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Section: Ethnography
Sacred Faces of the Great Forest

Sacred Faces of the Great Forest

More than one hundred years have passed since the scholarly world of imperial Russia heard for the first time the legendary stories about the life of the Ostyak heroes written down in the depth of the Irtish taiga by Serafim Patkanov. Full of mysterious images, a sombre taiga atmosphere, vivid and unexpected epithets and contrasting comparisons, with a rhythm of repetitions that was alien to a “civilized” listener’s ear, these stories acquainted contemporaries with the world of Western Siberian natives, a world which had disappeared and was absolutely unfamiliar

«... – What man with strong leg joints was born...at the other end of the city?

– The Hero Wearing a Shirt of Mail with a Hundred Sticking-out Little Horns, who is my brother, was born there.

– Who was born after him?

– The Hero Wearing a Ringing Shirt of Mail Made of Shining Rings, who is my brother, was born here.

– Who was born after… him?

– The Hero with a Sharp pointed Sword, who is my brother, was born here…»

An Epic Poem about the Heroes of Emder-City by S. K. Patkanov

The researcher was awarded the Small Golden medal of the Russian Geographic Society for his work The Ancient Life of the Ostyaks and Their Epic Heroes in Folk Legends and Epic Poems1. However, the pictures of the legendary life of the Ob Ugrics showed a drastic contrast with their contemporary way of life (observed by researchers and travelers at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century). Opinions were split over whether it was possible to believe in the historical character of the images of folkloric fantasy. Some people, mostly historians, and, first of all, such great authorities in the study of the feudal age as S. V. Bakhrushin and Z. Ya. Boyarshinova, suggested that Ostyak “princedoms,” well-known in the Russian sources, might have achieved in the past a rather high level of socio-political development, and could even have forms close to feudal. Other prominent specialists, including the classics of national ethnological science V. N. Chernetsov and B. O. Dolgikh, considered that Ob-Ugric society was much more archaic. After having visited Western Siberia at the beginning of the last century, they hypothesized that in this severe land “the economic conditions did not provide the necessary level of life,” and the “birth pains” of culture were so great that the people did not have any strength left for the creation of anything that went beyond satisfying their basic needs, and consequently, for anything above the level of patriarchal tribal relationships. Thus, the discussion of Ostyak-Vogul feudalism was fueled.

Years passed, passions cooled down, but it is still easy to divide historians and ethnologists of our time into those who recognize the high, practically pre-State (or at least, late military chiefdom) level of social development of the Western Siberian taiga natives and into those who negate this “breakthrough” of the local population to a more progressive social order and consider Ostyaks commonplace consumers of ideas and technologies of other nations .

And what about archaeological data? On the one hand, it showed the world quite a few finds giving evidence that the whole spectrum of achievements of Eastern civilizations and the Volga region states was accessible to the Ob-Ugric community of the Ob region. On the other hand, the excavations of a number of settlements including Emder, to which the most impressive Ostyak legend is devoted, provide cheerless and quite poor material.

In search of an answer we can turn to one of the most vivid and mysterious things of this ancient culture — the bronze moldings depicting human faces — the so-called masks.

“The Chud icons”, or masks, which were found in the forested lands of the Urals and the Ob region along with other items of plastic art, have attracted the attention of specialists for a long time. As far back as the beginning of the last century one of the greatest Russian archaeologists, A.A. Spitsyn, published a large catalog of such antiquities, brought to Moscow and Saint Petersburg from remote Siberian regions. He did not pursue the goal of giving a “precise analysis of the material,” and simply referred to these artifacts as “shamanistic” since “the religion of the Ural-Altai natives is shamanism”2. Following his example, later the researchers perceived all such productions either as artifacts of shamanistic mysteries or as independent idols (“shaitans”).

However, with time these masks began to be perceived as sacred depictions of ancestral spirits; i.e. as bronze portraits of some real people whom the oral folk tradition ranked among the sacred patrons after their death.

To help the reader who is far from the problems of archaeology and ethnology understand what we are talking about, let us turn to the traditional beliefs of the taiga natives of Western Siberia.

