Rules and Prohibitions
Traditional rules and prohibitions are of paramount importance for not only sustaining family structure but Kalmyk society at large, hence the roles and identities of its members. Social and kinship practices, hierarchies as well as daily activities of individuals are regulated through both rules that encourage certain actions and prohibitions that Kalmyks learn from early childhood. Many rules and prohibitions are based on local beliefs, worldviews, values, signs and omens.
Alena Lidzhieva, About the Symbolic Importance of Moving Clockwise
Alexandra says that people should not harm others, or wish others bad or curse them. Despite being poor, Alexandra’s mother adopted an orphan girl in Siberia.
About traditional bans. Women should not wear men’s clothing or hats. If a dog howls, this is a bad sign for the family that keeps that dog. It is forbidden to quarrel or curse after dawn. After dawn it is also forbidden to take things out of the house, including food, money, etc. Even if one does not have money, that person should not say that he/she does not have money. Women should not sit first in a newly bought car (Alexandra relays a story of one woman who did not follow this rule and as a consequence the car she at first crashed and the only passenger who was injured was she herself). It is a bad sign if a crow or a magpie cry. In order to prevent evil, one needs to light a candle and read mantras to his/her deity-protector.
About daily rituals. If a child cannot walk by the age when children are supposed to walk, throw a hat between that child’s legs and cut the space with scissors. When you buy a new car, toss white and yellow coins on the road, prick a couple of forks or knifes on either side of the entrance to your house yard, and drive your car into your yard. Only after this ritual the car is roadworthy.
About a wedding. Alexandra relays a story about her daughter’s wedding. On the wedding day her relatives noticed that a bottle of vodka in the gift box that the groom’s side had brought to them was half full, which is considered a bad sign according to Kalmyk beliefs. When the groom’s people offered to buy a new bottle instead, Alexandra refused the offer asking them to give her money equivalent to the price of a bottle of vodka and add several white and yellow coins. All vodka bottles in the box should be of the same colour and brand.
Alexandra Sangadzhieva, Rules, Bans, Omens, Clan Colours
If a person says something bad, then his/her words come back to this person. Similarly, if a person says something good it returns too.
It is forbidden to give money or pray after sunset. It also forbidden to go for a long journey at night. If a tooth falls, one has to wrap it in bread and throw it away. If a mouse eats this bread, it is believed that a new good tooth will grow. It is prohibited to throw away your nails without wrapping them in paper.
Anna Azvanova, Rules, Incantations and Prohibitions
Dmitriy talks about traditional prohibitions and ways of proper behavior. This is his story:
When we sell livestock, we always choose an auspicious day for transaction. In Kalmykia there are a lot of prohibitions: you cannot cross your arms on your chest, you cannot hold your hands behind your back, if you are a man you cannot sit like a woman, and things like that. It is forbidden to whistle in the house or at night because it is believed that such an activity results in the whistlers losing money. It is also forbidden to sing at night. Since night is the time of evil forces, no fun is permitted.
In the past when saiga antelopes ran freely across the steppe, we did not hunt them. Kalmyks believed that they were special animals.
As for dogs, we had one that lived with us for many years. When it died, my father buried it as you would bury a person. He said that the dog had brought many benefits to the family. He wrapped the dog in a cloth, put a piece of fat in its mouth, and buried it.
We never kept cats because they do not suit us.
Old people used to say that goats look like devils. That is why we also do not keep these animals.
Dmitriy Mandzhiev, Rules and Prohibitions
Galina talks about traditional prohibitions and how Kalmyks should start a long journey. This is her story:
I don’t know much about bad omens, but I’ll try to recall what I can. We were always told not to shout loudly or to cry in order not to disturb our neighbors. In general, arguing with others was always considered a bad sign. Women were not supposed to go out in the evening. Since night was seen as a bad time, it was forbidden to take anything out of one’s house after sunset.
If a hoopoe bird (mu duutl) sits on the roof your house and starts pecking, it is a bad sign. You should scare it away. Once, when I was a child, such a bird sat on our roof. My grandparents became very scared and tried to scare it away. Later my grandfather told me that the hoopoe was a very bad bird.
