First Seoul International Consultation:
Christianity and Shamanism

Chapter 5

Christianity and Shamanism in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia):
Some Remarks based on Personal Reflections

Klavdia Ivanovna Fedorova

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Christianity and Shamanism in the Sakha Republic (Yakutia)

Personal Reflections

The subject Christianity and Shamanism is, in my personal view, a new and complicated theme for the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) for several reasons including these: the depth of history of Christianization, the significant extent of cultural integrity, and the considerable autonomy. The peoples of the Sakha Republic received Orthodoxy from the beginning of the eighteenth century. They have managed to preserve their traditional culture and self-identity. Today, the Sakha Republic, just as a number of the other subjects of the Russian Federation, has acquired considerable autonomy and independence from the center with regard to politics, social life and culture.

Many questions, therefore, arise. What does shamanism mean for the Sakha (Yakut) people? What did Christianity bring to the people of undeveloped Siberia? How did the Sakha manage to preserve their language and traditional culture? Has Christianity played a positive role in this preservation? Do Christianity and shamanism contradict each other? Do they exclude each other? Or should we speak about the integrating roles of the two categories, which at first sight appear to exclude each other? What are the prospects for the development of Christianity and shamanism in Yakutia?

I shall try to answer these questions, thus presenting my personal view about these issues, which do not at all pretend to be the result of in-depth research into these very complex and multifaceted questions. My views are personal reflections.

What is shamanism for the Sakha? The term itself seems to be a neologism, made by the productive model: Adjective + ism (i.e., capitalism, socialism, dualism, etc.), used to form abstract nouns. What abstract notion is denoted by this word? I approached my colleagues and the students at the University with this question. The range of answers was rather wide, including a spectrum of activities, notions, rituals and ceremonies. I shall name some of them: the meeting of the Sun; the making of fire and feeding the Spirit of the Fire; feeding the Spirits of the Earth, Air, Water; algys (song-blessings); the circle dance, known as osyokhai; and the theatrical performance of the White Shaman with his pupils at the opening ceremonies of the most important meetings and celebrations during the summer festival of ysyakh, which marks the coming of summer. I would like to make comment here indicating that the existence nowadays of real shamans is doubtful: the role of the shaman during the ysyakh is usually performed by some elderly person today who has good reputation and is respected by the community, and who also has a talent for performance. Shamanism is also understood as folk healing with the help of herbs, hypnosis, manual therapy: methods that have been passed on from one generation to the other from the past. Thus, shamanism, as seen by the contemporary Sakha, is a part of the indigenous culture of the people in Yakutia, together with language, epic poetry, and legends, and including rituals of wishing, or supplication, to pre-Christian spirits.

A revival of interest in the traditional culture and the language, a revival especially during the last ten years, has been conditioned by, and can be explained by, the processes which are underway in all the provinces of Russia. It has to do with the provinces gaining more independence, autonomy, and a growth of self-identity. In 1993 and 1995, international conferences were held in Yakutsk. They were devoted to questions about the revival and development of indigenous education, traditional beliefs of the Sakha, aspects of shamanism; and they will be testimonies to the fact that interest in the preservation and study of indigenous culture is truly great. During the last several years, we have witnessed the rise of a new term ayi yorehe. In literal translation, ayi yorehe is the study of spirits. It is a more accurate term than the word shamanism to express the Sakha people's worldview, and the moral principles of the elders about how we should live in harmony with the surrounding world, how we may survive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic. The person who generalized and formulated the principles of ayi yorehe is the senior researcher of the Institute of Humanities Afanasi Lazarev. Nowadays in Yakutsk, proposals have been made to introduce ayi yorehe as a compulsory subject in the school curriculum.

Christianity was spread among the peoples of distant Yakutia in the eighteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century, all Sakha (Yakut) were baptized. That is why, nowadays, they are formally considered to be Russian Orthodox. What was the influence of Christianity on the development of the people of Yakutia? If we ask the question with regard to culture, then we can state without a doubt, that the effect was absolutely positive. Like many peoples of the world, the Sakha acquired their writing with Christianity. For example, the Slavs were non-literate people before they became Christians: they had neither an alphabet nor a common Slavonic literary language, which could convey the intricate Christian concepts or serve to express the elevated Christian liturgical poetry. The same can be said about the Georgians, the Gemanic peoples, and many others. All of them created their own graphical systems and national literary languages. In summary, it was Christianity that contributed to the appearance of writing among the indigenous people, and assisted in the preservation of the Sakha language and the development of the literary cultural heritage of the Sakha people.

