James Riordan,
The Sun Maiden & the Crescent Moon:
Siberian Folk Tales

(Canongate, 1989; Interlink, 1991)

James Riordan's The Sun Maiden & the Crescent Moon is a collection of folk tales from Siberia and the far north of Russia. In his introduction, Riordan outlines the history, customs and religious beliefs of the various peoples of the region, from their probable origins in the plains of Central Asia through their conquest by the European Russians in the 18th and 19th centuries, to the re-establishment and preservation of their cultures under the Soviet Union.

The human ability to adapt is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in this region where winter temperatures can fall to -160 degrees and in summer can reach nearly 104. Growing seasons are so short as to be practically nonexistent; consequently, the peoples of this region, from the Saami of northern Finland and Karelia to the Chukchi, Koryak and Siberian Eskimos of the far northeast, have been hunters, trappers and herders who use every resource. Riordan's description of their lives and history is thorough and accessible.

There is a distinct similarity between these stories and myths, legends and folktalkes of the North American Indians, a characteristic undoubtedly rising from similar beliefs. Both groups invest the world and everything in it with life and spirit, so that animals, trees, even mountains and natural phenomena take on the characteristics of human beings. Imagery is similar, as well -- we discover sorcerers with iron teeth, strange underground dwellers who steal the sun and the many variations on the trickster. Consequently, it is no surprise that stories involving spirits and animals form a large and important portion of this body of folklore.

There are a number of variations on the tale of the younger child who saves the village, such as the Nenets tale, "Kotura, Lord of the Winds," in which the third daughter, after the failure of her two older sisters to follow Kotura's instructions and so become his wife, is the one who soothes his temper and saves his people. Some of the stories strike us as grotesque: in "The Sun Maiden & the Crescent Moon," a folktale of the Ket, the hero becomes the cresent moon, beloved of the Sun Maiden, after being torn in half by the Sun Maiden and the evil sorceress Hossiadam as they fight over him. The Sun Maiden has the half without a heart, and can only revive him for a week at a time.

This is not a scholarly collection, but rather a popular retelling. Although Riordan does provide a glossary and a list of references, there is little other documentation, and his introduction, while lengthy and informative, is a popular account, not a dissertation. The stories themselves are entertaining and have that characteristic unadorned quality of the native storyteller. A striking feature of the collection is a kind of lightheartedness, an optimism that may be a survival characteristic for people who have adapted sucessfully to such a harsh and pitiless land. Riordan's translations are fluent and entertaining, and really do serve to give a sense of the worldview of the Siberian peoples and that kind of everyday magic that is a feature of folktales from around the world.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 20 November 2004

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