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).

Parallel Worlds in Germanic Folk Religion

Written by Dyami Millarson

There are nine worlds in Nordic folk religion. We may safely assume that there were multiple worlds in the other strands of Germanic folk religion as well. Mithgarth, Asgarth, Alfheim, Svartalfheim and Jötunheim are all worlds that exist parallel to each other. So the Germanic peoples believed in parallel worlds: the Álfar are parallel humans, so are the Æsir, so are the Jötnar, so are the Dvergar, so are the Vanir. The worlds they inhabit are alternate worlds that are reflections of the same human, spiritual or divine condition; they reflect the same reality essentially.

Parallelism is a quintessential characteristic of Germanic folk religion; Parallelism is the truth underlying the structure of the Germanic universe (Germanic religion may be termed Germanic universism as it encompasses the Germanic understanding or view of the universe, though one should not confuse universism with universalism). The following synecdoche rings true for Germanic folk religion: divinity mirrors humanity, and humanity mirrors divinity. Natural parallelism as a structural feature of Germanic folk religion is the reason for the principle of divine diversity; the Germanic peoples believed in many deities, because they believed in parallelism as reflected in nature.

Germanic folk religion is, doubtlessly, a reflection of nature, and hence it may be termed nature religion. Nature is what inspired the Germanic peoples; for they lived in nature. The boundary between the Germanic village and nature was very small and arbitrary; the Germanic peoples lived very close to nature like other indigenous people around the globe who built their villages in nature. The home of the Germanic peoples was nature, so it is not surprising that nature informed their religious worldview.

The multiplicity of any kind of living organism is a given in nature; it is necessary for any species in nature to not be the only and last individual of their kind. For divinity to be one would mean to the Germanic mind that the Gods are a dying breed. If there were only one human being, that would mean the human race is dying. The fertility of the divine races was seen as reflective of their vitality; nature always reproduces, and reproduction is an imperative in nature. Multiplicity and multiplication were fully embraced in Germanic religion, hence fertility was always seen as an important factor in religious rite and story.

Human beings, spiritual beings and divine beings are all quintessentially belonging to the same man-like prototype with natural imperfections and moral defects; humanity, spirituality and divinity are overlapping in Germanic religion, hence I could speak of the human/spiritual/divine condition in this article as being the template or blueprint for the various mirror reflections of reality that are presented to us in Germanic folk religion.

One may superficially say that there are multiple realities or truths in Germanic folk religion, but these are actually multiple copies of the same reality or truth. These parallel realities are simply reflecting that there are universal laws governing the world, regardless of what reality one finds oneself in. The philosophical implications of this are huge; the grass is not greener elsewhere, but everyone is subject to the same fate, ørlög, primordial law.

The other worlds being replicas or replications of our human world is highly engaging and appealing from a philosophical perspective; the Germanic peoples would have looked at the other worlds and realised that the other man-like beings had it no better than them; this gave them hope automatically, as it meant that they were already living in utopia and had to make the best of life in the world they lived in. This is a very natural way to view the world; for this natural worldview helps one to deal with the harsh realities of the world.

Germanic folk religion is an acceptance of the state of the world, an acceptance of the state of nature; the natural parallelism found in Germanic religion shows us the Germanic understanding of utopia, the world in which they lived was already ideal to them because the natural world, which they inhabited, was their eternal ideal to which they aspired. The Germanic peoples could not imagine a better world than the natural world which they inhabited; they saw nature as perfect, and this is a sentiment we can certainly relate to in modern times.

Furthermore, it is important that the Germanic peoples did not fully perceive the other worlds as distinct from their own; there was always overlap. The worlds were all interconnected, and there were frequent interactions between them. Therefore, the boundaries between the worlds are blurred; the distinctions are arbitrary rather than absolute. While the worlds are part of one underlying reality, they are governed by the same universal laws, and this means that their distinction is, fundamentally, not that relevant. In other words, while one may say they are copies or replicas of the same prototype, they are actually an interconnected web; the worlds are part of the same system, and that is why they display parallelism that makes one realise they are essentially the same. The best way to think about the worlds is that they are parallel threads in a web as they belong to the same natural systemic structure and they are subject to the same natural dynamics of evolution.

In conclusion, one may understand the parallelism of the multiple worlds in Germanic religion to be a confirmation of the idea there is only one world. The Germanic peoples did not call these parallel worlds ‘worlds’, but they spoke of only one ‘world’ (age of man) and all the other realms, which I previously called worlds, were simply alternate kingdoms of man that were part of the same age of man; these realms existed parallel to each other in perpetuity. All realms being part of the same ‘age of man’ is important; they exist at the same time, they do not exist within another timeframe. Therefore, these worlds or realms are not parallel worlds in the sense they belong to other timeframes, but time runs the same in all of these worlds and therefore they exist in the same reality.