Tales and Traditions of the Nganasans

Boris O. Dolgikh, Alexander B. Dolitsky, J. David McMahan and Henry N. Michael


Boris Osipovich Dolgikh became established as an ethnographer while working as an enumerator for the 1926–27 Russian census (Savolskul 2004). He was especially interested in the peoples of the Samoyedic linguistic group, the Entsy and Nganasans, as well as the ethnogenesis of northern peoples, clan, and tribal composition at the time of first Russian contact and the evolution of clan-tribal structure. During the 1960s and 1970s, he systematically studied the Nganasans (Kistova et al. 2019). Although he is one of the best-known ethnographers of Siberian cultures, his works are poorly known to English-language anthropologists. The Nganasans, native to the Taymyr Peninsula, are recognized by the Russian Federation as one of the indigenous peoples of the Russian Far North. This article, based on Dolgikh’s introduction published posthumously in the Skazki i predaniya nganasan [Tales and Traditions of the Nganasans] (Dolgikh 1976), is edited and adapted by the editors as a separate scholarly English edition.

Editors’ Notes

In this article, the transliteration of names, titles, and place names is based on the system recommended by the United States Board on Geographic Names, except that the Russian “soft sign” or “hard sign” are not rendered as an apostrophe. Also, when appropriate, the letter “y” is inserted between a vowel and a consonant, for example, Baykal or Taymyr. All text in brackets ([ ]in the body, footnotes, and references) are those of the translator or editors. Any text in parentheses is that of the author. The transliteration of the Russian words Enets and Nenets are singular, and Entsy and Nentsy are plural. The following abbreviations are used for archival references in this book: F.—fond, folio (collection); Op.—opis (catalog); D.—delo (file, dossier); L.—list (sheet); St.—stranitsa (page).

Ethnographic Overview

The Nganasans live in the Dudinka and Khatanga rayons of the Taymyr National okrug of Krasnoyarsk kray.1 [In the 1970s], in the Dudinka rayon, the Nganasans along with the Dolgans were organized into a kolkhoz [collective farm] named after “Kalinin” [a well-known Russian political leader of the first half of the 20th century]. In the Khatanga rayon, in the kolkhoz named after “Gagarin” [first Russian cosmonaut], they were organized into the kolkhoz “Put k Kommunizmu” [The Way to Communism]. In the recent past, when the Nganasans followed their traditional nomadic routes in the interior of the Taymyr Peninsula, they were the farthest north-dwelling people of Eurasia. Even today, except for occupants of the polar research stations, the Nganasan reindeer teams and hunters roam farther north than any other inhabitants of this part of Eurasia.

Linguistic and ethnographic studies of the Nganasans of today [the 1970s] place them at the northeastern periphery of the so-called Samoyedic peoples. Many ethnographic traits differentiate the Nganasans from the Nenets—the latter being the largest Samoyedic people of northern Siberia and the European part of the [former] U.S.S.R. The particular significance, not so long ago, of wilddeer hunting in the Nganasan economy must be mentioned. This is reflected in the customs and surviving details of hunting techniques, the characteristic [distinctive] names given to the wandering archaic hunters who had not yet domesticated reindeer, the absence of a strong tradition of reindeer herding, and, (as we will see later in this introduction) a non-Samoyedic component in their folklore. With these and several other ethnographic particularities (e.g., clothing, the structure of the chum [tent dwelling], types of reindeer sleds, ornamentation, and others), the Nganasans, together with the tundra Enets, present a unified whole and together set themselves off from the reindeerherding Nenets. However, the folklore of the Nganasans, while overlapping in certain instances with that of the Enets, generally differs from the latter. Likewise, it does not contain the cycles and subject matter characteristic of the Enets. There are considerable differences in the spoken language of the Nganasans and Entsy. The material culture of the Nganasans, together with the tundra Enets, can be differentiated from the Nenets. Linguistically, the Enets are closer to the Nenets, and the Nganasans are somewhat more isolated.

Compared with other Samoyedic peoples, all of these particularities of the Nganasans are clarified by their particular origin. Our knowledge of this is summarized as follows (Dolgikh 1952:4–81).

In relatively remote times, the forest-tundra ecological zone, which extends from the Taz River in the west to the Lena River in the east, was apparently occupied by tribes hunting the European wild deer on foot and without domesticated reindeer. In language and culture, these tribes were not Samoyedic. Apparently, they were a western extension of the Paleoasiatic population of northern Siberia that, by the time of the arrival of the Russians in the 17th century, only occupied the area east of the Lena River.2 There, they were known as the Yukaghirs.

To the west of the Lena River, these Paleoasiatic groups had been absorbed by the Samoyed and Tungus by the 17th century. Thus, between the Taz and Yenisey Rivers, there formed, in part, a Samoyedic tribe with physical attributes of the tundra Enets.

To the east of the Lena River, in the Pyasina River basin, similar 17th-century processes gave origin to two small groups of the Samoyedic peoples known to the Russians as the “Kurak-Samoyed” (that is, “Samoyeds-Ravens”) or Pyasida “Samoyed.”

The spread of the Samoyedic language and reindeer-herding economy, the two key elements of Samoyedic culture, to the local Paleoasiatic wild reindeer-hunting tribes may be explained by the superiority and relative progressiveness of their complex reindeer herding, as well as a hunting and fishing economy.3 The latter developed among the Samoyedic groups in the Pur River basin and the lower reaches of the Ob River. This was in contrast to the one-sided Paleoasiatic hunters, whose culture, economy, and toolmaking technologies were still Neolithic. The Samoyed and Ugrian, ancestors of the present-day Khant, additionally brought knowledge of metals, copper in any case, with them to the tundra and forest-tundra of northwestern Siberia. With the Samoyeds, domesticated reindeer also apparently arrived in northwest Siberia. In response to reindeer herding, the Samoyeds adopted the more technologically advanced cultural traits of the Ugrian tribes of the Pur River basin, as well as the Mezen River basin to the west and the Yenisey River basin to the east. They thus contributed to the breakdown of the matriarchal-clan social system among the Paleoasiatics and their transition to patriarchy with all the social phenomena that accompany it. These include a large patriarchal [extended] family, slave ownership, comparative servile condition of women, multiple wives, and property differentiation within the clan. This differentiation was based on the presence of large herds of reindeer, which formerly were the economic foundation of wealth along the Ob River. They worked out a system of tundra reindeer herding that is characteristic among the tundradwelling Samoyedic peoples to the present day. This system allowed the Nenets, in part, to spread out over the tundra on both sides of the lower reaches of the Ob River and among the socially elite of the tundra Samoyedic people.

Figure 1.

Distribution of people of Siberia at the end of the 19th century–beginning of the 20th century. Peoples of the Slavic linguistic group: 1-Russians (and Kamchadals). Peoples of the Turkic linguistic group: 2-Atlayans (Altay Kizhi, Teleuts, Tubalars, Kumandins, Chelkans, Telesy, Telengits); 3-Shors; 4-Khakas (Kyzyls, Kachins, Koybals, Sagays, Beltirs, and Chulyms); 5-Tuvins; 6-Tofalars; 7-Yakuts; 8-Dolgans; 9-Siberian Tartars. Peoples of the Mongolic linguistic group: 10-Buryats. Peoples of the Tungus-Manchuraian linguistic group: 11-Evenki; 12-Negidals; 13-Evens; 14-Nanays (and Samagirs); 15-Ulchi; 16-Oroks; 17-Udegey; 18-Orochi. Peoples of the Finnie linguistic group: 19-Saamy; 20-Komi. Peoples of the Ugrian linguistic group: 21-Mansi; 22-Khanty. Peoples of the Samody linguistic group: 23-Nentsy; 24-Entsy; 25-Nganasans; 26-Selkups. Peoples of the Eskimo-Aleut linguistic group: 27-Eskimos; 28-Aleuts. Peoples of other linguistic groups: 29-Chukchi; 30-Koryaks; 31-Itelmens (northeastern Paleoasiatics): 32-Yukagirs: 33-Nivkhi: 34-Kets: 35-Ainu: 36-Uninhabited areas.

The history of the Paleoasiatic hunters who occupied the easternmost region was somewhat different. This region spread westward from the Lena River, through the space between the Lena and the Khatanga, and into the main basins of the Olenek, Anabar, and Khatanga Rivers. Here the early Paleoasiatics came under the influence of the Tungus and, in the end, were linguistically assimilated by them. They were pushed back to the very shore of the Sea of the Laptevs and into the upper reaches of the Anabar River and middle reaches of the Khatanga River. Even though these Paleoasiatics were “Tungusized,” they differentiated themselves by fighting with the Tungus over deer hunting territory, raids to capture reindeer, clashes in the abduction of women, and so on.

