Soul Hunters (YukaGir of the Upper Kolu:ma)

people & language




"The name Yukaghir (... Iukagir, Yukagir, Yukagiry ...) ... is ... of Evenki origin ... meaning ... "the icy or frozen people""

"In their own language the mupper Kolyma Yukaghirs call themselves Odul, which means "strong" or "powerful"."


"The Yukaghir language ... can ... be affiliated with the Uralic superfamily, consisting of the Finno-Ugric and Samoedian languages".

cosmology & the dead




"The world is like a cupboard with two shelves, which separate the Middle World from the Lower and Upper Worlds. In certain places there are cracks in the shelves, and these are the pathways between the worlds. Each shelf contains a large number of drawers of various sizes, which are the lands of different creatures. ...

At the bottom of the cupboard, in the lowest part of the Lower World, is a small drawer,

which is the the dwelling place of the Grandfather with the Pointed Head [Yiodeiis’ien’ulben], who is the head of the evil spirits [abasylar].

Above him is another and much bigger drawer, which is the Land of Shadows [Ayibii-lebie]. This is the dwelling place for everything that has died.


... when a human person dies, his or her ayibii leaves the body in which it has resided, to take up its abode in the body of a raven or some other bird and travel to the Land of Shadows. . . .

This land is similar to that of the living, but upside-down. ... many basic things, such as day and night, winter and summer, are reversed. {reversal of day and night would indicate opposite longitude; reversal of winter and summer would indicate opposite latitude.} Moreover, ... everyone eats decayed meat." . . .

A person’s ayibii will dwell in the Lower World until the moment a woman among its living family members becomes pregnant. Then it will strive to reincarnate itself. {re-incarnation of souls, returning from the dead, back into the self-same family, is a feature of West African religion.}

However, its journey back is difficult, full of obstacles and dangers. It does occasionally happen that an ayibii is eaten by an abasy [the Sakha word for evil spirit], in which case the ayibii itself will become abasy and hunt for other ayibii. It can also be trapped in


the crack of a shelf. But if the ayibii succeeds in reaching the world of the living, it will penetrate the pregnant woman through her vagina and possess the child. The two then become one and the same person, and the child will share with the deceased a common personality. {this walk-in behavior of souls is distinctly Ajivika, and is in Ajivika metaphysics the way for, within a few life-times, becoming a Tirthan-kara; and is in contradistinction from ordinary re-incarnation (which is not close to arriving at becoming a Tirthan-kara)} . . . The child should be given the deceased person’s name, or at least his or her nickname."

195, n. 2:3

"When a person is buried, people cut a hole in his clothes and break objects with him. This is done in order that the ayibii of the objects may go with the soul of the dead to the Land of Shadows."

195, n. 2:4

"For a detailed account of the dangers that an ayibii might meet on its way back to the Middle World, see the story "Petr Baerkaekin" in Zukova, Nikolaewva, and De:mina (: Folklor Yukagirov Verhnei Kolymy [Folklore of the Verkhne Kolyma Yukaghirs]. 2 Parts. Yakutsk: Isdatestvo,) 1989: I : 95-115."

196, n. 3:5

[alleged experience of informant :-] "once, when out hunting, he fell through a hole in the ground, which led him to the Land of Shadows ... "... People there could not see or hear me; only I could see or hear them. ... a Yukaghir family ... were eating rotten meat. ... After the meal, the family went to bed and I lay down beside the daughter, As I penetrated her with my penis, she screamed ... Her parents called a shaman, a woman, but she couldn’t tell [discern] what was wrong with the girl. Once again, I penetrated the girl, and again she screamed loudly. Then they got another shaman. I recognized him. He was from my village, but had died long ago. As he looked at me, I felt that two rays of light pierced my body. He could see me and asked, ‘What are you doing here? You are not dead.’ I explained to him that I had fallen through a hole in the ground and all I wanted was to go back. ...""


