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N.V. Fedorova. Out of the Vortex of Time // Severnyie prostory ["Northern Expanses"]. 2006. № 1-2. P. 108-109.

 

  And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
 
Jonah 1:17
   
  The people of Sos'va believe that they [the yyury] are some sort of aquatic animals, which live in whirlpools; they are able to swallow an oarsman with a little boat"
 
Kannisto A. Materials on Vogul mythology.

Ancient art has a romantic patina, which is why we take every object found by archaeologists as a masterpiece of the ancient masters, forgetting that the waves of creative genius trouble very rarely the calm of craftsmanship. Time doesn't only add importance to things, it hides their language from us, suggesting that we unravel the mystery ourselves, without using any clues. We often substitute the analysis of the ancient cultural phenomena with comments such as "it is similar" or "it is different" or "That's how I see it". It is impos­sible to under­stand the idea of a creator properly: the modern man and the man of the Middle Ages had dif­ferent perceptions of the world and this is even more true when we are talking about a master-founder from the north­ern forests. The mass mouldings can at least be classified and their mean­ing can be understood through a sys­tem of images and artistic techniques. Rare masterpieces are practically inexplicable.

The Liittle MonsterIn 2006 among other things, a sur­prising and even mysterious object was delivered to the Yamal-Nenet Regional Shemanovsky Museum and Exhibition Complex. It was a flat double-sized bronze cast of a certain monster - a fantastic animal, a fish or, perhaps, a lizard with short powerful legs, an enormous head and a tail curled onto its back. There was a man's head in the open mouth. This image is unique; a search for analogies lead only to a very general conclu­sion: the figurine was made in Western Siberia, approximately in the middle or the second half of the lsl millennium A.D. It is a very exciting task to try to understand a story or a myth , but the result is often impossible to prove. To under­stand the difficulties of deciphering images in this way, let's imagine a dis­pute between two scientists - one of them is absorbed in studying various influences of the foreign cultures on the traditional beliefs of the Ob Ugrians (the general name of the Khant and the Mansi), and the other one in researching the Ob Ugrian mythology. Let's call them A and B.

A. Do you remember the biblical story about the prophet Jonah, who spent a few days in the stomach of a whale and was afterwards spewed out on the shore? The figurine dates from about VI-VIII century A.D. At that time things from distant countries, including Christian countries, began to reach the North of Western Siberia. Archeologists have discov­ered, for example, dishes with images of the siege of Jericho, King David and Bathsheba or angels on either side of a cross. It is also possible, that not only metal things reached the lower Ob River, but also fabrics depicting mythological, historical or literary scenes. Various sources men­tion that Nestorian Christian mis­sionaries were arriving to Siberia as early as the beginning of the Middle Ages. Why not assume that some­thing heard from them or seen on an object unknown to us (a dish or a picture on fabric) was remembered by a Western Siberia founder and repre­sented in one of his works. Isn't it hard to imagine that the inhabitants of the forest of the lower Ob River didn't try to understand a story which was new to them and to explain it somehow in their own way? That's how we got this fantastic ani­mal, spewing a man out of its stom­ach.

B. I can't agree with you at all. Bronze is a sacred metal, especially for the man of the Middle Ages. Things that were made of it must have had profound meaning both for the master and for those who would use it. We must try to find the story in local mythology. And it exists! The Khanty and the Mansi, who were earlier called Ostyaks and Voguls, had many stories about water-dwellers or, more accurately, mon­sters living in the water. For example, the yyur is something like a lizard or a snake, the creature which was believed to undermine the banks of the river. The yyur can swal­low a boat together with man. Or what about the fish-like mon­ster ves, which dwells in a whirlpool and makes it even more dangerous? Sometimes it is a giant pike which, when it grows old. transforms into a mammoth with horns growing out of the mouth. All these underwater crea­tures are not very friendly towards humans. One a method of pleasing the spirits or spirit-like creatures is to make their images from metal and to put these images in a sacred place. The northern Khants still believe in this ritual. This moulding probably represents a similar fantastic aquatic monster which is swallowing or has just swallowed a man.

A. But the Ob Ugrians don't have any myth, which tells us about a mon­ster swallowing a man. The legends tell only that the creature is able to do it, that it can swallow a man and a boat, but it is better understood as a demonstration of the creature's powers, than of its real acts. Here we see a slightly stylized illustration of a for­eign story which shook the imagina­tion of the craftsman - the ejection of a man, not his absorption.

B. In the Middle Ages there were no illustrations per se. The master would combine several parts of the story - for example, he would make a picture of what was taking place at several different moments. That is why we see only the head in the mouth. I agree that this image could be a demonstration of the power and abilities of the fantastic creature and not an illustration of a myth. But that has nothing to do with borrowings from other cultures.

A. If the story shown on the moulding had been taken from the local Western Siberian mythology then this image wouldn't have been unique. The masters replicate scenes from their nation's myths, although in different ways. We see that in the modern art of the North. But the man, who created this unique image, knew something beyond his traditional culture. That's why there are not any other such images.

B. Dp you realize how few artworks, created during the Middle Ages, have come down to us? If the object is unique, that does not mean that it was always so. Other similar images might not have survived or haven't yet been found. The rich and vivid world of the northern mythology is known to all, who have made the effort to read the published collections of myths, legends and fables of the Ob Ugrians. I assure you, there is everything in those myths that human fantasy can create.

A. Fantasy has nothing to do with this. We are talking about a biblical story reproduced almost exactly!

***

The dispute is endless, because neither of the scientists can prove their point of view or refute their opponent's one by referring to the facts. They are both sure that they are right, but confidence does not guar­antee truth. We will understand bet­ter what the creator of the "little monster" meant by placing it to the knots of mysterious masterpieces on the canvas of the past woven by acad­emics. And if the places for them are chosen rightly their mystery will only make the picture more beautiful.

   
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