Here’s another magical–in every sense–mystery, the eight sandstone mounds of Sunduki (“Boxes”) in Siberia, which appear to be the world’s oldest observatory. Sunduki is near the Bely Iyus river in the Abakan River Basin in Khakassia, south-central Siberia (not the town of the same region in Tver region). According to a piece in the Siberian Times,
In all, Sunduki comprises eight fantastical sandstone mounts rising incongruously from a flood plain on the bank of the Bely Iyus. Parallel to each other, almost equal in size, they are crowned with strange rock hats looking like giant boxes or chests.
The word ‘Sunduk’ in Russian means ‘chest’ or ‘trunk’ which explains how the place got its modern name.
‘For many years I tried to unravel these mystery ‘chests’, said Professor Vitaly Larichev, of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Determined to decode some of the mysteries of Sunduki, he admits he became an ‘astro-archeologist’.
‘We don’t dig in the ground – we study what ancient people knew about astronomy’, he said.
‘What I discovered was a surprise even to myself. Comparing maps accumulated over many years of astronomical observations, I came to understand that here in Sunduki, we can see the oldest astronomical observatory certainly in Asia. Its age is about 16,000 years old. The ancient inhabitants of this valley daily observed the sunset, the sunrise and the moon’.
The mounds and strategic rocks and clefts can be used to predict the solstice and even tell the time:
High on one cliff wall is a rock engraving showing dragon heads in one direction, and snake heads in the other.
‘If the sun were shining, we could tell the time,’ he said. ‘In the morning the shadow moves along the snake’s body from his head to his tail, and in the afternoon it comes from the other direction along the dragon.
‘From the same observation point you can determine true north and south by sighting along the mountains’.
Still today showing petroglyphs of every kind, the mounds of Sunduki were seemingly natural formations, to which shamans added stones and perhaps carved clefts to make them into these observatories. Obviously a powerful magical place, deeply imbued with the spirits, maybe even having its own Shape. Most likely, though, it could instead connect one versed in right right mysteries, knowing the songs to sing, the steps to dance and the herbs to chew, directly to that glorious, godly, glaring Shape: the Sun. Or perhaps leaping through the cleft at the Solstice might bring one directly into the spirit realm of the Sun, or else into another Solstice, years in the past…
Never mind Loch Ness, Russia claims not one but six legendary lake monsters, and Russians are no more eager than the Scots to give up on these tales (which, incidentally, are great cameos for Mythic Russia games). Indeed, Russia Beyond The Headlines recently reported on the way that a deep dive into Siberia’s Lake Labynkyr promptly sparked all kinds of rumors about finally coming up with evidence of its particular monstrosity:
The dive made by Dmitry Schiller’s team into the icy waters of Lake Labynkyr on February 1, 2013 could qualify for the Guinness World Records. The team members dived to the bottom of the polar lake at the coldest time of year, in Russia’s coldest region.
The dive has already prompted a blaze of publicity in the Russian media, not to mention the repercussions it has borne. Rumors abound that parts of the skeleton and jaws of a huge animal were found on the lakebed, with the help of camera technology.
The members of the Russian Geographical Society team have since denied this claim, but “Nessie Fever” was unstoppable. Both scientific and pseudo-scientific exploration teams have set off in pursuit of a Russian Loch Ness Monster all over the country.
Lake Labynkyr is meant to be the home of a massive, predatory fish, with a “dark-grey, oval-shaped body,” known as the “Devil of Labynkyr.” A similar “bull-pike” is reportedly to be found in nearby Lake Vorota and also distant Lake Khaiyr, in Yakutia above the Arctic Circle, along with a more reptilian or serpentine creature, “probably 4 to 4.5 meters [13-14 feet] long, 1.5 to 2 meters tall, with a long neck, maybe 1.5 meters. It had a small, flat head, like a snake”… Far, far to the east is Lake Elgygytyn, and no one even knows what the great entity living within its icy depths may be. These aren’t all beasts of Siberia, though. Bubbling Lake Brosno, located in Tver Region, is considered home to Brosnya, a water dragon. (That RBTH article also has a handy map showing the locations of all these places.)
It turns out that the torch made to light the flame at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in southern Russia will be shaped like the feather of a Firebird. Of course! It may not look that featherish, but apparently it will produce “a previously-unseen massive orange-red flame.”
Quibbles about the actual torch aside, it’s nice to see the Russians in a nod to one of the classic pieces of Russian folklore.
