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Rendering comfort and control in Tundra Nenets sambadabc

Transmettre le sens de confort et de contrôle dans les sambadabc nénetses
Miellyttävästä ja hallinnan tunteesta tinkimättä. Vuorovaikutus nenetsien sambadabceissa
Karina Lukin
p. 9-30


Cet article traite des sambadabc, les chants rituels nénetses, et il associe les conceptions modernes de la langue, de l’oralité et du chant nénetses et les débats portant sur l’élevage du renne. Cette recherche repose sur dix textes collectés par Toivo Lehtisalo au début du xxe siècle. L’analyse se concentre sur les idéologies linguistiques nénetses et la manière dont le chant est objectifié et réifié ; sur les registres honorifiques de la langue et la manière dont se produit l’interaction avec les esprits ; sur les corrélations entre les esprits et les rennes dans le cadre de l’écologie des sensations. En conclusion, cet article esquisse un éventail des diverses matérialités inhérentes à la reproduction et au chant des sambadabc et qui informent l’interaction entre les humains et divers « autres » non humains.

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1In this article, I approach from different points of view ten textualisations of Tundra Nenets sambadabc, or shamanic ritual songs, which at first glance may seem quite distinct. I initially approach the texts, asking how it was possible to collect the texts in the first place, and what is behind the fact that the ten texts discussed were sung by the same woman, who is not the initial performer of the texts. Secondly, I look at the ways in which the tadebya, the Nenets shaman, addresses the spirits in the ten texts. The approaches reveal the conceptions of personhood and agency among the Nenets, particularly those of the tadebyas, their human assistants, teltanggoda, and their non-human helpers, the spirits.

  • 1 Niemi & Lapsui, 2004, p. 31.
  • 2 Dobžanskaja, 2008, p. 86-96.
  • 3 See Vallikivi, 2009; Vallikivi, 2015.
  • 4 e.g. Anderson, 2000; Anderson, 2014.

2Recent studies on Nenets singing, songs and language ideologies suggest that sounds and voice are inherent in understanding Nenets conceptions of personhood, movement and communication with unseen and unspoken realms. Jarkko Niemi and Anastasia Lapsui, for example, have noted that the human voice can be used “as a means of diametrically opposed communication for addressing the unseen and unsaid world of spirits, myths and deceased generations”1. Furthermore, Oksana Dobžanskaja has written about the link between sound, life and movement, as well as the way the connection is evident in the shamanic practices of Nenets and speakers of other Samoyedic languages2. These important and inspiring discussions culminate in a very stimulating interplay with the observations that Laur Vallikivi has made about the understanding of words having a body-like nature, being detachable and having a life of their own, once uttered within the context of Nenets language ideologies3. Furthermore, I argue that the recent remarks about the voice and sound should be seen in parallel with the discussions on ontologies of co-operation in human-animal relations4, in order to illuminate Nenets relations with the Otherworld and materialities coming together in the shamanic ritual.

  • 5 Siikala, 2002, p. 71-92 and 195-241; Tarkka, 2013, p. 104-127; Frog, 2019; Siragusa et al., 2020; (...)

3The article’s argument is based on folklore studies and linguistic anthropology. In addition, the analysis is deeply informed by recent studies in ethnomusicology and anthropology, especially those on domestication and human-animal relations. Additionally, I have been inspired by research centring on the vernacular conceptualisations of text, especially related to incantations and/or charms, and discussions that emphasise the fragile and often ambiguous human relations with non-human others, be they perceptible or not5. Thus, I look at the shamanic ritual as an instance where a human community aims to communicate with otherworldly, non-human agents in order to solve contemporary problems or effect changes. I focus on the aural and linguistic sides of the rituals, as well as the ways in which the communication is based on a tactful balance of comfort and control.

  • 6 e.g. Korhonen, 1986, p. 96-167; Grünthal, 2010.
  • 7 Lehtisalo, 1924.

4In the following, I aim to bring together recent discussions of Nenets folklore, singing and language ideologies with discussions about reindeer herding, and to investigate them through texts collected by Toivo Lehtisalo (1887-1962). The work Toivo Lehtisalo published in 1947 represents one of the largest published collections of Nenets folklore, not to mention the ritual poetry gathered during his two expeditions among the Nenets in 1911-1912 and 1914. Lehtisalo followed Finnish traditions in his study of the speakers of Finno-Ugric languages, which meant linguistically oriented fieldwork that took a rather long period and ideally covered several dialects of the language under investigation. The primary work of a linguist consisted of elicitation and the consequent work on grammar and vocabulary, and folklore served as ideal sample material (Finnish kielennäyte)6. Lehtisalo was an enthusiastic collector of folklore, and vernacular religion, shamanism and myths seem to have been of great interest to him. This is reflected not only in the amount of shamanic and mythic folklore he collected, but also in the monograph Entwurf einer Mythologie der Jurak-Samojeden7, a concise but well-versed introduction to the subject.

