CHAPTER XX. THE KORAK TONGUE - RELIGION OF TERROR - INCANTATIONS OF SHAMANS - KILLING OF OLD AND SICK - REINDEER SUPERSTITION - KORAK CHARACTER

Our long intercourse with the Wandering Koraks gave us an opportunity of observing many of their peculiarities, which would very likely escape the notice of a transient visitor; and as our journey until we reached the head of Penzhinsk Gulf was barren of incident, I shall give in this chapter all the information I could gather relative to the language, religion, superstitions, customs, and mode of life of the Kamchatkan Koraks.

There can be no doubt whatever that the Koraks and the powerful Siberian tribe known as Chukchis (or Tchucktchis, according to Wrangell) descended originally from the same stock, and migrated together from their ancient locations to the places where they now live. Even after several centuries of separation, they resemble each other so closely that they can hardly be distinguished, and their languages differ less one from the other than the Portuguese differs from the Spanish. Our Korak interpreters found very little difficulty in conversing with Chukchis; and a comparison of vocabularies which we afterward made showed only a slight dialectical variation, which could be easily accounted for by a few centuries of separation. None of the Siberian languages with which I am acquainted are written, and, lacking a fixed standard of reference, they change with great rapidity. This is shown by a comparison of a modern Chukchi vocabulary with the one compiled by M. de Lesseps in 1788. Many words have altered so materially as to be hardly recognisable. Others, on the contrary, such as "tin tin," ice, "oottoot," wood, "weengay," no, "ay," yes, and most of the numerals up to ten, have undergone no change whatever. Both Koraks and Chukchis count by fives instead of tens, a peculiarity which is also noticeable in the language of the Co-Yukons in Alaska. The Korak numerals are: -

  Innin, One. 
  Nee-ak deg.h, Two. 
  Nee-ok deg.h, Three. 
  Nee-ak deg.h, Four. 
  Mil-li-gen, Five. 
  In-nin mil-li-gen, Five-one. 
  Nee-ak deg.h " Five-two. 
  Nee-ok deg.h " Five-three. 
  Nee-ak deg.h " Five-four. 
  Meen-ye-geet-k deg.hin, Ten.

After ten they count ten-one, ten-two, etc., up to fifteen, and then ten-five-one; but their numerals become so hopelessly complicated when they get above twenty, that is would be easier to carry a pocketful of stones and count with them, than to pronounce the corresponding words.

Fifty-six, for instance, is "Nee-akh-khleep-kin-meen-ye-geet-khin-par-ol-in-nin-mil-li-gen," and it is only fifty-six after it is all pronounced! It ought to be at least two hundred and sixty-three millions nine hundred and fourteen thousand seven hundred and one - and then it would be long. But the Koraks rarely have occasion to use high numbers; and when they do, they have an abundance of time. It would be a hard day's work for a boy to explain in Korak one of the miscellaneous problems in Ray's Higher Arithmetic. To say 324 x 5260 = 1,704,240 would certainly entitle him to a recess of an hour and a reward of merit. We were never able to trace any resemblance whatever between the Koraki-Chukchi language and the languages spoken by the natives on the eastern side of Bering Strait. If there be any resemblance, it must be in grammar rather than in vocabulary.

The religion of all the natives of north-eastern Siberia, wandering and settled, including six or seven widely different tribes, is that corrupted form of Buddhism known as Shamanism. It is a religion which varies considerably in different places and among different people; but with the Koraks and Chukchis it may be briefly defined as the worship of the evil spirits who are supposed to be embodied in all the mysterious powers and manifestations of Nature, such as epidemic and contagious diseases, severe storms, famines, eclipses, and brilliant auroras. It takes its name from the shamans or priests, who act as interpreters of the evil spirits' wishes and as mediators between them and man. All unnatural phenomena, and especially those of a disastrous and terrible nature, are attributed to the direct action of these evil spirits, and are considered as plain manifestations of their displeasure. It is claimed by many that the whole system of Shamanism is a gigantic imposture practised by a few cunning priests upon the easy credulity of superstitious natives. This I am sure is a prejudiced view. No one who has ever lived with the Siberian natives, studied their character, subjected himself to the same influences that surround them, and put himself as far as possible in their places, will ever doubt the sincerity of either priests or followers, or wonder that the worship of evil spirits should be their only religion. It is the only religion possible for such men in such circumstances. A recent writer [Footnote: W.E.H. Lecky, History of Rationalism in Europe.] of great fairness and impartiality has described so admirably the character of the Siberian Koraks, and the origin and nature of their religious belief, that I cannot do better than quote his words: -