Nart Tales of the Circassians

by

Amjad Jaimoukha

T

he corpus of the Nart Sagas is arguably the most essential ingredient of Circassian Culture, to which it is what Greek mythology is to Western Civilization. [1] In fact, Northwest Caucasians and Greeks on the Eastern Shore of the Black Sea co-existed for more than a thousand years, during which some cultural exchanges might have taken place. This would explain similarities in some tales. Though much less known than their Greek counterparts, the Nart epic tales are no less developed. The heroism, sagacity, guile and oftentimes naked brutality of the Nart heroes and demi-gods are more than matches to those of the Greek Pantheon. In the first stanza of (one of the versions of) Nartizch Wered * (Song of the Ancient Narts), the double-edged sword is likened to a rabid dog, a graphic illustration of unbridled ferocity:

, , I,

I I , , .

My great sabre is as fearsome as a crazed hound,

Streaming crimson blood down its twosome fangs.

The age of the Epos can be inferred indirectly from the themes broached. In the episode Sosriqwe Mafe Qeih (Sosriqwe Fetches Fire) the hero of the tale takes council with his steed Txwezchey (literally: Little Dun). This takes us back to the times when animals were thought to have human-like characteristics:

, ,

I.

,

- .

I ,

, .

, ,

I I I? .

, I,

, I II I.

, ,

I .

I.

I.

-I ,

I .

My Txwezchey,

The fleetest of them all.

This is the Giants mound,

His feet are tucked under his head.

The fire is in the middle,

And the Ogre is asleep.

Now, my fleet Txwezchey,

Tell me, pray, how to steal a brand?

Swarthy Sosriqwe,

The iron-eyed darksome man.

Most dashing horseman,

Ride on my back.

I shall turn the clatter of my hooves

Into the tamer tread of a hound.

[As we draw nearer,] my hound footsteps

I shall make as soft as a felines.

We shall sneak up

And snatch a fire-brand.

Sergei V. Rjabchikov traces a record of this legend to the third century BC on the Maikop Slab. [2] According to Libedinsky, the Epos dates back to the period between the 12th and eighth centuries BC. [3] In the 1950s, celebrations were held in the North Caucasus commemorating the millennium of the birth of the legends. The former hypothesis seems more probable because it allows possibility of interaction between Greek and North Caucasian civilizations.

 

The legends of the Narts had been transmitted orally by storytellers who acted as guardians of national mythology. Although these tales are undoubtedly of ancient origin, their language underwent some lexical changes that reflected the introduction of new technology and loan words.

 

The Nart Epic encapsulates the code of chivalry of the Circassians. The tales (of which more than 700 have been recorded) give the reader insights into the ancient culture and mores of the Northwest Caucasians (and the influences from other cultures that they have come in contact with). The principal protagonists were: Lady Satanay, Sosriqwe, Nisrenzchache, Bedinoqwe, Ximisch, Beterez, Yimis, Sibilshiy, Sosim, Zchinduzchache (Owl-beard), Areqshu, Toteresh, Ashe, Ashemez, Wezirmes, Wezirmej, Ediyixw, and her husband Psebide. They incorporate the characteristics most cherished by the ancient Circassians and Abkhaz. Each one of these embodied unique attributes besides the common Nart qualities. There were also giants, pigmies, predatory enemies, anti-heroes, gods, anti-gods, demi-gods who combined both human and god-like characteristics, and so on.

 

Lady Satanay, the mother of all the Narts, was born of a lovely flower which still bears her name (the drop-wort, Filipendula). Her beauty was legendary. She was sought after by all notable Narts for marriage. The story of the birth of (her son) Sosriqwe bears witness to the uncontrollable effect she had on men. As she sat on her haunches doing the laundry by the river, the cowherd, Zhemixwe, who was tending his bevy on the other side of the stream, seeing her uncovered curvaceous limbs, was unable to hold back his semen (nafsi) as it was ejected across the water on the stone beside her. The stone later engendered Sosriqwe. She was also famous for her inventiveness. She discovered winemaking and gave the Narts their first taste of the elixir. She was the epitome of wisdom and sagacity. The Narts turned to her for council and advice in times of national calamities, and she was able to avert many disasters that could have annihilated the Nart nation. Perhaps she represented the acme of North Caucasian matriarchism.

