Voices from Russia

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Yamal Iri: The Santa Claus of the Far North

Filed under: Christmas,domestic life,Russian,social life and customs — 01varvara @ 00.00


Yamal Iri is a character associated with Christmas in the Yamal Peninsula, Russia. In 2007, Yamal Peninsula got its own Santa Claus, Yamal Iri. His persona originated in children’s drawings and works of decorative art. Не’s active throughout the year, and he travels extensively, for he’s always helping people to put things right. Не conducts ritual ceremonies for tourists in front of the Arctic Circle stele in Salekhard that makes them members of the Northern Brotherhood. The pattern of Yamal Iri’s clothing is in the traditional folk-style of the North, and, besides his rune-covered staff, he has a magic drum for his rituals. In accordance with old Nenets craftsmanship, the drum’s of reindeer skin and wood. The drum’s beetle is made of birch and its cover of reindeer fur. Its sound drives away evil spirits; it gives people cheerfulness and positive energy, and increases their good and happiness.




Our Own Yamal Santa Claus


The ancient tales of Vologda gave birth to our own Yamal legend, our own Yamal Santa Claus. He’s our Yamal Iri, Grandpa Yamal! Children wait for him at the holidays, he participates in significant events, and he receives guests, meeting with them in his headquarters.

It all started with a good idea… every land must have its good magician. Most importantly, people should believe that miracles could come from his hands! In March 2007, the State Office Yamal-Nenetsia Centre of Tourism Development jointly with the Yamal Tourist Information Centre supported by the Yamal-Nenetsia Agency for Tourism announced a competition for a Yamal persona of Santa Claus. The contest jury had a difficult task in choosing the winning image, because there was such a large number! Creativity… if one could find it, it was the surest way to give birth to a fantastic image. On the eve of New Year’s, the contest organisers took stock. On 24 November, the festive opening of the “Yamal Santa Claus” exhibition took place in the MVK exhibition hall. The chief magician of the country, the all-Russia Ded Moroz (Grandpa Frost), who arrived in Yamal from Veliki Ustiug, introduced our shaman. All participants received certificates and incentive prizes. For her work in creating the image of our Yamal Santa, Yamal Iri, Inna Khudi of Mys Kamenny Posyolok {a type of small rural township in the Russian administrative system: editor} in Yamalsky Raion won the Grand Prize, a trip to the all-Russian Ded Moroz’s House in Veliki Ustiug.

Yamal Iri’s appearance is in full accordance with the folklore traditions of the Northern peoples. His image is a composite likeness of all the good magical powers of Yamal; therefore, he looks like an elderly grey-haired man in stylised folk dress. He’s both gentle in speech and, at the same time, very self-confident and self-assured in his strength. Yamal Iri’s defined by what he is. He’s a wizard that helps you to achieve your wildest dreams, he helps you in difficulties, he opposes discord and strife, he goes outs to visit people, he invites guests to come to him, and he gives out gifts. Grandfather Yamal is a repository of folk wisdom, jokes, riddles, proverbs, fairy tales; he has a veritable treasury of these that he gladly shares with others. Our good magician helps to make fairy tales come alive for our children, and helps adults to remember their childhood fondly!



Finally, our Northern magician, long awaited by the founders and participants of the competition, appeared in Yamal-Nentsia. He settled down in the ancestral lands of the Taishin princes in the village of Gorno-Knyazevsky {Prince’s Hill in English: editor}, and Yamal Iri came into his own during the festivities of the New Year’s holiday. Yamal Iri’s a figure based on the legends of the indigenous Northern peoples of the North. He comes from their mythology, the tales of their ancestors, and the stories of folk heroes such as Terlei. The figure was synthesised for modern times by E. T. Pushkareva, kandidat of sciences, Assistant Professor, Member of the International Finno-Ugric Society, author of 56 published works on the folklore and ethnography of the Samoyed and Ob-Ugric peoples, and consultant to the RF Gosduma on the Far North and the Far East. {this is much the same as what occurred in the late 19th century in the dissemination of the tale of Ded Moroz amongst urban Russians: editor}


