Anthropology Friday: Travels in Siberia: Samoyeds (Nenets) and Ostyak Religion

Welcome back to Erman’s Travels in Siberia (Volume 2.) Let’s jump right in:

“As soon as the bays along the shore and the mouths of the rivers are frozen over, the Ostyak and Samoyed inhabitants of the West quit their tents on the sea-side, and withdraw with their reindeer to the mossy tundras of the interior. On the island of Vaigatz indeed, which is known to the Samoyedes only by the name of Khäyodeyä, and is celebrated as their chief place of sacrifice, many owners of reindeer remain the whole year round; other natives, and Russians also, go over to it in summer both to fish and hunt.”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The name of the island translates from the Nenets as “alluvial shore”. Until the 19th century, the island was an important shrine of the Nenets people. There were polycephalic wooden idols painted with blood of holy animals, primarily reindeer. Some of their sacrificial piles, consisting of drift-wood, deer’s horns and the skulls of bears and deer, have been observed by travellers. In spite of their conversion to Christianity, the Nenets still regard these piles with superstition.

The website Arctic Russia Travel has some more information on Vaygach Island, and would like to sell you a tour.


“The Samoyedes, on the other hand, are praised by all their neighbours around for the great Variety of produce which they bring back from their hunting excursions. They take the fur animals, not only by the ordinary artifices of traps and weapons adapted to every circumstance, but also by putting themselves as much as possible on an equality with the animals pursued, going on all fours and imitating the brutes in voice and clothing* They contribute by far the largest portion of the skins of the Polar bear brought to the fair of Obdorsk; and in consequence of their more intimate acquaintance with these animals, they do not regard them with the same dread as Europeans.”

*googles Samoyeds* Well this is going to be fun

EvX: The modern Samoyed people are more commonly known as Nenets, while “Samoyed” is reserved for the fluffy dogs. They speak a language related to Estonian, Sami (Lapp) and Hungarian. Erman opines that the current fad for seeking the origins of the Hungarians in Tibet is obviously flawed, as they obviously share a common linguistic origin with these wanderers of the north.

Of course two groups (say, African Americans and Maori of New Zealand,) may speak the same language with out being closely related at all, but the linguistic evidence here is not entirely without weight, whereas there’s no particular reason to seek Hungarian origins in Tibet besides the nation having been faddishly popular. But see this post if you want a more complete run-down of the Finno-Ugric language group.


“About eight o’clock in the evening, the dogs, of which about four hundred are kept here by sixty inhabitants, commenced a loud and mingled howling. It is hunger which daily calls forth, at the same hour, these passionate outbreaks, and then the dogs are sure to chime in together, as soon as one has begun the howl; otherwise they are quite silent, and never bark nor cry, unless at starting on their course when yoked in the sledge, or on coming across a reindeer sledge in their journey. Even during the severest cold, the dogs require no protection from the weather.
They sleep outside round the houses to which they respectively belong, in holes which they have thawed in the snow by their own warmth. The Ostyaks look upon it as a sign of bad weather when the dogs lie very quiet in their icy grottoes; and, indeed, the truth of this prognostication seemed to be confirmed today. Here, as everywhere else along the Obi, they are fed with nothing but fish, which, for this purpose as well as for human food, is first dried in the sun, and then being pounded, bones and all, it is stored up under the name of porsa.”

On the economic logic of keeping different domestic animals:

“It is easy to understand why the dogs kept in Obdorsk should be much more numerous than those in Yeresov ; for in the latter place it is still possible, and usual, to keep horses, but in Obdorsk reindeer take the place of horses, and their increase is incompatible with a settled town life; for although reindeer are to be found at some fixed habitations higher up the river than Obdorsk, where they find suitable and sufficient pasture in the neighbourhood of the yurts, yet in these instances the herds are small, as their owners are few in number. Moreover, every yurt has its dogs, as well as its reindeer, and this is the case, without exception, wherever fishing forms a regular occupation of the people. A fishery, indeed, is an indispensable condition for the keepings of dogs; and hence it is, that the Samoyedes, whose chief business
is the chase, and who obtain their store of fish only by bartering with their neighbours, keep only reindeer. As to the dogs here, it is estimated that they can draw five poods (200 pounds) each, in the loaded nart; but the Ostyak mode of yoking them hardly admits of the employment of more than two at a time, and in this respect it differs essentially from the Tungusian …

“Madness [rabies] among the dogs would be, in this country, a most formidable scourge, and would infallibly cause the destruction of whole races of men; but every one here assured us that the disease is wholly unknown to them. Steiler has stated the same thing respecting the dogs of Kamchatka; so that hydrophobia would seem to be one of the European results of living in towns.”

