Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Oral Epics into the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the Kyrgyz Epic Manas

Academic journal article Journal of American Folklore

Oral Epics into the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the Kyrgyz Epic Manas

Article excerpt

In 1995, four years after reaching independence, the republic of kyrgyzstan celebrated "manas 1000," the thousandth birthday of their major epic Manas.1 like the epic, which, in one version, comprises half a million verse lines, the celebrations were on a grand scale. uneSco had declared 1995 the year of the Manas celebration, and Federico mayor, uneSco's director general at the time, delivered an address at the end of the festivities. official delegations from a number of countries had arrived to watch the Manas dance-and-drama spectacle in the plain of talas, the home of the hero, and to experience kyrgyz hospitality in the yurts erected there. An international conference had also been organized, with papers on many aspects of the epic, and in bishkek, kyrgyzstan's capital, the loudspeakers on public squares boomed with the sound of singers performing the epic. The first president of kyrgyzstan, Asqar Aqayev, then still in power, gave a speech on "manas-the non-Fading Star of the kyrgyz Spirit," as the english version of his speech, distributed to the members of the various delegations, was entitled. There can be little doubt that "manas 1000" was a demonstration of kyrgyz independence, kyrgyz nationhood, and kyrgyz pride in their cultural heritage.

In view of the political and cultural significance of these celebrations, the question of whether the Manas epic is in fact 1,000 years old is almost of secondary importance. Scholars have linked some of the characters of the epic (in particular the hero manas himself), as well as some of the events featuring in it, to the historical period after the defeat of the uighurs in 840 ce. At that time, the kyrgyz had the supremacy in inner Asia, with the center of their power in an area extending from the shores of lake baikal and the upper course of the yenisei to the Altai mountain range and its foothills. Their realm came to an end with the conquests of Genghis khan at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Placing the origin of the epic in this historical period raises many problems and has not found acceptance with all scholars. considering that the earliest written versions of the epic are no earlier than the middle of the nineteenth century, the epic's genesis must remain speculative. There is, however, one early "text" of a tiny fragment of the epic. it is found in a historiographical work, written in Persian, which dates to the end of the fifteenth century or the beginning of the sixteenth century. This work devotes much space to manas, his relatives, his companions, and his foes, and it quotes six lines from the poem (in Persian translation). it is therefore probably safe to say that 1995 marked 500 years of Manas-if not 1,000. Saying this, however, does not exclude the possibility that the origin of the kyrgyz epic tradition is considerably older.2 What is surprising about the kyrgyz epic tradition is not so much its age-whatever that may be-but its continuance into the present day, into the twenty-first century.

Manas in the Context of Other Living Epics

Manas is not the only oral epic still alive, of course. A look at uneSco's list of intangible cultural heritage shows that the kyrgyz tradition is only one of many.3 in fact, more oral epic traditions are known than are listed by uneSco. Among indian traditions, neither the rajasthani Pabuji epic from the north nor the tulu Siri epic from the southwest appears in the list. While an oral epic from mauretania is listed, the oral art of the griots from mali is absent from the list, and there is no mention of the vibrant epic tradition in the rugova Gorge in kosovo. Among the peoples speaking a turkic language, the oral epic traditions of the turks of turkey, of the Azerbaijanians, of the yakuts, and of the kyrgyz are represented. The latter includes both kyrgyz from kyrgyzstan and those from Xinjiang, china, where they comprise a small minority of the population.4 As far as the genres of oral epic and romance are concerned, however, only the kyrgyz, among the turkic-speaking peoples, still have a flourishing living tradition. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.