Komi Zyrians Traditional Culture

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Digest of Komi Traditional Mythological Heroes

What is the Komi fairy lore like in terms of form and subect matter?

What are its genre features? Genre boundaries between legends and ballads are not so distinct as between songs and laments, between riddles and incantations. It is no accident that in a number of languages several terms are used for what is roughly the same thing, e.g., legends, ballads, sagas and traditions in English, die Legende and die Sage in German, mojd and višt in Komi.

It is clear under Russian colonization we almost have no information about the number of epic heroes who fought the occupation. Unlike songs, laments and fairy–tales, Komi legends and traditions are rather few in number. Most of them centre round such epic personages as Yirkap, Yag Mort, Kӧrt Ajka, Yurka, Shipicha, Pera the Giant, Kirjan–Varjan and Pedӧr Kirӧn. Verse and prose stories of the Vym region about the younger son the avenger, for instance "Shomvukva", and the epic of the Izhma–Kolvin region about the heroic wedding of the giant named "Master of the Kercha River", stand somewhat apart. See also epic poem "Bjarmaland" written by Kallistrat Zhakov in 1916, epic legend "12 sons".

The Yirkap Theme

Recorded by professor A.H.Gren and the Komi writer G.A.Fedorov, it is best known in the village of Koni, the Vym basin. A.H.Gren brings out the following key motives of the plot:a) Near Lake Sindor there lives a hunter, Yirkap by name, he is on friendly terms with the wood–sprite Vӧrsa and helps him to fight against the water–sprite Vasa; b) In return, Vӧrsa gives him a magic tree which contains the hunter's soul; c) The speedy skis made out of the tree–trunk help Yirkap to become the best among hunters — neither bird nor beast can now compete with him; d) But Yirkap will lose his magic power if he drinks the water in which his footcloths have been rinsed. Yirkap's unfaithful wife coaxes him into revealing his secret, and at her lover's bidding gives her husband such water; e) Devoid of his strength, Yirkap drowns in Lake Sindor together with his skis.

The text recorded by Fedorov in 1946 in the village of Sindor as told by V.A.Parkhachyova differs from Gren's variant in two essential points. Firstly, instead of Vӧrsa the Wood–sprite, a witch appears who advises the owner of the magic skis to pursue the Blue Deer. In the morning the mother bakes a barley pie for her son and he hides it in his bosom before setting in pursuit of the animal. He overtakes it by the Siberian Stone (the Urals), kills it and brings its heart to the witch. Everything happens so quickly that the pie in his bosom is still warm.


"Yirkap and the Blue Deer", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

Secondly, it is not the wife but the mother who betrays Yirkap:at the bidding of Yirkap's stepfather, who is envious of her son's luck, she gives Yirkap some brew in which she has rinsed his f ootcloths. The brew makes him so heavy that he falls through the ice of Lake Sindor together with his skis. He begins to shorten them underwater and, all of a sudden, they say to him in a human voice: "Oh, Yirkap, what have you done! You've ruined yourself, and us too. Had you not shortened us, we might have been able to carry you ashore."  The dying Yirkap throws his wonderful skis to the shore with such a force that they break a mighty pine–tree. The huge treestump that stands on the shore of Lake Sindor to this day bears Yirkap's name.

The Yag Mort Theme

A Yag Mort legend was first published in the middle of the last century in Vologda and reprinted in the edition "Pantheon and the Repertoire of the Russian Stage".  Close versions have been recorded by F.Arsenyev, K.Popov and Mihael Lebedev. The legend spreads in the Izhma and the Pechora basins. In the last two decades, in connection with the problem of the relict humanoid, the legend of Yag Mort, as well as other stories about anthropoidal creatures have become the subject of close scrutiny not only on the part of folklore students, composers and artists, but also anthropologists, historians and geologists.

