Avka and Savior
Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories
From All Creatures Articles Archive

Submitted by: Yuri Klitsenko

I spoke with Nenets, Nganasans and Dolgans about home reindeer called in Nenets language “Avka”.

Reindeer brought up together with humans is known as “Avka” (“Ngavka”) to Nenets, “Aku” to Nganasans, “Ako” to Dolgans, etc. Replying to my questions Nenets, Nganasans, Dolgans agreed that Avka is “for heart, for soul, for joy”.

Every Avka has personal name. For example, one old Avka, killed and cooked by hungry industrial workers, had name “Little Hare”. Killing Avka is sin and crime, because reindeer’s life is closely connected with life of human. “People, who killed our dear Little Hare, have got stomach instead of heart and soul” – Nenets said. Generally Natives are rather sentimental in relations with their Avkas. In Internet I read that Natives eventually kill Avka when it gets too old and weak, but my friends told me “never”, aged Avka lives with humans and receives love and care until natural death.

Little Hare together with other Avka (called Makhno - "Exchanged one" ) lived in special tent - reindeer had home. Makhno managed to escape and brought masters to the place of his friend's death. Distressed Nenets read tracks and realized that their Avka was tortured before it was killed (evil doers tied reindeer with a string to their car and when reindeer lost forces it fell down bleeding).

I am not always on Native side. Some of local traditions are good, some are awful. For example terrible pagan superstition is not to help human drowning in cold water. Those who survived drowning become outcasts (for they left their souls in waters).

Nenets, Nganasans, Dolgans asked me not to mix up Avka with “breathing reindeer”. “Breathing reindeer” is kind of “doctor”, its breath is good for “inhalations”. In Dolgan language breathing reindeer is known as “tynnasta” or “arbabyt” – “savior”, in Nganasan language it is “koikata” – “reindeer of spirits”. They believe that “breathing reindeer” has great life power and its breath heals humans. Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov wrote that in the future world of youth (liberated from useless old rubbish) humans will be getting healing from nature and animals.

It is common local tradition of reindeer folks. Dolgans are devoted Orthodox Christians, Komis and part of western Nenets are Christians, while eastern Nenets and Nganasan are firm pagans.

I think Avka is rather interesting example of personal relations between humans and animals. Tundra people use domestic reindeer for meat and fur, yet they keep home Avkas for "heart and soul". Avka doesn't work, lives with humans and gets love, decorations and gifts. Normally Evenkis don't use domestic reindeer for fur and meat (with exception of hard hunger), one may say that for Evenkis all domestic reindeer are Avkas. And yet keeping Avka is also known to some Evenkis which reside in regions of contacts with tundra folks.

Natives don't like my questions about shamans and graves (closed subjects), so I use Avka theme for relaxation, to make them smile and feel better - they all have very positive feelings about their Avkas.

Reindeer is heavenly being in pagan religion and it remains important in local Christian traditions. Northern people don't know quite well who is Lamb - even if somebody had ever seen real Lamb, Lamb never was sacrificed to local gods. That is why missionaries used to say "Reindeer of God" about our Lord Jesus Christ, Who was sacrificed as Lamb or Reindeer.

I spoke with Dolgan woman who spent her childhood with her parents in tundra, near the Arctic Ocean. The stormy sea often brings some gifts. For example it brings amber which Dolgans use for church services. The girl used to collect electric lamps at the sea, thinking that lamps are made only for beauty, for decoration. Later visiting settlement Syndassko she learned that electric lamps can provide light. Once the sea waves delivered cabbage, but in that time no Dolgan knew what is that thing about. One brave young woman (with spirit of researcher or scientist) made experiments and discovered that cabbage can be cooked for meals. But even this brave young lady didn't know what to do with watermelons - watermelons were too much exotic for Dolgans.

I have noticed that returning to Syndassko, Dolgan women took packages of hen eggs with them, I guess there are problems with hen eggs at the Arctic Ocean. I know that bread, vegetables and fruits are very expensive in the North, especially in summertime when winter roads don't work.

Go on to: Avoid Over-Abundance
Return to: Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories