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Identification. The Mansi, known in older literature as the "Voguls," are one of two Ugrian peoples who live in northwestern Siberia, just east of the Urals in the lowlands crossed by a number of rivers, many of which are tributaries of the Ob.

Location. The Mansi live from about 60° N to 65° N, primarily along rivers: the northern regions of the Sosva and Lyapin, the Konda and its tributaries, and the upper reaches of the Lozva and Pelym, although today many live among ethnic Russians along the Ob. The rivers provide a rich variety of fish, including sturgeon, lingcod, taimen, tugun, and others. Pike and chebak are found everywhere. Much of the area in which the Mansi live, including the highlands, is bog or swamp. Snow cover lasts more than half the year, and when it finally melts it fills the flood plains of the rivers. The forests are both coniferouswith cedar, pine, fir, and larchand deciduous, with birch and aspen. Long days in the summer provide enough warmth for a brief but rich growth of vegetation, including berries. Common wildlife includes squirrels, elks, brown bears, and forest and aquatic birds; some regions abound in muskrat, beavers, and wild northern reindeer. Bitter-cold temperatures in the winter, dropping at times to near 50° C, contrast with summer temperatures that reach over 33° C and average 15.5° C in July.

Demography. The census of 1926 recorded 6,311 Mansi, of whom 5,219 (82.7 percent) spoke Mansi as their native language. In 1989, of the 8,500 Mansi recorded, only 37.1 percent spoke the language as their native tongue. Most live in the Berezovsk and Kondinsk regions of the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District (okrug ) and in Tiumen Province (oblast). Some Mansi live in relatively large, planned central Soviet villages such as Saranpaul' and Niaksymvol among Komi, Nenets, Russians, and others. In these towns they have access to schools, post offices, hospitals, and stores that sell food and industrial and consumer goods. Others live in moderate-sized villages (150 to 300 residents), populated mostly by fellow Mansi (50 to 90 percent), that have services such as medical stations, in some cases primary schools, and more limited stores selling foods and industrial goods. Finally, there are smaller groups of Mansi who live in isolated settlements of less than 75 people. They travel to the central villages for trade and services.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mansi language, along with the neighboring Ob-Ugrian language, Khanty, combines with Hungarian to make up the Ugrian Branch of the Finno-Ugric Language Family. Mansi speakers are traditionally divided into four dialectal groups designated by cardinal directionsnorth, south, east, and westbut more accurately into about eighteen subdialects associated with the residence patterns along the rivers. The principal speakers of Mansi today are the northern and eastern groups. The first lexicons and dictionaries of the Mansi language were compiled by missionaries and travelers in the first half of the eighteenth century. Schools were organized for the Konda Mansi in the last half of the nineteenth century, and a Gospel in the Konda dialect was published in London in 1868. A practical written language was created in the early 1930s, and the first Mansi language primer was published in 1932. In 1937 the Latin script was replaced by the Cyrillic.

History and Cultural Relations

The Ob-Ugrian peoples are thought to have descended from the combination of two distinct groups of people: a local population and a group of Ugrian nomads who arrived from the south sometime between a.d. 500 and 1000. Their ways of life have consistently been influenced by neighboring groups: Iranian-and Turkic-speaking peoples very early, then ancestors of the Persian peoples, and finally western Siberian Tatars, Nenets, Khanty, Russians, and Komi-Zyrians. First contact with Russians was recorded in the eleventh century, when merchants and traders from Movgorod advanced into what they knew as the Iugra Mountains (Urals). After contact with Russians, the Mansi were subject to a varying but stiff fur tax which, when compounded by the graft of local officials, forced many to withdraw from contact and go into the forests.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Traditional Mansi subsistence was based on fishing, hunting, and gathering. The prevalence of a particular mode of subsistence was determined by the local availability of fish or game. Fishing predominated in downstream areas and hunting in upstream, but there were also seasonal variations and migrations. Many Mansi leave the forest for the waterways when the ice melts, usually in mid-April. Using deep, bag-shaped nets, simple dragnets, and various other kinds of nets made from hemp, as well as fish spears and fishing rods, they caught and preserved enough fish during the summer to satisfy their needs and enable them to sell surplus. Until the Russians imposed a fur tax the primary animal hunted by the Mansi for its fur was the squirrel. After the coming of the Russians emphasis shifted to the sable, which was the preferred form of tax payment. The Mansi hunted elks, wild reindeer, and bears for meat and fur, using arrows, spears, traps, and, beginning in the nineteenth century, guns. Elk hunting, although less common now because of the decline in the population of the species, begins in August. In the past the Mansi hunted elk by constructing extensive trap systems with fences, pits, and automatically triggered bows; these systems extended up to 64 kilometers. Today they maintain hunting cabins as way stations and travel by river in the autumn to stock them with provisions.

