Monday, September 03, 2012

EURASIANET BOOK REVIEW: Rediscovering Lost Tales from the Caucasus. By Alex van Oss (

Folklore scholar David Hunt has assembled an anthology of stories that present a fascinating side of the Caucasus rarely encountered by diplomats or students of international relations. He also renders a great service with this collection, culled from 19th and 20th century Russian ethnographic archives and field interviews.

These legends come primarily from the North Caucasus, with a dip into Azerbaijan, but, unfortunately, with no Armenian examples. There are tales from the Abkhaz and Lak; the Ingush and (now extinct) Ubykh peoples; from the Kabard, Georgian, and Lezgin traditions--and many others besides.

And what a feast it is!

Here we learn about Prometheus—but not the familiar classical Greek figure. In this compendium Hunt offers the reader no fewer than 10 permutations of the story, out of 44 Promethean legends identified in the Caucasus. It recounts, for example, how a certain Balkar named Susuruk obtained fire for the Narts—who are a "legendary heroic race of warriors," according to Hunt's helpful glossary.

Hunt also provides two dozen versions of another “Greek” story: that of the familiar Homeric Cyclops--but the tales here come from various Caucasus traditions, ranging from the Abaza to the Ossetian, all with protagonists escaping from one-eyed giants by means of cunning subterfuge. (One Chechen-Ingush Cyclops story revolves around the seductive intervention of the prisoner-hero's sister).

From Hunt’s notes on geography and terrain we learn why Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe, has twin peaks, and about how a certain Biblical figure docked his boat temporarily at its summit before floating elsewhere. A later footnote informs us that on the eastern slope of Mount Kazbegi there is a crag resembling a dragon, a feature explained by a charming cautionary Georgian tale:

"Having a false idea of his own importance, Amirani decided to measure his strength with Christ-God himself. For this, God chained him to the slope of Mkinvartsveri ['the peak of ice-houses,' i.e. Mt. Kazbegi]. A dragon, the unremitting enemy of Amirani, decided to take advantage of this. He crawled down from the summit of Mkinvari and got ready to swallow the chained Amirani. But Saint George found out about it and appeared there right away. After making threatening gestures at the dragon with his finger, the saint said, 'Stop! We chained Amirani so that he would repent of his sins, not to satisfy your hunger. Become a stone at once!'

"The dragon turned to stone there and then."

Elsewhere Hunt describes the finer points and honorable aspects--according to Caucasus tradition--of horse-stealing; and he entertains us with an eye-opening story of how (and why) a Balkar shepherd named Sozuk impregnated, of all things, a rock ....

Why haven't we read, or even heard about, these wonderful stories before? Hunt explains that they were written down late: "The bulk of [Caucasus] languages spoken in the mountainous and countryside regions had no alphabet until the early years of the 20th century, and so nearly all communication was oral. All knowledge, including the classical history, literature and music of the people was retained in the collective memory, particularly of those who specialized in memorizing and passing on their knowledge to the next generation."

Legends of the Caucasus should be placed on the bookshelf next to three other recent and important works: John Colarusso's compendium of Nart sagas; Donald Rayfield’s The Literature of Georgia; and C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor's From Scythia to Camelot, which describes their research into the Sarmatians and Alans, the ancestors of today's Ossetians. (According to the authors, these ancient peoples roamed through Western Europe and spread stories that evolved into the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail.)

David Hunt arranges his material into sections covering Caucasus history and politics; rustling, blood feuds, and battle; hunting and sheep herding; family relations and the dead--each topped with a short introduction wherein the reader learns, for example, about such real-life legends as Timur the Lame, Tokhtamysh of the Golden Horde, and the great 19th century Avar leader, Imam Shamil (revered to this day in Caucasus culture clubs throughout the former Ottoman Empire).

Particularly intriguing are details about adat ('unwritten customary code,' or mountain tradition); and feudal tussles between pshis (princes) and uorks (nobles), and between highlanders and valley dwellers.

One cannot but regret that Legends of the Caucasus is not illustrated. But all in good time, for surely this cornucopia will be discovered by children's book and graphic novel artists--not to mention Hollywood, for it contains a potential gold mine (or golden fleece) for filmmakers.

Editor's note: Alex van Oss is the Chair of Caucasus Advanced Area Studies at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC.

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