Mythology and folklore

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Mythology and Folklore

The study of Yukaghir folklore and language began at the end of the 19th century and is linked with the V. I. Yokhelson. Among the present day generation of people that speak the Yukaghir language, there are still those who know Yukaghir folklore. The Yukaghir folklore exists in the poetic and prose form. Both of these forms have their special genres the majority of which don’t intercross with each other. However, in fairytales there are some song insertions that are performed in a manner close to cantillations.

The Yukaghir prose folklore, like the folklore of most peoples of Siberia, consists of fairytales about animals, mythological legends, legends about strong people and shamans, magic fairytales, borrowed from the Russians, the Evens and Yakuts, as well as riddles. Memorats from the recent past about shamans, strong people and different kinds of miracles also refer to the prose folklore. Heroic epic represents a separate prose genre that the Lower Kolyma Yukaghirs saved as a cycle of legends about Edilvey.

Its content differs from the similar artifacts of the other peoples of Siberia with its moral: the main character conquered and destroyed many foreign foes and at the very end turned out to be the crippled Master of the World, because he spilled too much human blood (Yukaghir folklore, 2005, p.177, 179, 191). Many mythological legends tell about the old men-giants defeat. Most of the Siberian peoples have this theme in their folklore. However, here most of the stories have an authentically Yukaghir ending: when the old man- giant dies he turns into a person – a handsome young man (Yokhelson, 2005, p. 343, 354).

Song genres

Book cover of “Fairytales, myths and legends of the forest Yukaghirs”, Yakutsk: the Yakut region, 2011

Song genres can be distinguished by the improvised character of the content and a simple melodic form. They brightly and strongly express the emotional side of a person’s life. Another noticeable feature can be a thorough description of events that inspired the author to write and perform the song (Creynovich, 1972, p.82-83; 89-91). These songs refer to the “personal” genre that the Tundra Yukaghirs preserved. Most of the peoples of Siberia have “personal” songs despite their different origin and thus their musical culture.

Cantillations are often installed in these in these types of songs. Cantillation forms in songs are the oldest and only the Tundra Yukaghirs managed to preserve them. In the Yukaghir song genre one can find examples of animal and bird sound imitation, if the song is about them. Such sound imitations (according to their sounding are symbolic rather than naturalistic) are absolutely not connected to Yukaghir trade interests; they can be considered as an idea of a foreign language, although their origin is magical (Ignatyeva, 2005, p.94). In some cases sound imitations can be ritual (for example, the raven’s note during a ceremonial linked with catching a bear, like in the Evens and Yakut culture), or they can be truly linked with trading, and thus similar in terms of naturalism (for example, a pecking wood grouse).

The Taiga Yukaghir songs have a larger melodic and sound imitation variety than the Tundra Yukaghirs and this could be due to the closer relations with the Russian population. Thus, the Taiga Yukaghir music language became enriched and bright example of that would be the uprisal of a new genre – Andilshina, that was performed in Russian (Russified population) as well as in the Yukaghir language. By the content it is a plangent lyrical love song, a peculiar Kolyma romance. In addition, V. I. Yokhelson’s passages reflect a much older state of a love song, which was a kind of a dialogue competition between singers and the song was written in a allegorical metaphorical language. Something similar was only found in the culture of Nganasans. In 1962 the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs recorded a song that in terms of melody was similar to a Russian song (in the attached CD to the Yukaghir folklore book, 2005 it’s number 23 on the list). Judging by its content, it appeared to be truly connected to the Russians’ appearance in this area.

The so called pestushki songs (lullaby songs) or shishi belong to the polyethnic music genre. The grownups would sing them to their infants as a way of communicating with them. They are small rhythmic saying sung in a manner close to cantallations in fairytales. There can be found Russian as well as Even words, although the manner of performing them looks quite archaic.


