Stepan P. Krasheninnikov, Explorations of Kamchatka 1735-1741, translated from the Russian, Oregon Historical society, Portland, 1972.

pp. 238-243

 

 

The Kamchadal Beliefs About God, the Creation of
The World and the Tenets of their Religion

 

The Kamchadals regard a certain Kutkhu as their god, and believe they are descended from him. They do not know who created the skies and the stars; they say only that they existed before the earth; and they have two opinions about the creation of the earth. Some suppose that Kutkhu created the earth from his son Symskalin, who was born to him and his wife Ilkkhum, while he was strolling with her on the sea. Others believe that Kutkhu and his sister Khutlyzhich brought the earth from the heavens and set it on the sea, which element was created by Utleigyn, who still dwells there today. However, all generally agree that Kutkhu lived in the firmament before the creation of the earth.

The belief of those who acknowledge a sea god conforms to that of the Iakuts, who assign the direction of heaven and earth to different gods. They also admit a god of the underworld; they all believe that these gods are brothers of the god of the heavens. The ancient Greeks and Romans held similar beliefs.

After Kutkhu created the earth, he left heaven and came to live in Kam­chatka, where he had a son named Tyzhil-kutkhu, and a daughter, Siduka. When they came of age, they married each other. Kutkhu, his wife and chil­dren, wore garments made of leaves and ate the bark of birch and poplar, since earthly animals had not yet been created and the gods did not know how to catch fish.

One day Kutkhu left his wife and children and disappeared from Kam­chatka. No one knows what became of him; they suppose that he went off on skis or snowshoes and that the mountains and hills were formed in his footsteps, because his feet sank into the earth as if into soft loam. They believe that their country was completely flat prior to this time.

Tyzhil-Kutkhu had a son named Amleia, and a daughter called Sidukamshich; the brother and sister married each other when they were grown. They have no further knowledge of the genealogy of the gods; they only know their nation is descended from them. Tyzhil-Kutkhu, seeking to enlarge his family, dreamed of ways of providing for his living; he invented the art of making fish­nets out of nettles. His father had already taught him how to make boats. It was he who taught the Kamchadals how to make clothing from skins. He created the animals on earth and to take care of them he made Piliachuche, who still watches over them today. He is depicted as being very small in stature, dressed in clothing made from the skin of the wolverine, of which the Kamchadals have many. He is pulled by birds, especially by partridge, whose tracks they some­times think they can see.

Steller describes these people to us as idolaters. They have many gods, who, according to tradition, have appeared to several of them. In their language, they have no word for spirit; they have no conception of this, nor of the might and wisdom of a Supreme Being.

One cannot imagine anything more absurd than their god Kutkhu. They pay no homage to him and never ask any favor of him; they speak of him only in derision. They tell such indecent stories about him that I would be embarrassed to repeat them. They upbraid him for having made too many mountains, preci­pices, reefs, sand banks and swift rivers, for causing rainstorms and tempests which frequently inconvenience them. In winter when they climb up or down the mountains, they heap abuses on him and curse him with imprecations. They behave the same way when they are in other difficult or dangerous situations.

Nevertheless they do have a god they generally call Dustekhtich, and in a way they have the same-respect and veneration for this name that the Athenians had for their Unknown God. They erect a pillar, or a kind of column, in the middle of some large flat area and in the tundra. They wrap it with tonshich, and never pass it without throwing a bit of fish to it, or some other morsel; they never pick up the fruits which fall around it, and never kill any bird or animal in the vicinity. They feel they are lengthening their lives through these offerings and that their lifespan would be cut short if they failed to do this. However, they offer up nothing of use to themselves, only the fins, gills and tails of fish, which they would throw away even if they were not given as an offering. They have this custom in common with all Asiatic peoples, who only offer to their gods things they do not personally want, and keep for themselves anything they can eat. Steller saw two of these columns near the Lower Kamchatka ostrog; lie found no others elsewhere. On my travels in the north, I myself saw several places where passersby made offerings, as if they believed that evil spirits inhabited these places; but I never saw idols or columns.

