Crimean Rites

April 15, 2014 | 1 book mentioned 7 min read


It’s February 4, 1937. The poet Osip Mandelstam is in Voronezh, a provincial city deep in the Russian steppe. He has one year left to live. Voronezh is a place of exile, set between “the throaty Ural” and the “heavy-shouldered Volga.” In his exile, Mandelstam dreamt of the South, of “the breaches of round bays, the gravel and the blue/and a slow sail, continued by a cloud.”

It’s a dream of Greece, and of the Black Sea – an old dream for Mandelstam. Twenty years before he began a poem “Insomnia. Homer. Tautly swelling sails.” But it’s also a dream with a degree of specificity. Without a doubt, Mandelstam is thinking of the Crimea. In part, as Joseph Brodsky notes, this is because of “Russian poetry’s traditional regard for the Crimea and the Black Sea as the only available approximation to the Greek world, of which these places – Taurida and Pontus Euxinus – used to be the outskirts.” But in part it’s because of Mandelstam’s particular relationship to the place. He spent part of the Civil War there, and returned to it periodically with his wife Nadezhda. For him, the Crimea became a sanctuary as well as place of myth.

coverIn his second collection, Tristia, he writes:

The thread of golden honey flowed from the bottle
so heavy and slow that our hostess had time to declare:
Here in melancholy Tauris, where fate has brought us,
we are not at all bored – and glanced back over her shoulder.

On all side the rites of Bacchus, as if the world
held only watchmen and dogs, not a soul to be seen –
the days roll peacefully by like heavy barrels:
Away in the hut are voices, you can’t hear or reply.

“On all sides the rites of Bacchus.” Mandelstam was more correct about the Crimea’s past than he could have known. Today the Crimea is talked about as just a territory. In the news it’s an abstraction, a piece of land kicked like football between nations. But in literature and history it lives a life of its own.

Who does the Crimea belong to?

First of all, to the sea that made it. Seven thousand years ago, the Black Sea was much lower than it is today. Then a waterfall tumbled over the Bosporus, and the waters began to rise. The flood cut the Crimea off from the mainland – all the way except for a narrow isthmus called the Perekop. Ever since, it has been a rocky island on the shores of a sea of grass.

The steppes belonged to the nomads. Grass meant horses, and freedom. The steppes stretched north, from the mouth of the Danube to the Siberian Altai. Across the centuries they were home to various nomadic confederations and tribes: Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Pechenegs, Cumans, Mongols, and Kipchak Turks. The legendary Cimmerians predate them all; the Cossacks are still there today.

At times, the nomadic tribes made their home in Crimea too. But the mountainous peninsula was also a refuge. = It drew in emigrants from the South: exiles fleeing persecution and castaways from larger migrations. In the seventh century B.C., Greeks from Miletus and the rest of Ionia settled there in search of land, founding cities all along the coasts. Thracians and Scythians followed, driving the Taurians, the native inhabitants of the peninsula, into the high places.

In the Middle Ages, the Karaites, Jews from Babylonia who rejected the Talmud and any authority beyond the Torah, arrived. With time, they adopted the language of the neighboring Turks. In the 19th century, the Karaites began to claim that they weren’t related to other Jews at all, but that they were instead descendants of the Turkic Khazars.

In the 16th century, a Flemish ambassador to the Ottomans named Ogier de Busbecq was amazed to discover that Goths were living in the Crimea. They were the last descendants of the Germanic tribes from the Dark Ages of the West. They still spoke the language of their forefathers. Apparently they got lost on their way to sacking Rome. Busbecq recorded some of their words: “handa” for hand; “apel” for apple; “reghen” for rain, as well as a song that no one can understand to this day.

For a time in the 15th century, the peninsula was home to a breakaway sliver of the Byzantine Empire. After the Fourth Crusade, the Genoese took control of the old Greek ports, growing rich off the slave trade. It was at one of these ports, Kaffa, that the Black Death entered Europe, when the besieging army catapulted dead bodies over the city walls.

Slavery was long crucial to the life of the Crimea. The Crimean Khanate was home to some of the largest slave markets in Europe. The Khanate was founded in 1449 by Tatars, deserters from the Golden Horde. Its first Sultan, a descendent of Genghis Khan, built his palace at the place to which a snake had fled after being nearly killed by another snake. The Sultan had been beaten in battle; he took this as an omen that he would nonetheless thrive. For generations the Tatars raided the southern steppes in search of captives, going as far as Poland and the mouth of the Danube. In Ukrainian and Russian, “to go to the Crimea” once meant “to be enslaved.”

coverWith time, the power of the Khans declined, and the Cossacks raided their cities. A century of warfare with the Russian Empire followed. Catherine the Great finally annexed the Crimea in 1783. After the annexation, the Crimea took on a new identity. At once Russia’s Riviera and of its many Siberias, it hosted banished poets and aristocratic ladies on vacation. Pushkin spent some of his exile there. At the palace of Khan Girai he found the inspiration for his poem about the sad lovers of Bakhchysarai. Adam Mickiewicz devoted a cycle of sonnets to it, poems in which he is alternately a pilgrim, a poet, and an exile. Chekhov nursed his Tuberculosis in Yalta. Mandelstam sat out the Civil War in Theodosia, ancient Kaffa, in which he set one of the sketches in The Noise of Time. For them, the peninsula was a door to the South and the East. Their works figure it as an alternate Russia, at once Mediterranean and oriental.

