Symposium C2: Animism, shamanism and ethnic religions: ontologies of the Finno-Ugric peoples

Organiser: Eva Toulouze

Tuesday, August 23, Finno-Ugric Department (Finno-Ugristik) room 1

(Original symposium call)


Nikolai Anisimov:

Occasional commemorations of the dead in Udmurt culture

In Udmurt culture, the cult of the ancestors is steadily maintained at all levels of Udmurt ritual, work and everyday life. Nevertheless, such aspects of folk culture as commemoration of the dead for any reason or at any opportunity, without a link to calendar or family/kin events has not received due attention. This is fully understandable, for quite often the occasional commemorations are determined by particular circumstances and are not particularly visible in the context of other rituals and customs that imply more expressive communication with the dead or the ancestors. This presentation is dedicated to some different occasional commemoration ceremonies as found both in scientific literature and in the author’s fieldwork by different Udmurt local groups from 2007 to 2019. These commemorations could be at the individual, family or kin level, or they could be collective. The materials of my research reveal that such situations, which require particular behaviour, happen in the case of: collision with signs from the world of the dead seen as a communicative signal; before travelling far abroad or after a long absence; when guests arrive; when one prepares dishes made using dough; when cattle or precious objects disappear; when one happens to be close to the place of someone’s death or to a cemetery; in the case of magic rituals to heal some ailments or to harm; in the case of serious disease; when a dead person ‘walks’; in the case of dreams with one or several dead person(s); when looking for transport to a particular destination; in the case of drought, etc. These and other circumstances of occasional commemoration of the dead or the ancestors will be analysed as they appear in contemporary practice.


Madis Arukask:

The role of animism (resp. paganism) in the Vepsian contemporary self-representation 

The decreasing habitat of the Central Vepsians is located in the wooded border region of Leningrad and Vologda oblasts, in the North-Western Russia. Since the beginning of the 19th century, when the scientific description of the Vepsians began, their culture and way of life has characterized as more primitive and backward than their Russian neighbours used to have. Social exclusion characterized attitude towards the Vepsians also in the 20th century, it has changed from the Perestroika period, since the late 1980s. The Vepsian traditional culture has been in every sense archaic and nature oriented. This fact often has stressed also in different folkloristic and ethnographic studies.

Animistic ontology, communication with nature spirits, relevant practices and genres are typical for the Vepsian traditional worldview up to this day. Probably due to the intertwining with popular Orthodoxy, the term “paganism” has not very much used, since Christianity and animism have perceived not in opposition but in syncretistic way, as something natural. Against expectations, nature spirits are by no means on the secondary position in popular beliefs and corresponding folk stories. Vepsian modern national culture uses animistic folk beliefs as an important resource in constructing and representing modern Vepsianness. It is evident both in written genres (narratives, poetry, national epic) and visually (book illustrations, expositions, etc.). In this presentation I will use examples from different genres and ways of representation (epic “Virantanaz”, festival “Elon pu”, etc.). It seems that the use of animistic figures in the modern nation building process do not create any kind of religious contradiction for Vepsian activists in the cities, who use to have Orthodox background and religious identity.


Elena Danilko:

"Raskolniks" and "inorodzy’s" - mutual attraction

Old Belief as a broad social and religious movement was formed in the half of the 17th century as a result of church reform. The Old Believers who did not adopt the reforms had to flee to the outskirts of the country and were harassed by the church and the secular power until the beginning of the 20th century All this contributed to a great extent to the development of eschatological opinions and the striving for social and common isolation. A distinctive feature

of the Old Believers' culture is traditionalism, which is expressed in both everyday and religious practices. Old Belief, as a form of Christianity, among most scholars and in the public opinion is seen as an exclusively Russian phenomenon. Meanwhile, it was quite widespread among a number of Finno-Ugric peoples. In the territory of the Ural and Volga region most of all non-Russian Old Believers were Mordvinians and Komi-Permyaks.

The main reasons for the process of transition from "inorodzy’s" to "raskolniks" were the lack of social barriers (both were religious outsiders), as well as the conflict caused by the State's policy of violent Christianization. In this process there were many different nuances related to the problem of language, perception of Finno-ugrians of book tradition, closure of the group. I would like in this paper to describe this on the basis of archival documents and my own field research .


