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The Nenets (Samoyed) are an indigenous people who live in Siberia, near the Arctic Circle. 

Nenet means “people”. Each family has its protective spirit that guides them on their travels in the tundra. The reindeer animate the culture of Nenets, both physically and spiritually.

The Nenets believe that their difficult life, on earth, in the tundra, represents the reflection of the spiritual battle in the afterlife between the god of heaven (the forces of good) and the underground god (the forces of evil). They represent the cosmos vertically: everything good comes from above, and everything that is bad and dangerous comes from the earth.

The universe consists of the sky, the earth, and the underworld.

The sky is above the earth and consists of seven layers. The master of the sky lives beyond the sun, moon, and stars and leads an existence of plenty of secrets. No one can reach him, and he rules the world with the help of other gods and spirits.

The earth is also made up of seven layers, and humans live on the higher level.

The underground world exists below this level and is inhabited by evil spirits and the dead. The master of the underworld represents the incarnation of evil, the spirit that brings death and disease to the earth. Anyone who enters the world of the dead may meet his missing loved ones and sometimes can create a new family and have children.

Nenets village

For the Nenets, the human has a spiritual nature. His spiritual body consists of several entities: the soul of the breath, the soul of the blood, the soul of the shadow, and the soul of the image.

Death occurs when one of these entities disappears or if an evil spirit enters the body.

The Nenets believe in life after death. In the afterlife, the soul continues an existence similar to that on earth, practices the same activities, and uses the same tools, but everything evolves in reverse. The sun shines from bottom to top, men walk on their heads, and broken objects appear intact.

After someone death, the fire inside house burns for the next three days. They put an axe and a piece of coal outside the door, .

The defunct wears his best winter clothes. They place in his hands a piece of beaver or otter skin (those materials are also used for the purification ceremony).

The inhabitants of the lower world welcome the deceased by asking him what he brings. He gives them the objects placed in his hands. When he does not have something to offer, he has to return among the living and take someone else.

The Nenets place on the deceased eyes and heart various metal objects, coins, and pearls. Sometimes they cover his face with a cloth mask. If they don’t perform these rituals properly, the deceased’s soul can’t find his way back to the afterlife, may return and bring back a family member.

The body is placed in a wooden coffin with tools, weapons, and other objects the soul may need in the afterlife.

For a man, they add a knife, an axe, a rifle (or his bow and arrows), hunting tools, a spoon, a tobacco bag, and a pipe. For a woman, they put a scraper for the skins, sewing accessories, a cup, a spoon, and other personal items.

In order to be used in the other world, these objects must be twisted, pierced, or broken.

Nenets grave
Tomb with kettle attached (for use in the afterlife)

Before closing the coffin’s lid, they perform a rite called « awakening the soul to the Lower World », which means the soul’s withdrawal from the body. Usually, an old woman accomplishes that ritual. She touches the edges of the coffin with an ermine skin or bears skin and, in parallel, emits a specific whistle.

They never take out the body through the front door. On the way to the cemetery, the Nenets must not remain silent. They must not cry because otherwise, the defunct will have a headache.

At the burial site, the head of the deceased is facing west. The east symbolizes the side of the living, the sunrise, while the west is the side of the dead, the sunset.

The deceased is buried quickly. The body is transported on a reindeer which later is sacrificed. The Nenets cannot bury their dead because the frozen ground does not allow them to dig graves.

Nenets cemeteries are often located on top of hills. The coffin is covered with branches and left to decompose on the ground. They do not pay particular attention to the coffin and let the body decompose naturally. Sometimes they put an overturned sleigh on the grave.

To establish a connection with the lower world they put a pole next to the coffin on which they hang a bell. Through that bell, the deceased is informed of the visit of relatives.

Before leaving the cemetery, they have to be careful: the visitors must turn around the tomb three times and each time to ring the bell saying, « I will not come to you until my copper pot is pierced. » The living must not look back.

Nenets woman

After the funeral, the relationship between the deceased and his loved ones must cease. The funerary rituals have to mark a clear separation between the living and the dead because they take different paths.

The tombs are decorated in various ways. The deceased persons are embodied through wooden dolls. Those dolls remain inside the living’s homes and the relatives make them offerings and sacrifices.

When an infant or child dies, the body is placed in a bag, then hung on the branch of a tree to bury them “in the heavens”.
To not scare their relatives, the thieves are buried with their faces toward the ground.

The Nenets should never show outward signs of panic, as this weakness can attract evil spirits.

Siberian shaman

It is forbidden to save someone who drowns because that person is already part of another world: whoever tries to save him may be «contaminated» by death.

The Nenets beliefs are shamanic and animist. Inside every lake and up on every mountain dwells a spirit who is the master of the place. Sacred places and cemeteries are taboo: according to their beliefs, entering such a place can make someone crazy.

Their religious representative is the shaman. He symbolizes the most powerful figure on earth because he protects against the forces of evil, can overcome death, heals diseases, predicts the future, and communicates with the dead.

When a man becomes a shaman, he dies and is reborn. His initiation is long and painful.

Sources

Wikipédia Nénètses (https://fr.wikipedia.org)

Gueorgui Manaïev, Viktor Vasnetsov, Les rituels funéraires païens de l’ancienne Russie

(https://fr.rbth.com/histoire)

Conférence du 29/09/2017, « S’orienter dans la toundra », Vladimir Nikolaïevitch Ataev

Les Nenets de Sibérie : vivre là où le temps s’est arrêté (https://chosesnormales.wordpress.com)

Yamal : traditions et modernité » exposition de photographies de Liudmila Lipatova et Astrid Wendlandt

Astrid Wendlandt, La vie spirituelle des Nenets (http://www.cheminsdetoiles.com)

Anastasia V. Kistova, Ksenia V. Reznikova, Natalya Pimenova, Alexandra Sitnikova, Religion of Dolgans, Nganasans, Nenets and Enets

(https://www.naturepl.com)

Spiritualité Autochtone