Samoyed Religion

views updated


SAMOYED RELIGION . The Samoyeds are the indigenous peoples of the tundra, taiga and mountainous territories in northern Eurasia who speak a systematically related set of languages. Most live in western Siberia, in the region extending from the Yamal and Taimyr peninsulas at the Arctic Ocean in the north along the waterways of the Yenisei River to the Sayan Mountains in the south; a few live in northeasternmost Europe on the Kola Peninsula and near the Pechora River. As a linguistic group, Samoyed is related to Finno-Ugric; together they form the Uralic language family.

Currently numbering about thirty-five thousand, the Samoyed peoples are broadly divided into the northern Samoyeds and the southern Samoyeds. Northern Samoyed groups include the Nentsy (also called the Yurak Samoyeds or the Yuraks), who, with approximately thirty thousand members, are by far the largest Samoyed group, extending their territory from the Kola Peninsula crossing the Urals and over the Yamal Peninsnula to the Yenisei; the Nganasani (or Tavgi), with about 8001000 members at the Taimyr Peninsula; and the Entsy (or Yenisei Samoyeds), with about 200400 members. Of the southern Samoyeds, only one group survives, the Selkup (formerly called the Ostiak Samoyeds), with some 3,500 members.

Some extinct southern Samoyed groups, such as the Kamassians, the Koibal, the Motor, and the Taigi are now known only from notes and records made by such scholars as M. A. Castrén and Kai Donner. The Kamas language became extinct in 1991 with the death of its last speaker and singer, Klaudia Plotnikova, who lived in Krasnoyarsk on the Yenisei River.

Before the formation of the present Samoyed languages and groups, a proto-Samoyed group presumably existed some 3,500 years ago, when it seceded from the larger proto-Uralic parent group.

The neighbors of the Samoyed are, or have been in the course of history, the Khanty and the Komi at the Ob River, the Sami and the Komi on the Kola Peninsula (Finno-Ugric peoples), various Siberian Turkic peoples, the Evenki (a Tunguz people), the Ket (sometimes classified as a Paleosiberian group), and most recently the Russians. After the colonialization of the Soviet period from the 1920s and the intensive gas production of the 1960s, the Samoyeds had the whole multitude of peoples from the former Soviet Union as their neighbors.

Samoyed traditional culture is based primarily on hunting for fur-bearing animals, gathering, fishing, and reindeer breeding. Collectivization was introduced into the Samoyed economy by the Soviet government in the 1920s.

The Spirit World

The principal Nentsy deity is Num, the creator of the world, of human beings, and of inanimate objects. His role is ambiguous: in general he distances himself from human beings and abstains from interference in their affairs except when they call on him explicitly for help in the struggle against Nga, the god of evil, death, and hell. In Nenets religion, Nga is Num's son, but this father-son duality is not found among other Samoyed groups, in which the high benevolent gods and their opposites are considered to be independent of one another. Sacrifices are made to Num twice a year, at the beginning of winter and again in the spring. These sacrifices are either bloody, involving the killing of dogs or reindeer; or bloodless, involving the offering of money, clothing, and food.

Another inhabitant of the spirit world is Ilibemberti; in Nenets religion he is reported variously as a spirit who grants good fortune in the pursuit of reindeer and foxes and alternately as a protector of reindeer. He does not have the status of a god, which is reserved for Num and Nga. Freely translated, the name Ilibemberti means "the spirit that gives riches or sustenance (in reindeer or game)." The significance of this supernatural personality lies in the fact that Ilibemberti is involved in the concrete here and now, and is as such opposed to Num, the highest god and creator, who is shapeless and transcends time. The Samoyeds also recognize an earth mother deity who is sympathetic to humans, especially to women in childbirth.

The Nentsy are reported to worship stones and rocks. Properly speaking, this finding means that certain mountains and rocks, as well as some rivers and lakes, were considered to have individual spirits deserving reverence. The Nganasani are said to have believed that some artifacts of human manufacture could understand human language. The Nganasani grouped supernatural beings into a hierarchy of three classes: benevolent master spirits associated with fire, water, forests, hunting, and fishing; evil anthropomorphic spirits; and the shaman's auxiliary spirits, who were mostly zoomorphic. Among the Selkup, the master spirits were sometimes considered repositories of good fortune. In general, the spirits were regarded as intermediaries between Num and humans, and as being in contact with shamans. Each person was thought to have a corresponding star in the heavensa belief that brings people closer to Num than Num's disinterested attitude mentioned earlier would suggest.

Samoyed Rituals

Besides the cyclic sacrifices to Num mentioned above, other sacrifices are made at specific sacred sites, where wooden or stone representations of certain spirits are erected. Among the Selkup these sites are phratrilocal. Of the rites of passage celebrated by the Samoyed groups, the most important are the shaman's initiation, rites after childbirth that primarily involve purification of the tent, and ritual ceremonies for the dead.

