Yakut Religion

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YAKUT RELIGION . The Yakuts, who numbered 328,000 during the 1979 census, are the northernmost of Turkic peoples. Beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, under pressure caused by Buriat encroachment, they gradually emigrated northward from the Lake Baikal region of southern Siberia. They moved upstream along the course of the Lena River and finally settled in northeastern Siberia, the coldest region in the world. The horses and cattle bred by these semisedentary people have successfully adapted to the rigorous climate; however, hunting and fishing provide the Yakuts with a significant additional source of income. The Yakuts are organized in patrilineal and exogamic clans regrouped into tribes.

Under pressure from the Russians, who subjugated them during the first half of the seventeenth century, the majority of Yakuts were baptized by the end of the eighteenth century. They adopted Christianity primarily for material reasons (e.g., gifts of crosses, shirts, and various privileges). At the same time, they secretly preserved their own religious system, shamanism, which was modified superficially as the result of contact with Russian Orthodoxy. The practitioners of shamanism accepted the new idea of a reward after death and attributed the traits of God, the Virgin Mary, and the guardian angels to some of their spirits.


The Yakut universe is composed of three superimposed worlds. The "upper world" comprises nine skies of different colors. Spirits reside in each sky: In the east are the aĭyy s, bright, creative spirits, and in the west are the abaasy s, dark, harmful spirits. (The Yakuts are situated in the east.)

The "middle world," flat and octagonal, is populated by humans and by a host of spirits. The forest of this world is a formidable territory because the greatest number of spirits are found there: Although they grant game, they also capture the souls of hunters who have pleased them.

The "lower world" is a crepuscular region solely inhabited by the harmful spirits who roam among a metallic, iron vegetation. Here, the "sea of death," composed of children's cadavers, churns its waves. The term employed for "lower world," allaraa, signifies "below, downstream, in the north." (The rivers of Siberia flow northward, hence the use of the same term for both "downstream" and "north.") It is possible that the lower world is not conceived of as a sinister and subterranean replica of the middle world but rather as a watery abyss in the northern regions. In any case, the contrasts of above and below and of upper and lower do not figure predominately in the Yakut religion. More important is the division of the sky into east (good) and west (evil): This division allows for the classification of the spirits.

The Pantheon

The bright, creative spirits, aĭyy s (from the Turkic root "ai," "to create"), assure the Yakuts their survival by granting them the souls of children and also of horses, cattle, and dogs, the Yakuts' only domesticated animals. However, the Yakuts must pay homage to the aiyys with milk offerings and prayers and must consecrate animals to them from their herd. The consecrated animal (yzykh) is not slain; it is sent back to the herd and is treated with respect, for it no longer belongs to humans but to the spirit to which it was consecrated. This spirit will reward the people for their care by granting fertility to the herd. The aĭyy cult, called "white shamanism," disappeared in the eighteenth century and never was studied properly.

The White Lord Creator, Iurung Aiyy Toion, is the master of all the aĭyy s who are imagined to be like rich Yakuts and are organized in clans, as are the Yakuts themselves. Associated with the sun and the heat of summer, the White Lord Creator resides in the ninth sky, where "the grass is as white as the wing of a white swan." He rules the world, sends the soul (kut) to children, and assures fertility in cattle and the growth of plants, but he does not interfere in human affairs on his own initiative. During the great spring feasts called "libations" (ysyakh ), he is first offered libations of fermented mare's milk; later, horses are consecrated to him. Occasionally a goddess, the wife of this god, is mentioned; she would become an avatar of the goddess of the earth. Such an identification of the goddess may be a vague indication of a marriage between the sky and the earth.

The aĭyysyt s, a group of spirits, female for the most part, attend to human reproduction and the reproduction of certain species of animals (especially the domestic species). The aĭyysyt who attends to human reproduction brings the soul of the child created by Aĭyy Toĭon. She also comes to help women during childbirth. She is often associated with Iëĭiëkhsit, and is occasionally confused with her. When they are associated, Aĭyysyt is the one who grants the soul and Iëĭiëkhsit is the one who delivers it. (The latter has been likened to a guardian angel.) Aĭyysyt and Iëĭiëkhsit are both proper nouns and epithets that can be applied even to male personages: When one is begging for offspring one uses the epithet Aĭyysyt, and when one desires an intermediary the epithet Iëĭiëkhsit is used. The three aĭyysyt s of man, of horned livestock, and of dogs are all feminine spirits, but the spirit that grants horses, "the formidable Dzhësëgëĭ," is masculine. When mares and cows reproduce, and each time a child is born, relatives and cousins come together to offer a ritual of renewal to the spirit that granted the soul. However, the ritual for the spirit-master of horses is conducted by the (male) ruler of the house, while the other two rituals are celebrated by the women.

The goddess of the earth, who lives among beautiful white birches far from the evil spirits, takes care of the traveler, blesses the harvests, and occasionally decides the fate of the newborn. The spirit-master of the domestic fire assures the survival of the household: In his embers tremble the souls of children and calves yet to be born. He removes harmful spirits and purifies the accessories of the hunt that are soiled by the presence of a menstruating woman. This spirit-master also serves as an intermediary for other spirits by delivering offerings to them that are thrown into his flames in their honor. In exchange, one must not forget to feed him by throwing him a mouthful of food before each meal; otherwise, he may take revenge by, for example, burning down the house.

On the opposite side, in the western sky, loom the black spirits, abaasy s (the Turkic root is probably ap, "enchantment"), "gigantic as the shadows of larches under the full moon." In fact, they appear to be more terrible than they really are, because once they have sent diseases (most often, various types of insanity), they will take them away if the shaman sacrifices horses with suitable coats. The supreme ruler of the nine clans of abaasy is Ulu Toion ("powerful lord"), who gave the Yakuts fire and perhaps one of the three souls that the Yakuts believe each person possesses (according to some, the soul he gave was the siur, vital energy). He is the protector of the black shamans, abaasy oĭun (lit., "shamans in contact with the abaasy s").

