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Section: Ethnography
Pagan Belief and Customs. Description of the Yakut Custom of Sacrifice

Pagan Belief and Customs. Description of the Yakut Custom of Sacrifice

A significant place in the expedition notes of G. F. Mueller is given to the characteristic of the religious culture of the Siberian aboriginals, their world views. The traveler’s notes represent the following materials in the most profound manner: deities and spirits, their influence over people’s fate; shamans as the intermediaries between people, deities and spirits; human and animal soul; conception of disease and death; funeral cult and the other world; totem, trade, kin, and family cults; cult of the horse; magic (for medicinal, amorous and other purposes); various fortune-telling and divination. Like many other travelers, he was especially interested in Siberian shamanism. During his journey through Siberia, Mueller met dozens of shamans, was present at the sessions of their chanting and at the sacrifices performed by them. Some of the shamans he visited, others invited to town for inquiries; as a rule, they answered frankly, giving very detailed information on different aspects of shamanic world views and customs. Often such meetings gathered several shamans at the same time. Thus, on the night of 6 to 7 of August in 1738 five male and two female shamans showed the scholar their art in a Buryat ulus.

Mueller believed that for shamans their performances were a kind of job, which earned them their bread. Many a page is devoted by the scholar to the description of tricks of all kinds, with the help of which shamans made people – ill or those who were easily scared – offer cattle, furs and other property as sacrifices and shaman’s reward for chanting. Speaking about Yakut shamans, the scholar notes that they did not put on their outfits or bring their tambourine when paying the first visit to the ill: they supposedly cleared up who of the “demons” had stolen the patient’s soul and negotiated the sacrifice that they would accept instead of the soul. In some cases shamans claimed that the results of the negotiations were unfavorable and admitted they were powerless. Mueller explains it as follows: “There is an impression that the ceremony is conducted by the shaman solely for him to examine the ill and to determine whether the patient is already in the state when there is no hope for recovery. When the shaman sees it, he does not try his skill on the ill, so as not discredit it by the following death of the patient.” Often, during his chanting, the shaman who was supposed to go down to the underground world for the patient’s soul, claimed upon his return that he had managed to free the souls of some other people present there. Mueller writes, “And he says to some others that he has failed to free their souls, and it is usually said to the richest and noblest, so that it could earn him more. For such people get scared and invite the shaman for chanting, and another sacrifice animal is killed…” However, the scholar admits that along with mercenary shamans there were some “honest” ones, who were satisfied with trifling rewards or did without them altogether.

Speaking about miracles of all kinds that were at the disposal of the “strong” shamans (disappearing of the tied-up shaman from the yurta, piercing the body with a knife, walking barefoot over hot coals, rubbing the face with the coals, etc.), Mueller always gives a rational explanation. After watching the chanting repeatedly, the scholar came to the conclusion that the “tricks” performed by the shamans could impress only simple-minded or inexperienced people, who see these actions for the first time. Every time, when he learned about some “miracles”, he would never rest until he found out how they were performed. Thus, while watching a chanting session during which a shaman rubbed his face with hot coals, he came to the conclusion that the secret was in the sleight of the shaman’s hand. The shaman brought a handful of coals close to his face, but in the very first moments the coals poured down between his spread fingers, and only ashes stayed in his hands. At one occasion Mueller even made an official report in the Yakut Office on a famous female shaman, whose skill he had tried twice with witnesses present.

Mueller’s idea of shamans as deliberate frauds was fully shared by his comrade J. G. Gmelin. Mueller’s opinion on the shamans’ acting talents was higher, especially when they performed the trip to the underground world, during which they were to surmount various obstacles and negotiate the return of the patient’s soul. He compares the shaman’s momentary reincarnations into the loom, the lord of the underground world, his wife, servants, and himself riding the tambourine-horse to the play of an actor portraying several characters at once.

The shamans performed various and frequently very important functions for the peoples with poor social differentiation. In critical situations, they often played a consolidating role in the society. Among Mueller’s travel notes there are tales of famous shamans who also were chieftains of their kin or tribe.

Mueller made very interesting observations on the influence of shamanism over the Russian people living in Siberia, who even produced some of their own shamans (especially in the north-east). Many Siberian Russians including military leaders and other officials of the Czar administration strongly believed in the power and supernatural abilities of shamans and asked them for help.