It is believed that the dead continue to live as shadow soulsvarieties of lower spiritsin the underworld. Among the Entsy, the deceased person is left in the tent, wrapped in hides for a number of days, while family life continues unchanged. After a sacrifice involving bread placed in a pot with a lid, brick tea, and some of the belongings of the deceased, the corpse is transported to the burial site and placed in a coffin constructed with iron nails, with the corpse's feet pointing north. Before the coffin is lowered into the freshly dug grave, it is loaded with the gifts that have been prepared earlier, as well as with utensils used in the processing of animal hides. The nearest surviving relative chants laments. Later, sticks are placed over the footprints leading to the burial site while the mourning party, pointing to the north, exhorts the deceased not to return.

The Nentsy also deposit a dead man's broken sledge near his grave and slaughter reindeer on the occasion of the funeral ritual. Infants who die soon after birth are wrapped in bundles and suspended from trees or poles. After the death of an adult male, his wife makes a wooden amulet or doll-effigy in the shape of her husband; she clothes and feeds it, and sleeps with it for six months after his death; she may not remarry during this period. Among some groups this amulet is kept for three years. Amulets are generally kept on a specially designated shelf in the rear part of the tent, which is considered sacred.

Specialized rites among the Samoyeds include tent-cleaning ceremonies (in February among the Nganasani). Among the Nentsy, loon skins are burned to ensure good weather, or locks of someone's hair or clippings of his fingernails are burned in order to cause that person misfortune.

Relations between Human Beings and Animals

Only one animal is expressly singled out as evil among the Samoyed: the wolf, which is the reindeer's most dangerous foe. Some fish, such as the pike, are revered. The reindeer is regarded as a pure animal; white reindeer, in particular, are associated with the sun and considered sacred. As elsewhere in Siberia, the bear is accorded special respect. Bear meat must be chewed in a prescribed manner and may not be consumed at all by women. Women are also forbidden to eat the heads of reindeer or of certain fish, such as pike or raw sturgeon.

Certain Samoyed clans associate their origins or ancestors with specific clan-protector spirits envisaged as animals. Such beliefs are usually defined by historians of religion as totemistic. These beliefs govern specific attitudes and behavior patterns (especially taboos) in regard to particular animals. As has already been implied, many taboos were traditionally engendered by attitudes toward women. Because women were considered unclean, they were forbidden to step over hunting equipment.


Broadly speaking, the Samoyed shaman's functions and roles in society are quite similar to those in other societies in the long shamanistic belt that stretches geographically over northern Eurasia from Scandinavian Lapland to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Nganasan concept of a shaman, öt, was later replaced by the non-Nganasan term cacäpä. According to Janhunen (2004), cacäpä is a noun derived from the otherwise unattested verbal stem cacä - and possibly refers to the act of shamanizing. The shaman has been the prime religious functionary in various Samoyed cultures. He mediates between human beings and the supernatural: he treats the ailing (disease is considered the temporary absence of the soul from the body); predicts the future; summons protection and help in hunting and fishing; finds objects that have disappeared; and officiates at funeral rites. The shamans are ranked in native concepts in accordance with their expertise and skills. There are three categories of Nenets shamans: the most powerful, who can work miracles on all three levels of the Samoyed universe; an intermediate class; and "small" or lesser shamans. (There is also a class of soothsayers, but these are not, properly speaking, shamans. They have no shamanic power, but even natives often confuse them with shamans.)

The shaman's office is passed down from one generation to the next along clan lines as well as on a spiritual basis. Traditionally, each kin group (clan or phratry) had its own shaman who tried to transmit his office to a successor in a traditional ritual of instruction and initiation, usually during his own lifetime. The shamanic séance was a collective act led by the shaman, who was usually a male, although he was often accompanied by his wife or another elderly woman who led the singing and fed the spirits with whom he communicated. Female shamans, however, are said to have existed among the Samoyed of the Turukhan area in the south.

Reports on the Samoyed shaman's initiation vary. Essentially, the shaman-to-bewho might be a boy of fifteenis selected and trained by an older kinsman. Training may involve such ordeals as blindfolding and beating, and the candidate may declare that he has had dreams in which he has traveled to distant forests and settlements or communicated with supernatural beings. It is believed that during the process of selecting a new shaman all of the ancestor-shamans' spirits, as well as such other spirits as those of water and earth, are present. These spirits are asked to assist the candidate in his future office.

The shaman officiates during a séance when, as one of them has reported, he sees "a road to the north." Another report equates the séance with a trip to the south. The shaman is accompanied by his assistant spirits during the journey; his locomotion is provided by an animal, generally a reindeer. During the séance, the shaman addresses questions to Num, and if contact is established, he reports Num's answers. His primary accessories are his drumround, broad-rimmed, covered with skin on one side, from thirty to fifty centimeters in diameterand his drumstick. The noise that results from the drumming represents both the voyage to the other world and the shaman's interaction with Num and his assistants. During the séance the shaman's eyes may be covered with a kerchief so that he may concentrate on the journey more effectively.

