The Main Characteristics of Udmurt Religion in the 19th and 20th
On May 10, 2000 Aado Lintrop defended his
doctor's thesis in multimedia form The Main Characteristics of
Udmurt Religion in the 19th and 20th Century at the University of
Aado Lintrop's dissertation The Main
Characteristics of Udmurt Religion in the 19th and 20th century is
one of the two fundamental works in the area of traditional spiritual
culture of the Udmurts. His thesis is based on the book Udmurdi
rahvausundi piirjooned (Outlines of Udmurt Folk Religion -
Tartu 1993), but compared to traditional publications, uses a variety
of novel solutions and is furnished with figures and coloured
illustrations. The electronic and CD version of the publication
offers valuable illustrative material in the form of author's
video-recordings from fieldwork, which enables to better understand
the contents of study and perceive information flow that connects it
with semiotic context through visual associations.
A. Lintrop's doctor's thesis aims to present a homogeneous treatment of
the Udmurt religion, which focuses on a complex analysis of the
fundamental principles of religion. The author views folk religion as
a process, which is particularly important in studying the oral forms
of religion. Nearly all publications on the Udmurts issued in the
19th and 20th century, fieldwork materials conducted in the Udmurt
settlements through several years and the author's audio-visual
documentaries constitute the source material.
The work begins with a historical overview. The author emphasises that the
evolution of the Udmurts has proceeded on the boundaries of different
worlds. The woodlands and steppes along the banks of the Kama and
Vyatka rivers have witnessed the collision between the worlds of
native woodland tribes and travellers-herders of the steppes, the
worlds of Finno-Ugric, Indo-Iranian and Turkic-Tatar tribes, the
worlds of Muslims, Christians and heathens. The northern and southern
Udmurts lived in different cultural environment - while the
former mingled mainly with Russians, the latter socialised with the
Turkic peoples. These cultural contacts affected the culture of the
Udmurts and shaped it into two distinctive cultures, though the
common (and inherent) worldview and perception never entirely
perished. A. Lintrop also points out the characteristics of the
evolution of the Udmurts in the Soviet period and their future
The doctor's thesis has approached the Udmurt
worldview through their mythology and customs. Centring on this area
of study the author emphasises that the folk religion of some nation
can not be treated in general terms, without reference to time -
it is important to make a difference between the statements «the
Udmurts believe» and «the Udmurts believed».
Discussing the creation of the world on the basis of literary sources
and observations from his fieldwork A. Lintrop concludes that no
Udmurt believes in creation myths today.
other Finno-Ugric and Siberian people the mythological world of the
Udmurts is divided in three - the heaven, the earth and the
underworld. Each of these three follows a distinct model with its
primordial inhabitants. The most concentrated of these is the middle
world, or to be more precise, its current worldview, which is closely
interrelated with the life of a given individual or family and
consists of three concentric spheres. The religious worldview of the
Udmurts has not always been regularly active, it actualised in
certain situations or certain periods of time, during prayer
observance, funerals, commemoration of the deceased, but also during
summer and particularly winter solstices.
characterises the sky god and earth spirits, Mother Earth, Mother
Thunder and Mother Sun through many examples. Analysing epithets or
attributes describing with certain supernatural beings the author has
gathered together all designations suggested by other researchers,
including those contradicting in principle. A good example of the
constant changing of the Udmurt mythology is the set of notions and
beliefs connected to tutelary spirit of the tribe. Most researchers
regard vorsud as the guardian deity of the tribe and family,
who was prayed and sacrificed to in the family prayer house. Prayers
were also addressed to mudor and invu. Even today the
Udmurts call the ledge and icons of the prayer house mudor.
Different authors have argued that mudor signifies the
ledge or branches of fir against the rear wall of the prayer house,
but also the World River, objects connected to home, or the centre of
earth. Invu symbolises the special divine power of blessing.
When a shaman is performing the ritual of electing the priest of the
family prayer house, a zither accompanies the shaman's dance and the
tune of this instrumental piece is called 'the tune or melody of
seeking the heavenly dew or the shamanic gift'. Invu may also
refer to the projection of something longed for and expected (rain,
for example) in the sacral sphere. Invu is sometimes
associated with the concept of river running through the three
worlds - the World, Family or Shaman River, along which
travelled human souls and shaman.
