Sacral world of the Arctic




I.A. Karapetova – Author V.V. Gorbacheva – Author K.Yu. Solovyeva – Album Compiler

Sacred places

Sacred places or sanctuaries were an integral part of the northern peoples’ spiritual culture. They are areas marked with special sacral importance, spiritual centers of a kind, where according to traditional beliefs humans became closest to deities. At these places, through rituals, humans’ ties with their past, their divine creators and ancestors were symbolically maintained. 

The places of worship belong to the stratum of ancient, pre-Christian beliefs. The topography of sacred places shows common attributes. They all were located at elevated outstanding points or on high river banks. The most important sanctuaries had a special sacral status and were located in remote places like Vaigach or White Island or on capes, “land’s ends,” like Cape Khaen-saleh in the northern extremity of Yamal where a symbolic borderline between the worlds lay. 

The center of a Nenets sanctuary was a special place of sacrifice symbolizing a chum and consisting of conical heaps of deer and bear skulls (the head was believed to be the reservoir of soul). There was also an anthropomorphic image of Khekhe, male or female patron ghost of the sanctuary, and wood-carved syadei, guards of the sacred place with pointed heads. Each sanctuary had stones symbolizing the Ural Mountains, deities’ place of residence, and articles of metal, one of the main symbols of the ghost world in the Nenets tradition.

The Nenets sacred places had their hierarchy, being conditionally subdivided into all-Nenets, clan, and family sanctuaries. Besides, there were sacred places located at natural landmarks, near important hunting areas, and near large river crossings where rites were held before the fishing season start in spring, and before the hunting season in autumn. The rites related to various phases of the management cycle and were aimed at good luck in fishing and hunting.

Irina A. Karapetova


Shamanism, a striking phenomenon of archaic world outlook, is based on beliefs of multiple worlds populated by deities and ghosts, on whom human health and well-being depends. The word shaman taken from the Tungus-Manchurian languages became world-known thanks to explorers and travelers. It is related to the verb “sa,” “to know. Each people called shamans in its own fashion; for instance, the Nenets said “tadebei,” “and the Evenki, “saman” or “shaman.” 

Shamans able to enter another reality were intermediaries between man and the sacral world. The Arctic dwellers believed them to be the chosen ones able to contact ghosts.

The shaman’s gift was not acquired on free will but was inherited, most often after one or two generations. The future shaman selected by ghosts for shamanship could not refuse. The election came with a special mental condition, the so-called “shaman’s illness,” which usually manifested in early teens. The formative period of a novice lasted several years. The stronger a shaman was in sacral aspects, the more attributes he had, and the more diversified the field of application of his powers became.

The shaman was an intermediary between the sacral world and man, was able to see that different, special reality and communicate with ghosts. During a shamanistic rite, which was a ritual spectacle, the shaman went into a trance or a special ecstatic state and “traveled” across the Universe entering in contact with deities and ghosts of the Upper, Middle, and Nether World. The aim of the rite depended on the shaman’s power. The attire, drum, mallet, and anthropomorphic and zoomorphic images of helper ghosts were of special importance in shaman’s practice. With their aid the shaman explored the mythic space, acting not only as intermediary but also as protector.

All the activity of a shaman was aimed at maintaining the community’s viability. His main functions were treatment, performing hunting and family rites, divination, and prophecy. In this sense, the shaman is the recognized spiritual leader in traditional practices of the northern peoples.

Karina Yu. Solovyeva, Valentina V. Gorbacheva