After the death of a fellow-tribesman, the Ob Ugrics (and also the Selkups) made a special doll — “itterma” (also called “ngytarma”) — depicting the deceased. This doll was kept in the family for a certain period of time (usually for a year), where it was treated with special signs of reverence offered to a very live respected man. Later these sculptures could be taken to the forest or to the grave, or could be burnt. The pictures of the most esteemed ancestors were placed into a special sacred place in the attic or into special forest barns, where they began to fulfill the functions of heavenly patrons sanctifying the life of the members of the family, the kin, the tribe with their help (the hierarchy of these images is rather complex and stable in the folk tradition). Despite different ways of understanding the symbolic meaning of the dolls, they depicted particular people and had to be recognizable. Some of them could even contain “particles” of the real person; for example, the hair of the deceased and/or some pieces of his clothing. At the present time of scientific and technical progress, the Mansis who live at the Ob’s tributary, the Lyapin River, glue a photograph of the deceased onto the head of the doll instead of carving from wood a stylized image of a person.

Among the wonderful archaeological objects that have been recently found by our Ural colleagues there are not only bronze icons but also remarkable portraits carved from wood. They are practically identical to their metallic “brothers,” but they were fastened to the small dolls composed of pieces of fur, cloth and human hair. It is clear that there was not enough bronze for everyone (bronze had been considered a “sacred metal” in the taiga since time immemorial), so the figures molded from bronze could have some special sacral meaning due to the unusual properties of this material and may have depicted some outstanding persons. Correspondingly, bronze masks were supposed to be stored for quite a long time, possibly, forever, which, according to the understanding of primitive peoples, was necessary for the life support and survival of the population.

It is known from travelers notes and the works of researchers that the faces of the revered idols of the highest rank were covered with metal. For example, according to the data collected by G. F. Mueller one of the main sanctities of the Ob Ugoric world, the Belogorsky shaitan, “looked like a figure of a short man carved very crudely from wood. But the wood was not observable since the whole face of the idol was covered with white tin and only had holes for the eyes and the mouth”3. Gregory Novitsky, close to Hetman Mazepa, who was exiled to Siberia by Peter the Great in 1712 and became the first ethnologist of the Ostyak world by the decree of fate, cited analogous data. He wrote, specifically, that in Shokor yurts he saw the idols of the Khantys, which looked like “a small log in the middle, more than fifty years old, covered with cloth, with a tin mask on the top, with little resemblance to a human being.” Novitsky especially emphasized that the revered idol was “carved from wood, resembled a man, and had a silver face”4. The evidence of such kind could be supplemented by the observations made at the beginning and in the middle of the last century, but we suppose that it might be better to pay attention to the artifacts recovered by ethnologist A. B. Baulo during his expedition to the Khantys not long ago. In the Zelenyi Yar village, he was able to find figures of patron spirits with faces covered with “silver” and also a small cloth doll with a real medieval icon instead of a face.

Being quite conscious of the short life span of the material from which the idols were made, Ostyaks renewed these after a few years passed (usually after seven, the sacred number). To do this, they hewed out new bodies. However, and most importantly, “the tiny face of the main tonkh is not made anew, but is fastened to the new tonkh. All of the other metallic objects are also preserved”5. Thus, the sacred persons obtained eternal life. The high rank of some of them was confirmed by the fact that along with little figurines various weapons were found — sabers, swords, arrow-heads, spear-heads, daggers, etc., the ownership of which had always been the prerogative of heroic and powerful persons.

Therefore, we shall hardly make a mistake if we suppose that the bronze masks depicted not ordinary people, but some outstanding persons who became ancestor-patrons and continued their existence as part of the family, the kin, or the tribe. Naturally, they were in the other dimension, and for that reason were endowed with new supernatural abilities. But since the world of the dead was understood as the mirror image of the world of the living, and people in the vale of death continued leading a life analogous to earthly life, staying in the same age and social groups, the scope of the new possibilities of spirit-patrons largely depended upon their previous — earthly — prerogatives.

But how are the observations made at the beginning of the 18th century and present-day observations related to very remote past?

