The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 4/Chapter 21

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Concerning The Land Of Darkness[edit]

Still further north, and a long way beyond that kingdom of which I have spoken, there is a region which bears the name of DARKNESS, because neither sun nor moon nor stars appear, but it is always as dark as with us in the twilight. The people have no king of their own, nor are they subject to any foreigner, and live like beasts. [They are dull of understanding, like half-witted persons.[1]] The Tartars however sometimes visit the country, and they do it in this way. They enter the region riding mares that have foals, and these foals they leave behind. After taking all the plunder that they can get they find their way back by help of the mares, which are all eager to get back to their foals, and find the way much better than their riders could do. [2]

Those people have vast quantities of valuable peltry; thus they have those costly Sables of which I spoke, and they have the Ermine, the Arculin, the Vair, the Black Fox, and many other valuable furs. They are all hunters by trade, and amass amazing quantities of those furs. And the people who are on their borders, where the Light is, purchase all those furs from them; for the people of the Land of Darkness carry the furs to the Light country for sale, and the merchants who purchase these make great gain thereby, I assure you.[3]

The people of this region are tall and shapely, but very pale and colourless. One end of the country borders upon Great Rosia. And as there is no more to be said about it, I will now proceed, and first I will tell you about the Province of Rosia.






  1. 1.0 1.1 In the Ramusian version we have a more intelligent representation of the facts regarding the Land of Darkness: "Because for most part of the winter months the sun appears not, and the air is dusky, as it is just before the dawn when you see and yet do not see;" and again below it speaks of the inhabitants catching the fur animals "in summer when they have continuous daylight." It is evident that the writer of this version did and the writer of the original French which we have translated from did not understand what he was writing. The whole of the latter account implies belief in the perpetuity of the darkness. It resembles Pliny's hazy notion of the northern regions: "pars mundi damnata a rerum natura et densa mersa caligine." Whether the fault is due to Rustician's ignorance or is Polo's own, who can say? We are willing to debit it to the former, and to credit Marco with the improved version in Ramusio. In the Masalak-al-Absar, however, we have the following passage in which the conception is similar: "Merchants do not ascend (the Wolga) beyond Bolghar; from that point they make excursions through the province of Julman (supposed to be the country on the Kama and Viatka). The merchants of the latter country penetrate to Yughra, which is the extremity of the North. Beyond that you see no trace of habitation except a great Tower built by Alexander, after which there is nothing but Darkness." The narrator of this, being asked what he meant, said: "It is a region of desert mountains, where frost and snow continually reign, where the sun never shines, no plant vegetates, and no animal lives. Those mountains border on the Dark Sea, on which rain falls perpetually, fogs are ever dense, and the sun never shows itself, and on tracts perpetually covered with snow." (N. et Ex. XIII. i. 285.)
  2. 2.0 2.1 This is probably a story of great antiquity, for it occurs in the legends of the mythical Ughuz, Patriarch of the Turk and Tartar nations, as given by Rashiduddin. In this hero's campaign towards the far north, he had ordered the old men to be left behind near Almalik; but a very ancient sage called Bushi Khwaja persuaded his son to carry him forward in a box, as they were sure sooner or later to need the counsel of experienced age. When they got to the land of Kara Hulun, Ughuz and his officers were much perplexed about finding their way, as they had arrived at the Land of Darkness. The old Bushi was then consulted, and his advice was that they should take with them 4 mares and 9 she-asses that had foals, and tie up the foals at the entrance to the Land of Darkness, but drive the dams before them. And when they wished to return they would be guided by the scent and maternal instinct of the mares and she-asses. And so it was done. (See Erdmann Temudschin, p. 478.) Ughuz, according to the Mussulman interpretation of the Eastern Legends, was the great-grandson of Japhet.

    The story also found its way into some of the later Greek forms of the Alexander Legends. Alexander, when about to enter the Land of Darkness, takes with him only picked young men. Getting into difficulties, the King wants to send back for some old sage who should advise. Two young men had smuggled their old father with them in anticipation of such need, and on promise of amnesty they produce him. He gives the advice to use the mares as in the text. (See Mueller's ed. of Pseudo-Callisthenes, Bk. II. ch. xxxiv.)

  3. 3.0 3.1 Ibn Batuta thus describes the traffic that took place with the natives of the Land of Darkness: "When the Travellers have accomplished a journey of 40 days across this Desert tract they encamp near the borders of the Land of Darkness. Each of them then deposits there the goods that he has brought with him, and all return to their quarters. On the morrow they come back to look at their goods, and find laid beside them skins of the Sable, the Vair, and the Ermine. If the owner of the goods is satisfied with what is laid beside his parcel he takes it, if not he leaves it there. The inhabitants of the Land of Darkness may then (on another visit) increase the amount of their deposit, or, as often happens, they may take it away altogether and leave the goods of the foreign merchants untouched. In this way is the trade conducted. The people who go thither never know whether those with whom they buy and sell are men or goblins, for they never see any one!" (II. 401.)

    ["Ibn Batuta's account of the market of the 'Land of Darkness' ... agrees almost word for word with Dr. Mirth's account of the 'Spirit Market, taken from the Chinese.'" (Parker, China Review, XIV. p. 359.)--H.C.]

    Abulfeda gives exactly the same account of the trade; and so does Herberstein. Other Oriental writers ascribe the same custom to the Wisu, a people three months' journey from Bolghar. These Wisu have been identified by Fraehn with the Wesses, a people spoken of by Russian historians as dwelling on the shores of the Bielo Osero, which Lake indeed is alleged by a Russian author to have been anciently called Wuesu, misunderstood into Weissensee, and thence rendered into Russian Bielo Osero ("White Lake"). (Golden Horde, App. p. 429; Buesching, IV. 359-360; Herberstein in Ram. II. 168 v.; Fraehn, Bolghar, pp. 14, 47; Do., Ibn Fozlan, 205 seqq., 221.) Dumb trade of the same kind is a circumstance related of very many different races and periods, e.g., of a people beyond the Pillars of Hercules by Herodotus, of the Sabaean dealers in frankincense by Theophrastus, of the Seres by Pliny, of the Sasians far south of Ethiopia by Cosmas, of the people of the Clove Islands by Kazwini, of a region beyond Segelmessa by Mas'udi, of a people far beyond Timbuctoo by Cadamosto, the Veddas of Ceylon by Marignolli and more modern writers, of the Poliars of Malabar by various authors, by Paulus Jovius of the Laplanders, etc. etc.

    Pliny's attribution, surely erroneous, of this custom to the Chinese [see supra, H.C.], suggests that there may have been a misunderstanding by which this method of trade was confused with that other curious system of dumb higgling, by the pressure of the knuckles under a shawl, a masonic system in use from Peking to Bombay, and possibly to Constantinople.

    The term translated here "Light," and the "Light Country," is in the G.T. "a la Carte," "a la Cartes." This puzzled me for a long time, as I see it puzzled Mr. Hugh Murray, Signor Bartoli, and Lazari (who passes it over). The version of Pipino, "ad Lucis terras finitimas deferunt," points to the true reading;--Carte is an error for Clarte.

    The reading of this chapter is said to have fired Prince Rupert with the scheme which resulted in the establishment of the Hudson's Bay Company.

    That is, in one passage of Pliny (iv. 12); for in another passage from his multifarious note book, where Thule is spoken of, the Arctic day and night are much more distinctly characterised (IV. 16).