Nart Sagas

Nart Sagas From The Caucasus, by John Colarusso

''Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs'' 

A ship sailing across the Black Sea in the year 1780 eventually would have come upon a lush shore at the eastern end of the dark gray waters (compare Odell 1977; Lotz et al. 1956; and the earliest account, Sanazaro 1506). If the course setting had been east-northeast, then this would have been the Circassian coast, a rolling land with distant mountains rising behind it. If due east, then the ship would have come upon the Abkhazian coast, with the hills and mountains descending to the beach and at a few points dipping into the sea. This stretch of shoreline might well be the same on which Jason and his argonauts are said to have landed three millennia earlier. In that year these were the watery boundaries of two large nations, Circassia and Abkhazia, with the land of the Ubykh falling between them and sharing allegiances with both.

Nart Sagas from the Caucasus

Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs

By John Colarusso
Professor in the Anthropology Department of McMaster University

Introduction

A ship sailing across the Black Sea in the year 1780 eventually would have come upon a lush shore at the eastern end of the dark gray waters (compare Odell 1977; Lotz et al. 1956; and the earliest account, Sanazaro 1506). If the course setting had been east-northeast, then this would have been the Circassian coast, a rolling land with distant mountains rising behind it. If due east, then the ship would have come upon the Abkhazian coast, with the hills and mountains descending to the beach and at a few points dipping into the sea. This stretch of shoreline might well be the same on which Jason and his argonauts are said to have landed three millennia earlier. In that year these were the watery boundaries of two large nations, Circassia and Abkhazia, with the land of the Ubykh falling between them and sharing allegiances with both. In Abkhazia the traveler would have encountered a state with a ruler, albeit under the thumb of the Ottoman Empire, whose inner boundary petered out in the high reaches of the mountains (see Lak'oba 1998). The nobles of Abkhazia shared pedigrees with the nobles of the small Ubykh tribe farther up the coast, on the far side of the river Psow. In Circassia the traveler would have encountered a series of tribes structured by clan lineages and allegiances, all of whom called themselves Adyghey, including the small Ubykh tribe. This realm would extend eastward through tribes, each having its own dialect, across the Caucasus Mountains, which run for one thousand kilometers from the northwest to the southeast, and along the south bank of the Kuban River, to the very center of the North Caucasus. Here, in the shadow of Mount Elbruz, the highest mountain in Europe, the Kabardian tribe dominated with an almost statelike cohesion over the Turkic-speaking Noghay nomads of the plains and the Iranian-speaking Ossetian mountaineers. Here too the Terek River began its eastward flow to form the northern boundary of the Northeast Caucasus. In the mountain pastures of the Circassian realm lived Turkic-speaking pastoralists, the Karachais and Malkars (or Balkars). Some northern Abkhaz, the Abazas, also lived among them. Across the Kuban and Terek Rivers were settlements of Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking people who had fled the system of serfdom farther north and who had intermarried with many of the Caucasian and Turkic women. These were the Cossacks. In many ways they resembled their Caucasian neighbors but traditionally maintained a hostile relationship with them. They were the vanguard of the invasion that was to come in the next century.

In this lush realm at this time may have lived as many as 2 million people, all sharing a set of striking features of language, dress, and custom (Hewitt and Watson 1994; Colarusso 1994a; Volkova 1994; Shamanov 1994; Khodorkovsky and Stewart 1994; Fritz 1994). In peace, the peoples were organized into a number of tribes, each with its own language or dialect. In war, they united and behaved like a conventional state. The Circassian tribes of the coast, the Shapsegh and Natukhay, practiced trade and exhibited a loose social structure, but farther along the coast, among the Ubykh and Abkhaz, and inland among the other Circassians, an elaborate social structure existed. These people were warlike, and their society was highly structured to enforce a discipline and order that served them on the battlefield. They were ranked into princes, nobles, freemen, and serfs, the last serving the nobility and chiefly descended from prisoners of war. Clans and lineages interpenetrated with this hierarchy and shaped almost all social interactions. Despite this social order, feuding was rampant, and no man was without his weapons. Since social rank was inherited and prestige was measured by valor, material goods were not socially important outside of the trading tribes. In fact, a sort of sporting theft was common, so that goods tended to circulate in the community. Although the princes and nobles entrusted their children to retainers, family values as a whole were strong, and this fosterage actually served to tie the serfs to their overlords not as slave to master but as family member to clan leader. In fact, the visitor, if all went well in following social decorum and restraint, might eventually receive the great and lifelong honor of being adopted by a clan. Despite the strict codes of conduct, the concern with honor and social face, and the elaborate hierarchy, the overall social values reflected ideals of individual freedom and democratic participation in comunity life. The power of the princes and nobles was moderated by the views of the elders of the community, and these in turn were sensitive to the needs of all the community's members.

