Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M is for Manas (Epics from A to Z)

Origins
The epic of Manas is the national epic of Kyrgyzstan, and UNESCO appointed as a Masterpiece in the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is truly epic in every sense of the word: In some of its sixty recorded versions it is more than 500.000 lines - twenty times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey put together (!!!). It is also estimated to be more then a thousand years old, which is all the more impressive because it has never been written down until the 20th century. It is regarded as one of the greatest examples of oral epic poetry in the entire world.
I only read a short snippet of the story from a book that focuses on the art of one particular storyteller. It was a selection of episodes from the epic, and although it was short, it was utterly captivating.

The Heroes
The epic follows the story of three generations of great heroes - Manas, Semetey, and Seytek. They are all strong, brave, honorable, and great leaders. In addition, they are surrounded by great warriors, loyal friends, and strong-willed women. They fight a lot, usually against the Chinese.
One of the great things about the successive generations of heroes is that their stories intertwine. People who were young alongside Manas return as old and trusted advisers to help young Semetey along the way. Their children join the next group of warriors. There is a lot of inter-generational continuity that adds to the heroes' character and background.
One of my favorite female heroes in the story is Kanikey, Manas' wife and the mother of Semetey. When her husband is killed, she puts on his armor, and runs into exile with her newborn child and her ninety-year-old frail mother-in-law. She does not only make it back to her homeland, but she also manages to stay strong until her son grows up, ready to reclaim his father's place. She becomes the matriarch of the next generation of heroes, and lives to return home in victory.

The Highlights
(These are the highlights from the particular book I read, I am sure there are many others).
1. Right off the bat, the story of Manas' father involves a magical nighttime otter wedding. With frolicking offer brides and husbands. Yes.
2. Hands-down my favorite character of the story was Almambet, Manas' best friend (okay, so maybe I just have a thing for heroes' best friends). He is born into a family on the Chinese side and trained as a special warrior from childhood, prepared specifically to assassinate Manas. However, when his father beats his Kyrgyz mother, he kills him and runs into exile, eventually befriending Manas and staying loyal to him to the very end. Almambet is smart, diplomatic, and takes advantage of his upbringing. He is apparently very good with the whip and the lasso. His son becomes Semetey's best friend too.
3. The epic expands on motifs known from folktales. For example, when two heroes kill a one-eyed giant, it goes into great detail about how giants can be killed - pointing out that there is too much fat for a bullet (they have guns) to pierce, and describing the problems with trying to hack off and transport the dead giant's head.
4. One of the best moments in the story was an expansion on the "Swan Bride" folktale type. Semetey marries a woman named Ay-cürök who can turn herself into a swan. This is not unusual in traditional stories - except, in this case she turns herself into a swan and goes out to spy on all the heroes in the world until she finds one she likes. Later on, when she is already married to Semetey, and the Kyrgyz are preparing for war, Semetey remembers her ability and sends her out to spy on the enemy. She fearlessly flies over the Chinese army, dodging bullets, and returns with good information. Heck yeah.
5. Another scene I really liked was twelve-year-old Kül-coro (Almambet's son) going on a mission as a messenger for Semetey. He has to get to Ay-cürök on the far side of a flooding river. He is terrified, but makes his horse jump into the water anyway. As he struggles against the current, the spirit of his father, accompanied by the spirit of Manas and all the heroes of the previous generation, appear to help him, lift him, and urge him on, telling him he has so much to live for, such a great life ahead of him. It is a really touching and powerful scene. (Yes, he makes it)

19 comments:

  1. Kanikey sounds like a very brave woman. I would like to read more about her. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sounds fantanstic.
    That last scene... I just read your short description and it moved me :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I love Ay-cürök's special ability and the whole mixing of generations does make it epic, epic doesn't it. How does one hack off a giant's head then? :)
    Tasha
    Tasha's Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It takes a lot of hacking, and then you have to roll it home...

      Delete
  4. Thank you! Wonderful epic !!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Otter wedding! ... ! I love it so much it hurts me...

    I like the pragmatic approach to dealing with giants, and the scene with Kül-coro crossing the water sounds amazing. Thank you for sharing bits of these wonderful stories.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Sounds like an interesting story with strong female characters.

    I have to ask...have you actually read all of these epics? That's a lot of reading, and I imagine a good education in storytelling as well.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I read all of them :) Except for Escanor which I couldn't find.

      Delete
  7. I'm curious about when these songs were first set down in writing. The early tribes in Turkey had a fantastic oral tradition, and I can't imagine having to commit all of this very long epic to memory. What an undertaking.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Manas was not written down until the 20th century. Most manaschi (storytellers) had it all in memory. There are long studies about how repertoire works in oral traditions...

      Delete
  8. Hero's best friend, looks to me like Karan in Mahabharat!

    And, I was about to ask you the same! That's a lot of epics to read!! Mindblowing!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It was about 3 months of work :D I started in January.

      Delete
  9. I like the story of the twelve year old supported by his ancestors :)
    Sophie
    Sophie's Thoughts & Fumbles
    FB3X
    Wittegen Press

    ReplyDelete
  10. have you memorised an epic poem, have you ever recited an epic poem? I sometimes think I would like to. For a short time I was in a story telling group and I told a story in the Samuel Pepys room at the Old Greenwhich Royal Naval College- a nice memory come to think of it

    zannierose visitor from A-Z

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I do epic telling, yes, but I don't memorize. :) Not the text, anyway. Oral traditions are often a mix of memorized parts and improvisation, which is why they can be so long - no one does them word by word.

      Delete
  11. Interesting post. I've never heard of this epic but I like reading about strong women in literature.

    Sunni
    http://sunni-survivinglife.blogspot.com/

    ReplyDelete
  12. Go mom and mom-in-law! That is one spry old lady!

    ReplyDelete
  13. The only Kyrgyz literature I've read to date is Chingiz Aytmatov's The Day Lasts Longer Than a Thousand Years. It's pretty hard to find Kyrgyz literature which has been translated into English, or is even widely available.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Wow, twenty times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey? My goodness. That is one epicly epic story!

    ReplyDelete