Komi Religion

views updated


KOMI RELIGION . The Komi peoples (the Zyryans and Permians) comprise a group of Finno-Ugric peoples who from time immemorial have lived in northeastern Europe. The Zyryans were Christianized at the end of the fourteenth century, the Permians in the second half of the fifteenth century. The study of the traditional Komi culture started only in the second half of the nineteenth century. Klavdij Alekseevich Popov (1874), Alexandr Vasilevich Krasov (1896), and Kallistrat Faloleevich Zhakov (1901) made attempts to reconstruct the ancient religion of the Komi-Zyryans; Nikolai Abramovich Rogov (1858, 1860), Nikolai Dobrotvorsky (1883), Ivan Nikolaevich Smirnov (1891), and Vladimir Mikhailovich Yanovich (1903) made attempts to reconstruct the Komi-Permian nature religion, separate manifestations of being in ancient cults (fire, water, and trees), animistic ideas on spirit masters, dual conception of cosmogenesis, and ideas on the dual function of a soul (soul-shadow and soul-breath). The profound study of separate aspects of the religious world outlook started at the beginning of the twentieth century. Vasilij Petrovich Nalimov, the Komi-Zyryan ethnographer, worked productively in this direction. He analyzed in detail the ideas of the Komi on the creation of the world, the role of demiurgians-antipodes in the cosmogenesis and in further world organization, the dual ideas on the essence of a soul, the attitude toward the dead, the cult of ancestors, and gender interdictions in both the hunting (men) and the household (women) spheres of activity (Nalimov, 1903, 1907, 1908). Uno Holmberg, the Finnish ethnographer, studied the Komi water cult and ideas on water spirits (Holmberg, 1913).

Pitirim Alexandrovich Sorokin, a prominent American sociologist, published a number of articles on the Komi beliefs on the soul, the cult of ancestors, and trees (Sorokin, 1910, 1911, 1917). In the 1920s Alexei Semenovich Sidorov described the religious world outlook of the Komi peoples and the cults of fur-bearing animals and trees. In "Sorcery, Witchcraft, and Spoiling in the Komis" (1928) he considered their ideas on witchcraft and magic based on interesting and original material he collected (Sidorov, 1924, 1926, 1928). In 1937 Sidorov was arrested for nationalism; he was set free in 1940. After that he did not devote himself to the Komi ethnography.

Ethnographic studies in the Komi land renewed in the beginning of the 1950s, and the first large scientific work reconstructing the ancient Komi religion was published in 1975. Ljubov Stepanоvna Gribova, a Komi ethnographer, in her monograph Permian Animal Style: The Problems of Semantics (1975), suggested a totemic conception of the semantics of ancient cult casting of the Komi ancestors, which caused a number of serious remarks from other ethnographers. Gribova collected interesting and valuable material on the mythology and pagan beliefs of the Komi.

Analyses of the Komi calendar and ceremonial rites have shown that they represented syncretism of the Christian, pre-Christian Komi, and Russian traditions (Konakov, 1993). The reconstruction of the ideas of the Komi on the surrounding world, space, and time has shown that, according to ancient beliefs, the world of people is in constant and close interaction with the world of spirits. Especially clear were the interrelations of Komi hunters with the forest spirits, whereas fishermen associated with the water spirits (Konakov, 1996).

Irina Vasiljevna Ilyina, in her monograph Folk Komi Medicine (1998), considered rational as well as irrational ways of healing, depending on the traditional beliefs regarding the causes for the disease. Komi beliefs on the next world and its interaction with the earthly world were generalized by Pavel Fedorovich Limerov in Mythology of the Next World (1998). Komi Mythology, a volume of the Encyclopaedia of Uralic Mythologies, edited by Anna-Leena Siikala, Vladimir Napolskikh, and Mihály Hoppál, appeared in Russian in 1999 and in English in 2003. This volume recorded for the first time the data on different aspects of the ancient religious world outlooks of the Zyryans and Permians surviving in the rites, cults, folklore, and fine arts.

In the Komi cosmogony two gods-demiurgiansYon and Omol' to the Zyryans, En and Kul' to the Permiansparticipated in the creation of the world. The world before its creation was represented as a boundless water element, and the god-creators were represented in their ornithomorphous images: En as a swan or a duck, Omol' (Kul') as a loon. A loon took the earth from the bottom of the deep water. The earth grew spontaneously, first to the size of a small island, gradually to its present size. In another version, two brother ducklings, who were hatched by a mother duck or loon, took eggs dropped into the water by the mother duck from the bottom of the "sea-ocean." The body of the mother duck turned into the earth when the En duckling broke the eggs taken from the bottom of the water against it. The earth was covered with forest and grass, and its relief was created without the help of the demiugrians. En created stones, which grew and stretched toward the sky until En stopped their growth. Mountains appeared, and rivers filled the paths made by mammoths.

