Circassian Association of California
Adyghe Khasa



 

The Reality behind the Circassian Myths
by Zaina Al-Sa’id-Cardan

The views expressed in this text are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the CircassianWorld.com 



Zaina Al-Sa’id-Cardan
Writer & Researcher (North Caucasus Research and Heritage Institute, Jordan)

Mythology is often misinterpreted as fiction and the illusionary relics of the ancients. The bygone fables about world creation and legendary heroes whose names decline to vanish in the labyrinth of time, have become illogical to be considered from an authentic perspective during an age, where written history, science, and religion play the key factors in determining true from false.  

In reality, the term “mythology” is independent from any definition correlated to falsehood and fiction. The Greek word “Mythos” literally translates to “story” or a set of stories that are relevant to having a significant truth for a particular culture or society (Blackwell, 2002, part 1).  Mythology is actually and simply the medium, which carries the essence of early notions explaining how our human ancestors viewed the world and interpreted it through observation, experiences, and how they managed to deal with both, and construe a rational meaning to themselves and to their offspring’s.

For centuries, following the appearance of monotheistic religions and in many parts of the world, the ancient fairy-tales, and myths became viewed as superstitious stories containing evil ideas opposing religion thus the “word of god.” Although myths did survive as oral tradition passing from a generation to the next, however, the significant symbols enclosed have lost their implication to humanity. It was not until the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century did scholars begin to realize that myths unfold a reality and a series of sophisticated ideas that belong to the ancient world; it became more evident that mythology – in all its forms –  lead us to understand the reason for our existence as perceived since time immemorial. The embellished and fantastical accounts are actually portraying simple facts and truths about our psyche, consciousness, and origin.

W.S.W Anson in his preface to Asgrad and the Gods wrote:

           These fairy tales are not senseless stories written out of amusement of the idle; they    embody the profound religion of our forefathers (…) (Wagner & Anson, 1886, p. 21). 

In the NW Caucasus among the Circassian tribes, mythology has thrived incessantly. The Circassians are one of those nations who treasured their mythology despite an assortment of pressures and influences. Oral folk and tradition are so deeply rooted that the relics of the age-old traditions and beliefs still roam in the gorges of their land and are to a certain extent still evident in the populace’s disposition. The Circassian mythology known as the Nart Myths, are a collection of fascinating myths, sagas, epics, and hero legends that are slowly yet surly reclaiming their vindicated position among world mythologies, and are noticeably becoming considered from a wider perspective.

The anthology of the Nart myths can be traced back to 800 B.C. (Hedeghel’e, 1968, p 31), and they are no less significant than Greco-Roman, Scandinavian, or Hindu mythology. They undeniably enclose profound features that gratify intense queries on life and death, and address questions on the origin of creation, what is god, and the principle role of being a human on earth.

Like all world mythologies, the Nart myths have transpired to explicate the inexplicable, to convey traditions and rituals that served as a paradigm in order to infer the convolution of life and the phenomena’s of earth. There are several factors, which make the Narts such highly distinguished myths; the eccentric and complex characters, the stimulating plots, the unparalleled fantasy,  the archaic yet timeless and eclectic language, but most notably, it is the authenticity and wisdom found within the lines of these myths that is most rewarding.   Although there are myths that are simply trivial tales, however, the realism and significant information numerous other myths enclose is profound.

By paraphrasing texts, detecting and analyzing symbols, I chose three different accounts from the Circassian myths and legends, which I attempt to propose they unfold central historical and civil epochs in the extended history of humanity in the NW Caucasus, starting from world creation, to the development of morals and values, and the rise and fall of gods.  The proposed analysis is open for any suggestions that would enhance this modest contribution. 

I. Creation

According to the Narts, the lament of ‘Sosriqwe’s Words’ or ‘Sosriqwe iy Psalhe - Сосрыкъуэ Ипсалъэ’, narrates the story of creation; it describes how the world was conceived and gradually developed, and most significantly, it illustrates a link between the progression of the human with the development and establishment of earth. 

Sosriqwe iy Paslhe

Sosriqwe’s Words

Kabardian text

Hedeghel’e, I968, Vol.2, p. 250

Passage one

English translation

 

Latinized Circassian (Kabardian dialect)

When the olden world was not formed (between fluidity and firmness)

When the earth had just hardened and turned green,

 At that time, I was still an infant in the cradle.

