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1714
Section: Ethnography

Drummer-Bear
Russian Toy in the Ceremonies and Cults of the Ob-Ugric People

When visiting the sanctuaries of the Mansi and Khanty, researchers may come across a children's toy—a figure of a soldier, horse, or frog, or even an ordinary glass ball for the New Year tree. What do these jolly items do among the harsh, silent, and sometimes gloomy attributes of the ancient pagan religion?

The Khanty and Mansi are two small nations living in the north of West Siberia. Although the names of these nations are familiar to everyone—they gave the name to the Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug (KhMAO), a vast territory renowned for its oil and gas fields—most people know little about them. The essence of their culture is conveyed by the word “sponge.” Throughout the centuries, the culture of the Khanty and Mansi has been absorbing, like a sponge, the wide diversity of features of other ethnic cultures. A Khanty or Mansi shrine would contain an ancient socketed bronze ax (“celt”), Sassanian silver dish, Bulgarian dipper, Tatar boots, uniform of an officer or infantryman, Russian tin soldier…

All these items were bought, exchanged, and incorporated into the sacred sphere. Toys, figurines, and figured tableware were used in rituals because they looked like one of the sacred objects. Thus, a papier-mache equestrian turned into Mir-Susne-Hum, the Son of the Supreme God, and a duck-shaped porcelain saltcellar personified an “owl”, the guardian spirit of the village.

Thanks to this unusual practice, the sanctuaries of the Ob-Ugric people have become “museum collections,” which have preserved items from different epochs and cultures. The only difference is that very few people can see these unique items, and the chests where they are stored bear little resemblance to museum showcases...

Ethnographers have always been fascinated by miracles and wonders, curiosities and oddities; unusual things existing in other cultures continue to fuel their interest. When visiting the sanctuaries of Mansi and Khanty and describing the traditional attributes (sacrificial veils, bear-festival masks, wooden statues of gods, shamanic tambourines, etc.) made by the culture-bearers, researchers may come across a children’s toy—a figure of a soldier, horse, or frog, or even an ordinary glass ball for the New Year tree.

What do these jolly items do among the harsh, silent, and sometimes gloomy attributes of the ancient pagan religion?

A silver statuette of a goose, the core of the figurine of the Mansi’s guardian spirit, and a porcelain salt-cellar shaped as a duck, a cult attribute of the Mansi. Silver figurines of the Mansi and Khanty’s guardian spirits (right)

The Khanty and Mansi are two small nations living in the north of West Siberia. Although the names of these nations are familiar to everyone—they gave the name to the Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug (KhMAO), a vast territory renowned for its oil and gas fields—most people know little about these nations. Oil and gas seem to prevail over any discussion about the importance of the indigenous culture of the northern anglers and hunters.

In my opinion, the essence of their culture is conveyed by the word “sponge.” Throughout the centuries, the culture of the Khanty and Mansi has been absorbing, like a sponge, the wide diversity of features of other ethnic cultures. A “model” Khanty or Mansi shrine would contain an ancient socketed bronze ax (“celt”), Sassanian silver dish, Bulgarian dipper, Russian soldier figure, Tatar boots, uniform of an officer or infantryman, German counter badge, etc. All these items coexist harmoniously within this religious and ritual practice of the north; they were bought, exchanged, and incorporated into the forbidden sacred sphere when one discovered that the shahs portrayed on Iranian and Central Asian vessels resembled the native gods of the Khanty and Mansi, and a copper figurine of Saint George looked like the youngest son of Num-Torum, the supreme god of the Ob-Ugrians.

In an Ugric shrine,...

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