Only the Taiga Yukaghirs manage to preserve their dance culture in the times of V. I. Yokhelson. This round dance called longdol is performed by young people, who come to Verkhnekolymsk in the summer to celebrate Peter’s Day (a religious holiday to commemorate two apostles – Peter and Paul). This dance inspired Yukaghirs so much that they could spend the entire day dancing. The name of this dance is rather descriptive, i.e., it means “to rise up” describing the way the dancers move: moving from right to left clockwise in one pace, they would sit up twice on their toes after each step and hit the ground with their heels. This dance is similar to the Evens’ round dance and V. I. Yokhelson regards it as a borrowing from the Evens, moreover, the words of the tune opening the dance are of Even origin, meanwhile the Yukaghirs graceful performance of this dance makes it different from the Evens’ variant(Yokhelson, 2005, p.191). Another dance – the swan longdol obviously has Yukaghir roots. In this dance where young men and women dance in the middle of a circle interchangeably; they present a pantomime whirling around with the outer dancing circle and flapping the right and left hand interchangeably, like wings. Furthermore, the young man whirls around the young woman and she tries to avoid his touching her, while facing him. The dancers’ movements, just like choir’s performance during the dance based on sound imitation, are like swans’ bridal dance.


At the beginning of the 20th century the Taiga Yukaghirs preserved pictographic writing. They would draw pictures on the reverse side of birchbark with the tip of a knife or a bone awl. This tradition had two absolutely different functions and consequently different spheres of use together with its peculiar stylistics. The first one was men’s tradition – it referred to hunting expeditions and the nomadic movement linked with hunting. These pictographic messages were based on the general principal of mutual aid. This principal functioned when the hunter’s luck had capricious behavior. These letters would tell how many people there were, the nomads’ routes and the hunting results. The hunters would leave the letters in a particular place – in a single tree. Yakut merchants also used this tradition to find their Yukaghir customers. The second type of letters was exceptionally women’s type, girls’, to be exact, in addition, it had its own particular stylistics. The girls would draw people in the shape of collapsed umbrellas. Some conventional symbols for hands and feet can be found in these silhouettes, while the head merged with the body.

In the Yukaghir culture a young girl is not allowed to declare her love verbally before the young man does it. Only the man can do so. That’s why it was only the young women, who wrote love letters, married women didn’t write such letters. Since girls of marriageable age had very little time, then they would write letters on a special occasion or holiday, when the young people gathered round for the celebration. Usually, only one girl wrote letters, surrounded by an audience of her age that tried to guess the meaning of the picture. If someone made a mistake, then the whole crowd laughed and made jokes, because in the Yukaghir culture love relations were not a secret for the equals in age, or for parents.

Despite the symbolic convention these letters show that the Yukaghir men’s and women’s clothes didn’t differ much. They would draw a figure of a man narrower than the figure of a young woman (which was anatomically correct), also the girl figure on these pictures differs by a small dashed line going down from the head, symbolizing a hear braid. (Yukaghir men had long hair, but they didn’t queue them in a braid.) Among these Yukaghir figures one can come across pictures of Russian women (the chosen bridegroom could stop at their home on his way to a fair in Verkhnekolymsk). These pictures can be distinguished by the shape of the skirt. Young Yukaghir men often stayed too long in the city trying to gather as much news as they can: this made them welcomed guests in every home. These long departures fed the brides’ sorrow and jealousy.

Yukaghirs could draw the figures inside a rectangular multistage opening that represented a house. If the illustration of the house was incomplete, then the figure inside it would leave it soon or had already left it. Short straight lines between the men’s and women’s figures symbolizes their mutual feelings, when the lines are crossed, then this means that the pair is in love. If there was a winding line with a bubble above it moving from one figure to the other, then this person’s thoughts and feelings weren’t mutual. Yukaghirs often drew a sidelong cross above one of the figures that symbolized the person’s misery.

Pluzhnikov N. V.
(from the Peoples of North-East Siberia)

About Yukaghir Oral Folk Arts

Woman and a bear

Woman and a bear

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, V. I. Yokhelson, a distinguished scientist in the Circumpolar (North) Studies had carried out the first complex and major studies on the spiritual and material Upper Kolyma Yukaghir culture. More than a 100 of folklore texts that he found, went into his fundamental scientific works Materials on the study of Yukaghir language and folklore collected in the Kolyma region (St.-Petersburg, 1900) and Yukaghirs and Yukaghir assimilated Tungus (New York - Leiden, 1926).