"Wooden representation of the Grandfather with the Pointed Head ... used to be placed next to infants when they were sleeping. If an evil spirit approached the child, it would recognize the child as one of its own and leave it alone."


female spirit-Owner of the Omulevka river :- "in his dreams, she (the spirit) had come with two of his dead relatives and one dead friend, and they had tried to persuade him to follow them to the Land of Shadows."

female spirit-owner of game-animals




"when our hunting luck failed us, and when this could not be blamed on our disregard for some ritual procedure, [the hunting-party leader] would walk restlessly around the encampment, swearing at his helping spirit, the owner of the Omulevka River : "Stingy bitch! You make me ashamed. Don’t come to me again [Stay out of my dreams]. ...""


"a spirit that develops uncontrolled feelings of love for a particular hunter will strive to kill him to bring his ayibii back to its household as its spouse.

Likewise, ... the birth of a human child at times makes an animal master- [mistress-]spirit profoundly jealous. The spirit’s envy stems from the fact that the hunter, whom it loves, fathered the child with another woman."


The leader of the hunting-group "forcibly drove an elk into our encampment, where it collapsed from exhaustion right in front of the fireplace." {or rather, it had been so charmed as to collapse thereat} The same leader of the hunting-group "claims to have a relationship of particular intimacy with the owner of the Omulevka River, from whom he derives his extraordinary hunting luck and skills."


"Owner of the Earth ... Lebie’-po’-gil as a lustful young woman whom hunters must persuade to provide them with prey animals by seducing her in their dreams."


leader "claims his helping spirit to be the Owner of the Omulevka river, who comes to him in dreams in the shape of an old woman. She gives him presents, such as a piece of bread and butter. If the layer of butter is thin, he will try to persuade her to put more on, because the butter indicates the fatness of the elk being offered to him. "She loves being sweet-talked. I say she is beautiful despite her age and tell her other pleasant things. In this way, I almost always succeed in persuading her to give me a thick layer," he explained."


[ in dream : 3 sisters, owners of 3 segments of river-course :-] "They are always to glad to see me, the three sisters. ... They start to play around with my penis, edging up to me. If I’m hunting at the upper part of the river, I’ll take the oldest sister and we’ll go to bed. If I hunt at the middle part, I’ll pick the middle sister. And if I’m hunting at the lower part I’ll go with the youngest one. When I wake up I know that in this season I will have good luck [in hunting]."

bodily feelings as omens




"an elderly woman said that a quiver in her lower lip is a sign of hunting luck, because it implies that she will be eating soon. When she senses an itching under her armpit, this is also a sign of luck, because it indicates where on the elk’s


body the bullet will strike. {cf. omens from Io, [Maori] god of twitchings}

As another example, a young hunter explained that when his back hurts, it means that he will kill some big game, because "back pain is my back’s way of telling me that I will soon have to carry a lot of meat."

While a twitching eyebrow might be a sign of luck for one hunter, for another it is a twitching ear. ... Thus, if someone receives a bodily sign indicating bad luck, he usually changes his plans. he stops pursuing prey until his body has provided him with a sign of good luck." {"bad luck" may portend injury or accident, if the omen is disobeyed.}


"Yukaghirs explain the agency of their body parts by saying that it is in fact their ayibii that inhabits a particular area of their body and tell them the outcome of a future hunt."

other aspects of ayibii




"Ayibii literally means "shadow" in the Yukaghir language".


"the hunter occasionally sees his ayibii as a freely operating being, and in his waking life he sees his own soul ... in the form of an animal." {this is [Az.] tonal, not "soul"}


"after death ... one soul will die with the person, the second will travel to the Land of Shadows, and the third will join God in heaven. ... this is because the world exists in three layers"


"ayibii ... lives in one’s bone structure"


"the ayibii is ... a "helper" that ... requests "feeding"

... hunters carry with them in the forest small wooden figures representing their ayibii"


"your ayibii ... might just tease you"


"a small wooden figure that was given to me by a hunter to help me establish contact with spirits in my dreams. The figure, which is said to portray my ayibii during its nightly journeys, generally has the appearance of a human but also displays the horns of an elk. ... The hunter called the figure an ioya:, which means "the one that looks on your behalf," and I was told to put it under my pillow before I went to sleep. Whenever I killed something I should feed it with fat or blood as a way of repaying it for its services".

p. 58 "the neighboring Sakha, who see the soul (kut) as being manifested in three forms ... : salgin-kut (air-soul), iia:-kut (mother-soul), and boyor-kut (earth-soul)"

Ku>kul = Abasylar




"cannibal spirits that eat human souls (ku’kul {cf. [Yucatec] />KU>KUL-kan/, written /Kukul-can/} in Yukaghir, but ... abasylar ... from Sakha)"


"when abasylar seek prey ... They have an unmistakeable stench."


