'The Narts' Introduction

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic



“Long ago, a great tribe lived by the sea, in the land where we Circassians live today. Members of this tribe were called the Narts. The Narts were very tall and strong, and in battle and labor, they had no equal. They say we evolved from them.[*]


The Narts: is a compilation of short stories and essays based on the myths, characters, and folk tales of the Circassian nations, known as the Nart sagas.

The Nart sagas are a common cultural element among various nations in the North Caucasus region including the Abkhaz, Abaza, Ossetians, Georgians, Ingush, and Chechens.

Primarily, it is imperative to begin by saying that the Nart sagas compose the foremost vital ingredient and fundamental column of the Circassian nation's culture. The Circassian's, or the self- proclaimed Adige’s, are the ancient indigenous peoples of the North-West North Caucasus region, who endured a long struggle against the Czarist domination to their land. Through sporadic skirmishes and long-drawn campaigns, the Circassian's valiantly resisted annexation for centuries. The year 1864 marked the end of Russo-Caucasian wars in which the Russian Empire seized the Circassian’s homeland. More than half of the Circassian’s forcefully migrated into Ottoman lands, and those who remained underwent harsh reformations and Russification policies under the Czarist rule, followed by Communism. Today, the Circassian’s in the North Caucasus live in three autonomous republics within the Russian Federation; the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, the Republic of Adigea and the Republic of Karachay-Cherkessk. In the Diaspora, the Circassian’s have largely formed communities in Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Israel, Europe, and the USA.


Circassian’s regard the Nart sagas as the surviving component which verifies their ancient history, heritage and position within early and modern world civilizations and peoples. The Nart sagas, whether songs, poems or tales, can be viewed as equally significant as Greek Mythology is to the Greeks, Norse Myths to the Scandinavians and the account of the Great Flood to ancient Babylon. The Nart sagas profoundly offer world civilizations a vast collection of astounding accounts. they narrate the quests, spirituality, psyche and values of the bygone ages in the North-West North Caucasus' region; the magical land which still contains the essence of various prehistoric civilizations belonging to Paleolithic-Neolithic ages and later followed by the Maykop culture, Dolmen people and then the ancient Sinds, Meots and Scythians. (Jaimoukha, 2001, p 311-312). It is also worthy to mention that the Circassian’s are alleged to have direct lingual and cultural connections with the proto-Hattites, ancient Egyptians (Rifqi,1948,p7) and the Sumerians  (Simkogh,1995,p26); allowing the North Caucasus region to be considered as the cradle of ancient civilizations and peoples.


There are several hypotheses concerning the origin of the word "Nart." Initially it is important to note that ‘Nart’ is pronounced ‘Nat’ by some western Circasssian tribes such as the Shapsigh and Natx’wazh. The earliest supposition was made by Circassian writer Nogmow, who suggested that Nart follows Circassian’s' ancestral connection with the Ent nation, proposing that it represents the “Ents’ Eyes”, ensuing the historical link between the two (Nogmow, 1861, p.8).  However, this theory has not been proven and is surrounded with speculation. Another hypothesis suggests that the word ‘Nart’ translates to ‘giving’ or ‘to give with one’s eye’, an indication of high esteem in Circassian language (Ozbek, 1982, p. 104).

Originally, the Nart sagas were verbally narrated across seceding generations, and randomly published in a few North Caucasian and Russian periodicals before and after the Russo-Caucasian wars in 1861 and 1864 (B.Ozbek, 1982, p89). A few publications were also published in the early 1900's, but regrettably, some of the Circassian Nart sagas have faded in the abyss of lost epochs of history. However, it was not until the efforts of Circassian scholar A. M. Hedeghel’e, who managed to collect and record a vast amount of the sagas in the Circassian language, published in seven affluent volumes 'NARTXER Adige Epos', The Circassian Nart Epics (??????? ????? ???? 1968-71), that most of the Circassian Nart sagas were securely preserved (approximately 700). 

Kardenghuch' Ziramikw, a prominent Circassian scholar has enormously contributed to the preservation and renaissance of numerous Nart anthems and Circassian folk tales. His collected recorded work played a substantial role in the rebirth of Circassian lore among the 20th century generations and beyond.

