Yakut - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. Yakut religion derives from Turkic, Mongolic, Tungusic, and Russian ideas. Labels like "animist," "shamanist," or "Russian Orthodox" do not suffice. Ideas of sin are syncretized with concepts of contamination and taboo. Saints and bears are seen as shamanic spirit helpers. Christ is identified with the Yakut Bright Creator Elder God, Aiyy-toyon. A pantheon of gods, believed to live in nine hierarchical eastern heavens, was only one aspect of a complex traditional cosmology that still has meaning for some Yakut. Another crucial dimension was the spirit-soul ( ichchi ) of living beings, rocks, trees, natural forces, and objects crafted by humans. Most honored was the hearth spirit ( yot ichchite ), still fed morsels of food and drink by pious Yakut. Giant trees ( al lukh mas ), deep in the forest, were especially sacred: their ichchi are still given small offerings of coins, scarves, and ribbons. Belief in ichchi is related to ancient ideas of harmony and equilibrium with nature, and to shamanism. Yakut shamanism is a Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic blend of belief in the supernatural, with emphasis on the ability of "white," or benign, shamans to intercede, through prayers and séances, with eastern spirits for the sake of humans. "Black" shamans, communing with evil spirits, could both benefit and harm humans.

Religious Practitioners. As with other Siberian peoples, Yakut shamans ( oiun if male, udagan if female) combine medical and spiritual practice. Despite centuries of Russian Orthodox and Soviet discrediting of shamans as greedy charlatans, some Yakut maintain belief in shamans and supernatural powers. Others, struggling to recover spirituality after rejecting Marxist-Leninist materialism, accept aspects of shamanic philosophy. Still others, influenced by Soviet education and science, reject all religion as superstition. In the nineteenth century a few Yakut leaders financed the building of Russian Orthodox churches, and many Yakut declared themselves Christian, but this did not mean that they saw Christianity and shamanism as mutually exclusive. The Yakut also believed in the spiritual power of blacksmiths. By the 1980s shamans in Yakutia were rare and more likely to be Evenk than Yakut. Yet rituals once associated with spirit belief were being revived by urban as well as rural Yakut.

Ceremonies. The most important ceremony, associated with a founding Yakut ancestor named Ellei, is the annual summer yhyak festival, a celebration of seasonal change, of kumys (fermented mare's milk), and of kin solidarity. Once a religious celebration led by a shaman, the ceremony has been adapted since World War I into a secular commemoration of Yakut traditions. Practiced in villages and towns, it features opening prayers ( algys ) and libations of kumys to the earth. Although some Yakut debate its "authenticity," the festival still includes feasting, horse racing, wrestling, and all-night line dancing to improvised chants. It lasts three joyous days in Suntar, where it is especially famed. Wedding rituals, pared down from previous eras, center around memorial hitching posts ( serqe ), carved for the occasion, with couples honored by prayers, special food, and dancing. New rituals marking wedding anniversaries and graduations at all educational levels include the placement of serge, on which the names of those honored are carved. But traditional rituals of birth, supplicating the goddess of fertility, Aiyyhyt, have become less popular, with some Yakut women even mocking the restrictions that were once associated with beliefs about female impurity. Russian Orthodox holidays are rarely celebrated.


Arts. Yakut art takes many forms, sometimes rooted in ritual life, but, in the Soviet period, often secular and commercial. Silver and gold jewelry, once considered talismanic, is enjoyed for its aesthetic value. Famed for ivory-and woodcarving, Yakut artists have branched into graphic art, painting, and sculpture. Filmmakers, theater groups, and opera and dance companies enrich cultural life in Yakutia and beyond. Continuity of folk art is strongest in exuberant improvisational poetry that accompanies line dancing ( ohuokhai ) and in a revival of mouth-harp ( khomus ) playing. But few young people memorize the olonkho that once took days to tell. Instead, olonkho heroes are memorialized in other art forms.

Medicine. With the decline of shamanism, most Yakut rely on Western medicine administered in hospitals and clinics. Yet rumors persist of faith healing, described as spiritual or hypnotic. A few Yakut with shamanic family backgrounds attend medical school, supporting the belief among Yakut that healing talent can be inherited. Traditional healers (who had long periods of apprenticeship) were specialized, with herbal experts, bonesetters, shaman's assistants, and various grades of shamanic power. Sources vary as to whether male or female shamans were more powerful. Drumming and the music of the khomus enhanced a shaman's trance during séances to ascertain the cause of illness. Each person was believed to have three souls, which were necessary to maintain health.

Death and Afterlife. At the demise of all three souls, especially tyn or "breath," a person was declared dead. On the deathbed, the family sometimes dressed the dying in funeral attire. Before burial, the deceased's spirit visited every place he or she had traveled in life. On the third day, bearers took the body to the graveyard, where a grave was prepared deep enough to touch permafrost and shallow enough to be seen by escort spirits. A horse, steer, or reindeer was sacrificed, to help the deceased travel to the land of the dead and to provide food for family and grave preparers. One of the deceased's souls, kut , was believed to travel skyward to a lush greenery-filled heaven. People feared that souls could stay on earth, becoming yor capable of haunting kin. Fears of yor, especially yor of shamans, lingered in the 1980s. Burials were mixtures of pre-Soviet and Soviet ritual, with traditional symbolism observed more in villages than in cities.

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