The Woman With The Laughing Skull: A Siberian Tale

Imagine leading a semi-nomadic life in Siberia, traveling in small groups that either tracked reindeer or hunted sea mammals. Life would be harsh, especially in the Winter.

Now imagine that the neighboring Russians have decided to carry out your peoples’ wholesale destruction, in the hopes of protecting their interests in the Kamchatka region; after decades of unsuccessful attempts at genocide, the Russians change course – if they can’t win through brute force, they attempt to conquer through assimilation.

Finally, imagine you are a Russian who is a writer, and revolutionary, and most importantly, a cultural anthropologist. Now, any sympathetic soul would understand the plight of forced assimilation – the dire effects can be seen the world over, time and again. But if you’re an anthropologist, you recognize beyond the human toll, there is also the cultural price – the fact that countless stories will be lost.

This was the case for Vladimir Bogoraz (1865-1936), and it led him to start collecting folk tales from the Chukchi people of Siberia, leading to a massive collection of their language, rituals and stories.

Here’s one: The Girl and the Skull –

*

A young woman lived alone with her two elderly parents. Her parents had their own separate sleeping area, giving her ample privacy.

One day when walking through the forest, she discovered a human skull lying in the bramble. It had a curious grin on its face; intrigued, she smuggled the skull into the house. Once in her room, she knit the skull a cap large enough to hide it in.

This must have been a slightly ridiculous sight, because that evening when she lifted the cap up, she started giggling.

To her complete surprise, the skull giggled back.

She had, it would seem, made a new friend.

Her mother found this odd, and asked her what was so funny. The woman told her she was just laughing at the cap she had sown.

This went on for several nights. One day, however, the woman went alone outside for a walk. Her mother, searching for something (don’t they always) found the cap and its gruesome contents.

The mother cried out in horror; she was convinced that their (unmarried) daughter had grown into something monstrous, possibly inhuman. She told her husband about her discovery.

“Tomorrow, we leave. She can stay here with her spirits. Trust me, and take her out on a walk with you in the morning.”

The mother returned the skull to its cap, and left the room undisturbed.

That night, the mother gave their daughter one last chance to tell the truth.

Yet again, the daughter insisted she was only laughing at the cap that she had sown.

Dismayed, the mother gave up.

*

The next morning, the mother asked the daughter to join her in gathering kindling for fuel. After gathering enough wood, she turned to her daughter and told her there wasn’t enough binding; she was to stay there, while her mother went home to fetch more.

During this time, the father had dismantled their camp and was loading their boat. The daughter, wondering what was taking so long, ended up returning to the camp just in time to find everything gone, save her cap and skull. Then she looked across to the rivers edge, where she saw her parents in the boat, ready to sail away.

She ran furiously, and tried to join them on board, but her father slammed her on the wrist with his paddle, and pushed off. She watched tearfully as they sailed away to the distant shore.

The woman returned to the abandoned, cleared out camp site. She picked up the skull and started screaming at it.

“You did this! This is all your fault! I’m all alone now!”

She angrily dropped the skull and started kicking it back into the forest.

“Ow! Stop it! Will you please stop kicking me! Let me go and I’ll get myself a new body, just stop kicking me!” pleaded the skull.

“I hate you!” replied the woman.

“Trust me one last time. Make a wood pile, start a fire, and throw me in the flames.”

The woman realized that then she would truly be alone.

“Just trust me.” the skull reassured her.

After she raised a great fire, the skull spoke again. “Toss me in the fire. Now this is important: whatever sounds you hear, don’t look up. Draw your collar around your head, and keep gazing down.”

She tossed the skull into the fire, and waited as instructed. After a long time, the fires died out, and she heard a large caravan approaching. A man called out to her, asking her what she was doing, and she finally did look up. He was a handsome man, dressed in the finest reindeer pelts.

That evening his caravan set up camp, and he invited her into his tent. For the first time in a long time, she felt better. Soon, it was their tent.

*

They stayed happily in this settlement for a while, as the cold began setting in. Eventually the woman’s parent saw smoke rising from their old camp site, and our of curiosity, crossed the waters to investigate.

She saw her parents, and a cold chill ran down her spine. Still she smiled, and invited them into one of the outer tents, promising them a meal.

She broke some thigh bones, and extracted and cooked the marrow. However, she didn’t clean out all of the bone shards. Her parents hungrily ate up the marrow…

Choking on the shards, they left the land of the living

I have killed the wind (a Chukchi way of saying “The End”).

*

A laughing skull, an unwed woman, parental abandonment, a mysterious stranger, matricide and fratricide.

What more could you ask for?

And what, you may ask, became of the skull?

There’s nothing in the original telling to confirm my suspicions, but there is something a little curious about the timing of the arrival of her husband…

Was that the body he was referring to?

Only the Chukchi (and the laughing skull) know for sure…

choris,_tschuktschen
Representation of a Chukchi family, Louis Choris, 1816

 

 

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