Trees in Udmurt Religion

Article excerpt


This paper provides a description of the worship of trees in the religious tradition of the Udmurt--one of the ancient agrarian peoples of Eastern Europe. The tradition is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, the Udmurt have a particular system of ritual practice, which focuses on holy places and ceremonies, in contrast to the shamanism of their Siberian neighbours beyond the Urals. Secondly, traditional traits have survived embedded within, and in spite of, Christianisation in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries and Soviet repressions and atheistic education in the 1930-1970s. Thirdly, recent work in the Udmurt region offers a good example of how archaeological data can be linked to ethnographic records and written sources.

The Udmurt are Finno-Ugrian people living in the eastern part of European Russia north of the confluence of the Volga and the Kama, in the neighbourhood of the modern city of Izhevsk (The majority of Udmurts live in the Udmurt Republic or Udmurtia. Izhevsk is the capital of Udmurtia.) (Figure 1). A 2002 census put their population at 640 000. Nowadays forests and woods occupy more than 50-70 per cent of the area within their northern districts. But in the south of the region woodland now covers less than 10 per cent of the area, since much has been cleared for agriculture. The surviving woodland mostly consists of fir (spruce), silver fir (abies), birch, pine, lime (linden) and ash. Oak trees, maples and elms grow in the southern parts of the region (Anon 1997a; Batyev & Stupishin (ed.) 1972: 31-42; Solov'ev (ed.) 1972: 37-64, 88-121, 145-201; Solov'ev (ed.) 1997: 49-57, 112-36, 175). The character of the natural environment has determined the important role of trees not only in the economy but also in the religious views and practice of the population living there.


The area seems to have been settled between the sixth and thirteenth centuries AD by Finno-Ugrian tribes who then formed the modern Udmurts, Besermians, Mari and Komi. Udmurts, like other Finno-Ugrian peoples in the Volga-Kama region, were converted to Christianity relatively late, in the middle of the eighteenth century. The transition from paganism to Christianity occurred only slowly and gradually in the thoughts and practices of the people. Some of the southern Udmurt population avoided Christianisation altogether and have preserved their own beliefs. Accordingly, pre-Christian sacrificial sites and cemeteries were still in use in the eighteenth, nineteenth and even up to the end of the twentieth century. The situation gives us an opportunity to reconstruct the pre-Christian religious traditions of the local population which lived in the Kama-Viatka region in early historic, late historic and early modern times.

Ethnographic evidence

Ethnographic studies drawing on direct observations and records provide an insight into the beliefs and rituals practised among the Udmurt people during the seventeenth to twentieth centuries (Pervuhkin 1888-1890; Holmberg 1914; Vladykin 1994, 2004; Shutova 2001). These leave no doubt of the importance of trees. People hung or put offerings on branches and tied them to the trunks of sacred trees. They threw out coins and pieces of food near the tree on the earth or placed them in a pit near the roots of the tree. A fir (spruce) called Kart shukkan kyz (Udm.), 'a fir for hammering irons in', grew among other trees at the shrine of Lek Oshmes (Udm.). From the eighteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries the Vortcha clan conducted both collective and individual worship in this place. According to local sources, members of the community sacrificed bull-calves and other animals to a local god, in pursuit of health, happiness and prosperous agriculture. Old men hammered knives, small pieces of different iron implements into the trunk of the tree; they believed this could help to heal their relatives of diseases. …