Evenki (Northern Tungus) - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Evenki viewed the universe as consisting of three worlds: upper, middle (earth), and lower. Beneficent spirits inhabited the upper world, including Seveki, the guardian of the plant and animal world. The lower world was populated by both deceased ancestors, who there lived a life similar to that on earth, and, on another level, evil spirits. Although the average person could not travel to either the upper or lower world, such sojourns were in fact made by shamans during their rituals. Assisted by spirits, including those of shaman ancestors, the shamans protected clan members from the spirits of hostile shamans and acted as brokers between the Evenki and the spirits that helped or hindered their activities. (The word shaman is an Evenki word and was introduced to the Western world by the Russians.)

From the seventeenth century on, Russians tried to convert the Evenki and other native Siberian peoples to Eastern Orthodoxy. Some rituals of the church were observed, and a syncretic combination of Christianity and shamanism resulted among groups of Evenki that had greater contact with Russians. The atheist Soviet state fought against shamanism (as well as Christianity), eventually identifying the shamans as "exploiters" and "enemies of the people" and severely persecuting them in the 1930s. By the late twentieth century, only relics of the former religion appeared to remain (although the system may be more vital than we suspect).

Religious Practitioners. Each clan had one or more shamans, who not infrequently also acted as the head of the clan. The position of clan shaman was usually inherited, often skipping a generation or more. The spirit of a deceased shaman selected a new member of the clan, most often a direct descendant, and inhabited this person. Someone not directly related to the shaman might also realize in a dream her or his rightful calling in life. Both women and men served as shamans in Evenki society, and the spirit of a shaman could pass through the mother's side to her clan.

A shaman's costume was elaborately decorated with fringe, appliqué, and metal pendants, and the headpiece was often topped with metal antlers. A tambourinelike drum, rhythmically beaten, induced the trance state during which the shaman traveled to other worlds.

Besides protecting clan members, shamanic duties included forecasting and curing. For her or his services to the clan the shaman received no remuneration, and since shamanizing took time away from the hunt and other economic activities, shamans were often among the poorer members of the clan. Clan members did provide meat and furs as gifts on occasion and helped sew the shaman's costume and tan hides for the drum. Shamans were particulary involved in the ubiquitous psychological stress known as "arctic hysteria" (a kind of brief tantrum shared by most boreal peoples); persons prone to hysteria needed help from shamans, and shamans were largely recruited from persons prone to hysteria. Psychological disorders are the main focus of shamanic activities.

Ceremonies. Besides shamanic rituals, major religious ceremonies included the initiation rites of new shamans and the consecration of sacred reindeer to carry the clan's beneficent spirits to the other world. Another common ceremony was the initiation of the bride into her husband's clan. Ceremonies for a propitious outcome preceded setting out on a hunt. When a bear was killed, a complicated celebration lasting several days ensued, both to placate the bear's spirit and to enjoy the rich bounty of meat.

Arts. The oral arts of the Evenki consist of epic tales, riddles, histories, myths, and songs. Ring dances and songs are numerous, and a number of native folk ensembles continue to perform these today. Since the late 1920s, when the Evenki language was given an alphabet, many Evenki prose writers and poets have published their works.

Material arts include bone, antler, and wood carving. The Evenki elaborately decorated saddle pommels, knife handles, pipes, birch-bark containers, etc. Traditional clothing, now usually reserved for winter wear and holidays, is often embellished with bead embroidery, fur appliqué or patchwork, and metal ornamentation.

Medicine. One of the shaman's responsibilities was to tend to the health of her or his clansfolk. Illness was often attributed to the theft of a person's soul by another shaman's assistant spirits. Thus, a shaman sought to detect the cause of the illness, and, when necessary, to find and return the soul to the ailing person. The shaman also cured the clan's reindeer. For less serious maladies, the Evenki used a number of herbal cures; more serious illnesses involved a number of taboos and rituals.

The Soviet state provided a network of clinics to serve the Evenki and other native northerners and ensured free medical care and free travel to and from these facilities. Unfortunately, the level of health care in rural Siberia is still on a primitive level, and among the native northerners mortality remains high and life expectancy low. Consumption of cheap Russian vodka has been an increasing problem ever since the first contacts, and it has caused people to freeze to death, marital instability, and other social problems.

Death and Afterlife. A person died, according to Evenki beliefs, when her or his soul ( omi ) permanently left the body. The soul did not die, but continued to live in this world until a shaman took it to the world of the deceased. Usually this occurred one to three years after a person's physical death. Souls of suicides could not enter the world of the dead and continued to wander on earth.

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