Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: 'The Reindeer People'


Soul-flight to the Sun

In the Verkhoyansk Mountains of northeast Siberia, Eveny nomads are on the move. Teams of reindeer pull caravans of sledges down the steep slide of a frozen mountain river. Bells tinkle on the lead reindeer while dogs on short leashes dive closely alongside through the snow like dolphins beside a boat. One man sits on the lead sledge of each caravan, his right foot stretched out in front of him and his left foot resting on the runner ready to fend off hidden rocks and snagging roots. Passengers or cargo sit on the sledges behind. The passage of each caravan is visible from afar by a cloud of frozen reindeer breath.

This is the coldest inhabited place on earth, with winter temperatures falling to -96°F (-71°C). The ice is a condition of the water for eight months of the year and by January it is 6 feet thick. Throughout the winter, warm springs continue to break through the surface of rivers, where they erupt as frozen turquoise upwellings, like igneous intrusions in rock, and freeze into jagged obstructions. Caravan after caravan jolts over the last ridge of river ice and skims across a great frozen lake in an epic sweep stretching almost from shore to shore. Deep lakes provide a more level surface and the ice that forms from their still water glows black, marbled with milky white veins snaking into the depths. The sudden speed and the spray of ice crystals flung into our faces behind the hypnotic flash of the reindeer's skidding hooves make it easy to feel that we are about to take off and fly into the air.

Thousands of years before the tsarist empire taxed them and the Soviet Union relocated them into State Farms, the ancestors of today’s Eveny and of their cousins the Evenki had moved out from their previous homeland in northeast China and spread for thousands of miles across forests and tundras, swamps and mountain ranges, from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, from the Pacific almost to the Urals, making them the most widely spread indigenous people on any landmass. Even today, elders can tell stories of journeys that make young people, tied to their villages and dependent on aircraft, smile with disbelief. The old people achieved this mobility by training reindeer to carry them on their backs and pull them on sledges. The endless succession of short migrations from one camp site to the next, which they have shared with me, gives no more than a glimpse of the power of reindeer transport and of the way in which this creature has opened up vast swathes of the earth's surface for human habitation.

The association between reindeer and flying is very ancient -- much, much older than European or American ideas about Santa Claus. Scattered across the deserts and steppes of western Mongolia and stretching into the Altai Mountains in the west and up to the border of Manchuria in the east, stand ancient 'reindeer stones' dating from the Bronze Age some 3,000 years ago. These upright standing stones are set above graves or surrounded by the remains of fires and sacrificed sheep and horses. They are carved with various animals, but most often with reindeer. On the earlier stones the image of the reindeer is simple, but some 500 years later it has become more ornate. On these stones, the reindeer is depicted with its neck outstretched and its legs flung out fore and aft, as if not merely galloping but leaping through the air. The antlers have grown fantastically till they reach right back to the tail, and sometimes hold the disc of the sun or a human figure with the sun as its head. The flung-out hooves seem to represent more than just a leap: it is as if the artist has caught the reindeer in the act of flying through the sky in an association with a deity of the sun.

It seems the climate of Mongolia dried out towards the end of the first millennium bc, coming closer to today’s desert conditions in which reindeer can no longer live, except in one small, cool mountain region. But other evidence suggests that even where it had disappeared, the reindeer persisted in the imagination like a mythic or archetypal creature. At Pazyryk in the nearby Altai Mountains, the burial mounds of chiefs from around 500– 400 BC contain food as well as fine clothing, gold ornaments, harps, combs, and mirrors, decorated with a range of animals including reindeer. By the second century ad, one of the horses sacrificed in a grave wears a face-mask made of leather, felt, and fur and adorned with life-size antlers, clearly dressed up to imitate a reindeer. It seems a reindeer was still better than a horse for riding in the afterlife. Some 1,500 years later, in the seventeenth century, at a battle between the Oirot Mongols and the Manchus 60 miles from Ulaan Baatar, a Mongolian chronicle tells us that the wife of the Khan Daldyn Bashig Tu rode into battle on 'a reindeer with branching antlers'. Since real reindeer had been absent from this region for 2,000 years, this probably indicates a continuation of the custom of dressing a horse in a reindeer mask.

The reindeer appears in an even more intimate association with the Pazyryk people -- in tattoos on their bodies. After death they were eviscerated, sewn up and mummified, as if they would be needing their flesh as well as their provisions for whatever afterlife or rebirth they were expecting. Even so, these bodies might not have survived had it not been for the water that flowed into the graves, sometimes through the breaches left by grave robbers. This water then froze around the mummified bodies. Three of the bodies found so far bear tattoos, and have been preserved so perfectly that we can see the designs clearly. Here on the shoulders are depicted the same reindeer as on the standing stones, with their hooves flung out and their exaggerated antlers. But in the tattoos the imagery of flight is made even more explicit. The branching of the reindeers' antlers sometimes looks like the feathering of birds' wings, and on some of them each tine of the antler ends in a tiny bird's head.