Karina Lukin:

Shamanic Knowledge as ontology and imagination

Nenets shamanic ontology consists of knowledge regarding the otherworld, its beings, structure and practices of encountering this world. The knowledge materializes in sung epic and ritual poetry AND in the everyday living environment of the Nenets. Consequently, the shamanic world is at the same time built on the everyday premises of the Nenets nomadic way of life and on the possibilities of orally projecting images of the otherworld on the very material landscape. The images projected, are produced by specialists in oral poetry that master the traditional contents and imagery of the poetry, its structural and linguistic features, and the strategies for the production. But they rely on quotidian.

The paper is terminological in nature. It suggest that instead of categorizing differing forms of religions or beliefs, we ought to discuss them as ontologies, as knowledge structures. I will explore the interconnections between Nenets epic and ritual poetry and discuss the notions of the song (syo) and the word (wada) as key terms that open up views on the Nenets understanding of possibilities of knowing about the otherworld, being in contact with it, and transmitting the information about the otherworld. The paper will show that Nenets knowledge about the otherworld is profoundly connected to the ideas of dissemination of this knowledge through interaction, and through the voice and words of those who took part in or witnessed the interaction. Travelling, as a precondition for encounters and interaction, is intertwined in poetry with the notions of singing and word, and travelling connects the mythic landscape with otherworldly beings and the poetics.


Aleksi Moine:

An Ontology of the Body in Finnish-Karelian Charms of the 19th century

The research of charms in Finland has a long history that started during the times of Romantic nationalism. The first collectors and researchers of folk poetry, but also later ones, looked at the charm texts as remnants of an old Finnish religion, that predated Christianity. Christian elements were often disregarded as external and foreign. However, most people who used charms in Eastern Finland belonged to the Church, either Orthodox or Lutheran. Thus, I argue in this paper that the theoretical framework of "lived religion" is relevant to the study of charms in the 19th century. Although their origin may certainly be linked to animism and shamanism that existed before the arrival of Christianity in Finland, charms were, at the time they were collected, Christian practices. I examine here a charm corpus of 496 texts collected in Ilomantsi (Northern Karelia) between 1820 and 1920 and published in the volumes of "Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot". Charms were concerned with the human body and its survival in the environment: they were used for instance to heal wounds and diseases, to make people fall in love, or to get lucky when hunting. Thus, the depiction of the human body plays an immensely important role in charm texts. Various conceptions of the body dialogue in them: on the one hand, the fragile human body that can be wounded, and on the other hand, the sacred body of the charmer and of the non human helpers. I aim in this paper at exploring the superposition of body images in the context of the charming ritual, where the charmer often compares himself to Jesus, God, or Mary, and the patient to the wounded Jesus. Different worlds, or dimensions of the world, coexist in the charms: the physical reality, where the human body belongs, and the symbolic dimension, where the non human beings belong. Charms are built on a correspondance between the environment and the body, which is sometimes also described as a place, with for instance the Virgin Mary rowing on the veins of the patient, compared to rivers. The aim of the charmer is to recreate the harmony that exists between the worlds, sending non human beings back to theirs.

My aim is, therefore, to study the way bodies are depicted in charm texts in order to outline the place of the human body in the mythic landscape and the worldview of 19th-century Karelians, and understand its ontological status. Rather of making an archaeological study of motives and themes in charms, to see their Christian or pre-Christian origins, I am reading the texts in the context of their collect and performance. The framework of lived religion allows to explore the incorporation of Christian themes in the worldview of 19th century Karelians, without judging them as Christians or pagans. It is an attempt to look at their practices from an emic point of view, being conscious of the first scholars' biases and our own when it comes to the definition of what is Christian and what is not.


