Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences
Anna Sirina


The Evenks. Spiritual culture (mythological worldview, traditional beliefs, holidays and rituals)

Evenk folklore features myths, fairy tales, heroic tales, and legends (Evenks use one word for them, nimngakan ) ulgur , or stories preserved in the memory of the living, and also improvisational songs, songs with established texts, translated songs, shamanic songs, riddles, proverbs, protective incantations, and prohibitive incantations.

Evenks’ heroic tales reflect their memory of the localities where they used to live, their lives, and their genealogies. Evenk storytellers not only told their stories, but also sang them, and their audiences shouted out to support them. Their legends reflect actual events of the past, such as conflicts and armed clashes between Evenks and ancient tribes (the Mangi, the Chulugdy), and their interactions with Southern tribes of animal farmers. Their legends feature not only male heroes but also female ones who avenge their dead husbands. Structurally, their heroic tales are somewhat similar to Yakut and Buryat legends. Nikolay G. Trofimov was an outstanding Evenk storyteller.

Evenk myths describe the creation of the earth, heavenly luminaries, the upper and lower worlds, the origins of human beings, animals, and other creatures. According to the mythology, two brothers had their hand in creating the earth and human beings. The younger brother, Eksheri (Seveki), the master of the upper world, is kind and the creator of the world. The older brother Khargi is the master of the lower world, he is evil. The loon and the goldeneye helped the younger brother. The loon dived and brought back soil in its beak. Horse-riding Trans-Baikal Evenks believed the frog to have been the creator’s helper. Ilimpeya Evenks ascribed the origins of the earth's terrain and rivers to the mammoth Seli and the giant serpent Dzhyabdar. Having created useful animals, the younger brother made the figure of a human being from clay and stone and animated it. Omi, beye, imneen; khanyan/anyan, or “shadow” (eastern Evenks) are all synonyms for the soul. There are also legends about humans originating from a tree or a bear. 

In Evenks’ pre-shamanic views, the universe was divided into three vertically arrayed worlds: the upper one, the lower one, and the middle one. The immovable Polaris served as an entry into the upper world. Crevices, caves, and whirlpools served as entries into the lower world. In the shamanic cosmogony, the worlds were arrayed horizontally, which reflected Evenks’ settlement along rivers. The upper world was above the upper reaches of the imaginary river Engdekit, while the lower world lay below its estuary. Shamans claimed that diseases meant a person’s soul had been stolen by evil spirits and, together with their helping spirits, shamans went down the river Engdekit in search of the soul, but only a very powerful shaman could reach its estuary. A shamanic healing session consisted of searching for an ill person’s soul, catching it, and placing it into omiruk, a special soul storage.

Evenks have a myth of the heavenly hunter, the hero Mangi. Evenks call the Milky Way Mangi Kinglen , Mangi’s ski track. Mangi restored the alternation of day and night by getting the sun back from the heavenly moose who had stolen it. Another version of the myth explains how the moose appeared on earth: Mangi finds the heavenly moose cow, and its offspring got scared, fled to earth through the heavenly hole called Sangar , and had its offspring. Evenks believed the bear to be their relative. Fairy tales speak of a girl coupling with a bear. Evenks accorded a special place in their world to the wolf, the eagle, and the crane. Yenisei Evenks viewed the taimen as one of the main helping spirits.

Animism is the key element of the traditional Evenk worldview, and it has survived until today, primarily among hunters – and reindeer herders. Evenks believed all of nature to be animate: what we view as non-living, Evenks see as possessing the musun force, the force of energy and motion. Earth and all its inhabitants, plants, animals, people, and spirits, are closely interconnected and obey the same laws of communal living. The master-spirit of the upper world and the master-spirit of the taiga send hunters reindeer and moose. The hunter kept some parts of the animals he killed as amulets bringing luck in a hunt. Every reindeer herd had a sacred reindeer that was usually white. Eastern Evenks’ shamans made namu, ritual rugs used in shamanic and hunting rites to ensure prosperity, and luck in hunting and reindeer herding. Fire is believed to be a good being togo musunin (grandmother). Fire can predict the future. Fire is always treated to the best pieces of food. The “laws of the taiga.”” Evenks developed a system of rules of conduct called ity / iti (literally “tradition,” “commandment,” “custom,” “method,” “way of life,” and “law”) left to them by Seveki, the creator of the world. They include, among others, the following precepts: “Do not begrudge people everything that the sky/ buga gives people, follow the nimat custom,” “A bad word you say follows your tracks back to you,” and others. In addition to these “universal” rules of conduct, Evenks have a system of prohibitions odyo / odyokit (“protection,” “prohibition,” “taboo,” “sin”) that regulate specific spheres of life. “The taiga is not a school, yet it teaches everyone,” Evenks say directly indicating the source of their ethics of relations with nature and people. Many rules are a product of observation. One of Evenks’ main odyo rules is not to kill more than you need. The laws of the taiga left their imprint on Evenks’ character marked by openness, honesty, and selflessness. Evenks wish to preserve environmental traditions, and children are taught these traditions at home, in school, and at environmental summer games.


Rites and holidays 

In early summer, Evenk hunters and reindeer herders fill dishware with water to welcome migratory birds and to ensure a prosperous year. When birds leave, people throw salt after them wishing the birds a good journey and a happy return.