After the earth was formed, En created the sun and Omol' (Kul') created the moon. Initially the luminaries were placed close together in the center of the sky. They were pulled apart without the participation of the demiurgians and began their daily routes in the sky. According to the Komi-Zyryan version, this event took place when the Sun (sister) and the Moon (brother) played hide-and-seek and lost sight of each other. The Komi-Permians thought this took place because a powerful magician wanted to separate a loving couple whom he had placed on the luminaries. The creation was finished when En made the sky. En, victorious over Omol' (Kul') in the struggle for the cosmic height, went to live in the sky, intending not to interfere in the affairs of the earth. Omol' (Kul') went to live under the groundin one version voluntarily, in another version placed there by En. Thus ended the creation of the structure of the cosmos.

En, the supreme deity, made the first person out of ground or clay. The Komi-Zyryans believed En made a man and vivified him with no aid from Omol', who tried to profane En's creation. Omol' was partly successful. According to the Permians, Kul' took part in the creation of a man. En made a body, and Kul' added some small details. But En vivified the man. According to the Komi, two demiurgians took part in the creation of animals. The Komi-Zyryans thought En and Omol' rivaled over that activity: En created a squirrel for man to hunt, then Omol' created a marten to eat squirrels, and then En created a dog to help man hunt the marten. En created a cock, a hen, a black grouse, a ptarmigan, a hazel grouse, and a duck. In response, Omol' created beasts and birds of prey. The bear had a special status among the animals. It was thought to be En's son who had come down from the sky to live on the earth. According to the Komi-Permians, En and Kul' created all the animals together and at the same time. First they made them of parti-color clay, then En vivified the animals. Under the influence of Christianity the images of demiurgians among the Komi in many respects began to resemble the images of God and Satan, especially among women, who thought En acted as the creator and Omol' (Kul') hampered him.

Few early literary sources on the ancient Komi religion have survived. According to The Life of Saint Stefan, the Bishop of Perm (1897) by Epiphany the Wise, Komi ancestors had many deities, whose anthropomorphous wooden images stood in the cult sanctuaries. Periodically, sacrifices of valuable furs were made, with Pam, the supreme priest, leading. In response, good luck in hunting and fishing was granted. There were also domestic deities whose images were kept in the dwellings. Of the deities of the highest rank, only one is known. In 1501 Simon, a bishop, sent a message to the Komi-Permians appealing to them not to pray to the idol Voipel and not to sacrifice. In the Permian folklore, Voipel is a kind deity who protects people from various misfortunes and enemies. In the pre-Christian sanctuary, Voipel's image took the central place. The name of this deity is not fixed in the folklore of the Komi-Zyryans. Evidently the images of ancient Komi deities merged with the images of the Christian saints. Discoveries of the early twentieth century indicate the custom of collective sacrifices on the days of the saints, especially on Ilya Day.

According to Komi animistic ideas, there existed an irreal world of various spirits that in many respects determined the life and well-being of people. In the traditional Komi world outlook, the water masters and especially the forest masters dominated in the hierarchy of the lower-ranking deities. En divided the riches of the forests and waters between people and the spirits. People could obtain their share of riches only with the agreement of the forest and water masters. A hierarchy was implied among the forest masters: there was senior forest spirit and spirit masters of separate kinds of animals, such as squirrels and hares. Vorsa was a common name for a forest spirit among the Komi-Zyryans, whereas the Permians used the name Voris'. The ideas of the image of the forest spirit were diverse: it could be invisible or appear as a whirlwind, an ordinary man, or a man with some peculiar features. A bear was though to be the forest spirit's living embodiment. The forest spirit was the guarantor of hunting morals to be observed by the hunters, and the spirit thus deprived the infringers of good luck. The Komi made offerings to the forest spirit before the beginning of the hunting season, and they left their first catch for him. The two Komi peoples had different attitudes toward a forest spirit in a nonhunting village environment. Among the Komi-Zyryans, especially the women, the spirit's image was often understood as identical to that of the evil spirit. The Permians' attitude to Voris' was most respectful, however, giving him wider functions than simply power over the forest. They asked him to give health and well-being to the people and the cattle, and he was addressed in epidemic and epizootic cases.