Eva Toulouze:

The traditional Udmurt religion today: An attempt towards a synthetic picture

In this presentation I would like to present a synthetic overview of my last years’ fieldwork in Udmurtia, Tatarstan and especially Bashkortostan in order to draw a provisional picture of the vitality of traditional religious views among the Udmurt. I am interested both in the tokens of vitality and of disappearance according to geography. I will reflect on how much the traditional religious practice is still alive or has been revitalised; on how much and where syncretic features can be identified within the dominant practice of other religions; and on the level of institutionalisation wherever these phenomena are alive. The picture obtained as a result is quite heterogeneous and shows a general endeavours to recover lost traditions and give them a place in modern life. So far, attempts at institutionalisation have not led to visible results, from which we may conclude that the Mari example has not spread outside the borders of Mari El.


Denis Kornilov:

Онтология и прагматика ритуальных практик и языковых стратегий в современном удмуртском социуме

The global picture of the modern Udmurt community is described as considerably diverse. The community’s vital opportunities are mainly connected with multicultural situation in worldwide processes. Ontologic understanding of a separate individual or ethnos in general in micro- and macrocosm is connected with goals and tasks which are set to any given item of community. Depending on this there are vaious forms of religious practics: tradtional (the village Varkled-Bodya in the Agryz region in the Tatarstan Republic, the village Kuzebayevo in the Alnash region of the Udmurt Republic); local revitalized ones (villages Bolshoy Gondyr, Kyrga of the Perm Region; the villages Balzyuga, Vylgurt and others in Bashkortostan Republic, the village Bagrash-Bigra of the Malaya Purga region in Udmurtia), the built-on imitating images based on traditional prayers (the villages Pekshur, Chabishur-Tuklya of the Uva Region: V. Tratkanov, G. Sidorov), christianity, protestamtism and even krishnaism (the Mozhga region: P. Lebedev). There are examples when the Udmurt community returned from protestantizm to christianity (Izhevsk: M. Sashina).

We should separately mention and scientifically analyze in this context, in our opinion, samples of “microtext of the past and the present»: narratives on «naive history» and «people ethimology» (F. Pukrokov, P. Zakharov, N. Uglanov).

The report will be accompanied by visual stories.


Sergei Minvaleev:

Christian-Pagan syncretism in the life cycle rites of the Ludians / Языческо-христианский синкретизм в обрядах жизненного цикла людиков

The study is devoted to the consideration of some components of the rites of passage of the Ludic Karelians (or Ludians, or Ludes) at the end of the 19th – beginning of the 20th centuries, which had a fusion of Christian and pagan beliefs.

This research is based on an integrated approach to the humanities. The most valuable group of sources for the research is unpublished expeditionary materials, stored in the archives of the Republic of Karelia and Finland. The Ludians, as the closest neighbors of the Russian population of Karelia, were a link between Karelians and Russians. Therefore, the influence of the Orthodox Church on the life of the Ludians was greater than on other sub-ethnic groups of the Karelian people (Karelians proper, Livvi Karelians).

Wedding and funeral traditions of the Ludic Karelians are based on Orthodox complex of rites. But almost every aspect of the rituals, which had Orthodox semantics, found its own interpretation in mind of the Karelians, such as the requiem mass had to grant peace to the departed soul and etc.

Despite the strong Orthodox influence on the rites of the Ludians, it preserved the features of Christian-Pagan syncretism. For example, the wedding lamentations were addressed to God and to the “white ancestors” (valgedad syndyžed), and burial practices contained some echoes of burial feasts (also known as “funny funerals”).

The role of the priest was noticeable at all steps of the life cycle rites and especially during the funeral ceremony: from a confession to common wakes. In the Soviet era a priest’s role in ritual practices of Karelian countryside begun to be subside and elderly women who could read in Church Slavonic and knew some magical practices took over these functions.