"Yag Mort is driving the cows", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

V.Pushkarev, a geologist by trade, managed to record (in 1950s–60s) about fifty versions of the legend in the basins of the Pechora and the Izhma. The basic elements of the plot are: a) On the bank of the Kucha River that flows into the Izhma there lives Yag Mort, a terrible woodsman wearing horrifying bearskins. He is cruel and merciless and has an ugly face; b) The monster's evil tricks. At the dead of night he sets fire to the woods and does onto the panic–stricken people whatever his evil fancy prompts him: he takes away other people's wives and children, drives away as much cattle as he chooses to and slaughters the rest on the spot. This blondthirsty monster is also endowed with supernatural power, which he uses to inflict upon the people all kinds of misfortune: loss of cattle, droughts and fires in summer, and blizzards in winter, c) Yag Mort kidnaps the beautiful Rajda, the daughter of the village elder and the bride of Tugan the Brave, d) Tugan the Brave gathers all his friends armed with arrows, spears and pitchforks, and sets off to battle with Yag Mort. They vow to find his den and take the monster dead or alive, e) The battle. The warriors lie in ambush on the bank of the Izhma, near the path made in the thick woods by the horrible woodsman. They see Yag Mort fording the Izhma right opposite their hiding place. A shower of spears, arrows and stones pours down on Yag Mort as he steps on the dry land. The monster is taken aback; he stands eyeing his enemies with his blood–chilling gaze, then throws himself into the battle with a deafening roar, brandishing his mace about. As the fight goes on, Yag Mort kills and maims many a warrior, but begins to tire as the arrows, spears and stones hit him from all sides. So he falls on the ground bereft of strength and begging forgiveness; f) The punishment. The warriors tell him to show them his den and Yag Mort takes them to the high bank of the Kucha in the thick woods, to his large cave. Near the cave, in a heap of rubbish and bones the warriors see a half–rotten corpse, the remains of the beautiful Rajda. The warriors collect Yag Morts's booty lying in the cave in a heap and set fire to it. Then they fill up the cave with stones, and take the vile sourcerer to the place where the battle was fought. They cut his head off, drive an aspen stake into his back that he may not rise again, and bury him deep.

The Story of Yurka

is known as retold by the poet Mihael Lebedev and also as recorded by the writer and folklorist P.Doronin; area of distribution — the village of Madzha, the Kortkeross region. The key situations of the plot are as follows:

a) Yurka's peaceful life before his illness on Madzha Hill on the bank of the Vychegda: "When Yurka needs firewood for his stove, he takes his huge axe, cuts down a huge dead pine tree, puts it on his shoulder and carries it home. If Yurka goes fishing, he cuts down a pole of over 15 metres long for a fishing rod. Yurka is a bachelor since no bride can be found to match him either in Madzha, or in the whole of the Upper Ezhva. So his life goes on in toil, and never does he abuse his strength..."

b) Yurka's illness and degradation. He is so sick that he cannot procure his food, but his neighbours do not take the trouble of helping him out of his plight. He has to steal other people's cattle so as not to die of hunger: "Yurka had neither bread, nor any other supplies left by that time. So he got up from his bed and went, slowly dragging his weak body along, until he reached his neighbour's cattle–yard, pinched a sheep from the flock and brought it home."

"Yurka stealed a cow", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

c) Yurka takes a liking to such an easy way of getting his bread; at first he steals small animals, but then goes on to big ones;

d) The indignant neighbours decide to get rid of Yurka, to overpower him, if not by force, then by cunning and deceit. So they ask an old man, Yurka's godfather, to invite Yurka over to his place and treat him to liquor until he is dead drunk, then tie him hand and foot and call the neighbours in. The old man would not give his consent at first, for he knows that in case anything doesn't work out right, Yurka can squash him like a fly.

e) Yurka's demise. "The neighbours fetched some more ropes and tied Yurka up again. They decided to drown him in Lake Madzha. So they dragged two millstones to the bank of the lake, brought Yurka there too and took him in a boat to the middle of the lake. Then they fastened the millstones to his feet, overturned the boat and themselves swam to get away with their lives. The waters of the lake rose in waves as they devoured Yurka the Giant."  The cold water sobers Yurka, and he easily tears all the ropes binding him and starts for the shore. As far as the end of the story is concerned, there are two versions of it. According to one version Yurka, charmed by the beauty of Vasa the Water–sprite's daughter, stays in the underwater world. The other version has it that on seeing that his godfather is at one with the neighbours, Yurka puts up with his fate. "Were it not for my godfather you'd never see me die!"

