Autonomous institution of Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug — Ugra “District House of Folk Art”



The main character of the Bear Games is considered by the people of Khanty a bear, it is to him who men, dressed in special clothes, perform songs, dances and small stage actions. This ritual is called “pupi hot” in Khanty, which means “bear house”.

The project of the autonomous institution of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug — Yugra “District House of Folk Art” is aimed at coordinating activities in the field of preserving, revitalizing, studying and popularizing the Bear Games ritual tradition.
HISTORY We learn the life story of the main character — the bear — from the songs included in the repertoire of the rite “pupi hot”. In one of the special songs, called the myth of the bear’s descent to the earth, one can learn about the events that took place when the bear lived with his father, the Great Torum. Looking at the earth, he wanted to go down and explore the enticing and mysterious land. After much persuasion, his father let him go into the world of people, but only if certain rules and norms of behavior were observed. As often happens, the son of Heavenly Father Torum had broken his promises and became mortal, like every living being on the earth. And for the purpose of the Bear’s being able to go up to his father again, according to the ritual tradition, people who came to the festival must perform certain actions with songs, dances and scenes. Such performance at the bear festival is fixed with notches on a special stick called shemlaӈ yukh. This function is assigned to a certain person who should monitor the process of celebrating the festival for 4 or 5 days. According to archaeological data, the history of the bear veneration can be traced back to the beginning of the III millennium BC, it is this period that the rock paintings of the bear are dated by. But the artifacts — metal plaques cast in form of figurines, where one can observe a bear in the sacrificial pose, are attributed by archaeologists to the 5th century A.D. The sacrificial pose is the picture of the bear’s head in full face with demonstration of his protruding rounded ears and his rather massive nose with nostrils, which is located between two paws connected by a kind of roller. It is in this pose that the beast is placed, before its delivery to the village and the entire period of bear games. The whole rite is arranged on occasion of killing a bear, and is called sporadic by researchers. The ritual complex begins not with performance of songs and dances, but with the process of hunting a bear. Moreover, the beast is not taken immediately to the village, he is cut up in the forest, on the spot, according to certain rules. The stomach is examined very carefully: if remains of human hair are found there, then such a beast is burned or buried. And the beast’s entrails are immersed in water, according to beliefs, it brings good luck to the hunter. And then the men participating in the hunt purify themselves with snow or water, this is a special ritual, the meaning of which is purification from evil spirits. The ritual complex “Bear Games” is a syncretic phenomenon, it is possible to trace strata of various epochs in it, and to distinguish features by certain elements. For example, in the performers’ costumes, researchers trace the Iranian stratum. However, the symbol of the obligatory attribute of clothing — the birch-bark mask — brings the rite closer to the Italian Commedia dell’arte, which is the theater of masks with elements of improvisation. But the motive of the bear drama is traced by art historians in rituals dedicated to the goddess Artemis. Researchers also find the North Eurasian stratum: consumption of the bear meat, while the bear image embodied in the beast’s skin with the head, is honored. The special taboo language is used for the entire period. Its vocabulary can be traced in the songs. The characters in the scenes talk about this language, so that everyone present could get acquainted with it. The ritual of delivering the beast to the village is also interesting, hunters should introduce the guest to the area: lakes, swamps, rivers, hills. They stop near each place, shout out the name of the area 7 times in the Khanty language, this means a kind of introduction. During the stops, treats are given to the patron spirits of these territories. At the entrance to the village, hunters shout again: 4 times, if they are carrying a she-bear, and 5 times in case of a he-bear. They are met with smoldering chaga, the outgrowth of birch fungus, which has purifying function. Having purified the arrived hunters with smoke, the people who meet them necessarily spray each other with water: also having a purifying function, this procedure is intended for preventing an evil creature from inhabiting people. And during the whole festival, which will be arranged in the hunter’s house, each guest who enters the house is sprayed with water, thereby conducting the purification rite. For the entire period, a piece of smoldering chaga lies at the bear’s head, which is set on fire in the morning before singing the song of the bear’s awakening, and extinguished in the evening, after singing the evening song, when the bear is put to sleep. Chaga purifies the room, when performance of songs and dances of the profane part is over, and the sacred part begins. The room is always fumigated before the arrival of high-rank patron spirits. Before the start of honoring the bear, the ritual of divination is necessarily performed. The rite begins with placing the ritual knife or arrows, sacred objects made of iron, under the beast’s head. Then everyone present is required to approach the head and ask questions related to further actions on honoring the beast, moreover, the children go first. If, when raised, the head becomes heavy, and “il hans” sticks, this is a sign of the bear’s desire to communicate with the interlocutor in this form. The bear is asked about the forest spirit to have inhabited it. The most important thing is to enlist his consent to conduct the rite, and the people also clarify the scenario of the holiday. They ask for permission to make the sacrifice. The people are sure to clarify further actions: whether he agrees to become the patron spirit of the family, in whose house the rite is being performed. If the bear agrees, the process of preparing begins. This is notification of relatives, who live in the other area, about the timing of the festival. In the house preparations begin too: ritual objects and clothes are taken out of special storage places, these are staffs, arrows, birch-bark masks, little caps, mittens, smocks. If necessary, the missing items are additionally manufactured, which will then also be put away in the special storage places.
