Bear Cult in Siberia & Uralistic Mythology

Short Expedition in the world of Uralistic
by Dimo Dimov

I. Bear cult in Western Siberia
II. The system of the northern Ob-Ugrian world concept
III. The Diving-Bird myth in Northern Eurasi
IV. Notions about Souls in the Komi Mythology
V. Ob-Ugrian and Samoyed mythological beliefs
VI. The System of Gods

I. Bear cult in Western Siberia

The ethnographic system of the Ob-Ugrians, a people of uralic origin located in Western Siberia, the northern area of the Ob river and the eastern realms of the Ural mountains, is very difficult for interpretation due to the complexity of the cult materials which were mainly Selkup. By contrast to the other Ob-Ugrian tribes like Nenets, Ostyak, Samoyed and Mansi, the Selkups are told, having had the most developed form of bear cult and so there are more ethnographic evidences.

First we have to make clear that bear cult is not totemism - the difference between the bear cult and totemism is that the bear is an object of worship for all the genera, whereas under totemism proper different genera have different totems like wolves or hawks.

Elements of the bear concept range pervade the enitre Ob-Ugrian culture, creating one of he world́s richest bear cults. The often-mentioned bear-feast, bear-oath, etc. are only partial manifestations of this. Why has the bear, of all animals become one of the main organizing principle of the culture, and thus of the individualśemotional life as well?

East of the Ob-Ugrians the notion of what is called the bear-shaman is widely known. In this, the bear is generally a representative of the lower, the “earth” principle. Wth the Ob-Ugrians, it is Karjalaineńs data on the east Ostyaks that have the closest bearing on the relationship between the bear and the shaman. It is remarked that, similarly to their eastern counterparts, the Selkups, they appeal to a bear-shaped spirit in order to save a sick mańs soul.

According to the Selkup traditions it was permitted to kill a bear only in special cases of attack, assault and self-defense. The essence of the bear worship is largely connected with the belief that was widely spread among the Selkups but recently, that after death a man is transformed into a bear. When a bear is killed they will cut off his paw and throw it up, while tossing the paw the man names on of his ancestors - if the paw comes down with the palm upward, it is a kinsmańs ancestor. Identification of a bear with the dead man is also observed in the mode of eating bear meat. In the rituals connected with bear worship the head and the paws of the bear were of great importance. Before cooking the bear meat they would lay the head on the beaŕs paws. The front paw was dried and kept and given ever from one generation to the next.

The elements of the bear concept range and the related custom-acts from the component systems of the most diverse historical layers, each possesing a different context.
The concepts of the component system can briefly be summarized under the name
“bear”, signed “upper sky”, “lower earth”, intermediate “forest-human”, “spiritual”.


- Beliefs are polar manifestations of the lower sign.
- The mouse is an “earth-near” and unclean animal,
- The mole can be seen as a herald of death.

Elements of bear-symbolism:

He was connected with the world of the living and that of the dead, which made his image be dual. He should recognize men as one of his own kind, that is why the Selkups wore a bear tooth or a dried bear pow.

The system relationships of bears and the typology if their mediation:

The majority of the myths relating to the origin of the bear can be traced back to an archetypal scheme where two, generally supernatural parents belonging to opposite spheres produce a third kind of being, who will then belong to the intermediate sphere.

Two kinds of dynamics:

- horizontal: change of spheres, from society to nature
- vertical: transition between worlds, from the sky to the interior of the earth

The horizontal function:

- Lord of the bear species
- Ancestor
- Lord of natural goods

The vertical function:

- Soul-rescuer
- Protector
- Neutralizer of illness and spells

Bears with horizontal dynamics are the purest form of totemic relationships.
The typology of this mother-dominated human-bears:

1. Mother: a lord́s daughter, father: mēnk (supernatural sylvan creature);
2. the boy who has departed into the forest, mother: mōs;
(a lonely mother forbids her son to venture too far to play – he disobeys and disappears into the forest to live as a bear).

The bear vertically connecting all three worlds is a blending of two mediators:
Of the mediator between the upper and intermediate worlds and the mediator between the intermediate and the lower worlds.

Bears with vertical dynamics:
A more advanced, later concept-world of mythological modelling.
The power of mediating between worlds.

- Lower bears with a maternal dominance
The most elaborate system of concepts is to be found in the Voguls with a culture southwestern in character, at the upper reaches of the Konda, Pelym and Lozva.

Here a song of the origin of the bear was begun with the myth of the creation of the world, whose culmination was the rise of the bear.

One of its structural features is the fact that it portrays all 3 worlds:
- upper
- lower
- subterranean

A similar division of the upper member results in two men, the Sky God and his mediator, the winged Kalm. After the world has been brought into its final shape, one of the women gives birth to 7 boys, who acquire the world order. As a last stage of this they come into conflict with the underworld – after an attempt gaining the upper-hand, the eldest hero boy turns into a bear and departs into the forest.

The world picture:

Sky God = ether Winged Kalm = air Kami woman = earth Princess of disease = water Eldest son (bear) = fire

Upper bears with a paternal domincance are the most widespread type at the surface of consciousness. The role of the bear species in the world of the forest – a lord of the animals.
The interconnections of the bear and the human signs:
Direct relationships and metamorphoses.

