In Search of Magna Hungaria
...Sixteen centuries stand between us and the troubled times of the Turkic-Huns expansion known in history as Vlkerwanderung — The Migration Period. Caught in the turmoil of the dramatic era were the numerous old Ugrian tribes who lived in West Siberia. History sealed their fates in different ways. The southern Ugrians (modern Hungarians, or Magyars) were carried away by moving Hun tribes, endured quite a few ordeals, more than once were on the brink of ruin and finally settled on the middle Danube. The northern Ugrians after a long train of “heydays” and “lows” held their native ground — Ob-Irtysh taiga region — where they now call themselves Khanty and Mansi.
The book is a “biography” of the old Ugrian taiga clan As-Yakh (Clan of the Bear), forced to leave their land. The people were faced with the choice — either to go south and search for lands of plenty or to stay. The situation was even more tragic because they did not know for sure if a way chosen would lead to salvation or to death. And more often than not the actions of the tribes and peoples were governed not by reason but by unbridled passions...
The book suggests that the history runs in circles. The events of the past resemble in many respects what we are going through now. Maybe the past experience would warn us against the mistakes made by our predecessors and make us wiser. In the name of life...
We continue publishing selected chapters of the historical novel by Mikhail F. Kosarev “In Search of Magna Hungaria”, which is being prepared for print. Although this is a work of fiction, a genre not typical of a respected scholar, the author tried to stick to historical truth
The Fur Season
For six days nobody had seen the sun, and the world was covered with heavy leaden darkness. Water was crashing down from above in solid cloud-burst stream. Underground water began oozing out forming new springs and sources, gathering in urman and meadow lowlands in new lakes. Everything was choking with too much of a good thing. It seemed as though the upper and lower gods united in their mutual desire to send to the Earth another Deluge. But the morning of the seventh day greeted people with clear sky and bright sun. Again the eyes could see the Divine Valley, clean and clear, with dark blueness of lake windows, with golden wood islands.
Everybody knew that after few fine days cold winds would come along with wet snow, and then — a long white-fielded winter with mean frosts. Fearing to miss the moment, Rach sent his people to Laigan and Emder villages to notify about a joint prayer for luck in the approaching winter hunting.
The men of all the three villages came to the mouth of the Laigan, which was believed to mark the center of the Emder land. Then they sailed together over to the other side of the Emder channel, where a high mainland relic was towering to the sky in five arrow flights from the flood-lands. It was the place where Ene-iki was living in his replacing body, the Big Old Man, the Ancestor Honored by Gods, who was a great shaman in his first earth life and was honored with the rank of Spirit by mercy of the upper gods.
The As-Yakhs thought Ene-iki equal in power and greatness to the ootyrs’ god Pairakhta and often called him Ort-iki – Prince Old Man, although the ootyrs winced when they heard the name. Nevertheless, the noble Emder family did not oppose the blasphemous substitution, justly believing that their great heavenly father was equally indifferent to both love and dislike of commoners, if any of humble people dared to express it.
They crossed a wild windfall forest over a flat slope, moving in silence led by Rach, who knew exactly where the traps and pits were that stood guard over all accesses to the idol’s dwelling. At last the eyes of the men saw the white-moss dune, covered with pure pine forest. Its ridge was crowned with a giant pine. Under its canopy there nestled a small loghouse on the high pole legs and a ladder – a log with seven cuts for steps – at its foot. They bowed three times to the sacrifice tree and to the holy dwelling. Having leaned the ladder against the house, Rach and Gynda went up to the God-Honored Spirit.
The idol stood on a dais of planks at the front wall. It was not tall, just two ells, in an iron cap and oversized robe with the tucked skirt. Its excessively long sleeves hung over the dais to the floor. It had a steep forehead under the carved ovals of eyes, and a wide flat nose without a bridge. Its mouth looked as a third eye and was marked by a similar oval. Several iron knives were stuck into the dais. Standing aside were two wooden cups filled with sacrificial blood, decayed with time.
While people were gathering dry wood for the fire, Rach and Gynda changed the idol’s clothes. They took off the iron cap and the robe. When they untied the last belt, the small copper things – rings, plates, arrow-heads, figures of animals and birds – spilled ringing over the floor and the dais out of the idol’s bosom. Ene-iki appeared in all his unsightly wooden nudity: with a sharp head and short stumps without fingers for his hands and arms, with a low middle cut below to divide his legs, and a thick straight bough under his belly to imitate a male pestle.
