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 fĂȘte_, 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.