Narts, Ossetians, and other peoples of the Caucasus

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For many reasons, here at Language Log we have had a longstanding interest in the Narts, their language, literature, and lore:

The Nart sagas (Abkhaz: Нарҭаа ражәабжьқәа; Nartaa raƶuabƶkua; Adyghe: Нарт тхыдэжъхэр, romanized: Nart txıdəĵxər; Ossetian: Нарты кадджытæ; Narty kaddžytæ; Nartı kadjıtæ) are a series of tales originating from the North Caucasus. They form much of the basic mythology of the ethnic groups in the area, including Abazin, Abkhaz, Circassian, Ossetian, KarachayBalkar, and to some extent ChechenIngush folklore.

The term nart comes from the Ossetian Nartæ, which is plurale tantum of nar. The derivation of the root nar is of Iranian origin, from Proto-Iranian *nar for 'hero, man', descended from Proto-Indo-European *h₂nḗr. In Chechen, the word nart means 'giant'.

(source)

Herewith follows the review by Richard Foltz of a new book on the epic stories of the Narts edited by John Colarusso, who has for decades done yeoman service in making these materials better known to the world.  It is from Folklorica, 25 (2021), 81-82.

Colarusso, John and Tamirlan Salbiev, eds. Tales of the Narts: Ancient Myths and Legends of the Ossetians. Translated by Walter May. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. Bibliography. Glossary. lxviii + 442 pp. $24.94 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0-691-21152-7.

Popular tales of a legendary people known as the Narts are a major part of the shared cultural heritage of many peoples of the Caucasus, including the Adyghe (Abkhazians, Circassians, Kabardians), Turks (Karachay and Balkars), Vainakh (Ingush and Chechen), and Ossetes. The term “Nart” itself is Ossetian and derives most likely from an Iranian root meaning “manly.” The origin of this body of oral literature is likewise Iranian, tracing back to the medieval Alans and in some cases to the ancient Sarmatians and Scythians before them, although in their modern forms—which differ considerably from one cultural community to the next—the tales and their characters have been embellished and re-shaped by the various Caucasian groups just mentioned, each of whom claim them as their own. The Nart stories, which modern Ossetian scholars have organized into an “epic,” were until quite recently a loose and flexible collection of tales about a vanished race of men who lived for “feasting and fighting,” reflecting a clan-based raiding culture of which one can still perceive echoes in the Caucasus today. The ideal Nart is both fearless and cunning, unafraid to face giants, descend into the underworld, or even to kidnap the daughter of God himself, yet willing to resort to ruse when confronted with a stronger enemy. In the highly patriarchal Nart society women play supporting roles—mainly preparing week-long feasts for their victorious menfolk—although some female characters stand out for their intelligence and initiative.

Insofar as the Nart legends are built upon an Iranian core, they exhibit many commonalities with other bodies of Iranian oral literature including Ferdowsi’s heroic Book of Kings and Gorgani’s romance Vis and Ramin, both of which were redacted into verse during the eleventh century. One may note that while the latter two works were written down in Persian, the mythical world they portray is not that of civilized Persia but rather the wild, nomadic one of the Central Asian steppes. Today’s Ossetes, who are the only surviving linguistic and cultural descendants of the warlike Iranophone pastoralists who dominated the Eurasian plains from the Balkans to Mongolia throughout the first millennium BCE, largely avoided the cultural disruptions brought by Zoroastrianism and later Islam to other Iranian peoples, so that the Ossetian Nart legends—which remained oral and thus fluid up until they were finally written down only as late as the nineteenth century—may in some ways provide our most direct window into the earliest forms of identifiably Iranian culture, and by extension that of their proto-Indo- European ancestors. They thus hold unique value for the student of comparative mythology.

That being the case, it is unfortunate that the Narts have remained so little- known and rarely studied by scholars outside the former Soviet Union. The main barrier has surely been language, so that the editors have done us a great service by finally making this literature available in English. The lead editor of the volume under review, John Colarusso, first introduced the Narts to English readers in 2002 with his edition of the Circassian versions of the stories. For the present edition of the Ossetian versions he has used translations from Russian by the late Walter May, a British communist who spent the latter half of his life in the USSR. Colarusso also relied on an Ossetian scholar, Tamirlan Salbiev, in preparing May’s translation for publication.