Other supernatural beings, grove spirits, belong to another intriguing
group. These creatures reside in keremet or lud located
in the field, and are named after personae of the Turkish mythology
or with Turkish loan words: shaitan, aktash, sultan. Each
was sacrificed to, whereas prayers addressed to the grove spirits
were not much different from other prayers.
In the following several mythological beings related to the woods are
characterised. Forest spirits of the Udmurts are known under
different names in different regions, and they are usually
anthropomorphic creatures. Forest spirit serves three functions:
helping those who revere and fear it, punishing those who violate the
rules, and reminding that not everyone can play the master in the
forest. The work provides a diverse characterisation of water spirit
and vozo. While water spirits are commonly known mythological
characters, it is difficult to describe vozo in a few words.
For the first time in academic research the author, relying on the
opinion of other authors, outlines the main characteristics of vozo.
A. Lintrop's characterisation provides a full conception of vozo,
evidenced with Komi and Russian analogues of similar
The closest surroundings of human
residence - house or farm - is crowded with supernatural
beings. In the Udmurt religion house spirits are the most personified
beings. A. Lintrop describes this area most comprehensively and in
detail, as it is the richest and most vigorous aspect of Udmurt
folklore. This description enables to compare the unity and
idiosyncrasies of the North and South Udmurt cultures throughout the
19th and 20th century.
The concept of two components of
soul that animate human body has survived in the Udmurt religion -
lul is associated with breathing and urt is seen as the
shadow, and both are connected to the cause of unnatural illnesses
and funeral customs. The dead are commemorated and sacrificed to in
certain number of days following the death, and every spring and
autumn. The Udmurts also follow rather interesting customs of 'horse
wedding' or 'reverse wedding' and 'giving out head and feet'.
An analogous phenomenon in the spiritual culture of the Udmurts is tuno.
A. Lintrop is the second to analyse and generalise this issue
after the Udmurt ethnologist Dr. Vladimir Vladykin. A. Lintrop has
concluded that the function of Udmurt tuno (wise man, seer) is
locating prayer sites favoured by gods and spirits and appointing
sacrificial priests, determining the cause of personal and communal
problems, curing the sick, finding missing animals and objects, etc.
Sacrificial priests of the Udmurts are distinguished by their various
functions and vocations: prayer, or the priest of the great prayer
house, superior, noble, foreman and smoker, priest of grove, drawer
of blood. From this topic A. Lintrop proceeds to the sphere of
healers and witches. Healer is a witch doctor who cures sicknesses by
the use of herbs and spells. Distinct from the wise men, witches were
and still are dreaded and disdained by people.
The last part of the book offers an overview of the religious and ritual
life of the Udmurts of the Varklet-Bodja village, Agryz district,
Tatarstan based on the extant customs and places of worship at the
beginning of the 1990s. The author frequently refers to his fieldwork
material, collected during the mass prayers in the aforementioned
village in 1988, 1989 and 1993. The village is unique, because its
inhabitants still hold on to the traditional Udmurt lifestyle and are
the only heathen Udmurts left. A. Lintrop describes the village life
in details: introducing local history and the current situation,
places of worship, prayers (vernal festivity prayer, prayer of boys
and girls, gershyd - 'plough soup', drinking gershyd, harvest
prayer, entering foal's enclosure, foal prayer, earth spirit prayer,
jybyrtton-worship, aktash - 'the white stone',
kujaskon - the commemoration day). The names of customs bear
witness to the vitality of calendrical and tribal traditions in the
village of Varklet- Bodja. The initiation rites are particularly
interesting. Throughout the book the author has indicated to
phenomena that he believes have been borrowed or adopted from other
religions, especially Christianity and Islam. In his analysis A.
Lintrop does not employ the notion syncretism in its narrow sense.
A. Lintrop's mastering of the Udmurt language and
active participation in various rituals have given him a wonderful
opportunity to study the Udmurt mind, to fully comprehend the values,
consistency and sufferings of this ethnic group. The author often
illustrates the material with Udmurt-language examples that
explicitly convey the uniqueness of Udmurt dialects.
Aado (right) in Khantyland.
Photo from private collection.