Despite this hostile relationship with the Tungus, the Paleoasiatics became acquainted with reindeer herding and obtained iron tools. In contrast to the Samoyeds in the west, the Tungus did not work out a specialized tundra system of reindeer herding. Thus, the Tungus proper and the Paleoasiatics who had acquired the Tungus language and other elements of the Tungus culture did not become significant reindeer herders. They did not travel in sleds pulled by harnessed reindeer for a long time but rather used reindeer as saddle and pack animals.

For hunting wild deer, the inhabitants of the lower reaches of the Anabar and Popigay Rivers penetrated into the depths of the Taymyr Peninsula. There they encountered the earlier-mentioned Pyasid “Samoyed” and farther west the dwellings of the “Kurak-Samoyed” [“Raven Samoyed”]. Being subjected frequently to the attacks of the Tungus, the new arrivals failed to return from their hunting regions on the Taymyr Peninsula to the east beyond the Khatanga River. They began to winter in zemlyankas [semisubterranean earth houses] along the Taymyr River or in the forests along the Kheta, Dudypte, and Avam Rivers. Thus, they were gradually assimilated by the “Samoyed” (or, more accurately, by the “Samoyedicized” Paleoasiatics). Thus, there formed the Tavg tribe in the Taymyr Peninsula, which the Russians encountered in the 17th century. Not long before the arrival of the Russians, there formed from the “Samoyedicized” Tungus, in the forest-tundra zone around Pyasin, yet another group of forest-tundra ecological-zone inhabitants. This group, called Tidiris, was also settled by the acts of the Russians at the beginning of the 17th century.

Figure 2.

Distribution of the peoples of Siberia in the 17th century: I-Turkic-speaking peoples; II-Ugrian-speaking peoples; III-Mongolic-speaking peoples; IV-Northeastern Paleoasiatics; V-Yukaghirs; VI-Samody-speaking peoples; VII-Tungus Manchurian-speaking peoples; VIII-Ket-speaking peoples; IX-Gilyaks; X-Eskimos; XI-Ainus. Boundaries separating (1) Samoyeds and Samody-speaking Ostyaks (Selkups); (2) Tungus-speaking and Manchurian-speaking peoples; (3) Itelmens (Kamchadals) and Koryaks.

Throughout the 17th century and during the first half of the 18th century, the Tavgi, Tidiris, and Pyasida “Samoyeds,” along with the “Kurak-Samoyed,” merged into a single tribe of the Avam Nganasan. In this tribe, the descendants of the Tavg are apparently the clans of Chunacher and Ninonde. The descendants of the Tidiris comprise the Linanchera clan, the descendants of the Pyasida “Samoyeds” comprise the Ngamde clan, and the descendants of the “Kurak-Samoyeds” form the Ngamtuso clan. The tribe derives its name from the Avam River and the Avam wintering place for which it paid yasak.4

The assimilation of the Tavgi and Tidiris by the Pyasida “Samoyeds” and the Kuraks can be reliably traced to the superiority of the Samoyedic system of tundra-herding economy. This type of economy prevailed over that of the ancestors of the Tavgi and Tidiris with their small herds and a preference for hunting. The Samoyedic economy was better suited to the conditions of the tundra as a result of equipment and material technologies, such as the chum, the type of clothing, and others.5 Also, the more rational Samoyedic way of traveling by sleds on the tundra during the winter was superior to the Tungus saddle riding. Besides this, the Pyasida “Samoyeds” already owned relatively large reindeer herds in the 17th century. However, during years when hunting of wild deer failed, the Tavgi and Tidiris, with their small herds, could find themselves thoroughly dependent on the “Samoyeds” for material goods. The acquisition by the Tavgi and Tidiris of the Samoyedic tundra reindeer-herding culture, principally tundra reindeer herding accompanied by reindeer-pulled sleds, gave them an advantage over their neighboring Tungus. The use of sleds not only widened the economic utilization of the territory but also made it possible to increase the traditional hunt for wild deer. For instance, it made possible the hunting of wild deer with nets. Because of all of this, at the time of the arrival of the Russians in the 17th century, the Tavgi were again able to nomadize in the region along the estuary of the Anabar. Apparently, the passage of their ancestors to the Taymyr began here.

Another “Tungusized” tribe, Paleoasiatic in origin, occupied the upper reaches of the Anabar and the middle reaches of the Khatanga Rivers, with Lake Essey at the region’s center. To the Russians, this tribe became known as the Tungus–Vanyadyrs or the Vanyads. During the first half of the 18th century, as a result of failed insurrections, starvation, and other causes, the tribe broke up. Some tribal members joined the neighboring Tungusic tribes, while others joined the Yakuts in the Lake Essey region and the basins of the Anabar and Olenek. Still, other tribal members, headed by the Zayachi [Hare] or Munukovy clan, joined the Taymyr and settled to the east of the Avam Nganasans. During the second half of the 18th century, they were also subjugated by the Samoyeds. They quickly increased in numbers, and as a group of “Samoyedicized” Tungus, during the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries, formed the tribe of Vadeyev Ngansans. This was the second tribe to be absorbed by the Nganasan people.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a Tungus of the Dolgan clan named Oko began to live with the Nganasans. Toward the end of the 19th century, his descendants formed a separate Nganasan clan—Oko or Dolgan—which did not belong to either of the two Avam as mentioned above or Vadyeev tribes. They continued to regard themselves as members of that declared Tungus clan from which came its founder. Thus, in 1926–1927, there were two clans of the Nganasan Tribe, each containing several extended families and a separate clan not belonging to the tribe.

In 1926–1927, the Avam Nganasans consisted of the following clans: Ngomde (Pirogovy)—14 families, 76 people; Ngamtuso (Kosterkiny)—16 families, 81 people; Chunanchera (Kursiminy)— 20 families, 103 people; Ninonde (Porbiny)— 39 families, 175 people; and Linanchera (Turdaginy)—29 families, 139 people.

In 1926–1927, the Vadeyev Nganasans consisted of the Asyandu clan with six families, 33 people; Kupchik clan with 12 families, 71 people; Kokary clan with 15 families, 73 people; Lapsakha clan with five families, 24 people; Ngoybu clan with two families, 12 people; and Nyorkho clan with one family, 11 people.

Lastly, there were 11 families with 69 people in the Oko (Yarotskiye) clan in 1926–1927.

Altogether, there were 170 families with 867 people among the Nganasans in 1926–1927. Thus, 82% of the Nganasans came from tribes and clans who were not Tungus by origin but, nevertheless, spoke the languages of the Tungusic group. As we will see below, the Tungusic stage in the history of the Nganasans superimposed a characteristic imprint upon their folklore.

During the period after they were attached to the Russian state, the history of the Nganasans proceeded as follows. From 1618 to 1639, the process of subordination of their ancestors took place. The “Pyasida Samoyeds” was the first group upon which a yasak [tribute or taxes] was imposed in 1618. In 1625, a part of the Kuraks paid a yasak, and by 1627, the Tidiris and part of the Tavgi also paid it. It was first noted that a group of Vanyads, or Vanyadyrs, ancestors of the Vadayev Nganasans, paid the yasak in 1625. From 1639 to 1664, Russian sources mention several clashes between the Vanyads and Adyan (Edyan) clan of the Olenek Tungus tribes. In 1666, there was a major uprising of the Avam Nganasans during which more than 30 Russian [civil] servants and tradespeople and four Tungus were killed. In 1679, the last significant clashes of the Avam Nganasans and Entsy with the Nentsy took place. In this case, it turned out that the Nganasans and Entsy were on the same camping ground as the Russians, and together with the latter, they struck against the Nentsy. Then in 1683, there was an uprising of the ancestors of the Vadeyev Nganasans, the Vanyads (Vanadyrs) at Lake Essey, and 11 [civil] servants and several tradespeople were killed. Yet another uprising of the Vanyads took place during the first half of the 18th century. After this, there are no noteworthy events mentioned in the history of the Nganasans except for the time-to-time occurrence of smallpox epidemics, the last of which was seemingly a very extensive one in 1907–1908. During the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, based on uneven ownership of reindeer among the Nganasans, a sizeable class of owners of large reindeer herds appeared. In 1926, 10% of the owners controlled 60% of the reindeer.

In 1921, the first representatives of the Soviet government reached the Nganasans. The Nganasan “clans” (tribes), ruled by “princes,” were transformed into “clan” soviets headed by a chairman in 1925. Subsequently, the Avam clan soviet was divided into the Avam and Taymyr soviets in 1928. In 1931, the clan soviets were replaced with territorially nomadizing ones and later with rural soviets. With this, in 1931, the Nganasans formed the Taymyr National Okrug. From 1931 to 1938, the collectivization of the Nganasans took place. In 1938, the first elementary school for the Nganasans was organized. Almost all children of school age were given elementary education between 1938 and 1948. Also, many mature Nganasans attended specialized courses, which prepared them to serve as the cadre [personnel] to construct collectives. During the Great Patriotic War between the Soviet people and German fascist invaders [WWII], many armed Nganasans in the Soviet army defended the U.S.S.R. on the front lines (Popov 1936, 1948).6

In 1966, the kolkhozy [collective farms or enterprises] to which the Nganasans belonged were reformed into sovkhozy [state farms or enterprises]. In these, the economy continued to be dominated by reindeer herding, hunting, and fishing.

