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Early Kazakh Folklore. The Aitys and Tales and Legends

Early Kazakh Folklore. The Aitys and Tales and Legends - e-history.kz

The early history of Central Asia was replete with migrations and intermixtures of the many nomadic groups inhabiting that area, and the earliest folklore traditions of these peoples were carried from one group to another until it has become difficult to determine to which group particular traits originally belonged. In considering the oral art of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the creations of the nomadic Turks, such as the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Turkmen, and those of the Turks who-like the Uzbeks eventually adopted a sedentary agricultural mode of life. Not only did the artistic products of the two groups diverge in subject matter, but they developed many different genres and types. Until the nineteenth century, nomadic art was composed almost entirely of oral productions, distinguished by a well-developed epic tradition. Among the sedentary Turks, however, epic folk traditions gradually lost much of their vitality, but these peoples developed a considerable treasure of written literary works at a far earlier period than did the nomads.

The Turks who conquered the southern oasis regions found themselves in the midst of a civilization which placed great emphasis on the arts, particularly on architecture and literature. These Turkic groups rapidly adopted the Irano-Arabic tradition of the arts. It was not until the nineteenth century, however, that their northern neighbors began to develop a comparable literary tradition as a result partly of the influence of the Turko-Irano-Arabic literatures of the south, but mainly as a result of the Russian conquest with the consequent influence of Russian literature and Western literary currents.

Nomadic Central Asia has presented the world with an almost inexhaustible reservoir of folklore productions representing a wide variety of genres from the simple song to ceremonial songs, tales, legends, fantastic stories, and finally the heroic epos. This folklore heritage of the nomadic peoples is clearly a product of their whole way of life and culture. The ceremonial songs reflect the existence of definite, prescribed tribal and clan rites. The tales and legends suggest a strong tradition of tribal lore and mythology. The heroic epos, which was most highly developed by the nomads, indicates a tradition of struggle and warfare for conquest or for defense against transgressors which was carried out by groups large enough to have created a national spirit and a sense of tribal history. The economy of the nomads was geared to warfare over grazing lands with neighboring tribal federations and excursionary wars against the settled populations of the south. Such a life provided fertile ground for development of a widespread and tenacious epic tradition, which, similar to epic traditions the world over, has immortalized warlike heroes who, by their great bravery and strength or by their supernatural powers, have led their people to victory or safety. These traditions of the nomads have remained a vital force and a living part of their society even to this day.

The original composers of the folk creations remained to a large extent unknown. Songs, legends, tales, or epics commemorating particular events were composed by aqyn (in a few cases their identities have been preserved) or originated in improvisation by groups at gatherings or at communal work. They were then handed down from generation to generation by oral transmission. The most widespread method of distribution was that of the wandering bard, who traveled from tribal aul to aul and either simply recited tales in prose or verse or sang his songs or epics, frequently to the accompaniment of primitive string instruments. These productions underwent, in the course of time, considerable alteration. The bards, relying entirely on memory, frequently introduced variations in the texts or their own individual interpretation of the subject matter. Similarly, the tunes to which the bards sang the songs were frequently the result of improvisation.

Systematic efforts at scientific recordings of Central Asiatic oral art were not made until the nineteenth and particularly the twentieth century when Russian ethnographic and linguistic expeditions equipped with modern recording devices went to Central Asia in search of these texts. The recordings of Central Asiatic folklore made in the nineteenth century or earlier, however, are also of great significance. Three works of outstanding importance have survived. The first of these, which provides information about the very early nomadic folk-art, is Mahmud al-Kashgari's Diwan lughāt at-Turk, a dictionary of a Central Asiatic Turkic language closely related to ancient Uighur, compiled in Baghdad in c. 1077 in Arabic by an emigré Turk from Central Asia. This work contains, in the manner of lexical explanations, a great wealth of Central Asiatic folklore, particularly poetry and proverbs. The Diwan is of particular importance because it gives us not only an insight into the earliest folklore heritage of the Central Asiatic Turks and of their shamanistic customs and rites, but also because it is the first work to give us information about the vernacular of the early Turkic tribes. The second work is the recordings of folklore of the Turkic tribes and the translations of their texts into Russian and German by the Russian linguist and ethnographer Vasily Vasilievich (Wilhelm) Radloff. The third important collection of texts, though a much more limited one than Radloff's, is that of the nineteenth-century Kazakh ethnographer Shokan Valikhanov, who described a number of epics for the Imperial Geographic Society in St. Petersburg.

