Historically Speaking - Siberia and the Temur
| Art by Daniel Ljunggren
On the Frontier
Tarkir’s Temur Frontier takes a lot of inspiration from Siberia’s past and present—from the use of mammoths and mammoth ivory, to the adaptation of indigenous shamanic practices, to the indigenous people. In this installment of Historically Speaking, we're going to look at the ways real-world Siberia helped inform the lore, setting, lifestyle, and overall character of Tarkir's Temur clan, and end with their assimilation into the Atarka Brood in the present timeline.
It's the final frontier... bivouac!
A brief qualifier: Siberia is a big place. When we say things like ‘Siberian natives’ or ‘Siberia’, those are, by nature, non-specific terms. It would be like using the term African or European to describe a small subset of the populations of these continents. When I say ‘Siberia’ going forward, I’ll do my best to qualify who and where in Siberia we’re talking about. For exmaple, the Chukchi are different from the Mongolia-adjacent Buryats, who differ from the Yakutsk and the Kirghiz tribes, and so forth. Even the word, Siberia, from the Tartar 'sibir' conveys an air of mystery: translated, it means, 'the sleeping land'.
According to historian Benson Bobrick, Siberia is a truly colossal bit of land, taking up a significant part of the Eurasian continent that could easily contain the continental US and what we call Europe inside its borders, and still have room left over. Thus, when making general statements about Siberia—from the arctic northern expanses to the inland sea that is Lake Baikal in the border of Mongolia—we are, of course, generalizing.
“The overall topography of Siberia divided rather neatly into three broad horizontal zones. To the north lay a great treeless tundra, extending along the whole Arctic coast from Novaya Zemla to Bering Strait; through the middle stretched a belt of broad forest from the Ural Mountains to the Okhotsk Sea; and to the south, arable land that shaded into semi-arid desert steppes from the southern Urals to beyond the Mongolian Frontier.”
The frozen land of the Temur Frontier requires hardy people to survive its many perils: bears, mammoths, shrieking winds that pierce through skin, avalanches, yetis, and of course other tribes. Small wonder that Wizards of the Coast based the frost-bitten and tough Temur on traditional Siberian culture and geography!
(Also, they punch bears. We're not here to talk about bears, but about mammoths, shamanism, and survivalism, but still, bear punching is rad.)
Mammoths have quite a presence in Siberian history and economy. Long ago, as the mammoths wandered up from the newly fused Indian subcontinent, they made their home in Siberia, and even crossed the Bering Strait into North America. They eventually died out, but the permafrost kept their bodies perfectly preserved—even down to the contents of their stomachs.
This has raised some debates about the utility/morality about raising the extinct mammoths from the grave via cloning and using them to combat climate change and change the Siberian biome, which as of this writing are unresolved issues. In pre-industrial times, mammoth tusks were used as sacred items or scrimshawed upon by the indigenous Siberians, who eventually hunted them to extinction.
However, the marker that mammoths have left upon the Siberian land has proved indelible, both in history and in the present.
Mammoth bones lie thick upon the central plain of Siberia—where rivers cut through the permafrost, their bones blend with dried and bleaching wood—indistinguishable till examined closely. Bones that would have corroded away inside of a decade last ten thousand years inside the embrace of permafrost.
Author Benson Bobrick recounts the significance, economically, of the mammoth to Siberia after the Russian conquest:
“Under the Russians, digging up mammoths became a kind of heavy industry and between 1650 and 1900 the tusks of an estimated 40,750 mammoths (each tusk weighing between 150 and 200 pounds) were taken out of Siberia. Between 1825 and 1831, the annual shipments exceeded 60,000 pounds was great quantities of fossil ivory were collected with each summer’s thaw from crumbling embankments along the Arctic coast…on the international market, Russian ivory, as it was called, competed successfully with that from Africa, India and Ceylon.”
This fact has not gone unnoticed by adventurous and unscrupulous ivory traders even into the modern day. Responding to pressure banning African elephant ivory in china, ‘tuskers’ have swarmed the central areas of Siberia near Yakutsk to dig up ivory from the mammoths. Where once they used sharp sticks to locate the ivory in peaty ground, they now use firehoses to blast away the earth to get at the precious stuff. Naturally, this is all wildly illegal. Even in death, a mammoth has value.
Mammoths are alive in well in the Temur clan of Tarkir. However, unlike in our world, they aren’t just confined to their tusks. The Temur use them as weapons of war and use their skins and tusks to keep warm or ornament their shaman’s hoods or even to keep records of clan skirmishes or genealogies. A huge amount of Temur art feature's mammoth ivory--as building materiel, as landscape decoration, or even simply aesthetic appeal for their shamans (whom we will get to in due time).
