The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 4

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The Treasure Hunters

EVERY neighbourhood in Russia has its own legend of treasures hidden under the ground. And there is nothing strange about this. Many a time in the history of the country whirlwinds of war swept the land and the people hid their treasures in the bosom of mother earth. It is comprehensible therefore that a great many of these riches have remained underground. There were, besides, other reasons, of which the legends have a great deal to say.

Many external signs indicate the spots where the treasures are hidden: the crossing of three roads, old trees planted by the way, heaps of moss-covered stones thrown up by human hands, the ruins of ancient fortified castles, palaces, and tombs, steep, broken rocks on the banks of rivers and lakes, solitary islets on the seas, or tufts of trees full of lapwings' or cranes' nests.

Any peasant who knows these sure spots could dig them out of the bottom of the earth, but the whole difficulty and danger of such an enterprise lies in the fact that each treasure is guarded by a monster, a penitent soul, or some evil "dark force." One must have the means to drive this force away before getting possession of the treasure and bringing it home. And there is danger in every one of these stages. A wizard is able to spot the treasure, to indicate the means of digging it out, and to suggest measures of protection against the "dark force."

The wonderman receives first of all his fee for general advice, and some time afterwards he invites his client and reveals to him the exact spot where the biggest treasure lies, and the evil force he is about to encounter in his enterprise. Upon receiving a further instalment of his fee, he begins to prepare the bold adventurer for his encounter and combat with the devil The treasure-hunter must not be afraid, and the soothsayer therefore washes his eyes and ears with the liquid brewed from various magic herbs; he must be proof against the poisonous bites of numerous insects and vipers, which, obedient to the command of the devil, gather to attack the hunter. The magician therefore prepares two ointments: one made of bear's grease mixed with the bark of sweet willow-tree, on which some time or other some man has hanged himself. Anointed with such an ointment, human skin does not shiver with either cold or fear. The other ointment is prepared from the grease of a badger mixed with the powder of dried frogs and spiders, and gives protection against the venomous bite of the viper.

The most important function of the expedition is the driving away of the "evil force" which guards the treasure, and the assuring of a safe retreat after the conquest of the treasure. The first task is solved by the magician giving the client a bunch of magic flowers, which the latter has to burn at the decisive moment and to smoke the devil away. The second task is more difficult, because the daring adventurer, who is generally illiterate, has to learn by heart a long and complicated formula of incantation.

The peasant has to repeat the magic formula all over again and again every seven steps, and before shutting the door of his house he has to pronounce its last words.

The cautious soothsayer commands the treasure-hunter to recite a formula of considerable length before leaving him, and if the enterprise fails, the soothsayer simply states that obviously the first or the last formula was not delivered according to his instructions and express advice.