Ostyak

The Ostiaks.

Further to the east, and occupying the northernmost part of Siberia from the Oural Mountains to Kamtschatka, are the Ostiaks.

The Russians have imposed upon this people the Christian religion, as taught by the Greek Church; but it seems probable that the majority adhere in secret to their heathen creed. Madame Felinska, a Polish lady, who for some years lived in exile in Siberia, relates that, one day, when she was seeking a pathway through a wood, she came upon a couple of Ostiaks, on the point of performing their devotions. These are certainly of a much simpler kind than the rites enjoined by the Greek Church: the worshipper simply places himself before a tree—he appears to prefer the larch—in some sequestered forest-nook, and performs in rapid succession the most extravagant contortions and gestures. As the practice is prohibited by the Russian Government, it is necessarily made a matter of secresy.

An Ostiak generally carries about him a rude image of one of the deities or demons which he adores under the name of Schaïtan; but he conforms to Russian customs by wearing a small crucifix of copper on his breast. The Schaïtan is a rude imitation of the human figure, carved in wood. It is of different sizes, according to the uses for which it is intended; if for wearing on the person, it is a miniature doll; but as part of the furniture of an Ostiak's hut it is made on a large scale. It is always attired in seven pearl-broidered chemises, and suspended to the neck by a string of silver coins. In every hut it fills the place of honour,—sometimes in company with an image of the Virgin Mary or some Russian saint; and when they sit down to their meals, the Ostiaks are careful to offer it the daintiest morsels, smearing its lips with fish or raw game; this sacred duty fulfilled, they attack with eagerness the viands set before them.

The Ostiak priests are called Schamans. Their influence is very great, but is wholly employed in the promotion of their own selfish interests, through the encouragement of the basest superstitions.