Myths from the Forest of Circassia, The World & I, December, 1989.
Myths from the Forest of Circassia, The World & I, December, 1989.
The Washington, D.C.: The Washington Times Publishing Corporation. Pp. 644-651.
Myths from the Forests of Circassia
Two myths from the Circassians of the Caucasus Mountains offer detailed insights into the ancient veneration of trees and sacred groves.
by John Colarusso
In the southernmost part of European Russia, near the border of the Soviet Union with Turkey and Iran rise the highest mountains in Europe, the mighty massif of the Caucasus. In the complex topography of this region live many tribes and ethnic groups, most of whom speak languages unrelated to any others on earth. One of these groups with a distinctive language is that of the Circassians. Famed for the beauty of their women and the bravery of their men, as well as for the bewildering complexity of their language, their homeland from remotest antiquity has been the north-west region of the Caucasus,(though today many live outside the Soviet Union). In the Caucasus they have pursued a horse-breeding, pastoralist way of life on the plains abutting the mountains and a life of animal-husbandry, farming, hunting and metal-working higher in the foothills. These same foothills with their dark gorges, many of which have never been penetrated by man, are covered by dense forests of hardwoods, conifers and undergrowth, such as rhododendron, watered by rains carried from the west off the Black Sea. While today the majority of Circassians are Sunni Moslems, they still preserve heroic myth-like myths, called Nart sagas, two of which reflect older practices of venerating trees and forests. Given the nature of their homeland, and the wide Eurasian traces of tree worship (for example, the English word 'true' is ultimately derived from the same root as that for 'tree'), these myths are not in themselves surprising. The rich insights that these myths provide into cultic practices surrounding trees and groves, however, are astounding. Here, with the help of my Circassian friend, Hisa Torkacho of Hillside, New Jersey, I present translations of two of the more interesting tree and forest myths. The first is from the collection of Circassian Nart sagas by the Soviet scholar Asker Hadaghat'la. The second was collected by Mr. Torkacho himself.
As god of fire and the forge Tlepsh had been very kind to the Narts, inventing many useful tools and implements for them. Despite his great skill and wisdom he was plagued by the feeling that the race of heroes, the Narts, still needed something vital to insure their well-being and survival. He went to the wise Lady Satanaya to ask her advice, but she was in a stingy mood and told him to set off about the world to see how other peoples lived, to search to the very edge of the earth itself, and perhaps by that means fulfill his quest.
Tlepsh returned to his smithy, fashioned a pair of boots from his strongest steel, put a heavy torque about his neck and a hat upon his head, took up his walking staff, and set off upon his quest. He traveled through an immense forest for one whole year. He lept a crag and a river and then bounded over seven more rivers, until he came to the shore of a great sea. There he fashioned a raft for himself from the branches of three nearby trees. Upon reaching the other side he found a band of lovely young women frolicking upon the sand. Smitten with passion he chased after them, but try as he might they slipped from his grasp every time. Finally, panting and red in the face, he admitted his failure and humiliation to them, and asked them what manner of women they were. They told him that they were the followers of a goddess, Lady Tree, and taking pity upon him, they took him to meet their mistress so that his honor might be restored.
When he came into the hall of Lady Tree he was confronted by a fabulous being, neither fully human nor fully tree: her trunk was mighty; her hair reached like clouds up into the heavens; and her roots sank down deep into the earth. She had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen. Strewn all about her were fabulous treasures. She bid him welcome and prepared a feast for him, then she said:
“How did you travel so far? You are the first mere man to reach me.”
“I am no mere man,” Tlepsh replied, “I am one of the gods.”
At this Lady Tree's curiosity grew into love, and later that night she honored Tlepsh by lying with him. Afterwards, despite her noble treatment of him, Tlepsh arose from her bed, his yearning to fulfill his quest for the Narts even more intense than before.
“I must leave you, Lady Tree,” he said. “I must resume my quest to find what the Narts need to live, even if I must travel to the very edge of the earth itself.”
Lady Tree was distraught and begged him,
“Stay and be my beloved. My hair reaches up into the heavens, so that I know all the stars and I shall give to you also knowledge of them. My roots reach deep down into the earth, so that I know all the life that springs therefrom, and I shall place in your arms all this life. My trunk stands in the world, so that I know the earth has no edge and I shall give to you all the treasure that is on the surface of the earth.”
But, Tlepsh rose from their bed, put on his steel shoes and his torque, donned his hat and took up his walking staff once more, and set off across the world. He traveled vast distances and in the end had to abandon his quest. Defeated he returned to Lady Tree.
"Welcome, Tlepsh," she said, "What have you learned from your travels?"
"I have learned that the earth has no edge," he replied.
"Yes, and what else?"
"That the human body is harder than the hardest steel."
"Yes, and what else?"
"That the hardest road is the one traveled alone."
"Yes, and what else? That life is beautiful?"
"Yes, Lady Tree, life is beautiful, but I have not found what the Narts need to survive."