5By concentrating on these texts, I aim to focus on a limited set of sources, on the one hand, and introduce poorly known data, on the other. The Nenets represent an ethno-linguistic community living in northern Russia and western Siberia. They are known for their large-scale nomadic reindeer herding, which is still practised as a way of life by roughly half of the Nenets. However, Toivo Lehtisalo collected the materials discussed in this article from people whose way of life was based instead on fishing and small-scale reindeer herding in the basin of the Taz River in western Siberia. As this kind of way of life is often connected to the speakers of the Forest variant of Nenets, it is good to remember that despite the cultural ideal of large-scale reindeer herding, there are – and have been – small-scale herders among the speakers of Tundra Nenets.

6In order to discuss the materiality of the Nenets shamanic ritual, I will first introduce the sambadabc genre, the exact texts analysed and their performer, Parta Xudeyi. After that, I will discuss the shamanic ritual, initially in relation to the ways in which the spirits are addressed and asked to help, and then in relation to reindeer herding practices, especially the practice of gathering reindeer in the corral. Before this, I will briefly sketch how I understand the interplay of language, ritual poetry and other materialities.

Communication of and about Nenets rituals

  • 8 See Niemi & Lapsui, 2004, p. 27-31.

7Together with Nenets mythic songs, sambadabc shamanic singing relies on the human capabilities of creating possible imaginative worlds through words and singing. Additionally, they are both based on the idea that the line between this and the Otherworld is always there, and it does not have to be transgressed aggressively but through negotiation and establishing solidary relations8. I focus on these two interrelated ideas in order to open up different qualities of singing, ritual and communication with the Otherworld.

  • 9 Du Bois, 1986.
  • 10 Keane, 2008, p. 120.

8As a Nenets special register for communicating with the Otherworld and communicating it to the ritual audience, sambadabc clearly differs from other Nenets genres, although it also shares some qualities: the octasyllabic metre separates it from the rest of the sung genres, as does the use of the drum during the ritual. Sambadabc represents a convenient example of marked language use which has been called religious9. What often makes religious or ritual language different is the reflexive aim to purposefully communicate with the Otherworld in order to make “the absence presupposable by virtue of the special means used to overcome it”10. In other words, sambadabc represents the means to overcome the visual absence of the Otherworld, as it works to build ties between materialities so that the unseen becomes perceivable.

  • 11 Keane, 2007, p. 49-55; Siikala, 2002; Tarkka, 2013, p. 109-127; Karlsson, 2019, p. 164-172.

9In the context of Nenets sambadabc, the aim of communicating with the Otherworld in order to achieve certain communally important goals is one of the bases for the action. This not only requires a tadebya, but also his or her knowledge about the Otherworld and how to communicate with it. Accordingly, tadebyas are experts in the structure of the Otherworld and the whereabouts of the spirits. In order to communicate with the spirits and possibly also move around in the Otherworld, the shaman has to know how to properly address and persuade the spirits to be co-operative and sympathetic towards the human community. Thus, my approach to sambadabc depends on understanding that there is more than just the marked nature of the religious language at play in the ritual texts. Also important are the assumptions about the human and non-human agents behind the practice and the ways these are ordered and conveyed in the forms of religious language11.

  • 12 Lepëhin, 1805; Zuev, 1947; Pallas, 1788; Castrén, 1852; Castrén, 1853; Veniamin, 1858; Lehtisalo, (...)
  • 13 See Simoncsics, 2001; Niemi, 1998; Puškarëva, 1999 for notable exceptions.
  • 14 Lehtisalo, 1924, p. 163.

10Most of the historical sources that mention Nenets shamanism in one way or another focus on the outward forms of the rituals, offering summaries of the ritual scenes or aiming to categorise the spirits by means of hierarchical systems12. The descriptions tend to constitute a similar kind of picture of the rituals: the tadebya, the Nenets shaman, beats his drum and sings as the audience either takes part in the singing or sits silently, depending on the phase of the ritual. The songs are about calling the spirits or about the travels the tadebya takes during the séance, and the event ends in shamanic tricks and information about the results of the travels and encounters, thereby answering the questions that led to the ritual being held in the first place. Some texts are often given alongside the descriptions of the séance, but these are seldom commented on. Consequently, the relation between the ritual text (i.e. the singing) and the actions taken has long remained blurred. Additionally, the effect of other voices and interjections has been ignored or considered needless to discuss13. Indeed, those who have made notes during the rituals have lamented the uncertainty and jumbled nature of the ritual texts. For example, Toivo Lehtisalo has written that the shamanic songs seldom refer to a solid action, but rather jump from one spirit to another with plenty of interjections in between14.

  • 15 Puškarëva, 1999; see also Xomič, 1981.

