Thursday, October 27, 2016

"If our lives be short, let our fame be great": Nart sagas at the Silk Road House

For those of you just tuning in: I have fallen in love with the Nart sagas a while ago. I worked with them for a museum program for Archaeology Day, told them for MythOff, read them for Epics A to Z, and have been waxing poetic about their greatness for quite a while.
Which is why this storytelling event at the Silk Road House in Berkeley was such a perfect convergence of passion and storytelling. 

This summer, John Colarusso's translation of Nart Sagas (the Circassian and Abkhazian sagas) got its second edition, and Tales of the Narts (the Ossetian sagas) was published in English for the very first time. Since I was in San Francisco for Epic Day just in time for 3rd Friday, the traditional storytelling day of the Storytelling Association of California, everything came together for a concert celebrating the Nart sagas. On top of all that, it turned out that John Colarusso himself also just happened to be in town, and he did not only graciously accept our invitation to the event, but even agreed to present a short opening lecture. I was more than a little star-struck. He told us about what makes the Nart sagas unique and important, talked about their connections to European traditions, and pointed out some linguistic curiosities about the languages they have been translated from. It was a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how these books came to be. Professor Colarusso also very patiently helped me with the correct pronunciation of Ossetian names when I cornered him in the kitchen of the Silk Road House before the performance...

Since I have been working with the Ossetian sagas for a while now, I was given the honor of filling the first half of the event with the stories of my choice. I opened with the saga that first made me fall in love with them - it is called the The Narts and the Wadmer's Bones, and it talks about the Nart heroes unearthing the giant skeleton of an ancient hunter, and bringing him back to life to ask questions. As an archaeologist, I have always loved this tale, and now that I am (finally) reading First Fossil Hunters by Adrienne Mayor, it has become even more fascinating. 
Following up the giant's story, I told a short anecdote to introduce Shirdon, the Narts' trickster. He is like Loki, except he is treated worse, and, in Colarusso's words, he is more motivated. In Who deceived whom? the Narts try to cheat him out of his one fat ram, saying the end of the world is near - but in the end, Shirdon gets the last laugh. This story led me to the longest and most elaborate tale of the evening, A Nart Expedition, in which the heroes take Shirdon along on an adventure just to bully him for entertainment... until Shirdon decides to take revenge by tricking them into mortal danger, and then saving them in the last moment. It is a fun story, but also has a lot of very human moments. I especially like the fact that it has a very close parallel in the Irish Fianna stories (The Hostel of the Quicken Trees), and I have not found a similar tale anywhere else so far.

The second half of the evening was dedicated to Shatana (or Setenaya), the great matron of the Narts, a powerful and wise woman who keeps showing up in many of the tales. She is "the mother of one hundred", the matron of the war band of the Narts. I shared this set with two amazing storytellers. First, Cassie Cushing (the great matron of the Kaleidoscope storytelling café) told the story of the hero Shoshlan's conception and birth, elaborated with a shorter story about Shatana's golden apples. She wove several versions of the tale into one, making it sound like an enjoyable piece of gossip ("Some say..."). Since that story exists in so many versions, her solution to picking one was on point... Next, Tim Ereneta told the story of Urizhmag and Shatana's divorce, the Nart variation of the well-known folktale type of the Clever Wife ("Take from the house whatever is dearest to you..."). He did it with a lot of humor, while preserving the wisdom at the core of the story, and Shatana's character. Finally, I closed the evening with the saga of How Shoshlan rescued Shatana from the Lake of Hell, another long-time favorite of mine. It is a tense story, but it has a happy ending, and says a lot both about Shatana and the Nart heroes in general.

As far as storytelling events go, this was a near perfect evening. It was also a long-time dream of mine to do a concert like this, introducing people to the Nart sagas. We had a full house, and even a film crew from a Comparative Mythology program; people seemed inspired by the stories, and several of them said they will go and read the books now. That is what I consider a true compliment to an event like this: People discovering new tales, and storytellers passing them on. 

1 comment:

  1. Yes! So ecstatic that the Ossetian tales are out in English now! Book=ordered. And so excited for you that you got to meet him!