Hunting and trapping of furbearing animals is still common, especially of muskrats and squirrels. Mansi hunters typically use three or four dogs, when snow conditions permit in the fall and early winter, to find and flush squirrels and sables, which they then shoot with rifles. They also use traps with dried mushrooms as bait to catch squirrels. Muskrat are trapped by first locating their lodges and observing their travel routes to their feeding grounds. Traps similar in construction to the "muzzle" traps the Mansi use to catch fish are then set, without bait, along the route or at the feeding grounds, and camouflaged with turf. Long sticks are attached to the bottom of the traps with wires to mark their location and to serve as anchors to prevent the muskrat from moving off. In the winter sable are caught in log traps about 1 cubic meter in size, which often contain internal traps for security. Mansi hunters also use the common Siberian technique of encircling the sable's den with a huge net. One hunter then flushes the animal while the other stands prepared with a rifle to shoot it before it can escape from the net.

Since collectivization some Mansi have raised horses, sheep, and poultry, and in a few northern groups reindeer keeping has continued to constitute a significant portion of their economic activity. Hunting and fishing are carried out in collectivized production brigades whose activities also include sheepherding, fur farming, dairy farming, and, in the southern regions, some agriculture. The Mansi have recently been affected by the economic development of western Siberia, which has created employment in lumbering and mining and which has resulted in a general demographic shift toward population centers.

Trade. Although exchange and trade relations between the Ob-Ugrians and other groups existed from earliest times, they became regularized with Russians after first contact with Novgorod merchants in the eleventh century. In regular trade with Russians, the Mansi sought metal objects, weapons and ammunition (in earlier days sword blades and armor), fabric, yarn, thread, ready-made clothes, dresses, decorations, beads, flour or bread, tea, sugar, salt, wine, matches, tobacco, and tin or silver products that the Mansi used in cult rituals. They exported mainly fur and fish.

Industrial Arts. Much of the traditional productive activity of the Mansi was associated with hunting, fishing, transportation, and the making of shelter and clothing. Domestic activities included the working of skins and furs, wood, and bones; some Mansi on the Ob and its tributaries had knowledge of weaving. The Mansi household had on hand slivers of wood that were used as all-purpose cleaning and wiping implements. They were made mostly from rose-willow and birch and were used to wipe dishes and wash the face and hands.

Division of Labor. The primary division of labor was in the area of household chores. Women hunted with men in times of necessity and continue to do so today, but hunting, house building, construction of means of transport, and working in wood and bone were primarily men's activities. Women traditionally worked hides and furs and made thread, clothing, and utensils from birch bark. Men and women fished together, sometimes bringing children along.

Land Tenure. Whereas the whole patrilineal kindred had use of family lands, ownership was controlled by the genealogical core of the group, which consisted only of blood relatives. At the end of the nineteenth century individual families became land owners and land was transmitted by inheritance only to members of the family. During the Soviet period the land was in the hands of the state.


