Visit to a Nenets Sacred Site in Northern Yamal


I had been living at the nomadic encampment in northern Yamal for around two weeks. By then we had repeated the process of packing up all chums, people and possessions onto wooden, reindeer-drawn sledges and moving to a new site five times. The most recent camp movement had brought us to a location where, on top of a hill a few hundred metres away, a little blip rose up against the skyline. Even from a distance it was visibly man-made, as there were no trees this far north and it was several feet higher than any of the surrounding vegetation.

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Myangche and Zhenka, nomadic Nenets reindeer herders at Yalyepya Suti sacred site in northern Yamal Peninsula

Myangche and Zhenka, nomadic Nenets reindeer herders at Yalyepya Suti sacred site in northern Yamal Peninsula

“What’s that?” I asked Radik.

“It’s a sacrificial site,” he replied, “you know, like the one we visited in the south in winter.”

Later that day I sat down on a sledge near where Radik’s brother Kostya was working on a new chum pole. We began chatting but after a minute his eyes suddenly widened and he exclaimed, “don’t sit there, that’s our sacred sledge!”

“I’m sorry!” I said, leaping up.

“”Don’t worry,” he said grinning, “I didn’t notice myself. But in future if you see a sledge with a reindeer skull on top of it like this one, or anything unusual like maybe a miniature sledge on top of it, remember that it’s someone’s sacred sledge. All our idols are in there, you know the ones you saw in our chum in winter.”

“Your ancestors and gods, right?” I asked. These little idols, looking like people dressed in miniature reindeer fur garments, were kept under the furs at the edges of chums and occasionally surfaced when people were sitting around or having a meal as if joining in.

“That’s right,” he replied. “Shamans made them.”

“Do you ever make new ones?” I asked.

“No, why would we?” he replied.

“Well do you repair the old ones?”

“We make them new clothes. We keep bits of fur from reindeer and arctic fox on the sacred sledge especially for them.

“What else do you keep there?” I asked.

“There’s a shaman’s drum there. Nobody’s played it for a long time, but we still keep it. I know someone who sold his family’s shaman drum in Yar Sale then went mad. You don’t joke around with these things.”

The other Kostya, from several chums down, came and sat down next to us on the ground.

“Are you going to visit the sacred site?” he asked me.

“If I’m allowed to,” I replied.

“Of course,” he answered.

“Ok, I’ll go a bit later then. What sort of site is it? Does it belong to a particular clan?”

“No, it’s a common one,” he told me, “not big but not small either.”

“What do people leave there as offerings?” I asked.

“It’s like a huge pile of reindeer skulls and antlers. Whoever’s killed a reindeer while we’re at this camp will leave the head there. Everyone else will leave smaller offerings like bread, butter, fur or cloth. And very occasionally, if someone’s sacred sledge has got too old, they’ll leave it there. The same with the sacred chum pole.”

“What are sacred sites for?” I asked. “I mean, what do people hope to gain by leaving offerings or sacrifices?”

“There are lots of different types,” he replied. “There’s the clan sacred sites, like the Khudi clan one near Yar Sale, then there are ones dedicated to the weather, to reindeer’s health. On the Kara Sea coast there are lots dedicated to fishing and sea hunting. If you don’t sacrifice a reindeer there before going out to sea there’ll be a storm or fog will come down. You’ll never find your way back to land. Other sacred sites mark spots where something important happened. There’s one where someone disappeared without trace in the tundra, for example, not far from here.”

“Are they all piles of skulls or do some look different?” I asked.

“Some are wooden idols with carved faces,” he replied.

“And where’s your clan sacred site?”

“On the Iuribei River [a few hundred miles south]. And you must never sleep near a sacred site. You can sleep near burial sites, but not sacred sites. My father told me his friend once put up his chum, not realising their was a sacred site nearby. A spirit came to him in winter clothing and said, ‘Why did you camp so close? This is my place.’ He moved camp pretty quickly.

“The biggest sacred site of all is called Seven Chums,” Kostya continued. He was evidently keen to talk on this subject, the first Nenets I had ever met willing to go into detail on the matter. “Seven Chums is right on the northern coast of Yamal. Only far northern Nenets clans know the way there. You know how we migrate from south to north? Well they migrate only east to west and never come south. We’re at the most northern point of our migration route now but they live hundreds of kilometres further north. You know the old man Maxim?”

“Who was camped with us in winter?” I asked.

“That’s right. As a boy he went there with his dad.”

“Why?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Because they needed to probably. Certain clans need to visit it on certain occasions.”

“What does it look like?” I asked.

“I heard it’s several huge hills of skulls, dozens of times bigger than this sacred site here,” he replied. “There are wooden idols with faces, dozens of sacred sledges, and sacrifices all around, even bear skulls. In the 1920s a Russian woman from an expedition visited it and died soon after on the northern coast of Yamal. It’s not surprising, as women aren’t allowed to visit sacred sites at all. In the 1960s members of another expedition somehow got there and stole some objects, including a bear skull. They all went mad or died.”

“What’s this sacred site here called?” I asked.

“Yalyepya Suti,” he replied.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“Well in our language yalyepya means… it’s kind of hard to explain in Russian… it’s like a little larch tree cut into a pole specifically to leave at a sacred site. And suti means promontory, or point. So it’s like Yalyepya Point.”

* * *

That evening we were to move camp again, but before we did I decided to visit Yalyepya Suti. I walked behind the chums, downhill towards a low area and between two lakes. Radik’s daughter Ulya and Kostya’s daughter Olya were running around playing there, Ulya holding a rope which was passed around Olya’s neck. Olya was running ahead of Ulya, bouncing up and down as she went.

“Edward, Edward!” shouted Ulya, who, a year older than Olya, already knew some basic Russian. “Come and play with us! I’m a reindeer herder and Olya’s my reindeer! If you want we can both be your reindeer!”

“I’m ok, thanks!” I replied. “I want to visit the sacred site before we move camp.”

I walked on through the swampy low area and, halfway between the chum camp and the hill on which Yalyepya Suti stood, I met Kostya coming the other way.

“When you get there, make sure to walk around the site three times clockwise,” he told me.

I walked up the hill and approached the pile of skulls and antlers. As I approached, I noticed that the tundra all around the site was completely devoid of dwarf birch, other than over a radius of three to five metres surrounding the skulls, where it was so dense that it was the only vegetation that could be seen on the ground.

At the bottom of the pile of antlers sat an ancient sacred sledge, its wood turned grey by age. Another such sledge protruded from one side of the pile. Several sledge legs also jutted out at angles from it, as well as a wooden stick rising vertically from the top, presumably what Kostya had told me was called a yalyepya in the Nenets language. I walked around it three times and returned to the camp.

* * *

A glorious Arctic sunset lit up the sky behind Yalyepya Suti as we began to move camp, although sunset is not the right word as the sun never actually disappeared.

The men who headed off on their single sledges one by one at first disappeared from view then reappeared near the sacred site. Their sledges, themselves and the pile of skulls were outlined jet black against the majestic, fiery skyline. One by one they pulled up, the men descended, and walked up to the sacred site. Each spent a few minutes there before moving on. I had thought that what they did there would remain a secret to me, but as it happened Radik, Zhenka, Myangche and I stopped there on our way too. We found fresh heads placed on the pile, old skulls dripping with freshly offered butter, and a few pieces of cloth tied around antlers.

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