The relationship turns out to be the most direct, as we shall see. Looking back from today’s point of view to that time, we can notice that the taiga world looked like a center of stability in the “melting pot” of ethnic and cultural genesis that was boiling on the wide expanses of Northern Asia since the coming of the Bronze Age. “The great forest” absorbed the groups of nomadic cattle-breeders. They inevitably dissolved among the natives, enriching the everyday life of the latter with technological accomplishments and the spiritual values of their own culture. The current indigenous population of the region; that is, the Ob-Ugorics — Khantys and Mansis (Ostyaks and Voguls, as they were called in the past); Samodiens: Selkups and the forest Nentsy (or Ostyak-Samyoeds and, correspondingly, Samoyeds) — are the direct descendants of the inhabitants of the Irtysh taiga, the Lower and the Middle Ob region of the early Iron Age (the Kulay culture), and the Middle Ages (the Potchevash, the Ust’-Ishim, and the Relkin cultures). In different historical epochs they met the nomads at the edge of the Great Forest , experienced the great spiritual influence of their world, absorbed and preserved it in the traditional systems of their worldview. Few things changed radically in the taiga: the everyday life of its inhabitants was very stable and ultimately rational. They borrowed from the newcomers only those things which they could not do without. But if something was introduced into their culture, it was carefully preserved for centuries, sometimes shifting to the background to be taught anew, and then becoming important again but almost never disappearing without a trace.

Two features of the bronze masks attract our attention at a first glance. First, these faces are quite generalized, bearing a great resemblance to each other. They give us not so much a notion of individual features as of the characteristic signs of the biological species. In rare cases three-ray eyelashes are marked slightly around the eyes, or stripes of a tattoo or paint are drawn on the cheeks, or a slight moustache is marked around the mouth. It is clear that there is no portrait resemblance whatsoever. But shouldn’t the images be recognizable? Here the second important feature of these artifacts has a principal meaning: strictly individual depiction of the upper part of the artifacts (located above the brow level). When we study this part of the mask, it is easy to come to the conclusion that a taiga craftsman tried through the means accessible to him to show the spectator the characteristic features of various kinds of head dressing.

The ancient artists were always careful and quite scrupulous in the depiction of details and did not depict anything which was accidental. The view of the world of traditional society could not tolerate such artistic freedom as introducing independent vision of the world into canonical images. Therefore the upper part of the moldings is conditioned by the fact that not the portrait itself but the accompanying status regalia had the main meaning in the system of recognition of images in ancient societies.

Such principles of thinking were typical not only of the representatives of “primitive” taiga cultures, but also of the Antique World, with its striking plasticity of sculpture and unsurpassed realism of depiction; then, regalia as part of the image were not less important. Remember Hercules’ lion skin and club, Poseidons’ trident, Apollo’s bow and cither, Dionysus‘ wreath and grape wine.

In all historic epochs a person had a distinctive “social passport”: a head dressing, a belt, some neck decorations, expensive blade weapons. These accessories, which appeared in the military (druzhina) environment, were very widespread (not only regional). Some such accessories, including symbolic ones, have been preserved till our times. We suppose that it is true that nine persons out of ten would place a crown on a king’s head, if asked to depict him; would place a papakha on the head of a general; and a sphere-conical helmet on the head of an epic hero. In the same way, for the indigenous inhabitants of the Western Siberian taiga the head dressing, particularly the principles of depicting the upper part of an idol’s head, were the most important symbol visually connected with the image of a specific sacred personage and his rank.

The whole variety of sacral images created in the depth of the taiga could be reduced to the four basic typological groups: those with a pointed, denticulate, round, and flat “top of the head.” Thus, a bronze mask or

a wooden sculpture with a pointed top of the head were associated with a combat sphere-conical helmet and, accordingly, with a high military, heroic rank of the person who was the “prototype” of the idol. According to folklore data, which glorified heroic deeds of great ancestors and depicted their image, the epic heroes differed from ordinary people in their physical power and bodily strength. They also had appropriate weaponry, the helmet being the most important part of their protecting combat clothes. This element was so important that it was reflected in the nicknames of the epic heroes: “The Hero Wearing a Ringing Shirt of Mail Made of Shining Rings,” “a Seven-row Copper Helmet,” etc. A steel mail and a copper helmet mentioned together could bewilder the reader. However, it is rather symbolic that the helmet is called copper. It is connected with the concept of copper as a very special metal — the sign of sanctity and invincibility, which came from ancient times. The fact that the helmet has seven rows is not accidental either, because seven is a special, magic number. The archaeological materials and the tradition of depiction could explain the multiple rows of the helmet mentioned above. So, real objects constructed from conical rings made of metallic bands and put one-into-another were part of the Istyatsky buried treasure. In the pointed cap-like top of the head of the mask from the Parabel’ buried treasure (Middle Ob’ region) and in the recently-found little bronze figure from the town of Shuryshkary (Low Ob’ region) we can easily see the image of a multiple-row helmet.