John Colarusso, a scholar in comparative linguistics at McMaster University in Ontario Canada, published the splendid book, 'Nart Sagas from the Caucasus', which assembled, translated and annotated over 90 Circassian, Abaza, Abkhaz and Ubykh Nart sagas.Additionally, Circassian writers and scholars in the Diaspora, particularly from Turkey and Syria, as well as western scholars and philologists such as Georges Dumézil have issued numerous works and publications on the Nart Mythology. 


Hedeghel’e assumes that the sagas’ formation can be dated as far back as 800 B.C. (B.Ozbek,1982,p90);, nonetheless, an earlier estimation can be identified by the components found  within some of the sagas, which comply with Herodotus' description of the Scythians and the Hattites who share parallel deities and heroes with  the Narts (Ozbek,1982,p90). The historical events and ancient cultural elements portrayed in the Nart sagas indicate a dynamic society interacting with ancient nations and demonstrate pagan religious ritual practices associated with sun and tree veneration, animism and the worship of an assortment of gods and goddesses, as well as the revolutionary invention of metallurgy and its use. These clear archaic facets instituted in the Nart sagas may only lead to the evident explanation, and adequate recognition that the Narts compose a vital element and a dominant feature in the ancient world given the various timelines.


The Circassian’s venerate the Narts as a component of their ancestry, which essentially symbolizes the Circassian nations' psyche, pride, and heritage. The characters display gallant attributes and are often exhibited as giants and demigods with paranormal powers able to perform valiant deeds, shamanism, converse with animals and trees and fight brutes and one-eyed dragons. They are a tribe of warriors, hunters, immortal heroes, and heroines in continuous search for knowledge, glory, and notoriety. Moreover, in their lyrical prone and cyclic composition, they narrate the characters' biography from birth to death, their confrontations, and battles with gods and fiends, and their audacious journeys in the depth of the seas and over the skies. The Nart sagas also enclose some dark aspects displaying promiscuity, blasphemy, treason, and trickery and ultimately exhibiting objectionable and catastrophic outcomes. The sagas report that the Narts’ race ended after two major occurrences; the appearance of the human race and the exceedingly arrogant state the Narts developed into, which eventually led to their downfall. 


The notable significance of the Nart sagas is that each account manifests important symbols and ingredients, which denote the Circassian’s social, spiritual, and intellectual evolution, innovation of tools, astronomical acquaintance, and the shift from one historical epoch to the other. They essentially served as an oral code of conduct resembling a holy manuscript, preserving their history and progress, and a guide towards a virtuous path in life by conveying high morals and values. The Nart sagas relevantly had had the highest impact in shaping the Circassian identity, and they are the foundation stone of the Circassian etiquette or code of conduct known as Adige Xabze.


Lady Seteney and her son Sosriqwe are the protagonists in the Nart sagas. Seteney represents the fertility figure and an emblem of the matriarchal age. She possesses extreme wisdom and unparalleled ageless beauty. Using her miraculous powers, she controls the weather, bestows the Narts with knowledge and victory over their enemies during battle, and she is the mother of all Narts, who raised the chief Nart heroes such as Bedenoqwe, 'Aschemez and most notably Sosriqwe (Qumuq, M. 1984, p21). Sosriqwe is the youngest of all Narts, who often appears as their redeemer. He exemplifies many mystic characteristics; he is able to spread warmth and cold in the universe and transform himself into various shapes. He was repeatedly described as "the light,” the "golden shield" and as "Sosriqwe, whom the sun burnishes from his cranium" (which may correspond to sun- worshipping ages) (Ozbek, 1982, p.12).


What distinguishes Sosriqwe is his unusual birth. There are 31 different accounts (Ozbek, 1982, p20) regarding this, the most prominent in which is: A day when Seteney was bathing by a river, a herdsman standing on the opposite bank was aroused by her beauty only to release his semen, which crossed from the river and stroked a rock, which stood next to Seteney. Unaware of what had happened, Seteney notices the stricken rock pounding with noise and exceedingly enlarging; carrying the rock, she sought the knowledge of her companion and advisor, the innovator and the blacksmith of the Narts, Lhepsch, who opens the rock to find an infant flaming like fire inside. Sosriqwe was held by his knees with a pair of tongs and dipped into the water seven times to become solid as Iron, hence Sosriqwe came to be. This account is by far the most notable among the Nart sagas.


