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The Prehistory of an Idea
By Silvia Tomásková
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
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Discoveries of an Imaginary Place
No new land, no new place is ever terra incognita. It always arrives to the eye fully stocked with expectations, fears, rumors, desires and meanings. And even as discoverers claim new knowledge from direct and unmediated experience with nature, history intervenes, filtering and imposing meaning on their experiences in the natural world. —Richard White (1992)
Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2008: "I have a Master's degree in shamanic practice, and am a member of the association of shamanic practitioners." The woman who organized the workshop spoke to us matter-of-factly, as if describing her accounting credentials. She described her earlier training with a psychologist, whose patients had not been getting better despite extended sessions. So she went to study with a "real shaman" in Borneo. A short discussion followed as to where exactly Borneo might be; because the organizer and the lone man in the audience could not agree, we moved on to another geographical conundrum. "The original shamans came from Mongolia," the man stated in a friendly but authoritative tone. "Well, shamans as we know them came from Siberia," the organizer replied quickly, trying to regain her momentum without much success. "That's in Mongolia, Siberia is in Mongolia," the man said calmly and with impressive certainty. "Sure," the organizer agreed, capitulating geographically for a second time in a row.
I was determined not to take on any role in this conversation, as it did not ultimately appear to be about facts of geography. Rather, I wanted to find out how "Every Woman's Shamanism," as the seminar was titled, had come to this part of the United States in the twenty-first century, and what connection, if any, it might have to the longer history I had begun to trace. Where is Siberia for today's shaman practitioners? Indeed, what is Siberia if it can just as well be in Mongolia as in any other equally distant, vaguely connected place in the eastern part of the Russian empire? Clearly, it was not simply an area on the present-day globe, struggling through the aftermath of Soviet industrialization; it also was a conceptual space, a site of difference and spiritual purity.
The participants of this workshop were hardly alone in either their fascination with or their imprecision about Russia's eastern frontier. Western Europeans have long located Siberia in both a real geographic place and an imaginary space. Their narratives describing the people, nature, and physical geography of the region have changed multiple times, depending on who was searching. Siberia, tracked down through this geographical and cultural imagination, acquired an additional dimension of being a place that was "not Europe," while still attached to it physically and historically. It was a strange, mythical land, ever famous for its vast size and forbidding climate. The details about it continued to change, conjured up as possibly true or possibly not real at all.
To survey this imaginary terrain alongside the physical one, we should recall even early associations, such as a child's map of the cardinal compass points. Writing in England in 1926, A. A. Milne, the author of the children's books Winnie-the-Pooh, described the "Eastern Pole" as accurately and evocatively as any geographer writing about Siberia over the previous three centuries:
"There's a South Pole," said Christopher Robin, "and I expect there's an East Pole and a West Pole, though people don't like talking about them."
Pooh was very excited when he heard this, and suggested that they should have an Expotition to discover the East Pole, but Christopher Robin had thought of something else to do with Kanga; so Pooh went out to discover the East Pole by himself. Whether he discovered it or not, I forget; but he was so tired when he got home that, in the very middle of his supper, after he had been eating for little more than half-an-hour, he fell fast asleep in his chair, and slept and slept and slept.
Then suddenly he was dreaming. He was at the East Pole, and it was a very cold pole with the coldest sort of snow and ice all over it. He had found a bee-hive to sleep in, but there wasn't room for his legs, so he had left them outside. And Wild Woozles, such as inhabit the East Pole, came and nibbled all the fur off his legs to make Nests for their Young. And the more they nibbled, the colder his legs got, until suddenly he woke up with an Ow!—and there he was, sitting in his chair with his feet in the water, and water all round him!
He splashed to his door and looked out ...
"This is Serious," said Pooh. "I must have an Escape."
The cold, the ice, and the strange mythical animals, whether called Wild Woozles or otherwise, were common tropes in describing the eastern expanse of Russia. The Eastern Pole—previously known as Tartary—persists in various renditions to this day. In descriptions alternating between horror and wonder, Siberia has for centuries occupied a space "between heaven and hell." Westerners continue to imagine Siberia through such metaphors—a frozen land at the edge of the world, a place where few have actually gone but which still evokes strong associations. The Russians, on the other hand, have long had a far more complicated relationship with the region, for reasons of greater familiarity, proximity, and centuries of involvement. Wild Woozles have haunted Russia's narratives of Siberia for a very long time.