Kin Groups and Descent. The northern Mansi, like the Khanty, were divided into two exogamous groups, Mosh and Por, which are designated phratries by some scholars, moieties by others. Smaller clan groups, named for a particular ancestor, existed and became the basis for exogamy. A clan usually had two or three names associated with it and its history. Many clans also had a sign or brand that was used on clan property and in Russian documents. In the seventeenth century a change occurred from patriarchal clan organization to smaller patrilineally organized kindreds. The Mansi reckon descent in both maternal and paternal lines.

Kinship Terminology. Mansi kin terms distinguish groups of relatives according to bloodlines, relations through the mother's line, and marriage relations. Within these groups there exist divisions by gender, parentage, generation, and age relative to Ego. Blood relatives and relatives from the mother's family were considered the nearest to Ego.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages were arranged by matchmakers or by the potential groom and an entourage of supporters after the potential groom had decided on a bride. He would then work in his wife's home for a period of three to four years. Bride-price was arranged; the bride's mother was important in the neogtiations, though the bride was not directly consulted. Bride-price was usually equivalent to dowry, but was paid in money and livestock. Brides received a dowry consisting of clothing and utensils and sometimes a reindeer harness. Marriages with widows were concluded without bride-price. Ethnographic data suggest the survival of levirate and sororate customs and cross-cousin marriages. Within the bounds of exogamous groups, marriages were possible only among relatives whose relations were four or more generations back. Today a high percentage of Konda and Ob Mansi marry non-Mansi. Among the Sosva-Lyapin and Upper-Lozva Mansi, marriages are primarily with Mansi.

Domestic Unit. In the past both large and small patriarchal families were common among the Mansi. In the middle of the nineteenth century families usually consisted of five or six individuals, but there were also multigenerational families with ten to fifteen members living in one house and owning land in common. Modern families are comprised of one to three generations. Families with a large number of children are rare.

Inheritance. Inheritance of property among the Mansi follows the male line.

Socialization. In the past, Mansi culture left much of the process of socialization in the hands of children themselves, either through their own learning by observation of adults or in games played among themselves. Boys played hunting games in which the rules and goals varied according to the animal (bear, elk, rabbit) that was the object of their imaginary hunt. Girls played with dolls, taking on roles that prepared them for the domestic part of their adult lives. Parents provided explanations to the children and oversaw such activities as target practice. Children took part in productive activity when they were strong enough to do so and also participated in religious ritual and sacrifice. There is no recorded information on particular rites of passage. Today Mansi children attend either schools in the villages in which they live or boarding schools. They have the opportunity to study for a particular profession or prepare for higher education, but there are also interest groups and clubs in the schools, such as hunting circles, which allow students to participate in traditional activities.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. There is much disagreement among scholars about pre-Russian and even pre-Soviet forms of social organization among the Mansi. At minimum, they seem to have been organized into kinship-based groups located in certain regions along the Ob, Sosva, Liapin, and Konda rivers. The displacement of early social formssuch as the chiefdom (Russian: kniazhestvo ) by elements of clan-tribal organizationis thought to have been largely completed by the seventeenth century. Later, with the breakup of populous villages, a type of community known as the paul formed. This was a network of neighboring kin groups and large families inhabiting a given territory.

Political Organization. Clan leaders were traditionally selected from among the men and rule was heritable. The internal organization of Mansi chiefdoms was used by the Russians for administrative purposes. A significant reflection of the Mansi experience of the political system occurs in mythological beliefs; according to some tales, the gods have details about individuals' destinies recorded on pieces of paper. In the Soviet period, government was organized in village, settlement, and regional soviets. In 1930 the Ostyak-Vogul National District (okrug) was created in the territory of Tiumen Province. In 1938 it was renamed the Khanty-Mansiisk National District and in 1977 the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District. The presence of representatives of the native population among the Soviet deputies was obligatory.

Social Control. Social control was carried out with the aid of traditional institutions, habits, customs, rules, etiquette, and morals.

