants of his division to far-off Tibet and putting himself at the service of the Buddhist holy man.20 The prospect of this gruelling, and potentially suicidal, trek was the final straw in provoking mutiny against the Baron.

Also serving under Ungern in his Mongolian adventure were fifty or so Japanese soldiers. This has fuelled accusations that he was a cat’s paw of Japanese imperialism. While it is clear that the Japanese military monitored the Baron’s activities and thought he might be useful, it is equally evident that they had no real control over him. Still, his tiny Japanese contingent received better rations and the unique privilege of consuming alcohol.21 Japanese military records suggest that the men were “mostly petty adventurers” acting on their own accord, but that is far from clear.22 Their commander, a Major or Captain Suzuki, had met the Baron in 1919 at a “Pan-Mongol Congress” and the pair maintained a special and secretive friendship.

An intriguing possibility is that Suzuki was not an emissary of the Mikado’s Army but of one of the secret societies that permeated it, such as the Black Dragon Society or the even more secretive Green Dragon Society. The latter was based in a sect of esoteric Buddhism, and its Pan-Asiatic, Pan-Buddhist agenda meshed with Ungern’s own beliefs.23 The Baron felt that the West had lost its spiritual moorings and had entered a stage of moral and cultural disintegration. The Russian Revolution was but a manifestation of this advanced corruption. Only in the East, specifically in Buddhism, did he see a force capable of resisting this decay and restoring spiritual order in the West.

The Baron’s Lamas and Fortune-Tellers

Ungern was fascinated by all forms of divination. He allegedly carried a deck of Tarot cards with him, even in the heat of battle. As noted, in Kobdo he consorted with lama soothsayers and in Urga he surrounded himself with a small army of fortune-tellers (tsurukhaichi), sorcerers and shamans.24 Aloishin recalls that the Baron’s diviners were forever consulting the roasted shoulder blades of sheep, pouring over the cracks “to determine where the troops must be stationed, and how to advance against the enemy.”25 On other occasions, Ungern ordered his troops to stop “at various places in accordance with old Mongolian prophecies.”26

The Baron’s staff physician, Dr. N. M. Riabukhin, damned the fortune-tellers as “brazen, filthy, ignorant and bow-legged” and decried the fact that Ungern “never took any important step” without consulting them. The soothsayers convinced him that he was the incarnation of Tsagan Burkhan, the God of War. To White officer Boris Volkov, the Baron’s dependency on these types seemed proof of the “moronic mentality of the degenerate who imagined himself the saviour of Russia.”27

Prior to his advance in Red Siberia, Ungern spent 20,000 precious Mexican dollars to hire thousands of lamas to “perform for him elaborate services in the temples and to call to his assistance all their mystic powers.”28 One drugged shamaness’s prediction of the Baron’s approaching doom proved eerily accurate, and helped convince him to undertake the disastrous invasion.29 The fortune-telling lamas failed him when they counselled a two day delay in the attack on Troitskosavsk, a key border town.30 This gave the Reds opportunity to bring up reinforcements and repel the assault. Later, officers bribed a Buriat fortune-teller to change his predictions, which led Ungern to call-off further advance and order retreat to Mongolia.31

But if Ungern was influenced – and mislead – by the supernatural, he also knew how to use it to his advantage. Prior to his final attack on Urga, he dispatched fortune-tellers into the city where they “filled the Chinese soldiery with superstitious fear” by predicting his imminent arrival and spreading rumours that the White Baron was immune to bullets and could appear and disappear at will.32 He also ordered nightly bonfires set on the surrounding hills. His Mongol agents told the credulous Chinese that the fires were Ungern offering sacrifices to the spirits who would take their vengeance on the sons of China.33

One person struck early by the Baron’s peculiar nature was mystical philosopher Count Hermann Keyserling who knew Roman and his brother Constantin from childhood. Keyserling later regarded the Baron as “the most remarkable person I have ever had the good fortune to meet,” but also a mass of contradictions.34 He saw Ungern as one whose “nature was suspended… in the void between heaven and hell,” someone “capable of highest intuition and loving kindness” alongside “the most profound aptitude for the metaphysics of cruelty.”35 The Baron’s metaphysical ideas, Keyserling believed, were “closely related to those of the Tibetans and Hindus.”36 Keyserling was convinced that Roman possessed the occult power of “second sight” and “the faculty of prophecy.”