Mueller’s collection of materials on the pagan beliefs of the Siberian aboriginals and shamanism makes up hundreds of hand-written pages in German and touch practically all problems related to the phenomenon. The largest part of the materials is dedicated to the Yakut world views, pantheon of the Yakut deities and spirits (more than a hundred names is indicated together with their hierarchy, functions, etc.), shamanistic practice and various pagan customs. The description of Ysyakh alone – the main Yakut feast of kumiss sacrifice to the deities and natural forces, which is widely celebrated today as the national holiday of the summer welcome – takes up about 50 pages. To give an idea of these materials, we are publishing, below, a fragment of Mueller’s field notes describing the Yakut custom of sacrifice.

Description of the Yakut Custom of Sacrifice

On June 19 and 20, 1737, seven verst’s from Yakutsk I saw how Yakuts made a sacrifice to their demons.

A yearling calf of the red color was chosen for the sacrifice, and it was tied up to the birch that had been especially planted in front of a summer yurta so that the calf was facing the open door of the yurta.

The shaman was inside the yurta, along with his Yakut company: the shaman in the middle, and the simple people around him. He began with usual beating the tambourine and continuous cries, first sitting, next hopping. In his pretended ecstasy the shaman also gave quite a beating to all the Yakuts present and broke his mallet, but was immediately given another one – a couple of such mallets are usually kept just for the case.

During tambourine beating the calf in front of the yurta behaved badly and sprawled flat on the ground several times. The Yakuts explained it by the calf’s fear of the demons whom the shaman beckoned; however, it was caused by nothing else but by the calf seeing in front of it the shaman who was crying loudly and beating the tambourine violently. Twice the shaman threw his tambourine and mallet on the ground and jumped out of the yurta, clasped the calf’s neck, squeezed it so violently that the calf showed its teeth, and tore its mouth open and blew into it. Also, he continued screaming. The Yakuts said that in this way the shaman drove all the demons he was beckoning into the calf, and that was why the calf was behaving so badly. I had a suspicion that the shaman could have used a prickle while squeezing its neck and opening its mouth, causing the calf to behave badly, show its teeth and jump. However, the following events showed that it never happened. It was even less plausible that a demon was involved, for the calf stayed the same as before, and when the tambourine beating finished, it grew quite calm. It seemed even that during the beating the calf behaved much calmer than in the very beginning of the ceremony, for with time it got used to it.

During the ceremony with the calf, the shaman repeatedly appealed, while beating the tambourine, to the demons, whom he called by their names, and to the previously dead shamans to be satisfied with the sacrifice instead of him. Usually when the ceremony is held for the sake of an ill person, the shaman asks the demons and dead shamans to take and eat the sacrifice instead of the ill. For they believe that demons and shamans kill and eat people.

After finishing the ceremony with the calf, the shaman performed another ceremony: at intervals he would beat his tambourine with loud screams, as usual, and throw himself flat on the ground, with his face and stomach in the southern part of the yurta, his head to the wall, and repeated it nine times. Every time, he lay with his face and stomach on the ground for about quarter of an hour, moved his fingers, as if beckoning someone, and twitched his feet. Sometimes he also cried as a loom, pretended that he wanted to stand up but could not do this. The explanation of the Yakuts was as follows. The demons live in the ground, nine tiers deep. Each tier is inhabited by the demons of a special kind, and all of them must be overcome before you come to the lowest tier of the noblest demon, who rules the others. In the Yakuts’ opinion, the shaman in his ecstasy really goes through all the nine tiers with the sacrifice animal and finally delivers it to the main demon. His lying on the ground and making the above-mentioned gestures with his hands and feet, as well his pretense that he wants to stand up but cannot do it, and his crying as a loom – all this means, the Yakuts say, that he must swim underground as this waterfowl. And when the shaman reaches his goal (the tier that he was supposed to visit) and wants to go back, he cannot stand up at once, just like this waterfowl, which cannot easily take off the water surface. Meanwhile, the shaman, having lain for some time on the ground, every time came to consciousness and acted as if he was again on earth among his kin, whom he continuously entertained with his tambourine beating and screaming.

