Mansi - Religion and Expressive Cultures

Religious Beliefs. Mansi beliefs and religious practices varied considerably not only from region to region but from household to household. Each local group maintained and made offerings at its own ancestral worship site, and households contained unique religious objects. In general, however, the Mansi believe that the universe is formed along both horizontal and vertical dimensions and that the vertical is divided into three levels. The upper level of sky and heavens, occupied by the sun and the moon, is inhabited by Numi-Torum, the "god above." He is generally thought to be involved in the control of human destiny and is the protector of the Por moiety. The middle level is inhabited by human beings, whose activities are thought to range from evil to good, as well as by the forest, water, and patron spirits. Finally, the lower level, under the surface of the earth, is the realm of bad and evil spirits, including Numi-Torum's antithesis, Kul'-oter. Also important is the sky goddess, Kaltas'ekva, who is the personification of the earth. Although the Mansi were subjected to mass baptism early in the eighteenth century, it is not clear how much of Mansi belief was influenced by these forced conversions to Christianity. Mir-susne-khum (World-Surveyor-Man), the youngest son of Numi-Torum, is, under the influence of Christian tradition, thought to be the link between people and the world of the gods. He is capable of both good and bad acts and is thought, for example, to have given people the idea of constructing airplanes and satellites.

The Mansi make offerings of game animals to local forest spirits ( menkvi ) for success in hunting. The sometimes foolish exploits of these spirits are commonly recounted in folklore. Before human beings were on earth, it is thought, they descended from the sky into the sea and then worked their way up the Ob and Sosva rivers into areas where Mansi now live. Various features of rivers and lakes—whirlpools, river mouths, etc.—were considered sacred sites associated with the water spirit, Vit-khon, and his daughter, Vit-khon agu. Groups that were particularly dependent on fishing gave regular offerings to these spirits. There were also regular sacrifices to them three times a year: after the breakup of the ice (usually in April), in August, and again in October.

Religious Practitioners. Mansi shamans, nah or naitkhum ( khum, "man"), men or women, healed the sick, determined the types and colors of sacrificial animals, and in some cases participated in sacrifices, told fortunes, and sought to determine the results of productive activities. Among a few groups of Mansi, shamans used drums and had special costumes (usually a cape).

Ceremonies. The best known of the Mansi ceremonies was the "festival of the bear," performed in the homes of successful hunters after the killing of a bear. The activities of the festival took place at night and typically lasted five days if the bear killed was a male and four if it was a female.

Arts. Traditional Mansi had a single-stringed, fiddlelike instrument, the sangultap, that was played by plucking. They also had a violinlike instrument, nyrne iiv, that was played on the knee with a bow. The voice tumran (Jew's harp) was a women's instrument. Several groups of Mansi were well known for a plucked-string, harplike instrument called the lebed', which means "swan" in Russian.

The Mansi had very diverse dance and vocal art and various forms of nonmusical folklore. Festivals were accompanied by puppet-theater performances (hand and marionette). Clothing and utensils were richly ornamented; traditional decoration of clothing with beads and mosaics of fur continues today.

Medicine. Shamans were the traditional healers of Mansi society, but there was general use of various plants such as sarsaparilla root, heather berries, and bilberry leaves for their medicinal properties. Mansi women used a charm to ease childbirth.

Death and Afterlife. Mansi believe that death is determined by Numi-Torum (or a guardian spirit) who sends lists of who is to die to the god of the underworld, Kul'oter. Death, according to traditional Mansi belief can come about because the victim has angered a guardian spirit or Kul'-oter by forgetting to perform a promised offering. Mansi say that when a person dies, his or her spirit goes. One version recorded earlier in this century held that the dead reside on an island in the northern Arctic Ocean for forty days before returning. Others say that the life of a person does not end with death. The deceased and the spirit released from him or her (one of five spirits in men and one of four in women) live in the cemetery. A special rite is performed to determine who among the deceased is reborn in newborn children. Not wanting to be troubled by the dead, descendants of the deceased bury him or her with things that they think will be of help in the other world. Traditional Mansi grave structures are log frames with roofs that in outward form resemble houses. On the front or side wall of each there is an opening through which, at the time of the memorial feast, there is contact between the living and the dead. At other times the opening is covered with a special stopper. Traditional households made regular offerings to deceased ancestors to maintain their good will.

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