Unfortunately, such were the circumstances that the Yukaghir folklore material collected by V. I. Yokhelson is mostly represented by the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs’ art. The Lower Kolyma Yukaghirs’ texts were recorded much later in 1959 by a scientific expedition group, that was organized by an affiliated Institute of Language, Literature and History of the USSR Academy of Science. The volume of Yuakaghir folklore is the first large publication of the Tundra Yukaghirs folklore heritage out of the 60 volume series Monument of the Siberian and Far East peoples’ folklore that was published in the Nauka publishing house, in 2005 in Novosibirsk city.

After V. I. Yokhelson the following scientists studied the Yukaghir folklore at different times: N. I. Spiridonov – Teki Odulok, E. A. Kreynovich, A. P. Laptev, G. N. Kurilov, A. F. Malikova, L. N. Jukova. I. A. Nikolayeva, L. N. Dyomina, P. E. Prokopyeva, etc. In terms of quantity, there are more forest Yukaghir texts than the Tundra Yuakghir texts.

In the Yukaghir peoples’ tradition folklore stories are divided into two large groups – the Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs N’iedjiil (“story”) and Tchuuldyii (“fairytale”) and the Lower Kolyma Yukaghirs N’iedjiil (“story”) and Karavaal (“fairytale”). It is quite difficult to characterize the content of the two groups, using the given the classification of genres in literary criticism, because they have their peculiarities. Many scientist studying folklore point out the how difficult it is to define the national genres. V. I. Gusev writes that even the names, common for most of the peoples, like fairytale and roundelay song “don’t reflect the concrete form of the genre, that has its own specific features different for each group of peoples or specific ethnic groups” [1, с.108]. The mythological worldview is typical of folklore of the peoples with a traditional type of culture and it prevails in all Yukaghir folklore genres.

The study of the Upper Yukaghir folklore from the point of view of its genre characteristics allows to relatively add it to the first group, i.e., - N’iedjiil (“story”) that tell about the origin of natural objects and culture; bilichkas (an oral genre, a story about the hero meeting with the devilry) about meetings with the Masters of Nature, historic legends, fables and legends about shamans, stories about everyday life; Tchuuldyii (“fairytale”) – aetiologic fairytales, explaining the animals’ color and appearance peculiarities, fairytales about animals and about mythological old-men cannibals. These are the most common folklore genres, and some singled out works can be added to this group.

Apart from the folklore genres mentioned above, there are also such genres as good luck wishes, ceremonial address to the Masters of Nature, riddles, proverbs and sayings.

According to G. N. Kurilov, the narrations of the Tundra Yukaghirs can be divided as follows: Karavaal (“fairytale”) may include narrations with the elements of fairytales about animals, magic, mythological fairytales and fairytales about everyday life. N’iedjiil (“story”) is divided into N’iedjiil (“story”), the story itself, and Tchuol’ed’yi N’iedjiil (a story about ancient people) that is “close to legends and fables, standing between Karavaal and N’iedjiil” [2, с. 27]. In terms of the story’s content in the Lower Kolyma Yukaghir folklore there is a settled formula: Id’yie tchuol’ed’yiilen pundutmen (“now I will tell you about the ancient people”). According to this formula G. N. Kurilov singles out Tchuol’edyii pundulpe (legends about ancient people) as well, telling about “remarkable people with exceptional physical and psychological qualities”. Just like the forest Yukaghirs folklore, Tundra Yukaghir folklore has a developed for of genre syncretism.

The Lower Yukaghirs also preserved examples of ritual poetry, proverbs and sayings, and riddles [2, с. 27-28]. Special emphasis in the two Yukaghir folklore groups should be given to songs, represented by songs on different themes.

There are considerable differences in the Upper and Lower Kolyma Yukaghir folklore, that are defined by peculiarities of their social life, living in different natural and geographical zones (taiga and tundra), and the neighboring peoples’ influence on folklore.

The Tundra Yukaghir folklore reflects the life of reindeer breeding peoples. As a result of the patriarchal-generic relations, such aspects as family and everyday life are brought to the foreground. In fairytales there is a visible division into the rich and the poor, there is a tendency to personify the main characters, people often have names. “Some aspects of the Yukaghir material and spiritual culture have not been fully reflected” in the Tundra Yukaghir folklore texts [5, с.112]. The Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs, hunters and fishermen oral art in comparison with the Lower Kolyma art has closer ties with mythology.