Today [the 1970s], most reindeer are in sovkhoz herds, with the others being the personal property of the people working in the sovkhozy. Reindeer herding provides the Nganasans with meat and hides either for sale or personal use. Even today, however, hunting wild northern deer provides the most considerable quantities of meat and hides for personal use.

Seal hunting provides a marketable commodity, namely seal furs, which are sold to organizations that process them. During the summer, the Nganasans hunt for ducks and in the winter for ptarmigans. These birds are primarily for personal consumption. The Nganasans fish during both the summer and winter. Part of the catch is sold to the state, and part is kept for personal consumption.

Compared with the past, the economy of the Nganasans has undergone considerable change in technology and organization. In reindeer herding, important roles are played by regular zootechnical and veterinary help, regular rotations of pasture lands, a yearly rational selection of the best reindeer, the proper organization of calving, the protection of the calves from the severe wind, keeping the weak calves warm, and other animalhusbandry activities. There was a special corral for the selection, veterinary examination, and stocktaking inventory of the reindeer.

In the fur trade, polar fox hunting was enhanced by the use of steel traps as compared to the traditional wooden traps. Also, frequent checking of the traps resulted in a minimal loss of pelts in the snares. In the hunt for wild deer, the former wooden daggers disappear. These had been used for hunting wild deer from boats with spears as they swam across rivers or lakes. Hunting wild deer with the help of leather netting (sweep-nets) into which the hunters drove the entire herd was not practiced anymore. Sneaking up on a group of deer with a reindeer tethered to a long line as a lure was not practiced. Stealing up to wild deer with a plank covered with snow on a sled runner was less frequently employed, as were other older hunting methods. Today, the hunting of wild deer is usually done with long-range rifles. The approach to the herd is on sleds pulled by harnessed domesticated deer. In summer, hunting is sometimes done on foot. For fishing, spread-out synthetic-fiber netting is used, as well as motorized boats.

As workers and civil servants in the sovkhozy [collective farms managed by the state], the Nganasans also receive hard cash. Retired people receive a state pension.

The principal productive group among the Nganasans is the brigade. The reindeer-herding brigades function throughout the year. The hunting brigades are primarily organized in the winter, although some preparatory work is accomplished during the summer. Fishing brigades operate principally during the summer, but certain people are selected for under-ice fishing through ice-holes. The composition of the basic brigades is relatively constant. They are headed by the most-experienced reindeer herders, fishers, and hunters. The usual complement of a unit is four to six people. Some of those working in the brigade are also accompanied by members of their families. The tent used by the brigade is the principal type of dwelling among the Nganasans in later times [the 1970s], having replaced the former kucha of the groups of nomadizing herders.7 Nowadays [the 1970s], many Nganasans more or less constantly live in state enterprise centers.

The Nganasans live in the old type of conical chum principally during the summer. During the winter, the members of the productive brigades live in baloks, which they adopted from the Dolgans. A balok is a small wagon on sled runners pulled by four or six reindeer. The adoption of the balok substantially lightened the task of the women who, in the past, had to construct a dwelling after each brigade moved to a new place. However, the balok had some negative aspects. It was tight and confining, and the temperature in it seldom changed. When used, the stove was very hot but cooled quickly as soon as the fire burned out.

In the winter, the Nganasans wore their beautiful and warm national clothing made of reindeer hides. Unlike in the past, however, they now also wear white underwear. During the summer, the men regularly wore store-bought clothing while the women wore both homemade hide clothing and store-bought cloth clothing.

Today, the Nganasans are well provided with medical help. Each sovkhoz has a medical assistant. These assistants live with the reindeerherding brigades during the summer as they move far away from the settlements. Hospitals are in Volochanka and Khatanga.

Rapid communications are provided by harnessed reindeer, motorboats, and aircraft. In urgent cases, aircraft will transport the sick and women undergoing difficult childbirths from faraway places.

All Nganasan children of school age attend boarding schools. Illiteracy is found only among the older generation. Many Nganasans attend middle and higher specialized educational institutions, where they are trained as mechanics, film projectionists, and other technical trades. Today [the 1970s], all Nganasans speak Russian freely.

In the settlements around centrally located sovkhozy, there are usually clubs where movies are shown, and one can listen to the radio or read magazines and journals. Here, amateur performances are given in the evening, or one can simply rest.

Russian Communist Party members and Soviet state workers and teachers, doctors, and other specialists rendered considerable help to the Nganasans. These modest, selfless people were instrumental in developing the culture of the Nganasans and the reorientation of their economy and way of life.8

Folklore, Religion, and Mythology

The Nganasans themselves divide their folklore into two major parts: sitabi [pl.]—epic poems about bogatyrs [strong men], and dyurume, which account for all the other prosaic themes [“genres” in the original].9 A unique part of their folklore is represented by song improvisations (baly), allegorical chastushki (kayngeyru), and riddles (tumta).10

The division of folklore into sitabi and dyurume, particularly by the Nganasans, is also found among the neighboring northern “Samoyedic peoples.” Among the Entsy, folklore is divided into syudobychu and dyorechu, and the Nentsy living along the Yenisey River split it into syudbabts and lakhanaku. As among the Nganasans, the songs (khinopsu in the Nenets language) stand by themselves. Almost all men and women can render their oral folk creations within the Nganasans regardless of age. It is only for knowledge of the complete content and skillful rendition that exceptional people are chosen. The highest specialization involves the understanding and knowledge of the sitabi with its complex and lengthy performances, parts of which are sung. The Nganasans view the dyurume as an elementary part of their oral creations, simply tales about the past. The very word dyurume literally means “to tell” or “news,” although this includes such genres as fantastic fairy tales, fairy tales about animals, and the like. Sometimes, legends about the remote past are called khyunsare dyurume (old tales). Others are called dyurume-sitabi by the Nganasans, which may be translated as “tales or stories containing fairy tales.” Unlike present-day sitabi, these are narrated like the dyurume rather than sung like the sitabi.

As pointed out above, there existed among the Nganasans special universally recognized connoisseurs and performers of folkloristic works. The performers of the sitabi, on the whole, did not experience the isolation found in such performers and professional singers among the akyn of the Kazakhs and Kirghiz or olonkosut [narrators of the epic tale] of the Yakuts. All folkloristic practitioners were ordinary hunters, fishers, or reindeer herders among the Nganasans. It was only during the long winter nights or snowstorms when they could not go hunting that their knowledge and art drew the attention of the inhabitants of the chum or camp. Brief legends and fairy tales were also narrated in the evening, after supper, and the typical workday. The Nganasans did not know of such nation-wide festivals during which the narrators of folklore appeared in public contests, as were organized among the Yakuts, Kazakhs, and some other peoples.

To be sure, there were the so-called kayngeymekumi—contests in which two young people sat with the respective groups that had selected them and composed allegorical improvised songs in witty rivalry. The one who could not comprehend the improvised lines of his adversary, and could not counter him, was regarded the loser and had to give the winner a metal ornament. Overall, the folklore of the Nganasans had a secular and popular character, not considering the large number of themes that, in one way or another, were tied to religion. The Nganasans did not have a class of professional narrators.

Among the Nganasans, as well as the Nentsy and Entsy, the language of the narration (ngala) is considered an independent discourse through which the person sometimes speaks. Thus, in the Nganasan folklore, we encounter such expressions as: “Now the word came from him” or “the word swirled above the chum and sat on it.” This enabled the narrator to switch from one hero (or group of personages) to another (or another group), change the scene of the action, render a preliminary description of a scene, or similar such narrations.

The recording of Nganasan folklore began in 1927 when a participant of the circumpolar census of 1926–1927, A. P. Lekarenko, recorded 22 folkloristic items while other writers recorded three. Later, the author [Dolgikh] recorded 19 stories in 1934–1935 while surveying the land-water use of the Nganasans. In 1938, in connection with an expedition by the Krasnoyarsk Regional Museum, he recorded 85 stories. M. S. Struleviy recorded four, and I. I. Baluyeviy recorded one. In 1948, 1957, 1959, and 1960, the author, working as a member of the expedition of the Institute of Ethnography of the U.S.S.R Academy of Sciences, recorded 122 stories. In 1961 and 1962, Yu. B. Simchenko recorded about 90 stories. Additionally, P. T. Vashchenko (1962) recorded three stories in 1957, while a young Nganasan, Motyumaku Turdagin, recorded two items of Nganasan folklore.

A. P. Lekarenko and the Board of Directors of the Krasnoyarsk Museum kindly transferred their materials on the folklore of the Nganasans to the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. Thus, today [the 1970s], the Institute has available more than 350 texts comprising approximately 70 authored pages.12

We see, then, that the folklore of the Nganasans began to be recorded only after the Great October Socialistic Revolution. Thus, prerevolutionary ethnography did not leave a legacy. Also, we cannot say that the recordings mentioned earlier exhausted the folklore of the Nganasans. Nevertheless, it is sufficient to judge the extent of the character and content of Nganasan folklore.