The naked idol was dressed in a clean red robe, girded with new silk ribbons. The things that fell out while the idol was undressed were collected from the dais and the floor and returned to the bosom, adding a couple of silver earrings, a silver ring, and a copper arrow-head. Five skins were hung over a side wall: one of a sable, one of a marten, two of a red fox, and one of a silver fox. Having taken the old robe with the old belts, they went down.
Gynda and another As-Yakh brought a jibbing deer to the tree and turned the deer to the noon. Having finished the prayer, Rach motioned his hand at his helpers. They made with skill and speed the required sacrifice…
The intestines in the bark bowls were emanating steam and smell of blood. Before giving the sign to begin the feast, the shaman took two cups and minced there the lungs, liver and kidneys. One he fed to the fire, the other threw over the butt of the holy tree. Then he filled the third cup and took it to the Ort-iki’s dwelling. There he put his fingers into the bleeding mash and passed them over the idol’s mouth and face.
After the sacrificial feast they hung the deerskin, the old robe and ribbons over the pine branch. Bowing to the tree, fire and the idol’s dwelling, Rach voiced the wishes and requests of the people:
“Oh Ene-iki who lives in the light world, the honored forefather, the kind protector! We have brought to you our gifts, we have fed you with fat meat and red blood, we have honored you with our praises. Please make our winter hunting abundant. Let our urmans be plentiful in flesh and fur beasts. Let our men be lucky in hunting.”
Two days later, before the river froze over, the elders, who had agreed between themselves, went to Emder-vosh to discuss the prince’s fur share. It varied from year to year depending on the number of fur-game and according to the luck given by Gods. In the year of average luck each bow was to give nine sables. The sable fee could be changed to the beaver fee, one beaver for three sables, the squirrel fee – seventy squirrels for one sable, the marten fee – two martens for one sable, the red fox fee – two foxes for one sable, the silver fox fee – one fox for two sables. In the good years the prince share went up to twelve sables for one bow, or even more.
After Endyr and three other brothers-ootyrs perished, young Yag was reigning in Emder land. The elders asked him to put seven sables for one bow, referring to the bad harvest of nuts and larch cones. Yag agreed without arguing, and the elders were surprised at his indifference to his own profit. They attributed it to the sorrowful shock at the death of the Emder ootyr family.
As the snow cover got a final hold over the ground, the men put their hunting equipment and food on the sledges, put on the skis and went to the far urmans to hunt. All dogs went with them except for the young, who were inexperienced in hunting, and for the old, who had lost their sense of smell. The As-Yakhs’ dogs could track down and hold the game. Also, they could inform about a danger, drive away evil spirits, guard their master from predators, warm him on the cold nights, and help to pull the heavy sledges.
The Leulans went in two directions from their village: one group went to the north, alongside the pine-forest bank of the Emder channel; the other, including Ortan and his brothers, went to the west, to the deep of the urmans neighboring the land of Makhums. Old Rach went with his sons. It was agreed that he was to be with them only for the first ten or twelve days, only until the beaver hunting was over. This hunt required special skills, and the old man was afraid that without his help his inexperienced sons would fail to outwit the smart beavers.
First, all the party was in one line. Then groups of three or four hunters began leaving it, it was those who were to beat the ski-track to their family hunting land. By the end of the second day, only Rach’s family was going on straight to the west, to the Stone Belt.
It was a quiet windless evening. It was hard to breathe because of the frost that glued the eyelashes and eyebrows with rime. Rach chose a clearing for the night, an old fire-site. He ordered to fell a couple of dry pines and cut them into logs. They nestled among the flaming long logs, chewed on stroganina (sliced frozen fish or meat), washing it down with thawed snow water. Then they wrapped themselves in fur blankets, but had no chance to fall asleep.
In the star distance, a beautiful and horrifying sky flame grew brighter and wider. It came from the north, slowly, inevitably. First, a greenish arch appeared at the edge of the sky, it locked in itself the impenetrable darkness, and this was the entrance to the Nether world. The arch was growing brighter and more colorful, then it launched long light-green rays to the south, and their ends lit up a wide waving band. The arch and the band filled up the northern part of the sky and stretched out new rays. The band was swaying as a rainbow curtain, shimmering in swinging folds, spiraled inconceivably, thinned and was torn into the light hazy pieces, through which the stars began sparkling. All of a sudden, everything above flashed out anew, was colored with live enchanting tints, glided southward in a continuous fire river, at the same time closing on the ground, and it seemed as though the upper flare would join the flames of the ground fire. But the shine was faring away, paling, thawing, opening the stars, and suddenly under the blow of the unseen heavenly wind it again blazed up with the divine fires, everything renewed its moves, breathed and froze, was born and died…
The hunters lay froze with sweet terror, sure that if they closed their eyes, the sky fire would immediately touch them, and after that all living creatures would disappear in the flaming universe chasm. The sky went out as the sun rose. The hunters hurried away from the enchanted clearing that attracted the secret signs of other worlds…
They went in silence, broken only by the squeaking snow. Right from under their feet a flock of willow grouses escaped in a whirl of snow. They disappeared in the dense needles, flapping their wings heavily. Right there a hare broke out from a near shrub, jumped right into the men, jerked aside, bumped into a spruce. Mad with fear, it jumped right over Vayakh, darted into the same shrubs where it had been hiding before. The dogs began barking, rushed after it, but then stopped, ashamed of their confusion, wagging their tails. After that the men went fast, talking on the move. Rach said that if they kept the pace, they would come to the winter house by midday.