"Your Narts," she replied,"they are haughty and stubborn. One day they shall perish because of these faults. If you had stayed, you would have found what you needed here, from me," and with this she placed in his arms a baby sun. "This is our child. Now, return to the Narts."
He returned to the Narts and pointed to the sky.
"Do you see the Milky Way above?"
"We do,"they answered.
"Then follow it at nights when you go out on raids, and follow it home when you return. Then you shall never become lost. But, this baby sun above must be cared for and nurtured. Who shall tend to him?"
Seven women stepped forward and said,
"We shall nurse and care for him. We do not want any calamity to befall him, lest our men become lost on their night raids."
But, in time, despite their ministrations, the baby sun wandered off to play, became lost and vanished. At first the women searched for him, but when they could not find him they ran to the men. The Narts mounted their horses and set off to find him, but they too failed to find any trace of him. Then in desperation they turned to Tlepsh.
"Tlepsh! The Milky Way had wandered off. We cannot find him. Go to his mother, Lady Tree. Surely he has returned to her to play."
Tlepsh did as they had asked, but when he came into the presence of Lady Tree and asked her if the baby sun had returned to her she said,
"Our child is not here. There is nothing to be done, save for you to turn back. Perhaps he shall return, and the Narts will prosper and thrive. Perhaps he shall be forever lost, and the Narts will perish."
With his head hung in dejection Tlepsh returned to the Narts.
The worship or veneration of trees was at one time widespread across Eurasia. The Norse had the world-tree, Yggdrasil; the Kelts had their druids and sacred oaks and groves; the Romans had a special link between their supreme god, Jupiter, and the oak; the Greeks had sacred groves, one of their gods, Dionysios, had a tree incarnation, and there is evidence for local tree goddess cults; the nomadic Iranians of Classical Antiquity, who roamed the steppes of Central Asia and the Ukraine, have left a burial at Pazyryk in Siberia, which shows a goddess on a thrown holding a tree while a horseman pays homage to her; in India a pole festooned with flowers and ornaments, caled "Indra's Tree", is the center of a round dance; this Indic tree has a clear parallel in the European practice of dancing around the Maypole, which must have been a tree originally; tree images abound in early Mesopotamian art and of course the Bible itself makes good use of trees; and in the Caucasus the Abkhazians, kinsmen of the Circassians, have sacred trees and groves.
What is interesting about the Circassian myth is that it provides us with an excellent insight into why trees were so venerated. In an age prior to technology man was utterly earthbound. He could attain heights only by climbing a mountain or a tree. In fact in all the world only trees had, as part of their essential nature, the ability to span all three realms that man seems to have deemed part of the world: by their roots they reached deeply into the earth from which all vegetative life, and hence all life, seemed to have sprung; by their branches they reached high into the realm of air and hence had a natural communion with the heavens and the celestial objects in them; and by their trunks they occupied that realm which belonged to man, offering him shade, wood, bark and fruit. This unique ontological status of the tree is obvious in this myth. More surprisingly, however, are a host of other features. The closest parallels to these are found in the Norse world-tree.
Both the Circassian and Norse trees are cosmic in their grasp: their branches both lead up to heaven, encompassing the stars; their trunks both occupy the world of man; and their roots both extend downward into the subterranean realms. Yggdrasil, the Norse tree, means ygg 'terrible' and drasil 'steed', and was taken to be an incarnation of the horse of the Norse supreme god, Odin, which he rode upon his exploits. Thus, the trees of both traditions are intimately associated with raids. In the Circassian myth these raids are nocturnal and are illumined by the child of the tree, the Milky Way. Perhaps related to this theme is the fact that in the Norse myths women are said to have cooked and eaten the fruit of Yggdrasil to insure safe childbirth, so there is a procreative dimension here as well. The Circassian tree possesses the life that lies beneath the earth, while Yggdrasil's three roots reach down one by one into a well of memory and understanding, a well of fate and destiny, and into the mouth of a dragon of destruction, so that the Norse netherworld is more elaborate than the Circassian. Nevertheless, Yggdrasil's root to the well of fate and destiny is guarded by three women, the Norns, so that the Norse tree may have at an earlier date had a more pronounced feminine aspect, much more like the Circassian. Tlepsh himself bears some similarities with Odin, who is closely associated with Yggdrasil in a number of ways. Both gods have large hats, both make use of walking sticks, and both travel vast distances in short times.
The Circassian myth has a remarkable celestial significance, absent from any Norse Yggdrasil myth. Lady Tree gives birth to the Milky Way, which in Circassian is "Milky Foot-Path." That the Milky Way is considered a "baby sun" is most striking. Perhaps the Milky Way is thought of as uncoalesced celestial light, which in its mature form is manifested pre-eminently as the sun. The seven women who tend to this celestial infant seem to be a parallel to the Seven Sisters, the Greek Pliades, a tight grouping of stars in the winter sky, near to the Milky Way. Equally striking is the theme that the world has no edge. This is not a modern interpolation, for this theme alone is the subject of other myths surrounding Tlepsh and his wanderings. I leave it to the reader to puzzle over the planetary and astronomical wisdom that is hinted at by these aspects.
