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Medicine, Magic, and the Yeti: Varying Perspectives on the meaning of the Tibetan word 'Mi-Go'

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Medicine, Magic, and the Yeti: Varying Perspectives on the meaning of the Tibetan word 'Mi-Go'
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   Medicine, Magic, and the Yeti: Varying Perspectives on the meaning of the Tibetan word ‘Mi-Go’. Lee A. Weiss 2/7/19    This essay will examine the variety of meanings of the Tibetan term mi-go (mi rgod ) in theological, occult, and medical writings, in an attempt not only to outline the ambiguity of the term in translation and application, but also the underlying, consistent, implications of the phrase, as they relate to the people, animals, and emotions called mi-go. What is the mi-go, and if it is not one thing what does the term mean? What does it imply on the variety of living beings it refers to? I will present and conclude that it identifies- in people and non-humans- a nearness and simultaneous distance from humanity. The mi-go is something- human or otherwise- that is close to people, but violates some essential dictum of what human ‘is’. The popular contemporary use of this term is as a synonym for Yeti. The yeti is posited in Tibetan folk culture 1  and mi-go is used consistently to define the yeti 2 . Certain monasteries have become famous among cryptozoologists, and in yeti-lore for housing and enshrining relics of mi-go. 3  While scientists and academics have evaluated and studied these mi-go/yeti relics of Mongolian and Tibetan monasteries, this essay will focus instead on the word mi-go, and on its wide variety of meanings. While mi-go does often mean yeti, it also identifies ‘wild’, thieving, or otherwise barbaric people, and for some at least the term seems to identify more conventional apes and large primates. 4   1  Emmanuel Vlcek, “The Diagnosis of the ‘Wild Man’ according to Buddhist Literary Sources from Tibet, Mongolia and China” in  Man vol.60 (oct.1960),Rockville: Serenity, 2009), 80-84. And P.R. Rincen “Almas 2  Reuchung Rinpoche, “The Life of the Great Physician-Saint gYu-thog Yon-tan mGon-po” in Tibetan  Medicine. ( University of Berkley, California, 1976), 165. 3  Marca Burns, “Report on a Sample of Skin and Hair from the Khumjung Yeti Scalp” in Genus vol.18 no.1/4 (1962) 4  This can be seen on a Kangdze (instructional illustration for deity meditation) print included later in this essay: the “Shri Devi(Buddhist Protector) Magzor Gyalmo”. In it the mi-go is depicted as a four-legged monkey-like being.   (Mi-go and other ‘wild animals’ in a 19 th  century Kagndze for various tantric divinities. 5 ) I began this essay as an attempt to define what mi-go meant- with the false assumption that it referred unilaterally to a ‘yeti’ type being, a Wildman that- regardless of its literal existence- was understood as real. The impetus for this, and for the translations presented from medical texts, was the unusual presence of ‘yeti flesh’ (mi rgod sha) and ‘yeti blood’ in pharmacological and magical guides. There are no Tibetan drugs (that I could identify) that make use of Naga Flesh or Vet ! la Blood, let alone other pharmacopeia derived from preternatural or divine beings. In short, the mi-go seems to 5  “Miscellaneous Offerings” 1800-1899. Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton, 33.66x97.79cm(13.25x38.50in) at Rubin Museum of Art, [https://www.himalayanart.org/items/877   possess a uniquely ‘physical’ status in Tibetan Medico-Occult traditions and texts. While Tibetan medicine and theology explicitly acknowledge and involve supernatural or ‘mythical’ beings, the mi-go is unusually commodified. Its flesh, blood, and furs are understood as physically substantial enough to be included in practical guides for doctors and pharmacists-while mi-go blood is included as a- seemingly exotic- component in certain Nyingma and Bon occult practices. 6  The problem I ran into, and which I hope to outline here, is that while mi-go is used to talk about the yeti, the usage is more multifaceted, and can potentially be confused. The Tibetan-English Dictionary of Tibetan Medicine and Astrology translates mi-go as “Wild and savage people…”and as “raw, courageous men…” 7  Whereas the Tibetan doctor Reuchung Rinpoche translates mi-go into English as Ape-man. 8  Additionally mi-go is used to talk about humans, particularly in translations from Sanskrit where it is used specifically to translate the word ‘caura’ (thieving/thievery). It is used to talk about barbaric, or uncivilized behavior broadly. More specifically it is used to describe laughter or excessive joy as obstacles to progress on the Buddhist path. 9  Additionally, in the medico-occult traditions we find illustrations and descriptions of the mi-go as an animal- and a distinctly inhuman one . While this animal is most often depicted as a ‘Wildman’, a large, hairy, bipedal bear/monkey hominid, a yeti- it has also been used to talk about more conventional primates, gorillas and apes. 6  René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet (Book Faith India, Delhi 1996), 270,344. 7  Tsering Thakchoe Drungtso, Tsering D. Drungtso , The Tibetan-English Dictionary of Tibetan Medicine and Astrology. (Drungtso, 2006.),   328.   8   Reuchung Rinpoche, Tibetan Medicine, 163. 9  Tony Duff, “Entry: mi rgods” The Illuminator, Tibetan-English Encyclopaedic Dictionary. ( Nepal, Padma Karpo translation committee.)  Ultimately, mi-go is understood contextually, what is substantial is the underlying implication of inhumanity, or monstrous humanity, or violation of social norms that the term carries with it. In medical or moral uses, talking about animals or humans, it references a nearness and similarity to humanity. It is something almost human, but monstrous or wrong in its failure to be human. Medically, it is an animal that looks almost human and acts nearly manlike. Mi-go literally means wild-man: mi is the syllable for human, and go (rgod) means wild or untamed. Go is used, tellingly, to distinguish wild from domesticated animals, for instance Yak (g.yag) and wild yak, or Yak-go (g.yag-rgod). It is also used to refer to excessive laughter, joy, and adulation. (  Move to intro?) (Kangze of Sri Devi(Magzor) depicting, amongst other wild animals, a mi-go 10 ) 10 “ Shri Devi(Buddhist Protector) Magzor Gyalmo” 1800-1899. Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton, Rubin Museum of Art https://www.himalayanart.org/items/639  
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