An anthropology of the cold: methodology, concepts and images (on materials from the cultural traditions of the indigenous peoples of the North and Arctic)
Ye.N. Romanova, O.E. Dobzhanskaya

Snow Queen, 1957

The article is based on materials from the cultural traditions of the peoples of the Arctic (the indigenous people of Northern Sakha and the Taimyr Peninsula). It discusses some new ideas for humanitarian issues related to the anthropology of the cold. The cold acts as a multidimensional existential category, concept, metaphor, and archetypal image, thanks to which the life worlds of human communities and individuals are formed. Interdisciplinary discourse enables us to consider the phenomenon of cold as a promising creative resource and symbolic capital for the development of permafrost territories, a formative model for the space of northern cities, and a basis for constructing a positive trajectory of northern identity. Keywords: Anthropology of the Cold; adaptive strategy; geocultural studies; indigenous peoples of the North and the Arctic.


This article is based on the scientific results of the work of the Laboratory of Integrated Geocultural Studies of the Arctic (the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Humanitarian Research, and the Arctic State Institute of Culture and Arts), headed by Dmitry Nikolayevich Zamyatin. The Laboratory of Integrated Geocultural Research of the Arctic, a project supported by the Russian Science Foundation in 2014-2016, presented for the first time an analysis of the mental map of this cold world.[1]

In modern science, permafrost is not only considered a natural phenomenon that largely determines the conditions, culture, and lifestyle in a cold region, but is also regarded as a metaphor for all the hyper-processes and hyper-phenomena that are decisive for human existence there. Cold acts as a multidimensional existential category, a concept, metaphor, and archetypal image, thanks to which in large part the life worlds of human communities and individuals are formed. The interdisciplinary paradigm of scientific problems allows us to investigate the phenomenon of the cold as a formative model for the space of northern cities, and to study new approaches to the construction of a positive trajectory of Northern identity, representing the cold as a creative resource and symbolic capital of the development of permafrost territories.
The scientists of the Laboratory have been developing the theme of the imagination of the North and the Arctic in the context of anthropological discourse, where images of the cold and permafrost are considered in the cognitive dimension. In the context of this discourse, it is of interest to compare two models of cold imagination based on the material of the northern Turkic peoples – the Sakha and the indigenous peoples of Taimyr, Eurasia’s northernmost peninsula (its territory almost entirely located beyond the Arctic Circle), where winter lasts nine months a year.


It is also important to note that there are five indigenous peoples of the North living in the Taimyr Dolgano-Nenets municipal district: the Dolgans, Nenets, Nganasans, Evenks, and Enets. The languages of the indigenous peoples of Taimyr represent several different language groups, indicating the differences in the origins and ethnic history of the peoples speaking them: the languages of the Nganasan, Enets and Nenets belong to the Samoyedic group of the Uralic language family, the Dolgan language belongs to the Turkic group, and the Evenk language belongs to the Tunguso-Manchurian group of the Altaic language family. Each people of Taimyr has its own distinct worldview system and cultural traditions.


Analysis of the spatial text of culture in the North has made it possible to identify conceptual metaphors of cold associated with the image of the calendar and social time.
The first metaphor is that of “People who sleep through the winter”. Legends about the “sleepy” people of the North are mentioned in the writings of Herodotus, and again in mediaeval literature, where the wonders of the North included peoples described as sleeping for the whole winter, only to wake up in the spring. They seemed to fall asleep wherever winter caught them, and water flowed from their noses, which froze in the form of an icicle that fastened the sleeper to the ground. If anyone touched such a frozen person and broke off their icicle, they would immediately wake up and die.[2] In the folklore tradition of the Yakuts, there are stories about people who died in winter, when icicles grew from their noses, and in spring, when the ice thawed, they came back to life.[3] Significantly, their life was correlated with the rhythms of Nature. Winter was perceived in the Yakut picture of the world as a time of symbolic death, a time of dreams. In the work of A.F. Middendorf, one can find a peculiar feature of Yakut life in winter, when the Yakuts would invite each other to visit for “ceremonial sleeping”, where the act of sleep performed adaptive and ritual functions.[4] Obviously, the image of the North encodes cold and darkness. The technology of the winter dark time among the Yakuts was the Olonkho epos. As such, on the coldest winter nights, they were invited to the storyteller’s house to listen to the legend about the victory of the hero of the solar world over the hero of the lower world of the abaasy, personifying the oppositions of warm/cold, light/dark, kindly/hostile. The victory of the hero Aiyy meant the beginning of the birth of a new bright Time, the arrival of spring. It is symbolic that there is no description of winter in the Yakut Olonkho – no, eternal summer reigns here. The epic space was a calendar ritual of “taming” the winter time and was correlated in the Yakut worldview with the “Time of Dreams”. It is worth noting that the storytellers performed olonkho with their eyes closed. This ritual dream can be considered as a special “type of communication” with spirits. In winter, the Yakuts performed fortune-telling, where they played the roles of “the sleeping” or “the dead” and predicted the future on their behalf. They also read the snow: At night they would go out and fall backwards onto the smooth snow. If there was no trace left and the snow was as smooth as before – this foretold a death.[5] In the light of the above, the theme of symbolic dying and awakening acquires a high semiotic status in the initiation rites of shamans in a dream (sleep featuring as a transition between worlds, seasons, social norms).
“Dream time” is a mythical time of creation, where mythical ancestors complete their life cycle, having created people, animals, and plants, and establishing customs.