There’s a very nice little history by Kevin O’Connor of Gonzaga University the rise of the Latvian city of Riga on his blog Briniskigi! here. Complete with the map below (a little early for the standard Mythic Russia timeline, but a good base) and the picture to the left (which is Riga in 1621, so conversely a little late), it gives a sense of the way it emerged and above all the role of the Crusading Orders (the Livonians, the Sword Brothers) in that process. (This is also discussed on this Latvian history site.)
Still today, Riga is a gem of a city with a lovely medieval centre now a UNESCO World Heritage Site — very well worth exploring if ever you get there. (I confess I also have a hankering to try the ‘Medieval Adventure in Old Riga‘ ‘interactive guided tour’ even though, or maybe because, I suspect it will be quite hokey.)
One of the liberties I took in Mythic Russia was including vodka. After all, even if vodka wouldn’t actually be around for a few centuries, it is so deeply-embedded within the Russian trope, that I felt it my bounden duty!
However, it turns out, courtesy of this article from the Moscow News, that maybe this wasn’t quite as much of a stretch as I had thought:
One story says that Genoese merchants traveling to Lithuania brought aqua vitae, a strong liquor distilled from grape juice that had to be diluted for consumption, to Russia in the 14th century. They presented vessels of it to Dmitry Donskoi, prince of Moscow and grand prince of Vladimir.
So, strong spirits not only were present, they came from Italy, via Lithuania. This raises all kinds of interesting plot line:
- Raiding Lithuania for supplies of this potent firewater to present to the tsar (and then trying to prevent your men from drinking it on the way back)
- A Lithuanian merchant traveling into Russia looking for markets (perhaps needing local guards, guides and allies) and trying to avoid rivals from finding out his source and rapacious boyars from confiscating his stock
- Russian entrepreneurs trying to sneak into Lithuania to contact the Genoese to establish their own trade deals for direct imports, possibly even having to trek all the way to Italy to arrange it. Or maybe instead heading down to the Genoese trading stations on the Crimean peninsula to open negotiations.
A massive geoglyph (carved figure in the ground) of an elk (moose) in the Zyuratkul Ridge in the Southern Urals may be the oldest such artwork in the world, perhaps dating back 5000-8000 years. It’s massive, over 2 km long and some 275 m across, and was made with large and small stones embedded in the ground and crushed stones.
Stanislav Grigoryev of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History and Archeology, said he believed that the elk was a message addressed to the gods. Of course, we know that this must be the holiest place dedicated to the Sibiryak Shape of Elk, a thin place where travel into the Otherworlds is easy.
Abilities: Devotee of Elk or Initiate of Elk, Endure Hardship, Lock Horns, Stories of Elk
Affinity: Cope With What Comes (Eat What’s Around, Find Salt, Shrug Off Bad Weather, Ungainly Swimmer, Warm Inside)
Secret: Mighty Antlers (The devotee can at will manifest great antlers, and while they are evident can use this Secret as an additional Affinity with the feats Attract Mate, Bone-Crunching Charge, Intimidating Display.
I haven’t yet had the chance to watch Орда (The Horde), a new big-budget Russian swords & stallions action movie, but the trailer and visuals do look impressive, reflecting the way Russian film-making has moved into the big league. Set in the 14thC, it has all the usual tropes, but has already begun to cause controversy about the way it reportedly depicts most of the Mongols as “brutal, bloodthirsty, evil-minded, greedy people.” The fact that it was part-funded by a company linked to the Russian Orthodox Church might have something to do with that… Still, action movies are rarely the place to find sensitively-drawn, politically-correct historical revisionism, so I’ll just look forward to seeing the film in due course and drawing my own conclusions. At least it does look well done (director Andrei Proshkin took the best director’s award at this summer’s Moscow Film Festival and one of his stars, Rosa Khairulina, best actress) and the scenes of the Mongol city Sarai Batu, while a tad caricature, do look impressive and offering great atmospheric vistas to illustrate scenes in a game… If anyone gets to see it (it came out in Russia this month), do post a comment and let us know what you thought!
Russian proverbs offer a wonderful insight into Russian culture, and are also fun to sprinkle into dialog in games of Mythic Russia. Indeed, at a few convention games (at Recess, Continuum and Furnace), I’ve given each player a few cards, each with a proverb, and handed out a hero point each time the player uses the proverb in an appropriate and witty way in play. This wouldn’t necessarily work in regular play as it leads to an abundance of hero points, but in a one-off it has the added value of encouraging players to then spend them on swashbuckling exploits and extraordinary deeds. You can find handy lists of some proverbs here and here.