Mamduh Qumuq, author of the Circassian Nart Epics, explains that,

‘There are certain significant symbols that are continuously detected along with Sosriqwe’s birth: 

  1. The mother figure (Seteney) 
  2. The Herdsman
  3. The river (water)
  4. Rock
  5. Fire
  6. Iron

'These symbols that constantly appear in many of the accounts are civil codes denoting the progression of humankind and psyche throughout thousands of years’(Qumuq, 1984, p21).  


Parallel to various world mythologies, the Nart sagas also correspond with many mythological and biblical stories and characters. Some narratives are almost identical. The birth of Christ corresponds to the birth of Sosriqwe, Ishtar and Tammuz to Seteney and Sosriqwe, Aphrodite to Seteney, Osiris to Sozeresch, the birth of Moses to the birth of Schebetiniqwe, Achilles' heel to Sosriqwe's most vulnerable spot in his knee, the Virgin Mary and Joseph to Lhepsch the blacksmith and Seteney, Hephaestus to Lhepsch, the account of Prometheus to Peterez and bearded Nesran, and the remarkable analogous with Nart Wardana to Norse war god Ordin (Colarusso, 2000, p7). The unending comparisons are astounding.

Therefore, it is believed that there must have been a common platform between the Nart sagas and the epics and cultures of the ancient Near East civilizations, which have been part of, or aided in the appearance of monotheistic religions (Qumuq, 1984, p.17).

John Colarusso wrote; ‘Because these people were at the crossroad of Eurasia for millennia, their myths exhibit striking parallels with the lore of ancient India, classical Greece, and Pagan Scandinavia. The Nart sagas may also have formed a crucial component of the Arthurian cycle’. (Colarusso, 2002, leaflet)


It was certainly a crossroad; the mountainous homeland of the Narts demonstrated in the sagas is the land stretching from the North of the Sea of Azov to the centre of the Caucasus Mountains including the North of the Black Sea region to the banks of River Dnieper, Crimea and the coastal plains of Colchis (Mertoqua, 1999, p.33).

The geography of the Narts homeland as recited in the sagas, imparts details that confirm the prehistoric inhabitation by the Circassian people in the North Caucasus. The Nart sagas designations for seas, rivers, mountains, and nations that interacted and dwelled in the area embrace palpable meaning and significance in Circassian language. Yindil (Volga River), Tane (Don River), Pshize or Psizch(Kuban River), ’Uzev or Xi Miwit’e (Azov Sea), Xi Sh’uts’e (Black Sea) amongst many others are designations that verify the Circassian inhabitation and interaction in those areas (Hedeghel’e, 1968, p. 33).


Originally, The Narts was intended to be published as a book of three parts. A Narration, Translation of selected Nart myths, and Annotaton of Nart characters. However, I will be sharing each part seperatly instead in a form of short stories, essays and articles. 

The first section of The Narts, the Narration, is an introductory story stirred by numerous existing sagas, incorporating parts of favored accounts and existing characters, into a single story. Each chapter of the narration is dedicated to emphasize on a specific fragment of the Narts over-all nature, culture, and traditions. Additionally, historical events, poems, toast and proverbs, originally narrated in Circassian ceremonies, have been included, which allege the Circassian ancestors’ interaction with ancient civilizations.

Essentially, the first section, the narration, is a preface for the subsequent appendix followed by two distinct parts. It will combine both theoretical and valid data, entwined with personal perspective of the Nart sagas momentum, and draw attention to the Circassians' lore and most notably the Circassian language, presented in appendix 1.


