Search

Updated: Apr 3


A fountain in Vladikavkaz, Russia with the Nart Sosruquo, dancing on the edge of a magic bowl. (Image courtesy Lhiten Hatko.)


A range of mountains cuts diagonally across the body of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. It is a land rich in folklore and may preserve details of myths that we have lost from the canon of Western knowledge. The Nart tales, stories of superhuman men and women who strove against monsters and gods, are popular and beloved among the people of the Caucasus and those in diaspora around the globe, but these stories have only been available in English to the wider reading public for twenty years or so. Their availability to English readers is largely the responsibility of one scholar, Canadian linguist and anthropologist, John Colarusso.


The Greek myths tell of a people in the wondrous east, a land of female warriors and sorcerers. Circe and the Amazons and the land of the Golden fleece were all inspired by the people of the Caucuses. Those Caucasian peoples in turn told stories that seemed to look to the west: of a demi-god punished for stealing the holy fire by being bound to a mountain; of a hero who fought a cyclopean giant in his cave and freed its prisoners by lashing them under the monster's sheep. But the stories you aren't likely to recognize are perhaps the greater value. The stories that point to lost pantheons, lost elements of the western cycles of mythology and stories that teach us that women are not only equal to men; sometimes they are greater.


The “Narts” of Colarusso’s Nart Sagas; Ancient Myths and Legends of the Circassians and Abkhazians are heroes. They are said in some tales to predate and to be larger than modern humans. The word Nart translates to “manly man,” or heroic man, and is related to the Indo European root that gives us the Greek root andro- for man (though it is used almost as an honorific before the names of males and females in the stories). Reading the tales I was struck by certain elements that mark them as folk tales and other elements that struck me as interconnected mythology. For instance, there is a tale early in the collection reminiscent of Grimms’ “The Golden Bird,” wherein three brothers stand watch over successive nights by an apple tree, but only the youngest witnesses a bird stealing the apples. The Nart tale’s mythological component is that the apples play a role in the fertility of Nart women. It is reminiscent of Idunn’s youth-restoring apples. Furthermore, the youngest of the sons in the Nart tale is Warzameg, a recurring character who becomes the leader of the Narts. The tales are a motley and exciting bunch in this regard and also in that they vary between prose and verse. They seem to me an opportunity to read stories that have been documented at a point where they may be on the verge of becoming something else. It is important to note for those with some knowledge of Nart stories that Colarusso has also edited a collection of Ossetian Nart tales that have been available in English longer and seem to be in a more developed literary state, closer to an epic cycle, with characters and likely tales that overlap with those of the Circassian and Abkhazian collection. I have not yet read the Ossetian tales and my descriptions and comments deal solely with Colarusso’s translations of the Circassian and Abkhazian tales.


Sosruquo returns to his men with fire by Murat Dyshek, National Museum of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, Nalchik.


When I started researching this article, and rereading Colarusso’s Circassian and Abkhazian Nart tales, I discovered that everything I found in English regarding Narts was related to Colarusso’s work. I first read the collection four years ago and would post online about stories I found exciting or unusual, and the Narts seemed to be as new and unknown to my friends. Given that since that time I’ve never seen folklore and mythology-savvy people mention the Narts, and all Nart materials only related to one scholar, I began to wonder, briefly, if I had stumbled upon a work of fiction meant to look like folktales and had been tricked! This is not the case. If one speaks Russian or at least reads some Cyrillic, they will find no difficulty in locating information about Narts online. But Colarusso’s almost unique status in the field in English is worth noting. “I seem to have kicked the door open,” said Colarusso.


Colarusso is a man who was destined for scholarship in some field. He started in physics, but the vicissitudes of scholarship grants and programs saw him shift to philosophy, where he had to learn Greek, and, eventually, he found himself studying linguistics. The Harvard linguistics program at the time required him to learn a language and become an expert in that language’s family. He chose Circassian, because he was drawn to the complexity of the grammar and phonology. Colarusso conjectures that it is likely the difficulty of Circassian languages that has kept English speakers from bringing the Nart tales to a wider English-speaking audience. A Circassian speaker is able to hear and distinguish roughly twice the number of consonant sounds than the twenty-four an English speaker regularly uses. The story may not be fair to the language, but Colarusso said that his brother-in-law, a medical doctor, once rushed into his room at the sound of the language. “The very first time I recorded some words...I was playing the recording and my brother-in-law came running into the room thinking I was throwing up. And I said ‘No, no, these are the sounds I recorded today and I am not sick.’”


