The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 1/Chapter 53

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Concerning the God of the Tartars[edit]

This is the fashion of their religion. [They say there is a Most High God of Heaven, whom they worship daily with thurible and incense, but they pray to Him only for health of mind and body. But] they have [also] a certain [other] god of theirs called NATIGAY, and they say he is the god of the Earth, who watches over their children, cattle, and crops. They show him great worship and honour, and every man hath a figure of him in his house, made of felt and cloth; and they also make in the same manner images of his wife and children. The wife they put on the left hand, and the children in front. And when they eat, they take the fat of the meat and grease the god's mouth withal, as well as the mouths of his wife and children. Then they take of the broth and sprinkle it before the door of the house; and that done, they deem that their god and his family have had their share of the dinner.[1]

Their drink is mare's milk, prepared in such a way that you would take it for white wine; and a right good drink it is, called by them Kemiz.[2]

The clothes of the wealthy Tartars are for the most part of gold and silk stuffs, lined with costly furs, such as sable and ermine, vair and fox-skin, in the richest fashion.





  1. 1.0 1.1 There is no reference here to Buddhism, which was then of recent introduction among the Mongols; indeed, at the end of the chapter, Polo speaks of their new adoption of the Chinese idolatry, i.e. Buddhism. We may add here that the Buddhism of the Mongols decayed and became practically extinct after their expulsion from China (1368-1369). The old Shamanism then apparently revived; nor was it till 1577 that the great reconversion of Mongolia to Lamaism began. This reconversion is the most prominent event in the Mongol history of Sanang Setzen, whose great-grandfather Khutuktai Setzen, Prince of the Ordos, was a chief agent in the movement.

    The Supreme Good Spirit appears to have been called by the Mongols Tengri (Heaven), and Khormuzda, and is identified by Schmidt with the Persian Hormuzd. In Buddhist times he became identified with Indra.

    Plano Carpini's account of this matter is very like Marco's: "They believe in one God, the Maker of all things, visible and invisible, and the Distributor of good and evil in this world; but they worship Him not with prayers or praises or any kind of service. Natheless, they have certain idols of felt, imitating the human face, and having underneath the face something resembling teats; these they place on either side of the door. These they believe to be the guardians of the flocks, from whom they have the boons of milk and increase. Others they fabricate of bits of silk, and these are highly honoured;... and whenever they begin to eat or drink, they first offer these idols a portion of their food or drink."

    The account agrees generally with what we are told of the original Shamanism of the Tunguses, which recognizes a Supreme Power over all, and a small number of potent spirits called Ongot. These spirits among the Buraets are called, according to one author, Nougait or Nogat, and according to Erman Ongotui. In some form of this same word, Nogait, Ongot, Onggod, Ongotui, we are, I imagine, to trace the Natigay of Polo. The modern representative of this Shamanist Lar is still found among the Buraets, and is thus described by Pallas under the name of Immegiljin: "He is honoured as the tutelary god of the sheep and other cattle. Properly, the divinity consists of two figures, hanging side by side, one of whom represents the god's wife. These two figures are merely a pair of lanky flat bolsters with the upper part shaped into a round disk, and the body hung with a long woolly fleece; eyes, nose, breasts, and navel, being indicated by leather knobs stitched on. The male figure commonly has at his girdle the foot-rope with which horses at pasture are fettered, whilst the female, which is sometimes accompanied by smaller figures representing her children, has all sorts of little nicknacks and sewing implements." Galsang Czomboyef, a recent Russo-Mongol writer already quoted, says also: "Among the Buryats, in the middle of the hut and place of honour, is the Dsaiagachi or 'Chief Creator of Fortune.' At the door is the Emelgelji, the Tutelary of the Herds and Young Cattle, made of sheepskins. Outside the hut is the Chandaghatu, a name implying that the idol was formed of a white hare-skin, the Tutelary of the Chase and perhaps of War. All these have been expelled by Buddhism except Dsaiagachi, who is called Tengri, and introduced among the Buddhist divinities."

    [Dorji Banzaroff, in his dissertation On the Black Religion, i.e. Shamanism, 1846, "is disposed to see in Natigay of M. Polo, the Ytoga of other travellers, i.e. the Mongol Etugen--'earth,' as the object of veneration of the Mongol Shamans. They look upon it as a divinity, for its power as Delegei in echen, i.e. 'the Lord of Earth,' and on account of its productiveness, Altan delegei, i.e. 'Golden Earth.'" Palladius (l.c. pp. 14-16) adds one new variant to what the learned Colonel Yule has collected and set forth with such precision, on the Shaman household gods. "The Dahurs and Barhus have in their dwellings, according to the number of the male members of the family, puppets made of straw, on which eyes, eyebrows, and mouth are drawn; these puppets are dressed up to the waist. When some one of the family dies, his puppet is taken out of the house, and a new puppet is made for every newly-born member of the family. On New Year's Day offerings are made to the puppets, and care is taken not to disturb them (by moving them, etc.), in order to avoid bringing sickness upon the family." (He lung kiang wai ki.)