Before the start of bear games, the sacrifice rite is performed, which is called “yukhtum porel”, — the treat for that who has arrived, literally the treat for the bear that has entered the human’s house. Deer of a certain colour (motley, white, dark) are brought as a gift. The number of the animals is specified in the process of divination. And, as a rule, each animal is dedicated to a certain spirit of the territory. The chief of the rite calls the spirits by praying, their call is regulated by the order determined in dependence with remoteness of the areas. The first to be called are those who are closer to the rite area, the last to be called are those who are the furthest away out of the rest. When praying, people ask for the even way for deer, grandsons, sons. In prayers, patrons are called to a certain boundary — “to the tops of low trees, to the middle of tall trees”, the same boundary is outlined in mythical songs. During the rite, when the room is purified with chaga, the patrons’ souls can be near people. The core action of bear games takes place within 4 or 5 days. During this period, in a certain sequence, men dressed up in special clothes for depicting certain patron spirits, supernatural beings, people from the Pechora River, begin to perform songs, dances, and stage dialog actions. And the entire repertoire is performed on behalf of the characters they depict. The content part of the repertoire is divided into particular genres to be arranged in the scenario sequence. The patron spirits of a certain area come to the rite, following this sequence. The songs of the genre “voy ar” are the first to be performed. In the bear songs one can trace the cyclicity of the seasons, and on the first day, they sing about the season of the year when the games are held. In the scenes of the “Lunaltup” (Incoming creatures) genre, the characters are people from the Pechora River or various supernatural beings. As a rule, for these dialogue scenes, performers put on birch-bark masks, it is in them that they become the other, and can demonstrate various scenes and songs reflecting the interrelations “human — bear”, “human — human”, “human — nature”. Only bearing the masks, one can ridicule human vices and deeds, thereby regulating the rules of behavior. This part is one of the most fun for the persons present. Many people can recognize themselves in these characters. It is this part that is affected by the public situation in the society, so new characters appear, new situations are performed. One of important parts of the rite is performance of the repertoire of the mish ar genre, the arrival of the patron spirits of local territories: hills, forests, settlements, rivers, lakes with dances and songs. They, with their arrival, bestow good luck on the persons present. Characters called menki come aside, performing songs “meӊk arăt” — “songs of menki”. In nature, they are guardians of morality and norms of behavior. Songs-prayers or chants-prayers of the genre “poyakty arat” are performed, this is the sacred part of the festival. And these songs are performed by high-rank spirits. Those characters who are the last to come to the rite are animals that carry away the souls of the bear, they are called “is tetty voyat”, i.e. “beasts that carry souls away”. And the last to be sung is the sacred song “eman ar”, during performance of which representatives of other social groups and other peoples are not allowed to be in the room. After the games, the mourning begins, which lasts 4 or 5 days. During the mourning, one cannot sing, have fun, quarrel among themselves, things and products in the house continue to be called in the “bear language”. The songs were first recorded by Antal Reguli in 1844, and the scientific article about the bear worship was published by N. L. Gondatti in 1888. The bear games have been preserved almost unchanged, the antiquity of this rite can be confirmed by the repertoire that is performed during its rituals. Many peoples of Eurasia worshiped to the bear, but only the northern peoples gave the bear worship sacred significance. Olga Mazur wrote about two opposite parts: the sacred part — worshipful attitude to what is happening, desacralization of the action — creation of the ritual laughing context. STATUS The “bear games” rite remains one of important rituals in the life of Khanty, it reflects the people’s worldview, basic rules and norms of behavior in society and the surrounding nature. According to the repertoire, you can trace the history of clans, family ties, geography of the area. Preservation and development of the repertoire are supported much. In 2016, “Bear Games” Ritual Complex of the Northern Khanty” was recognized as an item of intangible cultural heritage of the peoples of the Russian Federation, and included in the list of the items of the Catalog of Intangible Cultural Heritage of the Peoples of Russia. Once every two years, the rite is held by the District House of Folk Art, with folklore masters and their students to be invited. Currently, the repertoire is performed by 3 people: Timofey Alekseevich Moldanov, Andrey Aleksandrovich Yernykhov and Yakov Nikiforovich Tarlin. In the District House of Folk Art, the District School of Bear Games functions. The supervisor is Candidate of History, ethnographer T. A. Moldanov. At the lessons, from their early age, the children learn the Khanty language, songs, scenes, dances. IMPRESSIONS Having visited the rite of “bear games”, one can see the world, as if it came to us out of folk art, with all these characters in birch-bark masks amusing the audience, they are patrons-guardians of the areas. To see the dance of Mother Earth, to see the dance of the first people who appeared on the earth, to see the dance of seven sons of Supreme Father watching everyone. Every such action of the characters is perceived and experienced by the people, because this is their life.