The characteristics of Nganasan folklore introduced below are based on 261 texts recorded by the author, A. P. Lekarenko, M. S. Strulev (in Dolgikh 1960), I. I. Baluyev, P. T. Vashchenko (1962), and M. Turdagin. All of these recordings were done in Russian.

Let us consider the sitabi genre first. There are few examples in our recordings—only 12—but actually, sitabi comprise a considerable part of Nganasan folklore. However, we recorded fewer of them than works of other genres for two reasons. First, they are very long. Sometimes they are narrated and sung around the clock. At the same time, the complexity and fancifulness of their poetic language made both their translation and recording difficult. Second, they were not composed amid the Nganasans. The Nganasans consider themselves Nenets in origin, or as they would put it, Yuraks in origin. In his time, Tretyakov (1869:404) wrote, in the songs of the Samoyeds (that is, the Nganasans and Entsy), there is a certain amount of poetry, but in their fairy tales, a large part of which were adopted from the Yuraks, the content is primarily about the adventures of bogatyrs among whom there were also women.

Indeed, the domestic situation in which the action of the sitabi unfolds is a poetized Nenets’ way of life. The names of the heroes of the sibati are also Nenets to a considerable degree. They also contain Nenets clan names, for instance, Kharyuchi. In the sitabi, countless herds of reindeer are sung about. The heroes wear Nenets clothing or the copper or iron armor of the fantastic bogatyrs. They live in an iron or copper chum. They fly in the air and fight for several years without stopping. With all this, the Nganasan sitabi are analogous to the Enets’ syudobich and the Nenets’ syudbabts. The reason for the spread of this genre from the Nentsy to the Entsy and Nganasans is not completely clear. The epic literature, with its heroes, reindeerherding patriarchs, and bogatyr knights, to some degree reflect and very much idealize the initial phases of the formation of a clan aristocracy in a patriarchal society. The analysis of the sitabi should be the subject of future linguistic and specialized folkloristic investigations.

In the meantime, it is difficult to say anything about the genesis of this genre. It includes elements of the epic poetry of the southern ancestors of the “Samoyeds” and was also significantly influenced by Ob–Ugrian bogatyr folklore.

A dominant number of the texts belong to a part of Nganasan folklore called dyurume. The first group of dyurume is characterized by various fairy tales, including Russian fairy tales, fairy tales about Dyayku, fantastic fairy tales, and fairy tales about animals and Ibul.

The Russian fairy tales form an independent and relatively large group of dyurume. There are ten of them in our recordings. Some of the Russian fairy tales are firmly embedded in the original Nganasan fairy-tale cycles, and it is difficult to classify them as either Russian or Nganasan unreservedly. Among the Russian fairy tales existing among the Nganasans are the following: Medvezhye ukho [the Bear’s Ear], Tsar Lagun [Tsar Lagun], Tsar Solomon [Tsar Solomon], Fedor Barma [Fedor Barma], Konyok-Gorbunok [The Little Horse-Hunchback or The Little Hunchback Horse], Zolotoy kulak [The Golden Feast], Bednyy russkiy i sosedka [The Poor Russian and the Female-Neighbor], Syn krestyanina [The Peasant’s Son], and others.

While the content of the Russian original was generally preserved, some details of the fairy tales were reworked in accordance with their past worldly outlook and the worldviews of the Nganasans. Thus, in the fairy tale “The Little Hunchback Horse,” the mare does not find poisoned bread in the field—a concept altogether incomprehensible to the Nganasans of the past—but eats flour in the barn. The action of many of the Russian fairy tales is transferred to the tundra. As for a town, they usually thought of Turukhansk. In these fairy tales, the Russian peasants are generally not portrayed as field workers but as hunters and fishers. These fairy tales quite possibly reached the Nganasans mainly from the peasants beyond the tundra, and among the latter, were accordingly reworked to accommodate over local conditions.

Russian fairy tales are very popular among the Nganasans and are regarded as very interesting. A significant influence of Russian fairy tales is documented in a second popular cycle of Nganasan folklore, given the name of its principal hero Dyayku. There are 11 such recordings. Sometimes, they call these by the Dolgan name Oyoloko (Odyoloko). As conceived by the Nganasans, Dyayku is a small person seeking all kinds of adventures and defeating all surrounding him through cunning. Rarely, he is also endowed with supernatural qualities, such as transfiguration, but more often appears as a somewhat realistic being. The adventures of Dyayku did not always end successfully. Sometimes he countered a real brave bogatyr and died in the end. The fairy tales about Dyayku have often interwoven episodes from Russian fairy tales and occasionally entire passages. The attitude of the Nganasans concerning Dyayku is two-faced. On the whole, there is some sympathy for the tireless knave, and the comical episodes associated with him bring out laughter. However, his downfall does not bring about pity. Almost every Nganasan knows one or two fairy tales about Dyayku (Oyoloko). The cycle of fairy tales associated with Dyayku is widespread in northern Siberia, not only among the Nganasans. The synonym for Dyayku is Dia (Dea) among the Entsy, Iompa (Yombu) to the Nentsy, Icha among the Selkups, Oyoloko (Odyoloko) to the Dolgans and northern Evens [Evenks], and Debegey among the Yukaghirs. There is an agreement in the subject matter of these personages among the groups mentioned above. There is a basis to presume that Dyayku represents a modification of Dyoyba-nguo, the principal protector and cultural hero of the Nganasans. Yu. B. Simchenko, in particular, brought our attention to the possibility that the Yukaghir name Debegey may be related to the Nganasan word-combination “Dyoyba-nguo.”

We differentiate the next group of Nganasan dyurume by titling them “fantastic fairy tales.” The 14 of them are characterized by a rare dominance of the fantastic in their content. The differentiation of these from other genres of Nganasan folklore with dominating fantasies is touched upon below. The group of texts labeled “fantastic fairy tales,” as well as the fairy tales about Dyayku, was not directly associated with the religion of the Nganasans. In the fantastic fairy tales, there are no shamans. There is no theme of souls and after-life. Often, the actors in these are the people-eating giants sige. The latter is also included in the fairy tales about Dyayku. However, we will also find them in other Nganasan folklore genres called sikhio. These people-eating giants also exist in the folklore of the Entsy.

It seems probable that the fantastic fairy tales of the Nganasans and those about Dyayku were composed in a fairly archaic period. They also contain traces of the transitional lifestyle between matriarchy and patriarchy. A detailed analysis of them should enable us to establish the history of development and early forms of the folklore of northern peoples.

In our recordings of the Nganasans, there are a few (altogether ten) fairy tales about animals— one of the earliest folkloristic genres. To a considerable degree, they have a humorous character, with the vixen constituting the principal hero.

The poor representation of animal fairy tales could be because we simply did not collect many. Alternatively, it could be that fairy tales about animals had not yet isolated themselves from the other cycles of fairy tales. We have met with the she-wolf shamaness in the cycle about Dyayku, and animals are found even in the fantastic fairy tales. Farther on, we will meet them, particularly bears, in the cycles of historical legends and legends about shamans. There are ravens and swans in ethnological cycles. This lack of separation of fairy tales about animals appears to be a defining manifestation of the general archaic age of Nganasan folklore.

A separate small genre (three recordings in all) comprises Nganasan fairy tales about Ibul. He is the comical hero of Evenk folklore—Ivul—who does everything the wrong way. Among the Nganasans, the fairy tales about Ibul are more detailed than the analogous fairy tales known to have been recorded among the Evenks. The Nganasans claimed the fairy tales about Ibul—Ivul as their own. Considering that the significant part of Nganasan ancestors, as was mentioned earlier, underwent a stage of assimilation by the Tungus, the appearance among them in the form of a separate genre of that fairy tale is quite natural.

With the fairy tales about Ibul, we have finished surveying that part of Nganasan folklore, which included all sitabi and a part of dyurme. Generally, in all these texts, there is a dominance of the fantastic and a relatively weak tie to the specific history of the Nganasans. A few historical events in the fairy tales can be extracted with great difficulty, although they are of a general character. They throw light only on significant stadial changes in the development of those societal and ethnic elements that entered the composition of the Nganasans or the most meaningful outside influences. The Nganasans themselves regard them as “news” from the past (excluding sitabi). They do not tie them directly to their history and do not consider them definite historical concepts or an account of their past worldview.

The contents of Nganasan folklore that include elements of their mythology and their more recent contemplation of the world are of a different character. However, before giving an account of the content of this part of Nganasan folklore, I should point out that, besides folklore, I gathered the information about religion through observation and discussion of these corresponding themes. It turned out that, with a few exceptions, the folklore reflects considerably later stages in the development of religious concepts compared to those preserved in their way of life. Therefore, in the statement about some religious conceptions of the Nganasans cited below, there may be some differences from works contained in the folklore. Nevertheless, since the systematization and generalization of my data about the ancient religious concepts of the Nganasans are not yet finished, I ask the reader to consider these remarks to be preliminary.

