Altaians - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religion. The traditional religion of the region was shamanism, which was associated with the cults of the sky and of fire and the hearth. Shamanism is concerned with questions of good and evil, with the afterlife, and the supernatural. It is predicated on a belief in spirits that have the power to cause good or ill. The shaman seeks to master these spirits or otherwise get them to benignly serve human ends. The principal instrument of the shaman is the drum, which he or she beats to achieve a state of ecstasy and enter the spirit world. There, the shaman seeks out the spirits that become his or her familiars and tries to find out what will happen in the future, what has caused the ailment of a particular person, and what is generally good or ill for people. Shamanism as a religion, medical practice, and philosophy is widespread in Central and Northern Asia. The Turkic term for shaman is kam.

Shamanism came under the onslaught first of the Russian Orthodox church during the czarist period, then of the campaign against religion during most of the Soviet era.


Arts. The Turks of the Altai were part of a civilization that had developed its own written tradition, leaving monuments with their runic inscriptions in the Yenisei Valley to the north of the Altai, and in the Orkhon Valley to the east; these inscriptions date from the sixth to the eighth centuries A.D. Later, the Uigur script was adopted by many Turkic-speaking peoples of Central Asia. The Uigur script is related to the alphabets of Western Asia and was also used by the Mongols during the era of Chinggis (Genghis) Khan.

In 1937 a National Drama Theater was created in the Altai, the repertoire of which includes plays by both Altaian and European playwrights, produced in the Altaian language and with Altaian actors. Among the most popular plays are those by one of the main figures of Altai literature, P. Kuchiiak. These plays deal with motifs of folklore or scenes from everyday life; the most noteworthy include Cheinesh and Orolor, Uch-Kis. The Altai troupe has toured throughout the districts of the oblast and beyond its borders.

Folklore is a cultural heritage of the Altai people; it conveys their centuries-old history and has continued to develop in the modern era. In the past forty years extensive collections of epics and other genres of Altai folklore have been recorded from kaichi (storytellers) and published. The archaic tales of such heroes as Altai Buuchai, Maadai-Kara, and Koguteei rank among the classical epics of world literature. In the Altai, both men and women could be Kaichi. Famous kaichi of yore included M. Yutkanakov and N. Ulagashev (1867-1946); those of today are A. Kalkin and N. Yalatov. The Teleuts have retained their epic tradition through the modern era better than other groups of Altaians and, earlier, transmitted it to some of the Shors as well.

Altai folklore has always been closely tied to musical instruments. Storytellers would perform the kai (epic), and the common people would sing songs at weddings or at home to the accompaniment of stringed instruments ( ikili or topshur [a lutelike instrument with two horsehair strings]). The temir-komys, a semicircular metal instrument similar to a Jew's harp, was considered a woman's instrument. Wind instruments ( shogur, shoor, abyrga ) were used on the hunt as decoys.


Death and Afterlife. The death rites of the Altaians consist of burial in traditional clothing (particularly for older women), followed by an arrangement for "meeting" with the spirit of the deceased on the seventh and fortieth days after death. The shaman makes this contact at the grave.

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