Other harmful abaasys populate the earth and the lower world. The two most celebrated are the ruler of the lower world, Arsan Duolan (a pale replica of Ulu Toĭon), who sends infant mortality and obstinacy, and Kudai Bagsi, the ruler of the smiths, who cures the apprentice smith of his initiatory illness if the shaman offers him a black bull.

Among the harmful spirits are the unsatisfied deceased (iuërs ) those who died without completing a full life cycle, such as young girls who died without having been married. The souls of suicides and of shamans become the most formidable iuërs.

In the domestic environment and in natural phenomena that directly influence humanity's well-being, there exists a supernatural force that the Yakuts call ichchi ("master, possessor"). This force is personified in the spirit-masters who reside in the object, house, or territory they possess. To ensure that a tool be effective or that a house not collapse, to avoid being crushed by a tree or hurled into the waters when crossing the forest or the river, one must make an offering to one's spirit-master.

Since the Yakuts believed the spirits were organized in clans as they themselves were, they recognized their right to have tribal property. This property was the game and fish existing in the territory of these spirits. They accorded part of this to humans in exchange for food (milk products, alcohol, flesh of domestic animals) in an alliance that is similar to that formed between bartering human tribes. However, the spirits never give enough souls of game, cattle, and children. This is where the shaman intervenes.

The Shaman

To obtain the souls of wild game, the shaman provides the master of the particular kind of animal in question with food in return: He smears the blood of a sacrificed animal on a wooden statuette where he has caused the spirit-master of the forest, the rich Baianaĭ or Baryllakh, to descend. He then gives a symbol of these souls (e.g., feathers, etc.) to the members of the clan. To obtain the souls of children and additional cattle, the shaman himself goes to the beyond to confront the aĭyysyt s. At first the spirits refuse, remembering the wrongs that humans have committed. Then, after considering the supplications of the shaman, they give him the souls. The position of the shaman has changed: He no longer barters, he implores, because the aĭyy spirits, dispensers of cattle and human offspring, are venerated, unlike the spirits of the hunt or of illnesses, whom the shaman treats as equals.

To cure illness, which the Yakuts conceive as the installation of an evil spirit in the body of the ailing person and also as the theft of the soul by a spirit "soul-eater," the shaman trades the soul of the sick person for that of a sacrificed animal, which he sends into the otherworld. These negotiations with the spirits take place during the shamanic séance, which is generally held nocturnally at the afflicted person's home, with relatives and neighbors in attendance. The séance includes a purification ceremony; a convocation of the spirits through the shaman's chanting, accompanied on the tambourine; a voyage of the shaman himself into the otherworlds to find the spirits (a voyage mimicked by the shaman's dance); and an act of divination.

The shaman is aided by his principal spirit (ämägät ), generally the shaman's ancestor, who chose the shaman from among his descendants in order to pass on the shamanic gift, a gift that always remains in the same family. Women also can become shamans (udaghans ), but female shamans are less numerous because the clans are patrilineal. Once chosen by the ancestor, the soul of the future shaman takes on the form of a young bird and is educated atop either the mythic larch of the upper world or the pine tree of the lower world. It is during his initiation that the shaman seals his alliance with the spirits. In the course of his sleep, his body is cut up in the lower world and consumed like a sacrificial animal by several spirits. The spirits then reconstitute his body. Recreated in this manner, the shaman acquires rights over the spirits who have consumed his flesh and who will subsequently help him remove illnesses.

The shaman is also aided by zoomorphic spirits who transport him in the air or under the ground and who fight at his side. Moreover, the shaman possesses an animal double (usually a male moose or bull); it is in this form that he fights against shamans of enemy clans. If the shaman's animal double has been killed, he himself dies. The shaman also fights against the souls of dead avengers, the spirits of illnesses and epidemics. He also assures the survival of his clan by divinationpredicting the future, the areas where game will be most plentiful, and so forth. In this dark universe, where mad spirits who populate three-fourths of the sky in the west predominate, where the bright spirits (aĭyy s) often refuse to grant offspring and prosperity, and where "soul-eating" spirits lurk about the earth and in the lower world, the shaman is the Yakuts' only support.

See Also

Shamanism, article on Siberian and Inner Asian Shamanism; Southern Siberian Religions.


Alekseev, N. A. Traditsionnye religioznye verovaniia iakutov v deviatnadtsatom-nachale dvadtsatogo v. Novosibirsk, 1975. A work giving a detailed description, from an evolutionist perspective, of Yakut beliefs.

Ksenofontov, G. V. Legendy i rasskazy o shamanakh u iakutov, buriat i tungusov. 2d rev. ed. Moscow, 1938. Very valuable work for the study of Yakut, Buriat, and Tunguz shamanism, consisting of a series of accounts by indigenous informants, collected between 1921 and 1926 and accompanied by notes from the author, a Yakut himself.

Pekarskii, E. K. Slovarʾ iakutskago iazyka. 3 vols. Saint Petersburg (Leningrad), 19071930. Dictionary that contains many facts on the ethnography and religion of the Yakuts.

Popov, A. A. "Materialy po religii iakutov Viliuiskogo okruga." Sbornik Muzeia Antropologii i Etnografii 11 (1949): 255323. Important article including information on the Yakut world, spirits, souls, and certain rituals, collected by the author during the time of a survey conducted from 1922 to 1925 on the Yakuts living in the region of the Viliui, a western tributary of the Lena River.

Laurence Delaby (1987)

Translated from French by Sherri L. Granka