Sacred Texts  Asia  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

A Journey in Southern Siberia, by Jeremiah Curtin, [1909], at

p. 301 p. 302 p. 303


MY collection of Buriat myths and folk-tales is small. The work should have been done years ago. I found many incomplete stories and fragments of myths, and am convinced that during the past five decades a large amount of rich Mongol material has been lost. The collection of the folk-lore of the different peoples of the world should not be neglected, for it is of great value. It is the entire stock of wisdom accumulated by the unlettered masses of mankind in all ages. Like language, it is the product neither of one mind nor a given number of minds, but of all the various groups which together form humanity. Like language, it is property bequeathed by anonymous ancestors or predecessors. As there is no nation, tribe, or group of persons without language, there is none without folk-lore, which in a broad sense is the fruit of the intellectual activity of men before they are modified by what is called education, and represents their religion, philosophy, and literature, if the latter term may be used with reference to people unacquainted with letters.

The term "Folk-lore" first appeared in 1846. Mr. Thoms, in a letter to the "London Atheneum" dated August 12 of that year, signed Ambrose Merton, proposed it, adding, "Remember I claim the honor of introducing the epithet Folk-lore, as Disraeli does that of introducing Fatherland into the literature of this country." The term has, I believe, no exact equivalent in other languages. The words more nearly corresponding to our folk-lore refer only to that part of it included in stories or tales, such as the German märchen; the French contes; the Russian skazki; the Bohemian pohadki; and the Magyar mések.

I think no language except the English has a word that describes the result of the whole mental activity of uneducated men. The Russians have a term as broad as the English, Narodnoe tvorchestvo, meaning people's creativeness. This phrase describes the activity, while ours gives the result of the activity.

The folk-lore of the great nations of antiquity, the Greeks and Romans, is lost to us in its popular form, which we can only infer from what we find preserved in literature, religion, and art. The folk-lore of the Kelts, Teutons, and Slavs has come to us preserved by the uneducated people. Keltic folk-lore from Irish and Welsh sources has

p. 304

entered largely into the poetry and imaginative literature of western Europe. The folk-lore of Germany has had great influence on national literature and music. By a happy chance the Scandinavian branch of Teutonic folk-lore was preserved by Iceland, and preserved in its most developed form,—one in which it more nearly approaches the maturity of Grecian mythology than that of any other folk-lore in Europe.

The folk-lore of the Aryans of India is preserved in the Vedes and the great poems, the Maha Bharata and the Ramayana, and exists in a rich growth of popular lore, only a part of which is yet collected. What there is in Persia in a modern form is unknown; of the ancient stories the Shah Nameh, or Book of Kings, is the great storehouse.

The Slavs, the most numerous of the Aryan race in Europe, present the most interesting field possible for the philologist, and no division of the race has a richer or more beautiful stock of folk-lore.

Folk-lore, though interesting in many directions and of the utmost value,—for taken together with language it furnishes us with a documentary history of the human mind,—is undoubtedly of most importance in what may be called its religions, meaning by religions theories of the universe and man's place in it.

The first five myths in this volume are not considered as myths by the Mongols, but as true descriptions of the Creation, the destruction of evil creatures, and the preparation of the world for its present inhabitants. They are for the Pagan Buriats what the Bible is for Christian peoples. Esege Malan is the Creator. To destroy the harmful creatures which inhabited the earth, Gesir Bogdo, his grandson, leaves heaven and is born of woman. The Iron Hero is created for the purpose of aiding Gesir Bogdo. When the earth is purified and inhabited by man, Mindiu appears.


PAGE 105

The story of the birth of Mindiú Qúbun Noyan, whose father was one of the fifty-five Tengeris, is interesting as having parallels in many mythologies. The spirit of the god enters into a hailstone which falls to the earth and is swallowed by Mélûk Shin. In one version of this myth the hailstone falls on Mélûk Shin's head. In due time a son is born. This son of a heavenly Tengeri establishes the Mongol religion. He instructs the people, tells them to whom they are to pray, and what offerings are most acceptable to the gods. He consecrates the first Shamans and teaches them how to offer sacrifices.

p. 305

In Greek mythology, Helena, the heroine of Troy, is the daughter of Leda and of Zeus, the over-arching heaven, with all its light. Leda after her death was raised to the rank of a divinity. No such honor was given Mélûk Shin, but her son is a god, or, at least, prayers are offered to him and he is supposed to answer them.

Among the Algonkin Indians there is a myth of the Earth-maiden who becomes a mother when looked upon by the sun. She gives birth to a daughter who is called Wakos ikwe, the fox woman. In time Wakos ikwe gives birth to a great hero, the benefactor of aboriginal man in America, the food-giver. This benefactor's name has not been changed or its meaning forgotten; he is known to be that warm air which, in fine weather, we see dancing and quivering above the earth,—that same hot, dancing air which Mother Earth gave to Esege Malan.


