The Secret History of the Mongols

By Bira, Shagdaryn | UNESCO Courier, September 1989 | Go to article overview

The Secret History of the Mongols


Bira, Shagdaryn, UNESCO Courier


The Secret History of the Mongols

THE Secret History of the Mongols (Mongyol-un ni'uca tobca'an) is the earliest surviving literary monument of the Mongolian people. Its author is unknown, and although it is widely thought to have been written in 1240, both its original title and the exact date of its composition are still matters for debate.

What is beyond doubt is the fact the The Secret History is a historical and literary document of major importance. Not only does it recount the genealogy of the early Mongol khans and the life and times of Genghis Khan, founder of a unified Mongol state, it also paints a vivid and accurate picture of the nomadic Mongol way of life and provides rich source material for an understanding of Mongol society in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Soviet Academician Boris Vladimirtsov has described The Secret History as a "history-chronicle" retold in epic style and "impregnated with the aroma of the steppe". A British scholar, David Morgan, has pointed out that whatever hesitations historians may feel about the work as a strictly accurate record of historical events, there can be no doubt that it provides a unique and authoritative insight into the way of life, patterns of thought and beliefs of the thirteenth-century Mongols.

Genghis Khan, the warrior who united the Mongol tribes

The Secret History may be divided into three parts--a genealogy of the ancestors of Genghis Khan, stories about the life of Genghis Khan, and a short section on his son and successor Ogodei.

The first part records the legendary history of Mongolia as reconstructed from very ancient oral traditions--myths and legends, stories and accounts of historical events. It opens with the legend that the forefather of the Mongolian people was "a bluish wolf which was born having [his] destiny from Heaven above", whose "spouse was a fallow doe".(1) The image of the wolf appears in the mythology of many Eurasian peoples, closely connected with ancestor cults of the tribal chief or the founder of a clan.

The following well-documented genealogy of the Mongol khans exalts the glory of the "Golden Horde" and is the genealogical basis for studies of the early history of the Mongolian people.

The main theme is developed in the second part of the epic, in which legend and myth give way to more reliable historical data. Although the narrative continues in the epic style, it begins to assume the characteristics of a chronicle. An ancient Eastern system of chronology, based on a twelve-year animal cycle, is used to date events in the history of the numerous Mongolian tribes and their unification into a single state by Genghis Khan, the central figure of the story.

Genghis Khan is portrayed not only as a legendary hero and warrior, the embodiment of the "steppe aristocracy", but also as a great political figure and statesman who decided by his "iron will" to put an end to the discord among the Mongol tribes, where anarchy prevailed:

The Heaven with stars

Was turning round about.

The many peoples were at strife.

Not entering into their beds,

They were spoiling one another.

The earth with crust

Was turning backward and forward.

The whole nation was at strife.

Although the main hero of the story is Genghis Khan, one of the greatest conquerors in world history, the author does not seem to attach great significance to his military campaigns against other countries, as if he had deliberately ignored that aspect of Genghis' career. On the other hand, he constantly stresses to readers and listeners the benefits and privileges to be enjoyed within a centralized Mongolian state.

The third, much shorter, part of The Secret History summarizes the reign of Ogodei (1228-1241), the second great khan of Mongolia. It is thought to be a later addition to the main text. …

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