Guests in the Holy Forest: Khanty Ritual Landscapes in Western Siberia

by P. Jordan


The Khanty inhabit the taiga forest and swamplands of the River Ob in Western Siberia and were traditionally hunter-fisher-gatherers and in some areas reindeer herders on a small scale. Until the 1960s, the area they inhabit was extremely remote, and despite the determined efforts of Orthodox Christian missionaries under the tsars and the persecution of shamans and the policies of 'Russification' which were carried out during the Soviet period, traditional culture and religious practices continued to survive, albeit in secret, in the isolated settlements of extended families deep in the forests.

IMAGE: Siberian taiga landscape
Figure 1. Siberian taiga landscape.

IMAGE: Khanty women, Yugan River
Figure 2. Khanty women, Yugan River

Each village, or 'yurt' usually consists of several related families who move seasonally through the landscape to predetermined winter or summer settlement sites. During the winter hunting season, individual family units break off from the main group to exploit their own hunting territory.

(The hunting season is from October to December, and from February to April, since it's too cold in January and the days are too short.)

The high god of the Khanty is called Torum, and he is thought to control world-scale events. Generally, each yurt possesses its own cult site which is located in the forest a few kilometres away and often upstream from the main settlement. The male or female guardian spirit or god of the local area is thought to reside at these sites in the form of large carved wooden effigies which are kept in specially constructed sacred huts or in ambarchiks -- store houses on stilted legs. Around the cult site is an area of holy forest where all hunting, gathering, or fishing is forbidden.

IMAGE: 'Ambarchik' containing holy idols, Yugan
Figure 3. 'Ambarchik' containing holy idols, Yugan River

IMAGE: Khanty feasting near the ambarchik at a female holy
site, Yugan River
Figure 4. Khanty feasting near the ambarchik at a female holy site, Yugan River
The local community believes that the welfare of the settlement and the bounty of the local forest and rivers on which they subsist depend on the local guardian spirit being well looked after.

The yurt community visits these sacred sites at certain times of the year, bringing food, gifts, and other offerings. Khanty women are thought to pollute rituals, especially in the presence of male spirits. During many rituals at cult sites, they are not allowed past the sacred fire which is lit before the hut or ambarchik, and they cannot look at the effigies themselves. At sites where the local spirit god is thought to be particularly powerful, women may not even set foot on the river bank near the site for fear of polluting the holy area and angering the male spirit resident there.

In June 1998, I was undertaking field work on the Yugan River, a tributary of the River Ob, collecting information about Khanty ritual landscapes along with two Russian colleagues. We were invited to join a group of Khanty on their visit to a cult site located between two yurts. IMAGE: Interior of ambarchik, male site: money is left
before the main spirit (Yugan River)
Figure 5. Interior of ambarchik, male site: money is left before the main spirit (Yugan River)

The powerful spirit we were to visit was thought to rule the whole of the upper reaches of the river and for this reason commanded respect not just from the local yurts, but from all the Khanty who lived on the river.

'We leave the village around midday -- six men and five women and travel down stream in two boats. Petka lives in the summer yurt (settlement) furthest up the river with his wife and two daughters. For three years he will be "keeper" of the holy site we are travelling to -- responsible for seeing that all is in order there and that rituals and offerings are properly conducted.

'They have visitors from lower on the river -- a married couple and their young son -- who have come to pick cherumshah, a wild grass that tastes of garlic and flavours much of the food here. It only grows in this area and not further to the north. Along with them are Andrei and Sasha -- also from a yurt lower on the river --who travelled up here with us in our boat.

'On the way down river we call at the second yurt responsible for this site, where one family also lives. The head of the family here will also take his turn to be guardian of the cult site when Petka's three years is up. We all go ashore and he welcomes us. They too have been gathering cherumshah and the family is engaged in chopping and salting it to preserve it for the winter.

'He says he cannot come with us to the holy site as a few days ago he was in the yurt's cemetery holding a remembrance feast for a not long-deceased relative. The Khanty care passionately about their dead and fear that if the dead are not settled in the underworld, the gateway of which is the graveyard, then they will return and drag the souls of the living down too. Food and drink must be taken at certain prescribed times after the burial but on no account must the place be visited at other times.

'After visiting the graveyard the path to it must be symbolically closed with fresh cut saplings laid across the path back to the village. All those who have been there are also ritually unclean for some time afterwards and for this reason cannot be allowed to visit holy sites in case they upset or insult the spirits there.