 

On the other hand, Satanay was accused of witchcraft and slyness. Her bitchy invective against Lhepsch in the tale How Satanay and Lhepsch fell out with one another is an illustration of this.

 

Despite Sosriqwes puny stature and dark complexion, he proved to be the most cunning and resourceful amongst the Narts. The story of how he fetched fire is a graphic illustration of his quick wit and wile. Although many Narts surpassed him in physical strength and military acumen, they always held him in great esteem and respect. The fact that he led them back after fetching fire is a good testimony to this effect.

 

Nisren Zchache was the Caucasian Prometheus. Like his Greek counterpart, the Nart hero was accused of hubris and he was chained to the top of one of Mount Elbrus twin peaks. [4] The vulture kept preying on his heart, and Nisren Beard shuddered every now and then trying to throw away the shackles. The Earth trembled, his chains knocked against one other sending sparks as if from striking spears, making thunderous noises. His breath issued forth like uncontrollable gales. His heart-rending moans and roans were like rumbles coming from the centre of the Earth. The hot streams coming down the lofty Mount were his tears.

 

The Nart legends may be used as powerful means of inculcating desirable characteristics in young people. Being the major depository of Circassian etiquette, positive aspects could be emphasized and used as exhortations. For example, in the story Sosriqwe and Toteresh , the invincible Toteresh son of Albech gives Sosriqwe a leave of execution until the next morning the time of their epic duel on Mount Hereme. He who forfeits a date was not born a man by his mother, he said as he let Sosriqwe go. This expression could be used to counteract procrastination and indifference, two rampant maladies in backward societies. Sosriqwe was able to prevail over Toteresh by using ruse and magic invoked by his protective mother, Satanay. [5]

 

In the tale Meeting of Sosriqwe and Ediyixw [The Narts, Nalchik, pp 124 ff.], the self-conceit of Psebide [literally: Tenacious of Life] led to his agonizing death. A single word of gratitude for her help would have been enough to appease Ediyixw, his wife. But, no! He was blinded by conceit and refused to acknowledge her role, which forced her to withhold the light of her hand [Ediyixw: ediy = forearm and wrist, xw = white], which he had previously used to gain advantage over his adversaries and thus obtain great plunder. After a lengthy and tortuous adventure sans the light of his wifes arm, the obstinate Nart found his death in the River Yinzhij ( Zelenchuk, a left tributary of the Kuban [Psizch]), which he thought he could cross, since Sosriqwe possessed the ability to cross the treacherous and violent river without difficulty.

 

Just after his death, Ediyixw learned the shocking fact that her ex-husband was not only self-conceited, but that he was narcissistic, and that he had never loved her. As she made to undo the majestic tumulus she erected on his grave, Sosriqwe stopped her saying, You toiled to build it, now, its not worth the bother removing it. The lifeless dark mound was left as a stark reminder of the fate of self-centred people.

 

Treachery and intrigue figured high among Nart themes. However, malfeasance always rebounded on the initiator a case of evil coming home to roost. In a blood-curdling episode of the Epos, one of the most ferocious Narts, sensing the perfidy of a group of back-stabbers who wanted him out of the scene and his impending doom, went berserk and unleashed his rabid sword which severed the heads and limbs of the machinators.

Selected Nart tales:

The Story of Lhepschs Iron Tongs

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[1] The most comprehensive book on the Narts in the English language is John Colarussos Nart Sagas from the Caucasus (Princeton University Press, 2002). See also A. Jaimoukhas The Cycles of the Nart Epic of the Circassians, Amman: Sanjalay Press, 2009.

