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Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories
THE BORDER BETWEEN THE WORLD OF PEOPLE AND THE REALM OF SPIRITS

by Yuri Klitsenko, Russia

We can find consecrated representations of rivers in an Evenk shaman's tent as well as in a Byzantine Orthodox church. In many religions, a river marks the borderline between this world and the beyond. Meanwhile, this mystical symbol can be found even on the emblems of modern administrative formations.

Specialists in the history of religion and culture often have to deal with analogies: sometimes, religious symbols from different parts of the world, which admittedly have no connection whatsoever, are characterized by similar elements.

This unexpected similarity of individual elements of otherwise radically different spiritual traditions can be well illustrated by representations of rivers found both in Evenk shaman's tents and in Byzantine Orthodox temples. Both in the Eastern Christianity and in Evenk ecstatic religion rivers symbolized a border between the visible and the invisible worlds.


A mystical river is represented on the emblem of the Evenk Autonomous Area: "The river, which, according to the popular Evenk belief connects the world of people and that of their deceased ancestors, that is to say, the present and the past, runs across the horizontal tambourine axis from East to West from sunrise to sunset. The shaman's tambourine serves as a means of crossing, because its music unites the past the present and the future. In the centre of the emblem we can see a white loon."

The Evenks interpreted the design of the sacred place, which consisted of a tent with two galleries at the eastern and western sides respectively, as an island in the middle of the "watery river-road". In the course of the magical ceremony called "kamlanie", the shaman moved along the main river and its tributaries. Wooden fishes protected the river of life from evil spirits from the inside; birds patrolled the space above the river and the sculptures of bears, mammoths, reindeer and other pagan cult-figures stood guard at the riverhead and at the estuary. Special attention was paid to the protection of the river from the side of the western gallery, which was associated with the nether world.

In his article "The Evenk Shaman's Tent (on the history of the discovery)" Mikhail Batashev, a research assistant at the Krasnoyarsk Regional Ethnographic Museum writes: ?The significant detail, which was discovered by the members of the ethnographic expedition in 1921, but was not registered by subsequent researchers, is connected with the design of a shaman's tent at the estuary of the Fitili River. Here is the description of this construction: "There was a shallow ditch running from the tent entrance to its rear wall. The ditch was covered with the trunks of unpeeled young trees placed with the butts directed to the exit. Under this cover there was a great number of wooden images featuring fishes. Under those fishes there were small groups of other images cut in wooden slats, which featured birds "To the left of the main ditch, next to the fire site there was another smaller ditch. Both ditches symbolize a river with a tributary. In the tributary ditch the researchers found similar images of fishes and birds. The total number of the figurines found in the central ditch amounted to 96 figurines of fishes of six different types and 49 figurines of birds of twelve different types. In the tributary ditch, the researches found 13 figurines of fishes of four different types and 17 figurines of birds of seven different types." (Archeology, Ethnology and Paleo-ecology of Northern Eurasia and Adjoining Territories (XLVI RAESK Materials) "Krasnoyarsk, Krasnoyarsk State pedagogical University Press, Vol. II" 2006).


A shaman's tent was a model of the world, where rivers symbolized route-lines and the eastern and western galleries rose as bridged passages from the upper to the nether worlds.

Experts in the Evenk traditions testify to the importance of water symbols in the shamanistic ceremonies. Thus, the ethnographer Innokenty Suslov pointed out: "Shaman ceremonies always take place on the water, since evil spirits including even "khargi" (the supreme evil deity) can penetrate from under the ground and interfere with the shaman's actions. Before the main ceremony, the shaman bewitches the surrounding nature and implores the water king Muuna to flood the place where the ceremony is held" (M.S. Batashev, Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum Materials on the Evenk Cultic Structures, The Yenisei Province Almanac No2, 2006). The cultic complexes discovered by the Krasnoyarsk Ethnographic Museum expedition in 1921, and by the regional ethnographer from Bratsk Gennady Utkin in 1973-1982 were located near rivers. "A small taiga river or brook ran in the nearest vicinity of a shaman's tent or at a small distance from it. In this way, it looked as if the tent was located on an island surrounded by the mythical shaman river (or so the Evenks believed)". (G.S. Utkin, On the Types of the Nizhnyaya Tunguska Evenk Cultic Structures, Paleo-ethnological survey of the Middle Siberian South, Irkutsk, 1991).