A spruce branch moved, and the snow fell down. A squirrel jumped onto the brownish-grey trunk. The animal curved graciously and turned its head toward the hunters. The one-eared Vayakh dashed to the tree, barking. Ortan crossly called it over; the dog squealed in offence and came back, wondering why the master was so odd. The old dogs, who were going to hunt in winter not for the first time, looked inquiringly at the hunters and, having guessed that they for some reason decided to spare the red-skinned bustler, began smelling someone’s old track, as if all that was going on above was of no interest for them. Maybe, they recalled that people’s law forbade harming the animals on the way to the beaver village: the beavers would learn about the offences and would understand immediately that it was bad people approaching with evil intents. And there would be no good hunting.
Meanwhile, the squirrel, feeling that the odd two-legged creatures and their shaggy wolf-like companions would do it no harm, looked out from behind the trunk. Ortan lagged behind, curious, wondering what would happen next. The squirrel ran along a wide branch, sat at the end of it, lifted its tail as a plume, and swung, dropping snow. Then it returned to the trunk, sat on its hind legs, washed its face, and shook the foreleg. Its beady eyes sparkled as it darted down the trunk. At the butt it turned swiftly, snorted and went back, spreading out the tail. Invisible in the dense green needles, it threw a cone at Ortan, clicked angrily, making it clear that the show was over and the tiresome viewer should go his way.
Living in the trees, high above the ground, at the doorstep of the skies, squirrels can guess the will of gods better than other earthly creatures . The As-Yakhs knew about it and watched the squirrel life closely, benefiting from it significantly. If a squirrel made its nest higher than usual, they knew at once that the upcoming winter would be plentiful in snow and snowstorms. When the squirrels made their homes low above the ground, they expected a winter without much snow. If the squirrels made their nests as warm as possible, they got ready for a harsh winter with hard frosts.
The local urmans hosted mostly red squirrels. But one could also see there dark and grey squirrels. The latter was the most valuable. The blind Nakh would say that it came from the Land of the Golden Mountains and visited the land of the As-Yakhs not for a need, but out of love for wandering. But as it got to the far away lands, it grew homesick and soon went back home. There, the land reached the sky and was loved by gods. In the skies of the Golden Mountains, in the Beginning of all Beginnings, the source streams of the Ob, Irtysh and other rivers welled out. The people of that country did not know hunger or dreadful diseases. Everyone chose their favorite occupations: some shepherded hoofed animals, others tilled the land, still others hunted forest beasts; some took gold, silver, iron, copper, and tin stone out of the mountain interior. The forest Ugrians called this country Mortim-ma, but none of them had ever been there.
They crossed twice a clear line of a sable’s track. They saw the sable itself, who flashed as a dark lightning over the ridge of a long log. In front of them a long-eared hare crossed their way, next a fire-red back flashed among the shrubs. The fox stopped as it saw the people, turned its white breast and disappeared in the trees with a wave of the tail.
On the next clearing there were tangled prints of fox’s paws, and the snow was dug into. Clearly, the fox had been hunting mice here; until a hare darting by did not distract it from the usual morning work. Near one dig a smothered weasel was lying, fox’s main rival in hunting mice. The weasel twisted as a white snake along mouse passages under the snow, and not a single field-vole would manage to escape such a hunter. Today the little predator got unlucky. When it fell asleep after a good breakfast in a snow cave, it went straight into the paws of a stronger beast.
The As-Yakhs did not hunt the weasels: the skin was too small, too thin, not durable enough, but the beast was considered to be quite useful. The people were happy when a weasel made its nest under the floor of their house or barn. In this case the mice plundering food and spoiling furs behaved themselves.
The forest thinned, the snow on the clearings sparkled under the sun, and grey shadows lay over the white field. The restless Vayakh darted aside, bustling around a single larch. Then he sat down, looking up, fidgeting his tail over the newly-fallen snow. He was barking impatiently, turning his muzzle at the hunters. From a branch next to the trunk, black mean eyes of a predator were looking down watchfully. A flat head, rounded ears, and a yellow spot under the throat.