Conflict. In very early times feuds between kin groups were perpetuated along both patrilineal and matrilineal lines. Disputes with other peoples occurred over the seizing of territory. Conflicts with Russians included a revolt mounted in 1592 by the Mansi leader Ablegirim. Such episodes were prevalent in the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Religion and Expressive Cultures

Religious Beliefs. Mansi beliefs and religious practices varied considerably not only from region to region but from household to household. Each local group maintained and made offerings at its own ancestral worship site, and households contained unique religious objects. In general, however, the Mansi believe that the universe is formed along both horizontal and vertical dimensions and that the vertical is divided into three levels. The upper level of sky and heavens, occupied by the sun and the moon, is inhabited by Numi-Torum, the "god above." He is generally thought to be involved in the control of human destiny and is the protector of the Por moiety. The middle level is inhabited by human beings, whose activities are thought to range from evil to good, as well as by the forest, water, and patron spirits. Finally, the lower level, under the surface of the earth, is the realm of bad and evil spirits, including Numi-Torum's antithesis, Kul'-oter. Also important is the sky goddess, Kaltas'ekva, who is the personification of the earth. Although the Mansi were subjected to mass baptism early in the eighteenth century, it is not clear how much of Mansi belief was influenced by these forced conversions to Christianity. Mir-susne-khum (World-Surveyor-Man), the youngest son of Numi-Torum, is, under the influence of Christian tradition, thought to be the link between people and the world of the gods. He is capable of both good and bad acts and is thought, for example, to have given people the idea of constructing airplanes and satellites.

The Mansi make offerings of game animals to local forest spirits (menkvi ) for success in hunting. The sometimes foolish exploits of these spirits are commonly recounted in folklore. Before human beings were on earth, it is thought, they descended from the sky into the sea and then worked their way up the Ob and Sosva rivers into areas where Mansi now live. Various features of rivers and lakeswhirlpools, river mouths, etc.were considered sacred sites associated with the water spirit, Vit-khon, and his daughter, Vit-khon agu. Groups that were particularly dependent on fishing gave regular offerings to these spirits. There were also regular sacrifices to them three times a year: after the breakup of the ice (usually in April), in August, and again in October.

Religious Practitioners. Mansi shamans, nah or naitkhum (khum, "man"), men or women, healed the sick, determined the types and colors of sacrificial animals, and in some cases participated in sacrifices, told fortunes, and sought to determine the results of productive activities. Among a few groups of Mansi, shamans used drums and had special costumes (usually a cape).

Ceremonies. The best known of the Mansi ceremonies was the "festival of the bear," performed in the homes of successful hunters after the killing of a bear. The activities of the festival took place at night and typically lasted five days if the bear killed was a male and four if it was a female.

Arts. Traditional Mansi had a single-stringed, fiddlelike instrument, the sangultap, that was played by plucking. They also had a violinlike instrument, nyrne iiv, that was played on the knee with a bow. The voice tumran (Jew's harp) was a women's instrument. Several groups of Mansi were well known for a plucked-string, harplike instrument called the lebed', which means "swan" in Russian.

The Mansi had very diverse dance and vocal art and various forms of nonmusical folklore. Festivals were accompanied by puppet-theater performances (hand and marionette). Clothing and utensils were richly ornamented; traditional decoration of clothing with beads and mosaics of fur continues today.

Medicine. Shamans were the traditional healers of Mansi society, but there was general use of various plants such as sarsaparilla root, heather berries, and bilberry leaves for their medicinal properties. Mansi women used a charm to ease childbirth.

Death and Afterlife. Mansi believe that death is determined by Numi-Torum (or a guardian spirit) who sends lists of who is to die to the god of the underworld, Kul'oter. Death, according to traditional Mansi belief can come about because the victim has angered a guardian spirit or Kul'-oter by forgetting to perform a promised offering. Mansi say that when a person dies, his or her spirit goes. One version recorded earlier in this century held that the dead reside on an island in the northern Arctic Ocean for forty days before returning. Others say that the life of a person does not end with death. The deceased and the spirit released from him or her (one of five spirits in men and one of four in women) live in the cemetery. A special rite is performed to determine who among the deceased is reborn in newborn children. Not wanting to be troubled by the dead, descendants of the deceased bury him or her with things that they think will be of help in the other world. Traditional Mansi grave structures are log frames with roofs that in outward form resemble houses. On the front or side wall of each there is an opening through which, at the time of the memorial feast, there is contact between the living and the dead. At other times the opening is covered with a special stopper. Traditional households made regular offerings to deceased ancestors to maintain their good will.