PAGE 101

It is almost certain that in Mongol mythology there was once a long myth about the Cuckoo from which we could get some idea of why this bird is connected with the burning of the dead. From the time that the cuckoo ceases to sing in August till its first song in spring no one who dies is burned. The Mongols do not know why this is. To questions asked the old men in the Buriat land, the answer was always the same: "Mindiú Qúbun told us when and how to burn our dead."

The cuckoo appears in many of the myths in this volume, and usually in connection with bringing the dead to life. When the Iron Hero is killed and thrown into the Black Misty Sea the cuckoo appears, and before her power the sea vanishes. When the skeleton is taken from the cask she sings as she moves around it. When she reaches the head the third time the Iron Hero springs up. When Hanhai is trying to bring her brother to life, she reads in her book that she must ask a certain cuckoo to aid her.

A Buriat will never kill or shoot at a cuckoo.


PAGE 124

There was once a Mongol myth about Solobung Yubún, the morning star, but, so far as I could find, only fragments of it remain.

In the religious system of the Buriats the morning star is a great personage, the son of Esege Malan the Creator. Solobung Yubún is

p. 306

benevolent; if properly propitiated he will grant increase of crops and of cattle. But the offerings to him must be made at the dawn of day, and the dance in his honor must continue from sunset till daybreak.

Solobung Yubún, the Lucifer of the Latins, has in Mongol myths much the same character as in the myths of the Indians, especially in those of the Modocs and Delawares. The Modocs have a very long story which contains much valuable material. In this story the morning star appears as the attendant spirit of the sun. (Introduction to "Myths and Folk-lore of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars.")

In Delaware myths the morning star often assists people by bringing daylight quickly. In Yana myths the morning star, Halai Anna, and the evening star, Paiowa, are the daughters of Wakara, new moon. ("Creation Myths of Primitive America.")


PAGE 111

The Buriats believe that the spirit can leave the body and return to it, even after having been away several days. Many of our Indian tribes have the same belief. When in the Indian Territory an old man of the Sauk tribe told me of the many countries he had seen "with his spirit," stating also that his spirit was not happy when away from the body, for it feared that something would happen to the body and it could not return. In India where this conception is universal among the native peoples, a "wise man" will say "I am going to such a village or town." He finds where his body will be safe, lies down and apparently falls asleep, then the spirit leaves the body, makes the long journey and returns. When the man wakens he describes accurately places which he knew nothing about previous to his spirit journey. The Malays do not like to waken a sleeper, lest they may harm him by disturbing his body while his spirit is away.


PAGE 102

For three days after death the spirit remains near the body. .It is lonely and sad, and is sorry to go from among the living. The Buriats think that when a mother dies her spirit hovers around in the mountains, returning to its home from time to time.

Professor Mooney of the Bureau of Ethnology notes a similar belief among the Cherokee Indians. (Journal of American Folk-lore, Vol.

p. 307

[paragraph continues] XIII.) "When a member of a family dies, it is believed that the spirit is loath to leave the scenes of life and go alone upon the long journey to the Darkening Land in the west."


PAGE 127

The idea of a man's life being in one place and his body in another is common to many mythologies. In Mongol tales, no matter how the man is slaughtered or cut up, he does not die until his life is found and destroyed. This idea runs through Buriat mythology, and there are few myths in which it does not appear. The same conception is found in both Keltic and Slav mythology. There is a well-known Russian myth called "Koshchéi Without Death." Koshchéi was not deathless. His death was in the world but "in a place apart from him." There is a good illustration of the idea in "Phakir Chand," in "Folk-tales of Bengal," by Rev. Lal Behari Day; also in "The Herding of Cruachan," in "Folk and Hero Tales from Argyllshire," by Rev. D. MacInnes; and in the Norse tale of "The Giant who had no Heart in his Body."

The idea frequently occurs in the myths of our North American Indians. It seems to be explained by the fact that these tales deal with the adventures of non-human heroes. Whatever the names of the heroes are at present, the original heroes were not men.

Indian mythology sheds light upon this idea. There are myths which still preserve the primitive names of the characters. In a myth told me by the Warm Spring Indians of Oregon the conflict is between the North Wind and the South Wind. In a Wintu myth the heroes are Rain and Snow.

In a very beautiful myth, found among the Modoc Indians, who live near Klamath Lake, the chief personage is Winter, or Snow-maker, whose heart is hidden away at a distance. The heart is found by Winter's enemy, Heat. This enemy burns Snow-maker's heart and he dies.

When the real heroes are known we find the myth accurate and truthful. It is only when the heroes are looked upon as men and women that they perform impossible deeds,—deeds which only one of the forces of Nature could perform if it had the volition and desire of a person.

p. 308


PAGE 164

The stubborn battles fought by the heroes of Buriat mythology are strikingly similar to those fought by mythologic Kelts. Buriat heroes often fight nine days and nine nights. They tear off all the flesh from each other's backs with their hands and from each other's breasts with their teeth, wherever they press their feet they knock out earth to the size of a calf, they make hills and valleys, "where there was a hill there is a valley, where there was a valley there is a hill."

