Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs
The sagas of the Narts, tales and myths of a race of larger-than-life heroes descended from a single mother and living before the time of men, recited [End Page 390] and sung by male and female bards as both poetry and prose, are among the most important works of the world's traditional literatures. Nart traditions are found among peoples speaking languages from four different linguistic families all along the mountains of the North Caucasus and even among the Svan and Georgian highlanders, who belong to a fifth linguistic family (Kartvelian) and live just over the peaks in the South Caucasus. John Colarusso has given us a definitive collection and masterful translation directly from the Northwest Caucasian linguistic tradition that can be enjoyed as recreational reading or, thanks to the fine scholarly apparatus that is both informative and unobtrusive, studied for research purposes or used in the classroom.
The name Nart is of Iranian origin from an Indo-European root that is the source of words meaning 'man,' 'hero,' etc, in Sanskrit, Old Irish, Italic (e.g., the Sabine proper name Nero means 'strong'), and Greek (the source of the English prefix andro- and the suffix -andry). As the most archaic of the Nart corpora, the Northwest Caucasian Nart sagas preserve an ancient Iranian core, but also contain Northwest Caucasian accretions of such antiquity that they serve as a window into a more archaic past. Some of the tales are uniquely Northwest Caucasian in their thematics, others have recognizable parallels with traditions and literatures such as Greek and Sanskrit mythology, Homer and the Bible, Norse, Old Irish, and Slavic as well as ancient Hittite and Hurrian myths, Kartvelian culture, and also Russian magic tales.
After an excellent introduction placing the Northwest Caucasian Nart corpus in its larger historical context, the main body of the book is divided into four sections containing selections from the Circassian and Abkhaz corpora as well as all that is available of the Ubykh and Abaza corpora, the total number of sagas being ninety-two. Each text is followed by commentary setting it in its general cultural context, including fascinating and enlightening excursions into comparative mythology, followed by footnotes etymologizing names, peculiar words, and commenting on specific details, the most anomalous of which, argues Colarusso, are likely to be the most archaic, since the only reason for their presence is tradition.
The fifth major section is an appendix giving sagas in five Northwest Caucasian languages: one each in Kabardian East Circassian, Bzhedukh West Circassian (Adyghe), Ubykh, Abaza (Tapanta dialect, 'Northern Abkhaz') and Bzyb Abkhaz. Each text begins with a chart of the phonological system and a discussion of salient features of the phonology, all of which are extraordinarily rich in consonants and famously poor in vowels. The introduction to the Kabardian East Circassian saga also has notes on verbal inflection and syntax which apply to all five sagas. Each saga is then given phonetically in numbered sentences. Below each sentence each word is given in phonemic transcription and separated into morphemes, and next to each word is a morpheme by morpheme gloss into English. At the [End Page 391] end, each numbered sentence is translated into grammatical English. The English translations of the Ubykh and Abaza sagas in the appendix are more literal than those in the main body in the text so that the reader can follow the original more easily. The book closes with a bibliography of around two hundred items.
This work is an extraordinary achievement, and at the same time it is an invitation to future research. Kevin Tuite supplied Colarusso with many valuable comments on relevant material from Kartvelian, but I noticed a number of parallels with Russian themes that could also be pointed out. Having written my BA thesis on Russian magic tales almost thirty-five years ago, I found my old interests revived by reading this collection. There is something here for everyone. The linguist has an extraordinarily interesting data set, students of anthropology, literature, religion, Caucasian and Near Eastern history, and other disciplines have rich source material, and the general reader has a chance to learn about a fascinating part of the world.
Victor Friedman, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Chicago