Nart horsemen by artist Umar Mizhalani. (Image courtesy Lhiten Hatko.)


Colarusso says that his ability to hear and learn Circassian and other languages (he listed five or more other languages, living and dead, that he has learned or worked in, in addition to the northern Causasian tongues he is expert in) likely owes itself to his childhood in understanding his father's mother, who only spoke an Italian dialect. “It’s a queer savant ability, nothing to do with intellect, really.” Colarusso also credits his mother and grandmother with his interest in mythology. While he isn’t a trained folklorist, Colarusso’s knowledge and interest in Indo European mythologies is sprinkled through Nart Sagas, where, in his notes, he does not seem to miss an opportunity to make connections between any detail in a story that seems to reflect a connection to another tale. In this way, mythology enthusiasts will get many references to Greek, Celtic, Germanic and Indic tales.


Colarusso’s Nart Sagas text grew out of his desire to cement his Circassian language skills. He earned a grant to translate regional cycles of Nart tales and did so with the help of ex-pat Circassians living in New Jersey (and later Austria). Colarusso said that they would provide him with suggestions of tales to work on and would supply him with “pidgin English” crib sheets that were indecipherable as English, but helped him to further understand Circassian. English-speaking Circassians know Colarusso’s work. When I was searching for art to run with this piece, the admin of a Circassian cultural group online immediately recommended I speak to Colarusso. Colarusso’s linguistic and cultural knowledge in the Caucasus have also been tapped by two U.S. administrations. When the Nart project was over, though, the tales went into a file drawer and sat for a decade until his wife discovered the files and told him to publish them.


Respect Your Wife!

The Nart sorceress Qaydukh, lighting her husband's way across the linen bridge. (Image courtesy Lhiten Hatko.)


The consequences of disrespecting or undervaluing one’s wife was one of the more surprising themes in Colarusso’s collection. In two of the tales, a husband who disrespects his wife’s contribution to the household dies when she unexpectedly revokes that help. My favorite version of the tale had a passage that so articulated the invisible labor of women that I posted it on International Women’s Day a few weeks ago: “[Psabida] set off in the night. He wore a coat made by Qaydukh and shoes made by Qaydukh. She was the woman who did all that for him. She is the woman. If not for her, he could not have done those things for himself.” Psabida’s horse so loves his wife (who cares for it when Psabida returns from a raid) that it rebels against its master because he had a fight with his wife. In this and another version of a similar tale, the husband dies, but defying my expectations for this sort of a story, the wife is rewarded rather than punished. In each version she gets a better husband, who respects her. There is a sentimental spin on the theme in another tale in which the head of the Narts feels he must divorce his wife because people say he derives his greatness from her. The conclusion brought tears to my eyes.


The Smith and the Invulnerable Hero

Nart Lady Setenaya and the divine smith Tlepsh at the birth of the hero Sosruquo in a painting by Marina Bekaldy. (Image courtesy Lhiten Hatko.)


The most memorable hero of the collection, for his conception and birth, is the Nart Sosruquo, the invulnerable man. The story is retold with slightly different details in regional versions in Colarusso’s collection, but Sosruquo is generally birthed from a stone by the Nart blacksmith Tlepsh, a figure who also stands apart in the tales as a divine though he lives among men. At birth Sosruquo’s flesh is searing hot to the touch and Tlepsh alternately hammers and douses the child, hardening his flesh to the toughness of metal. In one version he dips the newborn in molten iron and feeds it to him by the bowlful. The following detail also makes Sosruquo interesting as a matter of comparative mythology: Sosruquo’s legs are vulnerable because that is where Tlepsh holds him with his tongs. This, of course, recalls the flawed heel of the Greek Achilles, a hero also burned in divine fires to remove his mortality.


