The Peculiar 12th-Century Tale Of A Subterranean People Living Under The Mountains Of Northern Russia


The Russian Primary Chronicle, alternatively known as the Tale of Bygone Years, was revised around the year 1118 under the direction of Prince Mstislav, who eventually became Grand Prince Mstislav I Vladimirovich of Kiev (r. 1125-1132). In the revision was a peculiar tale, sourced by the text to a certain 12th-century man by the name of Giuriata Rogovich of Novgorod. This Giuriata, it was said, sent a servant or slave to a mountainous region (left unspecified) on the northern coast of Russia. While traveling through this area, Giuriata’s unnamed agent began taking notes on tales told to him by the local populations. He had the good fortune to run into a trader from the folklore-rich Yūrã people (also called Iughra and Yughra), who had long hunted and fished in the arctic and subarctic regions of Russia. From the Yūrā merchant, Giuriata’s servant or slave heard a bizarre tale about a community of subterranean beings who lived in the seaside mountains of the north.

As the story goes, the Yūrā hunters and fishermen suddenly began hearing odd noises from the coastal mountains of northern Russia around the beginning of the 12th century. The noises apparently were eerily similar to the sounds of digging and talking, yet the Yūrā could not understand the language coming from the underground. While exploring the odd mountain, the hunters and fishermen were said to have found a small, inaccessible tunnel into the slope. Although the passage was too little to allow humans to squeeze through, it was wide enough for tools to be prodded inside. According to folklore, the mysterious creatures of the mountain one day appeared at the tunnel, and, using hand signals, began to communicate with the Yūrā. Before long, the hunters and fishermen began trading with the mountain beings. Ironically, although the mountain creatures lived underground, they apparently were in much need of metal tools, and were said to have eagerly exchanged furs for any metallic objects brought by the Yūrā. Supposedly quoting the Yūrā trader directly, the Russian Primary Chronicle had this to say about the odd mountain beings:

“There are certain mountains which slope down to an arm of the sea, and their height reaches to the heavens. Within these mountains are heard great cries and the sound of voices; those within are cutting their way out. In that mountain a small opening has been pierced through which they converse, but their language is unintelligible.  They point, however, at iron objects, and make gestures as if to ask for them. If given a knife or an axe, they supply furs in return” (Russian Primary Chronicle, trans. Cross and Sherbowitz-Wetzor, pg. 184).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Illustration of a troll by John Bauer (1882–1918), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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