Monthly Archives: October 2007

Ob-Ugric 8: Bears (cont.)

The Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ (‘Song of the Creature of the Village of Munkes’), collected by Munkácsi in 1889, recounts the foraging activities, capture and death of a bear, followed by a bear feast. The narrator is the bear, who frequently refers to himself in the third person, Vojle-ōnle, ‘animal-majestic’. During summer, he gathers pine cones and berries in the forest, eating as he goes, to make fat for his back and belly so he can sleep through the winter. Noting that his Heavenly Father has descended (in other words, autumn has arrived), he finds a large mound of earth at the banks of the noble river, where he decides he will hibernate. He scoops out the earth with both paws (see below), lines the earthen house with moss, and enters, where he rests his plaited and beautiful head. His sleep is disturbed by men with dogs. The men hold axes and ice-breaking poles, and make an arrowslit in the roof of his lair. When the bear pokes his head out, his head is ‘run through’, he is bound with rope and dragged out. His five buttons are undone (he is skinned), the fat of his back and belly is placed on a sledge and taken to the village, where the hunting party is greeted by men and women whooping and throwing snow. The bear is placed on a dais inside the house, and sits in his splendid nest while fish is brought to eat. The men disguise themselves and performs songs and plays for five nights, then a blood sacrifice of reindeer is placed before the bear. His head and paws are cut off, cooked in a pot and shared out; the bear then gets up and, in the form of a mole, slips away with the blood sacrifice. He looks up (prays) to his Heavenly Father, who lets down the iron ladder from heaven, which the bear ascends with his blood sacrifice. He attaches the blood sacrifices to the iron pillar, enters the gold roofbeamed house where his Heavenly Father sits, and asks “whither will you direct me?” Numi-Torem replies he should hurry to the berry-laden, cone-laden grove, whereupon the bear, in his joy, jumps forward with a three-jump jump and a four-swing bound.

Archaica, Russians, animals in folklore

Bear narrators frequently recount their deaths by knife, lance or bow and arrow, while heroic songs feature warriors in armour using swords, despite the fact that automatic weapons had already been commonplace in the region for centuries. It seems that rifles have some taboo attached to them, described perhaps as a firing ‘noisy, loud-noised thing’, but in any case the animal’s death will be quickly passed over, and only referred to in an exceedingly circumlocutory way.

I say that the animal’s death is glossed over using ornate language because the bear describes ‘losing consciousness’ or falling into a deep sleep, and goes on to narrate the ensuing bear feast and performances, the ‘hand-turning, leg-turning’ plays. A bear feast for a male bear lasts five days, corresponding to the number of buttons the animals is said to have, four for a female bear, and three for a bear cub. The technology (tools) with which the bear was killed is sometimes blamed on the Russians, who provided tips for the spears and suchlike, but at any rate, the hunters go to great lengths to absolve themselves of guilt, for killing a bear is not something taken lightly. The supernatural abilities of the bear include an imputed ability to conceal its scent from men and dogs; performers of the plays often disguise their faces, bodies and voices so that the dead bear being entertained will not recognise them. Taboo words are discussed further in Marianne Bakró-Nagy, Die Sprache des Bärenkultes im Obugrischen, Budapest, Akadémiai, 1979.

Furred animals provided a form of currency, as well as a unit of measurement. G. F. Cushing’s article on the bear in Ob-Ugrian folklore cites a poem in which squirrel furs represent kopecks: the cunning Vogul offers to repay the Russian his 100-squirrel-fur debt with ‘hidden treasure’, a buried corpse. As they dig, the corpse moves and the Russian collapses in terror. The narrator declares to the corpse, ‘whether you come to life or not, it’s all the same to me’. (See G. F. Cushing, ‘The Bear in Ob-Ugrian Folklore’, Folklore, 88, 1977, 2, pp. 146-59.)

In the Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ the bear, while preparing his hibernation place, fills five pine marten skins with soil with his right paw, and then six with his left (here, in Munkácsi’s transcription):

jḁmes-pāl ḁlnė kātläp-pālėm


at ńoɣs ḁsmäń ɣuri’

kwon ti patilāli;

vorti-pāl ḁlnė kātläp-pālėm


ɣḁt ḁsmäń ɣuri’

kwon ti patilāli.

Gyula Illyés translates this as:

Jobb felőli fél kezecském


öt nyusztbőrből varrt cihába

férő föld omol ki,

bal oldali fél kezecském


hat nyusztbőrből varrt cihába

férő föld bomol ki.

Illyés, ‘Medveének’, in Péter Domokos (ed.), Medveének. A keleti finnugor népek irodalmának kistükre, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 39-46 (41).

One of the tasks of the translator is to render the repetition and parallelism (R&P) of the original. To the Western reader, R&P may seem cumbersome: no new information is given, but synonyms are employed to vary the repetition (see above, lines 1 & 5, and 2 & 6). It is crucial that the reader recognise the forms and role of R&P, not least because repetition aids reading. Illyés makes full use of his skills as a poet, and exploits the resources of Hungarian, balancing the literal with the creative. He recreates participial phrases (which participate in both noun and verb systems) immediately recognisable to the reader, thus kinsəlėnėm xaltə, during the course of my search, lit. ‘in my seeking’, becomes keresgéltemben, while ūnlėnėm xaltə, while sitting, ‘in my sitting’, is rendered ültömben.