f) A ritual feast after Yurka's death. To forestall revenge from the murdered giant the Madzha people bring a handful of flour from each household, build a large sacrificial fire and make a ritual porridge in a large sacred cauldron, then they eat it together, chanting their incantation: "Don't bear a grudge against us, mighty Yurka, and we won't bear a grudge against you either!"

See also: Poem Yurka by Mihael Lebedev (1926).

The Kӧrt Ajka Theme

The first Kӧrt Ajka legend was published by E.Kichin in the middle of the nineteenth century; literary adaptation by Mihael Lebedev; area of distribution — the village of Kortkeross (the Middle Vychegda). The key situations in the plot are: a) Kӧrt Ajka is endowed with superhuman strength and an evil magical power. "He made himself clothes of iron, put on an iron cap and stretched an iron chain, which he had forged himself, across the Ezhva.

"Paying the fare to Kӧrt Ajka", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

Everything he had — his hut, his boat, his bow and arrows — was made of iron".  Like Yurka and Yag Mort, he lives by robbery and violence: "So he began to pillage and plunder, anyone going in a boat fell into his hands, for there was no escaping his huge iron chain that ran from shore to shore. Some travelers he would pluck clean, others let go untouched, still others he would drown in the water. He knew not what mercy meant."

Now about his supernatural power: "The sun and the moon would grow dark at his bidding, day would turn into night and night into day, and the river would change its course; one word from him, and the hot wind would scorch the earth dry, or a heavy rain would come down in sheets and cause a flood that would wash all the huts down into the Ezhva. Kӧrt Ajka never got his just deserts for all the suffering and misfortunes he had brought onto his people because nobody dared to cross swords with him"; b) A contest between two giants and sorcerers in strength, invulnerability and magic powers. Kӧrt Ajka has once been friends with Pama, the sorcerer from Knyazhpogost. So he lowers his iron chain to the bottom of the Ezhva, letting his old friend pass. But the jealous Pama feels sore at seeing how Kӧrt Ajka boils his brew, pouring it into iron tubs, then into huge iron cups, and then into his belly. So Pama casts a spell over Kӧrt Ajka's brew, and it stops boiling and pouring into the tubs. In return Kӧrt Ajka punishes Pama by stopping his boat in the middle of the river: "If it's 'stop' unto the brew, it's 'stop' unto the boat too."  The contest ends peacefully, the brew flows again, and Pama goes down the Ezhva in his boat.

See also: Poem Kӧrt Ajka by Mihael Lebedev (1928).

The Shipicha Theme

is known from folklore materials belonging to F.Arsenyev, Mihael Lebedev, Kallistrat Zhakov and V.Nalimov. In 1926 the legend was registered by S.Popov in the village of Sloboda; it is widespread in Syktyvkar and the neighbouring villages of Tentukovo, Nizhni Tchov, Sloboda.

The main elements of the plot are: a) Shipicha, the former ringleader and sorcerer has been a widower for three years, guarding the treasures once pillaged by his accomplices and buried in a remote place, b) Shipicha breaks his vow of widowerhood, and goes to Yoma the Witch, his neighbour, who serves both Yen the God and Omol' the Devil. He enjoys the pleasures of conjugal bliss for three days and nights; c) As a result Shipicha loses his supernatural powers. He wants to make a sacrifice to Gods to restore his magic strength. But at this moment he is attacked by robbers.

