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Evenkia - 2008: Worlds of Living and Dead

by Yuri Klitsenko, Russia

Surinda Evenkis tell stories of spirits and bears, in particular, about ghost bear wandering about settlement, as well as about "nyongo".

Exploratory passion for study of religious perceptions of Evenkis in general and symbolism of Evenki shaman tent in particular is the main reason that led me to Evenkia.

Having replenished my knowledge of models and reconstructions of shaman tents in museums of St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Vanavara, Bratsk, Ulan-Ude, in order to study traditional Evenki culture in August 2008 I visited Surinda, Baikit and Tura settlements (Evenki Municipal District, Krasnoyarsk Krai).

My most vivid impressions came from field studies in Surinda. The settlement is called after the river having the same name Surinda, which in translation from Evenki language means "plenty of cisco fish" - "cisco river". The majority of settlement population are Evenkis. Throughout its history life of Surinda is closely tied to reindeer breeding.

Present day religious beliefs of reindeer herders combine Russian Orthodox and Evenki pagan customs. E.g., in Baikit a Tungus woman persuaded me to make a sacrifice to spirits. You can imagine my surprise when she told me she regularly attends Orthodox Church services taking pains to miss neither Saturday vespers, nor Sunday liturgy.

Elderly Surinda resident Lyudmila Kharbonova also prays to Lord Jesus Christ, but not in her own name, but in the name of her grandmother who brought her up. According to her explanation grandmother's prayer saved her life - her grandmother, who lived in taiga and understood not a single Russian word, strongly believed in Russian God. Grandmother told her granddaughter, she had started praying to Christ the Saviour in her childhood after death of her parents. In the hardest times of her childhood a “lucha” (Russian) – “just the same “lucha” as in Orthodox icons” - appeared before the orphan with words of hope and comforting. Ancestors of Lyudmila Dmitrievna carried an icon of Jesus Christ on a sacred reindeer, as well as a rather big and heavy church bell bought from Russian merchants. When the granddaughter fell severely ill, faithful grandmother took her from Soviet hospital and brought to taiga, where she sang for quite a time before the icon of Jesus Christ and rang the bell for Russian God to hear Evenki prayer. When Lyudmila came to herself relatives brought a reindeer so that the girl could breathe its breath. To drive away illness, the reindeer was offered up as a sacrifice before the icon of the Saviour. Giving thanks to Christ for healing her granddaughter the taiga woman annually hanged a square of new fabric on a tree.

Movement of Evenkis in places of certain burial grounds or cemeteries is restricted by traditional taboos ("ngolomo" and "ekel"). Though it is not customary there to visit cemeteries, some Surinda residents, having in their own way accepted the Russian Orthodox tradition, come to the cemetery for commemoration on the 9th and the 40th day. They make a fire, feed spirits and "brake tobacco" at the grave of their newly deceased tribesman.

Family cemeteries of Surinda Evenkis are located in taiga. Burial “argishes” (caravans) that carry luggage of the dead and consist of so called "natural models" of draught reindeers (“uchaks”) is a sight not for the faint-hearted. Each "natural model" consists of wooden “uchak” body, saddle and a head of sacrificed reindeer. Evenkis bury grown ups in the ground and put up a cross and "natural model" of draught reindeer at the place, children coffins are put on trees. Antropomorphous attributes of some tomb crosses are quite noteworthy. Photos of cross shaped anthropomorphous figures and carved crosses could enrich staurography (historical discipline studying cross designs). Field research of burial symbolism of Evenkis requires knowledge and observance of local religious and ethic norms.

The only answer to the question "why dead babies are not buried into the earth?" were the words "that's the way to do it". Somebody answered me with a question: "And how the soul of a weak baby will get out from the earth then?", another one explained: "it is important that birds come on the baby's coffin - birds will take the baby's soul". According to beliefs of native peoples of Siberia babies and old people are closer to gods and spirits than people of middle age.

Evenkis pass by cemeteries and abandoned “labazes” (stilted storage units for seasonal supplies), however fear of shaman places and things is much, much stronger.

Present day attitude of Evenkis to their religious traditions is focused not on interest to the past, but rather to all sorts of bans, fears and apprehensions. Frequently the attitude of Evenkis to antiquity and material monuments of old is expressed in words "ekel" ("don't touch") and "ngolomo" ("sin"). Because of "ekel" and "ngolomo" many interesting artifacts of the Evenki culture are doomed to decay in taiga and tracklessly disappear from common heritage of mankind.

