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Author(s) of the publication: Nikolai VEKHOV

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by Nikolai VEKHOV, Cand. Sc. (Biol.), D. S. Likhachev Research Institute for Cultural and Natural Heritage, RF Ministry of Culture and Mass Communications

Up until the late 16th century civilized Europeans knew but little about the northern edge of their continent and its aboriginals. What they knew came largely from eyewitness accounts of travelers about the nomadic tribes of Lapps (Laplanders) and Scandinavian Saamis. The tidings brought in by two Englishmen, Hugo Willoughby and Steven Barrow, who returned from one of the first arctic voyages in the 1550s, attracted little, if any, notice. One couldn't care less about what they had to tell about the Peninsula Kanin Nos (Cape), the islands of Vaigach and Novaya Zemlya, and the tribes of idolaters, the "reindeer people"...

Only after three voyages of Dutch merchants in the Arctic Ocean (in 1594, 1595, 1595/96) led by Willem Barents* the world heard about Nordic tribes who wore their deer-skin apparel in summer and in winter, and hunted fur-bearing animals, polar bears and seals; who harpooned walruses and whales; and who would eat raw venison and fish. Thanks to these voyages the archipelagos Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya, the islands of Vaigach and Medvezhy (Bear) as well as the seas washing these insular lands were mapped.


See: V. Starkov, "Who Discovered Spitsbergen?", Science in Russia, No. 2, 1994. - Ed.

Articles in this rubric reflect the authors' opinion. - Ed.

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The Dutch seafarers sailed through the native parts of the exotic northern folk (Russian industrialists and Pomors, or coast-dwellers of Archangel, called them Samoyeds): in the lower reaches of the Pechora, on the shore of the seaway Yugorsky Shar, on Dolgoi and other islands. Gerrit de Veer, the chronicler of those odysseys, described his impressions in the travelogue Sea Voyages of Barents (1598) supplying it with many vivid pictures of nomadic hunters.

The belt of tundra plains and open woodlands stretching along the Arctic Ocean coast from Cape Kanin Nos in the west to the Yenisei in the east, which is the present native land of the Nenets people (Nentsi), has a holy of holies. This is Vaigach, an island situated between the Barents and Kara Seas, just where the borders of Europe and Asia cross. This sea-shelf island, 105 km long from southeast to northwest, and not above 50 km wide, is separated from the mainland by a narrow strait, Yugorsky Shar; and the 60 km-wide Kara Gate, also a seaway, lies between the island and Novaya Zemlya.

Vaigachian shore terraces alternate with small mountain ridges oriented from southeast to southwest. The many swamps and lakes are rich in water fowl and fish, such as loach and omul (sea fish of the salmon family). Herds of reindeer* roam in the tundra expanses, and there are quite a few polar foxes over there, too. The abundance of the fowls of the air is amazing - such warblers as ruffs, stints, sandpipers and many, many others sing and frisk about in springtide. Large colonies of ducks, geese and swans colonize the shores of lakes and the sea coast in summertide. The plant kingdom of Vaigach is lush enough for such high latitudes. Here and there you get into thickets of osier and willow trees, along with many heat-loving plants that spread here from the woodland zone to the south in the recent geological past because of climatic warming.

The Vaigach island was discovered by English seamen aboard S. Barrow's ships in the mid-16th century. But they thought better of landing there - this was done later on by the ship crew captained by W. Barents during their first expedition. That momentous event took place on the 14th of July 1594 in what is now the Liamchina inlet (bay). A week after, the Dutch seamen spotted about 400 idols hewn rough of wood rising on a high promontory. Such queer idols, which had never been seen by Europeans before, stood tilted on supports and looked east. Some images personified men, women and children. A few had four visages and portrayed whole families. The old, decrepit figures rubbed shoulders with younger ones. The ground all around was strewn with deer antlers, proof positive of sacrificial offerings. This means that the place was frequented by heathen savages.


See: Ye. Syroechkovsky, "Problem of the Reindeer", Science in the USSR, No. 2, 1990. - Ed.