'We say our farewells and continue on our winding river journey. Distance is measured in "bends" of the river not in kilometres. It is sunny and warm and a light breeze keeps the insects off us.

'At a slight bend we stop and pull over to the right bank. The site we are going to is particularly important as it is the god of the upper river, and so women will not be allowed even to step on the opposite river bank. We leave them -- and the very young boy -- on the right bank with the smaller boat. The woman who is visiting from lower on the river has not been here before and must cast down three coins and step over them as she goes ashore. The women and two young girls, dressed in their finest traditional clothing, squat on the river bank at the edge of the forest and draw their head scarves tightly around their faces to protect against the midges.

'We put out from the river bank and Petka orders us to describe a clockwise circle in the water with the boat as we travel across to the "holy" opposite bank. "We must make like the sun!" he says. This must be done whenever we enter or leave a holy site.

'We tie up the boat and Petka asks those who are here for the first time to cast three coins down and then to step over them as we clamber onto the bank. Nothing marks the river bank at this spot but as we walk on we see a very faint path. As we follow the trail the river disappears from view behind us. Holy sites must only be visited at certain times -- as guests of the spirit and never for any other reason. From now on we are guests in this area of sacred forest.

'Away from the sunshine out on the river it seems very dark in the cool forest and immediately we are set upon by swarms of midges and black flies. After a few minutes walking, stepping over and bending under fallen and rotting trees, we arrive at a low hut with an open section cut out of the front wall. Inside the torsos, of the large carved idols are visible but the faces are obscured as the opening is very low-cut. They appear swathed in clothes -- one taller central idol and his two female helpers flank him.

'We bare our heads and initial prayers are said. We bow and rock backwards and forwards from the waist and at the end of the prayer make one turn clockwise -- like the sun. The group breaks up and Petka steps into the hut to see if everything is in order. A fire is lit at a well used spot in front of the hut. We have brought kerchiefs to present to the spirit and these are laid on two bench like beams that project out horizontally from the bottom right and left of the hut.

'A wooden implement shaped like a very large crude wooden spoon is taken from inside the hut and some coals from the holy fire are placed in it. Petka takes this smoking device inside and "washes" the dolls, their clothing and the interior of the hut with smoke. The Khanty regard smoke as being a purifier -- it is also used to cleanse a house after the death of a member of the household.

'All seems to be in order and it is time for us to present our gifts. We unwrap our kerchiefs and stand by the fire. Andrei says that the fire is "his" (of the god) and points to the effigy of the main god whose face we are yet to see. One by one we take turns holding our kerchiefs over the smoking fire outside the hut in order to cleanse them ritually before walking to the hut and passing them inside to Petka who removes older cloths and places the new ones around the necks of the dolls. The older cloths are hung in the rafters to the upper left. All the cloths are white, the colour of the upper world. Andrei has no cloth but begs a coin from Arkady. This too is passed through the smoke and passed in to Petka.

'Small collections of money are a feature of other holy sites. Where Andrei and Sasha live there is a female holy site and in the stilted ambarchik are gold coins bearing the head of the czar, Soviet coinage with the hammer and sickle and the paper money of the new Russia. Older sources -- travellers' descriptions from the 1700's -- talk fancifully of enormous gold and silver treasuries hidden by the Khanty at their holy sites.

'A low table is fetched from behind the hut. The food we have brought with us is laid out on the table and three glasses are poured from the vodka bottle. Petka is concerned because the loaf of bread that has been brought has already been partly eaten and therefore we cannot use it to "entertain" the spirit. A loaf can be cut in half and the other half thrown away he says but if one half is eaten it is already "half dead". There is some debate but then it is used anyway and the table is spread with local dried fish, thick hunks of bread, tinned sprats and cans of condensed milk. Prayers are said over the table dedicating it to the spirit god whose guests we are in this holy forest.

'Petka bellows through the silent and dark forest to where the women are waiting on the opposite river bank. We listen intently and hear a faint answering call. Now they too can start to eat the fare they have brought. I wonder what their perception of this day must be -- the menfolk disappearing off into the forest on the opposite bank. A long silence. Then a sudden, barely audible shout from far away to tell them that the eating can begin.

That done, we sit down around the table to eat and drink. Petka and Andrei sit on the raised door sill of the hut, the rest sit on the projecting bench beams or on logs.

