The Merchants of Darkness

…the Land of Darkness was separated from the rest of the world by a desert of ice that neither human foot nor beasty hoof could safely step alight.

The Land of Darkness was a realm of pitch black in the northern reaches of Tartarus, a vast expanse of cold land northeast of the Black Sea and Caucus Mountain Range where the arctic winter governed like a cruel mistress permitting the midnight sun to come out for only an hour a day. Its inhabitants were believed to be an unknown form of creature, mysterious spirit folk–the Arabs called them jinn–who interacted with humans only to trade for the few corporeal goods they fancied. 13th century historical accounts of this region from the likes of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta provide a glimpse into their shadowy realm.

Only the wealthiest of merchants could afford the venture up to their yonder because the Land of Darkness was separated from the rest of the world by a desert of ice that neither human foot nor beasty hoof could safely step alight. But in the tundra that separated the realms of light and dark lived a race of dogs, large as wolves, but able to communicate with men. Only they knew the path to Darkness. And a deal must be struck with these canines in order to reach the Land.

So, merchants would come with gifts of food and bones and lavish these dogs with love and attention. Satisfied, the dogs would agree to take them to their desired destination and permit the men to fasten their sled carts to their backs.

By H. G. Kaiser - Alaska, Western Canada and United States Collection, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77790583

The dark, frozen terrain was only navigable by the padded paw of these keen-eyed husky sled dogs. Merchants would employ hundreds of them to guide their caravans, at least four dogs per sled-cart. By such a sled train, usually embarked on from a point on the Volga River like Bulghar City (modern: Bolgar, Republic of Tatarstan, Russia), the merchants could reach the border of the Land of Darkness in 40 days.

Siberian Fur Market

There on the border, they would set up a camp and prepare their wares, which were typically tools and weapons. Then, they would go one day’s journey into Darkness and leave their offer of goods for trade on a spot of open land, and return to camp. The next day, they would go back to that spot and hope to find a new lot of exotic goods placed down beside their offer. If the jinn were interested in the traders’ offer, they will have answered with their own offer of rare and highly valuable furs like the pelts of ermine, sable, and miniver. If the traders were happy with the jinn’s offer, they would take the offered lot and leave. If not, the dissatisfied merchants would leave it untouched and return the next day hoping for a new and hopefully better offer from the jinn. If either party removed their lot the next day, then the trade was off and the merchants would have to retry at a later date.

Mysticism and folklore aside, the snowy tracts of land on the cusp of the Arctic Circle have long been inhabited by a wonderful people. These Jinn of Darkness were in reality humans, too. They were the many native people of Siberia. And this was the way trade was conducted in the Land of Darkness, or medieval Siberia.

Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929, Edward S. Curtis (restored), Public Domain
Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929 by Edward S. Curtis

Source: Ibn, Batuta, and Tim Mackintosh-Smith. The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador, 2002. Print.

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