Far over the eastern half of Europe extends a vast and mighty plain, spreading thousands of miles to the north and south, to the east and west, in the north a land of forests, in the south and east a region of treeless levels. Here stretches the Black Land, whose deep dark soil is fit for endless harvests; here are the arable steppes, a vast fertile prairie land, and here again the barren steppes, fit only for wandering herds and the tents of nomad shepherds. Across this great plain, in all directions, flow myriads of meandering streams, many of them swelling into noble rivers, whose waters find their outlet in great seas. Over it blow the biting winds of the Arctic zone, chaining its waters in fetters of ice for half the year. On it in summer shine warm suns, in whose enlivening rays life flows full again.
Such is the land with which we have to deal, Russia, the seeding-place of nations, the home of restless tribes. Here the vast level of Northern Asia spreads like a sea over half of Europe, following the lowlands between the Urals and the Caspian Sea. Over these broad plains the fierce horsemen of the East long found an easy pathway to the rich and doomed cities of the West. Russia was playing its part in the grand drama of the nations in far-off days when such a land was hardly known to exist.
Have any of my readers ever from a hill-top looked out over a broad, low-lying meadow-land filled with morning mist, a dense white shroud under which everything lay hidden, all life and movement lost to view? In such a scene, as the mist thins under the rays of the rising sun, vague forms at first dimly appear, magnified and monstrous in their outlines, the shadows of a buried wonderland. Then, as the mist slowly lifts, like a great white curtain, living and moving objects appear below, still of strange outlines and unnatural dimensions.. Finally, as if by the sweep of an enchanter's wand, the mists vanish, the land lies clear under the solar rays, and we perceive that these seeming monsters and giants are but the familiar forms which we know so well, those of houses and trees, men and their herds, actively stirring beneath us, clearly revealed as the things of every day.
It is thus that the land of Russia appears to us when the mists of prehistoric time first begin to lift. Half-formed figures appear, rising, vanishing, showing large through the vapor; stirring, interwoven, endlessly coming and going; a phantasmagoria which it is impossible more than half to understand. At that early date the great Russian plain seems to have been the home of unnumbered tribes of varied race and origin, made up of men doubtless full of hopes and aspirations like ourselves, yet whose story we fail to read on the blurred page of history, and concerning whom we must rest content with knowing a few of the names.
Yet progressive civilizations had long existed in the countries to the south, Egypt and Assyria, Greece and Persia. History was actively being made there, but it had not penetrated the mist-laden North. The Greeks founded colonies on the northern shores of the Black Sea, but they troubled themselves little about the seething tribes with whom they came there into contact. The land they called Scythia, and its people Scythians, but the latter were scarcely known until about 500 B.C., when Darius, the great Persian king, crossed the Danube and invaded their country. He found life there in abundance, and more war. like activity than he relished, for the fierce nomads drove him and his army in terror from their soil, and only fortune and a bridge of boats saved them from perishing.
It was this event that first gave the people of old Russia a place on the page of history. Herodotus, the charming old historian and story-teller, wrote down for us all he could learn about them, though what he says has probably as much fancy in it as fact.
We are told that these broad levels were formerly inhabited by a people called the Cimmerians, who were driven out by the Scythians and went—it is hard to tell whither. A shadow of their name survives in the Crimea, and some believe that they were the ancestors of the Cymri, the Celts of the West.
The Scythians, who thus came into history like a cloud of war, made the god of war their chief deity. The temples which they built to this deity were of the simplest, being great heaps of fagots, which were added to every year as they rotted away under the rains. Into the top of the heap was thrust an ancient iron sword as the emblem of the god. To this grim symbol more victims were sacrificed than to all the other deities; not only cattle and horses, but prisoners taken in battle, of whom one out of every hundred died to honor the god, their blood being caught in vessels and poured on the sword.
A people with a worship like this must have been savage in grain. To prove their prowess in war they cut off the heads of the slain and carried them to the king. Like the Indians of the West, they scalped their enemies. These scalps, softened by treatment, they used as napkins at their meals, and even sewed them together to make cloaks. Here was a refinement in barbarity undreamed of by the Indians.
These were not their only savage customs. They drank the blood of the first enemy killed by them in battle, and at their high feasts used drinking-cups made from the skulls of their foes. When a chief died cruelty was given free vent. The slaves and horses of the dead chief were slain at his grave, and placed upright like a circle of horsemen around the royal tomb, being impaled on sharp timbers to keep them in an upright position.
Tribes with habits like these have no history. There is nothing in their careers worth the telling, and no one to tell it if there were. Their origin, manners, and customs may be of interest, but not their intertribal quarrels.
Herodotus tells us of others besides the Scythians. There were the Melanchlainai, who dressed only in black; the Neuri, who once a year changed into wolves; the Agathyrei, who took pleasure in trinkets of gold; the Sauromati, children of the Amazons, or women warriors; the Argippei, bald-headed and snub-nosed from their birth; the Issedones, who feasted on the dead bodies of their parents; the Arimaspians, a one-eyed race; the Gryphons, guardians of great hoards of gold; the Hyperboreans, in whose land white feathers (snow-flakes?) fell all the year round from the skies.