nart saga

The economy of the region was varied. Aside from traders with fortified outposts, people lived in villages strung along rivers deep in the forest. In the higher hills, stone houses with single towers predominated. Each of these was like a self-contained fortress. The mountain pastures, however, were by and large the domain of the Karachays and Malkars, Turkic pastoralists, who like the Cossacks and the other Caucasians had simpler social systems. The Circassians, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs bred horses, cows, oxen, sheep, pigs, and chickens, and grew abundant fruits and vegetables. Apiculture and the gathering of walnuts were also vital parts of their agricultural economy, as was hunting. Felt rugs were a prime manufactured good. Splendid horses were also traded, with the Kabardian breed being one of the most prestigious. The skill of the men on horseback was most impressive.

The peoples were highly variable in appearance, some being dark and others light, with light eyes and blond or red hair. Some looked like northern Europeans, and others had a distinctly Mongol cast to their features. Their varied appearances testified to their long and complex history. Many of the princes and nobles were tall. Many individuals were strikingly handsome, with both genders frequently showing expressive faces, lithe physiques, and graceful movements. The men of this region accorded their women great freedom and respect, even if their economic roles were traditionally set. Elders were revered, and many lived to be well over a hundred. Even in advanced age--and many claimed to be more than a century old--they remained an integral part of society, and perhaps most strikingly, they were accorded passions and hopes just like the younger members of their clans.

Dance was a crucial aspect of social life, the men spinning and leaping with astonishing speed and power and the women gliding about with fluid grace, the motion of their legs hidden by their long, gownlike dresses. Women's clothing consisted of a gown with false sleeves. On their heads they wore a hat shaped like an acorn, usually with a scarf trailing from the crown. They walked on platform shoes. The men's clothing was also striking, consisting of loose trousers tucked into soft leather, soleless knee boots, resembling leather knee socks. Their high-collared shirts were covered by a cherkesska,a robelike coat with a fitted torso and a flaring lower portion that draped over their horse's haunches while riding. Across their chest, they had a series of sewn cylindrical pouches into which silver tubes were placed. Each of these contained a measured charge of powder for the muskets, which they always bore, along with swords and daggers.

The religions were many, with some Christians among the Abadzakh of the hills and some Jews living intermixed with other Circassians. Islam dominated the region, but no mosques were to be seen. In fact, religious tolerance was a feature of the Caucasus as a whole, and strong pagan traditions still shaped many beliefs among the peoples and lay behind most of their rituals. Great feasts were often held, especially at times of seasonal rituals, and these were headed by a toastmaster, t'hamada,a term destined to spread north into Russia and south into Persia. At such feasts bards, both male and female, would recount old legends in their various languages. These languages were most remarkable and complex, ranging from the mellifluous Kabardian to the percussive and subtle Bzhedukh and Shapsegh to the hissing and throaty Ubykh and Abkhaz to the startling Abaza with its almost gargled quality. They clearly bore no links with any of the more familiar languages around them. Great buildings and monuments were absent, but the chief monument of their civilization resided in the languages and the folklore these enshrined. Most varied and revered among the various tales was a body of lore in which a band of heroes was depicted, all of whose members were said to have a single mother, an ageless beauty. These were the Nart sagas, legends found across the North Caucasus.

In the coming decades Russia was to expand into this area, and war would rage across the North Caucasus. The resistance the Circassians, Ubykhs, Abkhaz, and Abaza offered is only scantily known (Berzeg 1998; Tsutsiev and Dzugaev 1997, maps 2-6; Henze 1992), in contrast to that of the Chechens and Daghestanis (Gammer 1994; Blanch 1960; Baddeley 1969), which has become the stuff of legends. It must have been ferocious, however, because the Caucasian campaign dragged on a full five years longer in the west (which ended in 1864) than in the east (which ended in 1859) and resulted in the wholesale deportation of the population into the Balkan region of the Ottoman Empire (Brooks 1996, 1995). Today the majority of the Circassians, Abkhaz, and Abazas and all the Ubykhs live in Turkey, with enclaves in Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Israel. Recently small immigrant communities have been established in the United States (Colarusso 1997). Those remaining behind in their homeland are a distinct minority but nevertheless enjoy more cultural continuity than their cousins abroad. Russian authorities have devised literary languages in Adyghey (based on the Chemgwi dialect of West Circassian), Kabardian, Abkhaz (Abzhwi dialect), and Abaza (Tapanta dialect) and have established cultural institutions, such as museums, dance companies, and folklore institutes. Scholars have gathered the surviving portions of the old traditions. The Nart sagas have been recorded intensively, and large portions of the corpora have been published (see also Khamytsaeva and Bjazyrov 1989 [Ossetian]; Dalgat 1972 [Chechen and Ingush]; Aliev 1994 [Karachai and Balkar]; Dzidziguri 1971 [highland Georgian dialects and Svan]).