…The Yakuts have special respect for all stallions; nobody rides them and they can be put on to carts only as the last resort. White or pale grey stallions are consecrated by the shamans
                                                           (G. F. Mueller)

Finally, when he fell down for the ninth time to have an audience with the noblest demon in the ninth tier, he discovered many obstacles before he was allowed by the servants to the waiting room. He had a long argument with them, and it was as if an actor in the theater were performing and imitating three or four characters at once. Having got an audience, the shaman played the same scene with the noblest demon. The latter refused to accept the sacrifice first and said that it was so insignificant, that if it were a three- or four-year-old cow, it would do. He also asked from what patient it was. From his part, the shaman brought his sincerest apologies and answered to everything. The demon’s wife, who said she was sick and complained, uttered finally a nice word to the shaman, after which the demon accepted the sacrifice. Right after that the shaman began behaving as though he wanted to catch something, and the words he was saying meant that he was catching the calf, which broke free from the place where it was left tied up. Next, as if he was between two fighting parties. It meant that in the underground habitats there was another horned animal, which was butting the calf that he had brought. But the calf won. Next, the shaman grabbed his own hair, dragged it with the head down to the ground, and besides took fighting poses. It meant that the demons were arguing and fighting over the sacrifice calf that he had brought, for it was good for everybody.

…One Yurak shaman lived in his youth with the Russian hunters on the Yenisei River as a slave and was baptized there, after that he professed Christianity for 15 years, but later ran away to the Yuraks and became a shaman. He was so famous that became the most distinguished shaman of his time. He was reported to strip naked and pierce his body with a large palm so that everybody could see how the palm was entering his body from one side and coming out from the other. He also cut his stomach so that his intestines fell out on his pelvis and after that he lay for some time as if he were dead. However, soon after he was alive again, put his intestines back into his body and clapped his hands on his body once with a loud cry, after which nothing was seen on his body, and he was back on his feet, all healthy. Panziruev, a hunter, claimed that he had seen both these actions with his own eyes and swore that both times the whole upper part of the shaman’s body was naked. The Yuraks told Panziruev that the shaman sometimes cut his chest open, tore his heart away, held it for some time up in the air and shook it, then put it back into his body and healed the wound with a single punch (G. F. Mueller). Russian State Archive of the Ancient Acts, c. 199, portf. 507, part 2, p. 310 o.—311

During all the performance at the supreme demon’s, the shaman often bowed his head to the ground, most of the time when he was the petitioner he knelt down, and finally, when he wanted to go back, he said, “Master demon, what else should I say, you know everything better than anybody else. Just come tomorrow and don’t reject the sacrifice that we will give you”. The demon promised to come and invited all the Yakut guests who were in the yurta to join the feast. With that, the shaman stood up, turned, and hopped for a long time to the northern side of the yurta. It meant that he was horseback-riding. Finally he fell down, pretending to faint, and was brought back to his senses by repeated fire striking. The end of the evening. The calf, which after the first ceremony was tied to the tree a little bit farther from the yurta, was left there for the night, and everybody went to bed.

Next day, soon after the sunrise, the sacrifice began. In about half a versta from the yurta (sometimes it can be even further away) they found a place where two trees stood in 2-3 sazhen’s from each other, east to west. On the trees, nine faces were carved with an axe (not by the shaman but by another Yakut), six on one tree and three on the other. The Yakuts say that it is immaterial how many faces are on each tree. If, for example, there are three trees close to one another, and not very thick at that, and there is not enough room for the faces on them, then they are placed on all the three trees – the important thing is there should be nine faces altogether. Understandably, the images were very rough and unrecognizable. Each cheek was formed by one or two flat cuts, the nose between them was marked by the natural tree bark, and the mouth was made by two deep cross cuts. Eyes, forehead and the rest was not seen.

Nine logs, each one arshin long , were put on the ground side by side between the two trees or not far from them to the south; all of them depicted fish and were facing south. They, just like the above-described faces, were meant to symbolize the dead shamans. And the reason for depicting them as fish is that they are supposed to move in and under the ground like fish.

Before the fish symbols were arranged, nine young birch trees had been planted in a row east to west at different intervals, at some distance southward. White horse manes were used to twist a thin rope, string-thick and nine sazhen’s in length, and some horsehair, also from the white manes, was tied to the rope at the intervals of half an arshin. The rope was fastened to the nine birches east to west so that it was facing south and north.

This and the next three pages are a kind of an insertion.

This action with the nine-sazhen rope has the following meaning, they say. As the shaman had traveled the underground world to the depth of the nine tiers, where he passed nine such places where the Yakuts usually hang something as a sign of respect, this rope was dedicated to these nine different places. The number of the horsehair strands and the intervals between the trees were of no significance.

