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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Where Is the “Underground Passage Tale” Leading to?

8 October, 2002 - 00:00

Trying to figure out the plot and the original sources of the numerous legends about underground passages, we must not only dig into the bulk of rock, where we will come across the forgotten vestiges of past generations in limestone or granite, but also go through the thick of historical memory.

It is hard to imagine a fortress, a medieval castle, or a palace without a legend about the underground or even the treasures hidden therein. As a rule, such legends are reflected in a specific topography. The flickering shadows of tortures and the flame of spirit, the torches of heroes and the smoking candles of traitors have come to stay under the dark vaults.

Still towering, like the remnants of high peaks, over the stormy torrents of history are the walls of the Khotyn, Kamyanets-Podilsk, and Uzhhorod castles, Medzhybozh fortress, and other monuments. From time to time, the long underground mazes of Chortkiv, Vinnytsia, and Chernivtsi remind us of themselves with fearsome cave-ins. Fortunately, some places still have the maps of these secret catacombs. For researchers, this is an occasion to modify the existing hypotheses, while the emergency and rescue services thus have an opportunity to take some preventive actions.

At the same time, the Ukrainian far-away provinces are studded with memorable places slowly being ruined in the impassable shrubbery and grown over beyond recognition with wild hops and... tales. As a result, while vegetation and atmosphere will do (or have already done) their job, the tales will still linger in the minds of people until they, too, sink in the ashes of centuries. It is pathfinders, explorers and archives that keep society from forgetfulness or even loss of memory.

Let us turn the yellowish pages of the report on Proskuriv and Kamyanets districts made by a correspondent of the south-western division of the Russian Geographic Society — now this dossier is being kept at the Institute of Manuscripts of the Vernadsky National Library of Ukraine. A separate notebook contains description of the village of Ostapkivtsi (now Ostashky, near Khmelnytsky). The researcher tells a legend he heard from the villagers about a city that had gone underground. The legend centers around a locality called Zamcheske. Here, in the thick of a forest, there are some bizarre ruins surrounded by a once deep moat.

Before further following the legend, let us quote a remark of the above-mentioned Geographic Society researcher about folk art memorabilia, “Nothing is so dear and important as all things that amply and freely express the inner world of man.” These words will also be the lodestar in our journey.

The documented story about a town surrounded by conquerors (and, as a rule, populated by the righteous residents who do not want to surrender to the enemy) and solemnly vanishing under the waters of a lake or underground is, after all, a folklore universal or even the archetype of traditional consciousness. Such legends spread over a vast space from the Atlantic coast to the Great Chinese Wall and the Tibetan Plateau. Vanished- town stories also rest on a large number of legends about subterranean passages. Only this time their historical perspective takes us not to the Middle Ages but further into the depth of centuries — to the era of the great migration of peoples.

Also universal to some extent is the toponyms geographically related to the subject under discussion. For instance, there is also a settlement called Zamcheske in Ternopil oblast and the surrounding villages still tell legends about a town that went underground. There is a cliff Zvenyhora in the picturesque Medobory and Tovtry mountains near the village of Kryntsyliv on the Zbruch river bank. “There once was a highland city of Zvenyhorod (‘bell-ringing city’ in Ukrainian — Ed.) here, thus called because it had a lot of churches with clear-sounding bells. It is now only on big holidays that this wonderful peal comes from underground.” Lying snugly on a Zvenyhora slope is the Zamcheske settlement with numerous wellsprings of salubrious water. Interestingly enough, a hermit monk named Mateusz settled down at this locality in the early 20th century. Nobody knows about him anything more, although he used to help the local people as a healer and discuss religious matters with them. The hermit hewed out a cell and a chapel in the limestone cliff.

Whether or not Mateusz knew the Zvenyhorod legend, his own figure is now part and parcel of the legend and the tale about a City of the Righteous in the Medobory. Yet the tale leads us again, through the peculiar tunnels of memory, to historical reality. In the 1970s, Kyiv and Moscow archeologists made a number of discoveries in the same locality, which showed there had really been a town of pagan magi here in the 12th-13th centuries. The town’s pattern is rather interesting. The hill with a sanctuary on top was separated from the priests’ settlement with a moat and a rampart as if danger might lurk precisely there.