The Circassian language is a member of the North-West Caucasian language family known as Adigebze, and is a form of logogram lingo, in which a single grapheme composes a word.  It is the same form of language used among ancient Sumerians, Hittites, Akkadians and so forth. Hence, to this purpose, appendix 1, will attempt to divulge a relationship between Circassian and some ancient languages based on studies undertaken by contemporary Circassian Diaspora scholars such as Munther Putch, Omar Rifqi and Ali Shoray. The mode of conduct will follow selected words and phrases in Circassian language revealing the distinctive archaic features instituted within, by scrutinizing over 60 Circassian words and translating the subsequent meanings. The proposed translations are of absolute lore; the mode of describing  a 'state-of-mind' or a 'feeling' in Circassian is extraordinarily descriptive and at times very spiritual, leading to a personal belief that the Circassian’s – like some ancient nations - conceived a language in order to express their relationship with the divine. It is also worthy to mention that the Circassian mother tongue may be considered as a proto-historic language, believed to have retained its original form and sound throughout thousands of years with changes detected in accent varying from one tribe to another, mainly western and eastern Circassian dialects.


The second part of the book contributes to a character analysis of selected Narts; each character that partook in the narration is explored by disclosing their main roles in the Nart sagas, and analogous with other world mythological characters and heroes.


A selection of 43 preferred sagas, laments, and folk tales are presented in part three; each account is translated from Circassian language into English, retaining as much as possible the original format and mode of narration. It displays some of the most ancient myths found in the North Caucasus region. Fourteen of the narrations are initially presented in native Circassian (Cyrillic), then Latinized Circassian, and followed by English translation to the entire text. 


Moreover, I would like to express my general interest in mythology as a subject, stimulated by readings, especially those of the late Joseph Campbell, preeminent scholar, teacher and author of the Power of Myth and the Hero with a Thousand Faces, has ultimately opened many personal perceptions while reading the Nart sagas. Joseph Campbell’s work has been by far one of the most inspiring materials detected in the first part of the book, the narration. According to Campbell, ‘Myth is that field of reference to what is absolutely transcendent.’ (J.Campbell, 1988, p58). He believed that the nuances of culture- particularly spiritual beliefs and rituals- have a mythological origin, and that myths have been the cohort of humanity and civilization from time immemorial to this day.


Our world that has been known to us since early humanity is based on one grand fable called mythology. Mythology is layers of ideas, emotions, beliefs, fears, aspirations, and intuition that conceived the inimitable entity that we call our life, but in its own way also conceived the identity of nations. Mythology can be regarded as the foundation of cultural independence, peculiarity, and success, and the legacy that belongs to every human aspiring to thrive in the realm of the past, present and future.

The Nart sagas at large possess considerable elements that perpetuate such aspirations, although they are not anonymous to the world of mythology, yet, their deserved global status has coarsely been shaded under occupation and cultural oppression. Moreover, their crucial cultural impact for human progression has been masked from their rightful offspring’s, the Circassians.

The Circassian culture and identity is severely distorted; 300 years of war, ethnic cleansing, deportations, over 145 years under Russian occupation, and a population greater than 3 million assimilating in Diaspora communities across the globe, has effectively engulfed the Circassians in a critical disposition. Causing the behavior, nature, and prosperity of the independent Circassian as an individual in this world become indisputably hampered.


Although this book will not mend the fragmented Circassian cultural status, but it will convey the foundation of the Circassian mores from their oral folk, and endeavor, with the efforts of like-minded institutions and individuals to recoup, promote, and commemorate the Nart sagas in the compass of the western world, for them to be considered from a wider perspective. It is a very modest contribution to support the Nart sagas in reclaiming their vindicated position in the sphere of world cultures and civilizations.


Finally, it is impossible not to restate yet again the immeasurable efforts and accomplishments of prominent and dedicated scholars, masters and wardens of Circassian mythology and folklore Hedeghel’e Asker and Kardenghuch’ Ziramuk; they are owed much more than a tribute, yet, there are no sufficient words that can gratify their work and belief in the Circassian human. This work amongst hundreds would not have seen light without their faith in the word Adige.


[*] West Circassian legend “How the Narts came to be” (www.heku.ru) 

Submitted: September 30, 2016

© Copyright 2023 Zaina El-Said. All rights reserved.

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