Evenk hunters performed rites in the taiga before and after a hunt. The singkelevun rite meant to bring luck in hunting differed greatly between various Evenk groups. Oroqen Evenks performed it in the fall, before the hunting season. If hunting was unsuccessful, Evenk hunters in the Trans-Baikal area, along the Amur, and in Southern Yakutia made a short bow and arrows, and a figure of a moose or a reindeer out of willow branches, went to the forest with their handiwork and “shot” at the “moose,” “killed” it and pretended to perform everything that a hunter does when hunting a large hoofed animal. Hunters from among Evenks living along the Sym River would hang a white cloth on a birch tree and shoot at the tree top asking for an animal to be sent to him. These rites were performed both by hunters themselves and by shamans. A shaman would “cleanse” the hunter and would go to the master-spirit of the taiga to ask for animals. To thank them for their kill and to ask for animals to be sent to them, hunters throw into the fire pieces of meat cut off from their kill, and hang pelts of albino squirrels or pieces of white cloth on tree branches. Places in the taiga that have ancient stone drawings (petroglyphs) are still used as praying sites where people appeal to spirits asking for luck in hunting. They leave their cartridges and young larch seedlings.

Evenks call a holiday a bakaldyn which means “meeting.”


Summer holidays/rites.

In the past, Evenks would hold a special holiday/rite to mark the New Year when nature is revived; it was called ikenipke , ikechik , bakaldyn (Evenks living along the Sym , in Yakutia and the Amur region, in the Khabarovsk territory, etc.), boldyor (Evenks living in Buryatia), muchun (Evenks living in the Evenk municipal area). It was traditionally held in early June when the cuckoo was first heard marking the start of the Evenk new year. Evenks saw it as the time when nature changes and puts on its best clothes, and they, too, put on their festive clothes. The holiday lasted eight days. All the relatives and neighbors that had roamed the land throughout the long winter would get together. They would dance the heddya , a round dance, and “they would dance so eagerly that even the ground would become smooth flattened by dancers”; they would sing, play, make merry, eat together, exchange news, and young people would look for a spouse. In the past, a shaman would perform a ritual on that holiday asking for a blessing from the supreme master-spirit Enekan Buga. The holiday was revived in 1994 by urban Evenks from Yakutia, the Evenk linguist Anna N. Myreyeva, and the writer, ethnographer, and folklore scholar Galina I. Varlamova-Keptuke. The holiday had a ritualistic element to it: passing through the chichipkan bifurcation to be cleansed, censing with smoke, feeding bear fat to a wooden pole that symbolized the three vertically arrayed worlds of the universe, giving food to the river and the fire, tying sacrificial ribbons to trees for ulganida spirits. The holiday once again came to be celebrated by all Evenks and gained new features. It frequently took place in villages and cities. Today, it is happening without a shaman. Bands and dance groups perform at celebrations that now include various competitions and contests as well as book exhibitions, conferences, round tables, and workshops on the issues of socioeconomic and cultural development of Evenks, the regions where they live. In Yakutia, the holiday tends to be moved to coincide with the summer solstice.


Purification holiday in the Krasnoyarsk region
Purification holiday in the Irkutsk region


In late winter – early spring, before snow and ice on the rivers melt, today’s Evenks hold the Reindeer Herder Day, a holiday they adapted to new realities back in the Soviet era (eastern Evenks call it uktevun). It takes place in late March in a village with most reindeer herders and hunters coming from the taiga to attend. The holiday includes official events involving local authorities and representatives of mining companies operating in local municipal units. A reindeer race happens on a frozen river (participants either ride reindeer and/or drive reindeer-driven sleds) and also involves various ethnic athletic competitions such as long jumps over sleds set in a row, throwing a maut at a target, wrestling in the snow, hatchet throwing (the objective is to throw it as far as possible). The holiday program also features an exhibition of crafts made by Evenk female artisans.

People eat, sing, and dance the heddya round dance that unites them, and makes them merry. They meet after a long winter, exchange news, buy food, and, full of new impressions, return to the taiga. Village and city dwellers will have met their relatives and friends and their reindeer, exchanged news and plans, and maybe pondered their identity and culture.



Reindeer Herder's Day


By the 19th century, most Evenks had been baptized into Orthodox Christianity, but shamanism had not been wiped out. People would go to church when they came to villages, they treated priests with respect (let’s recall the exiled bishop Luka (Voino-Yasenetsky)). Some church holidays became part of the Evenk tradition and came to be associated with various annual landmarks: the Intercession (October 14, Gregorian calendar) came to be associated with the start of the hunting season; the Winter Feast of St. Nicholas (December 19, Gregorian calendar) with going into the village from the taiga to sell furs; St. Peter’s Feast (July 12, Gregorian calendar) with going to villages from the taiga in summer. The last 20 years also saw a revival of Orthodoxy and Orthodox religious holidays. In the 1990s-2000s, Protestant missionaries arrived in the Russian North. Evenks also celebrate professional holidays established in the Soviet era: the Reindeer Herder and Hunter Day in spring, the Fisherman Day in summer, and Soviet gendered holidays, March 8 and February 23, and national holidays: Victory Day on May 9, and others.

Treasures of the North, an international expo and fair held annually in late April – early May in Moscow, has become a high-profile event in the life of the peoples of the North. It features various ethnic festivals and the event itself is truly awareness-raising. It is attended by folk artisans, amateur singers and dancers, artists, and members of Northern peoples’ communities, including Evenks.


Evenk New Year



In the past, Evenks used to bury their dead in the taiga up in trees, in hollowed-out tree trunks, or wrapped in birch tree bark. Once they converted to Christianity, they gradually switched to grave burials. Burial sites were tabooed and the living were prohibited from visiting them.