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Manners Of The Kamschatkadales

( Originally Published Late 1800's )


[The first portion is devoted to the description of the country, and is therefore not reprinted here.]

They are wholly uncivilized and uninstructed, and their manner of life is little removed from that of mere animal nature. Some of them have no fixed habitations, but wander from place to place with their herds of reindeer; others reside on the banks of rivers, and the shore of the Penschinska sea, living upon fish, sea animals, and such herbs as grow upon the shore. The wanderers shelter themselves in huts covered with deer skins, the others dwell in cells and caves which they dig in the earth. Their temper is rough, and they are totally ignorant of letters and religion. Whence they came, and when they first settled here there is no account : they pretend that they were created upon this very spot, and that their first ancestor was Kuthu, who formerly lived in the heavens.

Though having no notion of riches or honours, they are with-out covetousness or ambition, yet as they frequently invade the property of others by stealing their provision, and violently carrying off their daughters, quarrels and wars are frequent among them. Their mutual wants are supplied among themselves, not in the common way of sale and barter, but when one needs anything another has, he goes freely to visit him, and without any ceremony makes known his wants, though perhaps he never saw him before : the person thus visited is obliged to behave according to the custom of the country, and bringing whatever his guest has occasion for, gives it him. He afterwards returns the visit, and must be received in the same manner, so that the wants of both parties are supplied.

Their villages are enclosed by a mud-wall, or wooden fence, and they consist of a certain number of habitations both for winter and summer, which are very different constructions. The winter habitation is made by digging a square hole in the earth, about five feet deep, the length and breadth being proportioned to the number of people that are to live in it. At each corner of this square hole they set up a thick wooden pillar; over these pillars they lay balks, upon which they form a roof of grass and earth, leaving in the middle a square opening, which serves at once for door, window, and chimney; in one side of this square is the fire-place, and on the opposite side is ranged their kitchen furniture ; on the two other sides there are broad benches, on which each family, for one hut contains several, lies separately.

They think it a sin to drink or to bathe in hot water, or to go up to the burning mountains, because they suppose this will provoke the invisible beings who inhabit these mountains to hurt them : an opinion, however, which seems wholly inconsistent with that of their good and ill fortune depending wholly upon themselves, and so is almost everything that is related of them under this head ; for we are told that they pay a religious regard not only to invisible Beings, from whom they apprehend danger, but to several animals, for the same reason ; they offer fire at the holes of sables and foxes, and they address deprecatory prayers to whales, sea-horses, bears, and wolves; and they pretend to avert misfortune, cure diseases, and foretell future events by muttering incantations over the fins of fishes and the herb called sweet-grass ; they pretend also to judge of their good and bad fortune by the lines of the hand, and by their dreams, which they relate to each other as soon as they awake. . . .

Upon a wedding, or a plentiful hunting, one village entertains another. The guests are sometimes entertained with great bowls of liquor called Opanga, which they swallow till the stomach, being overloaded, returns it ; and sometimes of a liquor made of large mushrooms, prepared with the juice of the French willow, called Epilobium ; this liquor, in a small quantity, raises their spirits, and makes them brisk, courageous, and cheerful; but the least excess produces first an universal tremor and then madness, in which the party either raves or is melancholy, according to his constitution. some jump, dance, and sing; others weep and are in terrible agonies, a small hole appearing to them a great pit and a spoonful of water a lake. .. .

Private entertainments are sometimes given when one person seeks the friendship of another ; upon this occasion the guest is invited by the host to his hut, which is made very hot for his reception, and as soon as he enters it both of them strip naked. The host then sets a load of victuals before the guest, and while he is eating throws water upon hot stones till the heat of the hut becomes unsupportable ; the guest labours hard to devour all the victuals before he is burnt out ; and the host to burn him out before he has devoured all the victuals ; if the guest succeeds, it is an indelible disgrace to the host ; if the host succeeds, the guest purchases his dismission with a present of dogs, cloaths, or whatever else is agreeable to the host, who expects to be used after the same manner in return.

There are, however, private entertainments, where more than one person is invited. In these the guests are treated in the same manner, except that they are not tormented with heat, nor are any presents exacted of them. Mine host upon these occasions treats with the fat of seals or whales cut into slices. One of these slices he takes in one hand, and a knife in the other; then kneeling down before one of his guests, he thrusts the fat into his mouth, crying in a surly tone, Ta na, and then cutting off what hangs out of his mouth with the knife, he performs the same kind office for another.