Vasa was the most widely used name for a water spirit master among the Komi-Zyryans, whereas the Permians preferred the name Vais'. They pictured this spirit as a man, as a man with a fish tail, or more often as a man with a large pike. The water spirit master monitored the observance of the hunting morals, and an infringer was deprived of good luck. Sacrifices, such as bread, butter, and eggs, were made to water spirits before the beginning of the fish catch. The loss of people and cattle in waters was understood as the harmful activity of the water spirits.

Other deities of lower rank inhabited the environment where people lived. In the period of rye flowering, a female spirit in the field protected the crops. This spirit deprived people of good harvests as punishment for whistling, for linen rinsing, and for touching the flowering crops. This spirit did not receive sacrifices. Spirit masters of dwellings and household constructions lived in the peasant farmsteads. The spirit master living in a barn protected it and crops from fire. People left food for this spirit. The bathhouse spirit master (Pyvsyansa) was though to be terrible, and one had to ask permission before entering the bathhouse. After the third steam, people did not wash in the bath, as it was thought the infringer might be tortured to death. This spirit was offered water and baked onion before people washed. The spirit master of the house and the cattle shed was considered primary among the spirit masters of the farmstead, and the Komi had many names for it. This spirit assured the well-being of people and cattle. It lived behind a stove or in a cellar under the floor, and people left food at the door to the cellar as a treat.

Clear traces of animism cults are also preserved. The Komi believed animals, birds, and fish understood human speech. According to the rules of the cult of fur animals, it was forbidden to say disapproving words to any catch. The hunters used various allegories (euphemisms) so as not to frighten off a beast. If the catch was valuable, they made a festive meal. The first fish caught was thrown back into the water. They believed that a killed animal would reincarnate in some other species if its remains were collected and buried in some secluded place. It was forbidden to bring a live catch to a hunting hut or home. In particular, hunting bear or elk was strictly regulated, for these animals possessed calendar significance: the bear was a symbol of the spring and summer, whereas the female elk was a symbol of autumn and winter.

According to folklore data, large birch trees stood in the main sanctuaries where the important pre-Christian festivities took place. The sites of many Komi villages have huge birch, pine, or spruce trees nearby, where it is said the population used to gather for some calendar festivities. In the beginning of the twentieth century the sacred groves still could be found near some villages. People held special attitudes toward some trees. They thought willow, alder, rowan, and juniper trees could frighten away evil spirits. Birch and fir trees were related to females, and pine and spruce were related to males. Birch is a symbol of the upper world, pine of the middle world, and spruce of the lower world. Thus, hunters making lodging for the night under a tree asked its permission. They thought trees not only understood human speech but also communicated with one another.

Traces, though not strong, of a fire cult are also preserved. Fire, especially "live" fire obtained from friction, had cleansing power. Before meals the hunters performed the rite of feeding the fire by throwing bread crumbs into it. It was forbidden to spit or urinate into fire or to trample the fire down with one's feet. Fire could only be quenched with water. It was believed that En created the fire.

The water cult required a sacrifice to water. Every spring the Komi made presents to rivers and springs as soon as the ice was broken up. To avoid diseases they threw a present into the water after drinking it. Newly married couples went to the river to wash their hands and faces on the third day after their weddings, they then threw presents, such as bread, cheese, money, and yarn, into the water. When crossing the river for the first time after the ice had broken up, people threw some bread into the water, asking it to protect them in their run. Some springs were considered health-giving. Those who came to use its waters threw bread or silver coins into it as a present. The invocated (charmed) water was also believed to be health-giving and was used for healing diseases caused by spoiling and the evil eye.

The ancestor cult was closely related to ideas of soul and death. The Komi thought people had two souls. Ort (soul shadow), a person's invisible double, accompanied him or her from birth to death. It became visible only before a person's death, appearing before the person or his or her relatives, thus informing them of the imminent death. But Ort could also inform of death while remaining invisible by making sounds: firewood hewing predicted a man's death, while the noise of a spinning wheel predicted a woman's death. After a person's death, Ort stayed on the earth for forty days, visiting all the places the dead person used to go when alive. The spirit then left for the other world. Komi villagers, especially women, retained ideas on Ort even in the early twenty-first century. Lov (soul breath) was located inside a person's body. After the person's death Lov stayed inside the house near the body until the fortieth day, the day of the funeral repast. Then it also left for the other world.