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This is how an obscure Dutch engraver depicted the appearance, dress and industries of northern natives whom the Barents shipcrew encountered on their first voyage to the Russian Arctic.

Sanctuary of the god Vesako on Cape Diakonov as seen by the Dutch seafarers late in the 16th century.

The Dutchmen had the luck of coming in touch with the northern idolaters. As testified by Jan Huygen van Linshoten, a merchant from the town of Enkheise, they looked like a tribe of huntsmen and warders. Men were good at racing, they were agile and fine jumpers. Short of stature, they had flat faces and smallish eyes; their hair was black with a shade of luster sheen, shorn above the ears. They wore no beards. The Dutch seamen, who had sailed to southern latitudes, found them akin to Spanish mulattoes, though their skin had a copper tint, apparently because of living in smoked-filled huts, the chums, similar to the wigwams of North American Indians (affairs made with an arched framework of poles).

The islanders crossed the tundra plains in narts, the dog- or deer-drawn sleds. Their clothing was exotic, too: they wore jackets with the fur inside, and had gauntlets and hoods tied in. Their trousers tapered below like those of the Dutch farmers. And their small crook-and-bow outfit was like that of Persians.

A Nordic Easter Island it was indeed. Mute idols, freak heathens in just as freakish natural settings. The Vaigach islanders called themselves Rapa-Nuis ("Umbiculus

стр. 47


Terrae", or "Hub of the Universe"), or else Khebidya Ya ("Holy Land Folk"). The place name, Vaigach, means, according to Dr. Edouard Murzaev (RAS Institute of Geography), a tract of inwash land. However, the venerable Dictionary of the Russian Language compiled by Vladimir Dahl (elected to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences honoris causa in 1863) interprets the root word " Vaiga" as a "passage forships", "seadepths", "channel", "mainstream", "gate" or "fairway". The Nentsi, the local folk, call their native island Vaingats'. This is a composite word formed from two adjectives, vai ("tough", "evil") and ngats' ("young", "youthful"). So the name can be rendered as Island of Tough Fellows, or Robbers. All these interpretations seem truthful.

During their second voyage in the fall of 1595 the Dutch encountered a group of Vaigach islanders, about sixty in number, in what is now the Varnek bay. The bunch was led by a chief wearing silver earrings and crook-and-bow adorned with spangles. There were a few fair-skinned and light-haired people in their midst. The heads of "high-born ladies" were covered with gay fur-trimmed kerchiefs, while the other women had just ordinary fur caps on. The natives wanted to barter the precious walrus tusks for flour, meat and fabrics, but the seamen demurred, fearing they could land on a losing end.

The Northerners told the Dutch travelers about the enigmatic tribe of Barandeians, the erstwhile denizens of Vaigach and Novaya Zemlya, who had ousted the Samoyeds onto the mainland and who then had vanished as if into thin air. Those were the first bits of actual evidence about a folk that had peopled this land in days of yore, a puzzle that has never been unlocked thus far.

To Nentsi Vaigach is a holy island indeed, inhabited by their deities since time immemorial: the goddess Khodako ("Old Woman") reigned northernmost, on Bolvansky Nos (cape); and southernmost, on Cape Diakonov, were the domains of the god Vesako ("Old Man"). The divine couple begot four sons: the older one went to Mount Konstantinov Kamen' ("Rock"), the second-to Yamal Peninsula; the third left for the woods in the south of Kanin Nos. Only the fourth, the younger one, Niu-Khage ("God's Son", "Idol-Son"), stayed put in his native parts and chose a small cliff for his "domicile".

Vaigach knew no permanent settlements. Nentsi came there now and then to worship their deities, graze herds of deer and for hunting in wintertime. Pomors*, the coast-dwellers of the White Sea, first set foot on the island in the 17th century, and their visits became regular later on. Early in the summer they set out on their sailboats from Archangel, Shuya, Sumsky Posad and other communities on the White Sea coast to come back in the fall, before freezing-over, with a rich bag. A perilous journey it was. They hunted for walruses, seals and white whales whose skins were made into harness gear and reins and whose oil and blubber remelted into grease. But most appreciated at the fairs of Archangel, Pustozersk and other northern towns were walrus tusks, the "fish teeth". The merchants of the Pechora's lower reaches trekked thither to hire Nentsi for tending reindeer herds, for hunting sea animals and omul fishing; they rewarded the natives with supplies of powder, ammunition, fishing tackle, and household utensils.

