(Ot ähätä.)

One man had two sons. The man did not like to communicate with other people, so he and his family lived alone, and he did not allow his sons to visit with neighbors. And so, they lived alone with no neighbors—just their family.

Once, the man went to gather his reindeer. Having rounded them up, he turned the herd in the direction of his chum [conical tent]. He started to look at his surroundings and back from where he had walked. He saw that the earth was ripped. A deep cavity appeared where he had just walked on solid ground. He began to walk by the edge of the canyon and he asked himself, ‘How is it that I did not notice this? I almost killed all my reindeer.’

At that point the man himself fell into the void. He fell. He fell a long time in the nothingness. He fell until he perceived the ground, solid under his legs. It turned out to be solid earth.

The man saw three chumy [plural of chum] in the semi-darkness. Farther off in the dusk he saw a big herd of reindeer. The chumy were big—gigantic, in fact. Near the central chum he saw two people blacksmithing. Epigraph: As told to Ziker by Oksye Bezrukikh, Edian Clan, Ust’-Avam, 1997The man walked up to the camp, approached the blacksmiths, and said, ‘How do you do?’

One of the blacksmiths asked the other, ‘What happened?’ Their fire crackled. The other blacksmith said, ‘Why is our fire trying to tell us something? Ot ähätär.’ [The fire is our grandfather.]

The man from the Middle World said to them in surprise, ‘Ah, hey! What happened to you?’

And again he said, ‘Hello.’

The two blacksmiths did not see the newcomer. One said, ‘Something is going to happen. We need to stop working .’

They paid no attention to the man from the Middle World.

‘Let’s go home,’ they said.

And the blacksmiths went into their chum. The man from the Middle World followed right behind.

The story continues with the man from the Middle World trying to communicate with the Lower World people. When he talks, they hear the fire crackle.

Encampment by Igor Falkov--great grand nephew of Oksye

Igor Falkov (Photo by John Ziker)
Encampment, by Igor Falkov, great grand nephew of Oksye Bezrukikh

The Lower World people make sacrifices to the fire, but these do not help, and the fire continues to crackle when the man from the Middle World talks. He sits in their chum, hungry, while a Lower World woman makes soup out of bones. When the Middle World man touches one of their reindeer, it falls down and dies. When he sits next to the daughter, she falls ill.

The Lower World family observes these ill omens and calls for a shaman. The shaman arrives and performs a shamanic ritual [kamlanie], but to no avail. The Lower World people search out and find another, more powerful shaman, who upon arrival to the camp can see the man and understands their problem. The Lower World family must fulfil several requirements, and the second shaman during a kamlanie is able to call the powerful spirit Ayyi from the Upper World to send the man back to his world, riding on a great white reindeer. Before he leaves, the shaman tells the man from the Middle World that he must live near other people. Upon his return, the man rejoins his community and retells the story of what happened to him and what he learned.

This, and other narratives, help to illustrate virtuous social and environmental practices in an indigenous community in northern Siberia. The telling of such stories helps to support social norms of sharing and the message that behaviors have consequences.

Editor’s Note: This post is an excerpt and adaptation of Ziker’s forthcoming chapter, “The Fire is our Grandfather: Virtuous Practice and Narrative in Northern Siberia,” in About the Hearth, to be published this year by Berghahn Books (editors, David Anderson, Virginie Vaté and Robert Wishart).

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.