 

Duneizchriy oiy schimijemipts'em 
 

Sch'ilhe schx'ant'eriy oiy zhiy zizepts'eghash'em

A zemaneme oiy duney sigueschexelht

The introductory passage of this lament is a short physical description of the protracted process of earth formation. It implies that originally, the earth’s crust was supple and embryonic and probably relating that the greater mass of earth was water. The correlation with infancy is possibly a symbol denoting unconsciousness or even the beginning of human evolution on earth. The first segment also correspond with the Greco-Roman myth of creation as portrayed in ‘The Metamorphosis of Ovid’ thus relates,  The earth was without firmness, the water without fluidity (Innes, 1955,p.29). 

Passage two

 

When the olden world was raised and weaved with a spindle

And the sheep were spread on the green lands 

At that time, I was young herding calves 

Duneizchriy oiy zhiy x'ich'e schauxuem

 
Sch'ilhe schx'uat'eriy oiy duney melch'e schaubem

A zemanme, oiy duney sishch'ax'ue sch'alhet

The second passage of the lament represents a stabilized earth crust and describes a second phase portraying the world raised and woven by a spindle, this interesting representation is a universal notion found in numerous cultures who believe that the ‘world is woven and a creator has woven its design into being’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weaving_(mythology)

Since time immemorial, weaving and spindling were perceived with high reverence; they are an extremly ancient form of art usually associated with women and goddesses, which may suggest that this passage relates to the belief that a mother goddess or Gaia weaved (created) the olden world respectively.  The other facet of this segment is the appearance of herding and animal domestication, a sign of early agricultural society establishment linked with Sosriqwe’s youth, which may be a description of earth itself or the early stages of earth as interpreted by Sosriqwe. 

Passage three

 

And when the ancient –mount- Beschtaw[1] was in the size of an ant,

And the forest of Beschtaw was still in the form of bars and sticks,

At that time, I was still an ordinary man

Beschtozchriy oiy duney qnzegu schixuedem

 
Beschtomezriy oiy dunei schimichmibzheghum


A zemanme oiy duneisil'eniquef't

The third passage seems to refer to the physical description of tectonic collision of plates, which began uplifting mount Beschtaw, the early process of mountain formation. Simultaneously, the description of Beschtaw forest refers to its early stages of growth during which trees still had infant trunks. This passage describes the topographical change and development on earth linked with Sosriqwe’s age advancement. 

Passage four

 

And when the vanguard paced over the ancient Yindil River[2],

I was riding on the horseback of Zheman Scharq[3] around Arq[4],

At that time I was a half white haired man,
Sorrow turned me into a white haired man.

Iynjilizchme oiy duney lhapsir scheibaquem


Zheman schariqim oiy duney siteisu
Ariqi iybghu oiy duney sok'wech'

A zemanme oiy duney sil'iniqwuetx'ut
Schhek'wuem oiy duney siyl'iniqwetx'ut

Rivers played a central role in the Narts lives especially in determining the borders of their land. Moreover, important epochs took place next to rivers such as Sosriqwe’s conception, which occurred by River Psizch (Kuban).  Acknowledged heroes were able to cross the mightiest rivers, and horse races were held next rivers. Some rivers were considered sacred where religious rituals were conducted around them, and so forth. Accordingly, the fourth passage could be describing the significance of rivers to the Narts or possibly the early appearance of rivers in their land. Nonetheless, the last passage is a description to a specific epoch in the Narts lives involving a particular occurrence related to the development of earth creation.

Understanding the origin of creation must have been an intricate question for the ancient world, this simple account portrays a very primeval perspective on how this earth and humans came to be. In its high metaphorical prose, this text could be relating data of accurate epochs in the extended process of earth development.  