In a sharp irony of history, contemporary Russians, descendants of those who, caught in the juggernaut of nineteenth-century imperial expansion, sought to destroy this civilization, have provided the essentials for preserving and disseminating some of its most valuable aspects. For the Nart sagas the crucial step was the creation of literary languages in which this oral, bardic tradition, told by both men and women, could be collected and to some extent codified. In addition, museums, dance companies, and grade schools were founded. In fact, near the close of the Soviet period Moscow initiated a repatriation program (Colarusso 1991) and has since permitted the various Circassian republics to fly their traditional flag and has even promoted the singing of a national anthem. The Abkhaz, after their secession from Georgia in 1993 (Hewitt 1998; Colarusso 1995), have also flown their flag and taken on the trappings of nationhood. Following Moscow's earlier example, the Abkhaz have also invited the exiled Ubykh who also have a flag, to return to a part of their traditional territory in northern Abkhazia. Thus, after many tragedies and a hiatus of nearly two centuries, this realm may yet enter the world stage as two pluralistic states with large supporting diasporas.

The Nart sagas, which are not sagas in the usual sense of semihistori cal accounts of a prominent person's life, closely resemble the myths of the pagan Norse (Davidson 1964) and Ancient Greece (Burkert 1985, especially pp. 119-225). Bards, male and female, render them through song, verse, and simple prose. Although the exploits of the characters have the magic and bravura of gods, only a few figures retain genuine deity status. In this sense they are once removed from the status of myth (note this designation by Özbay 1990), but starting with the first account of Circassian lore by the Kabardian Shora Begmurzin Nogma (Bergé 1866), the term sagahas been used. Despite occasional references to tales (Dirr 1920; Nat'ho 1969) or legends (Dumézil 1930), I shall abide with this usage, since it has come to dominate later scholarship (Lang 1954; Özbek 1982). These sagas are of interest not only in their own right as a testament to the civilization of this lost world, but also because they show striking parallels with the traditions of the ancient peoples who at one time were in contact with the North Caucasus. They have been largely viewed as a relic of the old Iranian-speaking culture of the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans, with only passing reference made to Circassian lore (chiefly Dumézil 1978; see pp. 34-49, 146-68). That there is an ancient Iranian core in the various corpora is not to be denied (Dumézil 1934, 1956; Bjazyrty 1992). The name Nart is of Indo-Iranian origin r-, Greek anè-r, Lincoln 1981, 97 and n. 4); Sabine Nero- 'strong' (personal name), Umbrian nerus,Old Irish nert,Vedic Sanskrit nrtama'most manly' (an epithet of Indra), Sanskrit na, náram(accusative) 'man, hero', Avestan nar-, nere-(gara-)(Pisani 1947, 147, §302), Ossetic nart(Benveniste 1959, 37 and n. l). Such a view distorts the sagas' value, however, especially the value of this tradition as preserved among the Circassians and their kin. The Ossetian material (May, Salbiev, and Colarusso 2002) has been reworked to form a smooth narrative. The Chechen-Ingush lore has a great deal of material peculiar to the Northeast Caucasus in it. The Northwest lore, however, has been published in virtually a raw form, with all the odd details constituting the detritus of earlier traditions and beliefs.

Details survive millennia (epithets, names, specific features, such as size and color, social patterns, for example, as with the hero or god who has one hundred or ninety-nine followers or brothers). Thus the nonsensical and functionless features of a tradition are the oldest. One must be wary of folk reinterpretations along the lines of later cultural patterns and developments.

The relevant features may also be scattered among an array of figures, but details still survive due to the rote nature of the bard's task of learning a saga. Other details may be ascribed to different figures as the fortunes of a cult shift down through the tradition of a people. In the Nart sagas heroes are almost interchangeable in their roles, and Satanaya and her last son, Sosruquo, have expanded to assume the roles of a wide range of earlier figures, especially in the Abaza and Abkhaz corpora.