In summary, the basic account of the Nganasan religion is as follows. The principal supernatural beings of the Nganasans are nguo, kocha, barusi, and dyamady. Nganasans who spoke Russian well were inclined to translate the term nguo with the Russian for “god” and the term barusi as “devil” [dyavol]. However, in how nguo and barusi are depicted in the concepts of the Nganasans, it can be easily seen that these terms do not accurately correspond to the meaning of the Russian words “god” and “devil.”

Nguo, as a rule, is the mother (nyamy) of some elements (water, fire) and natural phenomena (sun, moon). Thus, there are known Moy-nyamy (Mother of Earth), Bydy-nyamy (Mother of Water), Tuy-nyamy (Mother of Fire), Koy-nyamy (Mother of Sun), Kicheda-nyamy (Mother of Moon), Syradanyamy (Mother of Underground Ice), Ta-nyamy (Mother of Reindeer), Nilu-nyamy (Mother of Life; she is also the Mother of Wild Deer), and so on. Of the supernatural beings of the male gender, the principal one is Dyoyba-nguo (Orphan God). He is the chief protector of the Nganasans and their main hero. He is opposed by the seven (or nine) sons of Syrada-nyamy, the so-called Syrada-nyantu (The Lads [boys] of the Underground Ice).

Along with the mothers of elements and natural phenomena, Nganasan folklore also contains male masters of elements and natural phenomena. These include Kae-nguo (Thunder God) and gods (nguo) as the husbands of the mothers of elements and natural phenomena.

There is a diffusion of nguo even to the personification of illness. Usually, illness is termed kocha, while more severe sickness is called nguo. For instance, pox is one of the most serious nguo. Even Russian Christian gods and saints, such as Mikolka God (St. Nicholas), belong to the class of nguo.

Nguo live both in the upper and lower worlds. The lower world or Bodyrbomou (The Land of the Dead) is inhabited by the dead. An ordinary person transforms into a nguo of the dead, an occupant of the lower world if he falls there alive.

The very word nguo means “heaven.” Obviously, this is a later term for the supernatural beings of the Nganasans, particularly if one considers that some of the nguo live underground. The word nguo in the worldview and folklore of the Nganasans is usually substituted with the old terms nyamy (i.e., mother) and kocha (illness). In this way, the mothers of elements, natural phenomena, and the personification of disease became united in a single category of “gods.”

The barusi usually do not appear as a personification of an entire genre of things or phenomena. They are simply supernatural beings, sometimes frightful and cruel and other times generous and naive. An exception can occur if the barusi dwelling in water (the sea or lakes) assume the character of the mistress of water or mistress of a lake. Usually, barusi are depicted as one-legged, one-eyed, and one-armed beings that resemble the Evenks chulyugdy. The Nganasans themselves link him with the Russian “susedka” [Ukranian spelling for neighbor]. Nevertheless, at times, barusi are presented in the outward appearance of a normal person, often as a woman. Also, for a blundering, stupid person, the Nganasans say: “he is like a barusi.”

Between nguo and barusi, there is yet another difference. Barusi, as well as sige, rarely are associated with shamans. On the contrary, the nguo is that group of supernatural beings with whom the shamans invariably have dealings.

Dyamady (in Russian “varagi,” that is, “vorogi”—enemies) are demons, helpers of shamans. They are usually zoomorphic. The term dyamady means “animal,” literally “having a throat.”

After this diversion, we will return to the characteristics of Nganasan folklore.

The first group of texts of a mythological character is represented by stories about the origin of the earth, life on earth, some etymological myths, stories about the first people, mythical people, and similar. Altogether there are 26 recordings.

The texts of this genre contain fewer fantasies than one would expect, given that the same theme of the origin of the earth, life, and humankind represents the development of fantasies based on a scarcity of real scientific knowledge. There are supernatural beings, but their deeds and powers differ from those of ordinary people only in magnitude, and they do not include anything specifically miraculous. This cycle is also very archaic in character. In it, shamans are usually absent. In the most detailed myth about the universe, the principal actor creating life suitable for occupying the earth is a woman—“The Mother of all that have eyes” and a man—“The Earth God,” Syrutanguo. Given this, if the principal action is carried out by the male Syruta-nguo (literally, The Ice God), the means for him to create life on earth are given by a woman. Although not the earliest, the “mother of all that have eyes” is the principal image of deity among the Nganasans. Obviously, this is another term for Moy-nyamy (Mother of Earth).

In the beginning, the earth itself is depicted as covered with ice. Then a white man (Syrutanguo), with the help of a woman who lived on a cloud (the mother of all that had eyes) whom he at times visited, created for her a green area of ground that spread out and covered the entire earth. The first inhabitant of the green earth was an antlerless deer, the son of Syruta-nguo, and by an enemy trying to kill him—the flying antlered stag. The hornless deer is apparently a totemic rendition of a human–animal, perhaps the personification of an ancestor of the Nganasans. The fight of the deer ends with the victory of the hornless deer, the son of Syruta-nguo. The birth of present-day real people followed this battle. They were protected by the deer, who had been given antlers of stone and mammoth tusks by his father.

In connection with the above, let me reiterate that the hunt for the wild northern deer was the principal means of survival for Nganasan ancestors. It is unthinkable that humankind could exist in Siberia’s tundra and boreal forests [tayga] without the wild deer before the emergence of domesticated reindeer herding. It is not surprising that the antler-less (anthropomorphous) deer, the totemic prototype of the ancestor, becomes the first inhabitant of the earth in Nganasan myths, and only after the emergence of real people. The wild deer plays an essential role in the Nganasans’ mythology, who at times call themselves “the people of the wild deer.” Without question, because of its leading role in the economy of the Nganasans, the wild deer later played an important role in shamanistic rites. The eventual association of stone and mammoth tusks with the totemic hornless wild deer may mirror the presence of stone and mammothtusk working tools among earlier peoples.

Side by side with this, the Nganasans tell other stories that are very much full of mythology. Some of these clearly show the influence of the ideology of much farther developed societies, right up to the emergence in the form of the creator of “Big Help” (Mikolka God [Ukranian for St. Nicholas]). Of the narrations about peoples unknown to them, the most curious are those concerning headless people. One of these, Morrede i bezgolovyye lyudi [Morrede and the Headless People], is told in a quite realistic way. There is no hint of the supernatural, aside from the fact that headless people are the actors in it. There is something of a mythological element in the other story—Bezgolovyye lyudi [Headless People]. Perhaps both of these texts reflect the first stages of interrelations of the Indigenous peoples of northern Siberia, the wild northern deer hunters, and the Samoyed reindeer herders who arrived there later. With the hood in place of a cap, polar clothing suggested headless people. No doubt stories of this type were based on the legends about “the headless Samoyed,” which are told in Skazaniye o chelovetsakh neznayemykh [Fairy Tales About Unknown Peoples].

The images of “hairy people,” which are contained in the stories of this and other genres, are more complex. It is quite possible that the final, definitive emergence of this suggestion in Nganasan folklore, and in that of many different peoples of the north to the east of them right up to the Yana and Indigirka Rivers, was furthered by the early appearance of Russian seafarers at the northern shores of Siberia. As far as the earliest origins of the story about “hairy peoples” is concerned, A. P. Okladnikov may be right when he links it with mythological images of hunting deities and the masters of the forest, onto which may be assigned accumulated elements from various origins.

On the whole, myths or, more precisely, mythological tales of this genre embody the result of the reflection of the knowledge of the Nganasans along with some practical findings— underground ice and perhaps the retreat of glaciers in the far past. These then united with their image, which personified their ancient objective of the hunt and the symbolism of the wild northern deer. All of this was amalgamated in their vision of the cultural hero and the primogenitures to explain the origin of the land that surrounded them. In another sense, the earliest ethnic interrelations are also reflected in these mythological tales.

It should be noted that some of the ethnological myths are presented in the form of economic stories, historical legends, or tales. It usually clarified that we did not deal with humans but with supernatural beings toward the end of all of these stories. The entire account explains the emergence of some kind of a deity, a custom, an outline of a cult, or represents episodes from the life of some deity. This explains the origin of the various phenomena in the daily life of people or those that occur in nature.

This entire group of stories of the Ngansans has some points of contiguity with the tales of Dyaku, as well as with fantastic ones. This is not surprising, as they all represent archaic developmental stages of Nganasan folklore. They were put together at the time when humans explained the earth to themselves through elementary observations of their natural environment during their productive activities. In summarizing their inferences from their productive experience, along with an analogy with the structure and traditions of their matriarchal society, they assumed an association between their mother-progenitor and the natural phenomena known to them. The latter included objects of both animate and inanimate nature. However, because the forces of nature still restrained humans, they placed themselves with primordial ingenuousness in the center of the universe as a totemic human–animal or supernatural being similar to themselves. In these stories and myths, we find “clear signs of materialistic thinking that invariably was enhanced by work processes and sum total of ancient social life” (Gorkiy 1937:445).