"Shipicha over the Sysola River", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

The first incantation Shipicha whispers over the water causes it to rise up to the enemies' knees, after the second incantation the water reaches up to their chests, and after the third it comes up to their necks. Only the chief of the gang and his two accomplices manage to get at Shipicha. They hit him with their axes and, with each blow, the water slowly abates and flows back into the Sysola. The enemies cut Shipicha into pieces but cannot kill him until he himself, exhausted by the fight, tells them to cut his magic belt where his death is hidden into pieces. The

Theme of Pera the Giant

is one of the most developed and well preserved legends in the epos of both, Komi–Zyryans and in Komi–Permyaks. The area of distribution — the Ust–Kulom region of the Komi Republic and the Komi–Permyak Region.

The original story of Pera the Giant was recorded in 1771 by the Russian scholar and writer I.Lepekhin, a close associate of Mikhail Lomonosov. There exist a great number of the legend's variants, the basic elements of the plot being:

a) Pera's feat of arms as the central episode. It is preceded by scenes of peaceful labour. Pera ploughs the land and goes hunting. Though hot–tempered, he is of a kindly disposition; he cannot stand injustice and jibs and never leaves insult unavenged. Pera's brother is doing military service for the Tsar in Muscovy. All of a sudden Muscovy is invaded by foreigners, possessing an invincible, monstrous wheel. At the Tsar's call the Komi hero arrives to fight the monster and defeats it. The Russian Tsar wants to reward Pera with gold and silver but he takes only a license to forest lands and silk nets; b) Pera's strife with the wood–sprite Vӧrsa; Vӧrsa denies Pera's right to the lands, indicated in the license and decides to kill him in his sleep. After Vӧrsa loses a tug–of–war, he asks Pera whether he sleeps soundly. "I sleep like a log," Pera replies guessing Vӧrsa's purpose. At night Pera puts a birch log in his place, covering it with his felt cloak. The wood–sprite takes the log for Pera and strikes it with a spear.

"Pera at work", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

That very instance, Pera, hiding in a tree with a bow and arrow mortally wounds him and finishes him off on the threshold of Vӧrsa's own dwelling and takes Vӧrsa's widow for a wife. When Pera finds out about her plotting witchcraft against him, he kills her too. c) Pera's strife with Count Stroganov and his retinue. Pera has to defend his rights won in the fight with the foreign monster and the battle with Vӧrsa from the vicious count and his wicked servants."  They want to annex the lands belonging to Pera and his people and turn the Komi into serfs. They surround the territory belonging to Pera and his people with an iron chain, but Pera tears the chain apart, thus releasing the Komi from bondage. According to most versions, the courageous warrior, who defeats the monster–wheel and Vӧrsa the Wood–sprite, has to live in hiding in order not to fall into the hands of the count and his toadies.

The Theme of Kirjan–Varjan the Giant

was first recorded in 1964 in the village of Iby in the Ust–Vym region and is unknown in other Komi regions. The legend is similar to the above–mentioned epos about Pera the Giant in its content and image structure. The component parts of the plot are: a) Prophetic birds, the magpie and the raven, bring Tsar Levonik the alarming news that his state has been invaded by enemy hordes; b) On making sure that the words of the prophetic birds are true the Tsar sends his faithful servants to ask Kirjan–Varjan for help; c) The Tsar's servants come to Kirjan–Varjan the Giant to summon him to battle; d) Kirjan–Varjan, clad in a coat of mail and with a sabre of damask steel, sets off on his magic steed to fight the enemy;

"Combat", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

e) Kirjan–Varjan defeats the enemies: "He dashes on his steed in one direction and leaves nothing but dead bodies behind; he dashes on his steed in the other direction and there is nothing but the killed and the maimed behind."  f) The Tsar holds a feast in honour of the victor and offers him gold and silver, but the hero refuses to take the award.

