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NUM-TŪREM . The Khanty (Ostiaks) and the Mansi (Voguls) live in an area in northwestern Siberia bordered on the west by the Ural Mountains. For the most part, they are settled on the banks of the rivers there, with the Ob River flowing through the middle of their territory. As speakers of Ugric languages, they are thus known as the Ob-Ugrians. Fishing and hunting are their most important means of subsistence, although some of these peoples tend reindeer and others, especially in the southern part of the area, farm and keep livestock. Their widely differing languages belong to the Finno-Ugric family. Similar living conditions and a neighborly relationship have produced similarities in both material and spiritual culture, but the obvious variations that are nonetheless found lead scholars to distinguish between different cultural areas. The boundaries between these are fluid, however, so that certain phenomenain this case the god of the heavensmay be treated as common to all of them.

The Ob-Ugrians, like other peoples of northern Siberia, consider that the universe consists of several worlds: earth, an upper world, and a netherworld. Popular tradition divides the upper world into a number of spherescertain stories speak of three, others of sevenand each world is ruled by its own deity.

Prayers and the stereotyped formulae that accompany sacrificial rites address a god of the heavens as Num-Tūrem (Khanty) or Numi-Tārem (Mansi). Tūrem or tārem is interpreted as "up there" or "the high god." Num or numi denotes the visible sky, while tūrem or tārem expresses "weather, air, sky, heavens, world," "higher being, lord of the heavens," and "lord of the universe"; it may therefore be a general expression for "god." According to K. F. Karjalainen, the word also means "time" or "period of time"for instance, "lifetime"as well as "situation" or "state""state of dreaming," for example. There are different theories as to its etymology. Attempts have been made to link it to the Saami (Lapp) Tiermes, the name of a god of the air and heavens, or to the Turco-Tatar tengri, meaning "heavens."

However, the sky god has many other names in which the adjectival epithet indicates its nature; he is "great," "radiant," "bright," "lustrous as gold," and "white" as well as "Lord" and "Father." These epithets are important; some of them have become detached from their head-words to serve as proper names. Thus the name of the Khanty god of the heavens is Sängke-Tūrem, "the radiant or bright Tūrem," or quite simply Sängke, ("light"), which indicates the god's connection with the sun or the sky in daylight.

Num-Tūrem is a powerful being in folk poetry; he takes part in the creation of both the world and humankind, and as such he is also a god of fate worshiped in various ways by the two peoples. He is never portrayed in pictures, however, although in mythical accounts he is personified. In the Khanty myths he is enthroned as an anthropomorphic (male) deity in one of the upper worlds, where he lives with his family and a large retinue (like that of a prince). From there he supervises the entire creation: His ears "great as the Ob" hear everything, his eyes "large as lakes" see all, and he is all-powerful. Because nothing is hidden from him, he is also regarded as the guard of morals and justice. Many scholars, however, hold that this omnipotence bears traces of foreign influence from Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and Turco-Tatar myths concerning their major deities. It is known from historical sources that the Mansi heard Christian sermons as early as the fifteenth century and that the Tatars acquired a certain influence in the Khanty area, thus spreading both their own popular beliefs and Muslim doctrine.

Although Num-Tūrem is the Ob-Ugric god about whom the most numerous and most detailed stories have been told, he nevertheless does not seem to be worshiped by all the different groups with a special cult dedicated to him alone, nor does he have a specific field of activity. He is revered and asked to bring good health, prosperity, and good hunting, the same favors that are requested of other divinities such as the god of the forest, the Old Man of the Urals, the Great Goddess of Kazym, called Vut-imi, and Jalpus, the guardian spirit of the Khanty. Compared with other deities Num-Tūrem is more of an abstraction.

Although the narrative tradition centering on Num-Tūrem is richer among the Mansi, it is the Khanty of the southeast who perform the most elaborate sacrifices to him. These offerings, in which a white horse is the most important sacrificial animal, are addressed directly to him. This southeastern group of Khanty are small-scale farmers, and it is believed that they may have acquired these horse sacrifices from the nomadic Tatar horsemen and more generally from the large-scale stock breeders of Central Asia, because the horse does not belong to the biotope of this northern area. Extensive sacrifices to different deities were still being performed as recently as the 1930s. Similarly, the fact that the god of the heavens is ranked as the supreme being and father is ascribed to Muslim and Christian influence. In other areas, among the other Ob-Ugric hunters and reindeer breeders, sacrifices are much less prominent in the worship of the god, although he is the focus of an elaborate myth.

According to K. F. Karjalainen and others, the Ob-Ugric god of the heavens was regarded originally as a personal being "in the upper world nearest the earth," that is, in the visible sky. He was a deus otiosus, high above and far away from everyday human life, mostly responsible for such atmospheric phenomena as storms, the wind, thunder, rain, and so on. He was Num-Tūrem, the "god on high," but Islamic and Christian influences brought him nearer to humanity and the old sacrificial custom was invested with a new conceptual framework.

Judging from the fragments at scholars' disposal, the god of thunder known by the eastern Saami as Diermes or Tiermes also has uranian features. The etymology of the word is unknown, but Tiermes and Tūrem probably have a common origin. The name occurs very rarely in source materials, however. This and the fact that his function is only vaguely indicated make him a very elusive being.

See Also

Khanty and Mansi Religion; Sky, article on The Heavens as Hierophany; Tengri.


Russian chroniclers mention Ob-Ugric religion as early as the twelfth century. K. F. Karjalainen has compiled available information in the first part of a detailed survey, Die Religion der Jugra-Völker, 3 vols., "Folklore Fellow Communications," nos. 41, 44, and 63 (Helsinki, 1921, 1922, 1927). Much earlier, in Die Weltgottheiten der wogulischen Mythologie, vol. 3, "Keleti Szemle," no. 9 (Budapest, 1908), Bernhard Munkàcsi wrote about the Mansi supreme deity, giving him thoroughly Christian features. Munckàcsi's very worthwhile work contains both prayers and mythological narratives. An important treatment of mythology is Artturi Kannisto's Materialien zur Mythologie der Wogulen, edited by E. A. Virtanen and Matti Liimola (Helsinki, 1958). Other valuable information can be found in A. F. Anisimov's "Cosmological Concepts of the Peoples of the North," in Studies in Siberian Shamanism, edited by Henry N. Michael (Toronto, 1963), pp. 157229; this work is number 4 in the series "Anthropology of the North: Translations from Russian Sources," issued by the Arctic Institute of North America. The Russian ethnographer Zoia Sokolova is an expert on the Ob-Ugrians and has described the people and their traditions in Das Land Jugorien (Moscow and Leipzig, 1982), where she notes that their tenacious religious beliefs and superstitions live on in their contemporary religious practices.

New Sources

Hoppál, Mihály, and Juha Pentikäinen. Northern Religions and Shamanism. Budapest, 1992.

Louise BÄckman (1987)

Revised Bibliography