Gaelic heroes fight till they make soft ground hard and hard ground soft, they make high places low and low places high, they bring cold spring water through hard gravelly ground. Clods the size of a bull shoot out from under their feet. Usually the battle lasts for a day and a year, and each day is a day of fierce struggle.

In Indian myths struggles for supremacy are not decided by fighting, as in Aryan and Mongol myths, but by trials of skill, strength, and dexterity. The opponents always bet their heads, and the head of the losing party is cut off at once.


PAGE 206

A prominent characteristic of Buriat myths is the wisdom of the horse, which in many instances is sent from heaven in answer to prayers. These wonderful stallions of Buriat mythology are different in some respects from the steeds in Aryan myths; they have the same appearance always, whereas in Aryan myths the steed when taken from the stable or pasture is often either a miserable mangy colt or a shaggy-haired, crooked-legged mare; its wonderful power and beauty being made manifest only when in action.

The god-given stallion of the Buriats is of enormous size, and travels with such speed that "he can reach in one day a place so far distant that a boy of five years of age would be sixty when at the end of the journey, and a full-grown man would die on the road." Sometimes the horse foresees the death of his master and warns him.

The steed which the Iron Hero rides is always spoken of as "the blue stallion of the sky." In most instances the color of the stallion is mentioned, and not infrequently it is blue or red. Probably in the original story these steeds were clouds. In Hungarian myths the food

p. 309

of the steed is glowing coals. There are Hungarian myths in which little, if any, doubt is left that the steed is lightning. It was a steed of this kind that carried Cahal, son of King Conor, to Striker's castle, a place to which no ship could go ("Hero-Tales of Ireland").


PAGE 170

Bringing to life is one of the most ordinary acts in Mongol as well as in other mythologies: usually where there are hundreds of skeletons and many piles of dry bones, the Mongol hero sprinkles them with the Water of Life taken from a spring near a silver-leafed aspen tree; immediately the bones assume their old connection and take on flesh, and the men rise to bless their benefactor. When the hero himself is killed, restoring life is more difficult. For several days the wife, sister, or friend must pray to the Heavenly Burkans. Often the Water of Life is far away, and to procure it a long and dangerous journey must be made. Usually the cuckoo assists. She sings around the body, beginning at the feet. When she reaches the head the first time flesh comes on the skeleton, the second time breath enters the body, and when she reaches the head the third time the hero springs up.

In Gaelic mythology, if the hero has been dead long the bones are collected, or if they have fallen into dust the dust is gathered up; some one strikes the bones or the dust with the rod of enchantment or Druidic switch, and immediately the hero rises up as well and strong as ever.

In the myth tales of the Iroquois Indians the bones of hundreds or thousands of people are found lying in a heap. The hero pushes a near-by hickory tree as if to throw it on them, crying at the same time, "Rise up! Rise up! or the tree will fall on you." The bones assume their old arrangement, take on flesh, and the multitude rise up, thank their benefactor, and each man returns to his home.

Among the Yana Indians of California there are several methods for restoring life, sometimes it is done by kicking or turning over a corpse with the foot, sometimes by boiling one hair or the heart, frequently it is accomplished by the stroke of a twig from a red rose-bush.

In Modoc mythology, when the hero has been dead many hours or perhaps days the morning star calls out to him, "Rise up! Rise up! why sleep so long?"

p. 310


PAGE 130

In Mongol myths we find a conception of "a world before this world," a common conception in the Creation myths of the Indians of the Pacific coast, in some of which the idea is worked out with great detail and beauty. But the "first people" of the Wintu and Yana and other Indian tribes of the coast and of Mexico, the people who occupied "that world before this," are unlike the "first people" of the Buriats. With the Indians the first people lived for untold ages in perfect harmony, then very slowly a change came, discord appeared, and in time conflict, which grew in venom and continued till all the first people, except a very small number, were turned into the various kinds of living creatures—beasts, birds, insects, trees, plants, etc.—that are now, or ever have been, on earth.

Two enemies would meet and fight. When one was triumphant he said to the vanquished, "Hereafter you will be nothing but a ——," and he mentioned what his enemy was to be, and at once the change was accomplished.

With the Mongols the people of the earlier world were so wicked that Esege Malan the Creator, and his grandson, Gesir Bogdo, determined to destroy them. In one or two instances the destruction is accomplished in the same way as described in the Indian myths,—for example, Gesir Bogdo takes all power from the Raven; from being a great personage he makes him the insignificant bird that he is to-day, saying to him, "Hereafter you will be puny and weak, unable to harm people." The first people were not Mongols, but Marat and Mangathai, evil spirits.


PAGE 232

Mongol, Aryan, and Indian ideas agree as to the way a father should treat the man who wishes to marry his daughter. In Gaelic myths the suitor is given such tasks as thatching a byre with bird feathers, the stem of each feather to be inwards and its point outwards; catching a steed that has never seen a blink of earth or air, etc. ("Folk and Hero Tales from Argyllshire"). In Mongol myths the suitor is sent on a dangerous journey to accomplish what is supposed to be an impossible feat. In Indian mythology similar tasks are given by the father-in-law to the new son-in-law.

Next: Indexes