Thursday, July 3, 2014

living on the edge of the spirit world

A thousand dogs howled, turning their heads to the red colored sky to sing out their primal song. It's nearly midnight but the sun still drags around the edge of the sky giving hours of twilight, of half light that can neither be called fully day nor fully night. Like the famous midnight sun of the North, Siberia and the Eurasian Steppes often times isn't simply a liminal world, for that would imply boundaries between humanity and the spirit world, but in this place such boundaries are never very clear, if they exist at all. Here people didn't live on the edge of the spirit world, they didn't live with 'batches' of wilderness, instead they were surrounded by the wild. Whether in their little fish and hunting camps, herding animals over the grasslands, or in the villages, the wilderness was all about them. It stretched out for a seeming eternity, and given how long it might take to walk from one place to another, at times it might has well have gone on forever. Those who step away from their home could walk for days without seeing another person, another village, or any sign that humans began to understand the vast loneliness of this land.

According to Siikala, Napolskikh, and Hoppal;

Sometimes there is no clear-cut spatial localization in the description of the other world – one cannot say definitely if the matter concerns the space “underground”, or “in the sky”, or on the lower or the upper reaches of the river; the heroes find themselves in another world without it having any particular localization. In this case it is next to impossible to define the border between the real and the unreal worlds, and this fact is of fundamental importance not only in the mythology of the Selkups but also in many other West Siberian traditions. The real world is a person himself and his house, it is his settlement with the territory surrounding it and adapted to the maximum for keeping house. For the Southern Selkups the focal feature of the landscape was a part of the river bank where a small tributary flows into a larger river, as this was the usual place for a settlement, and also the flood plain of the river with its numerous lakes where the trade interest was

concentrated. The hunting grounds are also in the real world, but the man is on the alert here and acts cautiously as the guest of the forest master since “it is not quite another world, yet already it is not the man’s world either”. The river itself, where the settlement was situated, and flood-plain lakes, where people went fishing nearly every day, are a part of the real world and at the same time “another” world. Moreover, it was clearly felt in real life that “everywhere man shared his habitat with the representatives of another world

The omnipresent wilderness is a mixed blessing, for on the one hand it's a place filled with food. The place of the hunt, and of wild vegetables and fruits to gather, of fodder for herd animals. On the other hand it's a place to be feared. So many people will go out into the wild and never return. No one will ever know what happened to them, they will just be gone. Leaving behind only whispers, rumors of what might have happened. This, perhaps, is why the spirits of the wild begin as a primal fear, for those who set foot outside the small village or off the well known routes the eternal quite stretches out before them. Sudden feelings of lonesomeness can wash over them, there are no roads, no way to contact anyone for hours, days even, if trouble should arise. Those out in the wilderness are truly alone, and they can die alone all too easily. Worse even than the feeling of loneliness, however, is oftentimes the feeling of being watched. The feeling that there is something in the trees, on the vast tundra, hiding among the rocks or in the water. Here in this lonely place witches clacked their claws in the long grass, waiting to devour children or other humans. Spirits snatched away peoples souls dragging them into the “Other World,” here one false step could send a person to a land of eternal torment.

Most people believed that one could step into this other world simply by setting foot off the Ski track. Soon these unexpected wanderers of the spirit realms will find themselves surrounded by the bones of humans and dogs, in a vast place filled with malign and hungry spirits. Other Worlds also had entrances on flood plains and in sacred storehouses with the images of spirits, or in groves of sacred trees. Once in these places a person might find it impossible to ever leave, to ever return home, for those they left behind they would simply have vanished into uncertain tears and fearful rumors

One Nenets tale for example begins;

At the fork of a river was a chum (teepee) where an woman lived with her two sons. One day the woman went to gather food and never returned. What had become of her no one knew, perhaps a bear and eaten her or she drowned in the river. The only trace of her was her two little sons alone in the chum.

Growing up in Yupik villages there were occasionally people who did vanish, people who were out hunting or fishing that never returned. Because of this it's actually very common for stories on the steppes and in Siberia to begin with someone disappearing forever. A boy grows up alone and wonders why he's the only person in an Evanki tale, so he sets out to find other people. Eventually he meets a squirrel who is his sister, taken prisoner by the monsters that ate their people when the boy was too small to remember. In a similar story a monster devours an entire village but for an old woman and a little boy, when the boy grows older he wonders why there are so many yurts but no other people. From such stories one certainly gets the sense that there are ghost cities, and indeed when a plague, an enemy or a storm while the people were away on the river could kill an entire village leaving nothing but creepy, empty yurts and chum (teepee like structures). Going back to the story of the two brothers left alone by the riverside, they begin to live by gathering food and fishing, until years later they decide there must be other people and that they should go and look for them. So they set out and eventually find a girl picking cloud berries. The girl takes them back to her chum and there he lives with her and her parents where they have to learn how to herd reindeer and do similar tasks.