Apart from this ceremony, it is their custom to hang the same nine-sazhen ropes in well-known and worshipped places such as the Kangalasskii and Serguev Kamen’ (stone), and the Lena River. The action is accompanied with the words, “This I give you, Serguev Kamen’, for your nine sons and nine daughters.” Such expression has the form of a proverb: when the Yakuts want to wish something kind to somebody, they wish them to get nine sons and nine daughters. In other places that are not so important, they hang ropes of six, five, or four sazhen long or even shorter, or just attach a bunch of horsehair, which a passer-by cuts from his horse’s mane. All the things the Yakuts hang as a sign of respect for the places is called Delbergè , i.e. the hanged. It may be anything and it can take place in a variety of circumstances. The fish (mentioned above) they call Lò-baligà, i.e. fish of the underworld. Lo is the residence of the main demon, whom they call Kütatài-töiön, and his wife is Kütài-eimachsìn, i.e. an old woman. The dead shamans dwell there, and they are used for errands, to kill people and to bring them to the underworld, just like the rest of the subordinate demons who perform the same function. Life in the underworld is bad. People always live in the darkness and cold. It is always foggy and it smells bad. The demons and shamans that bring them there mutilate them: tear an arm or a leg off. Almost all simple Yakuts are eaten immediately, so that nothing is left of them. The shaman said that when he was passing the nine tiers to the underworld, he often saw many people lying, who were severely mutilated and complained.

The shaman presents the shamans’ travel into the underworld in more detail. They believe their tambourine to be their horse, as if they ride it, and the mallet to be the lash. They go under the ground with them, passing various places – fields, meadows, forests, lakes, etc. When they fall and move as if they swim like looms, they pass the lakes. Not far from the further side of the lakes there are mountains, and along the roads across the mountains there live the demons, to whom they bow and squat, then stand up. There are nine such mountains and roads across them inhabited by the demons, which need to be crossed. After that they arrive at the dwelling of the main demon, or in the underworld.

The Yakuts believe that on Earth, too, all extraordinary and outstanding places, where they usually hang something, are inhabited by a special category of demons, to whom they offer sacrifices, hanging various rags and horse hair or throwing a stick or a twig. All places are feminine gender, and they add the words of respect to their names: Ebè, i.e. “grandmother”, and Chotun, i.e. mistress. For example, Örüss-ebè, i.e. Lena, Itìk-chaià-ebè, i.e. Kangalasskii and Serguev Kamen’ Gorod-ebè, as well as Gorod-chotùn, i.e. Yakutsk, Marcha-chotùn, i.e. the river Markha, Ürüng-Köl-chotùn, i.e. White Lake a little down from Yakutsk. Ebè is nobler than Chotun. The town of Yakutsk can also be respectfully called Ebè. For example, “Where are you coming from?” The answer is, “Ebè-t'-tèn”, which means, “From the Grandmother” (that is, from the town).

Continuation of the sacrifice ceremony. The sacrifice animal was tied to the tree, which was, if you face south or the above-described preparations, to the left. I asked whether it always had to be to the left of the tree, because I supposed that since the tree faced east, this might have meant something. However, the answer was negative. They just pick a thin tree, because the animal’s skin is to be set on its cut top, which is much more difficult to do and requires a lot of work if the tree is thick.

In front of the trees, in one or two steps to the north, two wooden waist-high crotches were put in the ground, points up. Narrow planks, two fingers thick and one arshin long, were fastened on the points. Small wooden cups were put and fastened on the planks, five on one and four on the other, nine all in all. These cups are called Tschogotschok. The crotch with five cups Tschogotschok was put in the middle, in front of the two trees, and the other was a bit to the left. The first is dedicated to the demons and the dead male shamans, and the second to the females. The edges of the planks on which the cups Tschogotschok were fastened face south.

A little to the north from the crotches, right in front of the left tree, to which the sacrifice animal was tied, the Yakuts erected a shack, Aragas in Yakut, as high as a man. The shack was covered with birch branches. In front of the shack, a fire was lit, next to which nine clay pots stood, five on the one side, and four on the other, to cook the meat of the animal that was to be killed.

The animal was slaughtered not by the shaman, but by a simple Yakut, who played the role of a deacon during the whole ceremony. The animal was brought down to the ground head to the south. The slaughter man first made a cut on its belly alongside, below the breast bone, put his hand into the cut and (as we saw later at dissection) tore away the aorta below the heart. Aorta in Yakut is Sisin-üёse, i.e. the back artery. In their ordinary life, the Yakuts slaughter their animals in the same way. The reason to do so is not to let the blood out, because it is considered to be a great delicacy. The animal was skinned, but again so that it stayed lying on its back on the ground. The head, except the tongue and the meat from the jaws, as well as the four legs from the knees down, was left with the skin. When a thigh or another part of the carcass is skinned, the joint is cut, but always in such a way that no bone is damaged or broken. Other Yakuts cut the meat into small pieces and put them in the nine pots to cook. The thigh sinews are also separated and left on the skin. They also cut out the muscles from of the knee-caps and pieces of fat from the knee joints. To this, they add the bladder and keep it all separately until the end of the ceremony.

