Mongol Group A3

The Credibility of Marco Polos description of Shamanism customs


Siteng Mei


   In the book The description of the World, chapter 2, Marco Polo had talked about some religious customs related to Shamanism. He mentioned some daily customs and funeral customs. In this essay, I am going to compare the details in this book and in other primary and secondary sources, such as the book written by Jean de Plan Carpin, to find out the credibility of Marco Polos description.

Daily Customs that Related to Shamanism

What is Shamanism? According to Kroeber, Shaman is an individual without an official authority but often of great influence. His supposed power comes to him from the spirits as a gift or grant…His communion with the spirits enables the shaman to foretell the future, change the weather, blast the crops or multiply game, avert catastrophes or precipitate them on foes; above all, to inflict or cure disease.[1] Though he was talking about shamanism in Native America, this is also feasible for shaman in the Mongol Empire, and Mongolians believed in only one god, Nacigai. [2]

Chapter 70 of the Description of the World talked about some daily customs of Mongolians that related to Shamanism. In this chapter, Marco Polo was described as: when they go to eat, they take fatty meat and anoint the mouths of this god, his wife, and his sons; then they take the bread and scatter it outside the door of their house.” A similar description also appeared in the book written by Jean de Plan Carpin. It says that, when Mongolians were butchering livestock, they would take out the heart of that livestock first, put it in front of the statue of the God till tomorrow morning, and then eat it. [3] The two books had similar descriptions to this custom, enhances the credibility of Marco Polos description.

Funeral Customs of Nobles

Shamanism was closely related to the life of the Mongols. Their clothing, food, even funeral were influenced by Shamanism. Mongolian believed that there was another world after people were dead. So they would put jewels into the tombs, and sometimes kill the servant to bury with the master together so that the servant can continue to serve the master in the other world. Sometimes they thought death was an unlucky” thing so that Rubruck mentioned in his book that if anyone is present at the death of an adult, he may not enter the dwelling even of Mangu Chan for the year. If it is a child who dies, he may not enter it for a month.

The beginning of chapter 69 introduced the funeral of Khans. Macro Polo said that from the lineage of Chinggis Khan are taken for burial to a great mountain called Altai. Wherever the great lords die, if they die within a 100 days’ journey of this mountain, they are taken there for burial.[4] Jean de Plan Carpin had a similar description. He said that there is a special place that buried nobles. Wherever the noble died, they would move the nobles body to the specific place, no matter how far it was, and putting jewels in the tomb.[5] Plan Carpin didnt use specific words such as Altai” and 100 days. A similar situation can be found in the book written by William Rubruck. Rubruck said that that is of the family of Chingis, who was their first father and lord. Of him who is dead the burying place is not known.[6] Rubruck said the burning place is not known, and Plan Carpin said it was a speech place, while Marco Polo said it was “ a great mountain called Altai. It is possible that Marco Polo mentioned this name of the mountain according to his imagination because the other two people didnt know the name of that place. They even didnt mention that place was a mountain.

Marco Polo had described another custom of the funeral of Khans. He said that all the people they meet on the road on which the body is being taken are put to the sword by those carrying the body, who says: Go serve your lord in the otherworld,” for they truly believe that all those they kill must serve their lord in the otherworld.[7] And when Möngke Khan died, more than 20,000 men were killed. I think that Marco Polo had exaggerated the truth. Both Plan Carpin and Rubruck had mentioned the Mongolian tradition that buried alive with the dead.[8] However, in their description, the Mongolian only killed the dead peoples favorite servant, instead of thousands of people. If the custom of killing thousands of people to bury with Khan together is true, I believe Plan Carpin and Rubruck would mention it in their book.

Besides the funeral of nobles, Marco Polo had mentioned a special funeral of common people. In chapter 70, the Description of the World, he described a ghost marriage—“know in all truth that when there are two men, one who has had a male child who died at four years old or what you will, and another has had a female child who also died, they marry them, for they give the dead woman to the dead child as the wife and make a contract. Then they burn this contract and say that the smoke that rises in the air goes to their children in the otherworld, that they know it and regard themselves as husband and wife.[8] Though Plan Carpin and Rubruck didnt mention this custom in their books, I think Marco Polos description was based on reality. The ghost marriage had a long history in ancient China, around 3,000 years. So it was possible that Mongolian also had a ghost marriage.


   After comparing the details in The Description of the World with other primary sources, the basic conclusion I can get is that Marco Polo had been to Mongol. Most of the details in his description can match other primary sources. He had a specific description of how Mongolian showed their respect for their god. However, at the same time, he had exaggerated some details and added his own imagination.


A.L. Kroeber, Anthropology(London 1923), pp.363-364

Marco Polo, The Description of the World, chapter 70

3.    Jean de Plan Carpin, chapter 3, page 33

4.    Marco Polo, The Description of the World, chapter 69

5.    Jean de Plan Carpin, chapter 3, page 37

6.    William Rubruck, Funeral Practices

7.    Same as footnote 4

8.    Jean de Plan Carpin, chapter 3, page 36

9.    Same as footnote 2