When I was a small girl, the Shamanka had come from Taurica to our mountains in the Altai to bury her father according to custom, and then she had stayed with us and had grown in stature and in status. Our people were herdsman and knew things about the cycles of life and those things that were about the beasts of power, but the Shamanka had seen many wondrous things that had been wrought by man and knew to tell of them.
The Western Sea which she called the Euxine was girded by white hills and on the hills stood fragrant pines and in the lush canyon there ran a river that fell over rocks into a pool which renewed life and bestowed immortality on the seeker. Beyond that sea there lay another even greater water, which she had never seen, but had heard many tell of, called the Middle Sea. There on islands lived a seafaring people called the Hellenes who had settled far lands. She told our people of the heroes who set out on a great quest to sack the city of Troy, and of the wily Odysseus who tricked the Trojans into opening the walls of their city by gifting to them a great wooden horse within which his men were hidden. And then she told us how Odysseus was punished by the Gods andlost and buffeted on the sea, wayfaring for ten long years before reaching his homeland.
The Shamanka told us of a great king who killed his father and married his mother, and then discovering his guilt put out his own eyes. We said that was fitting punishment for such a sin, but she said, no, his crime was that of trying to cheat his destiny. Sometimes, but that was much later when I lived in her house, the Shamanka said that some of these Hellenes who were called physikoibelieved the earth and things upon it did not depend on the Gods but were the result of natural causes. I laughed and asked how this could be, and she told me there were things called elements and such a thing as mathematics which could be used to construct experiments which showed the true way of things. I let her talk because I liked to hear her stories, but sometimes I did not believe the things she said.
These Hellenes fought a powerful Parthian king called Daraya, who tried to conquer them as he had conquered an ancient land in the west where great mounds, even greater than ours, were built as tombs for dead kings. In this hot land there ran a great river that flooded every year and the people were able to live in comfort from their surplus crops. She said they traveled to a bountiful afterlife just as we did but had many strange Gods with animal heads. I said I liked the Gods of the Hellenes better, they were more like people with their anger and petty tyrannies. Then she told me a story, that originated in this land, of a goddess who restored her husband’s body after he was murdered by his evil brother and then conceived a child with him. I asked if the dead can be restored to life, and she said perhaps a powerful magician could do it, but perhaps the story is one that tells of renewal, of the land and of the spirit.
This Daraya conquered the lands of the Indus in the south, and the Shamanka said it was a land of very different ideas, but as great as any that the Hellenes had. She said a wise teacher called Gotama had arisen in the Indus and taught people how to free themselves from suffering. I asked how was it possible that people could accomplish such a thing, and she said, by stilling their mind and becoming at one with the source of all things.
I said I had experience of that, when everything was stilled, when the wind had stopped, when the horses were silent and all things flowed together, but it did not stop me from being sick or hungry or feeling jealousy or anger afterward. And she said, perhaps it is our intent to rise above those things that Gotama taught too, though she did not know.
She learned these things when she lived in the colonies on the western sea established by the Hellenes, for her father was a great trader between them and Skitoi who wanted the fine gold things that the Hellene craftsmen made. The Skitoi, the Saromatae, the Shaka, she said, were all our people, related by blood, inhabiting the great grassy steppe, and were wild and powerful and so ferocious that even the great Daraya had been terrified of them and was unable to conquer their lands.
She told of of other peoples which her father had known along the great caravan routes and said the greatest and richest of these were the Seres, meaning, the people of silk lands. The Shamanka said they were a clever people and many in number who made fine things in silk, ornaments from a green stone called jade, and vessels and statuary of bronze. She said in their land dragons were said to have shaped the earth and taught the people many things, and the people had profited greatly from the teaching. The Seres were clever and damned the waters and made them flow in streams for the sake of their crops, and they built terraces were they planted and so were able to have surplus grain and feed themselves in times of scarcity. I said it must be a poor land indeed that did not have herds and much water as we did, free for the taking, and I felt sorry for those people despite their fine ways. She said there were two masters of thought there, Lao and Kong, who taught opposite ways, one of simplicity and flow like the way we lived and one of hierarchy, of rules and obedience.
She knew so many things that she told us on cold winter nights, and I thought them wondrous for I did not know these thoughts tormented her.