These source materials reveal, in addition to the developing national character of the various folklore traditions, the frequently supranational character of many of the elements of form and of content in Central Asiatic folklore. G. N. Potanin, in his well-known work, has traced a great number of Oriental, Central Asiatic, and Mongol elements in the European epic of the Middle Ages, and traces of such similarities, or borrowings of subject-matter, have been noted and indexed in particular by members of the Finnish School of folklorists. The outstanding example of a folklore complex which has spread throughout Central Asia is that of the heroic epic, which seems to have been handed from people to people across national boundaries. Thus not only are there many specific epics shared by several nationalities, but there are also common epic characters which appear in the epics of many of the nations of Central Asia. A common and dynamic epic tradition with specific characteristics and traits seems to have pervaded all the Central Asiatic nomadic Turkic cultures.

The Kazakh folklore tradition grew out of the vast and rich folklore heritage of Central Asia. Much of Kazakh folklore can actually be traced to the very early period considerably before the formation of the Kazakh federation as there are frequent references in the texts to events which occurred among the individual, and still independent, tribes. As the Kazakh nation grew, there developed a most expressive and often powerful oral art which played an important part in all Kazakh cultural activity and which lays before us much of the story of the Kazakh way of life.

The Main Types of Kazakh Folklore

The Kazakhs have been traditionally an enormously musical people. Songs of all kinds and epics which were improvised and sung by wandering bards (aqyn) to the accompaniment of various primitive stringed instruments, such as the dombra, kobyz, or the sybyzgy, make up their remarkable folklore heritage. All phases of Kazakh life—birth, marriage, battle, mourning, and death—were recorded in song. The wandering bards (aqyn) or epic singers not only composed their own songs, but also collected them from various tribes and clans, or from other aqyns and spread them by recitation from memory, thus causing the songs and epics to receive extremely wide circulation.

The Aitys: Songs at Celebrations

An integral part of every large Kazakh celebration, side by side with such attractions as wrestling matches, horse races, and games, was the aitys. The aitys was, in the truest sense, a singing competition between two individuals, professional bards or amateurs, or two groups. In such duels the words were generally improvised and the most successful improviser was declared the winner. The content of the songs was usually drawn from everyday life. Each party might recite as many simple tales as could be recalled or the competition might be carried on in the form of a witty debate, or a mock love duel in words and song. Sometimes the competing parties vied with each in singing the praise of a distinguished guest or tribal potentate. The following song is a selection from one of the competition songs recorded by Radloff and illustrates the relatively sophisticated character of these songs. Radloff tells us that the aitys at which this song was sung took place at a feast, and that the participants were a young man who had recently been captured as a horse thief and a young girl from the tribe that captured him. The horse thief was brought to the feast in chains:


Although this "duet" contains characteristic folklore epithets and turns of speech such as the repetitions of key phrases, such devices usually served only as a skeleton around which the song was improvised. It should be noted, however, that while the words in these singing competitions were frequently improvised, the tunes to which the songs were sung were generally limited to one of a number of stock melodies to which the words were adapted.

There were occasions when the aitys was apparently not based on free improvisation but was carried out in the framework of a strictly prescribed ritual. Some reports even claim that all aitys were based on such strictly prescribed form. Kazakh writer Mukhtar Auezov, who contends that the form of the aitys was strictly prescribed, declares that the following rules were invariably followed: the winner was required to sing twenty-four couplets of four lines each; the first six couplets must contain praise of the "king" and "queen" "elected" by the participants of the festival at which the aitys was performed; the next three couplets must include a compliment to the neighbors of the singer; in the following six couplets it was required that consideration be given to the cattle and possessions of the singer or the host; next there were prescribed three purely fantastical or nonsense couplets followed by five couplets about the love of the singer; finally, there was a concluding couplet the subject of which could be chosen by the singer, but the last couplet was to be so constructed that the lines could be read backwards and the sense still maintained. In none of the texts studied were all these rules followed, although in most of the texts some of the rules were followed but in a most flexible manner. It seems clear that the rules remained primarily formal, while the content in general was more often left to the imagination of the performer. While complete adherence to these rules was undoubtedly rare, it is evident that the aitys was a very complicated form of singing. Its widespread distribution testifies to the musical and poetic ability of the Kazakh people. The aitys was of particular importance because it was in such competitions that the career of almost all the professional aqyns began. Only after conquering his opponents in several aitys and holding his ground in singing competitions with older and recognized aqyns, could the young singer claim to be a professional bard.