By judiciously sifting the folklore at hand for, in effect, nonsense and odd details, including names (see also Knobloch 1991), and by carefully using external controlling factors, for example, archaeological, historical, and linguistic information, one may reconstruct ancient myths and cultic beliefs from very remote periods with as much certainty as the data permit and as much certainty as any historical reconstruction may have, as the present cases show. This can be done at least for the basic lineaments of the myths, enriched by the occasional peculiar detail that may safely be posited on the basis of its survival in the attested traditions. Much more of the unwritten past may now be recoverable by such techniques than many ever dreamed possible.

The reader will gain an idea of the significance of this lore for comparative mythology by reading some of the parallels I have proposed. For Ancient Greece there are Nart figures with clear links to Aphrodite and her shepherd lover, Anchises, with the Gorgons, with Prometheus, with the Cyclopes, and with the Amazons (Colarusso 1989a, 1988). For Ancient India as depicted in the Rig-Veda,the Nart hero offers close ties to and insight into the great hero Indra, who slays the monster Vrtra atop a mountain and thereby releases the waters of life (Colarusso 1984b). More surprising are the striking parallels between the grim Norse war god Odin and a Nart named Wa(r)dana, as well as between the Norse world tree Yggdrasil and Lady Tree of the Narts (Colarusso 1989b, 1989c, 1984b). There may even be parallels between this Nart tradition and a myth of the ancient Hittites (see my comments at the end of sagas 23 and 60). Parallels with the Arthurian cycle are also undeniable (Littleton and Malcor 1994; Colarusso 1994b, 1994c) but are more evident in the Ossetian Nart tradition (May, Salbiev, and Colarusso 2002). I have made notes at the end of each saga regarding some of these parallels. For a few of the more important parallels, I have offered discussions in the end comments.

Good tales, like useful words, can jump language barriers. So even though the languages of the present corpora are non-Indo-European, many of the details preserved in them seem to have Indo-European parallels. Some of these, however, such as the giant atop the mountain, may ultimately be of Caucasian origin, as is most of the material in the sagas. I have suggested the dates and paths of such borrowings in a few places, but most cases present difficult questions of historical layering that can be answered only with further study. The Ossetian Nart tradition has already offered some insights into Indo-European myth (Dumézil 1978; Puhvel 1987, 217-18). Surely experts whose knowledge lies beyond my own will draw further links from the present corpora, links not only with the traditions that I have already examined but further afield, both within Indo-European and in the Turkic and Mongol traditions. It is safe to say that an incisive analysis of ancient Eurasian myth will not be possible in the future without an examination of the Nart sagas. It is also safe to say that the lover of myth will not be truly satisfied without the pleasure of having read them.


Reviews:

"An excellent translation of a rare standard of Eurasian mythology, the work blends annotation and commentary to demystify the complex philosophical text."--Library Journal

"A new, important resource for those with a general interest in the lore of the North Caucasus, in comparative mythology, and in linguistics. . . . Colarusso's familiarity with the Indo-European traditions is seen in the copious commentaries and notes accompanying the sagas. Meticulous and at times very detailed, they not only serve as a guide to a better understanding of the sagas themselves, but provide an introduction to the vast field of Eurasian myth. . . . Colarusso is to be congratulated for this splendid contribution to the field, for his scholarship, for his devotion to the subject, and for bringing this collection of Nart sagas to us."--Patricia Arant, Slavic and East European Journal

Endorsements:

"There is no comparable book in English. The translation looks quite fine! This is quite original work by one of the most prominent scholars of the Caucasus in this hemisphere, one who is also most knowledgeable in Indo-European mythology and is an accomplished linguist."--Edgar C. Polomé, author of Indo-European Religion after Dumeziland Language, Society, and Paleoculture

"Reminiscent of the Grimm fairytales and the Icelandic Eddas, these lively tales abound with giants and witches and dwarves and mountain-sized monsters born of rock, ice, and fire. This is a major new resource for students in mythology, linguistics, and folklore, for which John Colarusso provides a sober and expert commentary as guide."--Elizabeth Wayland Barber, author of The Mummies of Urumchi

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Prometheus among the Circassians, by John Colarusso

The most archaic oral tradition seems to be that of the "Nart Sagas." These are a large corpus of oral tales involving the Narts, a race of heroes. While traditonally termed sagas...

Prometheus among the Circassians, The World & I, March, 1989.

Washington, D.C.: The Washington Times Publishing Corporation. Pp. 644-651.

A modern oral tale from a little known people of the Caucasus shows striking parallels with myths from Ancient Greece, Ancient India and the pagan Germanic world.