(The sacred town eldeŕs cult area: rivers Pelym and Lozva, Irtysh;
Towns: Vezhakory.)

The human manifestation forms:
- warrior
- reflection of his higher mythological function, he is personified at the Serkal Ostyak bear feast theatricals as a man with a pannier carrying wood shavings symbolizing sould-birds.

His secondary animal form is the mouse as lower earth-animal. The exchanging metamorphoses between mouse and bear are essential for the keeping of an horizontal harmony of the worlds, as well as a harmony between the forest world and the world of humans. Although very small, the mouse is able to keep the same attributes as a bear – it is given much respect as an important guardian spirit, but it is not a part of any spiritual concept.

II. The system of the northern Ob-Ugrian world concept

On the basis of the belief-world and folklore, roughly the following world-picture may be assumed in terms of the vertical and horizontal axes, reflecting similar principles.

The universe divides into worlds, the world divides into spheres
An intermediate positiion at any level preconditions the functions of connecting-dividing and mediation.

To the spheres certain characteristic animals may be assigned as representatives. The most important of them are also known as peculiar aspects of mythical or belief personalities, symbolized in animal form.

The system of animals mediating between the earth surface and the lower world

III. The Diving-Bird myth in Northern Eurasia

The Samoyedic creation myth about a water-bird who dives to the bottom of primordial ocean and brings some soil to make the earth is common in the mythologies of different peoples of the Northern hemisphere

With the creations myths of the Voguls, Nenets, Nganosans, Dolgikh, Selkups, Yukaghirs, Udmurts there is a huge lack of exact information.

First creation thesis:
The loon and the duck are ordered to dive to the bottom of the primordial ocean for a piece of soil, butt he myths vary in a very complex context. It is not sure, which bird is able to bring soil

- loon and duck together
- only the loon/duck
- the loon refuses to dive or was unsuccessfull punishment
- the loon brings soil

Second creation thesis:
The earth, moon and the sun were born from an egg laid by the duck.

IV. Notions about Souls in the Komi Mythology

According to beliefs of Komi-Zyryans a man has 2 souls:
- “lov” which is situated during his life inside him
- “ort” which is living seperately.

Lov is breath, live, spirit. After man ́s death lov lives in the house of the dead for 40 days (similarities to the 40th day of the funeral in orthodox christianity).

[Komi-Zyryans considered reincarnation.]

It is more complicated to analyse the real meaning of the word ort.
Its functions have a relation on different spheres of the universal system of the Northern Ugrians. Ort is the double of a man, a contrast to lov. It becomes visible only in moments of death (or warning of death).

According to folklore beliefs, ort showed its present by making noise, throwing pots and other stuff. Very often ort was seen to make the same work as his double: chopping the firewood. And sometimes he was seen as a blue light.

V. Ob-Ugrian and Samoyed mythological beliefs

Similarities and difference:

Both believe in several gods, and according to each persońs belief everyboday may choose the supreme deity from them. Each river, lake, hill, promontery and other sacred places have their deitis of stronger or weaker power.

The death cult is highly developed at both tribes. Their haunting spirits must be kept astray.

The striking differences in their beliefs are not so much in their nature as in their ratio.
So on the one hand the shamas are of extraordinary importance in the Samoyeds belief while the Ob-Ugrians care much less for the shamans – on the other hand the greatly developed bear cult found in the Ob-Ugrians ́rites play a much lesser part in the life of their linguistic relatives living farther in the north.

Neither the Ob-Ugrians nor the Samoyeds make idols of the highest god or other heavenly powers after him in rank; they sacrifice something to spirits of the wood, to the spirits of the lower world.


The Yurak word “haehe”, means “Geist, Götterbild” (also the Tavg-Samoyed).

About its origin:
The superhuman beings settled in different holy places where they enjoyed the respect of men. These beings settled down as haehes at certain places (According to a record taken in Obdorsk there existed always living people who could not be killed in the war during the time of creation and could come into life again). Because the gazing nomads were not able to return always to the same place to make sacrifices to the gods, they had their images: “sjaadai”.

The haehe can belong to a community or to an individual. A haehe respected by the individual may originate also from dead ancestors, from the memory of great shamans, but stones of strange shapes, found in the open air may become haehes if the shamans stated its blessing bringing characters.

The Forest-Yuraks have no household haehes, the Ostyaks sacrifice to their idols or to the clothings of those.

VI. The System of Gods

It has been made clear by earlier research that the pantheon of Uralic gods included a supreme deity who showed a peculiar combination of the ideas of sky and air; even the name of this god used to be expressed mainly with one of these words. Let us consider the terms for sky among the Uralic nations.


Estonian – jumal
Finnish – jumala
Cheremis – jumo
Mordvin jumi
Zyrian – jen
Votyak – in
Livonian – ilma
Finnish – ilmarinen


Mansi – numi-torem
Ostyak – num-torum
Samoyed – inmar
Nenets – num
Selkup – nom

These names of deities contrasted with each other clearly indicate that the separation of the Ugrians, Samoyeds and Finnic-Permian groups took place at a relatively early date.

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