The idea of the world of the dead was dual. On the one hand there were the Christian ideas of paradise and hell. On the other hand there existed a belief that the habitation place of the souls of the dead, not localized concretely, was close to the world of people, which explained the close interrelation between the world of the dead and the world of their living relatives. These ancient pre-Christian ideas found reflection in the traces of the ancestor cult that survived into the early twentieth century. Before performing any important work (sowing, reaping), the Komi addressed their "parents." It was believed that the dead constantly took care of their living relatives. In turn, the living, to ensure this aid, had to periodically make the funeral repast, to remember the dead with a kind word, and to invite them to wash when going to a bathhouse. The dead who were offended by insufficient attention punished their living relatives with bad luck in household affairs or by making them fall ill. The souls of the dead forgotten by their relatives and descendants left for some other world that did not interact with the world of the living. Few ancient Komi beliefs and cults survive, only some superstitions.

See Also

Finno-Ugric Religions.


Dobrotvorsky, N. "The Permians: Everyday and Ethnographic Sketch." Bulletin of Europe 11, book 3 (1883): 228264; book 4 (1883): 544580.

Epiphany the Wise. Life of Saint Stefan, the Bishop of Perm. St. Petersburg, 1897.

Gribova, Liubov S. The Permian Animal Style: Problems of Semantics. Moscow, 1975.

Holmberg, Uno. "Die Wassergottenheiter der finnischugrischen Volker." Suomalais-ugnischen seran toimitska 32 (1913).

Ilyina, Irina Vasiljevna. Folk Komi Medicine. Syktyvkar, Russia, 1995.

Konakov, Nikolaĭ D. From Christmas Tide to Christmas Eve: Komi Traditional Calendar Rites. Syktyvkar, Russia, 1993.

Konakov, Nikolaĭ D. Traditional World Outlook of the Komis: Surrounding World, Space, and Time. Syktyvkar, Russia, 1996.

Krasov, Aleksandr V. The Zyryans and Saint Stefan of Perm. St. Petersburg, Russia, 1896.

Limerov, Pavel Fedorovich. Mythology of the Next World. Syktyvkar, Russia, 1998.

Nalimov, V. P. "Some Traits from the Pagan World Outlook of the Zyryans." Ethnographic Review 2 (1903): 3859.

Nalimov, V. P. "The Next World in the Beliefs of the Zyryans." Ethnographic Review 12 (1907): 88101.

Nalimov, V. P. "Zur Frage nach der ursprunglichen Bezichungen der Gesclehter bei den Syrjanen." Journal de la Societe/Finno-ougriene 25 (1908): 131.

Popov, K. A. "The Zyryans and the Zyryan Land." Transactions of the Society of Natural Science, Anthropology, and Ethnography Lovers 13, book 3, no. 2 (1874): 24182.

Rogov, N. A. "Materials for Describing the Permians' Everyday Life." Journal of the Ministry of Internal Affairs 4 (1858): 45126.

Sidorov, Aleksi S. "Traces of Totemic Ideas in the World Outlook of the Zyryans." Komi Mu 12 (1924): 4750.

Sidorov, Aleksi S. "Survivals of the Cult of Fur Animals in the Komi Hunters." Komi Mu 5 (1926): 2933.

Sidorov, Aleksi S. Sorcery, Witchcraft, and Spoiling in the People of Komi. Leningrad, 1928.

Siikala, Anna-Leena, Vladimir Napolskikh, and Mihály Hoppál, eds. Encyclopaedia of Uralic Mythologies, vol.1, The Komi Mythology. Moscow and Syktyvkar, Russia, 1999; English translation by Sergeĭ Belykh, Budapest, 2003.

Smirnov, I. N. "The Permians." Transactions of the Kazan Society of Archaeology, History, and Ethnography 9, no. 2 (1891): 184.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. "Survivals of Animism in the Zyryans." Transactions of Arkhangelsk Society on the Study of the Russian North 20 (1910): 2452.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. "The Present Zyryans." Transactions of Arkhangelsk Society on the Study of the Russian North 18 (1911): 525536; 22 (1911): 811820; 23 (1911): 876885; 24 (1911): 941949.

Sorokin, Pitirim A. "To the Problem of Primitive Beliefs of the Zyryans." Transactions of Vologda Society on the Study of the Northern Land IV (1917): 3849.

Yanovich, V. M. "The Permians: Ethnographic Sketch." Living Antique 1 (1903): 1223; 2 (1903): 52171.

Zhakov, Kallistrat F. "Pagan World Outlook of the Zyryans." Scientific Review 3 (1901): 6884.

Nikolai Konakov (2005)