In ancient burial sites a water barrier symbolized the borderline between the world of people and the other world, hence the tradition to make burial grounds on islands. In other cases, this function was performed by a ditch around the burial mound. Alexander Smirnov, a senior researcher of the Archeological Institute points out that a burial mound complex design fitted into a certain pattern, which, apart from the mound, included a compulsory ditch around it. In some cases, archeologists traced a dike enhancing the ditch, which served as a border between the worlds of the living and the dead.

"Rivers" which separate the world of the dead from the real one are mentioned in a Chukchee fairy-tale "A Reindeer-Breeder and his Daughter". The tale runs as follows. When the only daughter of an old reindeer-breeder fell ill and died, five of her shell-souls wandered around the tundra turning into "kele" (ghosts). The old man heard one of the ghosts and threw a "bridge" across the ?river? for the ?kele? to pass. This is what the tale says: ?When she came to yaranga (a Chukchee tent) she saw a wide roaring river around it, and there was no way to get to the door. The old man was crying when he suddenly heard his daughter's voice call him. He was beside himself with joy, but his wife said: "There is no reason to be happy; it isn't our daughter." "Yes, it is!"  said the old man.  "I'm so happy, you're back, daughter! Come, come into the house!" "How shall I come in?  How shall I cross this river?" says the daughter. Actually, there was no river around. Nevertheless, the old father came out, "made" a kind of a crossing and said: "Get over here!" So the girl entered the yaranga. As a result, people had a narrow escape and the ghost wiped out a herd of reindeer (Tales and Myths of Chukotka and Kamchatka, Moscow, 1974).

Whether the comparison of the Evenk shaman's tent with Christian temples is justified and correct, remains a subject of a scientific discussion. However, certain peculiarities of a shaman's tent design connected with the makers' cosmological concepts can be regarded as the signs of the Eastern Christianity influence. The first contacts between the modern Evenks' ancestors and the Eastern-Christianity culture date back to the Middle Ages.

The rivers featured on the floors of Orthodox Christian Cathedrals were liturgical landmarks within the consecrated temple space, which included the sanctuary, the nave and the narthex. According to the holy fathers, the bishop?s trip from the ambo to the temple?s western gate symbolizes Christ?s descent from Heaven to Earth, while his trip from the West to the East corresponds to Transfiguration and Ascension. At the beginning of the liturgy, an Orthodox Christian bishop, who stands on the rivers featured on the temple's floor, represents the Savior?s Epiphany on the River Jordan "taught Theodore of Andida. By the ?rivers" he meant four deep-green marble bands on the floor of St. Sofia Cathedral in Constantinople. This is what an Orthodox Christian liturgy says about Christ?s Baptism in the Jordan: "Thou hast sanctified the streams of Jordan and Thou hast broken the heads of dragons hidden therein" (prayer for the Great Blessing of the Waters).

Potamion bands, which marked the spots where priests should stop and the borderlines for certain categories of the congregation, are mentioned in some Byzantine and Old Russian service books. "The rivers ran parallel to the solea, from the southern to the northern temple wall. They marked the spot, where priests going with a litany from the sanctuary to the temple square, for instance, on the first day of the Liturgical Year (Indiction), were supposed to make the first stop. For certain categories of the penitent and the catechumen, the rivers were the limits, which they, not possessing full rights of the congregation members, were not allowed to cross" (A. Golubtsov, Pontifical Service Books of Cathedrals and Peculiarities of the Church Service Based on the Said Books, M, 1907; George P. Majeska, Notes on the Archaeology of St. Sophia at Constantinople: the Green Marble Bands on the Floor, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 32, 1978, 299-308).

The river in Constantinopolitan St. Sophia?s pre-sanctuary section imitated the elaborate contour of the solea. A commentary to the liturgy attributed to St. Sophronios, Patriarch of Jerusalem compares the ambo and the solea to the fiery river of Sambation from the Old Testament legends. In the apocryphal ?Narrative of Zosimus about his voyage to Rechabites", the Land of Rechabites lies behind an unpassable river. According to the ?Message of St. Paul?s Vision?, the location of the righteous and the sinners? tenements is connected with the location of the rivers (V.V. Milkov, Old Russian Apocrypha, St. Petersburg, 1999).


The Great Eagle Rug (a rug used during the ceremony of a bishop?s ordination), which is described in the book "Mysterious Sense of Symbolic Religious Rites" featured an eagle, a fortified town and three rivers. This is what the book says about the Great Eagle Rug symbolism: The three rivers represented on the ordination rug correspond to the bishop's invisible triple teaching method: through his own example, persuasion and rule. Like "the rise of the waters' (Psalm 93. 3-4) the bishop's sermons are compared to the run of rivers, which ?make glad the city of God' (Isaiah 48. 18)" (Mysterious Sense of Symbolic Religious Rites. Comprehensible Explanation of Religious Rites and Ceremonies, Moscow, 1906, censored by Parphenius, Bishop of Podolsk and Bratslav).

On the floor of St. Sofia in Constantinople one can still see four rivers made with deep-green marble. The old Orthodox Church office of the confession of faith performed during the bishop's ordination ceremony demanded that the chosen priest, who was lead through the western gate, should cross three rivers. Since in St. Sofia, during the office of the confession of faith the fourth river corresponded to solea behind the thrones of the hierarchs, who took part in the bishop's ordination ceremony, the Great Eagle Rug of the Russian Orthodox Church, as described in 1906, also featured three rivers instead of four.

In the XIV-XVII centuries, both in Greece and in Russia, the rivers, the town and the eagle, obligatory for the bishop's ordination ceremony, were painted or drawn in chalk on the charter or right on the temple's floor. "The elected bishop crosses three rivers drawn across the floor in chalk as symbols of his gift of preaching, to which he is called, stops on the town, which has been drawn to symbolize his diocese; the eagle drawn above the town symbolizes purity, orthodoxy and high Divinity" (St. Simeon of Thessalonica, Discussion on Sacred Rites and Sacraments, Ch.168).

The images of the eagle and of the four Rivers of Heaven combined with the architectural signs of Jerusalem and Bethlehem were found in 1999 by the archeologists who were excavating the site of the Church of the Holy Martyrs at Tayibat al-Imam between the towns of Hamah (Epiphany) and Haleb (Aleppo) in Syria. The V century mosaic, which decorated the temple floor is unique, because it features the Great Eagle Rug symbols.


The eagle with extended wings is rising above a mountain. The Rivers of Heaven are running out of the mountain. The deer, hurrying to the rivers of life illustrate the words of the psalm: ?Like the deer hurry to the source of water, so my soul aspires to God? (Ps. 42). The rivers and the figures of fishes and waterfowl symbolize the apostles' teaching of the New Testament. The eagle on the mountain is correlated with the liturgical image of the Lamb of God on the Throne. The peculiarity of the mosaic found in Syria consists in the fact that Jerusalem and Bethlehem were depictured on the floor of the temple and not on its walls. Besides, unlike in the composition of the Great Eagle Rug, the floor mosaic shows the Holy City above the eagle and the Rivers of Paradise (A. Zaqzuq - M. Piccirillo, The mosaic floor of the Church of the Holy Martyrs at Tayibat al-Imam - Hamah, in Central Syria, Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Liber Annuus XLIX - 1999).

The office of nomination, confession of faith and bishop?s ordination, appropriate for the modern Russian Orthodox Church practices, determines the Great Eagle Rug iconography: ?In the middle of the church, on the dais near the ambo, there should be an image of a firmly standing single-headed eagle with extended wings. Below the eagle there should be a town with a shutter gate and towers. The eagle should be pictured standing on those towers?. The rivers are not a compulsory element of the church tradition, registered in the applicable Bishop Service Book. However, the interpretation of the Tayibat al-Imam Byzantine temple floor mosaics leads us to the conclusion that the composition, which united an eagle, rivers and a city was known in the V century.

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

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