Tales and Legends

Tales and legends of the most varied kinds are abundant in Kazakh folklore. The most widespread genres are the following: legends and historical tales, many of which are almost epic in character and deal with the aspirations of the people for better grazing land or with the struggle against intruding neighbors, comical tales, traditional love tales, fairy tales, animal stories, children's stories, and demonological tales. In addition, there is, a large group of tales which reflects the influence of story cycles and literary works of other cultures. Thus there are Kazakh tales based on the Arabian Nights, the Indian "parrot tale" cycle (the Sukasaptati), the eleventh-century epos Shahnameh by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, the Turkmen heroic epos Koroghlu, and the romances of the Chagatai poet Ali-Shir Nava’i.

Kazakh tales and legends were spread, as were the songs and epics, by wandering storytellers. A good storyteller, Levshin tells us, was able to enliven his stories by a large number of dramatic elements. He could imitate sounds of nature and sounds of animals, add to the description by gestures and movements of his body and identify himself completely with the hero. Levshin writes that "In all the tales of these people there is evidenced a flaming imagination and a tendency to poetic enthusiasm." Generally legends and tales were recited and were accompanied by the music of the dombra or the kobyz; and both instruments were frequently used to reproduce the sounds of nature and cries of animals as they occurred in the tale. Before a performance the storyteller usually gave a short synopsis of the legend which ended with the traditional phrase—“And now listen how the dombra tells about it."

Kazakh legends and historical tales are typically preoccupied with the ever-present problems of the struggle for existence in nomadic society. Common themes were the threats of storms and drought and the never-ending search for better pasture lands and for a better future in general. A typical tale is that of Asan Qajghy, a legendary figure who was said to have lived in the sixteenth century, during the reign of Kazakh khan Janibek. Asan, saddened by the fate of his people who could not solve the problems of poor grazing land, decided to look for the promised land where "the days would be sorrowless and the land rich, where there would be no hatred and where the skylarks would peacefully build their nests on the backs of the sheep. He traveled on a swift camel all over the steppes, but was unable to find the promised land. He then promised his people to lead them into unknown lands where he hoped to find better conditions. But he died and so could not fulfill his promise. The motif of this tale, the age-long yearning of the people for better living conditions and their fear that their dreams were hopeless and could not be fulfilled, is repeated in many other tales. Not in all Kazakh tales is the search for the promised land unsuccessful. In the tale Zhupar-qoryghy the heroine succeeds in leading her children to a new land, a rich valley whither her whole tribe eventually follows.

The Kazakh tale about Korkyt, "the legendary father of Kazakh music," expresses the respect of the Kazakhs for their musical heritage. Korkyt, unable to accept the idea of death, flees from people to eternal nature. But nature in the shape of trees, mountains, steppes, and forests tells him that even she does not have the power of immortality. Korkyt then fashions from the wood of the tree Shirghai the first kobyz and plays on it the first Kazakh song-thus at last finding immortality in art. A large part of the repertoire of Kazakh tales might be termed comical stories. They can be found in great variety, but most frequently they celebrate the famous Central Asiatic rogue and mocker Aldar Qose, who is probably an adaptation of the Osman Turkish Nasreddin Hodja. This gay character, who reminds us of Till Eulenspiegel of Western literature and folklore, occurs in various guises in the folklore of most of the Central Asiatic Turkic tribes. Through his sly wit Aldar Qose is able to outsmart everyone including devils who come to take possession of him and the greedy miser who refuses to extend the traditional Kazakh hospitality to travelers but who ends by giving Aldar almost all his possessions, even a beautiful daughter. The sharp ridicule of avarice, superstition, and stupidity in the comical stories exemplifies Kazakh humor at its best. 

The most popular tales are probably traditional love tales with their ever-present theme of the obstacles the lovers must overcome in order to become united. While some of these tales are purely lyrical romances, others—similar to the Aldar Qose cycle are highly didactic in their elevation of the qualities of wit and intellect. An example of the latter type is the legend cycle about the imaginary hero, Zhirenshe-sheshen, a man of extraordinary intelligence and wit, and his beautiful and equally witty wife, Qarashash.

A typical recorded version of this cycles begins with the standard phrase: “There lived a wise man named Zhirenshe-sheshen,”and continues by enumerating his excellent qualities: "The mind of this man was deep and without limits, just like the sea, and the speech that flowed from his mouth was like the song of the lark." But he was extremely poor. Once while on a trip with some friends, they were stopped by a swollen river. At the river bank they met a group of women and inquired of them where they could find the nearest ford. A young girl, whom her friends called "beautiful Qarashash," stepped forward. "She was dressed in old and ragged clothes, but she shone with unheard of beauty. Her eyes were like stars, her mouth like the moon, and her figure was lithe as a rod." Zhirenshe and Qarashash both spoke in riddles, in language which only the wise could understand.

"There are two fords,” Qarashash told the travelers. One is "near but yet far and the other one, to the right, is far and yet near." Only Zhirenshe understood and took the farther but shallow ford, while his companions almost drowned in the near but deep ford.

Zhirenshe married Qarashash, who was a poor as he. The khan, however, having heard of the great intelligence of Qarashash, attempted to obtain her from Zhirenshe. He gave Zhirenshe a series of dangerous and difficult tasks, threatening him with death if he failed to carry them out. Thus Zhirenshe was ordered under penalty of death to appear before the khan at a time which was neither day nor night, to come neither on foot nor on horseback, and neither to remain in the street nor to enter the courtyard of the palace. With the help of his clever wife, Zhirenshe found a way out. He appeared at the khan's palace at dusk riding a billy-goat and stopped under the very cross-beam of the entrance gate. Because of their superior wits, Zhirenshe and Qarashash were finally able to outsmart the khan, who gave up his pursuit of Qarashash.

Qarashash died while Zhirenshe was hunting. His friends rode to meet him to inform him of his loss, but unable to tell him the news straight away, they approached the subject in a roundabout fashion:

"You have always been famous for your wisdom, Zhirenshe,” they told him. "Tell us! What does a man lose when his father dies?"

"When the father dies," Zhirenshe answered, "it is as if the walls of the fortress, which had protected the man from misfortune, had collapsed."

"And what," his friends continued, "does man lose when his mother dies?"

"When a mother dies the spring of love, which has nourished man, has dried out."

"And with what do you compare the death of a brother?"

"When a brother dies," Zhirenshe answered, "it is as if the right wing were broken."

"Tell us now, finally, oh wise Zhirenshe, with what would you compare the death of a beloved wife?"

Zhirenshe answered, "When a beloved wife dies, it is as if the handle of the whip were broken."

Then the friends cautioned him: "Look well, Zhirenshe, whether the handle of your whip is whole." And Zhirenshe, guessing the sad news, fell dead over his whip, which broke under him. This tale illustrates two well-known folklore themes: the struggle of two lovers against difficult odds, and the successful hero whose superior intelligence helps him overcome all obstacles. The picture of an individual whose wits are so sharp that he can outtalk all adversaries is most common in Kazakh folklore, and the name Zhirenshe has become a common Kazakh epithet applied to people with a gift of oratory. Many of the other leading dramatis personae of Kazakh legends have also become appellatives by which the Kazakhs characterize people, such as the wit Aldar Qose, the legendary miser Qarynbai who took away the cattle from the people, and the visionary Asan Qaigy who attempted to lead his people to a better land."

Fairy tales also compose an important part of the Kazakh folklore heritage. These tales also exhibit many traits present in mythology and folklore the world over. There is the ever-recurring theme of magical healing qualities of certain objects of nature and of the bodies of certain animals. Thus in Kazakh tales the powdered bones of a black dog are attributed the power to resurrect the dead; and special trees, if touched, can restore sight and limbs. We also meet such legendary figures as the hero who can hear over great distances or who can even hear the thoughts of other people, the hero who understands the language of animals," the talking animals, and the magic horse which can not only talk but can fly and traverse "a month's distance in six paces." And finally there are the magic implements like the comb which can be transformed into a forest to trap pursuing enemies, the mirror which can be transformed into a lake to drown the enemy, the magic wand with which one can bewitch human beings, and the magical objects which have the power to bring riches to their owners. (Cf. the Russian skatert'-samobranka and the German Tischlein-deck-dich.)