There is typically a lot more to these tales then simply a “Jungle Book” like tale of a child who is the only survivor of their people, and of ghost camps of an people wiped out by some evil spirit. For in many of these stories the boy must set out into the spirit world to seek revenge, to kill the monster that slew their family. All of these are stories about survival, however, of two young brothers trying to survive in the wild, an old woman trying to care for and raise the last boy of her tribe. This is about the dying and rebirth of a people.

In a Tatar tale three brothers are out hunting when they come upon a girl who lives alone in a hut, so they adopt her as their sister. It's never said why a young girl was living alone, but presumably like so many others it's not certain, her family, her people are just gone leaving her to try to get by on her own, and she herself almost dies from the other world all around them, for she and her new brothers are neighbors with an Aeneas (a witch / vampire that has long fangs and leopard claws, who drains marrow from sleeping people). The girl meets her neighbor when she goes out to try to find something to start a fire with while her brothers are out hunting. Starting a fire was difficult without matches so neighbors would often borrow hot coals from each other to make this easier. The girls sees some smoke rising in the distance and realizes that someone must have a hearth so goes through the woods and knocks on the Aeneas's door. The Aeneas greets her saying “We are neighbors you should be my guest” so at first the Aeneas appears nice and even gives the girl some coals in a bucket to take back with her to start a fire. Later the Aeneas comes for a visit and tells the girl that she was bored. The girl happily invites her in and eventually falls asleep, while she sleeps the Aeneas drains some of her marrow and leaves her laying on the carpet. Realizing what had happened to their sister the brothers wait to ambush the Aeneas when she comes back, but one by one she drains them until the last brother over comes her and beats her until she heals everyone.

There were two poor girls who discovered that they had a neighbor who was going to help them get fatter so that he could eat them. One night as they were sleeping the monster came in and patted the stomach of the youngest sister; “saying the fish will grow more abundant so that you will grow fat so that I may eat you.” The girl of course woke up and heard this but the monster didn't realize it so the next morning she warned her elder sister not to eat, but at first her sister doesn't believe her, that is until she witnesses the monster for herself. The two of them decide to flee deeper into the forest. As they run they come to a giant river, on the other bank is an old woman. They call to her to stretch out her legs so that they can run across them and escape them monster which is chasing them. At first the old woman tells them she's too busy picking the lice out of her hair, and at last the girls tell her they'll help her if she helps them. So the old woman stretches her legs across the vast river (she's clearly some sort of spirit) and lets them run across. In due time the monster follows the girl and once more the woman stretches her legs across the river, only when the monster is trying to cross on them she pulls them away and the monster falls into the river and drowns. Though the girls aren't out of the woods yet, for the old woman's sons are also evil monsters. So she has to hide them from her children. Eventually the old woman tells the sisters to escape by running up the flow of the river, though even here they encounter a strange monster which carries them off and drops them into a barn. They escape this situation only to enter the house of a frog, who warns them that her husband too will eat them. The girls began to weep for there were too many monsters everywhere they went and they lamented that there would be no escape from this.

In many ways then this is a nightmare world, where a person can run and run and run and always find some other dangerous spirit. Yet it wasn't all bad, for in this world giants could be friendly as well. One giant for example helps a starving old woman cut a hole in the ice and catch fish for her and her son. Then when the old woman's poor son seeks him out the giant greats him happily, feeds him the best cuts of meat and gives him a magical bag which he warns him only to open in his home. As he's traveling back to his home some evil spirits under the ice try to get him to open the bag outside but he ignores them and when he opens up the bag reindeer herds poor out, so many he becomes the wealthiest man on the tundra. More than this he gains a beautiful wife from the bag as well. His greedy brother tries to imitate his luck but he gives into the temptation of the evil spirits and opens the bag outside so instead of reindeer wolves come poring out and they eat all  his reindeer. In another case a hunter comes upon a snake who's being attacked by a bear. The snake turns to the hunter and pleads; “save me and I'll show you something wonderful at the bottom of the ocean.” When the hunter kills the bear the snake keeps his word and gives the hunter a birch box that is always filled with feasts.