In Surinda I wrote down rules of the children game "Umukon Khalganchuluk" - the majority of senior Evenkis remember this game, many of them played it in their childhood. Khalganchuluk is one of names of one-legged, one-armed, one-eyed evil spirit from Evenki mythology. This horror game was played only in the evening, in the dusk. Children represented Evenki “argish” (caravan) moving through taiga. Behind “argish” - on one leg, with one eye closed – a child hopped representing Khalganchuluk. Khalganchuluk could smear oneself with soot, hang grass or reindeer moss on his head and clothes, etc. Evil spirit tried to catch up the caravan. When “argish” stopped for a night, and people went to rest in tents, Khalganchuluk counted sleeping children saying: live, die, live, die. This was children game of life and death, according to informants not all adults approved it.

"Evenkiyskaya zhizn" (Evenki life) paper (No. 49 dated December 13, 2007) reported that a turn "Channit-Khalganchuluk" staged in assembly hall of Baikit boarding-school by Surinda children was greeted with applause: "Hunter Dance" and "Fire Dance" performed by Slava Gayulsky and Sasha Kayanovich, turn "Channit-Khalganchuluk", songs with lyrics by A. Nemtushkin was greeted by a storm of applause".

One of informants noted that the most intelligent of the game players was elected to play Khalganchuluk, who understood everything should be fair; at the same time a certain dialogue took place between game players in form of a game on topic what is good and what is bad. "I remember, when we played, I was six, and I feared to sleep at night. At the age of fourteen we played in the forest, where everything was much more serious and terrible in reality, and we could play it out at night".

In opinion of professor Mikhail Turov (Irkutsk State University), "Khalganchuluk" game is a sort of present day implication (collage) of some ancient faiths and rites, connected with wild monsters "chulugdy".

"Khalganchuluk" and "Chulugdy" are mythological spirits related to the primordial earth dwellers (among mammoth Sely and serpent Dyabdar). "Chagnits" - that is how Evenkis called the enemies who practiced cannibalism. In the Soviet period GULAG runaways were identified with ancient "cannibals". In case of well known in criminal milieu "escape with a cow" "new Changits" ate a weak companion in order not to die of hunger (A.K.Alyokhin, Ethnocultural characteristic of local community in terms of Surinda Evenkis: problems of communicative culture, dissertation for the degree of Doctor of History, Novosibirsk, 2001).

Surinda Evenkis tell stories of spirits and bears, in particular, about ghost bear wandering about settlement, as well as about "nyongo". Evenkis explained that a bear appearing in Surinda is not a common animal, but a "nyongo". The meaning of the idea of "nyongo" was disclosed by К.А. Alyokhin:

"Nyongo can be mentioned in various contexts. First, this idea joins a number of unfavourable sings, foretelling a close death to one who met them, or to somebody of his relatives. In particular, nyongo is: if a bird shot on a tree does not fall at once on earth and sticks in braches; if an elk driven by a hunter brays before the hunter sees it; if calm reindeers elude the grasp for no apparent reason; if a person camps out alone in the forest and hears footfall sound about the tent, etc. All these manifestations of nyongo are united by one general property: all these things are quite possible, but very rare events. Nyongo is regarded as the most ominous of all bad omens.

Second, nyongo refers also to situations related to critical psychological state: if an Evenki lose his bearings in the forest (which is extremely unlikely, at least, from the viewpoint of Evenkis), or if a person sees “molkosh” in the forest (“molkosh” being airy spirit is normally inaccessible for visual contact).

Finally, nyongo refers to certain words and actions of a dying person. It is believed that a person on the verge of life and death can see fate of other people, therefore he is capable of foretell the future of his relatives. Verb "nyongotchemi", a derivative from “nyongo”, is used for this foretelling. Theoretically the informers admit that premortal nyongo foretelling can have also positive meaning. However all known cases of such prophesies have the character of negative warning. A chance for nyongo actualization remains also after death of a person. In particular, any excess that happened during burial (e.g., any relative tripped and fell down) the others understand as a negative message sent by the deceased.

Thus nyongo is related to perceptions of border situations, of the idea that for a person who faced nyongo the barrier between life and death becomes dangerously thin. Nyongo bears an unambiguous threat and forces to be extremely cautious.

