Description of Ostyak or Khanty Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

Khanty or Ostyak Pole Gods at the Ethnographic Museum Park Open Air “Torum Maa.” The url of the web page where I found the image:

I first learned about the Ostyaks/Ostiaks from Mircea Elade’s monumental work on shamanism and volume IV of The Mythology of All Races.

The Khanty or Ostyaks (formerly spelled Ostiaks) live traditionally in the central part of the West Siberian plain, a region once known as Yugra and nowadays as the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and their ancient religion may be called paganism, animism-polytheism, folk religion, nature religion, indigenous religion, etc. The quintessence of their religion is not unlike that of the religion of the Vikings; for the worship of the Gods is the quintessence of Ostyak or Khanty folk religion, and the ancient method of worship among the Khanty folk religionists is the blót blood sacrifice, which corresponds with all forms of Germanic paganism throughout the ages.

The Ostyak or Khanty Gods are, furthermore, not unlike the Tívar, the Germanic Gods; for, while the human eye wishes to be satisfied with something it can see and while human art fulfills this primordial need, the Khanty Gods are traditionally visualised as sacred wooden images by folk artists, whose spontaneous creations based on nature revelations, which are obtained from using whatever suitable materials nature provides for the creation of traditional sacred images, are artistic representations of the Oerfoarmen (Proto-Forms) which were sacrificed to (see information here about idols and fetishes). Since the Germanic and Ostyak peoples are sacrificers to the Oerfoarmen, more similarities are bound to be found, as seen in various — both old and contemporary — reports of the Ostyak or Khanty folk religion.

Page 328 of Panorama of Nations, Or, Journeys Among the Families of Men says: “The Ostiaks are pagans and idolaters of the most uncompromising description. They have four [G]ods, who are represented by their idols as creatures without legs, one of them having especial charge of the healing arts.”

The worship traditions of Deities and the worship traditions of Ancestors overlap; for there is correspondence between Gods and ancestors. See page 282 of this book: “The Ostyak has a wooden image of his deceased father in his hut , offers food to fit and worships it.” Page 111 of this work says: “Among the Ostyaks of Eastern Siberia, there is found a still more instructive case, in which we see the transition from the image of the dead man to the actual idol. When a man dies, they set up a rude wooden image of him.”

This work quotes from another relevant work as follows: “The idol was carved of wood, attired in green clothes, the evil looking face was covered with white iron, a black fox skin was placed on its head; the whole sanctuary, especially his site which was higher than anywhere else, was decorated with purple broadcloth. Other smaller idols nearby which where placed lower were called the servants of the real idol. I think there were many other things in front of him – caftans, squirrel skins, etc.”

Page 351 of The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man says: “The Ostyaks when they kill an animal rub some of the blood on the mouths of their idols.” The same point is repeated word for word on page 475 of volume III of The Cyclopædia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia and on page 34 of volume V of Progress. The smearing of blood on images of the Gods is also a Germanic tradition.

The Khanty or Ostyaks, not unlike the Germanic peoples, worship nature traditionally. Page 192 of this work says there is a tree worship tradition among the Khanty. Pages 118 and 120 of this work mention the respective Khanty terms for sacrificial trees and sacred trees. Page 120 of this book says that the Khanty have sacred trees, mountains and sticks; which is another point of comparison with Germanic tradition. The earliest mention of pole worship — or one might say totem pole worship — I could find thus far is here on page 165. The worship of poles is apparently an ancient Ostyak tradition.

While the Germanic peoples hung up hides on trees of sacrificial sites, the Ostyaks or Khanty also have such sacrificial hides which they hang up for the Gods (see page 187 of this work).

There is a tradition among the Khanty or Ostyaks, i.e. a tradition of sacred spaces. In other words, the Khanty or Ostyaks observe ritual taboo in order to preserve the sacred natural peace — or friðr if you will — of certain places (see page 110 of this work). Such environments of natural peace are also found around Tin Hau temples in Hong Kong, for example; they are locations of peace which separates them from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The Khanty Gods are not nameless beings, and therefore there is, like in the Germanic tradition, a close association between names and Gods (see page 558 of this work, page 226 of this work, page 446 of this work; see this work; pages 153-154 of this work; see page 48 of this work for the Gods). The worship of Deities is essentially the worship of names, and it is also the worship of idols. The three-way sacrificial relationship between those three basic concepts is apparently circular: Gods — names — idols. One might make a cycle diagram to visualise that relationship, but I do not have time for that right now. Given that the Gods are name-bearing like in Germanic tradition, it is relevant for sacrificers to learn their names. The Gods may also have epithets or nicknames, which the sacrificers ought to know.

The Khanty Gods are divided between Ljóssálfar and Svartálfar, between Tívar and Þursar. Page 22 of Landscape and Gods Among the Khanty says: “According to Khanty belief, the world is divided vertically into several layers. Good, [W]hite [G]ods rule the Upper World; the [b]lack [G]ods of diseases and death inhabit the Lower World.” 

Num-Tūrem, also called Torom, Tarom, Turom, Numi Torum in different works, is the Khanty Rēx Deōrum King of the Gods who lives in the heavenly forest (see here; see page 22 of this work; the word for Deity can be found on page 382 of this work; see page 53 of this work for Torom). An epithet of Tūrem is Num-Iləm (see here). Tūrem is functionally comparable to Othin, Týr, Thor, Heimdallr, and Ullr at the same time; for He is a King God, Sky/Heaven God, Weather God, White/Light/Bright God, and Glorious God. Bear worship may be brought into connection with Thor, and bear worship is likewise associated with Tūrem (see here for information about bear worship).

Page 297 of this downloadable book says: “The management of mundane affairs is in the hands of a host of inferior deities, good and bad: the kuls, water-spirits, who are persistently hostile to man; the menks, forest spirits, who, though habitually ill-disposed toward man, can be brought to terms of friendship by sacrifices and offerings; and the fonxes, friendly mountain spirits.”

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