The Legend of Yamal Iri


Far to the north and east stretches a vast land, fenced off from other lands by the rocky Urals, “whose top may reach the heavens, hidden from other people by a blanket of white fluffy snow. In olden days, outsiders knew it as the “midnight land”, but, those living there, “the People”, despised fear and they travelled at will across it. Since then, much water has flowed over the land, many lives have passed, things have come and gone, but people still call it Yamal, which translated from the Northern language means “the Edge of the World”. The sacred myths of the Nentsi tell of an ancient ocean, when there was no land, and how the birds fetched land from the depths and brought it up in their beaks; when the land arose, the first men appeared, and the gods gave them their laws as they settled over the vast tundra. Ancient legends tell of heroes, the progenitors of us all, and their tragic fall, which resulted in the appearance of illness and death in the land. They tell of the endurance and courage required of anyone living in this harsh and hard Northern land. These legends have come down to the present day, they link those bygone ages with our current time, these tales help to answer many questions and still aid the living people of today. Now, it is time to tell one of these tales about how life in this Northern land became ennobled through love, faith, miracles, and bright dreams. We don’t remember the people, we don’t remember the earth as it was, we forgot how much water has flowed down the river since then… however, at that time, the nine giant Terleyev brothers gathered in one place {the Russian word chudovishch is often rendered “monsters”, but, the Russian lacks the overtones of the English, so, I used “giants”… the Russian has overtones of “wonder” and “miraculous” (chudo): editor}.


Yamal Iri meets Dede Moroz


The eldest of them said, “At the other end of the earth, when I pursued Nenai Khuus, the Sun laughed at me, it aided disease and terrible monsters. Then, I went to the Master of Heaven, he laughed at me, and he helped disease, darkness, and monsters… I knew that it shouldn’t be! I defeated the Sun, and it now serves the Earth. To the Master of Heaven I said, ‘When I struggled with Nenai Khuus, you laughed at me, when I fought disease, you laughed at me! Why do you not feel sorry for the Earth, if you’re the Master of Heaven? Are you not the Master of Heaven? I’ll give you up to the northern clouds, I’ll throw you up into the northern clouds for seven years, so that you can think and make up your mind!’ For seven long years, the Master of Heaven struggled with the cold; he could not accept the fact that he would serve the Earth. Finally, he submitted. Since then, order reigned in the world; the Sun and Heaven began to serve the Earth, to protect her from terrible monsters and from disease. I, Terlei the Elder, gathered you, my brothers, to say that we now must leave; we’ve ended their lives. We’ll go to different places and become the spirits of the Earth, filling it with mystical knowledge, arranging the order so that people can live right according to the law and customs!”



It became so! At the headwaters of the Ob and the Yenisei, two of the greatest Siberian rivers, the nine brothers Terleyev appointed the guardian spirits of all that is on earth, and commanded them to help people. The eldest of the Terleyev, Yavmal, settled on the peninsula and began to live with the reindeer people, and he determined to assist those who lived there to ensure that people and animals lived here in harmony, helping each other. However, when Terlei the Elder couldn’t find a spirit to do a job, he hesitated… then, he took Parneko the witch from the dungeons of the terrible Nga. For a long time, Nga, the Lord of Death and Disease, tried to persuade a nameless spirit with him to deceive and do evil to people, but the spirit obstinately resisted… then, it couldn’t resist Nga, who was angry and froze it! To his astonishment, he found his spirit and mind paralysed! It forgot about him and the spirits, and people didn’t know then that he really needed them. Treacherous Nga, pleased with his cruelty, promised, “I’ll let you go when people remember you, when they realise that they miss you… only when they remember, only when these poor little people understand, only when they realise what they lack in life… We’ll see when they come to their senses…” Many years passed since then, much water has flowed down the beautiful Ob, but people caught up in work and worry did not think about an unnamed guardian spirit who pined away, caught in the ice by the treacherous Nga…



However, new times came to Yamal-Nentsia! Now, it’s another era, free people live here. The land of Yamal generously gives them wealth; so, they hope for a happy life, one full of fairness and justice! All who live in this beautiful and rich land, both adults and children, love stories, they all believe in miracles and magic! Of course, children are particularly fond of magical legends and believe in fairy tales! Then, one day, the children of Yamal decided that they should have a winter wizard who would be responsible for the winter holidays, who would ensure that children’s dreams come true, so that they all would have gifts and the magic of fairy tales! How should we do it? No one knew! Children thought and dreamed of bringing to life our Yamal Santa Claus. Their mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers, tried to bring to life this wish… then, it just couldn’t be, because both children and adults understood that it takes more than just dreams to create an important magician! Should they link him with the land, with living tales born on this particular patch of earth? He should help children and adults fight evil and greyness… it wasn’t immediately clear how to do this… then, the kids began to look for helpers in the ages-old folktales of the native people of Yamal.