11It is probably not a coincidence that the actions and singing are jumbled. Nor do I consider it to be an accident that we do not have any documents of a single whole ritual setting or cycle, despite the one described by Puškarëva15 and characterised as neither authentic nor complete. This scarcity can be explained by the strict vernacular rules of secrecy around shamanic practices among the Nenets. Being based on knowledge and experience, the ritual practice should only be practised by those who have proper knowledge and enough experience. Without a doubt, the ritual songs do not reveal or explain everything taking place to the audience; they are not primarily about communication with the audience but rather interaction with the spirits. Additionally, the singing describes the interaction and travel of the tadebya during the ritual, things that cannot be seen by the other participants but perceived through the singing, narration and words – in short, through hearing.

Textualisation and personhood

  • 16 Silverstein & Urban, 1996; Urban, 2001; Bauman, 2004, p. 25-28; Siikala & Siikala, 2005, p. 41; Ag (...)

12Despite the rules of secrecy, Toivo Lehtisalo did manage to collect a large amount of shamanic poetry. If the rules of performing ritual texts were so strict, one might wonder how it has been possible in the first place to document the texts themselves. Moreover, how did Toivo Lehtisalo manage to gather such a large number of sambadabc, 23 altogether? In order to answer this, we have to dive into the material aspects of language within the Nenets language ideologies and examine the ways in which the texts published have been named. This is related to the ways in which Nenets objectify or textualise sound and language, and it has direct consequences for the texts analysed. Textualisation is the consequence of the materiality of language, which renders the shamanic singing perceivable in the first place. Being perceptible, the singing can also be reflected, and reflection requires objectification. In other words, one has to extract certain parts of the singing out of the communicative situation in order to reflect them16. Reflection, reference, repetition or iterability rely on comprehension of a text, agency and ownership, which are central in understanding the nature of the available sambadabc. In order to achieve that, it is important to look at Lehtisalo’s fieldwork and the corpus I am dealing with, and then discuss the Nenets ideologies related to singing and revoicing.

  • 17 Lehtisalo, 1959, p. 76.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 86.

13I take my point of departure from a series of Nenets shamanic songs Lehtisalo noted down from one woman, Parta Xudeyi, during his summer expedition in 1911. Lehtisalo spent the summer moving in the Taz Basin and along the Taz and Pur Rivers. He spent a longer period among the Pur River Nenets, whom he describes as fisher Samoyed (Finnish kalastajasamojedi17). Having already spent some time among the Nenets in Obdorsk and its surroundings, it is interesting to note that the Taz expedition had a significant influence on Lehtisalo, who writes in his travelogue: “I had personally and thoroughly acquainted myself with the life of the Samoyeds and learned to understand their language. I now perceived them as real human beings with their joys and sorrows rather than as marionettes on a strangely set stage”18.

  • 19 Ibid., p. 77.
  • 20 Lehtisalo, 1947, p. VII-VIII, 509-537 and 542-545.

14Lehtisalo first met Parta Xudeyi in the beginning of August 1911 in the fish-salting station of a certain Efim Danilovič. There, “a rarely distinguished looking Nenets man” invited Lehtisalo to his tent, where Parta, who “mysteriously fascinated” the linguist, sat next to him. According to the travel narrative, she was exceptionally beautifully dressed; Lehtisalo calls her the “beauty queen of the tundra”19. Only later did Lehtisalo learn that because of a serious illness during her childhood, Parta had been promised to Num, the celestial god. Parta and Lehtisalo met a couple of times, both in Lehtisalo’s lodging and in Parta’s tent, and she either sang or (most probably) dictated a total of ten sambadabc, which Lehtisalo wrote down with the help of his native assistant Maksim Yadopcev20. The amount of songs reproduced by Parta is quite large compared to that of other Nenets informants, who sang or dictated 1 to 3 texts to Lehtisalo. This greater amount could be related to the considerable time Lehtisalo spent near Parta’s camp but also Parta’s status as a woman promised to Num – hence close to the spirits. It seems that she had been either acting as a teltanggoda, an assistant reproducing a shaman’s words, for several other shamans or memorising the ritual texts she had witnessed. The curious thing about the sambadabc collection is that none of them are labelled as performed or owned by Parta Xudeyi herself. Moreover, this fact concerns all the published sambadabc; they are always presented as someone else’s songs. Thus, the published sambadabc appear to be textualised versions of songs performed in rituals by someone else.

  • 21 Niemi & Lapsui, 2004.
  • 22 Ibid., 2004; also Puškarëva, 1990.

15Naming the initial performer and thus denying one’s ownership of – but also one’s personal relationship with – the text is similar to the practices related to individual songs discussed in detail by Jarkko Niemi and Anastasia Lapsui21. The individual songs, syo, are short, being only a dozen or more lines long. They tell about important, remarkable or touching moments or characteristics of the owner of the song. The hexasyllabic lines render the message in the first-person singular, and although the personality of the ego of the song is always clear, the contents of the text may be hard to interpret. The song is owned by the ego of the song, to whom the song is gifted when he or she is born, and the person is to renew the song during his or her lifetime. The songs are ideally performed alone or during travel. There are strict rules of not repeating the individual songs anywhere or by just anyone. If reproduced by someone else, the initial performer (in other words, the owner of the song) should be mentioned, but he or she should not be present there22.

