Samoyedic peoples

The Samojedes.

THE  Samojedes are a people of Arctic Asia, where they inhabit the forests and stony tundras of Northern Russia and Western Siberia; driving their herds of reindeer from the banks of the Chatanga to the ice-bound shores of the White Sea, or hunting the wild beasts in the thick forests which extend between the Obi and the Yenisei.

Their superstition is of a very coarse and degrading character. It is true that they recognise the existence of a Supreme Deity, named Jilibeambaertje, or Num, who resides in the air, and, like the Greek Zeus, sends down rain and snow, thunder and lightning; and they afford a proof of that latent capacity for poetical feeling, which some of even the most barbarous tribes possess, in their description of the rainbow as “the hem of his garment.” To them, however, he seems so elevated above the things of earth, so indifferent to the woes or joys of humanity, that they regard it as useless to seek to propitiate him either by prayer or sacrifice; and accordingly they appeal to the inferior gods who have, as they believe, the control of human affairs, and can be affected by incantations, vows, or special homage.

The bleak and lonely island of Waigatz is still, as in the days of the Dutch adventurer, Barentz, supposed to be the residence of the chief of these minor divinities. There a block of stone, pointed at the summit, bears a certain resemblance to a human head, having been wrought into this likeness by a freak of Nature. The Samojede image-makers have taken it for their model, and multiplied it in wood and stone; and the idols thus easily manufactured they call sjadæi, because they wear a human (or semi-human) countenance (sja.) They attire them in reindeer skins, and embellish them with innumerable coloured rags. In addition to the sjadæi, they adopt as idols any curiously contorted tree or irregularly shapen stone; and the household idol (Hahe ) they carry about with them, carefully wrapped up, in a sledge reserved for the purpose, the hahengan. One of the said Penates is supposed to be the guardian of wedded happiness, another of the fishery, a third of the health of his worshippers, a fourth of their herds of reindeer. When his services are needed, the Hahe is removed from its resting-place, and erected in the tent or on the pasture-ground, in the wood, or on the river's bank. Then his mouth is smeared with oil or blood, and before him is set a dish of fish or flesh, in return for which repast it is expected that he will use his power on behalf of his entertainers. When his aid is no longer needed, he is returned to the hahengan.

Besides these obliging deities, the Samojede believes in the existence of an order of invisible spirits which he calls Tadebtsois. These are ever and everywhere around him, and bent rather upon his injury than his welfare. It becomes important, therefore, to propitiate them; but this can be done only through the intervention of a Tadibe, or sorcerer; who, on occasion, stimulates himself into a wildly excited condition, like the frenzy of the Pythean or Delphic priestess. When the credulous Samojede invokes his assistance, he attires himself in full necromantic costume: a kind of shirt, made of reindeer leather; and trimmed with red cloth. Its seams are similarly trimmed; and the shoulders are decorated with red cloth tags, or epaulettes. A visor of red cloth conceals his face, and upon his breast gleams a plate of polished metal.

Thus imposingly arrayed, the Tadibe takes his drum of reindeer skin, ornamented with brass rings, and, attended by a neophyte, walks round and round with singular stateliness, while invoking the presence of the spirits by a discordant rattle. This gradually increases in violence, and is accompanied by the droning incantation of the words of enchantment. In due time the spirits are supposed to appear, and the Tadibe proceeds to consult them: beating his drum more gently, and occasionally pausing in his lugubrious chant,—which, however, the novice is careful not to interrupt,—to listen, as he pretends, to the answers of the deities. At length the interrogations cease; the chant breaks into a fierce howl; more and more loudly rattles the drum: the Tadibe appears possessed by a supernatural influence; his body writhes; the foam-drops gather on his lips. All at once the wild intoxication ceases; and the Tadibe delivers the supposed will of the Tadebtsois: advises how a stray reindeer may be recovered, or the disease of the Samojede worshipper relieved, or the fisherman's labour may secure a plenteous “harvest of the sea.”

The Tadibe's office is usually hereditary; but occasionally some outsider, predisposed by nature to hysteric manifestations, and gifted with a warm, irregular imagination, is initiated into its mysteries. His morbid fancy is intensified by long solitary self-communings and protracted fasts and vigils; and his frame debilitated by the use of pernicious narcotics and stimulants, until he comes to believe that he has been visited by the spirits. He is then received as a Tadibe, with numerous ceremonies, which take place at midnight, and is invested with the magic drum. It is evident, therefore, that the Tadibe, if he deceive others, is the victim to some extent of self-deception. But, in order to impose upon his ignorant countrymen, he does not disdain to resort to the commonest cheats of the conjuror. Among these is the notorious rope-trick, introduced into England by the performers known as the “Davenport Brothers,” and since repeated by so many “professional artists.” With hands and feet to all appearance securely fastened, he sits down on a carpet of reindeer skin, and, the lights being put out, summons the spirits to his assistance. Their presence is speedily made known by singular noises; squirrels seem to rustle, snakes to hiss, bears to growl. At length the disturbance ceases; the lights are rekindled; and the Tadibe steps forward unbound; the spectators of course believing that he has been assisted by the Tadebtsois.

Not less barbarous than the poor creatures who submit to his guidance, the Tadibe is incapable, and probably not desirous, of improving their moral condition. Similar impostors, claiming and exercising a similar spiritual dictatorship,—Schamans, as the Tungusi call them, Angekoks  among the Eskimos,Medicine-men  among the Crees and Chepewyans,—we find among all the Arctic tribes of the Old and New World, where their authority has not been overthrown by Christianity or Buddhism; and this dreary superstition still prevails over at least half a million of souls, from the White Sea to the extremity of Asia, and from the Pacific to Hudson's Bay.

Like the peoples of Siberia, the Samojedes offer up sacrifices to the dead, and perform various ceremonies in their honour. Like the North American Indians, they believe that the desires and pursuits of the departed continue exactly the same as if they were still living; and hence, that they may not be in want of weapons or implements, they deposit in or about the graves a sledge, a spear, a knife, an axe, a cooking-pot.

At the funeral, and for several years afterwards, the kinsmen sacrifice reindeer over the grave.

When a chief or Starochina dies,—the owner, it may be, of several herds of reindeer,—his nearest relatives fashion an image, which is kept in the tent of the deceased, and receives the same measure of respect that was paid to the man himself in his lifetime. At every meal it occupies his accustomed seat; every evening it is solemnly undressed, and duly laid down in his bed. For three years these honours are regularly paid; after which the image is buried, in a belief that the body must by that time have decayed, and lost all recollection of the past. Only the souls of the Tadibes, and of those who have died a violent death, are in the enjoyment of immortality, and hover about the air as disembodied spirits.