In the past Kalmyks were forbidden to shout or cry loudly. It was considered a very bad omen. People observed many prohibitions back then.
Before sending someone off on a long journey, it was important that those who saw them off uttered a well-wish so that the journey went well for the traveler. At the start of their journey, travelers were also supposed to toss red and white coins on the road.
Galina Mamonova, About Traditional Prohibitions and How People Should Start a Journey
Gerel says that according to a Kalmyk tradition it is forbidden to sing songs loudly, or sing songs without uttering the words as if mooing, since these activities invite evil spirits. Gerel recounts a story when such evil spirits came to her in her dreams.
Gerel Shakeeva, About the Repercussions of Transgressing Bans
There were many taboos and bans in the past. Today young people do not observe them. It was forbidden for a bride to go barefoot or without covering her head in front of her husband’s relatives. Kalmyks made fresh tea for their guests. After a well-wish, guests were offered alcohol. Kalmyks called vodka idyan or gashun idyan, meaning ‘food’ or ‘bitter food’.
My grandmother used to say that people should not hold their hands behind their backs or cross their hands on the chest. Other taboos included abstaining from setting out on a journey if someone has poured dirty water on the road and not looking back when a journey has started. I do not know the meaning of these taboos.
Also, Kalmyks slaughtered a sheep by tearing off its aorta and not by cutting its throat as people do today.
Leonid Khochiev, About Traditional Bans
Sofia learnt many rules, traditions, and folk sayings from her mother. Sofia says that people should treat their home with respect. For example, when entering a house, one should try not to touch the doorstep with their foot. In the past when the Kalmyks lived in yurts, they took off their hats when entering a yurt. There are the following prohibitions inside the house: it is forbidden to whistle, cross one’s hands, and hold hands behind the back. Guests should be offered a cup of tea (with sweets and biscuits).
Traditionally, when a new bride enters the house of her husband, she is given a new name by her parents-in-law. For example, if the bride was called Tsagan (White) she could be called Gilyan (Fair). Brides are not supposed to call their in-laws by their names.
During celebrations, the first cup of tea should be offered to the oldest man. Sofia says that many traditions are not being followed, partly because the Kalmyks have forgotten their language.
Sofia Lidzhi-Goryaeva, Rules and Prohibitions
Tatyana talks about traditional bans. This is her story:
Traditional bans are about putting rigid sanctions on people’s wrong or asocial behavior.
My mother used to tell us never to swear or curse people because it may return to those who uttered the bad words. The idea being that negative words reach their target but may also bounce back. People should be educated in this regard, and especially women should never utter filthy words.
My mother warned us against standing on heels. Now I understand that standing on heels is bad for one’s health. It is also forbidden for young people to hold their hands behind their back because it is only old men who do so. Also, it is the old people who should greet first.
I remember whenever my paternal uncle came to us, my mother would put on her headscarf and socks so as not to show him her hair or toes. A similar ban exists among people in the Caucasus.
Traditionally, Kalmyk married women had two braids, whereas single women had only one.
My grandmother lived with us. When we were naughty, she would scare us, ‘If you don’t behave yourselves, your mother will die’. We quickly learnt what we can and cannot do. Although saying such things was quite extreme, people did not shout at or beat their children, they just disciplined verbally.
My mother used to say that evening is a time when evil spirits fly around. Since such spirits are believed to be keen on hanging on to the lower part of a woman’s dress, woman should either abstain from going out in the evening or, if they have to go out, then they should shake their dress properly before entering a house. Another place that evil spirits like to hide is people’s hair.
My mother also used to warn us not to ask people for salt or sugar.
It is also forbidden to show or expose a newborn baby to strangers for a long time. In the past, when infant mortality was high, people neither received guests nor went out to see others until their babies grew up a little bit. People tried to protect their babies in this way.
I also remember how my grandmother used to light incenses (juniper). Its smell reminds me of my childhood.
Traditionally, the Kalmyks did not give their children beautiful names, because they were afraid (that evil spirits may attack children with attractive names). Many people in the past had unattractive names. The worse the name, the better for the child. People also did not praise their children. Children should be brought up modestly.
My mother always told me not to scold other people’s children, and to instill good behavior in my own children.