Lemming, White Ermine, and Ptarmigan responded to the little ones. At first, Lemming and Ptarmigan didn’t understand what the kids wanted. Very few children knew what their land was like in ancient times. They told the kids that they were ready to help, but they didn’t know what to do. Then, White Ermine remembered a story his grandmother told him about a guardian spirit who languished in captivity in an ice cave guarded by the witch Parneko. The friends decided to find the way to the underground dungeon to release the guardian spirit from his vicious captivity, so that he could become our good winter wizard and create miracles for the children on the Yamal Peninsula. He would become our keeper of our tales and our Christmas traditions.

The three young heroes turned to the guardian spirits of Yamal-Nentsia, they asked them to release the unnamed guardian spirit. They told them about the dreams of our children, ones that sought the appearance of the magician. Then, the guardian spirits called upon the Masters of the Yamal Land, they performed magic rituals, and they sprayed the ground with living water… the earth sighed deeply, it trembled, and it shed joyful tears, for it had long awaited this time. The good guardian spirit, once forgotten in the cold captivity of the witch Parneko, appeared before them. It became clear to everyone that this guardian spirit, Yamal Iri, was the keeper of the Christmas tales, the brother of the good spirits, and an advocate for all of us. Everyone was delighted to see him… our three little friends, the kids, and the other good guardian spirits! All the bright and good forces on earth greeted him! Now, Yamal Iri lives in Yamal-Nentsia, he does good deeds, he keeps the tales, and he helps our kids have fun over the New Year’s holidays, he makes us all merry and happy. He began his work with great joy and energy. Because he spent a long time waiting for release, when the spirits released him, he couldn’t wait to help people to heal the land! Yamal Iri doesn’t stop saying that if his release was so that he could help our kids, to please them, and to make their lives more beautiful, he’d gladly perform such a duty, he considers it his debt to everyone!



Guardian Spirits:

The main purpose of the guardian spirits, as is evident from their name, is to guard people’s welfare, to protect them from fear, and, in general, to promote tranquillity in every possible way. Nentsi explained misfortune by saying that a person’s guardian spirit turned away, and they saw good fortune as a sign that the spirit was dutifully carrying out its tasks. Messages from the guardian spirits are sometimes in the form of foresight or clairvoyance.


He held the second place in the Nenets pantheon after Numa, but, he lost his place as a heavenly deity. “Numa became angry at him and kicked him out of heaven”. His abode is the underground kingdom, his vocation is to entice and bribe mankind, and he sends illness and death to people and reindeer. Many evil spirits are in his host and they surround people on every side. No human force can protect you from them at any time.

Nenai Khuus:

A monster and ogre. The folk hero Terlei killed him with the assistance of another giant.


A witch in Nenets mythology. Parne was an ugly and hairy creature with claws, created by Nga. As Parne is a character in the book, A Child’s Demonology (Детскую Демонологию), she’s a familiar figure. Parne is the messenger of the dark worlds… the dungeon, the forest thicket, and the underwater realm. As she’s a spirit of the lower world, drawings show Parne living in a dirt hole under a rotten stump or underground in the land of the King of Death, Nga. (А. V. Golovnev, The Nomad’s Tundra: The Nenets and their Folklore (Кочевники Тундры: Ненцы и их Фольклор), Yekaterinburg, 2004)


A powerful figure, he is also an ancestor, folk-hero, and demiurge. After he created, he moved away from his work. Terlei was the eldest of nine brothers; he later became a deity, Khanty.


He’s one of the seven sons of Numa and Ya’Minya. He’s the spirit of the upper reaches of the two great rivers of Siberia, the Ob and Yenisei, or, in other versions, he’s the deity of both rivers in their entirety.

Official Website of Yamal Iri


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