In the southwest of the Soviet Union, bordering upon Turkey and Iran, lies one of the most ethnographically complex areas in all Eurasia, the Caucasus. The Caucasus mountains, which dominate this area nearly the size of Spain, are home to a bewildering variety of ethnic groups, some of which seem to be survivors from earlier eras. These groups speak roughly fifty languages, the majority of which are unrelated to any other languages on earth, and show complex and exotic features that set them apart from the other languages of Eurasia. In this one area there are three distinct language families: the Southern or Kartvelian, the Northeastern or Daghestanian, and the Northwestern. The Northwestern languages are perhaps the most complex of any in the region and are spoken by the Abkhazians, the Abazas, the Ubykhs, the Kabardians and the Adygheans. The last two peoples are often grouped together as Circassians.

The Circassians originated in the northwestern quarter of the Caucasus, bounded on the north by the Kuban river. They practiced a mixed economy. Those in the higher vallies and montane forests practiced small scale agriculture and hunting, and often preserved old Christian or pagan customs. Those in the foothills and plains practiced horse-breeding, farming and trade, and usualy espoused Sunni Islam, though in their towns Christian and Jewish Circassians could be found. The Circassians were famed throughout the Middle East for the beauty of their women and the courage of their men. Physically most Circassians are European in appearance with perhaps a slight oriental cast to their features. Many Circassians are blond and blue-eyed, while others show a common feature of the Caucasus: very light skin coupled with black or extremely dark hair. A lithe and erect physique were favored, both for the men and the woman, and many villages even today have large numbers of healthy elderly people, many over a hundred years of age.

Their culture was and still is strongly dominated by a warrior ethic. The battle garb of the men, the Cherkesska, is a fitted caftan-like coat with cartridges sewn across the chest, a sheepskin hat and soft-soled knee-high boots of fine leather. It has been borrowed by many neighboring peoples, most notably the slavic Cossacks, so that this costume is often thought of as being Russian. Until recently the eight tribes into which they were divided showed varying degrees of a caste system similar to that surviving in modern India. There were priest-kings, nobles who formed the warriors, freemen who carried on trade, large scale farming and manufacture, and lastly peasants, former prisoners of war who were either small farmers or who acted as retainers to the princes and nobles. In 1864, five years after their defeat at the hands of the Tsarist armies, most of the freemen and peasants emigrated and settled in the Ottoman Empire. Thus today the majority of the world's one million or so Circassians now live scattered throughout the Middle East and in cities in Europe and the U. S. A.

During the Soviet period a body of written literature and poetry has emerged in two Circassian languages, Kabardian and the Chemgwi dialect of Adyghean. Nevertheless, all the tribes have maintained lively and vigorous oral traditions, both within and without the Soviet Union. The most archaic oral tradition seems to be that of the "Nart Sagas." These are a large corpus of oral tales involving the Narts, a race of heroes. While traditonally termed sagas, they are actually short myths or tales. The Nart Sagas are spread across the northern Caucasus among the Circassians and their kin as well as among other peoples. The Circassians, however, seem to have preserved one of the most elaborate corpora of this tradition. Over a forty year period the Soviet Circassian scholar Asker Hadaghat'la has collected more than two-thousand pages of these sagas as told by bards in the native dialects. These tales are of great interest, not only for their drama and stark tone, but also for the numerous remarkable parallels that they exhibit with other traditions within Eurasia.

The following saga is taken from Hadaghat'la's collection. Despite the exotic source of this tale the reader will undoubtedly find many familiar elements. This unique combination of the familiar and the alien makes this body of oral literature a compelling and remarkable experience for the Western reader.

How Pataraz Rescued Bearded Nasren Who was Chained to the High Mountain

Nart Nasren was a man worthy of praise. He had a keen mind and a kindly heart. Whenever the Nart people were in need he was always ready to help.

But there was another man who lived in these lands who was a misery to mankind. Paqua claimed to be the true god and was always struggling against God. He was always in a fury and would say, "I am god!"

Years had passed and Paqua paid little heed to the needs of the Narts. In hate and in bad temper he continually brought disaster upon them. In the Nart realm Paqua was considered very dangerous: he could bend oaks as though they were supple twigs. He destroyed the houses of the Narts. He made waves as high as the sky. He made the millet and barely rot in the fields. He split the ground and brought drought to the land of the Narts.

"What are you doing?" cried the Narts. "Why do you do us such harm? Why have you brought such misey into our beloved land?"

When Paqua heard the Narts complaining he grew furious and unleashed a bitter cold wind, which swept away their ashes and coals, destroying their ovens and leaving them without fire.

