The Alpamysh, part 1: a fateful contest between friends
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Editor’s note: Today is the winter solstice, an important moment in many ancient traditions. neweurasia’s H.B. Paksoy, a distinguished scholar of Turkic studies, is commemorating the solstice, and the turn of the new year, with an original translation of the Alpamysh epic. This is the first part of a huge new post series that will last into 2011.
It’s now 23:38 UCT — the winter solstice. This was once a very important day for shamanistic societies around the world, including Central Asia, about which I’ve written at length academically and for neweurasia. Last year I commemorated the event with some original translations of poetry that reflected the interaction between our region’s native shamanism and the later Islamic import. This year, I present to you my translation of the Alpamysh Dastan, in multiple parts through to the new year of the present international Gregorian calendar, and beyond.
Alpamysh is a Turkic dastan, i.e., ornate oral history, and a prime representative of the Turkic oral literature of Central Asia. This literature has been and remains the principal repository of ethnic identity, history, customs, and the value systems of its owners and composers. Set mostly in verse, the Alpamysh dastan is known and recited from the eastern Altai to the western Ural mountain ranges and as far south as Band-e Turkestan. It commemorates the Turkic people’s struggles for freedom, on one level materially, but at a deeper level spiritually.
The events leading to the composition of the dastan may date from a very early period. Although some published variants depict these struggles to be against Kalmak oppressors, these are perhaps the result of later overlays. A major variant of the dastan, under the title “The Tale of Bamsi Beyrek of the Grey Horse,” forms part of the Book of Dede Korkut and is known in Azerbaijan and Asia Minor. Otherwise, Alpamysh is shared by Central Asians across the continent and knowledge of this dastan is an inseparable part of identity and national pride. Failure to know it was once regarded as a source of shame.
This work was produced over a span of seven years, with research conducted on three continents, ten countries and almost two dozen cities. I worked on it originally to explore the effect of Soviet policies upon local cultural traditions and literature, as well as to dig deeper into Central Asia’s mythic, shamanistic past and cast more light on the fertile interaction between the region’s ancient Tengriist beliefs and the later Islamic import. The copyright’s mine and I’ve happily turned the manuscript over to neweurasia to re-publish it. If you’re curious to learn more, you may click on image to the right (a photo of my manuscript’s cover) to read my introduction and critical remarks, in which this translation was originally ensconced.
I should explain a bit about the style of what you’re about to read. Due to the nature of the material, which was originally oral, hyperbolic, and prone to repetitions and interpolations, the translation is in many ways literal and frequently a bit fragmented or awkward. Schwartz has graciously taken the time to convert my original poetic stanza arrangements into regular prose, as well as to make the occasional tweak to the text when warranted. Since this is primarily an academic and cultural project, neweurasia will also publish my critical edition of the Classical Chaghatay original, which I rendered into the Roman script, as an epilogue. This way curious and astute readers can judge the quality of my translation for themselves.
Because of the story’s sheer scale, it will take several months for the entire text, which will run part by part of varying lengths, to be published here on the network. Consequently, Schwartz and I consider this one of neweurasia‘s most ambitious projects to date. We hope that you agree, and most of all, that you find it enjoyable and enlightening.
These are the verses of the ancient tale of Alpamysh Batir. In the times past, in the land of Jidali Baysun, Baybora and Baysari were two equal Princes. There was abundance all around. Princedom did not take away worries about being barren.
“What is the use of the possessions beyond the [yurt] threshold Baysari Bay,” the two princes conferred. “Listen Baybora, we are about to leave the world without offspring. If God favored, the apostle interceded, patron saints (performed a) miracle; only progeny we should ask.”
These words sounded reasonable to both. [It is agreed that] patron saints are to be visited, God petitioned. With tears, two princes promised each other: “If God gives us children, a son to one of us, and a daughter to the other, would you agree to their betrothal?” “I certainly would” said the other. “If I had a son” [and] “if I had a daughter;” “we will match them,” they promised each other.
Even in the absence of a daughter, they became kudas. Great God showed mercy, their wishes were granted.
Time passed, days followed days. They went back to their lands. Safely they arrived in their homes. Jan Talas was Baybora’s wife. Baysari took Altun Sach his wife. There was togetherness. Their tears were accepted, and there was pregnancy.
Nine months and eleven days passed. [...] When stomachs protrude with pregnancy, eyes could not see the ground. The celebrated day arrived. Baybora’s wife gave birth to a son and a daughter. Baysari’s wife, to a daughter. A great feast was arranged. Ninety mares were skinned, hearths were fired in every direction, altun kabak was shot. Smart sword plays were made. Wrestling contests arranged. Games lasted thirty and the feast forty days. Golden cribs were placed in the house.
Both Princes brought their children, and placed them in the arms of the mollas. “You, the chosen people of God, name the children,” [the mollas were asked,] “and pray for them.” All the princes thus displayed confidence [in the mollas]. Robes of Honor were presented [to the mollas]. Discussion ensued, names were suggested for the children. The Princes were not satisfied [with the proposed names]. Upon casting an eye towards the kible, hoca mollas [in their distinctive garb] were beheld. These were God’s servants, seven kalendars.
Hoca mollas stated: “Baybora Bay, your tears are answered. From the unknown world, destiny sent the dervishes. Let them name the children. Whatever [names] they chose is acceptable to us. We will raise our hands [in prayer for their acceptance in the presence of God].”
Their share (of the food) was presented to them from the house of the feast. The seven kalendars were invited to the center: “You, the wanderers of the unknown, name these children” they were asked. The kalendars agreed. “The only son of Baybora Bay should be Valiant Alpamysh. His daughter’s name, Kirlangich. Baysari Bay’s daughter, Glbarchin. May Glbarchin be a match to Alpamysh.”
The seven kalendars have embraced Alpamysh, patted him on the back, calling him the only son. “We are your seven pirs. If you slip on a muddy road, burdened with worries, and ask for help from your seven pirs, and God sends his help, it will be our duty to render it”.
The forty wanderers of the unknown disappeared. The grand festivities ended. Seven years passed. One day, the two Princes sat down and conferred: “We asked for a son, and were endowed with one; same for a daughter. We became kudas. We are getting old, youth is fleeting. We have feasts [to attend] yet. Let us mount the Karakasga horses, and braid their tails. When we get older, it will hurt more when we fall off the horse while playing kok boru.”
They chose good horses, and proceeded to play kok boru. Baysari Bay grabbed the goat and took the lead. Baybora Bay gave chase after him, grabbed a leg of the goat. Baysari Bay did not let go. Both of them contested, became adversaries, struck each other with whips and [in due course] entered into the crowd of contesters. Baybora Bay’s family was teeming. Baysari Bay’s family was not as numerous.
During the kok boru grappling, the goat assumed the personality of the Devil. Baysari Bay experienced much difficulty and belittling from his kuda Baybora. If the lock of hair remained, and life left he [Baysari Bay] resented his kuda and his actions [during the Kok Boru]. “He [Baybora] caused me to remain childless.”
Because of his ill feelings, Baysari left the field and went back to his home. Due to his distress he did not leave his house or bed for seven days and nights. He spent his time surmising. “Baybora was my eternal relation. Since he caused me grief, I should move away, find another place to live. Find a place [to go] where I will not be belittled. I should not allow my daughter to marry his [Baybora Bay's] son. I should not give him a pinch of my salt. In this false world, I should not see Baybora Bay’s face again.”
Thereby, he decided to move to a distance of forty days and six months to the land ruled by Taysha Khan.
End of Part 1