Nenets Child

Music, art, and religion:

Music, poetry, and a very well-developed kind of pantomimic art, are here inseparably united, but as to the constant
connection of all three with the popular religion, it can be affirmed only so far as every feeling partakes more or less of the religious character. …

In general, the traditional- preservation of a poem seems to be rare among the Ostyaks, and their songs are for the most part improvisations, which they produce at the spur of the occasion, and always accompany with pantomimic action. It sometimes happens, that the same incident continues to be the favourite theme for years together, being treated, however, in various ways according to the individual taste of the singer. Thus, a bear having once dug up from the grave and devoured the body of a child, the Ostyaks, it is said, used for many years to describe in their songs this shocking occurrence, imitating with the greatest fidelity the growling of the bear, with its gestures and looks towards its pursuers, who were endeavouring to drive it from the corpse.

“The wolf and the bear, being looked upon as powerful and highly gifted beings, figure quite as much as men in the Ostyak songs and pantomimic shows, and, like the latter, are sometimes the subject of tragic representation, but much more frequently of droll caricature. And with respect to the rank which these two beasts of prey bold in the estimation of the Ostyaks, it may be observed, that the homage rendered to them is not merely poetic, but assumes at times a decidedly religious character. When one of them has been killed, its skin is stuffed with hay, and the people gather round their fallen enemy to celebrate the triumph with songs of mockery and insult. They spit upon it and kick it, and that ceremony performed, they set it upright on its hind legs in a corner of the yurt, and then, for a considerable time, they bestow on it all the veneration due to a guardian god. …

“The outward forms of religion, which are thus handed down among the Ostyaks from father to son, appear to be in themselves worthy of attention; for it is only by the attentive examination of them that we can hope to arrive at a probable explanation of the doctrines on which they were originally founded ; but, independent of this consideration, I feel myself bound to produce all that I know upon this subject, in consequence of my having discovered, the following year, on the north-west coast of America, and having thoroughly learned, by repeated observation, a system of religious observances identical with this in every particular. In reference, therefore, to the most important of the Ostyak solemnities, for the performance of which they purchase arms, as already stated (p. 33,) I here give the literal translation of a statement made to me in writing by a Russian who witnessed them, and can most conscientiously assert that there is not in this statement the slightest trace of supplementary addition, or of any thing more than the representation of the fact; for this is attested by the complete agreement between the usages prevailing at Obdorsk and those which I subsequently witnessed … among the Kolyuses at Sitka:

The Ostyak Shamans, like the taduibui, or priests of the Samoyedes, bedeck their fur clothing with metal figures of birds, fish, and wild beasts, with the teeth and hones of sea-animals, and with whatever, in short, seems calculated to give them a terrific appearance. Their ceremonies of divination are performed before a fire, round which they go, crying as loudly as possible, and writhing as if possessed. They beat at the same time a kind of drum, and rattle their metal ornaments, while the bystanders also add their lusty shouts, and contribute to the clatter, by beating pots, or other such utensils with their weapons. After the din has lasted some time, the Shaman falls to the ground, whereupon the bystanders throw a cord round his neck, and cover him with skins, by which they would have it understood that he is in communion with the spirits. Two men then take the ends of the cord, and pull it with all their might, while the Shaman, under the skins, slips his hands to his neck to prevent his being strangled. When at last he has had enough of the struggle, he makes a sign that the spirits have left him, and communicates forthwith to the company the required predictions.

In 1805, it happened that a Shaman was in fact strangled in this way, and the affair was brought before the provincial tribunals. He was obviously too slow in placing his hands between his neck and the noose.