Martens are a terror of the forest game, the meanest and cruelest beasts in taiga that beat even sables in their blood-thirst. They scour constantly above and below, destroy unfledged birds in their nests, drink out eggs, at night snatch grown birds: hazel-grouse, partridge, black grouse, and wood grouse. They grasp their prey and bite it through its nape, drinking its blood while it is warm. Martens do not like to build their own nests and spend their nights in squirrel nests and in bird nests, having eaten the hosts first. If the gods had created martens as big as gluttons or a lynxes, they would be the most terrifying and merciless beasts of the taiga.
Hunters sometimes meet them in odd places: among the bogs, or on the bare river islands. It happens so because the marten grabs hold of a sleeping wood grouse, makes it fly off and carry it far away, until the tired bird falls somewhere in an unknown place to serve as a dinner for its ungrateful rider.
Ortan called Vayakh who was sitting stubbornly under the tree, and the dog followed him unwillingly. Such rebelliousness, common for the young dogs, was of no concern. Ortan knew: having spent the winter in the woods with the hunters and experienced dogs, Vayakh would become a real hunting dog, on par with his father Eltamp.
There were no other taiga people whose dogs would beat As-Yakhs’ dogs in hunting skills. They had good hearing, keen sense of smell, and excellent eyesight. They were obedient, clever, and faithful. They could chase deer and moose to the place where the hunters were expecting them, they could easily keep the fur and feathered game at the height of a shot. They did not rush to the tree barking, but tried not to scare it off. They only sat on the snow and yelped shortly calling for their masters, looking up to the prey.
The forest parted, uncovering the longed for winter hut. They stopped in a dozen steps before it, folded back the heads of their coats. Rach neared the log hut and made three circles around it as the sun goes. He knocked the corners with his ski stick and asked:
“Now go, it is our house, we will live here.”
It was the spirits who were to leave, the spirits that occupied the house when it was empty, because a house without inhabitants is like a man without a soul. The people were grateful to the spirits for not letting the house die, and they gave way to the new guests without resistance.
Almost half of the room was occupied by a wide plank bed. Two poles were hanging down from the ceiling on the belts, to dry the clothes. There was a shelf in the front corner. As they entered, they placed a trunk made of cedar roots on it. While Ortan was chopping wood, and the father was making a fire in the hearth, Narma and Vetluli went to the river to hollow out an ice-hole. Rach renewed the hearth and sent his youngest son to fence a shelter for the dogs. Narma and Vetluli came back, bringing water and an ice-plate for the window hole.
In the morning Rach took his sons to the beaver village. They took all the four sledges, and put the fur bed, axes, ice chisels, spears, and food for ten days there. Each carried in his hand three twigs — birch, aspen, and willow. From time to time Rach asked them:
“Where are we going?”
“We are bringing presents to a friendly village, where the glorious beaver people live!” his sons answered in chorus.
The beavers are akin to people in their lifestyle, and in some skills they even surpass them. They dam the rivers and keep them on the level they need. They make underwater storages of wood food, and go there in winter through the holes made in the lower part of their huts. They easily fell trees, cut them up into logs and, after sorting them, bring them either to the dams, or to the huts, or to the food storages. Their huts are much stronger and safer that those of the As-Yakhs, for beavers are the best builders.
Ortan heard from the elders that beavers like to visit each other, they celebrate weddings, make wooden toys for their children, and make all kinds of home utensils. They bury their relatives on the special beaver cemeteries. Sometimes they wage wars and make peace. They have slaves. Experienced hunters can easily know them from the rest of beavers because they are skin and bone and hair on their backs is very thin. But in the tales of old men the obvious intertwined with the unbelievable, a true word with a myth, and no As-Yakh could ever say where the truth began to turn into a tall tale.
They followed Makh-ega for half a day. The way across the frozen river was shorter, but the ice was still fragile, and even in the most reliable places it hardly reached four inches. They chose a place for their camp and left part of their things there, before crossing to the beaver bank. The domelike house was stuck to a thick old tree with protruding roots, joined the butt and the twisting roots in a single whole. The dome was about sixteen steps wide, and one head higher than Ortan who was tall for an As-Yakh. Made of snag logs of all sizes, fastened with sticky sludgy mud, the beaver hut was beyond the reach of any animal, even bear, in summer; and in winter, when it was frost-bound, it was as hard as stone or iron. Bending his head in greeting, Rach said:
“The people of the As-Yakh land have come to the beaver people. Don’t go anywhere. Wait for us.”