Since the stories in question were preserved in Ossetian, it would have been desirable for the English edition to have been done from the original Ossetian, as Dumézil did for his French editions published in 1930 and 1965. A new French translation by Lora Arys and Iaroslav Lebedynsky was also done directly from Ossetian and, since Arys is a native Ossetian speaker, it may be somewhat more reliable than Dumézil’s. It may be hoped that an English translation from the Ossetian will appear at some point in the future. For the time being English readers will have to content themselves with the May-Colarusso-Salbiev version. They will be reasonably well served by doing so, although those who can read French would be better advised to read the Dumézil or Arys-Lebedynsky versions. The standard Ossetian and Russian editions were both produced in the USSR during the mid-twentieth century but did not entirely eliminate variants, which are still known and transmitted within Ossetian popular culture. The French editions, while overlapping in many cases with the English, organize the stories differently and include some that do not appear in the English version.

The importance of the Nart legends for studies of Indo-European and comparative mythology cannot be overstated. Indeed, Georges Dumézil is said to have first come up with his famous tripartite analysis of Indo-European society as a result of his encounter with the Ossetian Narts, who are divided according to function into three clans. Happily, this material is at long last readily available to English readers in an inexpensive, reliable English-language edition.

If you want to know about the Iranian origins of the legends of King Arthur and his knights of the round table, if you want to learn about the trifunctional hypothesis / tripartite ideology ("idéologie tripartite") of prehistoric Proto-Indo-European at its rock bottom as seen in a living literature, if you are willing to learn about the sources of west Eurasian parallels in medieval Chinese popular literature, you would do well to acquaint yourself with the hitherto barely known Nart sagas.

 

Selected readings

 



6 Comments »

  1. bob said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 9:13 am

    Interesting indeed. I'd actually encountered the Nart sagas in a webcomic, apparently as a discursive interest of the cartoonist. The Nart saga episodes start at https://www.c.urvy.org/?date=20171021

    No idea how closely they track to the material in these recent translations, but they are certainly interesting stories.

  2. Peter B. Golden said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 10:04 am

    Colarusso has an earlier study: "Nart Sagas from the Caucasus" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). He is also the author of "A Grammar of the Kabardinian Language (Calgary: The University of Calgary Press, 1992) and "The Northwest Caucasian Languages. A phonological Survey" (NY: Garland Publishing, 1988). There is also a collection of Malqar-Qarachay versions of the Nart Tales: Нартла. Малкъар-къарачай нарт эпос/Нарты. Героический эпос баркларцев и карачаевцев, сост. Р. А-К. Ортабаева, Т.М. Хаджиева, А.З. Холаев (Москва: Восточная Литература, 1994).

  3. Victor Mair said,

    July 30, 2022 @ 12:48 pm

    From Peter B. Golden:

    I would add to the above: М.Ч. Джиртубаев, Карачаевобалкарский героический эпос (Москва: “Поматур” 2003) and his Къарачай-малкъар мифле/Карачаево-балкарские мифы (Нальчик: Элбрус, 2007). M.D. Karaketov has also done a lot of interesting work traditional Qarachay culture: М.Д. Каракетов, Из традиционной обрядово-культурной жизни карачаевцев (Москва: Наука, 1995) and numerous articles.

    There is a Qarachay community in northern New Jersey and I have had a number of students from that grouping at Rutgers University. Most were born in Turkey (their families coming there after WWII) and are equally at home in Turkish and Qarachay. There were Qarachay villages in eastern Turkey in the 1960s. I don’t know the situation today. The New Jersey Qarachays maintain contact with relatives in Karachay-Cherkessia. Some of my former students make frequent trips there.

    Interestingly enough, they live in an area (Paterson, which has a substantial Muslim population) that also has a variety of “Cherkes” peoples, their neighbors in their N. Caucasian homeland. As with many immigrants they cluster with the familiar.