Such is the mixture of fact and fable which Herodotus learned from the traders and travellers of Greece. We know nothing of these tribes but the names. Their ancestors may have dwelt for thousands of years on the Russian plains; their descendants may still make up part of the great Russian people and retain some of their old-time habits and customs; but of their doings history takes no account.
The Scythians, who occupied the south of Russia, came into contact with the Greek trading colonies north of the Black Sea, and gained from them some little veneer of civilization. They aided the Greeks in their commerce, took part in their caravans to the north and east, and spent some portion of the profits of their peaceful labor in objects of art made for them by Greek artists.
This we know, for some of these objects still exist. Jewels owned by the ancient Scythians may be seen to-day in Russian museums. Chief in importance among these relics are two vases of wonderful interest kept in the museum of the Hermitage, at St. Petersburg. These are the silver vase of Nicopol and the golden vase of Kertch, both probably as old as the days of Herodotus. These vases speak with history. On the silver vase we may see the faces and forms of the ancient Scythians, men with long hair and beards and large features. They resemble in dress and aspect the people who now dwell in the same country, and they are shown in the act of breaking in and bridling their horses, just as their descendants do to-day. Progress has had no place on these broad plains. There life stands still.
On the golden vase appear figures who wear pointed caps and dresses ornamented in the Asiatic fashion, while in their hands are bows of strange shape. But their features are those of men of Aryan descent, and in them we seem to see the far-off progenitors of the modern Russians.
Herodotus, in his chatty fashion, tells us various problematical stories of the Scythians, premising that he does not believe them all himself. A tradition with them was that they were the youngest of all nations, being descended from Targitaus, one of the numerous sons of Jove. The three children of Targitaus for a time ruled the land, but their joint rule was changed by a prodigy. There fell from the skies four implements of gold,—a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe, and a drinking-cup. The oldest brother hastened eagerly to seize this treasure, but it burst into flame at his approach. The second then made the attempt, but was in his turn driven back by the scorching, flames. But on the approach of the youngest the flames vanished, the gold grew cool, and he was enabled to take possession of the heaven-given implements. His elders then withdrew from the throne, warned by this sign from the gods, and left him sole ruler. The story proceeds that the royal gold was guarded with the greatest care, yearly sacrifices being made in its honor. If its guardian fell asleep in the open air during the sacrifices he was doomed to die within the year. But as reward for the faithful keeping of his trust he received as much land as he could ride round on horseback in a day.
The old historian further tells us that the Scythian warriors invaded the kingdom of Media, which they conquered and held for twenty-eight years. During this long absence strange events were taking place at home. They had held many slaves, whom it was their custom to blind, as they used them only to stir the milk in the great pot in which koumiss, their favorite beverage, was made.
The wives of the absent warriors, after years of waiting, gave up all hopes of their return and married the blind slaves; and while the masters tarried in Media the children of their slaves grew to manhood.
The time at length came when the warriors, filled with home-sickness, left the subject realm to seek their native plains. As they marched onward they found themselves stopped by a great dike, dug from the Tauric Mountains to Lake Maeotis, behind which stood a host of youthful warriors. They were the children of the slaves, who were determined to keep the land for themselves. Many battles were fought, but the young men held their own bravely, and the warriors were in despair.
Then one of them cried to his fellows,—
"What foolish thing are we doing, Scythians? These men are our slaves, and every one of them that falls is a loss to us; while each of us that falls reduces our number. Take my advice, lay aside spear and bow, and let each man take his horsewhip and go boldly up to them. So long as they see us with arms in our hands they fancy that they are our equals and fight us bravely. But let them see us with only whips, and they will remember that they are slaves and flee like dogs from before our faces."
It happened as he said. As the Scythians approached with their whips the youths were so astounded that they forgot to fight, and ran away in trembling terror. And so the warriors came home, and the slaves were put to making koumiss again.
These fabulous stories of the early people of Russia may be followed by an account of their funeral customs, left for us by an Arabian writer who visited their land in the ninth century. He tells us that for ten days after the death of one of their great men his friends bewailed him, showing the depth of their grief by getting drunk on koumiss over his corpse.
Then the men-servants were asked which of them would be buried with his master. The one that consented was instantly seized and strangled. The same question was put to the women, one of whom was sure to accept. There may have been some rare future reward offered for death in such a cause. The willing victim was bathed, adorned, and treated like a princess, and did nothing but drink and sing while the obsequies lasted.
On the day fixed for the end of the ceremonies, the dead man was laid in a boat, with part of his arms and garments. His favorite horse was slain and laid in the boat, and with it the corpse of the man-servant. Then the young girl was led up. She took off her jewels, a glass of kvass was put in her hand, and she sang a farewell song.
"All at once," says the writer, "the old woman who accompanied her, and whom they called the angel of death, bade her to drink quickly, and to enter into the cabin of the boat, where lay the dead body of her master. At these words she changed color, and as she made some difficulty about entering, the old woman seized her by the hair, dragged her in, and entered with her. The men immediately began to beat their shields with clubs to prevent the other girls from hearing the cries of their companion, which might prevent them one day dying for their master."
The boat was then set on fire, and served as a funeral pile, in which living and dead alike were consumed.