The influence of oral tradition on the formation of beliefs

Aado Lintrop

One of the main sources for studying religion is beliefs, for example a Udmurt (Votyak) one: You must not take anything from the Holy Grove. The person breaking the rule shall be punished by the Lord of the grove. Another essential source is narratives, above all legends and memorates related to them, for example a memorate formed on the basis of the aforementioned belief: The precentor of Buranovo village went to gather mushrooms in a grove. When the basket was full and he wanted to come out of the grove, an invisible force held him back. He threw the gathered mushrooms away and after that was able to come out of the grove unharmed. (Vassilyev 1906: 197-198.)

More often than not, it is difficult to estimate the value of narratives as source materials from the point of view of the history of religion. While a folklorist is mostly interested in the authenticity of a narrative, a religious historian, besides that, also wants to know whether a concrete story reflects the current beliefs of a certain group or an individual or refers to some religious image from the past. In the case of memorates, it has always been considered essential to differentiate between the supernatural experience presented in the traditional form of a story, and the details of secondary importance added later in the course of telling and retelling. According to Lauri Honko, this could be done, to a certain extent, by checking up on the psychological veracity of the memorate: taking into account the kind of supernatural experience (either visual, auditory, tactile or their combination), it is necessary to find out about the conditions in which it happened - whether it was dark or dusky, whether a repetitive monotonous stimulus existed, whether the kinetic actions of the person perceiving it were hindered, and so on. It is also important to bear in mind the physical condition of the person: whether he was ill, exhausted, drunk, or seized with strong fear or desire. Psychologically unbelievable perceptions can often be considered as secondary ones, added to the story later on. (Honko 1972: 95-96.)

Here is a longer Udmurt memorate about the Lord of a Holy Grove (keremet). "An old man told me this story. "I was seriously ill. Once, at about midnight, two people entered the cottage, a Tatar woman and man. The man remained standing at the door, the woman started hanging a scarf near the stove. But the door was locked. I asked them what they wanted. They did not answer, only talked to one another. I called my father and told him we had Tatars in our house. He did not believe me and said that I was delirious. I got frightened and was waiting for the cock to crow; I hoped it would make the Tatars leave. At last the cock crowed, but they were still standing and talking. They were standing there until broad daylight. Suddenly I could hear someone coming up the stairs, trampling heavily with new boots. He reached the door, but did not come in; he was talking to the people inside in a low voice and left again. After a while there were footsteps on the stairs again, the door was pushed ajar and I could hear voices again. I could not bear it any more; so I took an axe, smashed the window, jumped out into the yard and ran to the granary where my brother was working. Soon after that the Tatars also fled, and my brother saw them as well. Next day when I was in the cottage alone, I heard someone calling me: "Vassili, come here!" I answered I was not able to get up because of illness. The voice said, "Come on, sure you can!" I took my pillow and my felt cover, went to the porch and lay down on the floor. "Come up here!" said a voice from the loft. I said I was not able to walk even on flat ground, not to speak about climbing the ladder. "Come on, sure you can climb!" answered the voice. I climbed up and saw - a Tatar was standing, leaning against the chimney, and there was a woman next to him and opposite him there was a young wife, presumably his daughter-in-law. The man said to me, "Well, Vassili, you don't seem to be afraid of us as you've come up here. You must know that God (Inmar) is the most important in the world, and we come next." Having said that, they became invisible. I only heard them flying through the roof like the wind. After that I became well again."" (Bogayevski 1890: 156-157.) The memorate seems to be quite truthful, as the event was experienced by a seriously ill person. The details obviously added in the course of retelling the story are lacking, except the statement that the narrators brother had seen the Tatars as well. The flying away of keremets through the roof also might cause some suspicion. According to tradition, keremets appear as Tatars, and it is also customary for them to constitute a family. The memorate does not give an explanation for the appearance of the keremets; however, the reason can be realized as they remind the man of their importance. Most probably, it was the fact that the man undergoing the experience or even the whole family seemed to have forgotten about them (for example, had not participated in the services held in the Holy Grove, had not given enough money for buying a sacrificial animal, had misbehaved in the Holy Grove, and so forth).