The heathen sanctuaries, the way they were depicted in Dutch engravings, had survived up until the early 19th century when the Reverend Veniamin, the archimandrite of the St. Trinity Monastery (located on the Sia, a tributary of the Northern Dvina), mounted a crusade for converting the local population to Christianity; this coercive campaign resulted in the disappearance of heathen cults and culture. Proceeding from the father's verbal descriptions of 1826, we can visualize the ancient sanctuary on Cape Diakonov.

Its centerpiece was a three-faceted wooden idol nearly 140 cm (over four feet) tall. Its upper part was made up of seven visages cut out on wide planes one above another-mouth, round nose, hollow cheeks, and all; their eyes were traced by two short lines. As many as 420 less "significant" wooden idols crowded about the deity to the


See: N. Vekhov, "Pomorye Antiquities?", Science in Russia, No. 3, 2006. - Ed.

стр. 48


Wooden idols on Vaigach.

стр. 49


south, a heathen "retinue" so to speak. Not above 70 to 110 cm (2.5 to 3.5 feet) tall, they had double-faced pointed heads with prominent features wherein mouth, nose and eyes were delineated. Some figures had iron nails for the navel.

The site was strewn with something like 30 skulls of polar bears and a heap of heads of sacrificial deer. Their antlers flaunted a panoply of axes, arrows, copper rings, buttons, nails and particolored patches of coarse cloth, and many other items. Way over to the side, about 100 meters away, there stood 20 white sculptures from limestone, raw, crowned with a pointed surmount denoting the head. But no sacrificial offerings were brought to the limestone idols.

Yet another sacrificial site lay on the shore of the mainland just opposite Vesako, just as a preliminary to Vaigach. Before getting across the Yugorsky Shar seaway, the heathens immolated sacrificial victims to their gods and asked for permission to hunt and fish; they begged for success in their enterprise. Only thereupon would they venture out into the high seas. Before a return journey they would offer their fervent thanks to the Old Man for a good bag, they tried their best to placate him and prayed for safe home-coming.

The Nentsi trekked to Vaigach from far and wide to worship their gods. They came from the Bolshaya Zemlya tundra plains, from the Urals, Yamal and the lower reaches of the Ob. Everyone sought to put up his small idol next to the sanctuaries, and thus hundreds and even thousands of wooden and stone figures piled up. The heathens also broke ground for new sanctuaries on capes and promontories.

But why Vaigach? Why did it become a holy? Probably because of its geography and relief features. An insular terra firma surrounded by the main was like a citadel impregnable to infidels. "The Samoyeds stood in awe of the mountains regarding the cliffs on their tops as seats of unknown terrible gods." This testimony comes from Nikolai Kozmin, an ethnologist who studied the Nentsi of the Archangel province in the early 20th century. "In fact, the island of Vaigach abounds in cliffs and mountains," he remarked.

Cape Diakonov, where the Vesako deity had his seat, is actually a tall steep cliff. At its foot it has a deep gaping cave with two outlets into the sea; the wind moaning and howling inside evokes mind-boggling images and specters. The superstitious authochons could not but make this place a holy many centuries ago. Another sacred place, Khodako, was likewise laid out on a steep promontory. The same is true of other sanctuaries, too. Thus Vaigach became the main - and the only one - mecca in the Arctic, its sanctum sanctorum.

In the first two or three decades of the 19th century Father Veniamin had almost all of the aborigines converted to the Christian faith. However, a bunch of diehard

Archeologists' bag (12th to 16th cent.).

