Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Late Antique Literary Motifs in Yezidi Oral Tradition: The Yezidi Myth of Adam

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Late Antique Literary Motifs in Yezidi Oral Tradition: The Yezidi Myth of Adam

Article excerpt

Oral traditions undergo constant change and evolution. Some elements, perhaps seen as obsolete, can be discarded while new ones are introduced. These new elements may have a number of sources, but can often be traced back to traditions of other religious groups. "Oral traditions collected from all over the world show a great freedom of borrowing between cultures." (1) Such borrowings may occur between two oral cultures, but many motifs found in oral tradition have their origins in written literature. Literacy influences oral tradition in many ways, including plot, characters, and other motifs. (2) Of course, such borrowings are not "servile imitation." The borrowed elements take on a life of their own in their new surroundings, even while their literary origins have been long forgotten. Not only may so-called folk tales and secular oral works borrow from written texts but so does religious oral tradition. Religions based exclusively on oral tradition may borrow elements, or even whole myths, either directly or indirectly (that is, through a number of intermediaries that may themselves have been oral) from religious literature. An eloquent, and hitherto ignored, example of literary traditions from one religion surfacing in the oral traditions of another religion may be found in the mythology of the Yezidis, in particular in the myth surrounding the creation of Adam.

The Yezidis are a Kurdish-speaking religious minority, with a religion based exclusively on oral tradition. The majority of .Yezidis (perhaps 200,000-300,000) live in northern Iraq while smaller groups may be found in Syria, Turkey, and the Transcaucasian states. (3) The religion of the Yezidis bears the marks of the influence of numerous religions once flourishing in the region and displays an amazing ability to adapt and reshape any "foreign" element, building up from them a totally new and original system. Until recently, very little was known about Yezidi religion. This is partly due to the secrecy surrounding many Middle Eastern religious minorities related to their fear of persecution, and partly to the fact that Yezidis had no writing. Religious tests (hymns and tales) were transmitted orally by the qewwals, a hereditary cast of "bards." (4) This lack of writing and the inherent characteristics/ peculiarities of a religion based exclusively on oral tradition made the collection and interpretation of. Yezidi lore difficult. The richness of (often contradictory) variants, and what seemed like badly remembered scraps of Christian and Muslim scriptures bemused observers.

Such was the fate of the myth of the creation of Adam and his expulsion from Paradise. It has never been questioned that the Yezidi myth of the creation and fall of Adam ultimately derives from Biblical (or Quranic) sources. But the "quaint" details, at odds with the version known to all "peoples of the Book" were seen as the mere results of Yezidi imagination, both childishly overactive and theologically uninformed. (5) Accordingly, this myth has never received the attention it deserves as a living testimony of how long-forgotten myths of another era can live on in a new guise, bridging the centuries and weaving a fragile network between the cultures and religions that followed each other in the region.


The Yezidi myth of Adam's creation, his Fall, and "punishment" might strike outsiders as an ad hoc patchwork of ill-fitting and sometimes senseless details. However, if analyzed with sufficient care and regard for the religious history of the region, this myth proves to be a repository of the colorful mythological inheritance of the Middle East.

As is characteristic of oral tradition, the Adam myth has several different versions. The following version was collected by the author from Feqir Haji, an aged feqir, or holy man, famous for his acquaintance with Yezidi sacred lore. (6) This variant has so far not appeared in print, apart from a few sketchy and obscure references. …

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