On the 27th December 1821, (old style,) the Ostyaks kept a solemn festival in the yurts of Pashirtzof, five versts from Obdorsk, in honour of their god Yelan, and I obtained permission to be present at the ceremonies… The ceremonies began about eight o’clock in the evenings and lasted till two in the morning. At first, children ran round to each yurt, to call the Ostyaks to the divine rites. In so doing, they screamed in all manner of wild notes, and seemed as if quite beside themselves: this went on while the people were assembling in the yurt selected for the proceedings. On entering this, each of the Ostyaks turned round three times before the idols, and then took his place on the right side of the room, in the recesses, or on the floor. They talked to one another, or otherwise employed themselves as they pleased.

The recesses on the left side were concealed by a curtain, behind which went certain persons, who on entering the yurt, turned round, like the rest, three times in front of the idols. At length, when all were assembled, the Shaman began rattling with the sabres and iron-headed lances, which had been previously heaped together before the images. He then gave each person present, (excepting the women, who were also behind a curtain,) a sword or a lance, while he took himself a sword in each hand, and placed himself with his back to the idols. The Ostyaks stood in rows lengthwise in the yurt, or packed in the recesses. They then all turned round three times, holding their swords stretched out before them. The Shaman struck his two swords together, and so they all began to scream out Heigh! in different tones, as led by him, at the same time bending their bodies from side to side. This cry was sometimes repeated at wide intervals, some-
times in rapid succession; and with every repetition of the height came the bowing movements, to the right and left; the swords and lances, in the mean time, were sometimes sunk to the ground, sometimes stretched upwards. This … lasted for an hour, by which time the men became excited to such a degree, that I could not look without terror even in those faces which had at first appeared to me to be engaging.

“After they had screamed their fill, they became silent all at once, and ceased too from their oscillations; then turning round before the images, as at the commencement, they gave back the swords and lances to the Shaman, who restored them to their original position. The Ostyaks having settled themselves, some in the recesses, others on the floor, the curtain rose which had concealed the women, and now both sexes joined in dancing to the music of the dombra. The dance … it was often very indecent also, and continued a long time. Next came forward some buffoons and posture makers, in various droll attire, and repeated the chief movements of the dance. At length the Shaman distributed again the swords and lances; the Ostyaks again reeled from side to side and cried Heigh, then turning round three times at the conclusion, and striking three times on the ground with the swords and lances, they gave the arms back to the Shaman, and went off to their homes.

“I shall refrain from any further observation on these Ostyak usages till I come to relate the surprising rediscovery of them in America, where many details of the rites, as I witnessed them myself, — the remarkable dress, for instance, of the Shamans, — appeared in a more characteristically defined and significant light.”

EvX: I assume this further exploration is in Volume 3, though I am having trouble tracking it down (perhaps it has a different title than the others?)

“It may be remarked, however, that an inquiry into the origin of the armed dance, which is usual in some parts of Hungary, seems very desirable … By means of it, and through the intermediation of the Ostyaks, we might be able to arrive at a remarkable and characteristic point of contact between the Hungarians and the American Kolyuzes, and be led even to reflect on the relationship pointed out by Beregszaszi, between the language of the Hungarians and that of the Algonquins.”

Map of Athabaskan Language Distribution

EvX: Personal anecdote: A Hungarian-American acquaintance told me the kids at school used to call him a Navajo.

But who are the Kolyuzes? A Google search returns only two hits, both of them this book. However, after a bit more research, I think the Koyukon of Alaska are probably the same people. The Koyukon speak an Athabaskan language.

To sum: The Ostyaks are now the Ket and the Khanty; the Samoyeds are the Nenets. Khanty and Nenets speak a language related to Finnish, Sami, and Hungarian. The Ket effectively speak a language isolate that is speculated to be related to the Athabaskan (aka Dene) language family. Erman describes religious similarities between Ostyaks and the Kolyuzes, who appear to be the Koyukon, an Athabaskan-langauge speaking people.

(This is why I complain about ethnonymic creep.)

Obviously people see patterns and relationships where they want to, and not necessarily where they actually are, but we have a pretty good idea that Native Americans actually did cross into the Americas from northern Russia, so a connection of some sort is totally reasonable. I would not expect much of a genetic connection (Hungarians are more closely related to their neighbors than their co-linguists, due to the conquering by the Magyars not having resulted in much population replacement, just language adoption. The same may be true for the other groups in question (eg, the the Ket and Khanty, for example, are probably more closely related genetically than linguistically; the Navajo likely absorbed other peoples during their migration from Canada to New Mexico.) But a cultural connection seems entirely possible.

