The whimsicality and enchantment of this collection of Ossetian folk tales could best be captured in the seductive melodies of Rimsky-Korsakoff’s fairy tale operas and the evocative stagings of Leon Bakst or Ivan Bilibin. The Tales of the Narts go back deep into the well of time, to the age when the Scythians pastured their horses from the Danube to Gansu, and when the Chechens, Adyghe and Karbadians were forging iron swords in the crags of the Caucasus.
Their modern descendants, with an overlay of Christianity or Islam, preserved these heroic tales of the Iron Age (circa 1200 BC), with great fidelity to tradition. Iron weapons, mounted heroes, cattle-rustling, the looming Caucasus Mountains and the deep, mysterious Black Sea fix the locus of these tales. Horse burials and the tripartite division of Nart society bring to mind the Rig Veda of India. In fact, the modern Ossetians, living both in Southern Russia and in one of the Russian-occupied districts of Georgia are descendants of the Scythians, and their language is recognizably an Iranian one. The well is indeed deep.
The Narts are the heroes of folk tales shared by the Osettians and their North Caucasus neighbors. They were conceived by Ossetian story tellers as their larger-than-live predecessors. They boasted more loudly, quarreled more violently, and took revenge more gruesomely than today’s wane generations. In one tale, when the starving Narts find out that their fellow Nart has a pot full of boiled beef waiting for him at home, they cut his 12 sons into pieces and throw them in the boiling pot. The grief of the bereaved father then fills them with pity.
Stories like this capture the daily competition for status which belies the outward tranquility of many traditional communities in the world. Magical brides are won from pearl palaces below the sea, but flesh and blood brothers kill themselves in jealousy over the girl. Old warriors are mocked for not having fallen gloriously in battle.
In the end the Narts disappear, because they are too proud, too violent and too quarrelsome. They arrogantly decide to challenge the Lord God. He warns them that they are giving up eternal life in the hereafter. “What do we need eternal life for?” ask the Narts. “Would it be wonderful to live without end? But if our glory and our good name lived forever on earth—that is what we should wish!” The Narts are destroyed, but they get the legacy they wanted.
Many tales recall familiar myths almost word-for-word, such as the encounter of Ulysses and Polyphemus the one-eyed giant, and the legend of the sword Excalibur in the Arthurian cycles. People always liked good stories, but they integrated them seamlessly into their own mythic cycles. The Nart Ulysses, Urizhmag, is caught by the Cyclops whilst stealing sheep. The magic sword “Dzus-qara” in these tellings, must be thrown into the waves to ensure the death of Batraz, a fierce warrior.
Russian orientalists in the 1870s and 1880s, giants of modern comparative linguistics, began to collect and translate these tales into Russian. The corpus was huge, and the work was not finished before the October Revolution of 1917. Soviet Scholars took over the work, not without attributing to the Nart heroes the weltanschauung of pistol-toting Bolsheviks. Finally in 1945 the Ossetian scholar Vasily Abaev finished the canonical collection of the Narts tales in their Ossetian version. (Like one of the old Nart heroes, he lived long enough to have studied in Saint Petersburg before the Revolution and to be buried in the newly rebaptised Saint Petersburg.) His introductory essay underscores the universality of these tales, even if his conclusions on their origins and motivations shows a mix of early-20th century erudition mixed with Marx and Engels.
The English translation from Russian we owe to Walter May, an Englishman, active in the British Communist Party, who later moved to Moscow and got a job in English language publishing. It is interesting to note that the only Wikipedia entry for him is in Belorussian, a language from which he made extensive translations into English. Robert Colarusso and Tamirlan Salbiev provide useful notes on the linguistic, anthropological and comparative literature aspects of these tales.
I wish someone would undertake to translate the tales from Ossetian, since a whole new level of freshness and insight arises when confronting the original text. Russia has its own literary and folklore traditions that may or may not conform to the spirit of these descendants of the Scythes. Notwithstanding this, amateurs of mythology and especially students of the ancient Indo-European peoples will find these tales both enjoyable and full of tantalizing peeks into the deep well of the past.
David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His forthcoming book Horse Power will be published by WW Norton in 2023.