    (Cf. Rubruck, 58-59, and Mr. Rockhill's note, 59-60.)--H. C.]

  2. 2.0 2.1 KIMIZ or KUMIZ, the habitual drink of the Mongols, as it still is of most of the nomads of Asia. It is thus made. Fresh mare's milk is put in a well-seasoned bottle-necked vessel of horse-skin; a little kurut (see note 5, ch. liv.) or some sour cow's milk is added; and when acetous fermentation is commencing it is violently churned with a peculiar staff which constantly stands in the vessel. This interrupts fermentation and introduces a quantity of air into the liquid. It is customary for visitors who may drop in to give a turn or two at the churn-stick. After three or four days the drink is ready.

    Kumiz keeps long; it is wonderfully tonic and nutritious, and it is said that it has cured many persons threatened with consumption. The tribes using it are said to be remarkably free from pulmonary disease; and indeed I understand there is a regular Galactopathic establishment somewhere in the province of Orenburg for treating pulmonary patients with Kumiz diet.

    It has a peculiar fore- and after-taste which, it is said, everybody does not like. Yet I have found no confession of a dislike to Kumiz. Rubruquis tells us it is pungent on the tongue, like vinum raspei (vin rape of the French), whilst you are drinking it, but leaves behind a pleasant flavour like milk of almonds. It makes a man's inside feel very cosy, he adds, even turning a weak head, and is strongly diuretic. To this last statement, however, modern report is in direct contradiction. The Greeks and other Oriental Christians considered it a sort of denial of the faith to drink Kumiz. On the other hand, the Mahomedan converts from the nomad tribes seem to have adhered to the use of Kumiz even when strict in abstinence from wine; and it was indulged in by the early Mamelukes as a public solemnity. Excess on such an occasion killed Bibars Bundukdari, who was passionately fond of this liquor.

    The intoxicating power of Kumiz varies according to the brew. The more advanced is the vinous fermentation the less acid is the taste and the more it sparkles. The effect, however, is always slight and transitory, and leaves no unpleasant sensation, whilst it produces a strong tendency to refreshing sleep. If its good qualities amount to half what are ascribed to it by Dr. W. F. Dahl, from whom we derive some of these particulars, it must be the pearl of all beverages. "With the nomads it is the drink of all from the suckling upwards, it is the solace of age and illness, and the greatest of treats to all!"

    There was a special kind called Kara Kumiz, which is mentioned both by Rubruquis and in the history of Wassaf. It seems to have been strained and clarified. The modern Tartars distil a spirit from Kumiz of which Pallas gives a detailed account. (Dahl, Ueber den Kumyss in Baer's Beitraege, VII.; Lettres sur le Caucase et la Crimee, Paris, 1859, p. 81; Makrizi, II. 147; J. As. XI. 160; Levchine, 322-323; Rubr. 227-228, 335; Gold. Horde, p. 46; Erman, I. 296; Pallas, Samml. I. 132 seqq.)

    [In the Si yu ki, Travels to the West of Ch'ang ch'un, we find a drink called tung lo. "The Chinese characters, tung lo," says Bretschneider (Med. Res. I. 94), "denote according to the dictionaries preparations from mare's or cow's milk, as Kumis, sour milk, etc. In the Yuan shi (ch. cxxviii.) biography of the Kipchak prince Tu-tu-ha, it is stated that 'black mare's milk' (evidently the cara cosmos of Rubruck), very pleasant to the taste, used to be sent from Kipchak to the Mongol court in China." (On the drinks of the Mongols, see Mr. Rockhill's note, Rubruck, p. 62.)--The Mongols indulge in sour milk (tarak) and distilled mare's milk (arreki), but Mr. Rockhill (Land of the Lamas, 130) says he never saw them drink kumiz.--H. C.]

    The mare's-milk drink of Scythian nomads is alluded to by many ancient authors. But the manufacture of Kumiz is particularly spoken of by Herodotus. "The (mare's) milk is poured into deep wooden casks, about which the blind slaves are placed, and then the milk is stirred round. That which rises to the top is drawn off, and considered the best part; the under portion is of less account." Strabo also speaks of the nomads beyond the Cimmerian Chersonesus, who feed on horse-flesh and other flesh, mare's-milk cheese, mare's milk, and sour milk ([Greek: oxygalakta]) "which they have a particular way of preparing." Perhaps Herodotus was mistaken about the wooden tubs. At least all modern attempts to use anything but the orthodox skins have failed. Priscus, in his narrative of the mission of himself and Maximin to Attila, says the Huns brought them a drink made from barley which they called [Greek: Kamos]. The barley was, no doubt, a misapprehension of his. (Herod. Bk. iv. p. 2, in Rawl.; Strabo, VII. 4, 6; Excerpta de Legationibus, in Corp. Hist. Byzant. I. 55.)