Shamans' costumes have survived among most Samoyed groups, although not among the Nentsy. Nganasan shamans each have three costumes because it is believed that shamans are born three times. The name of the Selkup shaman's headgear is said to have been borrowed from the Tunguz; this fact suggests relatively recent cultural contacts in the sphere of religion. It is also known that Nenets shamans occasionally visit Evenk shamans.

Payments for the services of a shaman range from a pair of mittens to a deerskin or several reindeer. If a shaman's successor has already been chosen at the time of his death, the shaman is buried in his everyday clothes. After the death of a Nenets shaman, a wooden replica of a reindeer is made and is wrapped in the hide of a reindeer calf; the reindeer represents the shaman's assistant spirits.

Samoyed Religion in Transition

The Russians, in their expansion toward the east, reached the Yenisei River in 1603 and brought about a gradual revolution in the economic and spiritual life of the Samoyeds. Although there was planned missionary activity, it was superficial. Samoyed Christianity was quite nominal, and autochthonous beliefs survived. Contact with Europeans brought the Samoyeds new weapons, tools, and goods in exchange for furs, but it also introduced alcohol, syphilis, and smallpox. Thus the Samoyeds developed an ambiguous relationship with the Europeans. Although in one sense traditional religion was weakened, in another it was strengthened because it served as a rallying point for ethnic self-awareness and survival. This contradiction is inherent in the general cultural history of Siberia's native populations.

A second radical change came with the Russian Revolution of 1917, but even this change preserved and perpetuated the older contradiction in a new garb. On the one hand, the ideology of the new Soviet regime dictated a protective attitude toward the natives, guaranteeing the right of tribal self-assertion, which had been inhibited or stifled during tsarist rule. Thus the Nenets and Selkup languages were systematically reduced to writing for practical everyday purposes after 1917. An institute for the study of the peoples of the North was founded in Leningrad and provided higher education for young natives. On the other hand, the new government was explicitly committed to atheism and therefore to the destruction of the social apparatus that underlay the native religion. The natives were again caught in the proverbial middle.

This ambiguous situation has continued, with one or the other tendency prevailing at a particular point in time. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, Soviet ethnographers, benefiting from a tolerant attitude on the part of their government, uncovered many aspects of shamanism (such as séances, with texts and music) that had been thought extinct. Shamanic repertoires by Turbyaky Kosterkin, a Nganasan Shaman from Taimyr District, with his wife Valentina Kosterkina, were recorded and studied by Lennart Meri, the President of Estonia from 1991 to 2003, Eugene A. Helimski, and other scholars.

See Also

Castrén, Matthias Alexander; Donner, Kai; Finnish Religions; Num; Shamanism, overview article; Taboo; Totemism.


Concrete factual information, much of it based on the field experiences of some of the authors, can be found in three collective works: Popular Beliefs and Folklore Tradition in Siberia, edited by Vilmos Diószegi (The Hague, Netherlands, 1968), Shamanism in Siberia, edited by Vilmos Diószegi and Mihály Hoppál (Budapest, Hungary, 1978), and Shamanism in Eurasia, 2 vols., edited by Mihály Hoppál (Göttingen, Germany, 1984). Compact synopses are provided in Péter Hajdú's The Samoyed Peoples and Languages (Bloomington, Ind., 1963) and in The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov (Chicago, 1964). Kai Donner's Among the Samoyed in Siberia, translated by Rinehart Kyler and edited by Genevieve A. Highland (New Haven, Conn., 1954), is a record of personal experiences and observations, while Toivo Lehtisalo's Entwurf einer Mythologie der Jurak-Samojeden (Helsinki, 1924) is a synthesis based on both older sources and personally collected data. Ivar Paulson's chapter on Siberia in Die Religionen Nordeurasiens und der amerikanischen Arktis, edited by Ivar Paulson, Åke Hultkrantz, and Karl Jettmar (Stuttgart, Germany, 1962), is thematically arranged, as is Uno Holmberg's treatment in The Mythology of All Races, vol. 4, Finno-Ugric, Siberian (Boston, 1927). Of Marie A. Czaplicka's contributions to this field of study, two deserve to be singled out, although by now they have mostly historical value: Aboriginal Siberia (Oxford, 1914) and the article "Samoyed," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 11 (Edinburgh, 1920). The most recent studies written by Eugene Helimski, Jarkko Niemi, Timo Leisiö, and others have been published in Juha Pentikäinen's collections: Shamanism and Northern Ecology (Berlin and New York, 1996); ShamanhoodSymbolism and Epic (Budapest, Hungary, 2001); and Shamanhood, An Endangered Language (Oslo, Norway, 2004).

Robert Austerlitz (1987)

Juha PentikÄinen (2005)