"Hunters also say that the spirit-master of each locality marks its territory with odor-trails in much the same way as an animal marks its territory by establishing odor trails and scent posts. In fact, one hunter ... would know if he had passed from one spirit’s territory to that of another spirit simply by smelling the air."


"abasylar ... to them our ayibii is the elk. When they look upon a woman’s ayibii, they see a cow, when they look upon a male’s ayibii, they see a bull, and when they look upon a child’s ayibii, all they see is a little elk."


"Humans are also abasylar in the eyes of their animal prey. ... this is why they send us illnesses and other misfortunes, to punish us for killing and eating them."


"spirits see humans as animals (see prey) to the same extent that animals (as prey) see humans as spirits ... By the same token, animals and spirits see themselves as humans : they ... (... become) anthropomorphic beings when they are in their own ... villages".

198, n. 5:3

"The devil, or Abasy, is said to come from the south, bringing ... disasters with him. The doors of hunters’ cabins tend, therefore, not to face south.

Because an Abasy has not concept of the past, he cannot turn himself around but can only walk forward. If he should arrive at a cabin, he would be incapable of entering it as long as the door did not face south. He would have to climb over the roof and continue to walk away".

{/AYiBii/ = [<ibri^] />AYoB/, ruler of the />AB-/ (‘ancestors’ ) summoned through />oB/ (‘seance’)}

animals taking human form




"Animals ... when they enter their own [secret] lands, which are located somewhere in the forest or deep in rivers and lakes, ... take on human shapes

... a hunter encounters "reindeer people" that have human shapes and live in tents but grunt instead of using human language and eat moss instead of meat. Similarly, "fox people" are said to retain their strong smell and sly character ... "Elk people" are generally friendly".


[alleged experience of informant :-] "I ... saw an old man ... I asked him who he was, but he did not answer me. Instead, he gestured with his hand, showing me that I should follow him. ... I noticed his footprints were those of a reindeer. ... He spoke to his wife by grunting just like a reindeer, and she grunted back. ... The woman served me food, and I saw that it was not meat but lichen. I ate it ... As time passed ..., I started forgetting things. {cf. forgetfulness caused by eating of the food offered by the Loto-phagoi, in the Odusseis} I thought, for instance, about my wife who was waiting for me back home, but I realized that I had forgotten her name. Then we went to sleep. I dreamt that I was surrounded with reindeer. Someone said to me, "You do not belong here. Go away." ... I woke up ... I sneaked out of the tent and started walking home. In the village, people ... said that they thought that I had died. ... "I have only been away for a week." "No," they said. "We have not seen you for more than a month." ... It seems that the people I met were reindeer".


"the reindeer-man made tracks in the shape of reindeer-hooves despite his human appearance. Similarly, the fox-woman is said to retain her strong smell, and the bear-man can be recognized by his jog-trot was of moving".

{So, animals deserve to be killed and devoured by humans in order to punish them for being so deceptive as to conceal the fact of their actually being humanoid – the parallel in Christianity would be that Christ deserved to be killed and devoured by humans in order to punish him for being so deceptive as to conceal his divine luminous appearance. Just as human have secretly spied on animals in order to see the animals’ humanoid form, so did the disciples spy upon Christ in order to see his Transfiguration, such that Christ sought to punish the disciples for seeing his secret form when he realized that they had spied on him.}

love of animal’s guardian-spirit for hunter




[quotation from Jochelson, 1926, p. 146 :] "In the opinion of the Yukaghir, a lucky hunt depends on the good-will of the animal’s guardian spirit but also on that of the animal itself. Thus they say : ... ‘if the reindeer does not like the hunter, he will not be able to kill it’". {"Greater love than this hath no man, that he should lay down his life for his friend."}


"elk are generally conceived as women, who "give themselves up" to male hunters out of sexual desire for them."