When the breast bone was cut, the blood was scooped out of it into a vessel, and when it coagulated, it was used to smear the wooden faces and the faces of the dead shamans cut on the trees as a sacrifice to them. The rest of the blood was put into the intestines, cooked and eaten along with the rest of the meat. The intestines and stomach were just roughly squeezed out and slightly cleaned from the dirt that was inside, but not washed. They almost never wash their food or dishes. The liver was cut into pieces, wrapped into a piece of a net and cooked. It is the favorite delicacy with the Yakuts, which they call Togotschò. They also fry liver in small pieces over the fire.

Meanwhile, when meat, intestines and giblets cooked, the skin was set up on the left tree as follows. The tree top was cut off, a wooden skin-long plank was fastened on the tree north to south, and the skin was hanged on the plank heading south. Such hanged skin is called Kerjäch-Tiritè in Yakut, i.e. sacrifice skin (the whole ceremony of sacrifice is called Kerjäch in Yakut). They always hang the skin this way except if there are no trees around. Then they put two stakes with a cross skin-long pole and hang the skin on it. It is done mostly when they sacrifice to the supreme, or air demons, and in this case there is no ceremony with the shaman faces and wooden fish, neither the shaman’s trip into the underworld.

When the meat was half-cooked, it was taken out of the pots and put on the shack. The broth was poured into a vessel and a diced part of a lung was added there. Then they filled up nine small cups to treat the invited demons: a little bit of broth and a dice of lung in each cup. Then the shaman and his deacon sprinkled the broth and the diced lung to the demons up and forward, on the ground; each spoon contained both the broth and the lung. They sprinkle it in the following order.

1. To Kutatai as the main demon, with his family and all demons. Kutatai also has many children. They sprinkle it to them naming each separately.

2. To the dead shamans, calling them by name, who they know or about whom there are legends saying that they belong to their kin. The ceremony concerns only one kin, namely, the kin of the person for whose sake the sacrifice is made. It can be a sick person, or a shaman can perform the ceremony for himself or herself, which also happens sometimes.

3. To the places, that is, to the demons who dwell there.

Also, they invite all demons at once to eat the meat they put on the shack. They express it as follows: the demons and shamans can eat to their heart’s content and for that give a long life to the person who has made the sacrifice. Then, when the sprinkling is done, the shaman says to the supreme demon: now that we have fed you, you can go back home on the horse that we gave you (meaning the hanged skin).

Then the shaman and the other Yakuts sat down to eat. The branches with the cooked meat were taken off the shack and put on the ground. The Yakuts took their seats without any particular order, first they ate dry meat that was cleanly cut off the bones and divided between them in small pieces. Then they ate the broth with the spoons. After the meal they burned the bones, muscles and pieces of fat that they had cut out of the knee-caps as was described above. All the ritual things – the skin, small cups, rope, etc., – were left there; it is always done like that, these things are never touched, staying at the sacrifice site as long as the weather and wind permit. They do not worship the skin.

Some shamans, for example, the one who performed the ceremony, may not make sacrifices to the deities by performing the customary spring ceremony of tschokanje*. Neither can they sacrifice horses to the deities because these shamans are considered bad and sinful. The simple Yakuts say that such bad shamans can bewitch and kill people with the help of the demons. The shamans themselves deny it but admit that they have the connection with the demons and not with the deities.

Russian State Archive of the Ancient Acts, c. 199, portf. 507, part 2, pp. 223 o.—236 o. Translated from German.

*Tschokanje is what the Russians called the ceremony of kumiss sacrifice (Ysyakh), which was accompanied by the shamans’ crying “Tschok!” Mueller says, “The ceremony that the Yakuts usually perform in spring is called , i.e. sprinkling, for this is the main ritual it consists of. The Russians call the ceremony “tschokanje”, because the shamans often cry out the word Tscho or Tschok during it.” (Russian State Archive of the Ancient Acts, c. 199, portf. 507, part 2, p. 208 o.)

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