They also believe1 that all dangerous places, such as volcanoes, high moun­tains, hot springs, forests, etc., are inhabited by devils, whom they fear and respect more than their gods.

They call the mountain gods kamuli, or little spirits. What we call a genie, in Kamchatka is called kamulech. These gods, or as they say, these evil spirits, live in the great mountains and especially in the volcanoes; thus they dare not go near them. They believe that these spirits live on fish which they catch; dur­ing the night they come down from the mountains and fly to the sea to look for food; they carry off a fish on each finger and cook them in the Kamchadal manner and eat them with whale blubber using whalebone spoons instead of wooden ones. When the Kamchadals pass through these places, they always throw some bit of food there as an offering to the evil spirits.

The forest gods are called ushakhchu. They are said to resemble men. Their wives bear children who sprout from their backs and who cry incessantly. According to the superstitions of these people, such spirits lead men astray from their paths and drive them mad.

They call the sea god Mitg; they assign to him the form of a fish. His dominion extends over the sea and the fish; he sends fish into the rivers so that they may gather wood to make boats for him, but never with the intention that they should be used as food for men, for these people cannot believe that a god can do them any good.

They tell several stories about Piliachuche, whom we have already men­tioned, whom Steller calls Biliukae. They say that he lives in the clouds with several kamulis, that he is the one who makes the lightning flash and hurls thunderbolts and makes the rain fall. They consider the rainbow to be the edging on his garments. They imagine that this god sometimes comes down from the clouds to the mountains and rides in a sled drawn by partridges. They consider it great good fortune to make out the imaginary tracks left by Biliukae; they are nothing but tiny furrows which the wind has left on the surface of the snow; this happens especially during storms; thus they fear this god. They claim that he sends his henchmen to carry off their children in whirlwinds so he can use them as sconces on which to place his oil lamps to light up his palace. His wife is called Tiranus.

They also believe in another evil spirit, according to Steller; they represent him as being very crafty and deceitful; for this reason he is called Kanna. Near the Lower Kamchatka ostrog they point out a very old and lofty alder tree, which is supposedly his dwelling place. Every year the Kamchadals shoot arrows into this tree so that it positively bristles with them.

Gaech, they say, is the lord of the underworld, where men go to live after death. Once upon a time he lived on earth; to one of the first children of Kutova they assign dominion over the winds, and to his wife Savina they attribute the creation of dawn and dusk.

They consider their god Tuila to be the author of earthquakes, being con­vinced that these occur when his dog Kozei, who pulls his sled when he goes underground, shakes the snow from his pelt.

All the beliefs they have about their gods and devils or evil spirits are disconnected and so absurd and ridiculous that anyone unfamiliar with these people would have a hard time believing that they hold all these strange ideas as infallible truths; nonetheless, they try their best to make sense out of every­thing that exists; they even try to understand the thoughts of fish and birds. Their mistake is that they never consider whether their ideas are right or wrong. They accept everything easily, without reflecting on it.

Their religion is primarily based on ancient traditions which they carefully preserve, and they do not want to hear any logical reasoning which might undermine their beliefs.

Steller reports that he questioned more than a hundred of them as to whether, when they beheld the heavens, the stars, the moon and the sun, the thought never occurred to them that there might be an all-powerful Being, creator of all things; whom one should love and respect for his beneficence. They all declared that such a notion had never occurred to them and that they did not feel and had never felt either love or fear for such a supreme being.

They believe that God is not the cause of either happiness or of unhappi­ness, but that everything depends on man. They believe that the world is eternal, that spirits are immortal and will be reunited with the body, and will always be subject to all the vicissitudes of this life with this one exception, that they will have an abundance of everything in the other world and that they will never have to endure hunger.

All creatures, from the tiniest fly, will come to life again after death and will live beneath the earth; they believe that the earth is flat and that under­neath it there is a sky similar to ours, with another world below, whose inhabi­tants have winter when we have summer, and summer when we have winter.

As to the rewards of the other life, they say that those who were poor in this life will be rich in the other; and that those who are wealthy here will be poor in their turn. They do not believe that God will punish sins; for evil-doers, they say, are punished forthwith.