For the Temur, like the Paleosiberian people they are based on, life is difficult. Historically, the Yakutsk, Chuchki, and Tungus tribes fought the Mongol incursions into southern Siberia as viciously as they did the Russians who arrived hundreds of years later. The land itself, unless you specifically adapt to it - and sometimes even if you have - is punishing. Sub-zero temperatures are common in winter along with brutal storms, driving winds and icefalls.
In summer, the invaders baked in the sun, wallowed in thick mud, and swore at thick black clouds of flies. The tribes of the Paleosiberians were small and not united—things that served them well in sustainability and mobility through this land, but made successfully repulsing first the Mongol and then the Russians much more difficult. The land is tremendously varied; even housing an inland sea, Lake Baikal, with its own species of freshwater seals and giant sturgeons that swim through waters nearly a mile deep.
The Temur seem to favor similar tactics and lifestyle choices to the Paleosiberian tribes. They excel at ambushes, using the terrain to their advantage through avalanches or rock falls, and operating in small clan units. I can find no historical account of Siberian tribesmen strapping as many swords or spears to their sleds and charging downhill on them, as the Temur do, according to the Planeswalker’s Guide to Tarkir. However, they are a tough people, well suited to their environment in a specialized way. They were of the land in a very significant way, because to be out of touch with the Siberian environment was to join it - you know, by dying. Even for the native Siberians (and later the Russian diaspora that married into them or displaced them en masse), life is never easy.
The Temur Frontier, in many ways, is worse, because at least Siberia doesn't have yetis. That is at least one good thing you can say about Russia: low yeti population.
Shamanism was/is a key way of interacting with/understanding not only the Siberian environment but also its wildly disparate indigenous cultures. Shamanism is too wide a term to be defined, but from our primary sources we know of several common themes, including invoking spirits, astral projection, and making oneself immune to various types of harm. Historian Benson Bobrick chronicles the words of a 16th century explorer who met with a group of Samoyed tribesmen and was given a taste of shamanic power:
“Then he [the Samoyed] took a sword of a cubit and a span long [a cubit is the length between the longest finger and the elbow, or thereabouts] and he put it into his belly halfway and sometime less, but no wound was to be seen. Then he put the sword into the fire until it was warm, and so thrust it into the slit of his shirt and thrust it through his body, as I thought, in at his navel and out at his fundament; the point being out of his shirt behind. I laid my finger upon it, then he pulled out the sword and sat down.”
Siberian shamanism is also replete with claims of the spirit existing outside of the body and being able to travel about. The Pleistocene Manifesto says of Siberia::
"The visit to Duvanii made the idea of the “mammoth steppe” extremely real. There was something elemental about being surrounded by Pleistocene bones in a melting tundra landscape. You could close your eyes and feel how rich this ecosystem was before it was hunted into extinction."
This evokes similar language to the Temur shamanic experience. It is clear that Wizards of the Coast borrowed this idea and expanded upon it to create the Temur-shaman network called the Wide Whisper. Using the Wide Whisper, Temur shamans could travel and communicate in spirit over vast distances, similar to the concept of the . Clad in the bones of animals that are extinct in our world, the Temur shamans enter a trance and traverse the spirit realm, visiting the past, the present, and future.
Dragon to an End
The Temur's shamanistic spiritual network has been driven underground in Tarkir's present timeline. Dragonlord Atarka, the head of the Dragon Brood that overthrew the Temur Clans, fears the shamans and their links to the past and future as much as any of the other Dragonlords. The Temur even take on her name and are forced to range ever farther afield on hunting parties to keep the great beast fed. The mammoths have been hunted out to please Atarka, and there are precious few of the bears left - Atarka's fires melted the glaciers and flooded the land. In a fit of irony, the faction once most closely associated with the stewardship of nature on Tarkir has become one of the largest threats to the natural order on the plane.
In this current Tarkir, like Siberia over the last few centuries, we see great and nearly irrevocable changes. The Russian civil war, World War Two, Stalin and his successor's gulags - this vast and beautiful land does not lack for horror in its past. Siberia, a land of hidden treasures and near-infinite natural resources has added the bones of countless men and women to the those of the mammoths and sabertooths in the ground while technology and lack of regulation foul the waters and sky.
It is tempting to see Tarkir's Dragonlords as literal avatars of late-stage capitalism or imperialism: an endless, rapacious hunger that is dedicated to stamping out all traces or interests in a world before their reign while consuming far more than their share. Indeed, I may explore this metaphor in a future essay.
For now, though, I leave you on the image of a land where the bones of the past can be glimpsed in a riverbank and the land sleeps fitfully.