Keyserling was not the only one to come to such conclusions. Years later, fascist and occult philosopher Julius Evola opined that Baron Ungern possessed “supernormal faculties” including clairvoyance and the ability to “look into the souls” of others.37 Ferdynand Ossendowski claimed that he did exactly that at their initial meeting. “I have been in your soul and know all,” the Baron proclaimed, and Ossendowski’s life was secure.38

Much the same is repeated in the testimony of others who knew Ungern. Aloishin thought the Baron patently insane but also felt that he “possessed a dangerous power of reading people’s thoughts.”39 He recounts how Ungern would inspect recruits by staring into each man’s face, “hold that gaze for a few moments, and then bark: ‘To the army’; ‘Back to the cattle’; ‘Liquidate’.”40 Riabukhin mentions that on their first meeting “it was as though the Baron wanted to leap into my soul.”41 Another anonymous officer recounts that “Ungern looked at everyone with the eyes of a beast of prey,” and this instilled fear in all who met him.42 A Polish soldier in Mongol service, Alexander Alexandrowicz, accepted the Baron’s “second sight,” but believed that it was his “superior” intellect that helped him “size up any man in a few minutes.”43

The Mysterious Ferdynand Ossendowski

Arguably, no one did more to create the prevailing image of Baron Ungern than the above noted Polish writer Ferdynand Ossendowski. However, he is a far from an impeccable source. Prior to his encounter with the Baron, Ossendowski had a long history as spy, intriguer and purveyor of fraudulent documents. He almost certainly was an agent of the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana. In 1917-18 he was mixed-up with the infamous Sisson Documents, a fake (if fundamentally accurate) dossier on German-Bolshevik intrigues.44 Later, in Siberia, Ossendowski served White “Supreme Ruler” Admiral Kolchak as an economic adviser and, probably, a spy. Ossendowski arrived in Mongolia as a refugee from the Red tide. In his widely-read 1922 book Beasts, Men and Gods, the Pole describes his meeting with the “Bloody Baron” in vivid detail, and not without some sympathy for the subject. Nevertheless, Ossendowski knew that “standing before me was a dangerous man,” and that “I felt some tragedy, some horror in every movement of Baron Ungern.”45 Nor did Ossendowski mince words about the climate of fear that gripped Urga under the Baron. He describes Ungern’s brace of murderous underlings such as the psychotic “strangler” Leonid Sipailov, the equally repellent Evgeny Burdukovsky and the sadistic Dr. Klingenberg. What Ossendowski conveniently side-steps is the mystery of his own survival in that precarious environment.

In the views of others who witnessed the Baron’s rule, Ossendowski was not just lucky and no innocent observer. Konstantin Noskov notes that from the moment of his arrival in Mongolia, “Professor” Ossendowski played “a strange role understood by no one.”46 “He interfered in everything,” adds Noskov, “quarrelled very skilfully [and] wove complicated political intrigue….” Pershin charges that Ossendowski was another who exploited Ungern’s obsession with the supernatural, a view echoed by one of the Baron’s officers, K.I. Lavrent’ev.47 By encouraging “the Baron’s faith in occultism and other things of the beyond,” Ossendowski became an “adviser” to the Baron, which may explain a later claim that the Pole became Ungern’s “chief of intelligence.”48

Ossendowski, according to Pershin, “wormed his way into a position close to the Baron” and so “extracted all the advantages he wanted.”49 Those included money and safe passage to Manchuria “in comfort and, perhaps, with something more than that.” Dr. Riabukhin and Noskov both recall that Ossendowski was inexplicably the sole survivor among a group of refugees whose other members were murdered on Ungern’s orders.50 Boris Volkov adds that Ossendowski played a key role in formulating the Baron’s infamous and “mystical” Order #15, and so secured his life and a large sum of money.51 Noskov flatly declares that Ossendowski was the author of the Order.52