The association of more than one nigh-invulnerable European hero with heat, fire or a smith, makes Colarusso believe that the Sosruquo story preserves an element that may once have applied to all of them. The Irish hero Cuchulainn, for example, derives his popular name from the smith Culann; he is “the hound of Culann.” Furthermore, Cuchulainn’s body heats up in battle to the extent that he must be repeatedly dunked in water afterwards, causing much the same result as dousing hot metal: the water rapidly boils. Cuchulainn and Achilles are both also described as dark of skin, perhaps a detail left over from a forging tale similar to Sosruquo’s. Sigurd the dragon slayer, from the Volsung Saga, derives his limited invulnerability by covering himself in the blood of a dragon, but he too is raised by a blacksmith. Like Achilles and Sosruquo, he is vulnerable in a spot that he missed.

It is more often though the unprecedented detail of the Circassian and Abkhazian Nart tales that delights, as with the tales of wives who gain the upper hand. I may also have buried the lede on Sosruquo’s conception, which is the only long-range projectile insemination I have ever read. And if that isn’t enough to entice you, yet another tale might well be retitled, “How the Narts Stopped Throwing their Elders from the Cliff.” The Nart tales are fresh and fun and may well prove themselves indispensable to the study of Indo European mythologies.


The images in this article were provided by Lhiten Hatko, administrator of the Circassians UK group on Facebook. Hatko and members of the group were indispensable in researching the artwork.





542 views0 comments

Updated: Mar 27


An arrival of daffodils in our yard in Southern New Hampshire, March 19. Photo by my wife, who helped uncover them a bit yesterday.


In just hours our daily allotments of light and darkness will balance precariously for a moment and then tumble in the direction of the sun. It is the spring equinox, and it will occur at 5:37 a.m. EDT. If you are awake, you will have sixty seconds to be aware of the actual moment. Or you can choose to enjoy it all day. It is the first day of spring, a day of equal day and night that heralds longer days to come.


I’ve made a more conscious effort to note the solar holidays since I began writing this blog. They are the traditional holidays of the year, celebrated and observed by our ancestors in preindustrial times, when the light of the day governed so much of what they could do. The time of the year also determined the sorts of activities they engaged in as they were more tied to the raising of animals and crops for food. I feel that I benefit by stopping to observe not only the changes of the seasons, but the midpoints that herald their coming. The sun is the great reality that all life shares.


Early Morning Deer

Deer venturing into the fields at dawn. By author on March 16 in Merrimac, Massachusetts.


This particular solar holiday has special interest to me because it is my birthday. I felt excited when I first saw “First Day of Spring” on a calendar page on my birth date. It seemed special, to confer a mythological dimension to my life. I still feel that way. The day is traditionally cold in New England. I spent many birthdays arguing that I should be able to play outside in shirtsleeves. I would slowly grow disavowed of that determination until finally, I came in, chilled to the bone.


This month had an association with traditions that have attached themselves to Christian Easter: fertility symbols of eggs and rabbits. Easter takes its name from a goddess figure and the month named for her: Eostre; Ēosturmōnaþ (Eostre’s Month). Eostre was likely a dawn goddess. Her name rings similar to the Greek goddess of the rosy-fingered dawn: Eos; also of the East, where the sun rises. I have researched Eostre before, but there is never as much to know about Old English divinities and their Germanic cousins as I would like. So let me speculate. All seasons are reflections of relative sunlight, the coming or leaving of the light. It seems fitting to celebrate a goddess of the dawn in this season. Perhaps the particular timing of the equinox this year provides us the opportunity to celebrate the moment of balance and the dawn, an hour or so later.


Nowruz: Persian New Year

An Iranian Haftsin (هفت‌سین‎) table, traditional for the Persian celebration of New Year, Nowruz. Haftsin means "seven S’s" and in Farsi, each of the objects on a Haftsin start with the letter S and symbolize hopes and wishes for a happy new year. (From Share.America.gov).