Among the peoples of the North, mythical ancestors “come to life” in rituals and dreams during the winter, the period of cold and harsh frosts. A vivid illustration of the “reviving” of the mythical ancestor is the Khanty Bear Festival, dedicated to the mythical ancestor Bear, whose presence is played out by means of various bear attributes. In the past, this would be held in winter for seven consecutive years, starting in December (22nd December) and ending in March. Bear rituals included sacred songs and legends about the bear, dances of the ancestors of genealogical or ancestral groups, and the staging of sacred performances depicting the main spirits of the Khanty pantheon.[6] Thus, the winter Bear Festival, which forms the core of the traditional culture of the Khanty and Mansi, projects the Time of “dreams and awakening”.


Returning to the indigenous peoples of Taimyr, let us turn to the archaic mythological model of the Nganasan, descendants of the most ancient aboriginal population of the Arctic zone of Central Siberia – the Arctic hunters of wild reindeer.[7] Here, a White (Icy) deity acts as the world creator: “There was no land, there was only ice without vegetation. All that stood there was a single ice chum [tepee]. In this lived a man. He was completely white and without a friend in the world”.[8] Further, it is said that the white man Syrada nguo (“White Deity”) went to the woman Nema nguo (“Mother-Goddess”), who gave people eyes. She bore him a purple willow, and after a while a small fawn, for which the father then made antlers from a mammoth tusk and a rock. Gradually, vegetation spreads over the ground from the willow, the landscape (mountain ranges) is formed from the skin shed from the antlers of the deer, and meteorological phenomena (the northern lights, thunderstorms and snow clouds) are formed from the antlers of the grown deer.


The perception of cold here is realised through northern images: a reindeer fawn, mammoth tusks, the northern lights, and snow clouds. Another version of this legend, recorded from Salopte Turdagin by B.O. Dolgikh,[9] is more developed: here the motif of twin children born from the Mother Goddess and the White God appears (i.e. humans, the different peoples that then descend from them). The son of the gods Mou-ta (“The Deer”) becomes the guardian of the earth and its tutelary deity. At the request of the mouse, which is hunted by predators – arctic foxes and stoats – Mou-ta creates snow: he casts aloft his stone horn, and snow and rain clouds appear.[9] The long winter is also set by him at the request of the mouse, which hides in the snow from its enemies: “Let it be like this: the winter is long, and the summer is short. This is help for you, mouse”.[9] Once the mammoth tusk is thrown up into the sky, the heavens become clear, and a severe frost comes.[9]
As we can see, comprehension of the images of the cold, ice, and winter is associated among the Nganasans with cosmogonic myths: the birth of life, the appearance of vegetation, animals and people, and the arrangement of the earthly world order, seasons, and weather. Especially important is the image of a White Ice deity, the ancestor of life on earth. In Nganasan mythology, the image of Cold (Ice) is associated with a mythological origin and has rather a philosophical meaning (it can be understood as a kind of animate primordial matter from which the earthly world arises). It should be emphasised that in mythological texts Cold, Ice and Frost are not interpreted in ethical categories as something hostile to man. The semantics of winter time forms a creative code among the indigenous peoples of the North.