  • 23 Tereščenko, 1965, p. 551.
  • 24 Niemi & Lapsui, 2004, p. 25.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 26.
  • 26 Puškarëva, 2003, p. 163-242; Lukin, 2014, p. 81-89; Niemi, 1998.

16The song seems to have been inherently bound to its owner, and the performance restrictions can be linked to that. The semantic field of the word syo is rather wide, from “throat”, “gullet”, “tube” and “tributary river” to “voice” and “song”23. Niemi explains further: “Defined as ‘throat’ or ‘voice’, it [syo] is at the same time ‘my throat’ or ‘my voice’ – or, as I believe, ‘my breathing’, in fact ‘my breath-soul’. This semantic interpretation has come up repeatedly in my discussions with Nenets masters of folklore”24. He continues by emphasising the link between syo and the inner self of the owner of the song25. As the whole concept of song is related so intimately to the organs and breath-soul, the self and personhood producing the voice, one can easily argue for the intimate connection between voice and sound, life and singing. The connection is not only related to syo, but also to other sung genres, where the word and the origin of the song are personalised26.

  • 27 Puškarëva, 1990.
  • 28 Vallikivi, 2009, p. 74.
  • 29 Ibid.; Vallikivi, 2015.

17I argue that the close connection between the initial performer and the text can also be conceptualised through the body and the materiality of the sound and language. As the initial performance, sound and language are so tightly connected to the person themselves, this unity continues in the textualised words of the song. This is why one cannot perform the song if the owner is present; it would materialise the ego in his or her presence, and this is considered as a serious insult27. This comes close to what Laur Vallikivi has observed in terms of the language ideologies of the Nenets. According to Vallikivi, Nenets are used to the idea that words are not only representations of reality but agents in their own right; they bear the personal qualities of the initial utterer and constitute part of their personhood. This is why the words need to be uttered carefully. Vallikivi writes: “According to traditional codes, spoken words can offend the spirits of the tundra; a wrong use of words or curselike harmful words (vyvku vada “bad words”, N.) will bring harm to other people, or to oneself”28. Words link persons to the Otherworld all the time, bringing luck or harm not just to the speaker but to his or her community29.

  • 30 See Niemi, 1998, p. 245-246; Simoncsics, 2001.
  • 31 Lehtisalo, 1924, p. 153-155; Xomič, 1981; Puškarëva, 2001, p. 31-32.

18This kind of language ideology, which supports the idea of objectification of words and singing so that they are conceptualised as easily detachable and movable wholes after their initial utterance during a performance, can also be seen with the repeatability of sambadabc. In repeating the words initially performed by another tadebya, the person is carrying their qualities with the reproduced words. For the tadebya himself or herself, it would be problematic to repeat the same words again. Indeed, a new séance requires new words, as it represents a new problem with new answers and encounters. Nevertheless, it seems that when other Nenets repeat the tadebya’s song, they can only reproduce the songs with the words, the textualised and thus materialised version of the song, not the ritual as a whole. At least this concerns the texts gathered by Lehtisalo; they all represent the opening lines of the ritual and do not reproduce the actual sung lines with the extra syllables that give rhythm30. I would also emphasise the practice in which sambadabc are very often repeated already in their initial performance context by teltanggoda, usually a young tadebya at the initiatory stage, who is practising to become a tadebya. She or he is often helping the tadebya in this way, repeating the lines and words that the tadebya is singing, explaining them and also the ritual in general31. Hence, the objectified version of the song may be born already in the ritual setting. It may continue its life in consequent reproductions. When continuing its life as textualised versions, the name of the tadebya performing the ritual setting has to be mentioned – at least this was done by all of Lehtisalo’s informants. It seems that the tadebya not only owns the sambadabc but is inherently bound to it; most probably, the text is thought to carry the person of the tadebya, the initial performer or the one who communicated with the spirits, during and through the singing.

19As a performer of sambadabc, Parta Xudeyi seems to have been exceptional because of her ability to reproduce the songs of several different tadebyas. Because of the possibility to hurt with words, especially with words directly addressed at the spirits, it is likely that it was not only Parta’s status that made her competent in reproducing sambadabc. Most probably, her status had resulted in a situation where she assisted several tadebyas within her local community, which is why she had become exceptionally knowledgeable of ritual texts. Furthermore, this also made her very experienced in shamanic practices; she was a person who not only knew the words but also the worlds and the ways to behave within those worlds.

Singing to the spirits

20As noted above, words can be harmful and the harm can extend beyond the initial performer. According to the sambadabc collected from Parta Xudeyi, tadebyas tend to avoid this kind of possible harm in their communication with the spirits during the ritual. Nevertheless, the communication aims not only to avoid harm, but also to create a mutual sense of collaboration. In the following, when reading the textualisations of the sambadabc, I will especially focus on the way the shamans communicate with the spirits and create a sense of co-operation and comfort. This communication is based on assumptions about the agency of the spirits, as well as that of the tadebyas. Consequently, the ritual singing makes the Otherworld perceivable and aims to communicate in a proper manner with the spirits. Interestingly, this was noted already by Archbishop Veniamin, who wrote:

  • 32 Veniamin, 1858, p. 61.

