International Scientific Conference "Archeology of the Arctic"
November 19-23, 2017

Connecting things, animals and people: social topology of the nenets knots

D.V. Arzyutov

Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography RAS, (Kunstkamera), Saint Petersburg;

University of Aberdeen, Great Britain





The tundra changes the ethnographer's perspective: the abundance of space with the minimal number of things invites to look from a different angle at the world in which the space between things is no less important that the things themselves. In this paper I will try to make one step beyond the limits of the Nenets materiality so well described in the works of both the old school and the modern ethnographers [Khomich, 1966; Golovnev, 1995. PP. 199-201; Golovnev, 2016].

The whole of the Nenets world stays on the knots. Knots tied on ropes help to fix the tents; ropes and knots secure luggage on sleds; the knots are used to fix the harness; there special knots to tie a reindeer to a dog;  small kids are tied with a rope to the tent poles in order to keep them from accidentally getting too close to a burning oven. The male malitsa is symbolically marked with a correctly tied neni yu (the Nenets knot). And, finally, the knots form an element of the kids games of the Nenets as well as of the many other Arctic peoples.

The knots to many of us are primarily associated with one of the branches of mathematics, namely topology, the subject of which is the study of complex shapes interlacing various surfaces. This "mathematical" topology of knots may be transferred to the social topology of the Nenets knots opening to us a world of diverse forms of social relations materialized in all kinds of various ties (see; [Anderson et al., 201. PP. 11-15] on the architectures of domestication where the very first form of this type of architecture was the tether or hobble). These social ties are similar to a peculiar kind of language (cf. the quipu 'talking knots' language, as well as the manual concepts described by Frank Cushing), since it is by the knots that a herder may tell a Nenets from the non-Nenets, tell the time for which an animal was tied, as well as many other things. Main secret of each knot is the ease with which it can be quickly and easily untied and its significant fastness when tied.

There are three main Nenets knots: the neni yu (the Nenets knot), the ty yu (the deer knot), and the holmer yu (the dead knot).

The Nenets knot is the most important one for the engagement between the people and the things, it is that knot which is used for tying up things. The deer knot on the contrary is more characteristic for the human-animal engagement.  The herders describe dozens of various deer knots the difference between which is mostly associated with the herder's knowledge of the animal's behavior and the time during which the latter should stay tied.

 The dead knot in the Nenets culture has a meaning directly opposite to the meaning of the phrase in the Russian language - this knot does not "hold" and is utterly impractical. It is this knot that is used in the funeral ritual. It is interesting to note that this type of knot on a living person may also be referred to as lutsa yu, i.e. the wrong knot, the knot which has lost its functionality (from lutsa - a Russian or any other non-indigenous person, an alien).

A separate group of knots are the ones which are used in various games.

Diverse knots which form the basis of both various architectural forms (a corral, a tent, etc.), and the traditional clothes (the seams may be viewed as kinds of different knots) also create a specific topological space where things, people, animals (and not only they) end up being firmly tied together and represent a materialization of social relations.

These reflections represent only the first steps towards the ethnography of knots and their anthropological understanding.  The study of the knots and their use may open new perspectives which would help us in untangling the multidimensional and varied forms of social engagements between the people, things, animals and the unseen world in various regions of the Arctic.



Anderson D.G., J. Loovers P.L., Schroer S.A., Wishart R.P. Architectures of Domestication:
On Emplacing Human-Animal Relations in the North // Archeology of the Arctic / Ed. N.V. Fedorova. – Kaliningrad: P.H. "ROS-DOAFK", 2016. – Issue 3. – PP. 5-24.

Golovnev A. V. Talking cultures: the Samody and the Ugrian traditions. – Ekaterinburg: UB RAS, 1995. – 606 p.

Golovnev A.V., Garin N.P., Kukanov D. A. The Yamal nomads (materials to the atlas of the technologies of nomadism). – Ekaterinburg: UB RAS, 2016. – 152 p/

Khomich L.V. The Nenets: historical and ethnographic essays). – M.: Nauka, 1966. – 330 p.

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