стр. 50


стр. 51


heathens hid some of their idols from the missionaries. For one, those brought from cliffs in the island's north were stashed away within obscure fissures of the central mountain range near what is now Mount Bolvanskaya. This very name, Bolvanskaya, comes from bolvans, or idols, found in great abundance there.

In 1898 Alexander Borisov, a Russian artist, visited Vaigach. He was the only from among Russians who had the luck of prying into the sanctuary and depicting it, then and there, in his canvas Chief Samoyed Sanctuary on Isl. Vaigach, now in the collections of the Archangel Museum of Pictorial Arts. In 1907 the painter aired his impressions in the book From the Pinega on to the Kara Sea. "What made the Samoyeds deify this place? Perhaps the fantastical forms of the grotto of steep cliffs-those vertical columns, that magic labyrinth of stone! The Samoyeds are used to open expanses of the tundra, and so this place struck them as something quite out of the way, supernatural. No traveler has ever visited this chief sanctuary before me, and none of the descriptions of polar journeys has anything to say about this place. This is quite understandable, though: it is located far inland away from the sea; besides, one had to live together with the Samoyeds and in Samoyed ways to get them to point to this highly remarkable place."

One may come upon heathen idols in central and mountain parts of Vaigach in this day and age, too. The wood they are made of is overgrown with lichens all over. Their true age is not clear yet. Are they relics of ages past to have escaped the notice of church fathers in the 19th century? Or were they put up at a later date in keeping with venerable old traditions?

Archeological excavations carried out in the 1980s by Dr. Leonid Khlobystin and his team (St. Petersburg Division of the RAS Institute of Archeology) were just as impressive. The most conspicuous sanctuaries (up to 20 m across) were built on capes and promontories well in sight from the sea. All around in a belt, dozens of meters wide, lay the remains of sacrificial immolations. Stripping the turf, archeologists recovered several hundred items brought in from West Siberia, the Volga and Kama region of European Russia, Kiev and Novgorod the Great.

A large number of curious finds were retrieved, each one of a kind: parts of a saber dating to the 11th - 13th cent. (a rarity for the northern latitudes); steels (for striking fire from a flint) adorned with pictorial images of beasts of prey... A silver badge done up in niello (black enamel)... a brass figurine of a swan... a mascot in the shape of a hatchet... a tin icon frame... silver temporal rings... There were also beads, pendants and drop earrings... a twisted bracelet of old Russian make decorated with an amber inset... and an amazing belt clasp of the 8th - 9th cent. Likewise dug up were sacral articles of Siberia's aborigines (a bronze mask, figurines of animals and hares; one depicted a half-man and half-elk monster). The images of Archangel Michael and small crosses of Kievan Rus certainly belonged to Orthodox Christians. One silver Arab coin popped up, too. Judging by these artifacts, the sanctuaries were already there as early as the 10th and 11th centuries.

стр. 52


The take of sacrificial offerings included ironware of the 14th to 17th centuries, axes, flintlocks, shirt-of-mail pieces, finger-rings and other articles. Some indicated the owner's name and the exact date of manufacture. Unearthed in one of the sanctuaries was an identity tag of a Wolf Laufer - it was made in Nuremberg, Germany; a two-kopeck coin minted in Siberia in 1774; and a silver half-kopeck coin of anno 1840.

Now, how did all these items land in Vaigach? We cannot tell yet. Once we have unlocked this puzzle, it will become possible to learn more about the roots of the Nenets people, whether they were authochons through and through, or aliens who had moved to these parts in days of yore. And we shall be able to get to know more about the Nenets mode of life and religion. Possibly the attributes of Kievan and Novgorodan cultures immolated to gods were a war booty seized by Nordic tribes in battle with Russian armed detachments. We know that these troops moved far eastward beyond the Urals to conquer or lay tribute on the bellicose tribe of Karacheis (this folk lived along the Kara river separating the present Archangel and Tumen administrative regions, and also farther to the east).

The alien merchants could use coins minted in 1840 for buying deer, skins and other commodities from the Nentsi. Also, they might have picked some of the articles on the seashore from the shipwreck of vessels carrying goods from the "gold-seething Mangazea"* and back.