Fedorova, E. G. (1986). "Elementy traditsionnoga v sovremennykh khoziaistvennykh zaniatiiakh severnykh Mansi" (Traditional elements in contemporary occupations of the northern Mansi). In Kul'turnye traditsii narodov Sibiri (The traditional cultures of the peoples of Siberia), edited by Ch. M. Taksami, 139-156. Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo Nauka.

Gemuev, M. N. (1990). Mirovozzrenie Mansi: Dom i kosmos (Mansi worldview: House and cosmos). Novosibirsk: Nauka.

Kannisto, Artturi K. (1958). Materialen zur mythologie der Vogulen (Material on the mythology of the Voguls). Mémoires de la Société Finno-Ougrienne, 113. Helsinki: Société Finno-Ougrienne.

Prokof'yeva, E. D., V. N. Chernetsov, and N. F. Prytkova (1964). "The Khants and Mansi." In The Peoples of Siberia, edited by M. G. Levin and L. P. Potapov, 511-546. Translated by Stephen P. Dunn and Ethel Dunn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published in Russian in 1956.

Róheim, Géza (1954). Hungarian and Vogul Mythology. Locust Valley, N.Y.: J. J. Augustin.

E. G. FEDOROVA AND DAVID C. KOESTER (Translated by David C. Koester)


views updated May 09 2018


The 8,500 Mansi (1989 census), formerly called Voguls, live predominantly in the Hanti-Mansi Autonomous Region (Okrug ), in the swampy basin of the Ob river. Their language belongs to the Ugric branch of the Finno-Ugric family. It has little mutual intelligibility with the related Hanti language, farther northeast, and essentially none with Magyar (Hungarian). Most Mansi have Asian features. One of the most distinctive features of Mansi (and Hanti) culture is an elaborate bear funeral ceremony, honoring the slain beast.

The Mansi historical homeland straddled the middle Urals, southwest of their present location on the Konda River. They offered spirited resistance to Russian encroachment during the 1400s, highlighted by prince Asyka's counterattack in 1455. The Russians destroyed the last major Mansi principality, Konda, in 1591. Within one generation, Moscow ignored whatever capitulation treaties had been signed. As settlers poured into the best Mansi agricultural lands, the Mansi were soon reduced to a small hunting and fishing population. By 1750 most were forced to accept the outer trappings of Greek Orthodoxy, while practicing animism in secret. Russian traders reduced people unfamiliar with the notion of money and prices to loan slavery that lasted for generations.

When the Ostiako-Vogul National Okrug Districtthe present Hanti-Mansi Autonomous Oblastwas created in 1930, the indigenous population was already down to 19 percent of the total population. By 1989, the population had dropped to 1.4 percent, due first to a massive influx of deportees and then to free labor, after discovery of oil during the 1950s. The curse of Arctic oil impacted the natives, who were crudely dispossessed, as well as the fragile ecosystem. Gas torching and oil spills became routine.

Post-Soviet liberalization enabled the Hanti and Mansi to organize Spasenie Ugry (Salvation of Yugria, the land of Ugrians) that gave voice to indigenous and ecological concerns. Thirty-seven percent of the Mansi population (and few young people) spoke Mansi in the early 1990s. A weekly newspaper, Luima Serikos, had a circulation of 240 in 1995. Novels on Mansi topics by Yuvan Sestalov (b. 1937) have many readers in Russia.

See also: finns and karelians; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; northern peoples


Forsyth, James. (1992). A History of the Peoples of Siberia: Russia's North Asian Colony, 15811990. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Taagepera, Rein. (1999). The Finno-Ugric Republics and the Russian State. London: Hurst.

Rein Taagepera

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