Related to this mythological genre are also folkloristic productions of the Nganasans, which are more or less reflected in a religious worldview that existed among them until recent times. The first group of such texts reflects the ideas of the Nganasans regarding supernatural beings and the relationships of people to these beings. Altogether, there are 41 such texts. While shamans are included, neither they nor their actions play a principal role in the stories. Only two or three of these texts contain the supernatural personages already mentioned, the sige. Sometimes ordinary people turn into sige, becoming cannibals, in these stories.

Very likely, the principal features of Nganasan folklore of this genre are the altogether unexpected and inconspicuous transitions from the natural to the supernatural, from the real world to the world beyond. We have seen this earlier regarding the ethnological myths. This is undoubtedly a very ancient trait of Nganasan folklore, which almost extends back to the epoch preceding the emergence of notions of the natural and supernatural. This epoch can be divided into two stages. The first of these occurred when the worldview of humans did not contain ideas of anything that we would call supernatural. It was primordially materialistic and included a small amount of knowledge gained by humans through their work experience and the rules of social conduct among beings similar to them.

In the following epoch, the complication of work experience and social conditions resulted in the development of mental faculties in humans. As a consequence of the organization of their absolute knowledge, it brought them a weakness compared with the powers of nature. They strove to overcome this weakness by creating images that we call supernatural and fantastic—but which, for a long time, they could not differentiate between natural phenomena and their absolute knowledge. This epoch of the development of human knowledge ended when humans—while continuing to believe in the supernatural created by themselves— began to differentiate it from the natural. This was when a belief emerged in miracles, “mysterious power,” which do not fit in the actual, real world.

Magical tales and some other folklore genres, as well as the religion of Western peoples, in some way or another, reflect this last stage of the development of human knowledge. This later stage, in particular, clearly differentiates between the natural and supernatural. In the creations and beliefs of the Nganasans, until recent times, we still find traces of the preceding stage. In it, the supernatural is not differentiated from the natural, and consequently, it is possible to clarify the obscure transition from realistic to fantastic Nganasan folklore described above.

Aside from the nguo mentioned above, kocha, barusi, and dyamady in Nganasan stories, analytical koyka (idols) appear. The Nganasan stories are curious in the sense that they try to clarify their origin from a primordial-religious point of view. Because of this, they should be of interest to historians of religion and theologians.

Overall, this group of traditional legends is quite complex in its origin. It contains elements dating to very early, preshamanistic images of Nganasan ancestors and later ones in which the influence of shamanism emerges. They also include valuable economic details conducive to elucidating separate historical issues concerning the Nganasans themselves and the neighboring peoples.

With this genre of Nganasan folklore, there are also affiliated stories about shamans. There are 36 of these. A considerable portion of the passages appear to be, strictly speaking, stories of the preceding type in which the principal narrator is the shaman. Among the group are some very archaic stories into which elements of shamanistic ideology were clearly inserted later, as well as accounts created during the period of widespread shamanism. A considerable part of the stories are a mixture of fragments of myths coupled with economic tales, but always with the shaman as one of the principal figures. These stories are undoubtedly important for learning about the early development of religion.

In these texts, besides the “gods”—nguo— already known to us, we very often meet with a category of supernatural beings that the Nganasans call dyamady. As we have already shown, the Nganasans themselves translate this into Russian as “vorogi” or “varagi” (enemies). They are devils serving the shamans and carrying out his orders, and the zoomorphic character of these demons could be witnesses of their totemic character in the past.

It is necessary to observe that not all of these stories of this and in former genres are unique only to the Nganasans. Some of these are widespread in various variants among other northdwelling peoples, including the Evenki, Entsy, the northern Yakut reindeer herders, and the Yukaghirs. But here, there are only tales of different genres (retained by the Entsy and Yukaghirs, as well as the Nganasans) that clarify specific points of their religion.

In the legends of both of these genres, as mentioned above, the Nganasans are described as reindeer-herding “Samoyedic” people, such as they were during the 18th and 19th centuries. At other times, their heroes were the Nentsy, Entsy, and Evenki.

The last great division of Nganasan folklore embraces their historical, ethnogenetic, and economic stories. They are altogether devoid of fantasy. They emerge as an obvious adoptive element in only some of the economic tales.

The historical and ethnogenetic stories—38 were recorded—are realistic tales about the past, even though all cannot be trusted. It is not the presence here of fantastical details but because of the frequent mixing of the folkloristic elements in some narrations of the events that they are in reality separated in time. Therefore, these events are challenged to oversimplify the actual events and an altogether straightforward interpretation of reasons and results. Some of these texts describe the origin of the clans of the Avam Nganasans. Their content differentiates them only in secondary details and the addition of variants of episodes that occur in independent stories. All of the texts about the origin of the Avam Nganasans are, without doubt, stories about the Tavgi’s resettlement to the Taymyr. This was mentioned above when we presented the available data on the origin of the Nganasans.

A number of the stories relate the origins and historical events of different clans, about the uprising of 1666 and clashes with the Nentsi. These, no doubt, include the events of 1679 when there lived the hero of the latter stories, Toruda—who is also Timi-khoti (“Broken Tooth,” and Shcherbak in Russian actions). This was in the 1620s and 1630s. The stories O bolshom nentse-yurake (About the Great Nenets-Yurak) and Bratya Dyarimo (The Brothers Dyarimo) also describe Nganasan-Nentsi clashes but are difficult to date considering that both Russians and Dolgans are mentioned in them (Krasnoyarsk 1938:49–57, 94–100). Apparently, their final versions were formed as late as the 18th century. Curiously, the story “About the Great Nenets-Yurak” was narrated by the Nganasan Nenets Tae Yarom in 1932, and it was told to us as a Nganasan story in 1935.

Some historical stories are associated with a bogatyr, the son of Soymy. Apparently, he was also a real person since some Nganasans of the Linancher clan claim him as an ancestor. These stories contain some historically accurate facts and also refer to clashes with the Nentsy and Evenki (Dolgikh 1938:24–39). To them belong several other stories, which also tell about the confrontations with the Tungus and Nentsy. Judging by some details, these stories date to an epoch immediately preceding the arrival of the Russians in Nganasans’ territory in the 17th century or to a period soon after their arrival.

In this genre, most curious are the stories about the Chukchi—V zemle chukchey (In the Land of the Chukchi) and O chukchakh (About the Chukchi). The Chukchi are also mentioned in stories about the origin of the Avam Nganasans, as well as in the O mificheskikh narodakh (The Mythical People) genre mentioned above. In the latter stories, the Chukchi are endowed with the most fantastic traits—just as in the folklore of the Entsy. In these two stories, classified by us as historical, there is a hint that the ancestors of the Nganasans probably knew about the actual Chukchi. Given this, there were perhaps people related to the Nganasans living in the lands surrounding the Chukchi.

It is only possible to guess how the real Chukchi entered into the Nganasans’ folklore. On the one hand, stories about the Chukchi, neighbors of the Yukaghirs to the northeast, could have entered the mythology of the Nganasans as a result of their Yukaghir origins. On the other hand, we have data that a group of Chukchi in the 17th century, during the period immediately preceding the arrival of the Russians to the Kolyma estuary, were located to the west of the Kolyma. It is possible that these Chukchi reached the region of Nganasan settlements and indeed were extirpated by the latter, if not by the ancestors of the Avam and Vadeyev Nganasans. This is told in the story “About the Chukchi.”

On the whole, the content of the genre relates to us a picture of the economy and ideology of a society with an already formed patriarchy. This is the society that the Russians encountered among the Nganasans in the 17th century. At this point, the Nganasans, perhaps with the possible exclusion of the stories about the origin of the Avam Nganasans, appear not only to be hunters of the wild northern deer but also as Samoyedic reindeer herders. The formation of the primary nucleus of these stories may be dated with adequate confidence to an epoch during which the “Samoyedization” of the ancestors of the Avam Nganasans had already taken place, and also at the time of the arrival of the Russians to the Taymyr. In some of these stories, even much older events become perceptible, a folkloristic layer that is also historical in character. We shall now examine it.

We have in mind a particular cycle of Nganasan folklore, which in origin is attached to a cycle of Tungus[ic] folklore but now exists principally in the stories of the northern Yakut reindeer herders. These are known in the literature as the Olenek Warrior [khosun in the original]. They were termed “Epic Literature” by G. B. Ksenofontov after the principal heroes of the epos, the warring and hunting warriors (khosuns). This genre is very popular among the Nganasans, and the primary texts are widely known. The Nganasans claim these stories as their own since they tell about the lives of their ancestors, even though the Nganasans are altogether absent in them, and the principal heroes are the Tungus of various clans that interact with the Entsy. After all, the point is that these stories arose and existed among the Nganasans’ ancestors at a time when they were still a Tungus-speaking people. After the Samoyeds assimilated them, they preserved their traditional mindset. In other words, the bearers of the epos became “Samoyeds,” and the epos preserved their former Tungusic character.

