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Religious Fables, Folklore, Legends, and Stories
When the Whales Leave: A Modern Legend
Submitted by Yuri Klitsenko, Russia

"When the Whales Leave: A Modern Legend," Yuri Rytkheu. Translated by Eve Manning. Soviet Literature, 1977.

One of Yuri Rytkheu's best-known novellas "When the Whales Leave" is a dramatic and deeply philosophic story about true love and the pernicious power of human pride that leads to spiritual death and destruction. The novella is based on the old Eskimo myth about Nau - the foremother of the human race, and about her husband Rau - half-man, half-whale. They are confronted with Armagirgin - the evil spirit attempting to destroy the harmony of nature.

Based on the Chukchi whale legends.

The author was born in 1930 in Uelen Settlement of the Chukotsk National Territory and listened to whale stories "with a blizzard raging outside our 'yaranga,' . . . in the dim light of an oil wick."

This beautiful, cautionary, seventy-page tale would be a fine piece for an oral storyteller. It recounts the original, mutually respectful relationship between the whales and the humans and the humans and their environment and the eventual degradation of these relationships by the humans, who laugh at the old people's stories and begin, through greed and lack of the old wisdom, to destroy the ecological balance of their environment, eventually killing a whale - their ancestor.

[Ed. note] The story may involve to a mutually respectful relationship between whales and humans, but it fails to see such a relationship from the whales' perspective, who are brutally killed.  There is nothing beautiful about the killing and death.  By killing the whales, we kill a part of ourselves.

Themes of human-whale, whale-human transformation are woven throughout the story. "The most important thing - never forget that you have mighty relatives in the sea. From them you
are descended, and every whale is your relative, your blood brothers"

Extract from Yuri Rytkheu's legend "When the Whales Leave".

"Early in the morning the men with sharply-ground knives went down to the shore to start dressing the whale. Armagirgin went ahead.

He stared ahead with his wide-open eyes. But where is the whale?

Where is this enormous bulk of fat and meat they had dragged up the day before? Armagirgin ran to the water.

Something small could be seen at the edge of the surf, washed by
waves. And there was no whale.

Instead of him there lay a man.

He was dead, and the waves fingered his black hair. And far around until the horizon there lay an enormous empty sea with no hint of life in it. The whales had gone."

Sea, my sea, with a seagull upon thy wave, thou hast lived inside
me since my childhood. Thou washed me with thy icy waters so many times. Glimpses of salty splashes are still in my eyes.

Painting from

Yuri Klitsenko is a Russian living in Moscow.  He works for the Russian Orthodox Church.

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