A Brief Introduction to Nenets Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

Nenets folk religion or polytheism has also been called Nenets shamanism and Nenets animism (*1, *2, *3, *4, *5, *6, *7, *8, *9, *10). Not unlike Northwestern European polytheism, a characteristic feature of Nenets polytheism is blood sacrifice, particularly in their case the sacrifice of reindeer to the Gods (*6, *8, *10, *11, *12). According to a 1948 Russian-Nenets dictionary, the Nenets translation for the Russian terms бог (deity) and небо (sky) is нум’, which may be transliterated to the Roman alphabet as num’ (*13). The Nenets word for heavenly (Russian небесный) is numgy (нумгы), which is derived from the aforementioned num’ (нум’). The Sky God and Creator God of the Nenets people, whom they believe to be an old man like Othin, is simply called Num, which means God or Heaven (*1, *14, *15, *16). Similarly, Týr or *Tīwaz, the name of the Germanic God of the Sky, is originally derived from an Indo-European term for heaven and is related to the Latin words diēs (day) and deus (god); the semantic pair heaven-god is particularly noteworthy as they occur both in both Germanic and Nenets etymologies of terms for the divine. The elder semantic usage of týr persisted in Old Norse poetry where it could mean “deity” and the suffix -týr also occurs in Old Norse names where it has the same meaning as Latin deus; additionally, the plural tívar, which highlights a semantic connection with daylight and heaven, was occasionally used in Old Norse to refer to the Gods. There is another interesting etymological-semantic similarity: like the Germanic adjective *þiudiskaz, which the Germanic peoples used to describe themselves and thus express their unique group identity, meant “of the people, belonging to the people,” the endonym Nenets means “people” (*8, *9). The Nenets fashion wooden or stone dolls that they consider sacred (*3, *5, *6, *12). Similarly, the Germanic peoples had a traditional craft of fashioning spiritual men from clay or dough; and, in this spiritual context, it ought to be recalled how Othin fashioned the dwarfs. The idiosyncratic housing of the Nenets is a conical tent or teepee that is called chum or mya (*17, *18). The Nenets believe in other or parallel worlds like the Germanic peoples (*14, *16). Tadebya (тадебя) is the native Nenets name for a shaman or magico-religious leader who may connect with or travel to the otherworld as a mediator/messenger (*2). The leadership function of the tadebya may be compared to that of the seeress or vala in ancient Germanic religion; the Romans reported that the ancient Germans revered such seeresses as Veleda, Ganna, Waluburg and Albruna, and it should be noted that the Queen of the Gods, namely Frigg, is a seeress as well. In addition, it should not be forgotten that the King of the Gods, namely Othin, also fulfils a shamanic function by travelling to the otherworld for wisdom. So the ruling divine couple was shamanic in Germanic folk religion. The bear has significant religious or totemic meaning for the Nenets (*16, cp. *19, *20), and for the Germanic peoples as well, who identified the bear with Othin’s strong son Thor. While the bear was a symbol for strength, the Germanic peoples even had a class of warrior that was called “bear-shirt” (berserkr); by wearing a bear-shirt, he spiritually embodied the strength of a bear. The Nenets have a lunar calendar (*8, cp. *21), whilst the indigenous calendar of the Germanic peoples is lunisolar. The Nenets have a folk religious parallel or counterpart to the Germanic Álfar, the clan of excellent smiths: the Sihirtya (сихиртя), a spiritual family or race of light-eyed skilled craftsmen (*9).

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