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Spirits' figurations or props
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These are essentially a type of ritual object associated with a non-material being or spirit commonly called ongon, following its Mongol name popularized by D. Zeleninís book, Kulít ongonov v Sibiri, published in 1936 and translated into French in 1952 under the title Le Culte des idoles en SibÈrie (Paris, Payot). The term ongon was used by Claude LÈvi-Strauss in Totemism. It is derived from a root that means both to act as a recipient (ongoc: boat, airplane) and to harbor a non-material being (ongolokh: to consecrate). These figures come in at least two varieties among most Siberian peoples: zoomorphic and anthropomorphic. The materials vary: wood, fur, felt, clothÖ; they are realized as carvings or dolls; but the pelt of a civet cat can in itself be an ongon. Manufacture of the physical object must be accompanied by a ritual operation that consists either of ìanimatingî it, in particular if it is a zoomorphic object, or ìinfusingî it with a non-material entity, notably if it is an anthropomorphic object. The Yakut, for instance, choose the wood of a tree struck by lightning to make their emeget so as to avoid any risk that ìthere might already be a spirit insideî; only wood from a blasted tree is ìfreeî to host a spirit without bringing threat of conflict.
These objects share a number of traits throughout the Siberian forest. They are generally individual figurations, or more seldom figurations of a group of two or three individuals. They are kept in the dwelling, for they must imperatively be ìfedî; some have a mouth or another opening for receiving bits of meat; others are anointed with fat or blood. If they are not ìfedî sufficiently, the ìhuntingî ongon (often zoomorphic objects) will make the game disappear or make people sick. Many of the anthropomorphic ongon are designed to house the souls of those who have died prematurely and tragically so that they can be ìfedî and, thus sated, will not harass the living in revenge for their unhappy fate. It is also possible to console the deceased by decking out the doll that represents it in jewelry or dressing it in new clothes. The important thing, for Siberian peoples, is to keep the soul of the deceased physically pinned down, as it were, by means of food and rewards, so that it will not wander. There is a clear parallel with the conception of the relationship between the soul and the body in the living: this relationship is extremely tenuous in the newborn child, whose soul must be ìpinned downî; the soul is supposed to leave the body when the person dreams or is sick; eating and talking are believed to be the manifestation of the spiritís presence in the body.
Both zoomorphic and anthropomorphic objects can also be struck, scolded, or even discarded and replaced by new ones whenever it is felt that, even though they have been well ìfedî, they have not protected humans from want or misfortune.
This type of ritual behavior illustrates the function these objects ensure in materializing symbolic relations from which humans may derive benefit.
In some forest societies, small wild animals are captured when young and kept around the dwelling to be ìfedî until they grow up; they are then set free and replaced by young of the same species (the eagle, for example). They have a role similar to that of the zoomorphic ongon: hunting and fishing would be unsuccessful and sickness would reign if they were not ìfedî.
Among the Tungus of the Amur River bassin, the generic name for the spirit props is seven; anthropomorphic props are more numerous than zoomorphic ones. The most important figuration for Evenk is the provider of game, bajanaj, barylakh (these terms are borrowings from Yakut). It is usually an anthropomorphic figure dressed in fur like a hunter. It is kept in a small skin sleeping bag. Its mouth is regularly anointed with fat and it is made to dance in front of the stove door. It must have a large nose and penis, and a long gun to be regarded as being powerful.

Author(s): R. Hamayon
Date created: 2004-03-02 - Date modified: 2004-04-16

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3D Object(s):

Man-shaped <i>ongon</i>

Sturgeon <i>ongon</i>

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