Lady Nart Sana was the queen of a band of women warriors, whose realm was the deep forest. She knew the secrets of the earth and the sky . The power of the drink, sana, also came from her. She was very beautiful and was sometimes called Lovely Golden Knees.
She and her followers would drink sana before battle and would so enter the fray in a state of frenzy. Once in battle Lady Nart Sana struck down a young man warrior. When her frenzy had passed, however, and she took a careful look at her vanquished foe she discovered that she had killed her own beloved. She bent down, took his head in her arms and kissed him, then grasped his limp body to her bosom in a vain effort to bring him back to life. Her powers were to no avail. Finally, in utmost sorrow she stabbed herself in her own heart and fell dead upon his body. Their blood flowed upon the ground and mingled, and from that spot rose up a medicinal spring, whose waters are believed to this day to have great healing powers.
If trees are worthy of veneration, then a whole grove or forest should be even more so, so the fact that Circassians once venerated groves or forests is not surprising. The one myth that expresses this veneration has one truly remarkable feature whose significance far transcends the limits of the Caucasus.
The race of heroes, the Narts, enjoyed the drink of an intoxicating beverage, called sana, which imparted a sense of well-being and courage, and in some myths, even immortality. It was the drink of the gods in some myths, much like the Norse Mead of Inspiration or the Greek Ambrosia. This drink was personified not by a hero or a god, however, but by a young woman, Lady Nart Sana, the Forest Mother.
She knew the secrets of the earth and the sky, much as with Lady Tree. As with the seasonal coming and going of the Milky Way Lady Nart Sana was also known as Lady Middle Season, i.e. , Lady Winter. Another alternate name, Lovely Golden Knees, suggests not only her beauty, but perhaps a notion of wealth as well.
This myth, as short as it is, has clear parallels with the tradition of those female warriors of Ancient Greek myth, the Amazons, who were supposed to dwell in Scythia, the land that is now the Ukraine, Crimea and northernmost Caucasus. These were women warriors, who fought in a savage frenzy, who maimed or killed all male children, and who were finally killed in battle, particularly by the hero Theseus when they tried to invade Athens. The name amazon had a Greek folk-etymology as : a- 'not', maz- 'breast', -on 'being', i.e., the one without (a) breast(s), an allusion to the belief that the Amazons removed the right breast of baby girls so that they would better be able to hold their bow and arrows in adulthood. A hypothetical Iranian word, *a-maz-an 'the-warrior-s', has also been suggested as lying behind the Greek word. All this becomes transparent if one turns to the Circassian myth.
Lady Nart Sana, because of her realm in the forest, bears the epithet of 'The Forest Mother'. In Circassian this is a-maz-ahn the- forest-mother, which is pronounced by the rules of Circassian as 'Amazon', precisely what one finds in Greek (the last vowel is long in both languages)! Furthermore, some scholars have taken note of an obscure link between Greek Amazons and an old figure of the Moon, called Moon Mother. This apparently marginal interpretation is the direct result of homonymy with Circassian pronunciation. 'The-Moon- Mother' would be a-maaza-ahn with maaza 'moon' instead of maz ''forest'. By Circasian rules of pronunciation, however, this is pronounced in precisely the same way as 'The Forest Mother'. Both are 'Amazon'! Thus, the confusion merely reflects features of ancient Circassian pronunciation, preserved even today in the dialects.
We can now see the Ancient Greek myths surrounding the Amazons as borrowings from the lore of the ancient Circassians, undoubtedly by way of the Greek trading ports on the Circassian coast of the Black Sea. The medicinal and beneficent aspects of the Forest Mother, as well as the significance of her name, were lost to the Greeks, so that what has come down to us is merely the image of a race of fierce, enigmatic women warriors. The oldest form of the Caucasian myth most likely conformed to something like Lady Tree, wherein the procreative and intellectual powers of womankind are embodied in the vital image of the cosmos-encompassing tree. The Forest Mother would merely be an extension of this central figure, a specialization of the all-powerful form down into one concerned with fermentation, battle frenzy (induced by the resulting brew), and healing (initially of battle wounds). The tendency to represent intellectual, and magical powers by a woman accords well with the high status accorded women in Circassian society. The ancient representation of this powerful goddess as a tree is more widespread, but in conjunction with the female motifs of the Caucasus one might see a Caucasian origin for tree veneration as well.
The next time one gazes upon the Christmas tree, with its boughs of lights and balls, or strolls through an impressive wood gazing upon mighty trees, one might pause a moment to reflect upon how these lovely plants one seemed to humankind to be a living embodiment both of life-giving powers and of the very span and breadth of the cosmos itself.
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A professor in the Anthropology Department of McMaster University, John Colarusso has published articles and books on linguistic theory, Caucasian languages, and comparative mythology. He is currently preparing two volumes of Nart Saga translations and commentaries, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He was aided in this project by his Circassian colleagues, Rashid Dahabsu, Hisa Torkacho, Kadir Natho and Majida Hilmi.