Finno-Ugrian Petroglyphs

Finno Petroglyphs and beluga whales

copyright 1995, Jim Nollman
An excerpt from the non-fiction work, Not Talking to Beluga, by Jim Nollman, to be published in the US in 1996 by Henry Holt Company, NY. All rights reserved.
Three hundred miles due north of Saint Petersburg in Russia, the Belomorsko River empties into the finger- shaped White Sea at a place called Sorokka. The countryside surrounding Sorokka possesses a continuous history, some might even stretch the point and say a written history, that reaches at least as far back in time as any in Egypt or China. The many petroglyphs carved into cliff faces and boulders throughout this land are ascribed to Finno-Ugrian tribespeople who have inhabited this northern land for at least the past seven-eight thousand years ago. In fact, it took the ethnic cleansing that occurred under Stalin in the 1930ís to finally push the remaining Finns further west into their own country. The petroglyphs remain. They can be seen on cliffs scoured smooth as ceramic by the retreating glaciers that fled this land after the ice age ten thousand years ago. They chronicle the daily life of an advanced hunting culture.

Several petroglyphs show the hunting of beluga whales. One of the most dramatic and artful of these drawings shows twelve men in a boat of indeterminate construction. A man at the bow holds a harpoon aloft. Several thick lines already lead from the boat into the back of the wounded animal. Other pictures show the villagers cutting up a whale for distribution. Moose, geese, swans, reindeer can also be seen, these are the common species upon which Northern hunters have always relied for subsistence. Another unique picture, dated to 3000-3500 BC, displays the life of a single individual, perhaps a mythic hero, painted in panels traced along a counterclockwise spiral. The outer edge displays what could easily be interpreted as a birth. Then, traveling down ward along the spiral, our hero acquires various tools. He also starts to interact with other people, the heavens, begins to hunt birds, then small mammals, finally moose. The spiral starts to climb again, perhaps signifying that his hunting days are starting to wane. Strange objects appear that look like ping-pong paddles and whose meaning and purpose can only be guessed. Finally, turning inward again, we arrive at the center of the spiral. This is a place signifying death or secondarily, spiritual transformation. Here, the human is depicted at the end of his lifeís journey riding on the back of a whale. Casting this final symbol onto the web of ancient Finnish religion, we learn that the culture of these ancient tribespeople was totemic in spirit, and shamanic in leadership. Just as eating the prey was considered an act of taking the animal spirit into oneself, so reincarnation was likewise was understood as a cyclical transformation from predator to prey back to predator, over and over again, forever.

To any student of the phenomonology of human/cetacean interaction, the figures in the center of the Sorokka spiral instantly draws a smile of recognition. It is strikingly similar in design to the archetypal motif of the boy riding a dolphin found on Greek coins minted a thousand years later and two thousand miles further south.

A strikingly similar motif is incised on another rock, this one dated older than 3000 BC, found at the source of the same Belomorsko River, along the shores of White Sea. In this petroglyph of a single man standing in front of a single whale, the animal is painted in precise detail. The high bulbous forehead, the short upturned rostrum, the lack of a true dorsal fin, the curved pectoral fins clearly identifies it as a beluga whale.
A natural split in the rock divides the whale in half in such a imaginative fashion that it seems clearly meant to depict the surface of the water. The whale is spyhopping. The man is standing on the ocean bottom just in front. He holds objects the shape of ping-pong paddles in each hand. These are now identified as rattles, a universal Shamanís tool for invoking the altered states needed to travel between worlds. His arms are akimbo; clearly he is shaking the rattles.
Another object looks like an outsized arrow, not the projectile, but rather the pointer anyone might use in a message. This arrow flies upward and in the opposite direction from both the humanís body and the whale. Some students of the petroglyphs have interpreted this arrow to be a snake, slithering away from this union of power. Taking the arrow literally and in light of ancient Finnish religion, one might also conclude that it signifies the humanís own departing spirit.

If the whale in this petroglyph is anatomically correct, the human being is not. Where his penis should be, he has sprouted the tail section and flukes of a whale. This new growth is so long it drapes on the ocean bottom. It clearly appears as if the whale is teaching the man how to swim. - And the arrow? Perhaps it is the manís own penis now flying away from his body. He has no need for it now that he has merged with his totem. The male beluga whale carries its penis in a slit.

These rock carvings found in the forest country north of Saint Petersburg may be the oldest extant depiction of what has long since become the universal motif of interspecies communication between humans and cetaceans. It pops up again, although in a much more subtle rendering, in the Sumerian myth of Oannes and again in the Egyptian myth of Osirus. The interaction between humans and dolphins was central to the Minoan religion of ancient Crete. The Nomo spirits, who look just like whales, were said to have brought culture and knowledge to the Dogon people of the Sahara. In Australia, during the so-called Dreamtime, bottlenose dolphins were said to have brought culture to the Aborigines from Mornington Island. A similar motif shows up yet again on the other side of the Pacific ocean in the myth of the ghost orca who brought culture to the Haida people who inhabit the Queen Charlotte Islands off Western Canada. And of course, the story of the little boy riding a dolphin was revered enough by the ancient Greeks to make it one of the central emblems of State.

There is yet another Greek legend concerning dolphins, first told by Herodotus, which seems plausibly based on a true occurrence. Arion was a master poet and musician who loved to play his flute in nature. Traveling often on ships to give concerts, he eventually learned to attract dolphins through his music. He once won a writing contest in Sicily, and then boarded a passenger ship bound for Corinth carrying his prizes with him. But thieves on the ship attacked him. They stole his prize, but granted him one last request before murdering him. Arion asked only to play his flute toward the sea one last time. This he did, and dolphins soon arrived. Arion leaped overboard into the sea. The dolphins carried him to safety though he was many miles from shore.

When he eventually got back to Corinth, he had the thieves arrested and soon recovered his prize. I tell this story, and in fact all these stories about relations between human beings and cetaceans because, taken together, they shoot their own outsized arrow directly into the heart of my own account concerning three artists who traveled to the Arctic during the summer of 1988. Jonathan, Daniel and I might as well be called the sons of Arion. We have traveled to this mosquito-infested land on a quest to interact musically with the beluga whales who inhabit the MacKenzie estuary.


_ Told to the author by Rauno Lauhakangas of Helsinki Finland; webmaster of the Whalewatching Web, perhaps the most engaging WWW page on the Internet devoted to the subject of cetaceans.

_ Richard Ellis; Dolphins and Porpoises; Alfred A Knopf; NYNY; 1982; pg


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Rauno Lauhakangas