This is the tale they recite about the origin of their tradition. They say that in the underworld, where men go after death, there is a large strong Kamchadal called Gaech, who was born of Kutkhu; he was the first to meet death in Kam­chatka; he lived alone in the underworld until the moment his two daughters died and rejoined him; then he passed into our world to instruct posterity, and he is the one who told them everything they believe in today. Some of their fellowmen died of terror at seeing a dead man return to them, and so from that time on, they abandon their iurts when someone dies, and build new ones, so that if a corpse returns, as Gaech did, he will not be able to find their new dwellings.

They say Gaech is the chief of the underworld. He receives all the Kamcha­dals who have died, and gives poor dogs and rags to those who come richly dressed and with fine-dogs; and on the other hand he makes gifts of beautiful dogs and magnificent garments to those who come in tatters with old dogs. They believe that the dead build iurts and balagans, that they keep busy hunting and fishing, that they drink, eat, and make merry just as they did in this world, except that they do not experience any of the miseries and evils attached to the human condition. They believe that in the underworld one never has to endure hurricanes or tempests, that snow and rain are unknown, that all necessities are plentiful there, just as was the case in Kamchatka at the time of Kutkhu. They think that this world grows worse day by day, and that everything declines in comparison to what exists elsewhere, for animals as well as men hasten to take up residence in this underground world.

Their ideas about vice and virtue are as bizarre as those about their gods. They regard as acceptable anything that can gratify their desires and passions, and they consider sinful only those actions which make them fear real harm. Thus death, suicide, fornication, adultery, sodomy, gross insults, etc., are not considered crimes; they believe, on the contrary, that it is a great sin to save a drowning man, for whoever rescues him will himself be drowned. It is also a dreadful sin to admit into one's dwelling anyone who has shaken off the snow from mountain travel before eating all his travel provisions; such persons may only enter a iurt after stripping to the skin and discarding his garments as if they were contaminated. They believe that to drink water from hot springs or to bathe in them, or to climb up to volcanoes, is to court certain disaster by committing a crime which heaven will avenge; they have the same idea about several other superstitions which I should be ashamed to speak of.

They consider it a sin to scuffle or to quarrel over sour fish; to have relations with their wives when they are skinning dogs; it is also wrong to scrape off snow from their boots with a knife, to cook the meat of different animals and fish in the same vessel, to sharpen their hatchets or knives while traveling, and other such childish things; they are afraid that these actions will cause them some misfortune. For example, arguments and disputes over sour fish make them afraid they will meet death; if they have intercourse with their wives dur­ing the time they skin dogs, they fear they will get mange; if they scrape off snow with a knife, they believe a hurricane is impending; if they cook different meats together, they are convinced they will be unlucky at hunting, or that they will get boils; if they sharpen their hatchets while traveling, they believe they will be threatened by bad weather and storms. One should not be overly aston­ished at all this, for there are many such superstitions among all peoples.

In addition to the gods I have mentioned, the Kamchadals also hold sacred various animals and other creatures whom they have some reason to fear. They offer fire at the openings to sable and fox burrows; when they go fishing, they offer prayers and entreaties to the whales and the dolphin with the most flatter­ing words, because these fish sometimes tip over their boats. They do not call the bear or the wolf by name; they only use the word sipang, which means mis­fortune; in this they resemble our sable hunters, who are very careful during the hunt not to call a number of things by name, lest this bring bad luck to the hunt.

This was the condition of that nation during my first stay in Kamchatka, but today nearly all the Kamchadals have received the Christian faith, as have many of the northern Koriaks, through the vigilance of the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, and the truly motherly concern she has for all her subjects. In 1741 the Holy Synod sent missionaries to Kamchatka, along with everything necessary to establish a church to convert the natives to the Christian faith; this was so successful that many were baptized. These people have even been inspired to want to educate themselves, and schools have been established in various places. The Kamchadals willingly send their children, and some are educated at their own expense; all of which leads us to believe that soon Christianity will make great progress in this country. 2

 

1 The following is taken from Steller’s notes (footnote due to Krasheninnikov)

2 A major incentive for the natives to adopt Christianity was that as Christians they were exempt from paying iasak (footnote due to the American translator)