In desperation the Narts sought out Nasren and said " Nasren, our blessed leader, we have neither fire nor light and death awaits us. What should we do?"

"Do not worry!," said long-beared Nasren, "I shall take fire back from that Paqua."

Nasren saddled his horse, making sure the girths were tight, and journeyed far until he reached the mountain, Exalted Peak.

Nasren was fearless and without hesitation sought a way to ascend the mighty summit. Suddenly a voice, resounding from the summit like thunder, seemed to split the sky in two.

The voice was Paqua. "You, little man!" he cried. "What have you come here to do? If you do not go back, you shall perish at my hands."

Nasren held his ground and replied, "You stand in God's place and they say you are benevolent, but how can that be when you have taken away our fire and left us to suffer bitter cold? We will surely perish."

"If you intend to go back to your people, then go now and stop giving me a headache! Otherwise," said Paqua, "I shall not spare that empty, dull-witted head of yours. You Narts don't know what a god is like! You have forgotten me. When you brought in an abundant harvest and were sitting around your tables I was not among you. You did not offer any of that bountiful harvest to God. When you returned from your battles laden with booty you all thought yourselves to be mighty heroes, but no one shared his gain with me. And now you are looking for a means of ascending this mountain. You oppose god, but today you have come against one whom you will not vanquish. I shall bind you to the highest peak, and hold you prisoner until you die."

Paqua bound Nasren's body in chains, and then staked him to the summit of the Exalted Peak.

Paqua had an enormous eagle, which was greedy for human flesh. This ravening beast's wingspan was so great that it could not fly down into the valleys, and its outstretched wings blocked the sun so that the earth became enshrouded in darkness. In his rage the wicked Paqua set loose this eagle, which flew onto the chest of the mighty Nart. Its powerful beak tore open his chest with razor sharpness. The eagle pecked at his lungs and drank his heart's blood.

There are many seas and rivers flowing over this world, but there was not a drop of water for Nasren. There are many loudly resounding freshets cascading down these mountain valleys, but Nasren was wrapped in chains and could only thrash from side to side. Unable to get even a glassful of water he was dying of thirst. He was covered in the ice of the high mountains and his arms and legs were squeezed in the vice-like grip of the chains. Nasren would roar and moan, his cries being carried by the winds down from the Summit of the Exalted Peak to the Narts where his suffering distressed them greatly.

The Narts held council to discuss how they could bring Nasren safely home again. They thought back to past times, trying to remember who had performed heroic and valorous feats. Their bravest men, Yimis, Arish, and Sawseruquo, were summoned before the council, but they were now old and were afraid of the mighty and dangerous Paqua. "What could we possibly do?" they asked. "It is not possible to overcome him."

So the Narts set a new plan "To whomever brings Nasren back we shall give in marriage his daughter and much treasure."

A long time passed and no one volunteered to go on that dangerous path. No one stepped forth and said "I shall go."

Finally the Narts decided to set off together. When they reached the Exalted Peak they saw the suffering Nasren nailed to the summit that was sparkling with ice. But the mountain was fortified, affording no access to Nasren.

When Paqua saw the Narts, he unleashed his guardian eagles . They swooped down from the peak, their wings making a great noise, and darted overhead like dancing flames. The wings of the wicked birds covered the sky as they flew, blocking the light of day and bringing on a gloom as dark as midnight.

In this great battle many Narts died and many others lost their horses. The survivors retreated with their heads hanging in despair. "What should we do?" said the Narts. "Our leader is dying in chains. How will we find shelter? We cannot bring back our fire, nor can we bring back Nasren. What will we do? What plan should we devise? How can we go on living?"

But brave Pataraz stepped forward and said, "I shall go. I shall bring back your fire and your joy once more. I shall find our leader Nasren as well and if I find him alive, I shall bring him back. I swear this in the name of the blue sky that stands over us."

Pataraz placed the golden saddle on his horse, Little Black, and in full armor set off for battle, as he had done many times before.

Pataraz stopped in the foothills of the Exalted Peak. He was not afraid and taunted Paqua, "Hey, you who bear god's name, who disgraces the name of god! Why do you always hide in the valley, trembling? It isn't a pretty sight to see you cowering so. Come out if you want to fight! You have taken away the fire and joy from the Narts. You have taken Nasren and imprisoned him in steel chains. I, Pataraz, have come from the Narts. If you are not afraid, do exactly as I say! Call your blood-thirsty eagle from the mountain and send it down here to me!"

