Mongolian Idea of “Nature”

Mongolian idea of “nature”: from Baikal Lake to Mother Earth


In Mongolian, “nature” can be expressed as “baigali” (Байгаль, or ᠪᠠᠶᠢᠭᠠᠯᠢ in Mongolian traditional script).  Sounds familiar? It shares its origin with Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world located in southern Siberia. Lake Baikal has been associated with Tengri (тэнгэр, ᠲᠩᠷᠢ), the god of heaven, as skies reflect themselves on the surface of the water, that is, on Earth. In the mythology of the Mongolic people, related to shamanism, the god of the sky Tengri exists next to Great Mother Earth, the goddess Etügen ekh (Этүгэн эх). Often represented as a young woman riding a grey bull, Etügen exemplifies Mongolian cultural approaches that revere nature as powerful, motherly and protective.

In Mongolian traditional myths, Mongols originate in the forests of Siberia, from the union of a mythical deer –reflecting woman’s beauty– and a wolf –reflecting men’s strength. Moreover, human beings are all children of the Great Mother Earth, and thus belong to the living world of nature.

Human beings not only belong to nature, but they also find happiness in nature, as shown by the saying:

“Mans’ happiness lies in vacant steppes (Эр хүний жаргал эзгүй хээр)”.

This expression is strongly connected to the nomadic ways of life. Herders often left the house to put out the livestock to pasture, staying alone on the meadows for days. Mongolian culture is grounded on the outdoors, where herders absorb the powers of nature.

Human beings are parts of the interactive system of nature; they have their place in nature and can use what is necessary for their existence, but shall not overuse it. Because the word for nature in Mongolian, “Baigali”, includes human beings, Mongols added the term of “surroundings” (“orchin”, орчин) to express the environment without human beings.

Recommended readings

  • Humphrey, C., Mongush, M., & Telengid, B. (1993). Attitudes to nature in Mongolia and Tuva: A preliminary report. Nomadic Peoples, (33), 51-61.
  • Per Inge Oestmoen, 2000, The Mongols and their closeness to Nature.

By Undrakh Batkhuyag and Laÿna Droz

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