Thursday, March 24, 2016

Life Among 'The Reindeer People'

All Things Considered, NPR Radio Broadcast

Author Piers Vitebsky tells Debbie Elliott about The Reindeer People, his book about the Eveny herders of Siberia.

"These elders told Tolya that reindeer were created by the sky god Hovki, not only to provide food and transport on earth, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun. From their childhood seventy, eighty, or more years before, they remembered a ritual that was carried out each year on Midsummer's Day, symbolizing the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer. During the white night of the Arctic summer, a rope was stretched between two larch trees to represent a gateway to the sky. As the sun rose high above the horizon in the early dawn, this gateway was filled with the purifying smoke of the aromatic mountain rhododendron, which drifted over the area from two separate bonfires. Each person passed around the first fire anticlockwise, against the direction of the sun, to symbolize the death of the old year and to burn away its illnesses. They then moved around the second fire in a clockwise direction, following the sun's own motion, to symbolize the birth of the new year.

"It was at this moment, while elders prayed to the sun for success in hunting, an increase in reindeer, strong sons and beautiful daughters, that each person was said to be borne aloft on the back of a reindeer which carried its human passenger towards a land of happiness and plenty near the sun. There they received a blessing, salvation, and renewal. At the highest point, the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a bird of extreme sacredness.

"I still do not understand how the old Eveny acted out the experience of flying through the air, but they would mime their return to earth by sitting on their own reindeer as if they were arriving from a long journey, expressing tiredness, unsaddling their mount, pitching a tent and lighting a fire. This rite was followed by a hedje, a circle dance in the direction of the sun, and a feast of plenty."

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