"Hunters ... draw the master-spirit into a lustful mood ... so that it fails to recognize the true identity of the hunter’s ayibii, which during his nightly dreams travels to the spirit’s house in the guise of an animal. The spirit, which is "blinded" by ... sexual desire, will perceive the intruder as a harmless lover and a member of the family and the two will jump into bed. The feelings of sexual lust that his ayibii evokes in the master-spirit during their nightly intercourse are ... extended to the spirit’s physical counterpart, the animal prey. ... Thus ... are ... two analogous hunts : the "visible" hunt of the ... elk and, preceding this, the "invisible" {i.e., dream} hunt in which the hunter’s ayibii seduces the animal’s master-spirit."


[Tukano of Colombia :-] "The hunt is practically a courtship and a sexual act ... The verb to hunt, vai`-mera: gametara`ri, [is] translated as ‘to make love to animals.’ "

199, n. 5:13

"Even within the European tradition, especially from the twelfth century to the sixteenth, the analogy between hunting and sex crops up again and again." [according to :- Cartmill : A View to a Death in the Morning : Hunting and Nature through History. Harvard U Pr, 1993.]


[statement by author :-] "during my nightly dreams I occasionally had sexual encounters with spiritual beings."


"many hunters claim to have one or more helping spirits with whom they copulate during their nightly dreams and who provide them with hunting luck in return."


"They [the spirits] are around. One can meet them in dreams. One time it is a child the size of my hand, another time it is a woman. ... people exist that you cannot see when you are awake. ... If they like you, they will provide you with prey, so do not upset them. ... Probably they [the spirits] want it to be in this way, they do not want us to know too much."


[her dream, with waking sequel : told by an old woman :-] "I way lying sleeping ... when ... I flew ..., and there, in between the trees, stood a huge penis. ... I won’t tell you any more. But next morning, ... there, at the very same spot, stood a huge bull [elk] ..."

Mystical Old People ["Mythical-Old-People" (p. 198, n. 5:4)]




"in ancient times there lived very small people and the climate was very hot. They ... "so small that a squirrel fur can dress one person." They were naked, ate raw meat, and did not know how to make fire.

Then [a deity] came flying from the sky with a torch in his hand. ["According to the myths of the Chukchi and Koryak, it was Raven that brought fire to the humans ... It might be that the Yukaghirs have ... Raven with ... this." (p. 197, n. 4:8)] He gave it to the small people, who thus came to have fire. The smoke from their fires made them grow bigger and bigger and they became humans." {so. would smoke of burnt-offering aggrandize and humanize – make amenable – the deities?}


"members of the giant cannibal tribe Cou’liye (Mystical Old People) turn themselves into nice-looking lads to seduce Yukaghir women and eat them. These cannibalistic nonhumans call their intended human victims their "elk" or "reindeer"


... a giant cannibal boy marries a Yukaghir girl and lives with her human kismen. ... once, lying in bed with his wife, he touches her breasts and says, "My late father used to feed me with such things" ([Jochelson,] 1926: 304). {cf. [the Inuit myth of] the Sun-goddess’s teats being offered by her as food, in punishment, to her brother the Moon-god} ... The people ... kill him. ... As a result, the Sun deity punishes them by taking away their fire, and they all freeze to death."

198, n. 5:5

"The Sun deity was traditionally seen as one of the highest of the benevolent beings, and today it is understood by many Yukaghirs to be ... God."


"Harner asserts that the Shuar (Ji`varo) of the Amazon see the normal world as an illusion, since only the real world is that of spiritual forces, which only the soul can reach through dreaming."

figurative terms for animals






"the big one"



"the barefooted one"



"Big Man", "Grandfather"

humans becoming animals (by re-incarnation or in dreams)




"the hunter falling in love with his prey ... cannot think of anything else, stops eating, and after a short time dies. His ayibii ... will then leave the cycle of human rebirth to be reincarnated as an animal and so will go off to live with his former prey. This, they say, is the reason why one occasionally comes across an animal that behaves in an extraordinary way. If, for example, an elk walks right into an encampment of hunters, it is likely ... It retains traces of memory from its former life, which is why it seeks the company of humans."