The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir folklore contains myths and mythological fairytales about the formation of the Earth, the development of the world. These myths were influenced greatly by Christianity. They contain plots from the Bible that were changed according to Yukaghirs worldview. Thus, Jesus Christ is represented as the Father of the Masters of the World, while creating the Middle land, he travels to the three worlds of the Universe – the Upper, the Middle and the Lower Worlds. In the Middle land Christ closes the opening into the Lower World.

God’s anatagonist, apart from the Devil is a Yukaghir mythological character – a devil Kodje. When God was dividing the Middle land among its inhabitants, Kodje took the bad land, and wherever he stepped, there appeared pits and humps. The true Yukaghir myths tell that the Kolyma River is the road of giant knights and the bald mountains, cliffs and mountain peaks are peoples turned into stone under different circumstances. The lakes are the shamans’ creation. According to myths, the first peoples were the size of squirrels.

Natural surrounding plays a significant role in the hunting communities, that explains the fact that there are stories about the hunting cult in the forest Yukaghirs folklore. According to their genre features there are close to legends and fables as well as bilichkas. These works tell about the reasons why various hunter rules were established and the consequences that followed, if those rules were violated. They also tell about hunters meeting with the Masters of the World. There is a legend about a six-legged elk, telling about the origin of the burial ritual on the dais made of elk bones. It traces back to the Yukaghir hunting cult. The story tells that an irrespectable attitude towards the elks remains caused a decrease in the elk population and the lost harmony with the nature can be restored only with a special ritual.

Various ethiological myths-fairytales about the animals and birds’ behavior, their color appearance peculiarities play a significant role in Yukaghir folklore. The Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs, like all the hunting peoples of the North knew the nature in its entire manifestations very well. The artistic fantasy of the hunter-collectors described the fascinating and various natural worlds in its own special way. Their ethiological works, in comparison with other Yukaghir fairytales about animals usually have one plot, there is a beginning, climax and ending in the composition of the fairytale.

In the forest Yukaghir fairytales about animals, one can find rabbits, bears, elks, wolves, and foxes. In the Tundra Yukaghir fairytales one can often find blue-foxes, reindeer, and wolves. The choice of a specific animal not only depends on where the peoples live, but is also characterized by the special historical relationships with this animal. Thus, the rabbits’ popularity among the oduls and the bears’ popularity among the vaduls can be explained by their possible totem origin.

Apart from the collection of fairytales about rabbits, the Upper Yukaghirs also have a cycle of fairytales about a gigantic cannibal, a mythical old man; his characterization is undoubtedly, one of the oldest in folklore.

Folklore materials prove that there were a lot of wars in the life of Yukaghirs in the past. The Upper and Lower Yukaghirs have a large number of historic and heroic legends about clashes between different classes and tribes, due to hunting territory division and due to laws of blood feud. In these legends Yukaghir warriors have incredible supernatural dexterity, strength, power and fearlessness.

These stories often bring forth heroic knights with names: Edilvey, Khaladzhila, Khalandina, Alantina, etc. They also contain faith. It is not in Yukaghirs nature to express too much cruelty: heroes have mercy for their enemies, if the latter plead for it; they gratuitously accept death, understanding that they killed too many enemies. Yukaghir warriors’ behavior is defined by the peoples’ religious beliefs: the Upper Kolyma Yukaghir folklore, the highest deity, the Sun does not acknowledge misdeeds and killings. In the Lower Kolyma Yukaghirs folklore, the Spirit of the Earth punishes the brave warrior Edilvey for being cruel and aggressive.

The Upper Kolyma Yukaghir folklore has a widely spread amount of stories and legends about shamans. According to Yukaghir legends, there were a lot of very powerful shamans among the Yukaghirs. Some stories have traces of the ancestor shamans’ cult: they tell about the origin of of holy shaman trees, linked with the name of a certain shaman. Some of these stories, recorded by V. I Yokhelson still exist in folklore today. Thus, one legend tells about a young hunter who shot an evil girl, who sat on a tree: he scared her and she accidently sent his soul to the Lower world. In order to return the young man’s soul back to earth, a shaman told to make a wooden statue of a girl and put it on a tree. To commemorate those events, the tree is called “the Old”, that was the name of the shaman. The people bring gifts to that tree.