THE LAND OF WHITE DEATH
Not all the horrors of the Western front, not the rubble of Arras, nor the hell of Ypres, nor all the mud of Flanders leading to Passchendale, could blot out the memories of that year in the Arctic.
Although Siberia may be synonymous with the Arctic in many people's imagination, geographically speaking large parts of the land are not in the Arctic at all. Moreover, large parts of the Russian Arctic are not a part of the Siberian landmass. Nevertheless, accounts of Siberia circulating through the Western world from at least the sixteenth century on were united by a sense of the place as an elemental challenge, a harsh obstacle that was known beforehand as insurmountable. Defeat by the environment was almost anticipated, felt in the bones upon merely pronouncing the name. It was, in George Kennan's words, "a country where winter reigns supreme throughout almost the entire year, and where simple existence is a constant struggle with an inhospitable climate." The Siberia of these images was bleak and cold, if not permanently frozen, and devoid of even the smallest life-form that could thrive. George Kennan, an American explorer and a telegraph employee who had sought business opportunities in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, offers a full sense of this perceived desolation in his depiction of the same frozen, bleak land described by every traveler since the sixteenth century:
At all seasons and under all circumstances this immense borderland of moss tundra is a land of desolation. In summer its covering of water-soaked moss struggles into life, only to be lashed at intervals by pitiless whips of icy rain, until it is again buried in snow; and in winter fierce gales, known to the Russians as poorgas, sweep across it from the Arctic Ocean, and score its snowy surface into long, hard, polished grooves, called sastroogee. Throughout the entire winter it presents a picture of inexpressible dreariness and desolation. Even at noon, when the sea-like expanse of storm-drifted snow is flushed faintly by the red, gloomy light of the low-hanging sun, it depresses the spirits and chills the imagination with its suggestions of infinite dreariness and solitude; but at night, when it ceases to be bounded even by the horizon, because the horizon can no longer be distinguished; when the pale green streamers of the aurora begin to sweep back and forth over a dark segment of a circle in the north, lighting up the whole white world with transitory flashes of ghostly radiance, and adding mystery to darkness and solitude, then the Siberian tundra not only becomes inexpressibly lonely and desolate, but takes on a strange, half terrible unearthliness, which awes and yet fascinates the imagination.
For many dark months lacking even a horizon on which to rest ones' eyes, the tundra was thoroughly dreary and desolate. This was nature in the raw. Yet it also acquired an air of personality—forlorn, filled with melancholy, possessing a ghostly radiance that was not quite physical, not of this earth, more a product of one's imagination.
A state of mind or of existence at its most lonely and depressing, "Siberia" named as much an idea as a physical entity, despite the numerous travel accounts, explorations, and permanent settlements over the centuries. Portraits of silent, white, wind-swept nature at its most still have for centuries dominated representations of the eastern part of Russia. For hundreds of years, this outstretched land behind the "Rock"—the Ural Mountains—represented the emptiness, the frozen state of Europe's distant past. Even before Europeans began searching for their long-forgotten ancestors, Siberia represented for them the sort of silent, snow-covered expanse that they might have left behind. The land, in other words, was a ready stage for prehistory. Its vast geographic space not only suggested the Ice Age, the sense of an entire landmass frozen, but even yielded ancient remains. From time to time mammoths would resurface, still standing with all their fur intact in the very place where they had been trapped for thousands of years.
When the spring thaw comes to the frozen plains of eastern Siberia, huge curved tusks sometimes appear on the surface of the ground. They are usually found singly, but sometimes as part of a skull or an entire skeleton. They are the remains of prehistoric animals that lived in these regions, at the distant time when our ancestors were still chipping stones into tools.... Once in a while, the thaw reveals the entire body of an animal buried for millennia in the frozen ground, its flesh and bones virtually intact. The Siberian permafrost has preserved the flesh and bones of these animals, extinct for thousands of years; sometimes the flesh still edible, and the natives occasionally eat it.
When the Siberian permafrost thaws, with just a little rubbing of its glassy surface, we have a window into Ice Age prehistory, including whole, fully preserved prehistoric animals, ready for any ancestors chipping stone into tools.