An ill omen of this sort can be met by a person who has not deserved such a fate. For the sake of completeness we should add that nyongo is mentioned be Evenkis much less frequently than “ngolomo” (“sin”); it means this notion is much less devalued.

Comparison of these two categories of Evenki ethical consciousness (“nyongo” and “ngolomo”) shows a special type of attitude to “cause and effect” relationship in a human life. It supposes that the majority of most important events in life of a person are predestined by his own actions, a person himself influences his fate by his actions (comp. “ngolomo”). But this scheme of determinancy contains a certain element of instability and even injustice (“nyongo”)" [К.А. Alyokhin, Certain issues of communicative culture of taiga Evenkis, Siberian ethnographic bulletin, No. 3 (4), Novosibirsk, 2000].

My attempts to learn to sit in the saddle of a Tungus draught reindeer ended in failure. However for good remembrance of Surinda reindeer herders presented me a metal “gugarka” – a part of reindeer harness - and "teeth of young dinosaur", knocked out of its jaws found in permafrost. Most detailed information about “gugarka” I found in a monography of A. I. Savvinov:

"The name of this thing is of particular interest. The word "gugaarka" in different variants is known to broad circle of ethnic environment of Dolgans: Evenkis of Ilimpiya group, Yakuts of Anabar and Olenek. To our opinion, there is no doubt that it contains the name “gagara” (diver or loon) - "gugarka" in the local variant of pronunciation.

Metal “gugaarka” - a typical part of Dolgan woman harness - was despite its practical function was a sacral thing, it embodied the popular and mysterious image of sacred bird.

“Gugaarka” was regarded as a woman's guardian spirit (churinga), protecting her from all sorts of trouble: devilry, illness, etc. This thing played a special role in sacral and ceremonial practice of Dolgans. It had a communicative function, for example, it was a ritual present of the fiancé to the bride. This is not a common part of reindeer harness having purely utility function, but a thing provided with specific properties and traits. That is why craftsmen tried to render particular attractiveness to it, adorning it with copper or silver inlays, carving, necessarily making it ringing be means of a multitude of metal rings. As an institution of wedding reindeer harness it symbolized happiness in marriage, long life together, well-being and prosperity in the family.

Thanks to many pendant rings a wrought metal thing necessarily clattered, which was a special feature and mandatory attribute of woman gugaarkas. Because of metal pendants driving a reindeer team, especially in winter time, was accompanied by lovely tuneful jingle. Besides, the sound of metal pendants could scare predators, who were a real threat to a lone traveler. Men hunters did not use metal “gugaarka” because its sound scares wild reindeers in the time of their catching. “Gugaarka”, like the loon itself, was associated with waters, and was a symbol of water space: seas, big rivers and lakes. It is not by chance that reindeer herders led their nomadic routes mainly over beds and origins of abundant rivers and lakes, and “gugaarka” was used as an important attribute in various magic rites" (A.I. Savvinov, "Issues of ethnocultural identification of Dolgans: on materials of traditional art", Novosibirsk, 2005).

In administrative center of Evenkia – Tura settlement – there is a district ethnic pedagogical career development center with focus on preservation of language and culture of indigenous population. The center headed by Diana Shchapova publishes books on Evenki language, folklore, flora and fauna, beadwork, traditional musical instruments and others. Many publications are illustrated by talented Evenki artists Sergey Salatkin, Viktor Vlasov and others. The center takes an interest in publishing scientific works of Russian ethnographers.

I would like to attract attention of interested readers to selfless activity of Evenki singer and composer Oleg Chapogir in retaining and popularization of musical traditions of Evenki people. I was happy to take the chance to order in France a CD with Eastern Evenki folk music (Ritual Songs of the Nomadic Taiga People), however Oleg Chapogir albums "Gudee dunne" and "Ilo, birayakan?", as well as heritage of Valeriy Mukto and Avgustina Mukto-Oyun are illustrative of Western Evenki musical culture and are no worse than the recordings made by the French.

I express my cordial thanks to administration and residents of Surinda settlement, President of regional association of small native Northern peoples "Arun" in Baikit settlement Vitaliy Koptelko, employee of the District Ethnic and Cultural Center in Tura settlement Oleg Chapogir for their hospitality.

Yuri Klitsenko is a Russian living in Moscow.  He works for the Russian Orthodox Church.

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