Incidentally, the famous Zbruch idol — a four-faceted stone adorned with subject-related bas-reliefs and crowned with the statue of a four-faced deity (perhaps Sviatovyd) — was found in 1848 near Zvenyhorod and Zamcheske. The sanctuary was situated on the nearby Mount Bohyt, one of the Tovtry’s highest peaks 417 m above sea level. And quite close by, on the Zbruch’s other bank in the neighboring Khmelnytsky oblast, spread the equally well-known Trojan Ramparts. This name refers us, above all, to the “Trojan Ages” described in The Lay of Igor’s Host. A popular belief links the Zbruch’s two banks with the underground passages that allegedly run from Zvenyhora to the Trinity Monastery in Sataniv.

Nikolai Roerich, who had been long and thoroughly studying this problem all over Eurasia, including the territory of Ukraine, put forth several hypotheses about the aforesaid subject, which can be a key for future researchers. It was Roerich who hit upon the idea that legends about the towns and tribes that vanished underground were related to great ethno-historical migrations. “The common people solve these problems far simpler: they think that if something disappeared, it went underground,” he concluded. Indeed, in terms of traditional consciousness, the earth is an equivalent of memory, the first and most reliable depository of information. Putting their ears close to the earth, people listened to the steps of the future.

“A particular race — Rahmans — dwells underground. They are Christians but have no year computation of their own. So they themselves don’t know when to celebrate Easter. To help the Rahmans in this case, there is a custom in Oster, Lityn, and Lutsk districts to throw egg shells into the river on Easter Eve,” says a book by Georgy Bulashev who attempted in the early 20th century to reconstruct the pattern of the traditional Ukrainian outlooks out of the separate fragments of legends and myths.

A quarter century later, Nikolai Roerich would write during his Central Asia expedition, “In the beautiful valley of Uymon of the Altai Mountains, a gray-haired old-believer said to me, ‘I will prove to you that the legend about the underground race of Chud is not fantasy! I will take you to an entrance to the subterranean kingdom.’ [...] We stood in front of a big burial mound surrounded with large stones, so typical of the period of the Great Migration. We saw similar burials with beautiful pieces of Gothic relics in the southern Russian steppes at the foothill of the Northern Caucasus.” Other versions of such legends link the exodus of the Chud to the popular old-believers’ tradition of searching for White Waters. These spiritual pursuits had always led to India. For centuries on end, the road was blocked by Himalayan peaks, the blindingly white islands in the ocean of clouds and morning fogs. It will be noted that G. Bulashev also identified the Ukrainian legendary Rahmans with the Brahmans, Indian sages residing “on the Makary Isles, under the very sunrise.” Although “the place of holy people is on mountain tops,” the human ways to them run through deep valleys and... the underground. This is the logic of the genre.

The above-mentioned cycles of legends also include stories about giants. They also occur quite often in the Ukrainian folklore. For example, residents of the village of Teremtsi, flooded over by the waters of the Dniester hydroelectric station, still tell legends about the two giants who once lived here and “would reach to each other across the Dniester to give a saw.” The toponym of Teremtsi is semantically identical to Zamcheske. Right next to it there is a locality called Dyriavy Kamin (“a stone with a hole in it”) with genuine and rather long underground passages. The people who inhabit this strikingly beautiful area saw in reality, not in fairy tales, the reservoir engulf their home village, once the chronicled town of Bakota. Now only the tales are left — about ancient sages and the fainthearted contemporaries. But this is a different story to be discussed elsewhere.

“The true discoveries in lakes and on sea coasts vindicate the folklore,” Roerich continued. “You can see in the legends the specific origins of ancient races. The giants are often brothers.”

Drawing his “map of great migrations” according to the facts of such descriptions, Roerich still cautioned as a scholar, artist, and thinker, “We cannot draw the final line, for any finality is a conclusion, while conclusions mean death. We are happy to add — in broad decisions, expectations, and search — more pearls to the thread of research.” So let us not jump to conclusions. It is time to gather stones and blow away the dust of oblivion and indifference off the unique landscape and historical monuments Ukraine is so rich in before they all go underground like the legendary Chud and Zvenyhorod. Otherwise, what signs will show us the way to our own White Waters?!

By Mykola SKYBA, graduate student, Department of Ethnology, School of History, Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University
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