It has to be added that the tadibei [i.e. tadebyas] always approach the tadepciyam [i.e. the spirit-helpers] without humility, and rather with a sense of majesty; the tadebya calls them nya, friends, before and when they invite the spirits. The tadebya also lets the listeners know about the arrival of the spirits by saying: nyas to, friends have arrived; when he asks them to help a patient, he approaches them saying: nya veyi, nya dadi, give us help, friends32.

  • 33 Agha, 2007, p. 302; see also Karlsson, 2019.

21I will approach this way of approaching the spirits as an honorific register, which has been defined as “detachable emblems, frequently word-length emblems stereotypically treated as ‘pertaining to honor or respect’ in culture-internal model of behaviour”33. Because the collected sambadabc tend to reproduce only the beginning of the ritual singing – in other words, the parts in which the spirits are searched for and asked to come help – they provide good material for discussing the kinds of forms that signify respect and honour.

22As the tadebyas begin to search for the spirits and collect a proper community of them, they name the spirit and its whereabouts, and ask the spirit to get prepared and come to the ritual scene. Interjections like ye-e-e-ei or xow-xow are repeated after a couple lines, giving a certain rhythm to the text and most possibly also to the singing. I will come later back to these interjections and begin to open up the communication with the spirits, clarifying who the spirits are that the tadebya is communicating with and how they are called and addressed.

23It seems that most of the spirits are mentioned and called in the beginning of the séance. For example, the sambadabc of Ŋatysye Lapcui begins by listing helping spirits and asking them for advice:

Example 1 – Extract from the sambadabc of Ŋatysye Lapcui performed by Parta Xudeyi.

  • 34 Verbatim “earth-born”. This is possibly a mistake, being Ya’ soyawi “earth’s creator” instead. I t (...)
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!
ya’ soyaxi earth’s creator34
xadakow! my grandmother
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!
wadadamyi a word for me
mekarkar! say!
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!
yaptyikana Yaptik
xesye xesye
wadadamyi a word for me
mekarkar! say!
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!
yamyinya Yamyinya [Inside the earth]
xadakow! my grandmother!
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!
myеryompada wound inflicting
yiryikow, my grandfather
wadadamyi a word for me
mes! say!
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!
yid’ yerw host of the water
yiryikow! my grandfather!
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!
xalyadamyi fish for me
tabada! gives!
ye-e-ei! ye-e-ei!

Source: Lehtisalo, 1947, p. 535.

24As one can see here, the tadebya first gives the name of the spirit and then asks it for advice. The spirits are Ya’ soyaxi xada, Yaptik’ xesye, Yamyinya xada, Myeryompada yiryi and Yid’ yerw (yiryi). Other than Yaptik’ xesye, they are all named as grandmothers xada or grandfathers yiryi, which is typical for addressing spirits. The spirits might also be called wesako or puxucya (old man or old woman), which both carry the same meaning of wisdom and respect related to age, in addition to family relations. Alternatively, the spirits might be named giants, syudbya, as in the sambadabc of Syatsyu Lamtyu, which begins:

Example 2 – Extract from the sambadabc of Syatsyu Lamtyu performed by Parta Xudeyi.

ye-e-e-ei! ye-e-e-ei!
yer salya’ xewxi in the Cape Jer staying
syudbamyi my giant
xunya xaye? Where have you gone?
ye-e-e-ei! ye-e-e-ei!
yer salya’ [my] Cape Jer’s
syudbamyi giant
podyermi, harness,
xaptyememtya your stag
podyermi harness
-- ye-e-e-ei!-- ye-e-e-ei!
xaptyeyemtya His stag
labidye. he pulled.
ye-e-e-ei! ye-e-e-ei!
xoryadeta Horadeta
ŋewi salye’ ngevi cape’s
syudbaw my giant
xunya xaye? where have you gone?
ye-e-e-ei! ye-e-e-ei!
xoradeta Rich in stags
yiryikow my grandfather
xaptyeyemtya his stag
podyermyi. he harnessed.
ye-e-e-ei! ye-e-e-ei!
lamtu’ syudba! Lamtu giant
xunyanyanta where
xebnyanty? have you gone?
ye-e-e-ei! ye-e-e-ei!
yiryikow My grandfather
labidye, harnessed
xaptyeyemtya his stag
xaryewi. rides.
ye-e-e-ei! ye-e-e-ei!

Source: Lehtisalo, 1947, p. 509-510.

  • 35 Lehtisalo, 1947, p. 481-484.

