Even - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Religious ideas and beliefs occupied a central place in the traditional culture and influenced every sphere of existence of each individual and of the community as a whole.

The traditional religion was animistic—the recognition of a soul in every living organism or natural object. The Even peopled the world with a great number of good and evil spirits, "guardians" of given places on which depended the welfare of the families of hunters and reindeer herdsmen.

On the basis of animistic beliefs and ideas there arose among the Even a system of diverse cults: of the guardian spirits of nature—the taiga, mountains, water, animals, fire, and so forth; of the hearth fire-helper of humans, giver of warmth and food and personified as an old man; and, above all, of the bear, one of the most powerful representatives of the animal kingdom in the North.

A logical continuation or extension of these cults was the many simple and complex rituals (domestic-familial, hunting, and so forth), the goal of which was to propitiate the spirits and make them well-disposed toward humans. The rituals were accompanied by incantations, prayers, and sacrifices.

Orthodox Christianity began to spread among the Even after the arrival of the Russians, some groups relating to it formally, whereas for others—for example, those of today's Magadan region—it became more developed and played a primary role together with shamanism. Ultimately, the propagation of Christianity by Russian missionaries led to a peculiar syncretism of ancient religious beliefs and Christian dogma.

The traditional religious views, however, remained vital and continue to exist in varying degrees among the Even to this day, among people of all ages. They turn to fire for any reason—asking the spirit of fire for success in hunting, for happiness and prosperity for the family, and for defense against evil spirits. On obtaining food they customarily "feed" the fire with meat or other products and "water" it with vodka. A respectful relation is also observed with the guardian spirits of places, to whom Even bring food or "give" small objects as sacrifices during every migration. The bear continues to enjoy special respect and the hunt for it is accompanied by many rituals. The meat of the slain animal is eaten ceremonially during a festival that is specially arranged for this purpose, called the urkachak. The skull and bones of the bear are placed on special scaffolds called qulik so that the bear will not take offense at people and will be reborn anew after a specific time.

Religious Practitioners. Every territorial subdivision traditionally had a shaman, whose basic role was to mediate between the world of humans and that of the spirits, to cure humans and animals, to defend against evil spirits, to predict and divine, and to "conduct" the dead to the world of the dead. The shamans communed with spirits during special séances. An indispensable attribute of the Even shaman was a costume with metal pendants, a cap with reindeer antlers made of iron, a wooden tambourine with hide stretched over it, and a rattle. The pantheon of shamanic spirit helpers included spirits in the form of people, animals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.

Very few shamans remain as a result of the long-term antireligious propaganda and socioeconomic changes in Soviet society. The role of the shaman has now diminished to one of divination and interpretation of unusual or natural phenomena, dreams, and signs. Curing of animals or humans is rare and, when it happens, is carried out by shamans of a higher category, who to this day use tambourines and other shamanic paraphernalia.

Arts. The wealth of Even spiritual culture was clearly manifested in graphic arts, music, and dance. Powers of observation and a developed sense of color were reflected in sewing furs, decorating with beads, carving in bone and wood, stamping or printing on birch bark, and woodworking.

Medicine. Even knowledge of natural medicine was acquired through great persistence. By traditional means, with bear's bile or gall (Russian: zholch' ) and raw reindeer kidney, the Even cure ailments of the stomach and liver. Burns are treated with reindeer blood or bear fat; in case of frostbite they wrap the patient in the hide of a freshly killed reindeer. Often, and for diverse illnesses, the Even use medicinal herbs and infusions from the bark of trees, which not infrequently are more effective than the preparations of the pharmaceutical industry.

Death and Afterlife. To this day the Even believe in an afterlife in a higher world to which a mortal's soul goes. A person should be provided for in that world with all the necessities, and toward that end the deceased person's relatives set up the three basic poles of the chum on the grave and leave the appurtenances of a bed, dishes, and the personal effects of the deceased. All these objects have to be broken or torn up so that from them, as from a human body, the soul can go forth. Only under these circumstances can they serve the deceased.

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