The sky grew very dark. The eagle had arisen from the mountain and was bearing down upon Pataraz. Its mighty wings brought not only darkness, but also stirred up a great blizzard. Pataraz could feel his horse's legs begin to buckle in fear. "What's happening, Little Black? Are you afraid?" asked Pataraz. "You were always my true friend and companion. Don't abandon me now! Don't be a coward!"

Pataraz laid three lashes on Little Black's flank. With a snort the horse lept into the sky and began to fight the monster eagle. The battle raged on to the mountain's icy top.

The battle was long and hard, but with great courage Pataraz shot an arrow through the eagle's wing. Suddenly, the sun shone upon the fields and the mountains, as though a window had been opened, and the whole world became light once again. With a second arrow Pataraz severed a wing and the mighty bird fell to the ground.

Pataraz ran his lance through the eagle's breast and carried the beast to the foot of the mountain. He drew out his shining sword, and cut off its head.

Paqua had heard the faltering death cry of his eagle and summoned the Evil Black Brigand. The Evil Black Brigand went down from the mountain to do battle with the Nart horseman. They fought mightily, but Pataraz beheaded him and with a moan the Evil Black Brigand fell to the ground.

The Soul Snatcher confronted him, but Pataraz was not afraid for the Old Nart Woman still lived and her powers would help protect him. In the third battle Pataraz sent the head of the Soul Snatcher flying. His deafening roar shook the mountains as he fell to the ground.

In his last test of courage Pataraz was confronted by the one who smashed all before him, the Destroyer. But again Pataraz was unafraid, and drew forth his sword and cut off the demon's head.

Pataraz, astride Little Black, galloped up the mountain side. Paqua flung all aside, fleeing from the path of Pataraz, and vanished.

On that day, when Pataraz wrought many great deeds, a raven flew over his head, casting a shadow upon him.

Pataraz rode up to the bound Nasren and with the head of his lance he broke the chains. He set him free and they returned to the land of the Narts together.

On that day the good fortune and happiness of the Narts returned, and there was great joy over all Nart land. In preparation for a great celebration they slaughtered sheep and invited the shepherds to partake thereof. Everyone from far and near came and drank sana together. To praise Pataraz the skilled Nart horsemen sang while they performed a round dance astride their horses. They greeted Pataraz in happiness and honor, wishing him a long life. Everyone was filled with joy as they ate, drank and played together. Some amused themselves by letting a great wheel, called "Jaman", roll down the Eternal Mountain and then rolling it back up again.

Pataraz's mother looked proudly upon her son and said to the Narts, "I reared my son for your sakes."

Pataraz was the best man among all the Narts and was honored with the first drinking horn of the magical brew, sana. With pleasure Pataraz drank the horn of sana and said,

"Now we shall have fire all our lives."

Significance

This tale has numerous, striking parallels with the Prometheus myth of Ancient Greece. Prometheus was a Titan, a race antedating that of the Hellenic Olympian gods, who sided with the Olympians in an epic battle against his own kinsmen. He created mankind. He stole fire from Zeus and gave it to his creation after Zeus had taken it away from mankind for their failure to make adequate sacrifices to him. As punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to "Mount Caucasus" where by day an eagle would devour his liver and by night he would suffer frost and cold while his liver regenerated. Eventually Prometheus was freed by the hero Herakles (the Roman "Hercules").

The battle between Paqua and the Narts recalls the confrontation between the Titans and the rival Olympian pantheon. Paqua himself seems to be an old, discredited god at the head of a pantheon of demons. Paqua has taken fire from the Narts because they failed to honor him with sacrifices. Nasren is a mortal rather than a Titan or god, but his sufferings at the hands of Paqua offer a striking parallel with those of Prometheus at the hands of Zeus. Nasren, however, fails to bring back fire, this being accomplished by the herculean Pataraz. Nevertheless, Nasren is freed by Pataraz as Prometheus was freed by Herakles.

One can imagine Ancient Greek traders in their posts on the Black Sea coast adopting this tale from the native Circassians, but the parallels do not stop here. Paqua means 'docked or stub nosed' in Circassian. Herakles bore the epithet 'Nose-Docker', because, in a separate tale, he cut off the noses of two impudent heralds. In the Circassian 'paqua' means 'docked nose', perhaps originally an epithet but now the name of the villain. One can also show that the Circassian forms would originally have been pronounced like 'puqua' in Adyghean and 'pugwa' in Kabardian. In vocatives (forms of address) these would have reduced to 'puk' and 'pug', respectively. These are exactly the forms of the English terms 'Puck', from Shakespeare, and 'pug', both connoting one with a snub nose. The terms are totally unexplained in English. They can now be seen to be ancient borrowings from the various Circassian languages into an early Germanic language, probably Gothic when the latter was spoken by the Germanic overlords of an empire in what is now the Ukraine between 250 and 450 A.D. From Gothic these terms must have made their way into the West Germanic dialects that gave rise to English.

