UMAI . The name Umai (Umay ) first appears in the Old Turkic inscriptions of Mongolia (mid-eighth century ce), where it is borne by a feminine deity of unspecified but benevolent functions. There is a gap of more than a thousand years in the relevant documentation, but belief in Umai has remained alive among some of the Turkic peoples of the Altai region, and also among the Tunguz of northeastern Siberia. Here Umai may be male or female, or even androgynous. In one set of beliefs, where Umai is personified, the role of the spirit resembles that of a guardian angel of small children. Illness may signal Umai's abandonment of her ward, and a shaman's intervention may be sought to effect her return. Often Umai is thought of as the keeper of the soul of unborn children.
Among the Turkic Sagays, Shors, and Beltirs, umai is the term applied to the soul of a child from the moment of his birth until about the time when he walks freely and speaks with some fluency. On occasion, the help of a shaman may be requested for the sinister purpose of transferring the umai of a healthy infant either into the body of one seriously ill, or into the womb of a woman thought to be sterile. As a result of such an abduction, referred to as Umay (or Imay) tutargha, the donor will die. The term umai is applied also to the umbilical cord, which, after being cut, is placed in a small leather pouch and attached to the child's cradle.
The inconsistencies and contradictions shown by nineteenth- and twentieth-century beliefs and practices suggest that these are but surviving fragments of an ancient cult no longer definable. Since umai is the standard Mongol word for "womb" or "placenta," it can safely be assumed that, although the name Umai first appears in a Turkic text and the cult of Umai is strongest among Turkic peoples, originally the deity was part of a Mongol religious system.
Most works dealing with Siberian mythology in general, or with the spiritual civilization of the peoples of the Altai in particular, devote some space to Umai. By far the best and most up-to-date study is that of L. P. Potapov, "Umai: Bozhestvo drevnikh tiurkov v svete etnograficheskikh dannykh," Tiurkologicheskii sbornik (1972): 265–286, which contains many references to earlier, mostly inaccessible studies. Important observations are made on pp. 234–235 of S. V. Ivanov's Materialy po izobrazitel'nomu iskusstvu narodov Sibiri XIX-nachala XX v., "Trudy Instituta etnografii im. N. N. Miklukho-Maklaia," vol. 22 (Moscow, 1954). S. M. Shirokogoroff's Psychomental Complex of the Tungus (London, 1935) gives valuable Tunguz data. My article "'Umay,' a Mongol Spirit Honored by the Türks," in Proceedings of the International Conference on China Border Area Studies, National Chengchi University (Taipei, 1984), shows the Mongol origin of the cult.
Denis Sinor (1987)