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A tiny beautiful race, white-haired and white-eyed, shunning daylight to live underground in the Siberian tundra – this sounds like the stuff of legends. And yet, every story has a drop of truth. As the Nenets culture of the Yamal Peninsula have always said, they were not the first to inhabit the Arctic. When they arrived, another people were already living there. The Nenets call them Sikhirtya.
In stories passed down through generations, the Sikhirtya – or Sirtya as they are sometimes called – have supernatural abilities, in addition to being master blacksmiths, jewelers, fishers and hunters. It is said that they came to Yamal by way of the sea thousands of years ago. Later they spread to the Peninsula, eventually retreating to caves and dugouts when other cultures moved in. From that point on, they only emerged at night or under the cover of fog. From under the earth, they controlled the mammoth herds, not raising reindeer as the Nenets who followed.

According to stories passed down through the Nenets culture, a meeting with a Sirtya was never ordinary. In some legends, one who glimpsed at Sirtya would always be happy. Sirtya were both terrible and wonderful – kidnapping children and throwing curses in some tales, while generously guiding Nenets shamans to find lost souls in others.
Archeologists have indeed discovered Bronze Age sites in the region dating back 4000 years. Siberian museums are filled with metal pendants, carved tools, and ancient pottery from unknown peoples of the Arctic. A search through old journals of 15th century Arctic explorers confirms encounters with a mysterious non-Samoyed race, though their accuracy is debatable. French explorer Pierre-Martin de la Martinierre described his trip from Copenhagen to the Russian coast, where he met a people quite unlike the Nenets themselves: a short race who wore white clothes from polar bear fur and lived in homes of fishbones and moss. Later, Alexander von Schrenk, during expeditions through the tundra, discovered caves where an ancient people had lived. He called their dwellings chudski caves, referring to another ancient – often appearing in folklore – people of northern Russia and Estonia, but he first learned the name Sikhirtya from the Nenets.

For some Nenets artists, the enigmatic Sirtya are a recurring theme in their artwork. Carvings from antlers portray anything from the Sirtya guarding their mammoths to elders in their chum recounting stories of a magical people from days gone by. The three worlds of Nenets shaman – upper, middle, and lower – are also a common theme, especially as their shamans claim that the Sirtya live in harmony with their Middle World. The Sirtya people, who loved to decorate and beautify themselves, sometimes appear in artwork with intricate designs and adornments.
Sirtya legends are unforgettably striking. According to one story, two sisters noticed that one of their fishing nets caught nothing but slime and scales. To solve the mystery, they decided to stave off sleep and observe what happened during the night. As they hid in the darkness, they heard a noise like a child crying. Undeterred, they held their position – only to see a fog-like cloud floating toward them, upon which rode a minuscule man with white hair. When he hovered above the net, he called to the fish – which promptly jumped into his hands.

Another tale describes a family who, after stopping to rest their reindeer near a large hill, discovered a beautiful, tiny girl asleep in the grass. Her dress was decorated with shining silver buttons, and her masterfully-beaded bag beside her glinted in the sun. When the girl awoke, she disappeared at once into the bushes. The family searched for the girl – but in vain.

For the Nenets, these legends are a natural part of their land, a beautiful blend of history and fantasy, bringing them closer to the world of the spirits.

July 25, 2015
By Tamara Kula

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