But what about the many articles brought from the Volga-and-Kama interfluve, from Kiev and Novgorod in the 8th and 9th centuries, i. e. in the age of Old Rus? And how did the Arab silver coin get there? Probably the primeval natives - those who had been living on Vaigach and its environs before the forefathers of the Nenets tribe moved in - were in touch with the land of Perm' Vychegodskaya (in the basin of r. Vychegda), a hub of commercial routes of Europe and Asia.

The West Siberian articles could have been imported by the Samodiitsi (ancestors of the Nentsi, Entsi, Ngasans, Selkups) who came from the Sayan upland. Ousted by the Turkis during what is known as the Great Migration of Peoples at the turn of the 1st and 2nd millennia A. D., the nomad tribes inched forward up the valleys of the Yenisei and Ob, and in so doing they mixed with indigenous tribes and adopted local religions and ways of life. Moving northwards, the nomads had reached the Yamal peninsula by the beginning of the 17th century and, getting across the Urals, reached Europe. Neither is it not ruled out that the recovered artifacts belonged to some other obscure Siberian tribe. Why not?

The puzzles are legion, and they are a hard nut to crack. Be that as it may, the Vaigach sanctuaries keep many of the attributes of the life and religions of tribes native to faraway parts at the back of beyond. Since the Nentsi are very fond of gorgeous Christian ceremonies arcane to them, we may guess that they used to give up their best (the gaudy gewgaws and tinsel they cherished) to divine idols and make them kind.

In 1887, that is three hundred years after the Dutch, Konstantin Nosilov, a Russian writer and traveler (who was the first Russian to have lived through three wintering seasons in the Nenets camps on Novaya Zemlya) heard a Samoyed tale about a mysterious tribe who had once lived there and who departed afterwards to the nether world. Nosilov got all that down. One of the denizens, a huntsman, said he knew their whereabouts, a cave on Mezhdusharsky, an islet on the shore of the seaway Obmanny Shar. This yarn has a ring of truth, we must say.

Apparently in their legends and stories the Samodien immigrants kept memories of the erstwhile authochons. Incidentally, archeologists digging on Vaigach and Yamal discovered dugouts and many material bits of evidence on the pre-Nenets culture of hunters and sea trappers who knew no potter's wheel. According to informed expert opinion, this culture took final shape at the turn of the 2nd and 1st millennia B. C. It might belong to the arctic tribe of legendary Sirt'si (Sikhirtya, Sirtya) and elusive Barandeians - actually the selfsame folk whom the Barents crew heard about.

Members of the sea voyages of Barrow and van Linshoten (16th century) described tools and boats similar to those that belonged to huntsmen ensconced in the dugouts. The European travelers noted their outward distinctions from the Nentsi in the different color of the skin and different fur garb. Depicted in Dutch engravings, this attire resembles overall fitting at the waist, in a marked contrast to the loose garments, malitsa, made of tender nerpa (freshwater seal), deer and marine seal skins worn by northern tribes at a later date.

The Dutch engravers must have portrayed the Barandeians or their descendants who lived on the islands Varandei, Vaigach and Novaya Zemlya, and on the shores of the strait Yugorsky Shar. The ancestors of the present Nentsi must have mixed with that ancient arctic tribe and adopted elements of its culture, such as archaic skills in hunting sea animals and deer, and done-up men's clothes. The new ethnic group invented chum homes, the arched framework structures reminding of the yurt tents of nomadic livestock-breeders of Eurasia's plains.

But where did the ancient idols and fanes come from? Taking a hard second look at their pictures and descriptions, we can naturally suggest that the three types of sculptures must have belonged to three different civilizations at least. To what in particular? We cannot tell, unfortunately. Further inquiry into the Vaigach and other holy places of the northern people should make us wiser on all that.

Engravings borrowed from the book: G. de Veer, Barents Voyages, Leningrad, 1936

Photos supplied by the author


* Mangazea - a major commercial and business center of Western Siberia in 1601 - 1672. - Ed.


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