However, the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia before the October Revolution was a part of the state's power. After perestroika, Russian Orthodoxy is considered to be the official religion of Russia, although formally the church is separate from the state. More over, it is considered to be the Russian national religion, and that is why it is often connected with the Russian national movement. No wonder that during the last five to six years, while the subjects of the Russian Federation have obtained more power, any attempts to impose upon them something that claims to express an official centralized state outlook is taken (understood) to be an attempt to suppress democracy and an attempt of the center to subjugate the provinces. In contrast, the national movement for independence has been connected with a rise of interest in native culture, including language and traditional beliefs, rituals and ceremonies.

So, Russian Orthodoxy and shamanism are, at first glance, two contradictory, mutually exclusive categories. Their opposition is easily explained and understood if one knows the context. But is it really so? Are they actually opposed? Let us consider some facts that have taken place in the past and present of the Sakha experience. The Sakha who accepted Orthodoxy obtained a practical advantage and they were aware of it. They did not pay taxes to the Russian czar if they were Orthodox. Baptized Sakha girls could marry Russian men: cossacks. So, they became Christians. At the same time, whenever the Sakha moved to a new place (this might be a new house, or a temporary summer dwelling, or a camp in the forest), they made the fire first of all and addressed the Spirit of the Fire, the Earth, the Air, asking them to bless the place. This pre-Christian custom is followed nowadays by those who are Christians and by those who are atheists. On the feastday of the Holy Trinity each year, the Sakha commemorate their dead: they go to the graveyards, burn candles, take care of the graves. On Easter day, they cook special cakes (kuliches) and take them to the Church to sanctify them.

A few years ago, I happened to visit one small Sakha village where I saw a church. It could be seen from afar, placed on a hill and it was very well kept. I wanted to see it more closely, and I went towards it. Near the church, I met a Sakha man who volunteered to help me and to show me the church. He turned out to be a ferry-driver, and his part-time job was to take care of the church. When I asked him if this church was an active one, he answered that it had not been consecrated yet and that they have no priest in the village. But he said, We shall not give it to anyone, we shall not allow anyone to take our church to a new place! He said this, because at that time there was a motion within the republic to collect all the old houses and churches, dismantle them, and re-assemble them all at one place as an open-air museum of history (the motion having been initiated by Dmitry Suoron-Omollon, a writer). The villager continued to explain:

The church was built by our ancestors, who believed in Christ the Savior, and we also need to believe in God. We want to baptize our children in the church.

Saying this, the man took me into the church to show how well the village people had restored it. When he opened the door, I was struck by what I saw inside. The walls were all painted. The paintings were landscapes of the local sights with local animals, such as moose, bear, wolves, birds, squirrels, and so on. On the wooden racks, some old work tools were displayed on a rack: a plough, a stone wheel of a windmill; there was also a samovar, an old iron, some icons, the costume of a shaman, his drum, native jewelry, and other cultural attributes. It seemed to me that all these things were displayed to show the past of the village. The man did not understand why I was surprised, and he continued to say that it is extremely important for the people of the village to keep the belief of their elders, their stories, legends and rituals.

Now I shall come back to the question ~ do Christianity and Indigenous Culture exclude each other? How can we interpret the words of the man who together with his villagers collected the artifacts showing the past life-style of the village, the culture of the people, its nature, and who was, at the same time, looking forward to the priest visiting the village to sanctify the church and resume services in it? Perhaps we should speak about the integration of Christianity and the native culture, about the enrichment of Christianity with the native traditions, about Christianity in a certain cultural context. No wonder the Sakha create an analogy between their pre-Christian traditional spirits and the biblical story, comparing the highest white Spirit with Jesus Christ. Such integration (not just the co-existence of the two religions) made it possible for a life peace among the Sakha, the Russians, and the other people on the territory of my republic, where we have never had any religious conflicts.

Thus after long years of atheism, which prohibited both Orthodoxy and pre-Christian beliefs, we see the restoration of religion which is expressed by a return to the traditional beliefs and to Russian Orthodoxy. The return to Orthodoxy might be taken as an attempt to do away with the native identity. This fact should be taken into account by the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church in Yakutia. Intolerance against the traditions and customs of the indigenous people may avert those who would like to join Christianity and to become deep believers.

As one of my colleagues at the university said, the characteristic feature of the period of restoration of religion now is the fact that there are more people who would like to believe than those who really believe. Such a situation is not surprising because it is especially difficult for a man now to understand what is going on in such a vague time which is called the post-Soviet.

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