When speaking about the borderline between legends and memorates, we must stress that it is not very clear when exactly a memorate might develop into a legend. Although legends at the text level cannot be converted into memorates, they have an essential impact on them. As an introductory remark, it can be mentioned that they generate memorates if there exists a suitable input.

While working at shamanic stories, I became convinced that in Siberia they do not noticeably differentiate between memorates and legends, either. The reflexive stories told by shamans can roughly be divided into two groups: first, the narratives of how they became shamans, in which, in the traditional form of a story, they talk about traditionary controlled visions and experiences they had had during the initiation period; and, second, they present (in the traditional form of a story) the things they claim to see, feel and do during the shamanic séance. This kind of autobiographies and "travel descriptions" of shamans often comprise motifs of legends of origin as well as those of belief legends. A memorate is like a broad framework in which individual experience shaped by tradition is intertwined with references to the origin of things and their mutual linkage (order). For example, images of the abilities of a shaman's helping spirit are closely connected with the beliefs about animals and birds, as well as observations made about their remarkable capacities. The qualities a shaman needs to move about in the shamanic world and to communicate with spirits, are expressed as certain abilities or skills attributed to animals, birds, fish, or supernatural creatures, and characteristic of them in legends. It is not a coincidence that a number of animals and birds acting as helping spirits to a shaman, happen to be popular characters of legends or fairy tales. Let us recall, for example, the part played by the diver, one of the well-known helping spirits, in the legends about the creation of the world. The initiatory vision of a Nganasan shaman Semyon Momde speaks about a special role of another bird: "There was an island in each lake. On the first island there were some whitefronted geese, some of them hatching in their nests, some others walking about. On another island there were scaups, on the third one - geese, swans and other birds... "What is it?" I asked. One of my companions answered, "These are different kinds of birds. In the olden days the earth was covered by water. It is not known whether there were any people at that time. Can you see this small duck. It is a scaup. It didn't remain sitting on its nest but descended underground through seven layers of ice. It dived into water and reached another island. It was seen carrying various sorts of grasses in its beak. It scattered the grasses all over the lake shore; this is how plant cover appeared." - "So, this has been this way from time immemorial," I thought. "If a person who knows the story of the creation of the world, speaks about it, beating a drum, the shaman's eyes will clear up and he can see farther."" (Popov 1984: 100.)

What kind of impact does oral tradition have on the formation of beliefs? When analysing the motifs of the stories of becoming a shaman, I came to a conclusion that some of them describe the changes in the personality of the would-be shaman, its adjustment into the framework of tradition, some others demonstrate the subjugation of initiation period experience to the control of tradition (see also "Hereditary Transmission in Siberian Shamanism and the Concept of the Reality of Legends"). I have borrowed the notion of generalized reality-orientation from Roland Shor, who has been studying hypnosis, but, to denote the orientation enabling possession, I have resorted to the term reality of legends. By this term I mean this new orientation which springs from religious images transmitted by tradition and which arises onto generalized reality-orientation in some cases of altered state of consciousness. As in the case of cultures under discussion we can mainly speak about oral tradition, and a great part of the narratives influencing beliefs can be classified as legends, it is the importance of legends in the formation of religious experience that I have tried to stress with this term. I have also heard opinions voiced that instead of the term 'reality of legends', it would be more correct to use the term mythic or mythical reality. However, as the myths of Estonians (as well as of a number of other Balto-Finnic peoples) have mostly been transformed into legends, and also because of unwillingness to relate this term to the mythical time of creation, I would prefer to stick with the term 'reality of legends'.

Supernatural experience can be influenced by tradition in several ways. First and foremost, it gives an impetus or motive for its formation. Man might have committed a sin against a social rule that traditionally should be followed by punishment imposed by a supernatural being related to it. The sinner is aware of it. He has also heard several stories about similar situations. And then a supernatural being appears. Or maybe someone is in a locality infamous for ghosts and, allegedly, even dangerous for being alone. He knows it, he has been told stories of similar happenings. And then a ghost makes its appearance. Or else, someone is considered as a person of extraordinary faculties either by descent or by a certain distinguishing quality. He can perceive it that people whom he encounters day after day, are only expecting him to manifest his talent. He has heard several stories about his parents (grandparents) initiation. And his talent becomes evident. This list is not complete; however, it probably comprises the most essential incentives for supernatural experience. But then, a tradition also moulds the supernatural experience induced by itself, as, in addition to situation descriptions, stories with this kind of plot also include the ones of supernatural beings. With reference to the descriptions given below, I have to admit that they are not too exact but leave enough space for everyone's visions for framing into, and for interpreting them.