'With food and alcohol the mood becomes more jovial and there is much crude banter and hilarity at the contents of a jar of home-made pickled gherkins we have brought with us from Tomsk. The women shout across the river that they want vodka too. We have one of the new obscenely large (1.5 l) vodka bottles with us that are now sold in Russian cities complete with a glass grip handle. The vodka itself was drunk some weeks ago. It is now full of a pale yellow liquid -- raw spirit mixed with the brown peaty river water. It is cheaper that way. Sasha pours it out into a tin mug almost to the brim and then walks carefully back to the river with it. The women paddle across to collect it.

'Petka especially is much more relaxed now and he tells us that the idols must always be made of cedar. He shows us a small doll at the back inside left of the hut which is wholly obscured by a black cloth -- the colour of the underworld. To the right there is a large rounded stone -- something of a rarity in this flat Siberian landscape of deep sand and silt deposits. One end tapers to a point with some features reminiscent of an animal and he tells us that it is called "the bear spirit". We take turns stepping inside the hut, over the wooden sill, to anoint the stone with fish oil (stored in an old vodka bottle in the inside right of the hut alongside the "smoke spoon"), stroke the top a few times and then pick it up with both hands. It is very heavy and even more difficult to raise with greased hands. After it is carefully replaced a wish must be made and the stone picked up once again. If it is lighter the second time it means the wish will be fulfilled.

The powerful male spirit of the upper river with two female assistants
left and right: these are housed inside the sacred, open-fronted hut
described in the text. The spirit of the bear stone is visible to the
bottom right. The main idol is about 140 cm tall.
Figure 6. The powerful male spirit of the upper river with two female assistants left and right: these are housed inside the sacred, open-fronted hut described in the text. The spirit of the bear stone is visible to the bottom right. The main idol is about 140 cm tall.
'Those who choose to do this must stand stooping inside the hut face to face with the effigies who are clothed in white robes and scarves and whose carefully carved expressionless faces stare out. The spirit himself has coins for eyes and mouth.

'The hut entrance faces due south. From time to time the hut where the effigies reside becomes dilapidated and the current host of the site, who for these three years is Petka, must build a new one to keep the spirits content and comfortable.

dilapidated, older sacred hut which lies about 20 metres due west of the
new hut in which the spirit dolls are currently kept. The remains of an
even older hut lie rotting further to the west.
Figure 7. The dilapidated, older sacred hut which lies about 20 metres due west of the new hut in which the spirit dolls are currently kept. The remains of an even older hut lie rotting further to the west.

At this holy site, each time the hut is rebuilt, it is rebuilt some way to the east, toward the sunrise, but directly in line with the last hut along an east-west axis. To the west, where the sun sets, stand the remains of an older hut close to collapse. We look inside but there are no dolls, only an old smoke spoon to the left and next to it a tarnished brass samovar. Another spoon is inside and to the right. We stroll further through the trees to the west beyond this older hut, and we are able to pick out the rotting timbers of an even older one directly in line with the last.

'The huts seem to be rebuilt constantly toward the rising sun, but where do the doll images come from? Petka says that, while the hut is built by the local guardian from the yurts who is responsible for this holy site, the effigies themselves are carved by a non-local "master" from some other yurt on the river and they "live" in the hut until the master who carved them dies. After the carver's death new, but almost identical, images must be made by a new master from a cedar tree cut from within this sacred grove to replace the older ones inside the hut. The older dolls are "returned" to the stump of the tree from which the new dolls have been cut.

older idols placed at the stump of a cedar tree: the present wooden
spirit dolls are carved from this tree. The eyes are Soviet coins dating
to 1930 and 1931.
Figure 8. The older idols placed at the stump of a cedar tree: the present wooden spirit dolls are carved from this tree. The eyes are Soviet coins dating to 1930 and 1931.
We continue on into the forest and Petka shows us some dolls grouped around a felled cedar tree stump. They are fully clothed, and in size and shape are nearly identical to those inside the hut.

They were placed there a year or two ago after the master who carved them died. The eyes of the main doll are formed by coins -- Soviet coinage from 1930 and 1931.

'The spirits who inhabit the holy site are timeless but their wooden images, incarnations even, are not and have a life and death cycle that matches the man who made them.

'The Khanty also believe that while a man or woman may die, one soul of each individual -- the reincarnation soul (there are a total of four souls in women and five in men) -- is received by a related infant born shortly afterwards into the same clan. Thus while the clan is timeless, its component parts (men and women) are not, being born, living and decaying much as the spirit dolls do. Wood rots but the local gods here at this holy site live on. Back in the villages humans may be born, live, die and rot away but through reincarnated souls the clan lives on through a common "pool" of souls.