25Here we can see how the names of the spirits denote their duties or the places where they are thought to live. In addition, the designations repeatedly bring out the close relationship that is maintained with them. The spirits are addressed as relatives, and it is notable that in some other shamanic texts they are called ngedanzyimyi (my loved one, my lover)35. Furthermore, the designations tend to create endearment and closeness through their forms: yiryikow (alternatively yiryikomyi), xadakow (alternatively xadakomyi) and syudbyaw (alternatively syudbyamyi) are all first-person singular possessive forms that can be translated verbatim as “my grandfather”, “my grandmother”, “my giant”. Naturally, the form does not refer to concrete ownership but rather an act of endearment and closeness, which is further reinforced with the diminutive suffix -ko- in xadakow and yiryikow. Consequently, the tadebya addresses the spirits not so much with respect or humility, as Veniamin noted, although it definitely is part of the forms, but more with terms of kindness, familiarity, nearness and even intimacy. The intimate relationship is reflected in word choices and possessive forms.

26Furthermore, the endearment is rendered in verbal forms which reflect utmost politeness. In the sambadabc of Patisyiwoma Lapcui, Parta Xudeyi sang (example 3).

Example 3 – Extract from the sambadabc of Patisyiwoma Lapsui performed by Parta Xudeyi.

o xow xow! o xow xow!
nyiŋgawi the plucked [one]
lyimpye ŋar great eagle
- o xow xow! - o xow xow!
syiw’ tota the seven-winged
yiryikow! grandfather of mine!
xunyanyanta Where
xewnyan? have you gone?
o xow xow! o xow xow!
syimtsi pya’ nyi Syimzi-tree
taxawantya along
tewantya. he is heard to arrive.
o xow xow! o xow xow!
syimtsi pyamyi the syimzyi-tree
wirpadampi. they [wings] are scratching.
o xow xow! o xow xow!
syedyeŋod Your frost
yudarkar’ melt!

Source: Lehtisalo, 1947, p. 504.

  • 36 Tereščenko, 1965.
  • 37 In other contexts, see e.g. Lar, 1998, p. 46-49; Puškarëva & Xomič, 2001, p. 354-356.
  • 38 Optative in Salminen, 1997, p. 107-108.

27In the above extract, the tadebya is addressing the great seven-winged eagle as his grandfather. In the beginning he asks, as is typical in sambadabc, where the eagle is: “Where have you gone?”. The eagle arrives in the tent and the tadebya invites it to melt its frost. This is an act of hospitality, to let the visitor coming from far away melt their frost and get warm. However, I would like to emphasise the verbal form yudarkar’, which has simply been translated as “melt”. The verb yudasy has a wide range of meanings related to warming up, thawing and melting36. The tadebya does not produce a simple command with an imperative but uses the precative suffix -xar- (x changes into k). According to Irina Nikolaeva, the precative is used in order to soften directive force, and here it indeed turns the command into a kind invitation to settle down and warm up, to melt one’s frost near the fireplace. In the fragmentary sources of Nenets sambadabc, one very seldom encounters direct imperative forms when the tadebya addresses the spirits37. The imperative form is often very short, and using it would break the eight-syllable metrics of the sambadabc. Moreover, one never finds forms that would strengthen the directive force. Consequently, the tadebyas use very polite register when communicating with the spirits; they use the precative or combine it with the jussive38, which also communicates the politeness of the request.

  • 39 Nikolaeva, 2014, p. 269-270.

28In relation to this, I would like to point out that in example 1, the tadebya repeatedly asks the spirits to give or use their words for the tadebya, using the formula wadadamyi mekarkar. The idiom wadam’ mecy (give a speech, to speak, to convey) is here diversified with wada (word) in the 1sg predestinative form “a word for me” and mecy (to hold, to use) in a double precative. According to Nikolaeva, “the double precative usually has a stronger meaning […] the double precative rather conveys an order”39. In the context of sambadabc and bearing in mind the other polite directive forms used, I would suggest that the double precative here points to a courteous register rather than a strong command.

Comfort and control

  • 40 Dobžanskaja, 2008, p. 53-65 and 88-91.

29One further note should be made about the way the spirits are addressed. As I noted, a highly complimentary register is used by the tadebyas when they address the spirits. This is also the case in other examples of shamanic poetry, where the endearment forms a special honorific register. This is coupled with phases where the tadebyas tend to gather all the spirits that they need by means of words that tie the ritual singing to the practice of gathering reindeer in the corral. I want to remind that the parallel lines listing the spirit helpers are separated with intervening cries, such as ye-e-e-ei or xow-xow-xow. These reference the calls that a herder makes when driving the herd to the corral, as has been noted also by Oksana Dobžanskaja40. Thus, the spirits are communicated with in the same way as the reindeer by the herders.

  • 41 Stammler, 2005, p. 325.
  • 42 Anderson, 2000, p. 117-131.