In the society of traditional culture oral tradition is essential. It is like a filter through which the world penetrates to the individual. Oral tradition combined with the information acquired by an individual by watching other people's behaviour and remembering the reactions expressing their evaluations, is the source for him for getting information about the world outside the borders of his immediate cognition.

In the modern society with mass culture the relative importance of oral tradition is much smaller. The boundaries of immediate cognition have become much wider. The information about what is going on outside these borders, reaches the individual mainly through mass media.

Y. Lotman has divided all the existing types of text and communication of human culture into two large groups: first, communicative acts the aim of which is to transmit constant information; and, second, communication acts the aim of which is to process information and to produce new one (Lotman 1990: 395-397). It is quite positive that religious experience and beliefs are formed by the texts of the second group. In order to forward this kind of texts, oral tradition makes use of mainly the language of words; mass media, in addition to that, also resorts to the language(s) of visual images. Here a question arises as to what extent the texts transmitted with the help of the latter influence our beliefs and imaginations.

I presume that although the boundaries of the world cognized by man directly have become wider and the majority of the information about the things outside these borders is given to him in the form of visual information, the spheres provisionally called faraway and supernatural will not become smaller; they are only shifted a bit farther away, always remaining outside the borders of visually experienced world. The emphases might simply shift a little. Man of traditional culture divides the world roughly into the following groups:

1) We - he himself and his kin (clan). 2) They - more distant neighbours, other tribes and peoples with whom direct contacts exist. They arouse diffidence with their strange and sometimes even disgusting habits (very often they are believed to practise cannibalism). They are dangerous especially because they are connected with demi-men and that-siders. 3) Demi-men - dog-headed people and other creatures of the kind who live on the border of human world and supernatural sphere. 4) That-siders - deities, fairies, spirits, dead ancestors, etc. Being on the other side does not mean distance in the geographical sense, but belonging to a supernatural sphere. The expression used by Mansi (Voguls) when speaking about spirits and fairies - people living behind a birch bark curtain (saas hal'p sayt oolne maahum, boiled birch bark was a material for tent covers, etc.) - gives a good idea of the distance between us and the beings on the other side (supernatural beings).

Modern man's description of his own kind is almost the same: 1) We - according to the dimensions of thinking this can denote either a family or a kin or even a whole people (especially in the case of smaller peoples). 2) They - several kinds of other peoples: the slit-eyed, the blacks, the yellows, etc. They behave unpredictably or disgustingly (eat frogs, dogs, also children, make sausage from human flesh, keep pigs in the bathroom, make fire on parquet floor, etc. 3) Demi-men - are in close contact with the supernatural. These are various star people, observers, etc. 4) That-siders - spirits, UFOs and the like.

I presume that inside the borders of the immediately cognized part of the world the supernatural is still manifested in the shape moulded by oral tradition. A text that is supposed to forward constant information (according to Lotman's division - a-type text) is coded with the help of a certain system, forwarded to the addressee and decoded with the help of the same system. The original text can be restored by re-interpretation. The text forwarded with the aim of information processing or producing new information (b-type text) has to undergo a non-trivial shift of meaning. This does not proceed according to fixed transformation rules, neither is it uniquely predetermined. As a result, we get a new text created by errors and accident on the one hand, and, on the other, a difference between the codes of the original and the target text reaching even as far as complete untranslatability. Restoring the original text by re-interpretation is out of the question.