The Yakuts, on the other hand, form the image of Winter in the context of the “culture of memories” about the steppelands of the south, where the North and Cold carry negative connotations. In the Yakut calendar myth, a god asked man at the creation of the world “What should I make longer – summer or winter?” The right to choose was given to the horse and the bull. The god asked the horse first: “What would you prefer; for winter to be longer than the summer or the summer longer than the winter?” “I would like,” the horse replied, “to have a long summer, otherwise my hooves would get very cold in winter.” Then then the god asked the bull the same question. The bull replied: “It would be better to extend the winter; my nose gets wet in the summer heat.” And the god made it so: the winter became long, and the summer became short.[10]


The binary horse/bull opposition implements the semantic opposition of summer/winter, which is consistent with the complex of ideas about the calendar symbols of Summer and Winter, dating back to the mythological images of the White Horse and the Bull of Winter as an inescapable natural element. The technology of the summer warm time was the main ritual of the Yakut tradition of Ysyakh – the ritual of the first creation. The transformation of a crisis (Cold) into a borderline situation of the ritual awakening of the world (the ignition of a new fire on Ysyakh as a symbol of Warmth) fits seamlessly into the calendar regulations of the Yakuts – to divide the year into two halves: summer and winter.

Hence, in the Yakut picture of the world, there was a two-way model of ritual communication as an extended memory: the Olonkho winter ritual as a “Dream Time” and the Ysyakh summer ritual as an “Awakening”.
William Nutt. Black Snake. Marble and limestone, 2002
The next metaphor is “The whisper of the stars and the cold breath of the Earth”. On frosty nights, there are many stars in a clear sky, in the white silence of cold landscapes broken only by a small rustle, or crackling sound (climatologists explain this by the formation of crystals in the air), which people associate with the ancient belief that this was the whispering of the living stars. In many northern mythologies, the stars bring cold and frost. In Yakut astral mythology, archaic stories are told of how humans tried to reduce the cold by cutting down the stars. Thus, at the very beginning of life, the constellation of Ursa Minor was very large, eclipsing the sun and the moon. It was terribly cold, and humanity was in danger of freezing completely. Then a shaman girl undertook to save people. Before the ritual, she asked that no woman look at her, otherwise she might faint or die on the spot. Kamlaya, the shaman girl, ascended to heaven and began to break the Ursa Minor into small pieces. At the moment when, having collected the sparkling fragments and small particles in her mouth, she sprayed them across the sky, thereby setting the stars in their positions, one woman could not restrain her curiosity and secretly looked through a window up at the sky. The shaman girl fainted, and the She-Bear was not completely broken. The Yakuts believed that someday the Ursa Minor will increase in size, heralding the end of life on earth.[11] In this mythological text, a shaman who breaks up the constellation of Ursa Minor is endowed with the ability to tame the cold elements. Thus, the origin of stellar objects in the night sky is associated with shamanic activity. In the corpus of astral myths, myths have also been preserved about how Venus (Cholbon) and the Pleiades send cold to earth. The plot about the first Yakuts shaman Chachygyr taas is particularly demonstrative. In the cold winter, at the behest of the rich ancestor Uluu Kudangsa, he cuts the ties fastening Cholbon (Venus) to the Sky in the hope of saving the people from the eternal and fierce winter.[11] He proved unable to carry out his ritual to its completion, again because of a girl’s curiosity. But since then, as they say, winter has become milder. In the work Uluu Kudangsa by Platon Oyunsky, the shaman warns his master that he has violated the course of Natural Time and will be severely punished in the future.