The popular view of the scientific consensus on the peopling of the Americas, which perhaps does not reflect the actual current state of the field, is that sometime around 12-40,000 years ago, a single pulse of people crossed a temporary landbridge across the Bering Strait, moved into the Americas, sat down and never moved again. Today we know that the picture is more complicated than this–the Inuit (Eskimo) at least arrived far more recently, and definitely without the aid of a land-bridge. The Aleuts (denizens of the Aleutian Islands) also managed to get here without a land-bridge. I suspect that whenever we get a full picture of the history, we’ll find not just several major pulses of people, perhaps via multiple different routes, but also a low level of continuous trade and contact with north Asian peoples over centuries.

Nenets people in summer

Anyway, back to Erman:

“About 5 o’clock in the afternoon, when there was a very faint twilight, we saw, on the western sky, (N. 56^ W.,) a very bright ball of fire fall downwards, with a greenish light. …

I had already had occasion to remark, at different yurts, the remarkable longing which reindeer have for man’s urine, but I had never seen it exhibited so distinctly and decidedly as to-day; for just to gratify this desire, some of these shy animals had spontaneously come close to the tent, and, as soon as any one went out to make water, they ran up in full trot to catch the stream in the air, with their under lip protruded; and if the first were driven hack, then others hastened forwards and kept licking with avidity the wetted snow. It is manifest, therefore, that it is not the warmth of the fluid, but its saltiness which awakens this desire, as we sometimes observe it in our he-goats; but in so extraordinary a degree, that the taming of the reindeer, or the power of habituating them to their masters, seems to depend essentially or perhaps wholly upon it. In no other case do they lay aside their natural shyness or their apparent aversion to man; for they will not eat from the hand, however good the fodder, and if fresh moss be plucked and thrown to them on the snow, they only smell it and turn away. …

“It is remarkable that the very composed and grave manner of the inhabitants of this part of the world [Samoyeds] never deserts them, either in familiar intercourse, or in the midst of their enjoyments; for, although we admit that, in general, men who are not far removed from a state of nature laugh less than Europeans, yet, even in this respect there is a wide difference between the seriousness of the people here and the lively gaiety of the Tunguzes, or the ever-cheerful and very refined irony of the Kamchadales. …

“These tent-Samoyedes employ reindeer alone for draught, and a number of little dogs which I saw with them here were not intended for harness, but only for the women, who kill them for the sake of the skin. They were all still young, and though from this circumstance it was impossible to form a judgment as to the regular, full-grown size of the variety, yet it was obvious that they belonged to a breed totally different from that of the Ostyak dogs. They had all long hair, of a fox-red colour, which I had never seen among the dogs of the Obi. They differed from the latter in their behaviour also, for they flew at strangers and kept yelping at them in shrill tones. It can hardly be doubted that this breed is derived from foxes,’ and not, like that of the Ostyaks, from wolves. …

“On my arrival, too, I was asked for my stock of tea, and other articles of food, which were laid by in the general depository till wanted for use.

“The reindeer calf which we had got on the way was killed and cut up in front of the tent, a few minutes after our arrival.
The men now brought the bleeding and reeking flesh into the tent, and began devouring it immediately, quite raw, with the heartiest appetite. The old man was satisfied with sucking the brain from the head, while each of our younger comrades gnawed away a limb of the animal, even to the bone. They laughed at the amazement which my good-humoured Estonian attendant expressed at their blood-stained faces; and when he gave them to understand, through the interpreter, that they were no better than wolves, they seemed quite unprepared for such a reproof; and replied, gravely, that they were at the same time no worse than the wolves, since they shared honestly with them, and left the bones and some scraps of fish merely for their sakes. …

“The Samoyedes whom we had met with in the course of our journey, had all come from the coasts of the Polar Sea; and among the articles in their possession were to be seen many of the productions of that region. The traces of their reindeer, and many other of their leathern moveables, were made of dolphin skin or furred seal-skin; and the mammoth-teeth, with which when carved they ornament their sledges and drinking vessels, are looked upon by all the indigenous tribes here as products of the sea coast, for they are more frequently thrown up by the waves wherever the sea breaks on slopes of alluvial land, and are consequently sought for by the Samoyedes chiefly in those situations.”

EvX: That’s all for today. See you next Friday!


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