[2] Sergei V. Rjabchikov, The Scythians, Sarmatians, Meotians, Russians and Circassians: Interpretation of the Ancient Cultures, in The Slavonic Antiquity, 1999, <http://public.kubsu.ru/~usr02898/sl2.htm>. It is known that the Circassian hero (nart ) Sosruko (Sausryk''u ) was connected with the solar myths (Kaloev, B. A., Mizhaev, M. I., and Salakaya, S. H., Narty [The Narts], in: S. A. Tokarev (ed.) Mify narodov mira, vol. 2, Moscow: Sovetskaya Èntsiklopediya, pp 199-201, 1992, p200). He returned the fire to other heroes as well ( Mizhaev, M. I., Sosruko [Nart Sosriqwe], in: S. A. Tokarev (ed.) Mify narodov mira, vol. 2, Moscow: Sovetskaya Èntsiklopediya, 1992, p464). The following record Mafa narata Sushe-riko is written down on the [Meotian=ancient Circassian] Maikop slab (the 3rd c. B.C.) with the help of the signs of the Linear B (Linear A) (Sergei V. Rjabchikov, Drevnie texty slavyan i adygov [Ancient Texts of the Slavs and Circassians], Krasnodar: Torgovo-promyshlennaya palata Krasnodarskogo kraya, 1998, p23). The text means The fire (day) of the hero (by the name) Dryness/Sun-King. Here the name Sushe-riko ( Sosruko, Sausryk''u) consists of the word sushe (cf. Russian sush' dry place, suhoy dry and Old Indian surya the sun) and of the word riko (cf. Latin rex, Etruscan luc-, Old Indian rajan king, German Reich state, and even Polynesian ariki chief). I think that Sushe-[riko] is a variant of the name of the Indo-Aryan god Surya The Sun who is represented as the eye of the deities Mitra, Varuna, and Agni; sometimes this god is equl to Savitar. Interestingly, the fragment of a Tmutarakan' amphora contains the word sush dryness and the picture of an eye ( Sergei V. Rjabchikov, Tainstvennaya Tmutarakan', Krasnodar: Torgovo-promyshlennaya palata Krasnodarskogo kraya, 1998, pp 22-3). On the other hand, the inhabitants of the ancient Russian town Tmutarakan' worshipped, by hypothesis, the god Hors. The name of Tmutarakan' (cf. Russian t'ma darkness, gloom and tarashchit (glaza ) to goggle) may be a symbol of the death and resurrection of the Egyptian/Scythian deities Horus and Osiris. In the Abkhazian mythology Hudysh is connected with Sasrykva (the Abkhazian variant of Circassian Sosruko). Alternatively, according to the Indo-Aryan mythology, Surya competed with Etasha. The names Hudysh and Etasha are similar. Several features of the hero Sosruko are preserved in the Russian fairytale character Koshchei Bessmertny. In the Circassian mythology there are Thozhey [ Txwe-zchey], the horse of the hero Sosruko, and his enemy, the old woman Uorsar [Werser] (Mizhaev, 1992). I read the name Thozhey as T hozhey This is a fast (horse) or the sun, cf. Russian hod motion; movement, German heiß hot, English hot, heat. The name Uorsar ( Werser) can be divided into the two words, Uor sar, cf. Russian vor zari thief of the dawn.

[3] In preface to Narti : Kabardinski èpos [The Narts: A Kabardian Epos], Moscow: Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1951, pp 8-18.

[4] In Circassian mythology, it was Nart Sosriqwe, minion of the gods and his doting mother, Lady Satanay, who stole fire from the abode of the giant.

[5] The story of Sosriqwe and Toteresh is told in song on the CD 'The Art of the Circassian Minstrels' (published by SPINDOX, 2009). See song no. 8 Nart Sosriqwe yi Pshinalhe (Nart Sosriqwes Melody) in the section Anthems of the Nart Epos.

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