Of these writers, Mandelstam was especially keen on envisioning a Russia whose culture was rooted in that of classical Greece. To Mandelstam and other like-minded Hellenizers, the Crimea belonged to ancient Greece as much as modern Russia. The soil itself said as much.

In the 19th century, when archaeologists began opening the earthen burial mounds scattered around the peninsula, they discovered that the Scythians and Greeks had deeper ties than chroniclers like Herodotus would have led them to believe. Inside the kurgans they found the treasure the Scythian chieftains had taken with them to the afterlife. Many of these were vessels and implements made of finely wrought gold, most likely made by Greeks who lived in one of the cities of the Bosporan Kingdom. In these gold ornaments, a whole mythology and history unspools wordlessly. Griffins devour stags, warriors string their bows and mend their wounds, heroes ride mythological creatures, horses nurse their foals, lions crouch in bushes, and bards play songs under the shade of celestial trees. On an ornamental quiver given to a boy as a coming-of-age present, a Greek king gives the boy Achilles a barbarian-style compound bow. On top of a comb, rival kings fight on horseback. Some are dressed in the flowing pants of the nomad and some in the battle armor of Greek hoplites.

But even if the goldsmiths of Panticapaeum and the other cities of the Crimea fulfilled their commissions faithfully, that doesn’t mean that relations between north and south were always peaceful. One story told by Herodotus and confirmed – in part – by archaeology captures the fraught relation between Greeks and Scythians, nomads, and town dwellers. It concerns Scyles, king of the Scythians. Scyles’s father was a Scythian, but his mother was a Greek. The Scythians lived in tents and drank fermented mare’s milk. The Greeks lived in cities and drank wine. Scyles grew to prefer he Greek way of life, but, because of his peoples’ prejudices, he had to keep his love of poetry and wine and all things Greek secret.

Most of the time, he ruled as a Scythian, but one month out of every year he would go to Borysthenes, a colony of Miletus on the northern shores of the Black Sea, to live as a Greek. While there, Scyles dressed in Greek clothes and worshipped in the Greek way. He even had a Greek wife. But one day, he decided that this wasn’t enough: he wanted to be initiated into the cult of Dionysus and take part in the Bacchic mysteries. The worshipper of Bacchus ate raw meat like an animal and temporarily went mad. One of the local Borysthenites saw Scyles in his frenzy, and informed his subjects. Scandalized, the Scythians rebelled. Scyles fled, but he was betrayed and beheaded.

So what exactly were the rites that cost King Scyles his life? They celebrated Dionysus not as a god of wine, but as a guide through the underworld. In this, he was aided by his ally, Orpheus, the mythical poet who braved the terrors of Hades to bring back his wife.

The cult of Orpheus was a secret religion. Its adherents were sworn to secrecy, and as a result our knowledge of it is highly fragmentary. Most of what we know about the cult of Orpheus comes from archaeology: a burnt papyrus, an inscription on gold leaves found in an Italian tomb, and a series of bone tablets recovered from the ruins of Borysthenes – modern-day Olbia in southern Ukraine, across a short stretch of sea from the Crimea.

The exact purpose of the bone tablets is unknown, but they seem to have been some kind of membership token for the initiated. Some of their owners used them to write short messages. The name of Dionysus recurs frequently, as do those of other gods. Orpheus is mentioned once. Sometimes the messages are longer, but no less enigmatic. One plaque reads “peace-war; truth-falsehood.” Another has on it “Dionysus” and “body-soul.” On a third, someone has scribbled biosthanatosbios, life-death-life, and then, to complete the sequence, aletheia – truth.

These plaques were discovered by Soviet archaeologists in the 1950s. But thirty years before, Russian poets seems to have intuited their existence. Alexander Blok, Mandelstam’s friend and rival, figured the Russians as Scythians, calling to Europe with a “barbaric lyre.” Mandelstam himself imagined a different past, a Greek one, writing of his home in exile: “The vines are alive like ancient battles/ Where curly horsemen are fighting in curving order.” In the time of Herodotus, Scythian and Greek met as equals in the Crimea. Twenty-four hundred years later, it still felt like a place outside the grasp of a single culture or epoch.

Mandelstam’s poem that begins “the golden stream of honey,” ends like this:

Golden fleece, oh where are you now, you golden fleece?
All the journey long the heavy sea waves were loud,
and leaving his ship, his sails worn out by the seas,
full of space and time, Odysseus came home.

(Translations from the Russian by Peter France)

Image via Argenberg/Flickr

is a writer and critic based in Berkeley, CA. His writing has appeared in The Awl, Tablet, Slate, Los Angeles Review of Books, Prospect (UK), and