When a Kamschatkadale resolves to marry, he looks about for a bride in some of the neighbouring villages, seldom in his own, and then, when he finds one to his mind, he .discovers his inclination to her parents ; desiring that he may be permitted to enter into their service, which is a state of probation that custom has here made indispensably necessary. This permission is granted, of course, and, during his service, which custom has limited to a certain time, he exerts himself to the utmost in such assiduities as he thinks will most recommend him ; when the time has expired he asks their consent to his desire: if they are not satisfied, they give him some small reward for his services, with which he departs; but, if they approve, the bridegroom has nothing to do but to strip the bride naked, which is all that constitutes a Kamschatkadale marriage ; but this is not so easy a task as a European may imagine; from the moment that leave is given to a lover to seize and strip his mistress, all the women in the village take her under their protection; and at the same time almost smother her in clothes, heaping one garment upon another, and swathing her round with fish-nets and straps, so that she has the appearance of a mummy; the bridegroom, in the meantime, is upon the watch to find her alone, or with but a few women about her ; whenever this happens he throws himself upon her, and begins to tear off her cloaths, nets, and straps ; as many of the women who have engaged to guard her as are within hearing take the alarm, and run to her assistance; they fall upon the lover without mercy, pull him away by his hair, beat him, scratch his face, and use every other method they can think of to prevent him from accomplishing his design. If there are but a few women at hand, he probably obtains his wish ; and, having entirely stripped the lady, he runs from her ; but she, as an acknowledgment of his conquest, calls him back with a tender voice, and he has liberty to go to her bed; but if the protectors of assailed virginity are numerous, he is beaten away, generally so wounded and bruised as to disable him for some time from a second attempt. His attempts, however, he repeats, as soon and as often as he is able, sometimes for more than a year before he succeeds; and there is an instance of one who persevered seven years, and during that tedious consent was so cruelly treated by the women that instead of being a husband, he became a cripple for the rest of his life.

The day after the marriage ceremony has been successfully performed, the husband carries off his wife to his own village.

After some time, the bride and bridegroom return to the wife's relations, where the marriage-feast is celebrated. Of one of these visits and feasts, the author of this work was a spectator, and he thus describes it :

The bridegroom, his friends of both sexes, and the bride with victuals for the entertainment, embarked in three boats. The women were in their best cloaths, but the men were naked ; for having seated the women, it was their task to push the boats along with poles. When they came within about one hundred paces of the village to which they were going, they landed and began to sing ; they then proceeded to conjure, by playing several tricks with some tow, fastened upon a rod, and muttering some unintelligible jargon over the dried head of a fish, which they also wrapped up in tow and gave to an old woman to hold. When the conjuration was over, they put upon the bride a coat of sheep's-skin and tied four images about her, by which she was so loaded and encumbered that she could scarce stir. They then all embarked again, and landed a second time at the village, where they were met by a boy, who, taking the bride by the hand, led her to her father's hut, whither all the women followed her.

When she came to the hut, the old woman with the fish's head descended into it first, and laid the head at the bottom of the stairs ; then the bride was let down by a strap tied round her for that purpose, treading on the fish's head at the bottom; a ceremony that was observed by all the company, and then it was thrown into the fire.

The bride was then stripped of her superfluous ornaments, and the strangers took their places. The bridegroom heated the hut, dressed the victuals he had brought, and entertained the inhabitants of that village.

The next day the father entertained the strangers with great superfluity, and on the third day they departed ; but the bride and bride-groom remained to work some time with the father. Her superfluous dress was distributed amongst her relations, who were obliged to make presents of much greater value in return.

Such are the ceremonies of a marriage with a virgin. If the bride is a widow, the agreement of the parties themselves is sufficient, except that the new husband must not take her till somebody else has taken away her sins. This ceremony consists in some stranger's once lying with her, and it is deemed as very dishonourable to the man. It was extremely difficult to get it performed before the Cossacks came among them, but now nothing is more easy, the Cossacks being always ready to take away the sins of the widow whenever she is desirous of having a new husband in their stead.

Some are very desirous of children, and some extremely averse to it; some, therefore, use many superstitious rites to conceive, and some take noxious herbs to prevent it. Some are so unnatural that they destroy their children as soon as born, and sometimes throw them alive to the dogs ; they are also cruel from superstition ; for when a woman bears twins, one of them at least must be destroyed. So must a child born in very stormy weather, though both these practices, as well as their conjurations, contradict the notion of their good or ill fortune depending wholly on themselves, uninfluenced by superior and invisible agents.

The principal diseases in this country are the scurvy, palsy, cancer, jaundice, and the venereal distemper. As they believe these maladies to be inflicted by spirits whom they have offended, they attempt the cure of them by charms and incantation, not, however, wholly neglecting medicine.

The Kamtschatkadales, totally destitute of that tender sensibility so generally expressed, neither burn nor bury their dead, but, binding a strap round the neck of the corpse, drag it out of the hut and leave it as food to their dogs. For this, however, they give a reason, founded upon their regard even for the dead; for they say, that those who are eaten by dogs will drive with fine dogs in the other world.

They throw away all the cloaths of the diseased, because they believe that whoever wears the cloaths of one that is dead will him-self die before his time. After the corpse has been disposed of as just related, the surviving inhabitants of the hut think they are under a personal pollution, which they remove by going to the wood, cutting some rods, making them into a ring, creeping twice through it, and then throwing it towards the west. Those who dragged out the body are thought to stand in need of an additional purification, which is effected by their catching two birds, of any sort, burning one, and eating the other with the family. Till this is done, they dare not enter any other hut, nor will anybody else enter theirs. . . .

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