“Order #15,” the closest Ungern ever came to outlining a philosophy or mission, deserves closer examination. Since the Baron was not in the habit of issuing numbered orders, the #15 is meaningless in that context. According to Aloishin, that number and the date of its issue were more work of the “learned lamas” who picked them as lucky numerals.53 Basically, the Order outlines a grandiose scheme to initiate an ever-expanding wave of counter-revolution that would cleanse Russia of its radical contagion and restore the Romanov throne under the late Tsar Nicholas’s brother, Mikhail Alexandrovich. The Baron, as many others, was not aware that Mikhail had been dead since June 1918. The Order proclaimed that “the evil which has come to Earth in order to destroy the divine principle of the human soul must be destroyed at the root,” and that “the punishment may be only one: the death penalty, in various degrees.”54

The most notorious article, though, was #9 which declared that “Commissars, Communists and Jews, together with their families, shall be destroyed.” The Baron had a pathological hatred of Jews, and wherever his power held sway there was a ruthless extermination of that community. Even Pershin, who felt that “stories concerning [Ungern’s] mercilessness have been much exaggerated,” admitted that the mass killing of Jews was regrettably true and that the Baron was implacable on the matter.55 Volkov felt that Ungern used pogroms as a tool to exploit anti-Semitism among the émigrés and troops, but there was an almost religious zeal to his hatred. In a letter to a White Russian associate in Peking, the Baron warned against “international Judaism” and even the insidious influence of “Jewish capitalists” who were an “omnipresent, though very often undetected, enemy.”56 At his trial, the Baron assured his Jewish, Bolshevik prosecutor, Emelian Yaroslavsky, that “the Communist International was organised 3,000 years ago at Babylon.”57 In his feelings towards Jews, Ungern certainly prefigures the Nazi mentality, and much the same could be said for his whole weird mixture of mystical anti-modernism.

In August 1921, the Baron’s despotic reign came to an end when desperate officers of the Asiatic Mounted Division staged a coup against him and his dwindling cadre of loyalists. Almost miraculously, Ungern escaped the general slaughter and found a brief, final refuge among his Mongol soldiers. They too soon abandoned him to the approaching Reds, but without harming a hair on his head; they were still convinced that he was the Tsagan Burkhan and could not be killed.58

The Soviets suffered from no such delusions. At his trial in Novo-Nikolaevsk, he was a calm, even dignified, prisoner. He had foreseen his fate and accepted it. The prosecution was most interested in portraying him as an agent of the Japanese, which he denied. However, the Baron readily admitted to mass killings and other atrocities. So far as his brutal discipline was concerned, he proclaimed himself a believer in a system that had existed “since Frederick the Great.”59 He went before the firing squad quite convinced that someday he would be back.

A final point brings us back to Ossendowski, who claimed that the Baron sought contact with the mythical subterranean kingdom of Agarthi and its mysterious ruler, the “King of the World.”60 Agarthi, of course, is identical with Agarttha or Shambhala, a mystical land enshrined in Hindu and Buddhist mythology. In the early twentieth century, the story was picked-up and elaborated by Western esoteric writers such as Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre and Nikolai Roerich who believed that it described an actual realm hidden somewhere in northern Tibet or a nearby Central Asia. By an interesting coincidence, another officer in Ungern’s Division was Vladimir Konstantinovich Roerich, Nikolai’s younger brother. Then again, perhaps it was no coincidence at all. But that brings us to a story that is best saved for a following article: “Red Star over Shambhala: Soviet, British and American Intelligence and the Search for Lost Civilisation in Asia.”