In Iran and for Persian peoples around the world, tomorrow is New Year, Nowruz. I like the Persian New Year because (unlike the western New Year) it is positioned in a time of significant seasonal change. (Of course, it is also my birthday!) But the western New Year is in the dead of winter. It’s cold and dark on December 31st and it’s cold and dark on January 1st. There is no magical day on Earth when the local weather always agrees to change on a certain date and tomorrow’s weather may or may not make you feel that something special has happened. But the spring is a time of new life, which I see in the daffodils pushing up outside my house and the birds carrying bits of dry grass and twigs to the birdhouses I obstinately mounted on poles in December, screwing the bases with difficulty into the frozen ground. Life has decided it is a new year, however we should observe it.


So Happy Spring to the light-loving peoples of the northern hemisphere and to you if you celebrate tomorrow as a holiday. Happy Eostre Month to the people who undoubtedly celebrate it and Happy Nowruz!

60 views0 comments

Updated: Mar 8


The lady lamented, sorrowed with songs...the greatest fire of the slain, roared before the mound” (Beowulf, 1117-1120; Benjamin Slade translation) (Photo of Lewes Bonfire Night Celebrations, Wikimedia).


Amidst the trolls, sea monsters and dragon, it is a story of an ordinary woman that stands out as the poignant tragedy of Beowulf. Her name, Hildeburh, will not be recognized unless you’ve made a study of the parts of the story that are backgrounded to that of the great hero who fights monsters. That said, her story, of a woman who dedicates herself to the stability of her family only to watch the men in her life literally burn it to the ground in front of her, will resonate with many. As the poem relates with typical Anglo-Saxon understatement: “that was one sad woman.”


Hildeburh (I always pronounce this Hilda-burra, though I’ve heard her called Hilda-borg) is a figure in a tale performed at Hrothgar’s mead hall after Beowulf kills Grendel. She gives everything to the men in her life and they take everything away from her. Like Hrothgar’s queen, Wealtheow, Hildeburh is a peaceweaver, a princess bound in marriage to the son of an enemy tribe in the hopes of ending generational blood feud. Danish Hildeburh marries a Frisian king and the two are together peacefully long enough to have at least one son, who seems to be fostered with Hildeburh’s Danish brother. Violence breaks out when Hildeburh’s brother comes to visit with her son and a troop of Danish warriors. The details are hazy as to what starts the conflict, but men of the Frisian king attack the visiting Danes while they sleep. The Danes are able to hold off their attackers, but Hildeburh’s brother and son are killed, along with enough men on either side to force both into a stalemate. Furthermore, in what strikes me as an excellent concept for a reality television series, winter forces the two sides to live together for months.


Thijs Porcks comic of Hildeburhs story “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode” is the only image of the story that Ive found online that refers to the character Hildeburh. Porcks title cleverly uses the Old English words freoðuwebbe and Freswael for peaceweaver and the Frisian slaughter, which alliterates and indicates Hildeburhs central role in the story.


The set piece of this story is the funeral pyre after the battle. It is, for me, the great symbol of the futility of blood feud in Beowulf. Dane and Frisian bodies are piled high, including the queen’s brother and son. It is also the only poetic description of a funeral pyre I have ever read: “Heads melted, the wound-gates burst open, then blood sprang out from the hate-bites of the body, the blaze swallowed all up” (1120-1122). In a moment that foreshadows the unnamed keening Geatish woman who mourns Beowulf’s death, Hildeburh sings her sorrow, watching her loved ones burn. But the story doesn’t end there. The surviving warriors are forced to overwinter together, swearing fealty to the Frisian king, an arrangement that must have humiliated the Danes, who survived their leader, the queen’s brother. Peace lasts as long as the frozen harbor traps the Danish ships. When the Danes can finally escape Frisia, they seek revenge, killing Hildeburh’s husband and pillaging his hall, taking everything of value, including Hildeburh, back to their lands. The text does read as if Hildeburh, the character who loses her husband, brother and son in the conflict, is an object to be carried off.


