Yas Kemyalgn and Dalyn Shinj

Yas Kemyalgn

Yas kemyalgn, which is a peculiar competition in wit involving two participants, holds a special place in ritual folklore of the Kalmyks. Since long ago the Kalmyks have had a unique tradition - to tell during celebrations about the characteristics of the 25th bone in the vertebra of the sheep, which differs from other bones by the elegance of its shape.

This particular bone has 12 prominent curves and about a hundred tiny details. Each protrusion and hollow in the bone has its own name alluding to that particular detail’s similarity to someone’s bodily part or to something (e.g. a mountain, a river, a valley, front teeth of a horse, a saddle, ears of a hunting dog, a hero's forehead, a woman's hips, a curve on a craftsman's thumb, etc.)

The skill of a yas kemyalgan teller consists of finding these similarities and describing a similar object in a poetic language. As a rule, this task is given to those, who happen to find the bone in his/her meal. If a person is unsure of his/her abilities to perform this task, then he/she would not even touch the bone.

Yas kemyalgn reflects many ideas about the mythological worldviews of the Kalmyks, their military history, peculiarities of nomadic way of life, traditional craftsmanship and Kalmyk attitudes toward women.

Dalyn Shinj

Dalyn shinj, which literally means '(seeing) signs on a shoulder blade', is a technique of prophesising through using the shoulder of a sheep. The shoulder to be used for prophesising should be cooked first and then its flesh eaten. By examining the markings on the shoulder blade – such as cracks, lines, and the colour, shape and size of various areas, etc. – the fortune teller can foretell not only the future of individuals, families, or societies but also provide long-term weather forecasts. For example, if the flat side of the shoulder blade is lighter in colour than the reverse side, this is interpreted as a sign of heavy snow for the coming winter. Each fortune telling session is concluded with a ritual in which the fortune teller throws the sheep's shoulder blade over his/her own shoulder. If the blade lands on its glenoid (the socket into which the head of the humerus bone fits), it is a sign that the prophecy will come true. If the bone lands otherwise – the prediction will not come true. The shoulder blade must then be cracked open, which requires skill. Dalyn shinj as a traditional method of fortune telling is gradually dying out, although the Kalmyks keep this genre for entertainment purposes in demonstrating the anatomical knowledge of this particular bone.

Alena Lidzhieva, About Yas Kemyalgn and Dalyn Shinj

In the past the vertebra of a sheep was used for divination. It was called kemyalgn. The shoulder blade was also used for divination. Before divination, the shoulder meat had to be eaten by old people. After divination the bone had to be broken with a middle finger. Those who could do so were considered good people. The shoulder blade is thin in the middle, which is where the bone starts to crack from.


Boris Dochkaev, Fortune-Telling with a Rosary and a Sheep’s Shoulder Blade