There are also some stories that tell about shamans’ deeds as the intermediary between people and the Master of the World. The shaman’s participation is most necessary in stories where people go hunting on a large taiga animal – the elk.

Yukaghir shamans also healed people. There are some existing recordings by V. I. Yokhelson about the shaman healing rituals. There is a legend about a shaman the Old, who saved his tribemates from the Big Disease by sacrificing dogs and putting them in by the house doorway, into which the Big Disease had entered. This story reflects Yukaghir shaman peculiarities and life realias. Dogs were often sacrificed in shaman rituals. The Big Disease in the similitude of a frightening old woman, reflected in the folklore, left a long-lasting memory of smallpox that killed entire Yukaghir tribes.

There are interesting stories about shamans that competed with each other. The kind and evil and cunning shamans are illustrated with the variety of their zoomorphic spirit assistants. They have impressive special abilities and possibilities.

There is a small number of proverbs and saying that reached the modern times. They usually come together with the plot of a folklore story, adding instructiveness and philosophy to it. These wise people’s sayings teach us “to never look back”, “to never lose hope, to always think about life”, they remind us that “a person with two legs sees all kinds of days – happy and unhappy”, they witty notice that “even the devil himself won’t notice a woman’s cunning nature”.

We could point out sayings the meanings of which is linked with particular folklore works. For example, when someone says about a person “he ran away like a rabbit”, he/she draws a parallel between an ungrateful rabbit from the fairytale “Tcholgoraadiye”. The words “you might as well sing a perch’s song” hint on the perch’s singing ability in fairytales. They are usually addressed to a talkative person.

With their national identity, Yukaghir proverbs and sayings, like those of the other peoples, are based on human values. They reflect friendship values – “It’s better to have a dog, than a bad friend”; warn about bad influences - “Don’t listen to every person’s word”; laugh at people’s flaws – “A coward is just like a rabbit, he tries to be handsome”, “he squeezes juice out of himself because of greed”; they speak of love in lyrical tones – “eyes are where you fall in love, the hands are where the pain is”.

One can find out about the traditions of peoples’ upbringing: “If one beats too much, even a deer’s will have a bad character”, “You’d better give advice instead of beat someone”. Yukaghirs thought that a child should grow up to be a confident in his strength and abilities, for this reason, they would say: “A dog can’t help the way a walking child can”.

Yukaghir riddles mostly reflect everyday surroundings. If they are talking about natural objects, then they compare them with household goods. Here are some examples: “Three people always support one person” (the staffs supporting a bed curtain), “two people are competing, neither of them will outrun the other” (skies), “there is sand spead on the uras” (stars), “two people want to kiss each other, but can’t reach” (a hunter’s trap), “one person eats and eats, but always asks for more” (fire), “one person only eats lard” (a gas lamp). It’s noticeable, that the proposed thing is usually compared to a person; anthropomorphic worldview of the mythological times lies in this tradition.

Singings became widely spread in the Yukaghir tradition. Specialists single out a few ethnic traditions in their musical heritage, to which they add not only the music of the local Yukaghir groups, but also the music of the old Russian settlers, that preserved the unique Yukaghir folklore genres[4, с.77-78]. In the forest Yukaghir song tradition there are love songs, lullaby songs, songs-recollections of the past, the young years, the beauty of the mother land and lullaby folklore songs. Tundra Yukaghirs have animal and people praises, blessings, songs-imitations and others as their main song genres [4, с.78].

