Finding spirits in high places

July 18, 1997

IN THE west, mountains are for climbing or admiring, but for the people of the remote Russian republic of Buryat, just north of Mongolia, they are for worshipping. Caroline Humphrey, a reader in Asian anthropology at Cambridge University, spent time last summer in Tashir, a village in one of the region's many valleys studying attitudes to mountains.

She learned that the people there worshipped eight or nine of the surrounding mountains, which they had designated either "male" or "female".

The people's native religion reflected the importance given to nature, Dr Humphrey said, as their survival depended on the rain falling at the right time and the grass growing. "The association, I guess, is that the strength of nature is personified in the mountains," she said.

Some villagers worshipped a god or spirits that "lived" within the mountains, while others said it was the mountains themselves to which they paid their respects.

According to Dr Humphrey, the reverence attached to the mountains was also reflected by a taboo on saying their names. She said that this was a form of respect, and that the villagers feared something bad would happen if they used the names. Similarly, the names of respected kinsmen are not spoken in this culture.

Four to five times a year the villagers pay their respects by sacrificing sheep or horses and offering the animals' spirits to the mountains. The meat is then eaten and washed down with plenty of vodka.

Dr Humphrey said the break-up of the Soviet Union had reduced the quality of life for the people of Buryat: "They thought they were going somewhere in the Soviet Union, but now they know they are going backwards."

Although literacy levels were reasonable and the people were not starving, the death rate now exceeds the number of births and medical services for the region are very limited.

The villagers' religious beliefs could die out, Dr Humphrey said, but the poor telecommunications and the region's severe economic depression meant that this might not happen for a long time.

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