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The Religion Of The Polar Marsei

Let us now travel to the extreme north, to the land where dwell the
Yakuts, the Marseillais of the Polar regions. Living a life of gay and
careless vagabondage in this snowy world, they took part in one of the
most characteristic episodes of the general religious upheaval.

At Guigiguinsk, a straggling village on the borders of the Arctic
Ocean, lived a Yakut tribe already converted to Christianity. Their
new faith had not in any way modified the happy-go-lucky nature of the
inhabitants of this frozen land; neither had it in any way clarified
their religious conceptions. "There are many gods," said they, "but
Nicholas is the chief"--and no matter how miserable their life, they
danced and sang, remembering no doubt how in their ancient home in the
far-off south, their ancestors also sang, filling the whole world with
their gaiety. Theirs was a fine climate and a fine country! The sun
often shone, the grass grew high, and the snow only lasted for six
months in the year. So everyone talked and danced and sang. There
were orators who held forth for whole days; there were dancers who
danced for weeks and weeks. From father to son these two ruling
passions have been handed down even to the Yakuts of the present day.
Now, as in former times--as when Artaman of Chamalga "so sang with his
whole soul that the trees shed their leaves and men lost their
reason"--the Yakuts sing, and their songs disturb the "spirits," who
crowd around the singer and make him unhappy. But he sings on,
nevertheless; though the whole order of nature be disturbed, still he

Now, as in former times, the Yakut believes in "the soul of things,"
and seeks for it everywhere. Every tree has a soul, every plant, every
object; even his hammer, his house, his knife, and his window. But
beyond these there is _Ai-toen_, the supreme, abstract soul of all
things, the incarnation of being, which is neither good nor bad, but
just _is_--and that suffices. Far from concerning himself with the
affairs of this world, Ai-toen looks down upon them from the seventh
heaven, and--leaves them alone. The country is full of "souls" and
"spirits," which appear constantly, and often incarnate in the shadows
of men. "Beware of him who has lost his shadow," say the Yakuts, for
such a one is thought to be dogged by misfortune, which is always ready
to fall upon him unawares. Even the children are forbidden to play
with their shadows.

Those who desire to see spirits must go to the _Shamans_, of whom there
are only four great ones, but plenty of others sufficiently powerful to
heal the sick, swallow red-hot coals, walk about with knives sticking
into their bodies--and above all to rejoice the whole of nature with
their eloquence. For the Yakuts consider that there is nothing more
sacred than human speech, nothing more admirable than an eloquent
discourse. When a Yakut speaks, no one interrupts him. They believe
that in the spoken word justice and happiness are to be found, and in
their intense sociability they dread isolation, desiring always to be
within reach of the sound of human voices. By the magic of words, an
orator can enslave whole villages for days, weeks and months, the
population crowding round him, neglecting all its usual occupations,
and listening to his long discourses with unwearied rapture.

Sirko Sierowszewski, who spent twelve years in the midst of these
people, studying them closely, affirms in his classic work on the
Yakuts (published in 1896 by the Geographical Society of St.
Petersburg) that their language belongs to a branch of the Turko-Tartar
group, and contains from ten to twelve thousand words. It holds, in
the Polar countries, a position similar to that held by the French
tongue in the rest of the world, and may be described as the French of
the Arctic regions. The Yakuts are one of the most curious races of
the earth, and one of the least known, in spite of the hundreds of
books and pamphlets already published about them. Their young men
frequently appear as students at the University of Tomsk, though they
are separated from this source of civilisation by more than three
thousand miles of almost impassable country. The journey takes from
fifteen months to two years, and they frequently stop _en route_ in
order to work in the gold mines, to make money to pay for their
studies. These are the future regenerators of the Yakut country.

About thirty years ago there arrived among these care-free children of
nature a Russian functionary, a sub-prefect, who took up his residence
at Guigiguinsk, on the shores of the Arctic Sea. He was a tremendous
talker, though it is impossible to say whether this was the result of
his desire to found a new religious sect, or whether the sect was the
result of his passion for talking. At any rate, he harangued the
populace indefatigably, and they gathered from all quarters to listen
to the orator of the Tsar, and were charmed with him.

In one of his outpourings he declared that he was none other than
Nicholas, the principal god of the whole country, and his listeners,
who had never before beheld any but "little gods," were filled with
enthusiasm at the honour thus bestowed upon their particular district.
The sub-prefect ended by believing his own statements, and accepted in
all good faith the homage that was paid to him, in spite of
Christianity. A writer named Dioneo, in a book dealing with the
extreme north-east of Siberia, tells us that even the local priest
himself was finally converted, and that after a year or so the Governor
of Vladivostock, who had heard rumours, began to grow uneasy about his
subordinate, and despatched a steamer to Guigiguinsk to find out what
had become of him. Upon arrival the captain hastened to fulfil his
mission, but the people suspected that some danger threatened their
"god" and took steps to hide him, assuring the inquirers that he had
gone away on a visit and would not return for a long time. As
navigation is only possible in those parts for a few weeks in the year,
the captain was obliged to return to Vladivostock. Another year
passed, and still there was no news of the sub-prefect. The captain
returned to Guigiguinsk, and having received the same reply as before
to his inquiries, made pretence of departure. He came back, however,
the next day, and with his sailors, appeared unexpectedly among the

An unforgettable spectacle met their eyes.

The little town was _en fŕte_, church bells ringing, songs and reports
of firearms intermingling. Great bonfires flamed along the seashore,
and a solemn procession was passing through the streets. Seated on a
high throne in a carriage, the sub-prefect, the "great god" of
Guigiguinsk, was haranguing the crowds, with partridges' wings,
ribbons, tresses of human hair and other ornaments dear to the Yakuts,
dangling round his neck. To his carriage were harnessed eight men, who
drew it slowly through the town, while around it danced and sang
_shamans_ and other miracle-workers, accompanying themselves on
tambourines. Thus did the believers in the new religion celebrate the
happy escape of their "god" from danger.

The appearance of the captain and his armed men produced a sensation.
The "great god" was seized and carried off, and forced to submit,
subsequently, to all kinds of humiliations.

Next: The Religion Of The Great Candle

Previous: The Mahometan Visionaries

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