Secret of Tungus Cross

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Secret of Tungus Cross

By Yuri Klitsenko

In the family cemetery of reindeer herders, Gayulsky, near the Surinda settlement, Evenkia, there is a cross-shaped tomb structure with an anthropomorphous shape.

Vertical board of the cross represents a wooden human figure with two horizontal boards fixed in special grooves. The lower crossbar is notable for decorative configuration – its ends are carved as two symmetrical stellar figures with divergent ends, moreover a wooden sign is inserted in one of the stars in transverse plane (a fragment from a different place?). On the “stars” there are remains of fabric ribbons.

None of the questioned Surinda residents could (or did not want to) explain the origin and symbolism of the monument. Talks to Evenks in other settlements did not give any positive results either. Evenks avoid talks about shaman prayer grounds and cemeteries, since the tradition forbids visiting and discussing such places.

The only informant was found in Baikit. Anna Stepanovna Kayanovich (she earlier worked in Surinda) was not surprised seeing the photo of an unusual tomb marker. "In the past Evenks made such images, - Anna told. – This is Seveki (God) Jesus Christ riding on a reindeer and carrying the soul of a died Evenk. Carved "stars" are reindeer's horns."

Naturally, in the course of historical contacts of Evenks with Russians "Seveki Jesus Chist" was believed to be the Guide of people and reindeer in their terrestrial and after-life. They say about a good person: "As wise as a reindeer." Probably, the mention of Christ in the interpretation of A.S.Kayanovich points to the custom to bury dead in the earth and put up crosses on tombs accepted under the influence of the Orthodoxy. A.S. Kayanovich considers the artifact in the Surinda cemetery to be a cross depicting Christ and a reindeer carrying the deceased to the encampment of ancestors.

However cross is not a single type of tomb sign marking an Evenk grave. In Evenk cemeteries near the grave and the cross they erect a "natural model" with the head of sacrificed reindeer or they hung the reindeer head on the tree closest to the tomb. At the same place (on "natural model" or on the tree) they hang personal things of the deceased. In the Evenk language such grave signs are called "ucharuk" (riding reindeer receptacle) and "namaruk" (draught reindeer receptacle). They believe that the reindeer sacrificed at the funeral carries the dead human and dead person's baggage to the lands of the departed.

We can assume that Surinda cross semantically reproduces ucharuk-namaruk depicting the soul of the deceased Evenk (woman?) making his (her) way on reindeer back. In the context of Evenk funeral ritual not "Seveki Jesus Christ" with the soul, but the soul of the deceased itself travels on the riding reindeer.

In three types of tomb signs – Surinda cross, natural model, reindeer head or horns hanged on the tree – it is exactly the head or horns that are obligatory. In the Evenk beliefs and art the head denotes spiritual, otherworldly essence of a person or an animal.

It is symbolic that, e.g. in the Evenk tale "The Girl and Mangimi" the soul get saved from claws of an evil spirit flying away sitting on the reindeer head:

"Mangimi saw the girl and dashed after her. It ran on and on. In a moment it would catch up and seize the girl. It caught up and tore off a hind leg of the reindeer. The reindeer went on running on three legs. The girl looked back and saw: Mangimi ate the leg and was catching up again. It caught up and tore off the second hind leg of the reindeer. The reindeer ran on and on. Mangimi ate the second leg and was catching up again. It caught up and tore off the reindeer's body. The reindeer ran on the two fore legs. The girl sat on its neck and held on to the head. The reindeer ran on and on. Mangimi ate the body and dashed again after the girl. It caught up and tore off a fore leg of the reindeer. The reindeer flew pushing off from the earth with one leg. Mangimi ate the fore leg and chased again. It caught up and tore off the last leg of the reindeer. The girl sitting on the reindeer's neck raised her arms wide and flew" (K.I. Voronina-Salatkina "Borbolen: Evenk folk tales, traditions and legends", Krasnoyarsk, 1987).

Though the interpretation suggested by A.S. Kayanovich is worth attention, I should emphasize that the words of the only informant are neither confirmed nor disproved by any other versions. Among open-end questions I should mention the meaning of the symbol on the lower crossbar in the lateral view. However it is needless to confirm the necessity to go on studying the features of the Evenk symbolism.

Illustrations: Cross in Surinda; heads of sacrificed reindeer; "The Girl and Mangimi" - a picture of Evenk artist S.G.Salatkin.