[experienced by a hunter :-] "during his dreams, he would alternately see ... himself in his ordinary shape and in the shape of a fox."

a’lma (shaman/shamanka)




"Unlike the Sakha, who believe that one of a person’s three souls, the yo:r, hangs around in the Middle World to afflict its living relatives with sickness and misfortune, and who therefore avoid abandoned ... burial grounds, the Yukaghirs are not normally afraid of their deceased. However, with respect to the ghosts of their dead shamans, they expressed much unease. In the words of my informant ..., "... In Yukaghir, we call a dead shaman le’nde a’lma, which means ‘the eating shaman.’ He can kill people just for mentioning his name.""


"After his death, the shaman himself ... was cut up into pieces, the flesh and bones distributed among members of his clan as amulets, while the skull was placed on a wooden body as a spirit effigy {[<ibri^] /trap/ ("teraph")}, which was "fed" daily and "asked" for advice by the living clan shaman". {"According to Targ. pseudo-Jonathan to Gen. xxxi. 19, the teraphim were made of the head of a man, a first-born, which, after the man had been slain, was shaved and then salted and spiced. After a golden plate on which magic words were engraved had been placed under the tongue, the mummified head was mounted on the wall, and it spoke to the people." (T; cf. AS)}

200, n. 6:4

"the Yukaghir word from the figure with the shaman’s skull, Qoil {= [<ar.] Qe^haL/Qe^haL ‘countenanance, visage’ ("adspectus et facies") – LA-L 3:511a} ..., is the same name that the old people use today when addressing the Christian God." {/trapi^m/ "images of ancestors" were associated with the />epod/ "an image of Jehovah" (EBD, s.v. "Teraphim")}


"the Yukaghir hunter is in fact at a halfway stage toward full shamanship."


woman who "was some sort of a’lma" at the Shamanika river :- she "started walking around on her hands and knees, mimicking the movements of an elk. On her neck was placed a small child. ["The child is likely ... the spirit-owner of each individual animal (pejul in Yukaghir), which is ... a small bald-headed child or dwarf that rides on the neck of an animal." (p. 200, n. 6:5)] After a while, she would go into some kind of trance ..., grunting and swinging her head back and forth like an elk."


"the a’lma, by means of imitating an animal, takes control over it."


bear-a’lma :- "he took his huge knife and ... he stuck it into a fallen trunk. ... Then he started moving around like a bear. ... He hummed heavily like a bear ... Then, he jumped over the knife ... the master of the bears was his helper ..., ... every time people asked him for help in hunting, he always gave them a bear in addition to some other animal. ... He himself never ate of the bear’s meat."


shamanic initiation :- "he was put into a coffin by mystical beings who them sawed his body into pieces. When his body was reassembled by the spirits, they granted him an extra rib."


shaman’s talk :- a shaman "lived alone in the forest for three years. When he returned he couldn’t talk with humans, only with birds and animals. Only gradually did he learn to speak in the human tongue again."

T =

AS =

LA-L = Georgii Wilhelmi Freytagii : Lexicon Arabico-Latinum. Beirut, 1975.

EBD = Easton : Bible Dictionary.

protection against the ghosts of slaughtered prey-animals




"Immediately after killing an elk, ... they will roughly carve a small wooden figure, which they paint with lines of blood from the slaughtered animal. The figure is said to be a miniature model of the animal’s killer. It is hung from a string above the meat and serves the ... purpose of ... attracting the attention of the raging spirit of the killed animal. The spirit ... will smell the blood of its "child" painted on the figure’s body and attack it."


"Having removed the flesh from the bear’s corpse, the hunters would then deposit its cleansed bones on a raised platform or in the cleft trunk of a tree, with the animal’s skull facing west ..., ... the direction of the Land of Shadows. As a last safety measure they will bind its jaws with willow twigs to prevent the bear’s spirit from preying upon them in return."

marriage of the living to the dead




"he ...received much of his power from marrying the ayibii of two dead girls, ... who would "sleep next to him in bed" and "with whom he would have intercourse""


"while the a’lma might marry one or more of them, for the common hunter this would prove lethal."

Rane Willerslev : Soul Hunters. U of CA Pr, Berkeley, 2007.