Nowadays, the elders and Yukaghir-speaking people and those who know Yukaghir culture are the ones who bear and preserve the knowledge of oral art. They were the ones that recorded a small number of folklore art. List of References:

  1. Гусев В.Е. Эстетика фольклора. – Л., 1967. – 320 с.
  2. Фольклор юкагиров// Сост. Г.Н. Курилов. – М.; Новосибирск: Наука, 2005. – 594 с.
  3. Шавров К.Б. В.И. Иохельсон. / Советская этнография, №2. – М., 1935. – с.3-13.
  4. Шейкин Ю.И. Музыкальная культура народов Северной Азии. - Якутск: РДНТ, 1996.-123 с.
  5. Юкагиры. Историко-этнографический очерк. – Новосибирск, 1975.– 244 с.
  6. П.Е. Прокопьева, к.пед.н., ИГИиПМНС СО РАН

The Big Disease

The Big Disease

At the beginning of the 17th century Christianity had spread in the North-East part of Russia. It influenced traditional mythology: Christ (sometimes king Solomon, Noah or Adam) as the Master of the World divided the earth among the Masters of animals, birds and fish. The Satan or the Sharp Head was considered to be the chief of all evil spirits of the Lower World. Two brothers – the main heroes of a traditional myth about the world’s creation had the names of Christ and Satan: Christ, the elder brother sent Satan in the appearance of a loon to get the earth by diving into the primeval ocean. The Orthodox saints were associated with the Masters of the World: St. Nicolas was the guard of all animals; St. George was the guard of all birds, and St. Peter was the guard of all fish. The people would address these saints during hunting.

Folklore is presented by myths, magic and heroic fairytales (legends, historic fables, true stories, hunter stories). There are peculiar “historical maps” – fairytales, that tell about the origin of islands in Kolyma and some of the seashore mountains between the fortresses of Chersky range (Argatas) and Kolyma highlands. The storyteller thought the mountains to be people that turned into stone in some unknown circumstances. The magic fairytale plots are linked with myths about the origin of celestial bodies and their systems. Some fairytales have the following characters – old women, ice old men, Debegey. The main characters of fairytales about animals are the inhabitants of Taiga and Tundra – bear, wolverine, elk, reindeer, lynx, fox, and wolf. The image of a rabbit especially stands out as a totem animal that is clever, cunning and almighty.

An interesting feature of fairytales about animals and possibly of the entire folklore is the people’s ability to turn into animals and vice versa. Most often shamans turn into an animal or a bird.

Music includes several different ethnic traditions linked with their division into tribe groups. Songs praising people, animals or different household objects; a song blessing, a kinds lullabies, short song “recollections”, songs-imitations have the central position in Yukaghir songt tradition as well as myths, fairytales, stories, fables, legends all of which may also contain songs. Some of these melodies are close to ritual songs. During quacking a shaman usually sang accompanying his singing with tambourine sounds. He sang on the behalf of his spirit assistants both the song of an evil spirit and the song of good spirit.

Apart from tambourines that represented a reindeer and that was a family sacrament there were other ritual instruments, such as tubular bevel vertebra and bells on the shaman’s holiday clothes, as well as rattles on the reindeer’s antlers, clooties, wooden bars and bones, rattle charms on a baby’s crib made out of fish float. They would put a dub stick into a central opening of a reindeer dry shoulder blade. They made various play-acting sounds by turning it: a dog’s barking, sounds imitating the sound of a tambourine and even song melodies. A playing bow served as a musical instrument. Yukaghirs played on the bow-string using a flatly dub stick arrow. There were also revolving honks on a string, an oiser-bed whistle, a tongue squeaking instrument made of bird feathers, a tongue string squeaking instrument made of a grass or a tongue wind instrument made of tubular leaf stem, a thin cylindrical whistle made of hollow grass, a snag stick or a reindeer antler, that they moved along the trunk.

Throat rattling while inhaling and exhaling is accompanied by a round dance and consists of several signal exclamations: “hey-yeah”, “hm-lju”, “he-lya”, “he-ha”, “hm-ho”, “hiy-ha”, “hy-kham”, etc. The music of old Russian settlers is linked with Yukaghir music: love song in the form of a dialogue performed by a young man or woman. Owing to contacts with the Russians, there are hand-made trichord lute instruments with oval or square or triangular cut out body frame (like the balalaika – a Russian traditional instrument) with a bow or tongs to play with.

Modern Lower Kolyma Yukaghirs have fur-trading, fishing, reindeer and horse breeding. The Upper Kolyma Yukaghirs have gardening and cage animal farming. They still have the same crafts. Traditional environmental management territories are provided for national farming. (form the Arctic - my homeland: peoples of the North Encyclopedia, Moscow, 2001)

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