The principal content of this cycle of stories—there are 33 recordings—portrays the brutal fighting between the clans of the wild northern deer hunters. They lived in the tundra and northern forests when the khoro-sochema, the tattooed Tungus, arrived from the south riding saddle reindeer.

In the 17th century, the Yukaghirs called the Tungus anemila and “Pisanyye rozhi” [Tattooed Faces, Mugs] ( TSGADA F. 1177, Op. 1, St. 43, L. 20). In the Yukaghir language, anmil indicates a “reindeer for riding” and anmel “to travel on a sled or in a saddle” (Kreynovich 1958:271). The Nganasans call the Tungus with whom their ancestors clashed khoro-sochema (Sewn Face) and pisanyye rozhi (Tattooed Faces) in Russian. This means that the Nganasans fully retained one of the terms the Yukaghirs called the Tungus in the 17th century. The Yukaghir term anemila (anmil), as regarded by the Tungus, supports the stated proposition that the early Yukaghirs considered themselves as a “reindeer-less” people as contrasted with the Tungus as a “reindeer-riding” people.

The principal motifs for the clashes on hunting lands between the ancestors of the Nganasans and the “khoro-sochema” involved the seizure of reindeer and women. Mutual casualties were suffered as a result of previous encounters. The central event in cases of this type is the campaign of the avengers—who lived in the tundra or forest–tundra—into the depths of the forest and to the land of the tattooed Tungus. This event usually preceded attacks of the forest-dwelling Tungus on the inhabitants of the forest–tundra. At other times, however, the attackers who killed the forestdwelling Tungus were also inhabitants of the tundra. They came to them either with peaceful intentions or to set off a campaign against them to avenge old wrongs done to them or simply without any overt cause. In almost all the stories of this cycle, the shamans appear. This fact could be one of the arguments favoring the proposition that developed shamanism actually extended to the ancestors of the Nganasans through the Tungus. The Tungus arriving from the south had types of iron weapons unknown to the ancestors of the Nganasans. There were also blacksmiths among them. These Tungus, as we have already remarked, are apparently the second source (aside from the Samoyeds) through which reindeer herding and iron reached the ancestors of the Nganasans, the Paleoasiatics.

It should be noted that the stories of this cycle contain not only accounts of armed conflict. Separate episodes give evidence of lengthy mutual residences and marital and neighborly ties. These last circumstances seem to explain why the Paleoasiatics, the ancestors of the Nganasans, became a Tungus-speaking people. But this circumstance did not hinder their recognition of themselves as a specific ethnic group. We know that other tribes of Tungus origin were hostile and fought against each other as late as the 17th century, as witnessed by the Russians.

In any case, fighting among the ancestors of the Nganasans and Tungus continued even after the Tungusization of the former, and reverberations of this are found in Russian documents of the 17th century.

One detail should be clarified. The Nentsy characterize the Nganasans (tau) as tattooed people. How can such a contradiction be explained when the Nganasans in their folklore contrast themselves with the tattooed Tungus while the Nentsy consider them to be “tattooed tau?” The point is that the ancestors of the Nganasans— the Tavgi, Tidiris, and Vanyads—were Tungusized as we know or were Tungus in origin. All of these groups during this period of their history, when they came into contact with the Nentsy, apparently were accustomed to tattooing themselves. They were described as such in the folklore of the Nentsy. However, in their own folklore, the Nganasans themselves relate to another very early period of their history. This is reflected in part in the above-mentioned 17th-century document when the Yukaghirs and the ancestors of the Nganasans, whomever they were, positioned themselves against the tattooed Tungus who came from the forests in the south.

The cycle of Nganasan stories concerning the fight with the “sewn-faced” Tungus, which we are now reviewing, helps to confirm the conclusions. Derived from the analysis of the Olenek Warrior Epos, they exist today principally among the northern Yakut reindeer herders. They include not only the published recordings of I. A. Khudyakov, G. V. Ksenofontov, A. A. Popov, and A. P. Okladnikov but also the unpublished works of I. S. Gurvich and our own. In part, the recordings of I. S. Gurvich directly identify the legendary Mayat people as the ancestors of the Nganasans and the warrior Yungkebil as the personification of the leader of the Mayats. Today, we can confirm that the hostile side of this epos, which is portrayed by the warrior Yunkebil (Yukebil) and the Mayat people, personifies the early Paleoasiatic [early Yukaghir] inhabitants of the tundra and northern forest in the area between the estuaries of the Lena and Khatanga.

In the Yakut language, “yukebil” (dzhyukebil) means “Yukaghir”; “yukabil usta” (Yukaghir mouth)—these are “flashes” (northern lights), literally “Yukaghir fire” (Pekarskiy 1958:869, 873). Yunkebil and Yukebil are apparently two local variants of a proper name derived from the same ethnic designation from which the Russian name for the Yukaghir people was formed.

The other hostile side of the epos is headed by Chempere, Chimkire, Chyngkhara (in recordings made among the Yakuts), Chinchir (in recordings made among the Nganasans), or Uran (in recordings made among the Yakuts and Evenki). These terms personify the forest Tungus approaching the ancestors of the Nganasans from the “rocks” to the south (that is, from the mountain ranges). The name Cgyngkhara—Chinchir—is likely derived from the name of the Tungus clan living along the headwaters of the Anabar. The name Uren is associated with the Evenki word “ure,” which means “mountain taiga.” Finally, as is common in the folklore, the basic appropriateness of juxtapositioning Yunkebil, an inhabitant of the north, with Uren (Chemkere), who came from the south, is contradicted in some of the texts. This is particularly true of those recorded among the Yakuts, where the heroes sometimes even change roles. However, the epos’s overall tendency and initial character are indubitable.

The Nganasan stories of this cycle have a more archaic character than the group of stories that we have called “historical.” The ancestors of the Nganasans, the tundra or forest–tundra Tungus, appear to be—and are presumed to be— Tungusized Yukaghirs. They are characterized here as a people with few reindeer and sometimes without reindeer altogether. Their principal occupation is the hunting of wild deer and fishing. Their social structure is patriarchal but is still in its initial stages. Accounts about a wealthy reindeer-herding patriarch are altogether missing. The central figure of the epos is a hunter who is also a fighter—his kin and those he protects live by his efforts.

An even older archaic element in stories of this type is the bear, which is equipped with all the qualities of humans and sometimes is looked upon as a special friendly person.

For the ethnic history of the Nganasans and the determination of their origin, the word “Samoyeds” is of interest. These are usually Entsy— somatu [warriors]—reindeer herders who enter into a union with the tundra Tungus to fight their major enemy—the forest-dwelling Tungus. Sometimes these Entsy are already called Nganasans. As we have already mentioned, the absence of their very selves in the stories confused the Nganasans. Therefore, being similar to the later ethnic aspects of the Nganasans, the rendition of the reindeerherding Enets in these stories is interpreted as that of a Nganasan.

This cycle also has a powerful emotional side aside from historical-ethnographic significance. It is entirely permeated with the idea of combat, military prowess, and protecting one’s family and people. It emphasizes the idea of devotion to others, being merciless toward the enemy, and vigilance toward notorious enemies as well as the unstable, morally weak elements in one’s midst. Along with these positive-moral cases of heroes of this cycle, the negative—the primitive brutality and predatory nature of some individuals must also be mentioned. It is true that the most negative expressions in these cases bring censure, and the most high-handed extortionists expect retribution. Even in this distant epoch when the story originated, a healthy people’s morality keenly condemned and reacted to any expression of selfishness and pilfering.

Essentially, this entire cycle expresses itself in a realistic manner. Separate episodes with fantasy elements represent either the usual folklore hyperbolism or are tied to a shamanistic ideology that is distinctly perceptible in this cycle. To a small degree, early fantastic fairy tale motives are suggested in separate episodes in an attempt to mythologize them.

Economic stories are yet another genre of the dyurume. Twenty-seven of these were recorded. With a few exceptions, these are principally realistic stories with actions that take place in the relatively recent past. Their social attitudes are the same as among the Nganasans, Entsy, and Nentsy from the 18th and 19th centuries to the beginning of the 20th century. Their principal theme often refers to the treatment of masters and workers and conflicts that resulted from developing private ownership relationships and stories about various incidents in the lives of the tundra dwellers. Only occasionally is there a small element of fiction with moralistic aims or for the reinforcement of the entertainment value of the stories. These may sometimes derive from the old tales. Stories about masters and workers are characteristic. In these, the folklore reflects economic stratification among the tundra reindeer herders, the oppressive and illegal position of the workers, and the petty tyranny and cruelty of the masters. However, there are several cases of patriarchal relationships, altogether possible in the early stages of the economic and social development, which existed among the peoples of the tundra.