Of particular importance in Kazakh culture are animal stories, including stories about the domesticated animals which form the basis of the livelihood of the Kazakhs (sheep, goats, camels, cows, horses), and tales about wild animals, particularly the bear, wolf, and fox, the beasts of prey which are the greatest enemies of the cattlebreeders. Domesticated animals are frequently ascribed human attributes and are typically represented as man's helpmates and friends. They are sometimes depicted as more intelligent and witty than both man and beast of prey. The wolf and the fox are important figures in Kazakh folklore, as they are in the folklore of the Occident. As in Western tales, the fox is traditionally depicted as the epitome of slyness and craftiness, though he is not always crafty enough to avoid being outsmarted by his intended victims, while the wolf is usually depicted as the most despicable of beasts of prey, as the destroyer of herds, the gravedigger, the carrion eater, in short, as the greatest enemy of herd and man. Frequently, in the shape of the werewolf, the wolf is pictured as a symbol of everything evil: he kills newborn babies, eats man's remains, and ravishes his wives and daughters. Another figure which is also found in Western tales is the many-headed dragon (zhalmaus) whom the hero kills in battle. 

Of particular interest because of their didactic tendencies are children's tales. Most tales for children are fantasies. The heroes are usually small animals (birds, insects, etc.) which, despite their relative weakness, become victors over both human beings and beasts of prey. The aim of these tales is evidently to evoke the child's confidence in his own strength. A typical children's tale tells of Quwyrshyq, a small creature similar to Däumling in the Grimms' collection, who was adopted by a childless old man and who, in turn, became the benefactor of the family. One day when he was sitting down in the shade of a leaf to rest from work, the leaf under which he was sitting was swallowed by a camel and Quwyrshyq was accidentally swallowed with it. The camel, after eating the leaf and Quwyrshyq, was in turn eaten by a wolf. Quwyrshyq now found himself in the wolf's stomach, but instead of giving up he made the wolf's life miserable by warning the shepherds by his shouts of the approach of the wolf. After many adventures Quwyrshyq was freed from the wolf's stomach and returned home with great riches.

Tales about demons and spirits reveal the shamanistic as well as Mohammedan influence in Kazakh beliefs. Thus spirits, which have their origin in the early shamanistic beliefs of the nomads, frequently react not only to shamanistic incantations, but also to Mohammedan prayer formulae. The spirits in Kazakh folk tales are generally hostile to man and most demonological tales are concerned with man's struggle against them. All spirits appear to man in disguise, as animals or people, and often in the shape of young, beautiful girls who lure men to their doom.

Some spirits are relatively harmless, such as the little devils (shaytan) who frequently appear in the shape of young women who torture their male victims, but are no direct danger to human lives. They are frequently vulnerable to Mohammedan prayers.  More dangerous spirits, however, attack people and sometimes kill them, an act which is frequently symbolized by the stealing of lungs. It appears that lungs, animal or human, are an important life symbol in Kazakh tradition. Spirits may appear in the shape of lungs. Death can be cheated by recovering the lungs from the spirit. In shamanistic healing rites, the baqsa may sacrifice animal lungs to the disease-causing spirits. Such a lung-robber is the albasty, who appears in animal shape (usually as a fox or a male goat) and kills women in childbirth by stealing their lungs. The zhalmaus-kempir, who eats human flesh, also sometimes appears in the shape of lungs before revealing herself.

The zhez-tyrnaq (lit. "copper claws") is another spirit who threatens human life. This spirit, which frequently appears in the guise of a young girl, kills by means of her long metal claws. The zhez-tyrnaq, however, can be cheated by covering a wood stump or stone with human clothes. When the spirit has dug her claws deep into this trap she cannot withdraw them and can easily be killed. The kuldirgish, another spirit which appears as a young woman, is probably the most libidinally symbolic of the spirits, for she kills young men by tickling them to death. Some evil spirits, while not appearing in female disguise, tempt the hero by offering him beautiful women. If he cannot withstand the temptation, he is blinded. A particularly dangerous spirit is the ubbe, a water demon who lives at the bottoms of lakes and rivers, in a large sub-marine city. When people hear their names called from the water, they know that they must not go swimming, for the ubbe will pull them down and make them his slaves.