Understanding of northern shamanism within the framework of the experience of adaptation of the population to extremely low temperatures and natural conditions in the winter allows us to reveal the psychomental structure of the shaman's activity. The ontology of Cold imagination in the shamanic systems of the peoples of the North is represented through different cultural texts. A cognitive analysis of shamanic texts among the northern Yakuts and the indigenous peoples of Taimyr revealed a single model of the shaman’s symbolic communication with the cold landscape. The cultural archetypes of the ancient population of the North and the Arctic are projected in symbolic images of the shaman costume as a "new" shaman's body, revived after the initiation rite, where physicality is represented by the body, soul (mother-beast), and spirit-ancestor of the shaman [16. p. 8]. Ritual pendants on the shamanic costume of northern shamans (Yakuts, Dolgans, Evenks) modeled the cold world, thus combining "physicality and spatiality" in the figure of the shaman. The main natural symbols on the shamanic costume were sewn on the back, which denoted the underworld, the world of the dead. Images of a chipped Moon and a holed Sun as signs of Night and incomplete Light represented Darkness as one of the features of the cold world. It is symbolic that on the shamanic attributes of the peoples of the North, one could find images of stars, the night sky, and deer. Modeling of the night winter space on a shaman costume was realized through images of birds and animals of the northern landscape (loon, dog, bear, wolf). Logically, full images of the Sun and Moon were sewn on the front, symbolizing the victory of Light over Darkness and displaying the movement of the calendar cycle from cold to warm. The cut of the shamanic costume symbolized the image of a bird close to the Sky, the Sun - an eagle (the arrival of the eagle among the Yakuts was associated with the heavenly, Upper World, Warmth and the arrival of Spring, from that time the bull of winter retreated).

The journey through the worlds of the shaman in a "new" body forms a transcendental model of the dialogue of the Macro- and Microcosm. The symbolic analysis of cosmic and zoomorphic objects on the shamanic costume makes it possible to assume that the shamanic costume of the Yakuts, as an imaginary spatial physicality, manifests the inseparable integrity of the Perception of the Cosmos-Nature and Man. Having mastered the centuries-old spiritual experience of adapting to low temperatures, shamans in their ritual practice performed symbolic actions to "tame" the cold, where the concepts of cold/heat were played out in a single cultural space. The creative potential of the shaman formed an adaptive strategy and stress resistance in the harsh conditions of permafrost.
As for the Samoyed tradition, here the cold is sent to earth by mythical characters. Among the Nenets and Nganasan the blizzard is personified by an evil old woman with long grey hair. Whenever she combs his hair, her dandruff turns into snow.[12] In the perception of the Nenets and Enets, the cold is sent by the giant Bull of the North, who lives in the Arctic Sea, at the northern edge of the sky. In winter, his breath manifests itself in flames (the northern lights). When the bull sheds his wool, it snows, when he blows, a cold wind rises, when he stands still, cold reigns, and when he moves around, it gets warmer. The presence in the cold symbolism of the Bull of the North among the Nenets and the Bull of Winter among the Yakuts, with a common locus of residence (the Arctic Ocean), suggests a general model of the formation of this image in the North.

The third (and key) metaphor is that of the “Melting permafrost”. In the Samoyed tradition, passing from the study of myth to ritual shamanic texts and folklore genres (folk tales), we notice a change in the understanding of images of Cold, Ice and Winter. In ritual and fairy-tale folklore, these images are directly connected with the Lower World (the underworld of the dead). Let us consider the description of the rites performed by the Nganasan shaman Tubyaku Kosterkin, made in 1989: “...Especially often, the purpose of summoning the spirits was to prevent the harmful activity of the evil deities Kotura (from kotu – “to kill”) and Syrada (from syrada – “permafrost”, i.e. the god of the realm of the underground permafrost, or world of the dead).[13] As we can see, here Syrada is an evil deity, sometimes referred to as the god of starvation. In the text of the shamanic ritual (kamlaniye) performed by Demnime Kosterkin (recorded in 1977), an important image of white herbs is involved, where the syr nyota (white herbs) are a metaphor for death, their image accompanying the image of the funeral chum (Nganasan matalir).[14] It is then revealed that dark or black herbs (referring to their sap or juices), opposite in colour to white plants, are a symbol of life. Shamans’ travels to the underworld in search of the souls of sick people meant penetration into the icy strata of the permafrost, and folklore texts have preserved stories where the northern shaman thaws the frozen earth with a red-hot log or fire and revives afflicted people and deer. One of the functions of the Nganasan shaman is to find people lost in a blizzard. The shaman looks for a person/body lying unconscious, and then warms/revives them.[15] The Yakut shamans of the North turned into birds and animals during night-time rituals to find traces of people who got lost in wintertime. Through their ritual actions, they were able to effect changes in the weather and stop the elements, bringing an end to a blizzard or snowfall.