II. Ethics 

What makes a human unique and unlike any other living species, is the sense of consciousness that the human race developed throughout the countless centuries. It took many ages until the human being was able to differentiate and set rules about what is right from wrong, and what is allowed from prohibited.  The rise of civilizations brought along a set of morals and values, which soon became universal edicts dictating all aspects of human life and significantly the nature of relationships between humans. Preserved in the memory of their oral folk, the Circassians contributed to this universal moral establishment and to the stability of civilized human relationships. In ‘The Lament of the Girl who refused to marry her Brother’ portrays glimpse of a mind-set that existed in the unfathomable realm of ancient times prior to the prohibition of incest relationship, a time when the human choice of sexual partner was based on unconscious and irrelevant decision similar to an animal’s uninformed choice. The lament relates the following,

Daughter:
O' my golden mother
Golden red
Why don’t you open the door and let me in
The cold is bringing me to ruin

Mother:
If you called me "my old mother-in-law"
I would have opened the door for you

Girl:
How can I refer to you with that name?
Whilst my soul is still beating within me?
O' my golden father
Why don’t you open the door for me?
The cold is bringing me to ruin

Father:
If you call me "my father-in-law"
I would have opened the door for you

Daughter:
How can I accept to call you with that name?
Whilst my soul is still beating within me
My golden sister!
Golden red
Why don’t you open the door for me?
The cold is bringing me to ruin (…) 

(Adyghe ‘Weri’watexer, 1963, p.179)

Circassian author and scholar Shorten Askerbi explains:

           This script holds high importance not only to Circassian heritage alone, but also to the sphere of world human culture. The forbidden act of incest marriage has been abandoned by humanity since many ages; however, the 'Girls Lament' has retained the memory of that bygone tradition and carried before us through the ages a glimpse of a real experience humankind once practiced. (Qumuq, I984, p77) 

From the lines of this ancient relic unfolds a truth of early human behavior and the foundation stone of domestic principles and the birth of societal moral values among the Circassian people, which will later develop and become part of the Adyghe Xabze, the Circassian customs.  

III.  The rise and fall of gods 

Once the humans entered into the realm of full awareness, they became in need to establish a meaning to their life and create a relationship with the creator or the instigator of this unfathomable universe they live in, to explain, and comprehend their existence. The Nart myths offer us a clear idea on the Circassians early view of god or the higher power. Polytheism, the belief in an assortment of gods and goddesses interlaced within the Narts lives. Each deity enclosed specific powers in order to render services in various aspects that aid in the progress of their daily life and subsistence, for instance Theghelej; the god of agriculture, Psathe; the god of souls, Lhepsch; the god of forge and metallurgy, Amisch; the god of cattle, Mezithe; the god of forests and hunt, Theschxwe; the supreme god, and so forth. Although polytheism ostensibly dominated the divinity feature among the ancient Circassians and in folklore texts, however, there is a strong implication that a single deity existed prior to the appearance of multi-gods.  

Lady Seteney, the Narts protagonist is a character representing multiple personalities and facets; she is the mother of all Narts, the most beautiful woman enclosing everlasting youth, and unparallel wisdom, she is the Narts undying power and route to victory and abundance. Simultaneously, Seteney represents the epitome of malice as the sorceress who employs magic and blasphemy over her enemies. This multifaceted character encloses powerful abilities that could be owed to her primary divine function; Lady Seteney is possibly the echo of a supreme mother goddess who underwent changes in her function and disposition in order to convey the human’s social evolution. What leads to suggest such a hypothesis is the story of Seteney’s Flowers - Seteney iy Ghegha, this exceptional account describes a central epoch not only in the history of the Narts but also in the history of civilizations.  

Seteney’s Flowers describes the fateful age during which the Narts decided they refused to consider Lady Seteney as the mother of all Narts, and rejected to further obey any of her orders. Hearing this, dejected Seteney disappears from the Narts land into the gorges of mount Qanzhilischhe, and consequently, severe drought and famine strikes the Narts land.  Lady Narts are propelled one after the other to Mount Qanzhilischhe in search for water, but all seize to return upon seeing extraordinary fields of flowers, and hear a mesmerizing hymn that captivate their hearts and freezes their motion, the hymn went as follows,

Wey Wey
Like a flower's head held high
Turquoise eyes shining like the stars
Surrounded by golden silk
O -you- who light the snowy mountain summits
O' eyes' grace
Bearer of gladness and delight
And bequest of the Narts intrepidity
O life's beauty
You captivate who ever lays sight on you
All yearn for you
You are the youth's undying hope
Our cherished love
 