A number of details in the depiction of the top of the head of the bronze masks with a pointed sinciput — such as a spheric-conical form, pick-like top, relief headrest, combat half-mask — point unambiguously to metal helmets. Recently, A. B. Baulo obtained a serious confirmation of his. In one of the Khanty houses he was able “not only to observe the storing of a medieval iron helmet in the sacred ‘narta,’ but also to see how this helmet was reproduced in a wooden sculpture.”

Let us now turn to the artifacts found near a small lake on the right bank of the River Suiga (the left tributary of the River Ket’) on the outskirts of the village of Rybinskoe. Among them there is an expressive figurine of a man with a stylized body and a carefully modeled head with a pointed head dressing, in which it is easy to recognize a stocky combat helmet consisting of a cylindrical crown and a low conic top. Similar accessories of military equipment are also known in the European artistic tradition. An analogous head-dressing crowns the head of the figure “of the mounted warrior dragging a prisoner by the hair,” engraved in the medallion on the wall of the golden pitcher from the so-called “treasures of Attila” — the hidden treasures of the seventh — ninth centuries discovered in Hungary in 1799.

On the Rybinskoe molding we can notice a band — a hoop with the pictures of two birds attached to it — going across the top of the helmet. Metallic figurines of birds, animals, and people attached to the flat hoop quite often decorated the crowns of Siberian shamans. Therefore, a shaman’s crown placed above the helmet on the head of the Rybinskaya mask testifies to the fact that the deceased, when he was alive, performed two functions: he possessed both secular and religious power. It is a direct sign of early military chiefdom. According to V. N. Basilov, “The time of the inspired minion of spirits or gods was over. The chief did not need an independent priest surrounded by the supernatural aura of the chosen. He needed to concentrate the whole business of the connection with the gods in his own hands… The society was taught persistently that the chief was the heir of the gods and their main priest…” Why do the crowns of European monarchs have some remote resemblance to the shaman metallic hat? Most probably, because a shaman crown had been the prototype of a king’s one, notes the researcher.

The “three-headed” Verkhne-Nilidinskaya figurine dating back to the beginning of the second millennium AD belongs to the group of masks with a combined head dressing. Probably, it also depicts an Ostyak prince. The head dressing of this person is more complex to decipher, yet some details do help us understand its strange structure. Three-dimensional objects were the basis for some real or mythical objects whose image ancient molders tried to create through the accessible means of flat molding.

But ancient art techniques did not always enable the artist to reproduce the images of the right proportions. Sometimes, trying to avoid complex perspectives, they added to the frontal depiction those elements which could hardly be observed at such an angle in reality but were very important for the correct perception of the image. For example, the upper part of the face of the Verkhne-Nilidinskaya mask is covered with the half-mask of a military helmet the dome of which is covered with a “crown” with low, wide notches crowned on top with four rather large head-masks. Evidently (if we remember the enforced distortion of perspective and proportion in ancient items), in reality these upper masks were placed on the forehead, on the back of the head and on the temples, providing protection at each of the four cardinal points. The same pattern was used for the sacred little barn of Ner-oika and Chokhryn-oika, where the wooden statuettes of the menvks with pointed heads (the guards of the barn) were placed at its four corners.

The taiga molders were very rational, chary of expressive means and they never depicted anything extra. The widespread ancient principle of viewing the world — “the whole exists inside any meaningful fragment of reality” — helped them. Thus, the half-mask on the statuette was quite sufficient to make it clear that there was a helmet in the picture, the notches symbolizing the crown. The combination of the accessories of secular and spiritual power in the depiction generated new symbolism, understandable to everyone.