More of the story is told in a separate text, only a fragment of which has survived. It is told from the perspective of the Danes, just as they discover that an enemy has come to slaughter them in their sleep. This version can be described as heroic, as opposed to the tragic version told in Beowulf. It is full of rousing speeches and vows. Beowulf scholars refer to the two versions of the story as the episode (in Beowulf) and the fragment, but in a nod to the male-centric history of Old English scholarship, both stories center Hildeburh’s husband Finn even though Finn is not foregrounded in either of the versions of the tale. Therefore we have the titles “Saga of Finn” and the “Fight at Finnsburg.” A study on the fragment and episode by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Alan Bliss, is called Finn and Hengest (Hengest was the headman of the Danes after Hildeburh’s brother Hnaef was killed in the initial bloodshed). Today's readers may recognize as painfully modern the Old English expectation that women put the needs of the family, or needs of the men in their lives before their own, and might feel the added insult that scholars have framed Hildeburh’s story as her husband’s.


John Howes cover art for Tolkiens Finn and Hengest, the Frisian king and the headman of the Danes after Hildeburhs brother is slain.


Finally, the story of the conflict between Hnaef and the aggressors who attack his men in the night is hinted at in the poem “Widsith,” that oblique compendium of old Germanic stories, boiled down to bare names in this case. Many of the names of figures mentioned in the fragment or the episode are clustered together in “Widsith,” which I have tasked myself with illustrating using Playmobil figures. The names in “Widsith” suggest an affinity to the fragment’s perspective of the story, of Hnaef’s heroic defense of his hall against attackers answering to Finn. Hildeburh is not mentioned, but I will remedy that in my Widsith Project illustrations.


Hildeburh’s story, as powerful as I find it, is surprisingly not known beyond Old English circles. It does not have a history of being illustrated or shared in its own right. An Internet search of any of the identifying names of the story brings up John Howe’s cover of the Tolkien book portraying two of the men in the fight and images related to other parts of Beowulf. There is also a comic strip by a Dutch scholar who probably discovered, as I have, that the story is complicated and difficult to tell because of the names and relationships. My desire to share lesser known stories from myth, legend and folklore make it a natural story for me to highlight in this blog and in my illustration project.


Widsith Project Progress

My 2018 shots of moments in “Widsith” that refer to the story of Hildeburh center the battle from the fragment because the characters mentioned in “Widsith” suggest that narrative. I present the marriage of Finn and Hildeburh (only Finn is mentioned, but I longed to include her); the moment when a warrior warns his nephew (a Jutish prince) against rushing to the front of the fight; the experienced warrior Sigeferth threatening the attackers; and Hunlafing sliding a sword to Hengest to seek revenge against the Danes.


I shot several scenes of the Hildeburh story in 2018, when I was trying to illustrate the “Widsith” line by line (rather than creating images for stories the poem alludes to). “Widsith” does’t mention Hildeburh, but I featured her in my shot of her husband Finn portraying their wedding. My website’s new platform for sharing stories individually will allow me to tell the story free from the constraints of the order of names mentioned in “Widsith,” but I will still have to square the information from the episode, the fragment and scholarly insights into figures mentioned in “Widsith.” The fragment tells a story of men fighting to defend a mead hall from attackers, with specific men defending doorways. This presented a unique challenge as I had relied on two-dimensional backdrop images of mead halls in other shots, but many of the moments I wanted to share needed to convey a fight that takes place between men in doorways. I tend to use as many existing set and prop pieces from the Playmobil world as I can, but I was not able to find Playmobil doorways that did the job very well. After researching images of reconstructed Viking longhouses and mead halls, (and many failed efforts to find a scale model I could just use without having to build something) I went to the large, local craft supply shop. I bought a number of panels and long pieces of balsa wood to start creating at least a doorway, but probably as much of the set as I need. I am not a modeler or a very confident crafter, and I don’t think like a designer so I tend to put my pieces in place and add or subtract elements until I have the shot I think tells the story. I have a sense that making storyboards could simplify my life, but if I was able to draw in any satisfactory way, I wouldn’t have to create three-dimensional dioramas to illustrate these stories.


Widsith Studios reborn!


After sitting in storage for two years, a casualty of buying a new home, I rebuilt my Widsith stage, and have brought my figures out to retell some of this “sad woman’s” story. My work on the mead hall elements of the story will take some time, but I will post updates on New England Bard's social media pages as the story unfolds.


129 views0 comments

PRACTICAL MYTHOLOGY

Benjamin Hellman's Blog