Researchers often refer to the ancient Olonkho (pronounced O-lon-kho) Epos as the ‘Iliad of the North’ or the ‘Yakutsk Odyssey’. Such comparisons are not at all wide of the mark – although the Olonkho tales were written relatively recently, they are in many ways reminiscent of Greek mythology, and indeed the mythology of other ancient civilisations.
The word olonkho, which means ‘what happened’, refers both to the epic as a whole, and to the individual song-parts that make it up, each of which is between ten and forty thousand lines. Legend has it that it would take the singer-storytellers seven days and seven nights to perform the longest songs from the Olonkho! For the Yakut people, the Olonkho is much more than a form of entertainment; it is a way of understanding the world. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed the Olonkho a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
It is thanks to Russian researchers that parts of the Olonkho first made their way into print in the 1840s. But it wasn’t until after the Russian Revolution of 1917 that Platon Oyunsky, founder of Yakut literature and former Olonkho storyteller himself, wrote and published the longest Olonkho epic poem, Nyurgun Bootur the Swift. There was a time when every Yakutsk settlement boasted at least a few Olonkho storytellers, who could all remember thousands of lines from the Olonkho by heart. The tales were handed down from generation to generation, as was the art of performing them. Being a storyteller was akin to being a shaman. But the storyteller did not have drums or musical instruments; all he had was his voice, which he had mastered so artfully that he could almost literally bring the ancient heroes to life for his audience. Storytellers would dedicate their lives to the perfection of their craft; this is why they rarely settled down in one place, preferring to roam from one taiga village to another, safe in the knowledge that the locals would not think twice about giving them a bite to eat and a place to stay.
Structurally, the Yakut Epos can be divided into two parts: narrative and song. The narrative is recited in a singsong manner. It is the storyteller’s voice and is performed with an alternating tempo – sometimes slow, sometimes fast. The songs represent the voices of the heroes.
There are three main story arcs in Olonkho tales: how the inhabitants of Upper World – the benevolent Aiyy Gods – created the Earth, or Middle World; how exiles from the Upper World, under the leadership of Er-Sogotokh, gave rise to the Yakut people; and how the warriors of the Middle World, led by Nyurgun Bootur, fought the evil demons (Abaasy) of the Under World, who are intent on destroying civilisation – or at least ruining people’s lives. There is a lot of real history contained within the tales. One excerpt, for example, tells about the southern steppe, which was the ancestral home of the Yakut people until they relocated to the banks of the Lena and Vitim rivers in the cold taiga:
Where the sun shines high and bright,
And the snow never falls,
And the winter never comes.
Blessed with summer,
And eternal warmth.
But the protagonists of Olonkho tales are not real historical figures; they are ancient Gods and heroes imbued with magical powers. They do not even resemble ordinary people physically.
Reaching the Under World, Nyurgun Bootur defeats its deadliest warrior, the formidable fire snake Uot Usutaaky, and swiftly frees the warriors that had been taken into captivity by the Abaasy sun maiden Tuiaarymy Kuo. The ninth and final song of Nyurgun Bootur the Swift recounts the hero’s victory over the warrior maiden Kyys Nyurgun, whom he then takes as his wife. The Ysyakh Summer Festival in Yakutsk is held in honour of the married couple’s wedding feast.
The Olonkho Epos paints a picture of a magical world that is nevertheless arranged according to the tried-and-tested model: benevolent deities of the Upper World serve the wise Yuryung Aiyy Toion (Great White Lord), while those of the Under World serve the evil Arsan Duolai. The Middle World is inhabited by ordinary people, along with the spirits (‘ichchi’) of various living beings and other worldly objects. The three worlds are connected by the Great Tree of Life, or Aal Luuk Mas, in whose trunk resides the Earth Goddess Aan Alakhchyn Khotun, protector of the people and helpmate to the heroes – the milk from her breast has restorative qualities. But she is not the only superior being to whom the heroes can turn in their time of need – the Goddesses of Fertility, the Hearth, Horses and Siberian White Cranes are all on hand to provide divine assistance.
The heroes of Olonkho display all the qualities you can expect from the heroes of epic tales; they are strong, kind and noble, in stark contrast to the antagonist Abaasy, who are the embodiment of evil – full of rage, lust, greed and vengefulness. In some tales, they are also physically deformed, with one arm, one eye and charcoal-coloured skin. In others, they look just like ordinary people, and sometimes they are not even that evil; sometimes the warriors of the Middle World make friends with them, even marry their sisters or daughters. For some reason, it is the life ambition of all Abaasy women to marry an Aiyy warrior. And the warriors, for their part, take advantage of this and force the deceived witches to help them before tossing them aside.
It is through these and other actions that the heroes of Olonkho tales show themselves to be far from perfect. But you have to remember that they are guided by a different system of morals – the morals of the tribe, where kindness and honesty apply only to fellow tribesmen and not to the enemy, whom they do not even consider to be people. Some researchers think that the Olonkho tales depict the struggles of the ancient Yakut people with other tribes presented as the evil spirits. However, the numerous parallels with folklore from around the world would suggest that it is more accurate to say the Olonkho Epos is not based on real events; rather it is a manifestation of the mythological archetypes that are inherent in all of humanity.
In 2006, the Olonkho Yakut Heroic Epos was included in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. There are significantly fewer Olonkho storytellers these days, but this has not stopped the tradition from thriving and evolving. It used to be that Olonkho singer-storytellers would perform to small circles of friends and family; now, reciting the Olonkho is seen as an art form, and as such it has reached a mass audience. Olonkho takes pride of place in Yakutsk national holidays, its songs are performed on the radio and the tales are published with increasing frequency. Moreover, every region has its own Olonkhosut (an Olonkho singer-storyteller), many of whom enjoy celebrity status in the area.
In Yakutia (also known as the Republic of Sakha), Olonkho tales are included as part of the school curriculum, and those children who display a theatrical flair are encouraged to learn the art of Olonkho improvisation. In 2010, the Maxim Ammosov North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk founded the Olonkho Research Institute.
First published in Russian here.
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