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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Stealing Fire: John Colarusso and the Tales of the Narts

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

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.

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