KARELIA KNOWN AND UNKNOWN
CENTER OF CULTURAL INITIATIVES
of the Ministry of culture of the Republic of Karelia
MEDIA CENTER “VYHOD”
Petroglyphs, seids and labyrinths are the stone bystanders of the ancient,
preliterate history of our region. The are the most manifestations of
culture of the ancient people of Karelia.
Petroglyphs are the rock carvings. Their origin refers to the 2nd half of the IV – the 1st half of the II millennium BC. The peak of rock carving most likely dates III millennium BC.
Petroglyphs of Karelia are located in two places – on the east coast of Lake Onego (in Pudozh region) and in the lower reaches of the river Vyg (in Belomorsk region).
Onego petroglyphs stretch for almost 20 km along the coastline and are to be found mainly on the extreme ends of the capes and more rarely on the islands.
Besov Nos (Devil’s Nose) and Peri Nos (Peri Nose) are the capes with the most concentration of rock carvings.
Belomorsk petroglyphs stretch for about 2 km along the islands in the bed of the river Vyg. The largest and most well-known groupings of petroglyphs are Besovy Sledki, Staraya Zalavruga, Novaya Zalavruga and Erpin Pudas.
All the images are carved out with single-point strikes of the stones. The usual depth of the carvings is 2-3 mm. The majority of images in Belomorje are entirely carved out. On the other hand the Onego petroglyphs show only the outline of the image. The images vary from very small ones of several millimeters to very big ones up to 4 meters though the latter ones are only few.
Petroglyphs were known to the local population from time immemorial. However they were not of great interest to the people because petroglyphs were believed to be the manifestations of the Evil Spirit. Due to this people gave them such names as Besov Nos (Devil’s Nose) or Chertovy Sledki (Devil’s Footprints).
The first scientist that took notice of petroglyphs was Grevingk. In 1848 he made a several-month journey of Olonets and Archangelsk provinces. Grevingk realized at once that he was dealing with the monument valuable for science. 80 years later in 1926 Belomorsk petroglyphs were discovered by Alexander Michailovitch Linevsky.
Since that time many more new groupings of petroglyphs have been discovered. In Belomorje there are more than 2000 petroglyphs and on the east coast of Lake Onego there are around 1200 petroglyphs. The names of the petroglyphs’ locations connected with the Evil Spirit owe to the images of devils.
On Besov Nos an image represents a gnarly human being with outstretched and bent in elbows arms with five opened fingers. His head is quadrangular. Two circles on the face stand for the eyes (one eye is sighted, another one is blind). The straight line between the eyes stands for the nose and the curved line under it is a mouth. The crack divides the body into two symmetrical parts like the symmetry axis.
Above the image a Christian cross with an inscription is carved. It was probably carved in the 15th century by the monks of the nearby Muromsky monastery.
On the right of the devil image there is a gigantic fish. Is it a sheat-fish or a burbot? On the left there is an otter. The size of all images is about two and a half meters. The rest of the images (a tree, swans, a curved line, birds, the deer’s head) are much smaller. As Linevsky has proved all these images are connected with each other building a vivid composition.
According to one interpretation a devil, a burbot and an otter are the sacred objects of ancient inhabitants of the coast and the surrounding animals are the symbolic sacrificial offerings. A funnel in the devil’s mouth and a smooth crack testify that the devil was given food and drink.
The devil of Belomorsk petroglyphs is a picturesque image of a human being with a hunchback, and a disproportionate big phallus and foot. His arm with an opened palm is stretched forward. The chain of seven footprints is reaching the image. These footprints gave the name to this rock – the Devil’s footprints.
It should be mentioned that many of the rock carvings are invisible. Sometimes they appear but sometimes they disappear. Some of the carvings can be seen only by the sidelight during either the sunrise or the sunset in sunny weather. But in bad weather when standing by some rock carvings you can see only the smooth surface of the rock as if nothing is there.