Another Germanic parallel between Pataraz and the return of fire can be seen in Wodan or Odin and the stealing of the Mead of Inspiration from the mountain stronghold of a giant. In some Circassian tales Pataraz brings back wine instead of fire. Wodan performs this theft in the form of an eagle and one should note here the raven which flies over Pataraz. This borrowing may involve contacts with the same Goths, but it may also go back to a period when the ancestors of the Germanic peoples, the Indo-Europeans themselves, may have dwelt in the steppes north of the ancestors of the Circassians.

That these parallels are extremely old is suggested by yet another parallel between this tale and the oldest literature of India, the Rig Veda, which may be nearly four thousand years old in its original oral forms. In the Rig VedaVrtra, 'The Strangler' (usually taken to be a demonic snake), has hoarded all the world's water in his mountaintop stronghold. The hero Indra initiates his battle with Vrtra by leaping up into the air while astride his horse, just as Pataraz does. Again in part of the battle the hero either turns into a bird, an eagle, or is aided by one. Here too the hero unleashes an element essential for man's survival and returns to great acclaim and rejoicing. Indra's mother says of him before the gathered people, "This is why I bore you." The mother of Pataraz says virtually the same thing under the same circumstances.

The Greek, Germanic and Indic parallels suggest a very ancient period of contact between the ancestors of the Circassians and the Indo-Europeans, a contact that may have gone back to 3,000 B.C. or earlier. This complex of tales is clearly centered about the Caucasus and perhaps may even be of Caucasian origin. Clearly, the notion of man or a champion of mankind liberating crucial elements, fire, water or wine, from the clutches of an evil or whimsical godhead is one that has played an important role in Eurasia since a remote epoch. The embodiment of evil, the forces that rank themselves over against mankind, are seen to inhabit high mountains zones, a zone which at an early era in technological development must have seemed the natural seat of destructive and hostile natural forces, perhaps the seat of evil itself. This tale, therefore, depicts an ancient view of the world as dichotomized into benevolent and hostile forces, much as in the later Zoroastrianism, with the benevolent ones living in man's midst and the hostile ones removed to dangerous, uninhabitable zones. It is the supreme role of the hero, whether Titan or mortal, to assert control and possession over the necessary benevolent powers.

What is remarkable is that this myth has survived as a living and elaborate tale among the Circassians down to the present day, more than two thousand years after it was codified by the peoples of Ancient Greece and India and one thousand years after it was written down by Norsemen, who had recently been converted to Christianity from their paganism. This is only one tale showing parallels with other mythic traditions of Eurasia. The Circassian Nart Sagas show many more. Further work on this invaluable oral treasure should shed light upon many aspects of Eurasian mythology and history.

Acknowledgements

Work on these sagas was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The author was aided in his translation by Rashid Dahabsu and Hisa Torkacho, Circassians born in the Caucasus and who now live in New Jersey.



Additional Reading

Philip Baldi, An Introduction to the Indo-European Languages, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbonbdale, Illinois, 1983.

John Colarusso, "Parallels between the Circassian Nart Sagas, the Rg Veda, and Germanic Mythology," in V. Setty Pendakur (ed.), South Asian Horizons, vol. 1, Culture and Philosophy, p. 1-28, Ottawa, Carleton University, Canadian Asian Studies Association, 1984.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths, Penguin Books, New York, 1980.

H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin, New York, 1964.

Georges DumÈzil, Romans de Scythie et d'alentour , Payot, Paris, 1978.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (2 volumes), Penguin, New York, 1955.

Wendy O'Flaherty (trans.) The Rig Veda, Penguin, New York, 1981.

Calvert Watkins, "The Indo-European Origins of English" (pp. xv-xvi), "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans" (pp. 1496-1502), "Guide to the Appendix" (pp. 1503-1504), "Indo-European Roots" (pp. 1505-1550), in The Houghton Mifflin American Heritage Dictionary (1st edition) or The Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin, New York and Markham, Ontario, 1980.


A professor in the Anthropology Department of McMaster University, John Colarusso has published articles and books on linguistic theory, Caucasian languages, and comparative mythology. He is currently preparing two volumes of Nart Saga translations and commentaries, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He was aided in this project by his Circassian colleagues, Rashid Dahabsu, Hisa Torkacho, Kadir Natho and Majida Hilmi.

 

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