A Journey in Southern Siberia, by Jeremiah Curtin, , at sacred-texts.com
JEREMIAH CURTIN took the degree of Bachelor of Arts at Harvard College in 1863, having been a member of the last college class that studied their required mathematics under me as Assistant Professor. I found young Curtin's personal appearance and his mental processes unusual and interesting. He was a good scholar in general, with an extraordinary capacity for acquiring languages. In his autobiography (unpublished) he states that seven months and a half before he entered Harvard College he did not know one word of Latin or Greek, but at the admission examination he offered more of each language than was required. At the time of his death, 1906, he knew more than sixty languages and dialects, and spoke fluently every language of Europe and several of the languages of Asia. He was Secretary of Legation of the United States in Russia from 1864 to 1870, during which period he was acting consul-general for one year, 1865-1866. He was connected with the Bureau of Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution from 1883 to 1891, and later was employed from time to time by the Bureau for special work.
In Siberia, during the journey which this volume describes, he studied the Buriat language with a Buriat who knew Russian, and hard as it was to
acquire a strange language without the aid of books, he accomplished the feat in a few weeks. At sixty he learnt a new language as quickly as he did when a Harvard student. Having acquired a language, Curtin always wished to learn the history, principal achievements, myths, folk-lore, and religious beliefs and usages of the people who spoke that language. Hence his great learning, and his numerous publications on myths and folk-tales. Curtin is also known to the learned world by his translations from the Polish of Quo Vadis and eight other works of Henry Sienkiewicz. He published many valuable translations from the Russian and the Polish.
In the year 1900, between the 19th of July and the 15th of September, Curtin made the journey in southern Siberia which is the subject of the following volume, his object being to visit the birthplace of the Mongol race, and to see for himself the origins and survivals of a prepotent people which once subdued and ruled China, devastated Russia, conquered Burma and other lands east of India, overran Persia, established themselves in Asia Minor and Constantinople, and covered Hungary with blood and ashes, thus occupying at different epochs most of Asia and a large part of Europe.
The Buriats, who are the surviving Mongols of to-day, inhabit three sides of Lake Baikal and the only island therein. Lake Baikal is the largest body of fresh water in the Old World. From the regions south of Lake Baikal came Jinghis Khan and Tamerlane, the two greatest personages in the Mongol division of mankind.
The volume opens with a brief sketch of the physical features and the history of Siberia, a comparatively unknown and dreary country, which covers about one-ninth of the continental surface of the globe. The long journey in southern Siberia is then amply described, the landscape, the institutions, the dwellings, and the mode of life of the people he met being set forth with vividness and philosophic appreciation. An important section of the book relates to the customs of the Buriats—their customs and ceremonies at the birth of a child, at a marriage, and in sickness, and their burial rites. It then deals with the origin of the shamans or priests, with the sacred trees and groves, and with the gods of the Buriats. The myths connected with the Mongol religion are next recorded, just as Curtin heard them from the lips of living Buriats. A collection of folk-tales completes the volume. It is a book of very unusual character, which only an extraordinary linguist and scholar could have written, so difficult was the gathering of the material for it. The journey itself was one of considerable hardship and exposure; and the linguistic, historical, and anthropological knowledge required to produce the book has seldom, if ever before, been possessed by any single scholar.
The manuscript of this volume was finished a few months before Curtin's death, but it has been published posthumously without the advantage of his revision.
CHARLES W. ELIOT.
OCTOBER 20, 1909.