[By Patrick Foley]
The tales of the Narts are a series of short stories and myths that were very popular within Circassian culture, as well as other parts of the Caucasus such as Ossettia (Chaudhri, 206). The stories are a significant part of an oral tradition of storytelling in the region. Moreover, these short stories and legends reveal a great deal about how the Circassians defined their own culture. The oral accounts appear time after time in the remaining records of the Caucasus, although it is nearly impossible to place an exact timeframe on the creation of the Nart epic traditions because of the lack of existing written evidence dating far enough back in time (Chaudhri, 210). The Nart Sagas would later influence the trajectory of literature in the Caucasus. The tales of the Narts are particularly important in understanding how the Circassians maintained a cohesive identity throughout the period of Russian occupation in the nineteenth century.
The Circassians faced a series of painful defeats as a result of Russian intervention in the Caucasus, the most notable being the deportation of 1864, where hundreds of thousands of Circassians were deported from their homeland (De Waal, 59). Entire regions were deported en masse to the Ottoman Empire, including the people of the Abkhaz and Ubykh, who faced harsh ethnic persecution by the Russians (De Waal, 149). Some historians have labeled the forced relocation of these people from the region as genocide. Regardless of the label, it is beyond debate that the Russian forces treated the Circassians barbarically. Under these circumstances, the Circassians held on to elements of their ethnic identity, such as the myths of the Narts. The Circassians often told the story of “How Nart Tlepsh Killed Bearded Yamina with the Avenging Sword.” In the story, a sword literally comes to life and stabs a guilty man who unjustly killed a Nart (Colarusso, 108). While the Circassians lacked resources and the ability to effectively resist Russian intervention in the Caucasus, they could still look to the tales of the Narts as a source of cultural affirmation that their often-difficult existence was meaningful. They could hold out hope that the Russians would pay for what they had done despite the Circassians’ lack of resources. They hoped for a miracle, much like the Nart who was avenged by the sword in the story. The Circassians lacked any other recourse, so they looked to their heritage and the legends of the Narts to gain a sense of comfort and hope that someday the Caucasus would be free from Russian intervention.
In one famous story, the Narts are given a choice between living a long and easy life with no glory or a brief and difficult life with glory. According to legend, the Narts respond quickly and without hesitation: “If our lives are to be short, then let our fame be great! Let us not depart from the truth! Let fairness be our path! Let us not know grief! Let us live in freedom!” (Bullough, 9) The story defined the character of the Circassians, emphasizing their pride and strong spirit. The stories of the Narts, in particular the rallying cry from the story above, provided a sense of identity and early nationalism among ethnic Circassians throughout periods of prolonged foreign intervention within their lands.
In addition to strengthening resistance against the Russians, the Sagas of the Narts also reaffirmed traditional notions of masculinity and femininity with Circassian society. According to Circassian culture, the Narts provided lessons as to how men and women alike should conduct themselves in society (Bullough, 18). Sosruqo serves as the ideal model for a man, given that he was defined above all else by his masculinity. Sosruqo would perform magnificent acts of strength, but he would never accept credit for his deeds (Bullough, 18). Sosruqo was a strong yet humble man, a man who was not afraid to defend his land from foreign invaders and threats. Susroqo was also selfless in his actions, as noted in “How Susroqo Attended the Council of the Narts.” In the story, the narrator proudly proclaims how Susroqo so deeply loves his people and that the affairs of the people were also his affairs (Colarusso, 196). Susroqo also stressed the importance of being humble. He assumes responsibility for the fate of his people, and he firmly stands up to defend their rights without seeking any personal reward; he is the model of a true warrior. The Nart sagas often feature Susroqo in battle, or pursuing other manly activities such as glorified athletic pursuits and hunting. The Sagas proudly feature such masculine activities as a defining characteristic of their identity as well as an embedded cultural tradition within the Caucasus (Chaudhri, 215).
On the other hand, women were expected to conduct themselves in a more gentle fashion. Women could look to a complex character within the Sagas such as Lady Satanaya as a role model for their behavior. Lady Satanaya is the most prominent female character in these stories, as evidenced by her appearance in such a wide variety of ancient myths in the region. Her character is complicated, and she seems to simultaneously play the role of the kind caretaker as well as the manipulative woman hungry for power. As John Colarusso, one of the foremost scholars on the Saga of the Narts, stated: “She is simultaneously a figure of beauty, eternal youth, passion and lust, devotion and treachery. She is often times within the same myth both a victim, usually of rape or seduction, while at the same time a manipulator and victimizer” (Colarusso, 3).
Foremost, Lady Satanaya’s role was tied to her sexuality. Her name literally means “Mother of One-Hundred Narts.” Her name alone reflects the commonly held belief that it was a Circassian woman’s responsibility to produce children for her husband. Above all else, women in this culture had to give birth in order to ensure that a future generation of strong-willed warriors and their wives would maintain the Circassian traditions. Myths like ‘Lady Satanaya and the Magic Apple,” a story wherein Lady Satanaya wields a magical apple with the power to bestow good manners and morality upon those she chooses to feed, also suggest that a Circassian woman was responsible for the proper upbringing of these children (Colarusso, 5).
Satanaya is also a meant to serve as a model for the corruptability of women. Satanaya often fails to live up to the high expectations outlined by the elders, and finds herself ruined by temptation. For instance, in “How Satanaya was Led Astray” she commits adultery in order to gain two powerful new daggers (Colarusso, 10). The story suggests that women are apt to use their sexual charms to manipulate men into subservience. As a result, we can see how the Nart sagas provided a cultural justification for denying Circassian women equal rights within their society. Women were surely responsible for affairs in the household, but the Nart Sagas also affirmed the belief that women were ambitious and could not be trusted in the public sphere. These beliefs held over in the region, as seen in later political controversies throughout the Caucasus such as the veiling campaigns.
The tales of the Narts featured prominently in the Circassian culture of the nineteenth century. The Circassians faced a monumental threat when the Russians occupied their territory and attempted to change their culture. Within this context, the Circassians looked to the tales of the Narts to reassure themselves that, despite their suffering, there was still hope to restore glory and to “let their fame be great.” These stories also served to proscribe gender roles to Circassian men and women alike, praising the humble warrior spirit of figures like Sosruqo while simultaneously praising Satanaya as the mother of her people, and yet lamenting her for manipulating others in order to gain power for her own advantage.
- Anne Chaudhri, “The Ossetic Oral Narrative Tradition: Fairy Tales in the Context of Other Forms of Traditional Literature” in A Companion to the Fairy Tale edited by Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003).
- John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002).
- John Colarusso, “The Woman of the Myths: the Satanaya Cycle” (The Annual Society for the study of Caucasia 2: 3-11, 1989).
- Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys among the Defiant People of the Caucasus (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
- Thomas De Waal, The Caucasus: an Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).