Nivkh - Religion and Expressive Cultures



Religious Beliefs. The Nivkh conception of nature is pervaded by animistic beliefs. There are vague notions about a god and about gods, but on a more explicit level, the mountains, the sea, and the rivers were all believed to have their "masters" ( yz , yzng ), who provided sustenance to humans. Because each clan also had a specific relationship to the bear and the bear was an yz, the bear festival, which was essentially a religious festival, also strengthened both clan cohesion and the perpetuation of beliefs. The island of Sakhalin was interpreted anthropomorphically, with geographic regions corresponding to parts of the human body. One cosmogonic myth invokes a flood and a reversal: today's mountains were seas and the seas were mountains. The Nivkh believe that certain animals are invested with supernatural powers and that some humans are capable of transforming themselves into foxes. Humans are admonished not to mistreat parts of fish left over after cooking and eating lest they offend the "sea master." Sixty-eight percent of the Nivkh counted in the 1897 census were reportedly Russian Orthodox; it is very likely that these people accepted baptism nominally, without an understanding of Christian doctrine.

Religious Practitioners. The shaman—whose main function is to diagnose and cure disease—is the intermediary between humans in this world and the gods in the other worlds. The shaman, who may be male or female, has both worldly and otherworldly assistants on the trip to the other worlds and in those worlds. During the shamanistic séance, the shaman beats a drum ( ghas ). The noise that results, as well as the noise from the appendages on the shaman's belt (which are often of metal), symbolize the shaman's trip and negotiations with higher powers. The shaman's payment is in goods.

Ceremonies. At a certain mythic level of discourse, the bear is kin to the Nivkh. The prime religious ceremony is, therefore the bear festival. It usually takes place in the winter and (like a drama) consists of a series of events: the receiving and feeding of the guests (of a determined clan), the teasing of the bear, the ritual feeding of the bear, the mock shooting followed by the real shooting of the bear, its dismemberment, the ritual exchange of gifts, the banquet, and the feeding of sacrificial dogs, which are then killed. During the festival there is also dancing and the performance of various games and sports.

Arts. Along with decorative arts (sewing, carving), there are verbal arts: folk tales, riddles, sayings, and epics. Epics are recited (generally by a respected bard) and contain sung portions. The bard is periodically encouraged by utterances of encouragement ("yes" or "carry on") from the audience. Music is pentatonic and has mainly four notes (G, C, D, E), with embellishments. Most songs ( lu ) are lyrical and depict a state of the soul or of nature. The Nivkh have a one-stringed instrument and the Jew's harp, made of metal or of bamboo. Ditties are recited by women toward the end of the bear festival; their recital is accompanied by the rhythmical striking, with sticks, of a specially prepared and decorated tree trunk. A viable and active national intelligentsia has developed since 1917. Since 1989 there has been a Nivkh magazine, published partly in Nivkh and partly in Russian.

Medicine. Disease is thought to be caused by the breaking of taboos. It is the shaman's task to drive out evil spirits and to negotiate with higher powers on the patient's behalf. Along with the shaman's intervention there is a very large array of plants and plant matter (and also some animal parts) that are used either to cure diseases (remedies) or to prevent diseases (talismans).

Death and Afterlife. Death is believed to be caused by evil spirits (called milk and kinr or kins). One of the shaman's functions is to combat these. After death, the soul wanders off to the underground world ( mly-wo ). The Nivkh both cremate and bury their dead. The clan's function is again evident (as in the case of the bear festival, which is in part connected with the cult of the dead) in that the inte ent must be carried out by clan members. It is accompanied by various rites, such as the breaking of the deceased's kettle, gun, and sled and the killing of dogs. The remembrance of the dead calls for the construction of a ritual miniature wooden house ( raf ) into which is placed a memorial tablet ( ghag ). The Gilyak cult of dead twins has attracted much attention.


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