Ranus Sadikov:


The present state of eastern Udmurt cult places / Современное состояние культовых мест закамских удмуртов

The eastern Udmurt, who fled forced evangelisation and who live today in the Republic of Bashkortostan and in the Perm region of the Russian Federation, base their spiritual life on the traditional religion. As was also formerly the case, cult practice takes place in sanctuaries – particular places for sacrifice and other religious rituals. Depending on the object of worship there are several kinds of place, for example places for worship of gods and deities, spirits, souls, ancestors and other dead kin. Depending on the social group concerned (family, clan, kin group, rural community, rural county, local ethnic group) the rituals are performed in different places belonging either to family, kin, clan or community (village) and are at either local (inter-village) or regional level.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, each eastern Udmurt village had cult places connected with the worship of higher deities, of the evil deity Lud, clan deities vosshud, the ancestors or different spirits of the land. Today only part of the sanctuary complex functions. At the same time, the sacral status of the non-used cult places remains: prohibitions on their economic exploitation, prohibitions on desecration, a ban on visiting on incorrect days, etc. The so-called vös’as’konti / kuris’konti are cult places (lit.: ‘place of sacrifice/of ceremony’) where community ceremonies are performed, with or without blood sacrifices (gurt vös’); the ceremonies are dedicated to different deities, among whom is the supreme god Immer. Today in each village only one such sanctuary is active. The cult places of old villages were formerly places of big regional ceremonies (mer vös’); however, today these practices have not been maintained everywhere. Today, there are what are considered regional sanctuaries situated by the villages of Al’ga, Novye Tatyshly (mör vös’), Stary Kyzyl’yar (Bagysh vös’), Mozhga (Emenlyk), Kaymashabash (Yshtiyak), Bol’shoy Kachak (badz’ym vös’) and some others. The sacred places in the villages of Altaevo, Stary Varyash and Kirga are used for big regional sacrifices (elen vös’). Other places no longer exist as ly kelyan, places where people brought the bones of sacrificial animals in some private and community ceremonies.
The sanctuary kuala (a kuala was a log house dedicated to the clan deities) and lud / keremet (holy groves, used to propitiate the evil deity Lud) have been maintained only in those villages where these rituals now take place.
The cemetery (shay) is the place where commemorations of dead kin and friends are performed. Other places are no longer used, such as the kyrkuyan, a place where people used to dispose of things connected with the dead and their burial. And the kuyashkonti / vozho, places used to propitiate the spirits of the local disease spirits, now function only seldom.
Active cult places are kept clean, protected from economic exploitation, improved, fenced, and in several cases buildings have been added.


Aleksandr Chernykh:

Modern confessional situation of the Udmurts of the Perm region

Field studies that have been carried out among the Udmurt population of the Perm region in recent years have made it possible to analyze the specificity of the development of their confessional situation. Confessional identity, both in the past and in the present, plays an important role for individual and group identity. It is supposed to be dynamic and multidimensional. The revitalization of traditional ethnic religion is taking place as reflected in the restoration of the system of prayers and the formation of cleric institutions. In the 1990s the restoration of prayers for the Udmurts from Kuyeda wasn’t a direct continuation of the existing traditions, the tradition of prayers had been lost by then. Their restoration was a complicated process including the search of the most appropriate forms of carrying them out and the interaction with various forms of mass cultural events. While in the past there existed a complex and extensive system of public prayers, in modern situation only some and the most important for the local community prayers have been updated. The reasons to choose certain events result from various factors: how the traditions have been kept, the historical memory, personal reasons of the leaders of public opinion and the participants of confessional processes and

the influence of external reasons and initiatives. Recent significant innovations also include the introduction of habitual social practices and the connection with mass cultural events particularly into the system of prayers. On the other hand, we can observe the active penetration of Christianity, both in its Orthodox variant and in the form of modern evangelical and Baptist organizations. Meanwhile, in the case of joining Christian faith there is no rejection of traditional beliefs and cult practices, we can observe an organic symbiosis between religious teachings. The main ways of Christian penetration include mass media, the urban environment as well as missionary activities of certain organizations. Nowadays Muslims are less active and their events do not reach the public space though the presence of their communities is quite notable. A confessional dialogue that is now taking place in a small group reflects the situation of the second half of the XIXth – the beginning of the XXth centuries connected with a significant level of activity of Orthodox and Muslim missionaries and modern realities of the confessional life of the country, region and local communities. Sociological studies carried out among the youth also indicate that a significant number of respondents choose traditional ethnic religion when it comes to the matter of faith. At the same time, for many people this question remains unsolved and about one third of the received answers opt for Christianity.