30In order to understand the communication with the spirits and the ontology behind it in ritual contexts, we have to make a short digression into reindeer herding and the human-animal relations in that context. The nomadic way of life means constant or seasonal movement – depending mainly on the amount of reindeer. As mentioned above, Parta Xudeyi was a fisher Samoyed, which means that her community moved shorter distances and owned less reindeer than the large-scale nomads in Yamal Peninsula, for example. Despite the reduced distance and amount of reindeer, the fishers’ lives can nonetheless be understood through schemes that sketch the Nenets conception of engagement with land through movement. For example, Florian Stammler has underlined flexibility, shifting entitlements and sharing in the nyeneyi yilyenggana, or “the real way of life”, which is not about “the movement itself, but how movement is connected to people’s understanding of themselves and other beings in the tundra”41. This comes close to David Anderson’s “sentient ecology”42, where “knowing the land” requires more than mapping it; it is also about being aware and engaged with the other sentient beings around.

  • 43 Stammler, 2010; Stépanoff, 2012; Willerslev et al., 2015; Anderson, 2017.
  • 44 Anderson, 2014; Anderson, 2017.
  • 45 Stépanoff et al., 2017.

31This can be further elaborated through recent studies on human-animal relations in reindeer herding that have contested earlier ideas about domination in the practice, which were central for a long time. The researchers on Siberian reindeer herding or ethnography have emphasised that the earlier views are not viable in the context of Siberian reindeer herding practices or the conceptualisations of the reindeer herders themselves43. Describing the shared spaces of action between reindeer and humans, David Anderson44 has emphasised mutuality instead of human domination, and the simultaneous establishment of comfort and control in reindeer herding practices (for example, in the daily practice of gathering the reindeer into an enclosure). In a similar vein, Charles Stépanoff has written with his team about joint commitment or intermittent coexistence45. The common important point for contemporary researchers in reindeer herding or domestication underlines the reciprocity of reindeer and humans, and the mutual need for both parties to have freedom of movement and protection in the shared landscape.

  • 46 Stepanoff, 2012; Davydov, 2014; Anderson et al., 2017.
  • 47 Willerslev et al., 2015; Vitebsky & Alekseyev, 2015.

32Moreover, the theory about domination has been related to the dichotomisation of hunting and reindeer herding, so that the prey has been conceptualised as “giving itself up” while the domesticated reindeer was said to be dominated by the herders. This dichotomy has also been under debate: the herding and hunting have been seen as complementary activities or in a continuum, rather than as opposites to each other46. In addition, the “giving up” has also been considered by Willerslev, Vitebsky and Alekseyev, who suggest that the kinds of conceptualisations that are viable in the context of hunting can be and have been located in reindeer herding through the rituals of reindeer sacrifice, where the ideal of an eager sacrificial animal is central47.

  • 48 Lukin, 2015.

33The sentient ecology kind of knowing is also crucial for shamanic poetry, which is built in a similar manner not only around knowing the non-human others but also sharing the mythic landscape with them in a flexible, proper and honoring manner. Moreover, I propose that the ontologies of co-operation, through an ambiguous scheme of simultaneous comfort and control between different species shared by hunters, fishermen and reindeer herders, are readable in ritual contexts, especially in sambadabc where the tadebyas are ideally co-operating with the spirits. In addition to the imageries where the shamanistic séance is bundled with the practices of a reindeer ride and engagement with the landscape through knowing not only the physical appearance48 but the relations of other beings in the same landscape, the words in the shamanic séance repeatedly create a tone of persuasion and propitiation.

  • 49 Dobžanskaja, 2008, p. 86-96.

34Thus, the interjections not only mirror the herders’ signals to the reindeer, the aim of which is to gather and control the animals into the corral, as so elegantly shown by Dobžanskaja49. They also picture the aural landscape within which freedom of movement, protection and a mutual sense of comfort and control are sought. I would like to stress the ambiguity of the action and the fragile nature of the communication: the mutuality and co-operation are ideals and aims, which can fail through wrong movements or words. The interjections so persistently produced in the textualisations of the sambadabc, both by Parta Xudeyi and by Maksim Jadopcev, signify this fragile relationship and exemplify the ritual in terms of human-reindeer relations.

Agencies of the tadebyas and their non-human partners

35Throughout the article, I aimed to explain how the ontologies of co-operation are brought to the fore of the ritual through linguistic forms and practices that tie the ritual to the differing available materialities, including language and reindeer herding. I have treated ritual poetry as folklore, a special form of vernacular textualisation and the way Nenets textualisation practices are related to the understanding of sound, voice and personhood. Moreover, I have brought out how the forms of address bind together the Nenets honorific register and the so-called ontologies of co-operation. My aim has been to highlight the different sides and effects of materialities in Nenets shamanic songs and singing, and to describe and analyse how they come together and in the ritual practice both reproduce ritual texts and render the unseen perceivable.

36The article owes much to previous discussions on Nenets singing and Samoyedic understandings of sound and voice. In addition, I have been greatly influenced by anthropological considerations of Nenets language ideologies and human and non-human relations. I have wanted to emphasise the strands analysed and described between reindeer herders and reindeer, in order to argue that a similar kind of ontology arises and can be seen behind the ritual behaviour, especially when the tadebya addresses the spirits and asks them for help. It is fascinating how the intimate relationship can be rendered through grammatical forms that build an honorific register, on the one hand, and interjections that point to a very different kind of situation, on the other. The contexts are related through the interaction with non-human agents.