Like other real but imagined locales, Siberia's strangeness is rooted in its stubborn persistence as a natural place. Yet unlike descriptions of tropical nature such as the Amazonian rainforest or the African jungle, which usually appear as lush and obscenely overflowing with vegetation, animals, and gemstones, Siberia stands out for its stark nakedness. Its desolate emptiness presents an opposite view of life from that of the tropics; rather than lush and vibrant, it is frozen and hibernating. It seems a place to endure, to show one's fortitude and resolve. Settlers and peasants moved east for centuries; missionaries ventured there to gather souls, and trappers to gather pelts; mines and industries with thousands of workers reached deep inside the earth to extract raw wealth. Most fundamentally, numerous groups of peoples inhabited the river valleys, lake shores, plains, steppes, forests, and coasts, their arrival there sufficiently distant and mythical to merit the term "indigenous."
In spite of Siberia's full history, many descriptions either overlooked the human inhabitants or stressed their absence, preferring to focus on the dramatic appearance of strange, extinct, or frightening animals instead. In a landscape devoid of people, the frightening wildlife, peering at the travelers from a distant time, underline the rarity of encounters with any living creatures:
I have just seen a few more walruses. They often poke their heads out of the water. They are far more repulsive than one might imagine. Their heads and necks form a mass of bloated folds; from their lips and around their muzzles hang long, thick whiskers, which give them a sort of mustache. But strangest of all are their bloodshot eyes and their astonished and threatening—even aggressive—gazes. Their long tusks give them a prehistoric look, which has earned them a reputation of feeding solely on human flesh.
Looking into the bloodshot eyes of the repulsive walruses, Albanov, a Russian navigator and one of only two survivors of the 1912 Northeast Passage, Saint Anna expedition, described his heroic fate in In the Land of White Death (1917). He evoked the excruciating pain of hunger, frostbite, loneliness, despair, and fear, and his attempts to overcome the nature surrounding him for hundreds of kilometers—without ever mentioning any native people whom he might, or hoped to, encounter. This was a land of no people, only nature at its most threatening, where walruses eat human flesh in a manner reminiscent of the natives eating thawed mammoths.
The idea of Siberia as devoid of humanity, frozen in time persisted. The land measured time in thousands of miles of empty space, the uncertain boundary between the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia. Time and geography merged to form a space of pure nature, white and terrifying, the prehistoric Ice Age available to any intrepid traveler.
THE END, THE BEGINNING, AND THE CLASSICAL LEGACY OF MONSTERS
The most beautiful regions of the world are the furthest.
Siberia has always lacked clearly defined borders. Currently, geography designates Siberia as the beginning of Asia, starting at the Ural Mountains and extending all the way to the Pacific Ocean. However, the view that the Ural Mountains represent an obvious and natural dividing line between Europe and Asia is a relatively recent historical convention. At the same time, judging everything behind the mountains as "Siberia" asserts a much older conception of the primacy of natural space. Although the land is occupied by diverse nomadic and sedentary groups of people, this assertion of an unpopulated expanse has not changed much since the time of antiquity.
To some degree, views on Siberia have been a reaction to its lack of obvious ethnic or political unity. Siberia is not and has never been a state in either archaeological or modern political terms. As an observable physical feature, the mountain range could serve as the separation of Europe from Asia, if such a separation were needed; indeed, most geographers have for centuries agreed that the western flanks of the Ural Mountains are rich forests, in contrast with the eastern slopes where the grassy steppes start. Yet one should be wary of writing physical geography into cultural history, retroactively conflated as obvious or self-explanatory. Amid Russia's own historically unstable relationship with Europe and its attitude towards Asia, the addition of Siberia into the conversation highlights the ambivalent historical unity, or lack thereof, of Europe as a geographic or cultural space. By analogy, Siberia is an appendix that serves an essential role in the functioning of the body, purifying it but also potentially threatening it with exploding, polluting, or poisoning.
Writing in 450 B.C., Herodotus tells us of a possible but not certain boundary, traced from the Black Sea, the Bosporus, and the Caspian Sea, a boundary between Asia and Europe, mainly understood as the separation from Persia: "But the boundaries of Europe are quite unknown, and there is not a man who can say whether any sea girds it round either on the north or on the east, while in length it undoubtedly extends as far as both the other two continents." The general idea was that Europe, Asia, and Libya formed an island, surrounded by an ocean of unimaginable extent. The Greeks themselves were located somewhere in a space between Europe and Asia, with very little knowledge of the northern limits of the world. However, lack of empirical knowledge hardly prevented them from having extensive discussions about the northern regions, which represented a utopian realm that was worth exploring in the abstract. The North in this world was not a place but a boundary, a liminal region that framed their realm, a frozen wasteland known as eremoi—empty uninhabited spaces at the edges of the world.
Excerpted from Wayward Shamans by Silvia Tomásková. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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