Understanding northern shamanism within the framework of the experience of populations’ adaptation to extremely low temperatures and natural conditions in the winter enables us to reveal the psychomental structure of the shaman’s activity. The ontology of Cold imagination in the shamanic systems of the peoples of the North is represented in various different cultural texts. A cognitive analysis of shamanic texts among the northern Yakuts and the indigenous peoples of Taimyr has revealed a single model of the shaman’s symbolic communication with the cold landscape. The cultural archetypes of the ancient population of the North and the Arctic are projected in symbolic images of the shaman’s costume as the shaman’s “new” body, revived after the initiation rite, where physicality is represented by the body, soul (mother-beast), and spirit-ancestor of the shaman.[16, p. 8] Ritual pendants on the shamanic costumes of the northern shamans (among the Yakuts, Dolgans and Evenks) modelled the cold world, thus combining “physicality and spatiality” in the figure of the shaman. The main natural symbols on the shamanic costume were sewn on the back, denoting the underworld or world of the dead. Images of a chipped Moon and a pierced Sun as symbols of Night and incomplete Light represented Darkness as one of the features of the cold world. It is symbolic that on the shamanic attributes of the peoples of the North, one can find images of stars, the night sky, and deer. This modelling of the nocturnal winter space on the shaman’s costume was realised through images of the birds and animals of the northern landscape (the loon, dog, bear and wolf). Logically, complete images of the Sun and Moon were sewn on the front, symbolising the victory of Light over Darkness and displaying the movement of the calendric cycle from cold to warmth. The cut of the shamanic costume symbolised the image of a bird close to Heaven and the Sun – the eagle (the arrival of the eagle among the Yakuts was associated with the heavenly, Upper World, Warmth and the arrival of Spring, from which time the bull of winter went into retreat).

The shaman’s journey through the worlds in a “new” body forms a transcendental model of the dialogue between the Macro- and Microcosm. The symbolic analysis of cosmic and zoomorphic objects on the shamanic costume makes it possible to assume that among the Yakuts these costumes, as an imaginary spatial physicality, manifest the inseparable integrity of the Perception of the Cosmos-Nature and Man. Having mastered the centuries-old spiritual experience of adapting to low temperatures, shamans in their ritual practice performed symbolic actions to “tame” the cold, in which the concepts of cold/heat were played out in a single cultural space. The creative potential of the shaman formed an adaptive strategy and stress resistance in the harsh conditions of the permafrost.
The brief panorama presented here of the multidimensional image of Cold in the metaphors of the calendar and social time, drawing on the example of two models from the Yakuts and the indigenous peoples of Taimyr, naturally requires further cognitive research. This should not only be conducted within the framework of the developed theme “Anthropology of Cold” – where the image of Cold is considered in terms of the material of diachronous northern cultural texts seen through the prism of cultural representations, oral and visual narratives, symbolic practices and the objective world – but also as a problem in the field of the study of art.

Comprehending the folklore of the Arctic herders, hunters and reindeer herders as a metapoetic space of contemporary art is one of the more difficult tasks facing the humanities and creative practice. Understanding the cultural code through the realities of science and art and the actualisation of Northern identity in the contemporary global cultural process make it possible to talk about a new context for the expression and reception of the “experienced” cold world.

As for discussion of the spatial aspect of the North and the Arctic, this has always been perceived in the generally accepted view as a white world, cold, distant, and uninhabited. The recorded folklore of the indigenous peoples of the North perfectly demonstrate the “filled-in-ness” and “vital power” of the northern space, where the landscapes of the Arctic resound with the voices of people, gods, and spirits, toppling the stereotype about the emptiness and silence of the cold world which has dominated Russian science and contemporary art for so many years. To describe the Land of the North with the designation “emptiness” is something alien to the linguistic tapestry of the inhabitants of the Arctic region, where the archaic mythology of the Northern peoples is rich in syncretic images where a natural object and its “spirit” merge, where the real world and the sacred world are one extended space.
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Yekaterina N. Romanova, Institute for Humanities Research and Indigenous Studies of the North, Russian Academy of Sciences, Siberian Branch (Yakutsk, Russian Federation).
Email: e_romanova@mail.ru
Oxana E. Dobzhanskaya, Arctic State Institute of Culture and the Arts (Yakutsk, Russian Federation). Email: dobzhanskaya@list.ru
Vestnik Tomskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta. Kul'turologiya i iskusstvovedeniye [Tomsk
State University Journal of Cultural Studies and Art History], 2019, 35, рp. 255–263.