The text giving rise to supernatural experience also has to pervade the non-trivial interpretation system. According to Y. Lotman, a non-trivial interpretation system existing in reality can be any artistic text, which, having been switched into the system of information exchange, starts generating new information (Lotman 1990: 398). In cases treated here, this text can be either a memorate or a legend. At the level of generalizations, the reality of legends could be considered as a non-trivial interpretation system generating religious experience. In order to start reality of legends, we would need a certain outward (incertable) text which can be recognized by it. To do that, it is necessary to have a former semiotic experience, or, in other words, the text inserted has to be in a language suitable for the reality of legends. Most probably the reality of legends of a normal adult will not accept the ready-made pictures transmitted through mass media. They might become fixed in a person's pictorial memory, but in the language of words they will be bearing restrictive 'labels' - for example, a vampire from such and such a film or a visitor from another planet from that film. This means we are able to recall what a certain supernatural being in a film looked like but in order for it to influence our real beliefs and imaginations, the worded reference linked to the vision has to be more generalized, i.e., we have to forget about its connection with the film.

Visions arising on the basis of oral tradition are characterized by only a few details - a little grey man, a man in black, a man in white robe, a little boy, a young woman, etc. According to Ülo Valk, for example, the anthropomorphic devil in Estonian legends usually lacks all outward demonic features, and he mostly appears as an ordinary man. The only thing to betray him is his extraordinary behaviour (Valk 1994: 19). The Udmurt (Votyak) water elf appears as an ordinary farmer. Only his wet jacket front gives evidence of his real nature (Lintrop 1993: 58). The Ingrian barn spirit is characterized by a fiery-red nose (Honko 1972: 89). In several localities, house- and sauna spirits are bearded men in white robes. We can conclude that the supernatural being appearing to people is provided only with traditional attributes indispensable for recognizing him.

I presume that the things forwarded visually have no direct impact on the religious consciousness of a person because the supernatural beings and phenomena given as ready-made pictures do not leave enough space for the individual's own imagination. Supernatural experience can only arise as a result of the interaction of the traditional and the individual. In other words - in order for the text (either visual or worded) to start a process influencing religious images, it has to contain enough gaps. Supernatural beings in films are often based on a certain myth or legend, but they are only meant to create fear or horror. There is too much artificial creation in them, i.e., they are too concrete and too individual. Therefore, they are too horrible, so that the audience simply has to inculcate in their minds the fact that they do not exist in real life. Instead of the reality of legends, it starts a process protecting people's consciousness. In order for the "horror picture" transmitted through mass media to be linked with the reality of legends, it has to become less individual and less concrete, i.e., it has to be interpreted in the language of words or converted into an icon. The relative importance of texts linked with the reality of legends might have diminished in the modern society and therefore, people are often not able to define their supernatural experience in a concrete form. So, they tend to be treated vaguely as communication with forces and powers.


Bogayevski, P. M. Otsherki religioznykh predstavlenii udmurtov. - Etnografitsheskoye obozrenie 1, 2, 4. Moskva 1890.
Honko, L. Uskontotieteen näkökulmia. Porvoo 1972.
Lintrop, A. Udmurdi rahvausundi piirjooni. Tartu 1993.
Lotman, Y. = Lotman J. Kultuurisemiootika. Tallinn 1990.
Popov, A. A. Nganasany. Sotsialnoye ustroistvo i verovania. Leningrad 1984.
Shor, R. E. Hypnosis and the Concept of the Generalized Reality-Orientation. American Journal of Psychotherapy No 13. Lancaster 1959.
Valk, Ü. Eesti rahvausundi kuradi-kujutelm kristliku demonoloogia ja rahvusvahelise folkloori kontekstis: ilmumiskujud. Väitekiri filoloogiadoktori teaduskraadi taotlemiseks eesti rahvaluule alal. Tartu 1994.
Vassilyev, I. Obozrenie yazytsheskikh obryadov, suyeverii i verovanii votyakov Kazanskoi i Vyatskoi gubernii. Izvestia Obshtshestva arkheologii, istorii i etnografii pri Kazanskom universitete, t. 22, vyp. 3-5. Kazan 1906.

Completely published in Pro Ethnologia 3. Sources and Research, pp 98-109. Tartu 1995.

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It is not the shaman himself but an elderly person attending the séance who is well acquainted with the tradition and therefore is able to help the shaman (see also the text about how Demnime Kosterkin lost his leg). Back to the text.