But what did the ancient painters actually depict? They depicted sea and land animals like elks, deer, white whales, they also depicted birds like ducks and swans, and more seldom they would depict fish, bears, snakes. Though the main characters of rock canvases are the people. People are depicted sailing the boats, skiing, harpooning white whales, chasing elks, howling, bending the bow. Some of them are wounded, some lie dead...
You can also find some quaint and mysterious images. Among Onego petroglyphs there is approximately a hundred solar and lunar signs. According to another interpretation they are traps.
The natural proportions of the images are distorted, fantastic details and signs are being used. Such are the swans with disproportionate long necks, and the swans with arcs inside their bodies.
Among Belomorsk petroglyphs there are fewer mysterious images. In general they are less metaphoric than Onego petroglyphs. The intention of depicting the developing of scene and action is more observed here. Some scenes are exceptional indeed.
Here is a famous scene of fishing: a boat with 12 people is chasing the white whale. The person standing on the bows of the boat has just wounded the animal with the harpoon. The moment is full of tension: the whale is wounded; the fight between a human and an animal will soon begin. Above this boat there is another boat depicted – bottom-up and with no people. Why? Maybe this is how people depicted the wreck of the boat during hunting?
Sometimes when studying the rock carvings the disparity amazes. For instance the skiing hunters are depicted obviously naked. It appears that this is the way of how the painters showed the sex of a hunter.
It is not easy to understand what the images mean as we are penetrating the spiritual world of the ancient people. Naturalism of many scenes and images allows us to view them as the pictures from life that have truly reflected the household, the way of life, the images of spirits and natural calamities depicted with the aim of magical acts upon them. However most of the researchers believe that the rock images are the much more complicated symbols that have imprinted the views towards the world, its motive forces and bonds.
It can be stated that petroglyphs of Karelia are connected with the cult, the system of beliefs, and people’s general attitude. Their location and the connection with the relief of the rock and its breaks and cracks testify to the religious importance of petroglyphs. Rock canvases are the key centers of the sanctuaries that were settled in isolated places of the coast, right on the border between water and land. Three spheres of the universe are closing up here – water, land and heavens.
With the help of rock images ancient magicians tried to mark out the centers of the sanctuaries and make the main objects of worship visible and accessible. Originally the images were painted with ochre, coal and blood, but the water, snow and ice would quickly washed them out. The desire to make the images resistant and long-lived led to rock carving. Rock images opened the communication gate for the ancient people with the mysterious spiritual forces underlying the natural phenomena.
Seids or the sacred stones used to be the similar entrance for the ancient people to the invisible world. The cult of stones can be traced to this or that extent of all peoples of the tundra area of Eurasia – from Kolsky peninsula to Kamchatka.
Seids are the boulders of different size sometimes with the signs of human impact. These boulders are either placed on smaller stones as if on legs or smaller stones are placed on top of them.
Seids are the objects of worship of the ancient Saami people that comprised their sanctuaries. The origin of these stone erections is believed to date from the II-I millennia BC.
The most famous sanctuaries are on the islands of the White Sea – on Russky and Nemetsky Kuzova islands. More than 300 sacred stones are located on each of the islands. On the island of Kolgostrov (the Unitskaya bay of the Onego lake) there is the so-called “ringing” stone that utters a tuneful sound when striking it with the cobble. In Muezersky region there is a mountain of Vottovaara where there are several thousands of sacred stones in the area of 6 square kilometers. In Louhi region sanctuaries are situated on mountains Kivakka and Nuorunen.
Stone labyrinths are the most well known monuments of cult comprising ancient sanctuaries. In Russia they are to be found on Kola peninsula, Solovki islands and Belomorsk coast of Karelia. In the Russian North these labyrinths were called the Babylons.
There are many hypotheses about their purpose. Some researchers think them to be the models of fishing traps and according to such models ancient people made real traps for fishing during the low tide. According to another opinion labyrinths were used during magic ceremonies. Some researchers also suggest that labyrinths were used in the funereal ceremony as the receptacles of souls of the dead. The passages were tangled on purpose so that the souls wouldn’t come back to the people.