  4. Martin Schwartz said,

    July 31, 2022 @ 1:26 am

    Wikipedia's etymology of Nart (which has actually beenactually a problem) is awkwardly phrased (redundant "derivation…root…origin") and misleading as to the details of its upshot. Let us first observe that Indo-Europeanists and Iranian etymologists use "root" not for an etymon (i.e. some
    linguisitic source) in general, but as a technical term for an
    underlying verb notion, Nouns are spoken of as stems (uninflected forms), indicted by hyphen) as against forms which are already inflected forms. Whatthe Wiki's "root nar" is supposed to mean is murky, but from the antecedent "plurale tantum of nar" it would be a noun.
    (Now, we must observe that the first vowel of Oss. Nartæ, the conventional transcription, is in fact ā, which I shall use for this sound henceforth.). Stating that Nārtæ is a plurale tantum of nār begs the question, since no such noun exists in Oss., and indeed it is not listed in the dictionaries of Abaev and V. Miller. It isn't obvious just how this alleged Oss. *nār is related to the Proto-Iranian (Old Iranian) stem nar- 'man, hero' (whose nominative was nā), the outcome of the Proto-Indo-European stem *h2ner- (nominative *h2nēr), which did not survive into Oss. Oss. does have næl adj. 'male (beast)' the regular outcome of Old Iranian *narya-, PIE *h2neryo-, but that is formally irrelevant for the present problem.
    On the other hand, the -t(æ) of Oss. Nārt(æ) may be taken not as a pl. collective suffix (although it likely underwent a reinterpretation as such!) but as representing an integral part of its underlying Proto-Iranian noun etymon, whose verb root is now to be determined.
    Toward a solution, I draw inter alia on the materials provided by J. Cheung, Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb, 2007, 183-184 s.v. *Hnar 'to be able, skilled?', although he doubts that (contra Mayrhofer) that one can convincingly adduce a verb root of such a
    for the word for 'male, man' mentioned above.
    I believe that one should proceed from a PIE verb √*h2ner
    (best attested in Iranian) with historical semantcs like those of PIE √*tewH: 'to swell, be solid/muscular, be strong, be mighty, be able'. Fittingly, the Oss. evidence is important: nārs- 'to swell up, become fat' (OIr. *-sa-intrans. stem), *ppp. nārd 'well fed'.
    Via *'have power over',and on one hand, Balochi ginār-'hold, take possession of' (cf. semantically Gr. krateîn to krátos) Gabri afnūrdan, Yazdi panart 'to take', Oss. ævnal- 'to lay hand upon, touch'; and on the other hand, Parachi nar- 'be able', Vedic sūnára- 'powerful, potent'. OPers. hūnara-, Av. hunara-, and Khwarezmian *kanūr, etc. 'ability, skill'. Further. given the semantics of the independent group
    Eng. might, may,, Gr, mêkhos 'means', mēkhanomai 'devise, bring about', Russ. mogú 'am able', Lith. magù 'want, like', one may add
    as one the one hand Chistoni (Per. Gypsy speech of the Hisar Valley in Tajikistan) argot når- make, do' and on the other hand
    Lith. nóras 'a wish, a desire' (cf. magù), as a non-Indo-Iranian IE evidence of the verbal root. For this and other examples of Chistoni argot, see my "On some Iranian secret vocabularies" (in Trends in Iranian and Persian lingusitics, A. Korangy and C. Miller, eds.,
    De Gruyter-Mouton 2018, 69-80), 78-80, where an earlier
    version of my account of the etymology of Nārt(æ) is to be found.
    I now restate the latter etymology: A Proto-Iranian derivative
    of the verb root established above, *nar-Ørā- (Ø = theta) 'the quality of strength' yielded Oss. Nārt(æ), reinterpreted as a collective of individuals, 'the Narts'.

  5. Terry Hunt said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 3:39 pm

    @ Martin Schwartz — If you have noticed that the Wikipedia article is amateurishly phrased, misleading, and a problem, who better to correct it than yourself?
    Wikipedia is "the Encyclopedia that anyone can edit" (subject to its policies and protocols) precisely in order that those with access to the requisite knowledge can, provided that they cite everything to a published 'Reliable source', improve it.
    Every month around 100,000 different individuals carry out edits on Wikipedia; why not join in?

  6. Victor Mair said,

    August 1, 2022 @ 10:30 pm

    @Terry Hunt

    Great suggestions!

    I'm a huge fan and generous supporter of Wikipedia, and many of my best scholar-friends have donated years of selfless expertise to writing invaluable articles for Wikipedia. I have the highest regard for their contributions.

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