Shomvukva, or the Story of the Younger Son Who Avenges the Death of His Father and His Brothers

Recorded in prose form in the 1950s by T.Zhilina, F.Plesovsky, and as a song by A.Mikushev in 1964. Its distribution is confined to the Vym basin and the villages of Iby and Onezhye. The basic situations in the plot:a) A man and his eleven sons prepare to go to the taiga to hunt sables and squirrels. They get a large boat ready, twelve iron axes, knives, spears, and a large cauldron; b) The hunters go down the Vym River and up the river Vezyr, until they reach their hunting grounds and begin to procure pelts and furs; c) The family divides into two groups, the first encounters a huge Vym bear that devours six brothers; the other group sets out to look for their lost brothers, but is attacked by a Vezyr bear, who swallows them all — the brothers and their father; in the prose version, however, they are killed by a giant forest bear and Glot, the terrible underwater monster;

"The encounter with Glot the underwater monster", Vasily Ignatov, album in 1985.

d) Meanwhile in the village their mother gives birth to the twelfth son who grows up with miraculous speed until he becomes a giant and sets off in search of his lost brothers and father. He reaches the hunting–ground and the place where they have found their death. Here the song and the legend begin to differ considerably. The song develops in the following way: having found the hunting–ground the younger brother starts hunting and procures a great many pelts.

When he comes to his family's hunting–cabin with his bag he finds that in his absence somebody has cooked food and drink for him. This turns out to be a beautiful maiden who becomes his wife. The next day the youth goes hunting again and encounters the large Vym bear. He kills it, rips its belly open, delivers his brothers and sprinkles them with living water. They all come to life and the youth takes them to the cabin; the next day when the youth is out shooting again, he meets the Vezyr bear, kills it, rips its belly open and sets his father and his other six brothers free. Then he sprinkles them with living water and takes them to the cabin. The father, his twelve sons and his daughter–in–law go home in their boat down the Vezyr and the Vym with a good bag.

The prose version: near the spot where his father and brothers perished, in the forest hut, the avenger meets a fair–haired girl who is the daughter of the two monster–denizens of woods and water that have devoured his family.

The young people get married, and live a rich and happy life. They bring into the world twelve sons, who are so amazingly handsome that their heels shine like the moon and their heads like the sun. However, the youth misses his mother who lives all by herself in the village. He asks his wife to let him go and see her. His wife warns him not to utter a boastful word while in the village. The husband breaks his promise by boasting, at a village feast, of his riches and his children. So his wife turns into a reindeer and the sons into twelve swans, and they all vanish over the sea. The hero sets off in search of his lost family and after many adventures he finds them on an island, in the middle of the sea.

The Wedding of the Kercha River Giant

Area of distribution — the north of the Komi Republic and the adjacent territories of the Arkhangelsk and Tyumen regions. A similar plot forms the basis of the ballad Master of the Kercha River. The plot:a) Near the River Kercha there live three brothers and a sister; the younger brother has been asleep for ten years. It is his sister who guards his herd of deer and sews him fur boots to wear when he wakes up; b) The awakened giant wants to find himself a bride; his brothers suggest that he marry a rich beautiful girl, their neighbour, but he disapproves of their choice and, together with Yevl'o Hupl'o the reindeer–breeder, goes to a distant land belonging to the Master of the Sea Cape; b) The two friends meet many a dangerous adventure on their way to the far–off land of the Master of the Sea Cape, such as meeting with people from the Bony Throat tribe, an encounter with an old woman who turns out to be Yevl'o HuplVs mother, and so on; c) The two friends reach the land of the Master of the Sea Cape; the Master, his younger son and his daughter, the bride, all treat them differently; d) The two friends have a trial of strength with the younger son of the Master of the Sea Cape: they jump over forty sledges, shoot arrows from a super–heavy bow, swing on a swing under which human bones lie in heaps, etc., and the two friends win in the end; e) A triumphant wedding of the Kercha River giant and the daughter of the Master of the Sea Cape; f) The two friends and the young wife return to the banks of the Kercha River; a grand feast is held in celebration of their return. Yevl'o Hupl'o turns into a wooden deity.

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It should be mentioned that the Komi traditions are by no means confined to the nine plots cited above. There are, for example, quite a few legends about Zuk, Tunnyryak and others. Besides, the recent years have seen the discovery, among the Northern (Izhma–Kolvin) Komi, of a great number of songs and stories in prose about heroic reindeer breeders. The above related nine epic plots, however, will give the reader an idea of the Komi lore as such, of its subject matter and imagery.

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