In the stories about masters and workers, there is a feature that should be noted. Because all of these stories were recorded among the Nganasans, the actors are the Nentsy in most of them. We can presume that the Nentsy in stories of this type reflects a period during which the relationships of the workers and masters, and their appearance as a basis for social clashes, were a principal characteristic of the Nentsy. Nevertheless, the very existence of such stories among the Nganasans testifies that, even among the Nganasans, the theme found reasons to exist. However, it had not yet entirely acquired local coloration.

The Nganasans had riddles (tumpta) and proverbs (bodu). A new theme in the folklore of the Nganasans finds its expression in improvised songs (baly). The Nganasans compose the songs in an impromptu way whenever there is a need, mood, and wish to sing about something. Sometimes they sing during a long trip in the tundra when the reindeer are running well, and a Nganasan does not have to urge them on. He will then start singing about whatever comes to his mind. They will also sing in the chum when company assembles. Sometimes feelings will be poured out in the songs—a girl about forming a pair or the reverse [or a boy expressing the same]. Sometimes they make fun of an unsuccessful suitor, an unlucky hunter, and other unlucky individuals. In these improvised songs, there are sometimes utilized forms and turns of speech characteristic of the sitabi (a copper house on an iron ridge), but their content is always conditioned by things that stimulate the singer at a given moment.

Some Nganasan stories, including some valuable variants in texts of the Olenek Warrior Epos, contain stories of Soymu–syn [The son of Soymu], Timi-khoti, and Iniya-baturu. These stories, about the brothers Dyarimo (“Dyarmo”) and others, were printed in Legendy i skazki nganasanov [The Legends and Tales of the Nganasans] (Krasnoyarsk 1938). We recommend this publication to readers interested in this genre of Nganasan folklore.

Even though it is archaic, Nganasan folklore, aside from historical and ethnographic significance, contains some very specific cases to the people’s oral creations. Here we find utmost simplicity and clarity in samples that were assembled and polished over the centuries. In each line, there is a sense of unity of its content with the history of the people. Based on their experience over a long time, the stories are filled with a working and fighting existence in the harsh natural surroundings of northern Siberia. However, Nganasan folk lore is a stranger to pessimism. Even in the stories about shamans, a courageous and knowledgeable person (even when the story is fantastic, let us not forget that here before us are the people of his ancestral clan) comes out as the victor over all difficulties. Ancient people created gods for themselves, but the heroes of the oral literature of these people often challenge the gods. In the story Ozero smerti [The Lake of Death], even a simple womanmother threatens the barusi, the mistress of the lake, with a knife for demanding her children. In Nganasan folklore, there are indications that the life of the early inhabitants of northern Siberia was not easy. They died of hunger and sickness and drowned in rivers and lakes. Predatory animals and enemies lay in wait for them at any time. Entire families, clans, and encampments perished, but those who survived struggled with nature and enemies with renewed energy.

The history embedded in the narrations passed on through the experiences of past generations gave the ancient people inspiration for further struggles. It filled them with confidence to prevail over both nature and neighboring enemies.

True, the range of vision of the Nganasan heroes was narrow. In the stories, we find only “the clan in its constant struggle for life.” We see humans giving “all their powers to fight for life” and not “thinking abstractly about the processes of work, as well as questions of family and clan” (Gorkiy 1937:445). This was still the time when “everything that was outside the tribe was not subject to law. In the absence of a conclusion of any sort of a peaceful agreement, the rule was war among the tribes” (Engels 1969:99).

The natural resources of northern Siberia are limited. The movement of ethnic groups over its area led to different degrees of historical development, but who were all engaged in hunting wild deer, which inevitably resulted in armed conflict. These bloody clashes undoubtedly made a deep impression on the oral history of these groups. This was particularly true of the ancestors of the Nganasans, who in the past were the most backward group. More than the others, they put the vicissitudes of armed conflict to the test. On the other hand, the indigenous communal system threatened danger from all sides, creating a strong people with a sense of self-respect, straightforwardness, and strength of character and courage (Engles 1969:98).

Later, these qualities became universal for the positive character of the hero narrating the folklore. Otherwise, the deeds and morals of the actors in the folklore of the Nganasans seem very distant from our images of morality and humaneness. After all, these are just vestiges of that distant epoch when the basic attitudes of the morality of the working class were still in the process of formation. The Nganasan stories were created during various levels of cultural development. Therefore, their morality is not always the same. In some, for instance, all of the enemies are destroyed regardless of sex or age. Women and children are allowed to live in some, while war is conducted according to well-known rules in others. In such cases, the defeated enemy is allowed to return to where he came from after paying a ransom.

The reflection of different epochs in Nganasan folklore and various levels of the development of productive skills [“forces” in the original], along with different levels of social development, is noticeable not only in the nature of the armed conflicts. It was shown earlier that, in some cases, the stories describe groups of reindeer herders encountered by the Russians in the Taymyr in the 17th century. In others, there are very likely reindeerless hunters of the wild northern deer. In still others, the group is described as it was in the 19th century with distinct indications of property differentiation. At first glance, therefore, almost every particular example of Nganasan folklore has several inconspicuous but characteristic traits that differentiate it from analogous narrations. The formation of these was tied to other socioeconomic factors.

All told, the folklore of the Nganasans is a folklore of people who were egalitarian in the past. Its preservation, as such, almost up to our own times, can be clarified by the peculiarities of their history. They were the descendants of earlier inhabitants of northern Siberia, the northernmost people of Asia. Until recent times, they were located in the depths of the tundra of the Taymyr Peninsula, in partial isolation from the influence of other, more developed peoples.


  • 1. Editors’ note: A 2002 census identified 834 total Nganasans, about 250 of whom still speak the language. Национальная Принадлежность и Владение

    Русским Языком. [National Identity and Knowledge of the Russian Language]. Всероссийская перепись населения 2002 года. Федеральная служба государственной статистики

    , 2004 www.gks.ru /perepis/t5.htm.

  • 2. Editors’ note: “Paleoasiatic” is a term coined by S. Schrenck (Shrenk), a Russian ethnographer in the mid-19th century. Under this term, he grouped several Siberian peoples based on language, among whom were the Yukaghirs, Koryaks, Chukchi, Siberian Yupik (Asiatic Eskimos), Kereks, Itelmen, Kets, Nivkhi, and Ainus. Today, the term Paleoasiatic is used with great caution and mostly avoided by North American scholars.

  • 3. Editors’ note: Wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus tarandus), also known as caribou in North America, is a species of deer with circumpolar distribution, native to the arctic, subarctic, tundra, boreal, and mountainous regions of northern Europe, Siberia, and North America. This includes both sedentary and migratory populations. In the Russian scholarly literature, only wild reindeer, wild northern deer (Дикий северный олень), or northern deer is used.

  • 4. Editors’ note: Yasak is a tribute or a payment by the Nganasans to the Russians in the 17th and 18th centuries for permission to use grazing land.

  • 5. Editors’ note: A Chum is a Nganasan dwelling conical in form, built with 30–40 poles covered with nyuki (q.v.) of reindeer hide. The floor of the chum is from 4 to 6 meters wide. Nyuk is a covering for the chum sewn of several reindeer hides from which the fur has been clipped.

  • 6. The old mode of life, the material culture, and, in part, the religion of the Nganasans are described in the works of A. A. Popov (1936, 1948). See also Dolgikh (1949). The contemporary way of life, culture, and economy of the Nganasans are described by Faynberg (1959) and Dolgikh and Faynberg (1960).

  • 7. Editors’ note: Kucha is a group of together nomadizing households (chumy [pl.]—an encampment of several chumy). A group of nomadizing people from several chums, a camp consisting of several chums.

  • 8. AA Editor’s note: The content and attributions of this passage very much reflect the politicized nature of Soviet academia in the 1970s. It was retained for authenticity to the original manuscript, despite its “benevolent disenfranchisement” overtones.

  • 9. Editors’ note: Bogatyr is figuratively a big, strapping man. In Russian folklore, a bogatyr is an epic hero.

  • 10. Editors’ note: Chastushka is a two-line or four-line folk verse, usually humorous and topical, sung in a lively manner.

  • 11. Of these 70 pages, only 17 of my texts were gathered in 1927 and 1935; in this volume, about seven authored pages and some abbreviations were published in Dolgikh (1938). The notes of P. T. Vashchenko were also published in Vashchenko and Dolgikh (1962). Aside from these collections of Nganasan folklore, the late investigator of Dolgans and Nganasans, Andrei A. Popov (1959:131–140), also recorded some. His recordings have not been published with a few exceptions (Popov 1959:131–140). Judging by the preliminary report of Popov about his work among the Nganasans (see Sovetskaya etnografiya 1940, vol. III. p. 249), they comprise 12 large works (probably sitabi) and some short texts.

References Cited

This article requires a subscription to view the full text. If you have a subscription you may use the login form below to view the article. Access to this article can also be purchased.

Purchase access

You may purchase access to this article. This will require you to create an account if you don't already have one.