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1. Ferdinand Ossendowski, Beasts, Men and Gods [BMG] (New York: Dutton, 1922), 238.
2. Konstantin Noskov, The Black Year: The White Russians in Mongolia in the Year 1921 (Harbin, 1930), 75.
3. Ibid.
4. Tsagan Burkhan roughly translates as “White God” but can also be used to mean “White Buddha.” The use of the term for Ungern seems to have started among his Buriat troops and spread to other Mongols.
5. Markus Osterrieder, “From Synarchy to Shambhala: The Role of Political Occultism and Social Messianism in the Activities of Nicholas Roerich,” presented at “The Occult in 20th Century Russia: Metaphysical Roots of Soviet Civilization,” Munich, March 2007, 10, n. 51.
6. Boris Volkov, About Ungern (trans. Elena Varneck), 6 , Hoover Institution Archives [HIA], Stanford, CA,.
7. Izvestiya (23 Sept. 1921). Standard genealogy puts the beginning of the line in the mid-13th century with one Hanss von Ungern or Johannes de Ungaria who took service under the Bishop of Riga: Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels (Glueksburg: C.A. Starke, 1952), 467.
8. Marquis de Custine, Empire of the Czar: A Journey through Eternal Russia (New York: Anchor, 1989), 61-65.
9. Vladimir Pozner, The Bloody Baron: the Story of Ungern-Sternberg (New York: Random House, 1938), 50-51.
10. I. V. Ladygin, “Chetyre mifa o barone Ungerne,” http//
11. D. Pershin, “Baron Ungern, Urga, i Altan Bulak,” 113, HIA, Stanford.
12. Paul du Quenoy, “Warlordism a la russe: Baron von Ungern-Sternberg’s Anti-Bolshevik Crusade, 1917-21,” Revolutionary Russia, Vol. 16, #2 (December 2003), 4. This article provides an excellent overview of Ungern’s career.
13. Pozner, 81-82.
14. Baron Petr N. Vrangel’ (Wrangel), “Yuzhnyi front,” Beloe delo, Vol. V (1927), 12-13.
15. Ossendowski, “With Baron Ungern in Mongolia,” Asia, Vol. 22, #8 (1922), 618.
16. Pershin, 53c.
17. Boris Volkov, “On Ungern,” 45, trans. by Elena Varneck, HIA, Stanford.
18. Dmitri Aloishin, Asian Odyssey (New York: Henry Holt, 1940), 230.
19. Charles R Bawden, The Modern History of Mongolia (New York; Praeger, 1969), 198.
20. N. M. Riabukhin, “The Story of Baron Ungern Sternberg As Told by His Staff Physician,” 30, trans. by Elena Varneck, HIA, Stanford.
21. Volkov, 47.
22. Fujiko Isono, “The Mongolian Revolution of 1921,” Modern Asia Studies, Vol. 10, #3 (1976), 388.
23. My thanks to the late Charles Rice for this information.
24. Pershin, 53c.
25. Aloishin, 228. See also Ossendowski, BMG, 218.
26. Aloishin, 231.
27. Volkov, 5.
28. Aloishin, 258.
29. Osssendowski, “Baron,” 661-662.
30. Riabukhin, 23, and Volkov, 42.
31. Riabukhin., 28.
32. Pershin, 45.
33. Ibid., 49.
34. Pozner, 81.
35. Hermann Keyseling, Creative Understanding (New York: Harper, 1929), 276 and Pozner, 81-82.
36. Ibid.
37. Julius Evola, “Ungern-Sternberg, el Baron Sanguinario,” trans. from Roma (9 Feb. 1973).
38. Ossendowski, “Baron,” 615.
39. Aloishin, 229.
40. Ibid.
41. Riabukhin, 2.
42. Ungernovets, “Memories of Ungern-Sternberg: Memories of a Participant” (c. 1933), 11, trans. by Elena Varneck, Varneck Collection, HIA.
43. Rene Guenon. Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (Hillsdale, NY: Sophia Perennis, 2001), 311.
44. George Kennan, “The Sisson Documents,” The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 28, #2 (June 1956), 130-154.
45. Ossendowsky, BMG, 226.
46. Noskov, 14.
47. Pershin, 53c.
48. Osterrieder, 11, n. 70.
49. Pershin, 53c.
50. Noskov, 16.
51. Volkov, 6.
52. Noskov, 26
53. Aloishin, 258.
54. “Order No. 15 issued by Baron Ungern Sternberg,” trans. by Elena Varneck, Varneck Papers, Hoover Institution Archives, 5.
55. Pershin, 59, 59c, 66, 75. See also Volkov, 15, 20, 26, 50.
56. Ungern to “Grigorii,” (20 May 1921), 7-8, “Letters Captured from Baron Ungern in Mongolia,” HIA, Stanford.
57. “Trial of Ungern,” from Izvestiya (23 Sept. 1921), trans. by Elena Varneck, Varneck Collection, HIA, Stanford.
58. Aloishin, 267-268.
59. “Trial,” Ibid.
60. Ossendowski, BMG, 301-312.


Dr. RICHARD SPENCE is a professor of History at the University of Idaho. Among other works, he is the author of Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly (Feral House, 2002). His latest book is Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence and the Occult, published by Feral House.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 108 (May-June 2008).

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