37I do not mean to say that the relationship of the tadebya and the helping spirits is similar to the relationship of the herder and reindeer; my focus is instead on the way these relationships are shaped in similar terms and may be related, so that otherwise meaningless interjections bind the shamanic ritual to the very practical materialities of the gathering of the reindeer in the corral. The relationship of these two is metaphorical; in other words, it opens possibilities to see the ritual in terms of the gathering of reindeer. The metaphor emphasises the field of interaction and co-operation despite obvious tensions: just as the reindeer have to be persuaded, so do the spirits.

38This article is based on the idea that the sambadabc above all represents communication with the Otherworld and spirits. Although the tadebyas are certainly also performing the ritual for the audience, the important consequence of their communication with the spirits is referential inarticulateness. In other words, the tadebyas are not describing everything to the audience but rather uttering questions, requests and exhortations to the spirits. This kind of nonreferentiality and fragmentary description of the ritual act is part of the aural and linguistic framework that builds the Nenets ritual scene, and thus it is presumable that one should not try to interpret the ritual scene on the basis of an explicit and systematic structure, which Lehtisalo, for example, was seeking.

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1 Niemi & Lapsui, 2004, p. 31.

2 Dobžanskaja, 2008, p. 86-96.

3 See Vallikivi, 2009; Vallikivi, 2015.

4 e.g. Anderson, 2000; Anderson, 2014.

5 Siikala, 2002, p. 71-92 and 195-241; Tarkka, 2013, p. 104-127; Frog, 2019; Siragusa et al., 2020; Quinn, 2010.

6 e.g. Korhonen, 1986, p. 96-167; Grünthal, 2010.

7 Lehtisalo, 1924.

8 See Niemi & Lapsui, 2004, p. 27-31.

9 Du Bois, 1986.

10 Keane, 2008, p. 120.

11 Keane, 2007, p. 49-55; Siikala, 2002; Tarkka, 2013, p. 109-127; Karlsson, 2019, p. 164-172.

12 Lepëhin, 1805; Zuev, 1947; Pallas, 1788; Castrén, 1852; Castrén, 1853; Veniamin, 1858; Lehtisalo, 1924; Xomič, 1981; Lar, 1998.

13 See Simoncsics, 2001; Niemi, 1998; Puškarëva, 1999 for notable exceptions.

14 Lehtisalo, 1924, p. 163.

15 Puškarëva, 1999; see also Xomič, 1981.

16 Silverstein & Urban, 1996; Urban, 2001; Bauman, 2004, p. 25-28; Siikala & Siikala, 2005, p. 41; Agha, 2007, p. 2-3; Keane, 2008, p. 124; Shankar & Cavanaugh, 2012, p. 360-362.

17 Lehtisalo, 1959, p. 76.

18 Ibid., p. 86.

19 Ibid., p. 77.

20 Lehtisalo, 1947, p. VII-VIII, 509-537 and 542-545.

21 Niemi & Lapsui, 2004.

22 Ibid., 2004; also Puškarëva, 1990.

23 Tereščenko, 1965, p. 551.

24 Niemi & Lapsui, 2004, p. 25.

25 Ibid., p. 26.

26 Puškarëva, 2003, p. 163-242; Lukin, 2014, p. 81-89; Niemi, 1998.

27 Puškarëva, 1990.

28 Vallikivi, 2009, p. 74.

29 Ibid.; Vallikivi, 2015.

30 See Niemi, 1998, p. 245-246; Simoncsics, 2001.

31 Lehtisalo, 1924, p. 153-155; Xomič, 1981; Puškarëva, 2001, p. 31-32.

32 Veniamin, 1858, p. 61.

33 Agha, 2007, p. 302; see also Karlsson, 2019.

34 Verbatim “earth-born”. This is possibly a mistake, being Ya’ soyawi “earth’s creator” instead. I thank Tapani Salminen for noting the curious form.

35 Lehtisalo, 1947, p. 481-484.

36 Tereščenko, 1965.

37 In other contexts, see e.g. Lar, 1998, p. 46-49; Puškarëva & Xomič, 2001, p. 354-356.

38 Optative in Salminen, 1997, p. 107-108.

39 Nikolaeva, 2014, p. 269-270.

40 Dobžanskaja, 2008, p. 53-65 and 88-91.

41 Stammler, 2005, p. 325.

42 Anderson, 2000, p. 117-131.

43 Stammler, 2010; Stépanoff, 2012; Willerslev et al., 2015; Anderson, 2017.

44 Anderson, 2014; Anderson, 2017.

45 Stépanoff et al., 2017.

46 Stepanoff, 2012; Davydov, 2014; Anderson et al., 2017.

47 Willerslev et al., 2015; Vitebsky & Alekseyev, 2015.

48 Lukin, 2015.

49 Dobžanskaja, 2008, p. 86-96.

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Karina Lukin

University of Helsinki, Folklore studies

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