Journey to the Other World: Afanasij Nikitin, the Hero of Tradition

The fact that Afanasij Nikitin was the first Russian to visit India provoked widespread interest in his travel account, which has became an object of extensive historic commentary. Each step of the traveler has been traced and inspected as a source of insight about the reality of fifteenth-century India. Approaching the familiar English fairy tale no one is about to look for an actual beanstalk in an Asian jungle, it is rather to suggest that a beanstalk doesn’t come from objective reality. It seems possible to make a brief symbolic interpretation of Afanasij Nikitin`s Journey Beyond Three Seas to complement the historic or literal approaches to the medieval text with the symbolic one.

During a regular trade expedition to the Caucasus the Russian merchant was robbed. Rather than return home, he went on to find his luck beyond the seas. The reason for such a long and dangerous voyage can be found in Russian folklore. The hero of tradition can be a significantly important role model for a real person, and the folk patterns can be used to describe and even inspire his action. The hero of the fairy tales has to go to the “other world” to get what he desires. To grow rich, to marry a princess, to qualify for the throne, to get any goodies, the hero must make a trip. He is unable to deal with his problems at home; all problems can be decided only there, far away. This model often has been reproduced in Russian history, literature, and even in some modern examples of human expression.

The destination of travel is unknown for a folklore hero. In the text of fairy tales it commonly is presented as “he went the way he did not know himself.” The hero describes his path: “I go where eyes look, myself not knowing” (Afanas′ev, 170). We can find the same formula in Journey: “and they went wherever they could, just where they set their eyes.”

The actions of a folk hero often are described in a repetition of forms; these basic forms connect with basic rhythm and stem directly from magic. Repetition of verbs seems to be an older way of signifying duration. The doubling patterns of folklore narrative can be compared to the doubling patterns in Journey. Doubling occurs in the description of traveling to India and back and makes sense of its continuousness.

To reach the other world, the hero has to cross some border. It may be a river, a sea or a fire in folk tales. The Journey presents the reader with both types of borders. The first destination of Nikitin was Baku “where an eternal fire is burning.” He reached the island “which is flooded by the sea twice a day” and where sun “is blazing hot and may burn one.” In a fairy tale, the hero can’t cross a border on his own. He always needs some magic helper (donor), such as a person, a bird, a ship, or a horse. The main duty of the magic horse in fairy tales is to make a connection between two worlds. It is strictly connected with the old belief that the horse carries dead people to the land of death. Afanasij Nikitin purchased a horse in Persia and arranged for it to be transported to India. This purchase has puzzled many scholars and Afanasij Nikitin himself. A horse was not a common import.

Before his travels, Afanasij Nikitin may have perceived a concrete image of India as the “other world,” the land of death derived from both Russian folklore and medieval literature. According to the novel Alexandria and widespread folk beliefs, naked wizards live there. Seth, the son of Adam and Eve, stayed in the Paradise and was an ancestor of naked wizards. The feast of death (the last Saturday before Easter) in some regions still has the name connected to them. The epithet raxmannyj of Nightingale Thief, the magic creature of Russian epics, also bears a strong resemblance to naked wizards living in India.

The “other world” in Russian folklore is described as the land with treasures and characteristics opposite to those in the “human world.” Many of the picturesque and puzzling details in The Journey seem to be borrowed by Afanasij Nikitin from folklore tradition. They are very similar to patterns of description of the other world in fairy tales, legends and epic songs. Treasures of India represent the richness of the other world: gold as a symbol can be traced through the text. The description of palace of the sultan (which Afanasij Nikitin could not see with his own eyes) is made with folklore patterns. Multiplying the numbers of goods and treasures of the sultan corresponds to folk narrative models. Indian seasons are opposite to our own (“spring came with the Feast of the Intercession of Holy Mother of God”). The outlook and behavior of Indians are described in terms opposite to norm for a Russian traveler’s human outlook and manners (“everyone is naked, the men and women are all black, many women are pregnant, horses are fed with pulse, and rice meal with sugar and butter is made for them”). Very puzzling features have come to India from Russian folklore (army of monkeys, ghugguk, a bird spitting fire, “whenever it settles on a house top, someone dies in the house”).

Journey Beyond Three Seas describes a traveler’s movement into the real world, as well as the symbolic journey of the folklore hero from human land to the “other world” and back.