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

The nenets sacred places materials in the collection of Russian Ethnography Museum.

I.A. Karapetova

The Russian museum of ethnography, Saint Petersburg



    Among the ethno-cultural heritage items in the collections of the Russian Ethnographic Museum the materials associated with the traditional beliefs of the Nenets stand out as a special group.  First of all, these are the ritual items brought to the museum in the end of the 19th - beginning of the 20th centuries    from the Nenets sacred places of the Kolguev islands, the Kanin peninsula, the Bolshezemelskaya tundra, the Vaigach island, the Yamal and Gydan peninsulas and the Gulf of Ob region. The artifacts assemblages were complemented with the photos of the sacred places made in the beginning - first third of the 20th century in the Gulf of Ob area and on the Gydan peninsula, as well as the descriptions made by the collectors.

The worship of places believed to have special sacral power was characteristic for the people with the traditional world views and was associated with the concept of a binary structure of the universe. The environment was divided into the familiar, colonized by the people part, and the world of a different reality, the world of the spirits. The attitude towards the nature, the land was tied into a complex system of interrelations and interdependencies between the world of the people, the natural environment, and the world of the mythological personages with whom people could communicate by means of a ritual.  There are some common attributes in the sacral topography of the Nenets sacred places. All of them were located on elevations or on high river banks, and the most important sacred places - in the remote areas:  the Vaigach and the Bely islands, or capes - "ends of the earth" as, e.g. cape Haen-Sale on the northern point of the Yamal at the symbolic border between the worlds. It should be noted that the significant Nenets sacred places were located in the same areas as the archaeological sites - the sacred places or ancient settlements  [Khlobystin, 1999. P. 124-135; Chernetsov, 2014. P. 236-237], which was an evidence, on the one hand, of the continuity of cultural traditions in the European North and the north of  Western Siberia, and, on the other - of the fact that the basic components of religious ideas were conservative and universal.   The most numerous group of artifacts in the collections of the REM was represented with the wooden figures of syadai - the sentinels of the sacred places. These anthropomorphic figures had pointed heads and faces shaped by two cuts. The notches indicated the eyes, the mouth and the nose, Similar figures were found in all Nenets sacred places. The most interesting part of the REM collection of sacral items was brought from the famous common Nenets prayer places on the Vaigach island - (in the Nenets language -   Hehe ngo - a sacred island) and the main sacred place of the Yamal Nenets Sii'v Mya (Seven tents) on the northern point of the Yamal – cape Haen-Sale (Spirits' Cape). These were the images of the spirits - the masters of the place. B. Zhitkov brought from the 'Seven tents' sacred place, which was believed to be a home of the seven main Yamal Nenets family clans spirits, a wooden figure of the place mistress – Yamal-Hada.   A similar figure is still in place in that sacred place. A second image - Pyasidai hehe - was installed in a clan sacred place on the Pyasida river bank in the Yamal, it was a spirit - the guardian of the territory around the river estuary. That was a sacred place of the Nenets clan Yaptic. The figure was quite unusual in itself, it had a large, very expressive head, and an elongated, curved and pointed at the end body divided into seven sections with ribs. In a small assemblage collected on the Vaigach in 1897 and donated to the museum by an artist Borisov, one of the most interesting items was a seven-headed figure of a very unusual shape (only 5 heads were preserved). It is interesting that it matched the description of the figure of Vesako - the main spirit-master of the sacred place which was located on Bolvansky Nos cape, and was destroyed by archimandrite Veniamin in 1826 [Archimandrite Veniamin, 1855. P. 65]. The second figure, or, to be more exact the syadai head (the figure itself was lost) was strikingly similar to the heads of menkv - the pointed headed sentinels installed at the Khanty sacred places. All images judging by the condition of the wood were old. In addition the collectors also brought from the ritual places the skulls of polar bears and reindeer, a large number of broken metal items and unusually shaped stones - everything that was an integral part and the structural elements of the sacral space. 

 The sacred places and the whole complex of the associated beliefs in addition to being the vivid representations of the Nenets world views also go back with their roots to the remote past, a confirmation of which are the archaeological sites discovered in the Nenets territories.



Archimandrite Veniamin. The Mezen Samoyeds // Bulletin of the Imperial Geographical Community, 1855. – Part 14. – P. 19-82.

Khlobystin L.P. Ancient sacred places of the Vaigach island // Problems of the historial and cultural environment of the Arctic studies / Ed. P.V. Boyarsky. – M., 1990. – С. 120-135.

Chernetsov V.N. Report on excavations in the north of the Yamal peninsula in 1929 // Archeology of the Arctic. Issue 2. – Ekaterinburg: "Delovaya Pressa" Publishing House, 2014. – 233-239.

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