'With the vodka drunk and much food eaten the table is cleared of fish heads, cans and empty bottles as well as some sweet and biscuit wrappers. For the most part they are thrown to the left side of the hut -- the direction in which the older abandoned hut is located. The cans join numerous others that lie rusting on the forest floor. In contrast, the ground to the other side of the hut -- the east -- is clear of all but one can.

'We reassemble, prayers are said as the bowing and rocking motions are made and we all turn on our feet to make circles "like the sun". At the closing moments Petka hands out the old scarves from the dolls which have been hanging in the roof of the hut. Those present at this holy site for the first time have a scarf knotted around their necks as a keepsake from the spirit god here.

'We gather our things and the uneaten food and prepare to return to the boats. Arkady carries the big empty vodka bottle but Sasha tells him that it must remain here as it is "his" (the spirit's). It is placed neatly in a pile with numerous others at the outside front left corner of the hut, testament to earlier visits and offerings.

'We find that the women have paddled their boat over to ours moored at the bank, but they make no effort to come ashore. We all gather aboard the larger boat. Everyone has been drinking and there is much laughter, even dancing. The women, in their traditional costumes, are very loud and have lost their earlier shyness. Everyone asks for more vodka and a keg of "brashka" -- homemade beer -- does the rounds. All of the food blessed for the "holy table" but brought back will be shared out between all the families who took part in today's visit. None of it should ever be given to the dogs -- these are lower creatures and should never be fed this holy food.

'The engine of the big boat is started, shattering the tranquil air and startling some birds from nearby trees. We tow the smaller boat in a final clockwise circle -- like the sun -- a parting gesture which closes our stay as guests of this powerful spirit. The dark calm river water is sliced by the bows of our boat and the cool breeze on the river blows away the midges that have bothered us all day. The shouting, laughing and singing continue and our noisy group travels on into the dusk'.

On 8 September, I received the following distressing e. mail:

Date:    	Tue, 08 Sep 1998 09:44:18 -0600
To:            	... ...
From:          	Andrew Wiget 
Subject:       	Oil Development In Proposed Khanty Biosphere Reserve



Many of you know of the project to establish a Biosphere reserve in the
basin of the B. And M. Yugan rivers, that would preserve the last large
tract of Middle West Siberian taiga and the last large community of Khanty
people living in a traditional way.

The administration has been playing a stalling game, and now proposes in
September--this month-- to offer for tender territories in the proposed
reserve for oil development.  Given the history of behavior of Russian oil
companies there is little doubt that development in these areas would
destroy the rivers and the Khanty whose lives and culture depend on them.

I am passing along to you a letter of protest from the leader of the Yugan
Khanty community, Vladimir S. Kogonchin,  to the governor of Khanty-Mansi
Autonomous Okrug, Alexander V. Filipenko.

PLEASE take a few minutes to support the Khanty resistance to this action by
FAXing a letter of protest from your organization to directly to Filipenko
at (7 34671) 3 34 60.
Forward this message to others who can respond.


Dear Alexander Vassilevich [Filipenko]:

The national community Yaoun Yakh, on behalf of the native population of
Yugan Khanty,categorically protests against putting on tender the
territories of Achimovskaya, Gustorechinskoye, and Ai-Yagunskoye oil
deposits. The development of these deposits is endangering the existence of
Yugan Khanty, because it deprives them of their natural resource base and
threatens the ecological situation in the basin of the rivers B. And M. Yugan.

Beginning in 1989, the community of Yuganskii Khanty have been raising the
question of establishing a protected ethnoecological zone in this area,
which would be the only one in Surgut region.  The Yugan is the only area in
Surgut region not seriously impacted by industrial development, where still
exists the Khanty traditional cultural formation, the Yugan Khanty.  At
present there is a scientifically-based project of establishing such a
territory with the status of Biosphere reserve, which could preserve this
zone as part of the cultural and natural heritage of Russia.  We ask you not
to let the above-named oil deposits to be put on tender and to speed up the
resolution of the question of establishing a protected territory of regional
significance with the structure of Biosphere Reserve.

V. S. Kogonchin
President, National Community "Yaoun Yakh"

About the author
Peter Jordan is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory at the University of Sheffield. He is doing ethnoarchaeology of hunter-gatherer societies in Siberia.

He may be reached by e. mail on <>

Text copyright © P. Jordan 1998

Photographs copyright © A. Michaelev, Vizan Studios, Tomsk, Russia 1998


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