We cannot rule out the possibility that the Verkhne-Nilidinskaya mask may turn out to be the key to understanding the meaning of depicting the three menkvs “in the characteristic posture of a sacred dance with swords (described by M. A. Castren)” which was reproduced on the famous pendant from Shaitan Cape. But let us not go into the discussion of the menkvs and their dances, and turn our attention to the heads of the figures. As N. V. Chernetsov rightly remarked, you can see eye protectors on the helmet or, to put it more exactly — a battle half-mask. The researcher considers these personages menkvs since “in the Ugoric folklore menkvs have one, two or three heads, while in the wood sculpture of modern Khantys threeheadedness is depicted specifically as a three-notch top of the head.” Of course, almost a thousand years passed between the epoch of creation of the pendant from Shaitan Cape and the beginning of the second quarter of the twentieth century when the researcher became acquainted with the creations of “modern” Khantys, so many features of reality of the first centuries of the second millennium AD were reappraised. Many of these, surviving as part of the heritage of traditional cultures experienced the effect of distortion, while being transmitted from generation to generation. However, the researcher is possibly not so far from the truth. If we look at the molding attentively, it is not hard to notice that the above-mentioned notch seems “to grow” from a narrow hoop (which is especially evident with the central figure) enclosing the upper part of the helmet. Thus, we can consider that we see “crowns” worn on top of the helmets. And, taking into account the features of the Verkhne-Nilidinskaya mask, it is easy to imagine some small masks instead of these notches. Especially if you know that they should be there, as the medieval taiga-dweller knew it. Therefore, we can assume that the embodiments of the menkvs on the pendant from Shaitan Cape are the pointed projections on the hoops above their helmets rather than “dancing” persons with sabers. Probably, the set of tools of the artist did not offer the opportunity to make small details of the faces on “the notches of the crowns,” and he limited himself to a symbolic contour outlining the menkvs’ heads, the symbolism of which was quite understandable to his contemporaries.

All the ancient objects that we described are depictions of various spirits, menkvs, shaitan-idols; this is how the natives of the Great Forest perceived them. Our task was to single out a set of social symbolism which was at some point real and important for ancient societies (of course, canonized as the accessories of sacred persons). And we saw in them (particularly, in the bronze masks) the contemporaries of the epic Ostyak warriors — “iron wolves with frosty sides,” “heroes with braids, deer’s legs, and fierce leg and arm joints,” burning with passion for war and heroic deeds, leaving “squares covered with bodies of men and women in destroyed towns,” the legendary warriors of remote epochs when “the many-tongued mouth” of Tarn*-maiden was flaming and when the enormous eagle owl with a human face flew above the forest.

1. Patkanov S. K. Starodavniya zhizn’ ostyakov i ikh bogatyri po bylinam i skazaniam [The Old Way of Life of the Ostyaks and Their Epic Heroes in Epic Tales] // Zhivaia starina. 1891. Issues III-IV.

2. Spitsyn A.A. Shamanskiye Izobrazhenia [Shaman Depictions] // Zapiski Otdelenia Russkoi Arkheologii Russkogo Arkheologicheskogo Obshchestva. St. Petersburg, 1906. Vol. 8, Issue 1.

3. Mueller G. F. Istoria Sibiri [The History of Siberia]. Moscow-Leningrad, Publishing House of the USSR Academy of Sciences, 1931. Vol. 1, p. 248.

4. Novistkiy G. Kratkoe Opisanie o Narode Ostyatskom 1715 g. [A Short Description of the Ostyak People 1715] — Novosibirsk, 1941. Pp. 55, 72.

5. Gorodkov B. N. Poezdka v Salymski Krai [The Voyage to the Salimski Region] // Ezhegodnik Tobol’skogo Gubernskogo Museya. Tobolsk, 1913. Issue 21, p. 52.

6. Schultz L. R. Kratkoe Soobshenie ob Ekskursii na Reku Salym Surgutskogo Uezda [Short Information on the Voyage to Salym of the Surgut District] // Ezhegodnik Tobol’skogo Gubernskogo Museia. Tobolsk, 1913. Issue 21, p. 9.

Pictures and photos are the author’s unless otherwise stated

* The Ostyak war goddess

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