In no time, the enchanting flowers and hymn mesmerize all of the Narts, and all begin to realize what grief blunder they committed against Lady Seteney. Standing by mountain chasm, the Narts notice an old man sitting by a grave, once they approach the elder they ask,
- Who is this grave for Themade?[5]
The elder lifts his head in despair and in a poignant voice says:
- What is your need to know of it? How can I explain to you my son?
- If there was no need for us to know, we would not have asked, inform us and we shall comprehend.
- It is the grave of our mother Seteney, the mother of all Narts my child. This lament is dedicated for her. Thus, the elder man began reciting: 

World notions are her making
And all the beauty in the universe is her reflection.
She was the companion of our – Narts' - victories
And in our long pathways, she was the comrade of our sagacious battles.
When the enemy assailed with strikes
She fought alongside with us
And when we walked through arid lands, she was our guide to abundance.
She was our Sun during daylight and the moon at night
All those flowers you see are a token from her
They grow only for Seteney
Blossoming twice
The lady –Seteney - appeared twice a day in her full elegance. 

The elderly man's eyelids sealed, whilst his head sloped to the side. He never opened his eyes again.
The Narts buried his body next to Seteney's grave.
They say that the Narts used to meet twice a year by mount Qanzchilischhe's versant, during "Seteney's Flowers" bloom (Hedeghel’e, 1968, Vol. I, p. 81).  

 

This account depicts the revolutionary ethnographical shift from matriarchal into patriarchal authority and relates the environmental transformation and unfortunate epoch the Narts underwent upon choosing to eliminate Seteney from their lives.

The most significant ingredient in this account is the glorification verse dedicated to Seteney, which may well provide sufficient evidence suggesting that Seteney was a supreme solar deity during sun worshiping era, and the fact that drought and famine struck upon her disappearance is an initial verification to the premise. Secondly, the described role Seteney partakes in their Narts lives is equal to the function of the sun to life;

- Seteney illuminated their path during battle.
- She was their guide to abundance.
- She was the sun in the day and moon at night.
- Seteney appeared twice a day (at sunrise and sunset).
- Seteney is described as a “flowers head held high,” which may suggest a comparison between the flowers’ appearance with sun.

In addition to these indications, the Narts used to meet twice a year commemorating her memory, which may denote celebrating equinox, the astronomical event that occurs twice a year (on March 21/22 and September 22/23).  During which the tilt of the earth’s axis is neither away from nor towards the sun, and the sun stands vertically above the equator. This celebration is also associated with the season’s change, which possibly is dedicated to Lady Seteney, the original solar deity among the ancient Circassians.

The Circassian myths are a universe of fascinating stories, characters, and ideas that belong to a very ancient world dominated by an entirely different mind-set, representing epochs from various ages across time. In their exaggerated manner they narrate what really had happened, hence, it would be remarkable to consider these ancient relics as codes and analyze the core of their meaning; they could be transmitting messages that will allow us to rediscover forgotten episodes in history that refuse to die.

 

Works cited:

  • Dr. Blackwell, C. & Blackwell, A. (2002) Mythology for Dummies, Hungry minds, New York, U.S.
  • Dr. Wagner, W. Anson, W. & Macdowall, M. (1886) Asgrad and the Gods, (Fourth Edition) Sawn Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey, London.
  • Innes, M. (1955) Ovid Metamorphosis, Penguin Books, London.
  • ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weaving_(mythology) accessed Feb 14, 2010.
  • Qumuq, M. (1984) The Circassian Nart Epics Dar Al Majd Press, Damascus.
  • Adyghe ’Weri’watexer I (Circassian Tales, Vol. 1), (1963), Kabardino-Balkarian Science and Research Institute, Nalchik.
  • Hedeghel’e, A. (1968-71) НАРТХЭР: АДЫГЭ ЭПОС. Nartxer: Adyghe Èpos. Narti: Adygski epos (The Narts: Circassian Epos), Maikop: The Adyghean Science and Research Institute, (Vol. 1-7).


  1. A mountain the North Caucasus region
  2. River Volga-Russia
  3. Horse breed
  4. Name of river
  5. A designation employed when referring to a leader in Circassian language signifying high esteem and it lit. means god's father or the appointed god (on earth)
Source: CircassianWorld