After such speech the beavers who respected the law of hospitality could not leave their hut for seven days. The old man went back to the ice, walked along the bank slope, and looked for the secret underground passages that ended in the water.
All next day they prepared poles and stakes. Rach marked two lines – to the left and and to the right from the beaver hut: two spruce fences were to cross the river over the bottom, so as not to let the beavers leave through escape holes to the far ice-holes. When they finished making the fences, they spent half a day chopping off ice near the banks, from one fence to the other. Then they built bow-shaped fences-kotetses from stakes around the found passages, removing all the food from them first. When water in the kotetses was covered with ice, they made small holes in it and stuck fresh-cut willow twigs inside. In the morning they took them out and saw that all of the twigs were nibbled at, which meant that the beavers stayed in their hut.
After that they watched the kotetses all the time, with their spears ready, breaking the ice film that was born on the surface. The beavers went out in the night, under the full moon shining. They gave themselves away by the splashing of the water and swaying of the fences. While the old male lingered at the hole, trying to let his spouse out first, Narma and Vetluli killed him with their spears.
In the morning they pulled down the fences and put their prey to the sledge, belly up, so as not to let out the holy castoreum. They arrived to the winter house in five days, having caught two more beavers.
Rach was not in a hurry to go back to Leul-pugl. He helped his sons to check the hunting tackle and choose places for traps. Also, he checked the arrows. The tomars – arrows for squirrels – were the most numerous, they were also good for sables, martens, ermines, and other small fur game. Instead of a point, a squirrel arrow was equipped with a heavy blunt knob made of burl or bone to keep the skin intact. Squirrels were hunted in odd moments: while checking the traps, when the beast was open for the sure shot. In all other cases the blunt arrow was useless: it could not fly far and got often stuck in the dense crowns. Winter squirrels often managed to catch a branch with their paws after being shot; and it was very difficult, if not impossible, to reach it with a pole or another arrow.
The most convenient and profitable hunt was with traps. To set a trap, two half-logs were taken; the first was placed on the ground with the flat surface up, and the other was put over it, with the flat surface down. The end of the second plank was lifted and fastened with a light support, to which a mushroom, a cone or another squirrel delicacy was tied. A squirrel would grab the bait and break the balance. The upper plank fell on the lower one catching the credulous animal.
The treacherous squirrel trap could also catch sables. But more often the taiga beauty was caught on the snow and tracked down with a dog, until the shifty predator would not dart into a root chink or under a block. Then a thread net was put at the exit. Tired of sitting, the animal would go out and get entangled in the net, and then it was necessary to kill it right there, otherwise it would crack the meshes in an instant, and the exhausting race would repeat again. If the sable sat in its refuge too long, it was smoked out.
Martens, which preferred to take the upper way, were tracked down by the needles and snow that they dropped from the branches. They fell on the fresh snow and made small holes in it which showed direction of the upper track. If a marten bored of running up in the trees hid in a hollow or in a squirrel nest, it was possible to lure it out by tapping the tree trunk with a ski stick. Finally, the animal would give up hope of escaping by the upper way and would come down, where it was caught by the watchful dog.
Having finished all his work, Rach was about to go back. Parting with his sons at the winter house, he gave his last pieces of advice:
— If a moose crosses the sable’s track, don’t follow the moose, because the dogs will lose the old track on the crossings and will catch neither sable nor moose in the future.
Don’t let the dogs after a glutton, because the animal is not clean and is despised by gods. When circled by dogs, it doesn’t fight fairly, but emanates such a foul stench that the dogs run away from it yelping like puppies and lose their courage ever since, their eyes lose their sharpness, and the nose cannot smell anything.
However, if you see the stinking animal scouring about a barn, kill it at once, otherwise the food supply would be partly stolen, partly spoiled.
Having killed the despised animal, don’t ignore its skin. It is so strong that neither dog nor wolf can bite it through…
His sons stood in respectful silence, though they had heard such instructions more than once before. Having finished, the father waved his hand and glided to the west where the village was, without looking back. Their former track was covered with snow, and the old man was following his own ski track that he had made the day before to find a hare path. In front of him several crows flew up. After a few circles, they perched on a dead larch, waiting. Rach left the sledge with his things and went down to familiar lowland, thick with young willows. He took a dead hare with protruding eyes and pecked side out of the loop that he had made the day before. Back at the sledge he put the hare under the fasten belt. A bit later he saw a hazel grouse in a trap but left it there, hoping that it would stay intact until his sons came to check the traps.
By the evening of the third day, he was tapping snow off his skis at the threshold of his dwelling.