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  • The World of the Khanty Epic Hero-Princes: An Exploration of a Siberian Oral Tradition by Arthur Hatto
  • Robin P. Harris
Hatto, Arthur. The World of the Khanty Epic Hero-Princes: An Exploration of a Siberian Oral Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017. Pp. xv + 246. $60.00 hardcover.

Rarely studied in depth, the epic poetry of Siberian peoples can provide a unique window on the worldviews, linguistic richness, and indigenous cosmologies of the people who have nurtured their performance and transmission. Regretfully, many of these Siberian epic cycles, traditions, and tales are currently either moribund or preserved in a “frozen” state; in memorized or purely literary forms rather than improvised, live performance (Harris 13). Long after the living traditions of epic performance fade from the memories of their practitioners and eventually disappear, however, the documented texts that remain can provide windows into the past. Arthur Hatto’s volume illustrates the value of this kind of textual preservation, as the eighteen Khanty epic poems he examined were transcribed in the mid- and late nineteenth century and their translations into Hungarian and German provided him with rich material for analysis, despite the significant complexities of language and time.

The introductory chapters of the book (together with the Afterword) are alone worth the price of the book. Valuable for anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, sociologists, folklorists, and those in Siberian studies, the first chapter provides an ethnographic introduction to the Khanty, including a description of other groups living in the vicinity. The vast majority of the Khanty (29,000) live in the Tyumen Oblast, with some additional Khanty spread throughout the Tomsk and Sverdlovsk Oblasts and the Komi Republic. Increasing in-migration of Russians due to oil and gas development has eroded mother-tongue use, and the average life expectancy in [End Page 614] the 1980s was “forty-five years among men and fifty-five years among women” (2).

This first chapter includes a compact history of the Khanty, drawing on archaeological and linguistic evidence to depict a people in motion who eventually settled in fortified settlements ruled by princes. These forts served as bases from which the Khanty waged warfare on their neighbours “from as early as the third century up until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” (6), when some of the princes began to join Russian enterprises of taxation and trade (8). Eventually, the fortified settlements gave way to colonialization, becoming towns that served the administration of the Czar’s rule and a place of exile during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Hatto points out that the policies of the Soviet state toward indigenous peoples swung from one extreme to the other, first supporting and encouraging the development of an intelligentsia, but then changing abruptly, and eventually the Stalinist policies of the 1930s led to a rebellion that was brutally repressed. Since the 1970s, oil and natural gas extraction in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug has grown to its current level of approximately half of the oil production of the Russian Federation. These extraction policies “cause pollution, lead to irreversible environmental damage, and jeopardize traditional lifestyles” (9).

A section outlining the current state of traditional economic patterns for the Khanty describes the extensive hunting and reindeer breeding of those Khanty living further north and the fishing traditions toward the southern parts of the region. Descriptions of traditional clothing are noteworthy because they appear to be “enjoying increased popularity today” (11), a trend among other Siberian groups as well. Other aspects of traditional life appear to be waning, however, as Hatto notes that the “number of Khanty living in a fully traditional manner is nowadays very small, no more than a few thousand […] Khanty living in towns have assimilated most, preserving only some elements of their traditions such as eating habits and religion” (12).

A section on Khanty beliefs explores the “inseparable connection between people and the natural world around them” (14) as well as the roles of harmful and helpful spirits. Hatto notes the Khanty belief that helpful spirits are “former heroes, princes, and warriors who were later transformed into guardian spirits, a process about which researchers still know very little” (14).

A compact linguistic description of the Khanty language (from the...