Ket - Religion and Expressive Cultures



Religious Beliefs and Practices. In traditional Ket cosmology, natural phenomena and even objects were animate. Fetishes, ladles, sleds, and tipi doors all "saw" when decorated with eyes and thus animated. Propitiated through "feeding" and the observance of taboos, they helped humankind. There were also earth, stone, and heavenly spirits, good and bad. Particularly important were the Masters who controlled respectively the forests and game animals, water and fish, the mountains, and day and night. Kaygus, Master of Game Animals, was the son of a bear and a woman who offered animals, including himself, to kindly, ritual-observing men. This mystical unity was intensified by beliefs in the transmigration of souls, especially between people and bears. Khotsadam, Mother of the Sea, denizen of the cold north, ruler of day and night, and devourer of souls, was malevolent. Tomyam, the beautiful provider of migratory birds, who lived in the south, was entirely good. The sky god Es resided in the uppermost heaven, benign but remote from all but shamans. He battled against evil, aided by culture heroes, especially Alyba, and immortal shamans, particularly Doh.

The architecture of the universe remains unclear. The Ket shamanistic staff symbolizing the Universe Tree suggests a common Siberian model of many integrated levels through which shamans traveled in search of lost souls. East and south signified life; west and north, death.

Because animals understood human speech and were sensitive to women's smell, the Ket observed various taboos. In particular, hunting gear over which women had stepped had to be purified by fumigation. Forest spirits embodied in old larches protected lineages. The trees were marked with designs of faces, surrounded by anthropomorphic figures, and presented with gifts. Family fires, inherited patrilineally but cared for by women, protected each household. These Fire Mothers were "fed," protected from abuse (e.g., trash or sharp sticks), and maintained as long as possible. Fires could be shared only with kin. Family fires could foresee events and issue warnings by means of suitable crackles. Alalt, kept in "clean" areas, were decorated anthropomorphic figures, also patrilineally inherited but cared for by women. Fed and periodically reclothed, they aided family welfare. More closely allied to hunting luck were the images of deceased relatives of note ( dangols ) , prepared by shamans and also kept in the clean area. They purportedly led hunters to game.


Religious Practitioners. Shamanism was a calling inherited alternately by men and women in one lineage. It was actuated by a call (vision or dream), ensuing psychic illness, and curing under a shaman's care. Normalcy, a song, curing power, and a succession of ritual acquisitions—drumstick, moccasins, mittens, tambourine, staff, and finally, coat and coronet—marked progress to the shaman's full role. At this time he or she gained an assistant. Shamans were curers by means of soul recovery in séances. Their power derived from spirits, dead shamans and heroes, accessories for flight, the places visited, phallic symbols, and human bones. Whereas most shamans had primarily bird spirits and power from upper worlds, bear shamans were of the lower world. In shamanistic acting, beating on the right calf signified very fast travel. The staff was a weapon. If the shaman fell unconscious, he was believed to have flown away. Séances could be held in "dark tents" and involved animal noises, tent shaking, and other marvels.

Apart from séances, shamans could call upon alalt, reinforce family rituals, divine events, resolve disputes, and counteract enemy shamans and wizards ( bangos). Wizards and witches were primarily magical practitioners who cured with amulets and medications. Their protector was the Earth Devil.


Death and Afterlife. People and bears have seven souls; other animals, one; fish, none. Death comes from loss of the ulyvei (shadow) soul, usually through Khotsadam's malevolence. After death the ulyvei stays in the dwelling seven days, later spending time in the underworld and finally being reincarnated, particularly as a bear. Because souls of the dead could capture living kinsfolk in dreams, funerary rites were conducted by members of other clans. They included bathing the body, clothing it in reversed manner, covering the face, placing the body facing the dwelling entrance and the west, and burial in the ground or in a tree bole. Personal articles were left broken here. Although there were no cemetaries, burials took place in distant sacred places. Crosses often marked graves.

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