When I first read about these tattoos as a child I did not imagine that the association of reindeer with flight had been carried by migrating populations to lands where reindeer still existed far to the north, still less that I would one day live among people who in their own childhood had taken a ritual voyage to the sun on the back of a flying reindeer. I reached this northern region in the late 1980s, and learned about this rite from my first Eveny friend, Tolya, during some of our travels together. Small but muscular, a former wrestling champion with an impish sense of humour, he was already feeling the call to abandon his role as an official in the Soviet administration and to reach back through the veils of boarding school and the Soviet Navy to rediscover the ancient traditions of his ancestors. As we rode from camp to camp, this ritual was one of Tolya's discoveries. We crouched around darkened stoves at night, while I listened to Tolya talking intently to nomadic elders, who included his own mother, in a native language I could not yet understand. I did not know that in front of me precious words were being spoken by people who might have been the last left alive on earth capable of saying them. These words revealed a continuity of ideas, carried over thousands of miles and thousands of years, with the birds on the tips of the reindeer antlers tattooed on the shoulders of the mummies in the Altai and the carvings in Mongolia of reindeer holding the sun aloft in their antlers.

These elders told Tolya that reindeer were created by the sky god Hovki, not only to provide food and transport on earth, but also to lift the human soul up to the sun. From their childhood seventy, eighty, or more years before, they remembered a ritual that was carried out each year on Midsummer's Day, symbolizing the ascent of each person on the back of a winged reindeer. During the white night of the Arctic summer, a rope was stretched between two larch trees to represent a gateway to the sky. As the sun rose high above the horizon in the early dawn, this gateway was filled with the purifying smoke of the aromatic mountain rhododendron, which drifted over the area from two separate bonfires. Each person passed around the first fire anticlockwise, against the direction of the sun, to symbolize the death of the old year and to burn away its illnesses. They then moved around the second fire in a clockwise direction, following the sun's own motion, to symbolize the birth of the new year.

It was at this moment, while elders prayed to the sun for success in hunting, an increase in reindeer, strong sons and beautiful daughters, that each person was said to be borne aloft on the back of a reindeer which carried its human passenger towards a land of happiness and plenty near the sun. There they received a blessing, salvation, and renewal. At the highest point, the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a bird of extreme sacredness.

I still do not understand how the old Eveny acted out the experience of flying through the air, but they would mime their return to earth by sitting on their own reindeer as if they were arriving from a long journey, expressing tiredness, unsaddling their mount, pitching a tent and lighting a fire. This rite was followed by a hedje, a circle dance in the direction of the sun, and a feast of plenty.

The annual soul-voyage made by the elders whom I met with Tolya was a small-scale echo of the voyages made by shamans, men and women whose souls can leave their bodies while they are in a state of trance and fly to other realms of a cosmos which is believed to have many layers. Whereas laypersons could only fly on the back of a reindeer, shamans could turn into a flying reindeer. The word shaman or haman comes to us from the language of the Eveny and the Evenki, two closely related peoples of the Tungus language family. All Arctic peoples have comparable figures, known by various names, as do other peoples in many parts of the world. The role of the shaman is closely linked to hunting as a way of life. Before the development of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, all humans depended on hunting to survive, and it is hard to imagine that any other kind of religion could have existed. Shamans develop the ordinary hunter’s skills and intuitions by flying over the landscape to monitor the movements of migratory animals and by performing rites to stimulate the vitality of animals and humans alike.

In Siberia, shamans combine a distinctive imagery of reindeer and of bird-flight. Their costumes sometimes include imitation reindeer antlers, occasionally tipped with wings or feathers, placed on the headdress or attached to the shoulders at the very point where reindeer are tattooed on the Pazyryk mummies. Like the participants in the Eveny midsummer ritual, shamans may ride to the sky on a bird or a reindeer. But their relationship with these animals goes far beyond mere riding. One shaman is suckled by a white reindeer during his initiatory vision as he incubates in a bird's nest on a branch high in the tree that links earth and sky. Another becomes a reindeer himself by wearing its hide, while hunters with miniature bows and arrows surround him and mime the act of killing. The hide is then stretched across the broad, flat drum that the shaman will beat as accompaniment to his trance. Another shaman, seeking to consecrate his reindeer-skin drum, is guided by spirits as he combs through the forest to find the location where the reindeer was born and traces every place it has ever visited over the course of its life, right up to the point where it was killed. As he picks his way through bogs and over fallen branches, he picks up the scattered material traces of its existence -- snapped twigs, dried dung -- to gather together every possible part of its being, and then moulds them into a small effigy of the reindeer. When he sprinkles the effigy with a magical ‘water of life’, the drum comes to life. Like a reindeer itself but with enhanced power, it is now capable of bearing the shaman aloft with its throbbing beat to nine, twelve, or more levels of the heavens.

Copyright © 2005 by Piers Vitebsky. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Piers Vitebsky