Last, but not least, the raw materials for comparative Finno-Ugric morphology are contained within the poem: āmp/eb (dog); at/öt (five); ɣḁt/hat (six); xōs/húgy (star, here taboo for the bear’s eyes); xåsä/hosszú (long); ūləm/álom (dream); jåməs/jó (good); ńēlm/nyelv (tongue); lowint/(meg)olvas (to read), an instance of metathesis where, here, consonant and vowel exchange places. The past marker here is -m- (Cf. HU -t-). Such correspondences are central to the comparative method in historical linguistics, evidence-based internal reconstruction of language(s).

Ob-Ugric 7: Mansi (Sygva) numbers, bears and bear poems

In the last class, we took a look at the noun system in the northern Sygva dialect of Mansi, and started reading a bear poem.

The order of noun suffixes works as follows: plural + possession + case. As I’ve already mentioned, Sygva Mansi is elaborate in marking number: it has separate sets of endings for dual, and for three or more subjects and objects. Case endings may be instrumental (e.g. I hit him with an axe) or comitative (e.g. I hit him together with my friend, i.e. my friend and I hit him); ablative; locative; lative; or translative (without plural or possessive endings). Where two full vowels (but NOT ə) appear next to each other, a -j- is inserted between them.

For instance, where sāli is reindeer, sālijanəl (sāli-j-anəl: reindeer-1-their (3 or more possessors)) means 1 reindeer belonging to 3 or more people; while sālijaɣamēn (sāli-j-aɣ-amēn: reindeer-2-our (2 possessors)) means 2 reindeer owned by two people.

Or, where kol is house:

kol-əm-t in my house

kol-aɣ-ən-t in your (1 possessor) two houses

kol-an-ə-t in their (3-or-more possessors) houses

kol-ət-t in 3-or-more houses

Further examples can be found in Béla Kálmán, Wogulische Texte mit einem Glossar, Budapest, Akadémiai, 1976.

Now onto bears.

The bear song, Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ (‘Song of the Creature of the Village of Munkes’, HU: ‘Múnkeszfalvi állat-ének’), was collected by Munkácsi on 8 March 1889 in Berjozovo, and was first printed in his Vogul Népköltési Gyűjtemény, III/2, pp. 260-5. This song was translated by Gyula Illyés (1902-83) as ‘Medveének’, a masterful translation that exploits those elements of rhythm, syntax and word formation shared by Hungarian and Vogul. Illyés created a verbal art form that is unmistakably modern Hungarian, but which transcends the strictures of that language’s verse conventions to have the reader hear an echo of the Mansi language and pre-modern oral culture, transforming the basic structure of Uralic folk poetry, that of repetition and parallelism, into an exceptionally skillful translation. His translation is available in: Péter Domokos (ed.), Medveének. A keleti finnugor népek irodalmának kistükre, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 39-46; and Béla Kálmán (ed.), Leszállt a medve az égből. Vogul népköltészet, Budapest, Európa, 1980, pp. 224-31.

Before a discussion of the poem and its translation, some notes on bear mythology.

In Ob-Ugric mythology, the bear is the most sacred and the most feared creature. Tales of the bear’s origin are perhaps reminiscent of the fall of Adam: the bear’s father is Numi-Torem, Mansi God of the heavens. She (for it is usually a she) disobeys the Heavenly Father’s commands to stay in his house of gold and silver, and descends to Earth, where her life becomes full of difficulty. She must gather enough berries and sustenance to last the winter hibernation.

[The bear] is the guardian of justice and takes note of the most solemn oaths. It appears as a higher power who may take revenge for broken promises and as such plays a central role in the thought-world of the Ob-Ugrians.

G. F. Cushing, ‘The Bear in Ob-Ugrian Folklore’, Folklore, 88, 1977, 2, pp. 146-59 (p. 147)

Taboo words are used to refer to the bear: a male is the one with five buttons, a female bear has four, while a bearcub has three buttons. Bears may also be referred to as ‘the old one of the forest’, ‘the little idol’, ‘the holy beast’ and ‘the strong beast’. Its eyes are ‘stars’ (xōs) or ‘currants’, while its front paws are ‘hands’ (kāt), its back paws ‘boots’, and it skin a ‘cloak’. When a bear is killed and skinned, the skinning process is referred to as āŋxwəlawət: ‘undressing’, removal of the cloak (HU: kibont, levetkőztet). Words for the bear’s stomach include xurəɣ (sack), såut (birch-bark basket, a word of Tatar origin), and pajp (birch-bark butt, HU: puttony), while its back is pūtjiw, the two struts from which a cooking pot is suspended over the fire. The name for the sledge on which the bear’s corpse is transported, ťāťä, also comes from Tatar. It is not so important where the word for an object comes from, then, what is important is that we should not say what it is.

Continue reading