Manas: The Kyrgyz Odysseys, Moses, and Washington

Published: August 25, 2017

The main thing to know about Manas is that it is epic. Created, most historians believe, more than a millennia ago, it is one of the world’s longest poems at more than half a million lines. It has been written down more than sixty times from various bards, creating a different version each time. It has been translated on several occasions, most notably into Russian and German. However, most English translations have relied on older Russian translations, which, many say, distort the original meaning. Only now is the first direct translation being attempted by a scholar in Seattle. Partly because of translation difficulties, partly because of its size and multiple variants, and partly because it is inured with an eastern culture and thus difficult to study by westerners, Manas has been largely overlooked by western scholarship.

Manas the Noble, monument in Bishkek

However, Manas is not completely inaccessible. It bares similarity to other world literatures. Moreover, it deserves the effort of study, as it is the greatest achievement of one of Central Asia’s oldest civilizations. Given that Central Asia is a current hot spot for politics, and a recipient of growing attention from the U.S. government, the time is certainly ripe to explore its complex culture. The purpose of the following essay will be to introduce the story, link it to other literatures, and show its modern relevance.

For the purpose of this text, the version of Manas recorded by the bard Saiakbay Karalaev (1894-1971), and translated into English by a scholar from Kyrgyzstan, Elmira Köçümkulkïz (a Ph.D Canidate at the Univeristy of Washington), is used as it likely holds truest to the original meaning, even if the poetic qualities of the language are largely lost in the non-native English translation.

The fist link to world cultures can be found in the the name of the title character: “Manas.” It is related to the word “mana,” which can still be found in many languages, including English, with the meanings: 1) A soul, essence, or consciousness of an object or being or 2) strength and power. The word is also likely related to manna, a sweet tree sap and a delicacy in Israel, which falls from heaven in the Bible.

To briefly summarize the background of the tale: Manas is a hero of supernatural strength who unites the forty clans of Kyrgyzstan against their enemies, the Uyghers, to build a Kyrgyz state. At the time, in the early 9th century AD, the Uyghers held one of the world’s great empires spanning much of Central Asia (including Kyrgyzstan), Mongolia, and parts of Russia and China.

Manas Ordo is a historic park in Kyrgyzstan built around this, a building believed to be Manas’ mausoleum.

The poem begins with the ancestry and birth of the hero, which is first prophesied and surrounded by unusual portents. His father, an aging though wealthy and generous leader of his people, is without a son or heir. He visits a holy place, prays for a son and soon after his wife becomes pregnant. She develops cravings for tiger meat. The proud father-to-be spares no effort getting it. Care is taken to keep the pregnancy a secret from the Uyghers as it is feared that the Kyrgyz heir might be targeted while still in the womb for political reasons. All the while, wise men describe the deeds Manas will accomplish and the armies he will lead. When he is born, he leaps from the womb and lands on his feet, ready to fight.

The epic is, like many epics, a rousing and fantastic adventure story. The poetic language, with its rhythm and repetition, its dramatic foreshadowing of coming events is meant to draw the reader into the story and make the reader believe, if only for the purposes of enjoying the tale. The poetry is reasonably complex: each line is seven to eight syllables, with end rhyme and internal alliteration.

Manas’ birth has much in common with some western heros. Hercules was also born with super-human strength, partly received from his father, the god Zeus, and partly from being suckled by a goddess. Manas seems to have gotten some of his strength from tiger meat eaten by his mother. John, the great biblical prophet, was born to an aging father received him after showing piety in a holy place. Resemblance is also borne to Moses, who united his people and led them to freedom.

Part of Manas’ strength is drawn from the animal spirits protecting him: there is a lion at his side, a giant hawk overhead, and a dragon leads his way. This gives the tale an eastern flavor and even draws some similarities to many Native American myths.

Manas National Park, Kyrgyzstan

Another trope shared with world literature is that the story rotates through cycles of death and rebirth, a motif common to all the world’s cultures, as the study The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell shows. Manas traces its story through three generations (Manas, his son, and grandson); at the end of each episode, save the last, the hero dies, his kingdom is destroyed, and his young son is left to grow up and rebuild. In one version of the tale, sung by a bard in western China, the process is traced through seventeen generations.

Manas was and is recited by professional bards. Originally, they were known as jomokchu (from the Kyrgyz “jomok,” or “tale”). Today they are known as manaschi (from the title: Manas), as most specialize only in the Manas epic. Many consider their job a religious calling and many have elaborate tales of how they were “touched by Manas” and became able to recite the poetic tale for hour upon hour and keep their audience enthralled. However, again, while the scope of the manashi profession is impressive, it is not so unusual in the context of world culture and history. Homer was said to recite tales for days at a time. In Western Europe, as late as the 16th century, towns sponsored weeklong dramatic marathons to present the major stories of the Bible, mostly for the benefit of those who could not otherwise read it. This function of remembering and reciting was vital to most cultures before the event of widespread literacy.

The presentational style of the manaschi is partially conventionalized, a trait more common in Asian theater than Western. Many sources describe the bards as speaking in a strongly rhythmic tone for the dialogue portions and a rapid, declamatory tone for the narrative. However, the manaschi are also expected to improvise if they are to be remembered as “masters” of their art. They embellish the story with extra description and explanation, and even answer questions from the audience without breaking their poetic structure.

In this way, the poem has remained an integral, flexible part of Kyrgyz culture. When the Kyrgyz adopted Islam in the 12th century, Manas became infused with its ideals, although he did not lose his pagan strength either. His name is said to be built from the M in Mohamed, the N from Nabi (prophets), and the S is the crooked tail of a lion, the animal spirit of Manas. This might seem odd at first, but it is highly reflective of Kyrgyzstan’s unique version of Islam. Much like when Russia adopted Christianity, the new faith was grafted over the old, rather than replacing it, creating a sort of “double faith” (in Russian, this has a specific name, as it is fairly common in Eurasia: двоеверие – dvoeverie).

Bards use the poem to comment on modern politics; the fall of Soviet Union, an important event for the poem, has crept into the lines of some versions. During the Soviet Period, the poem and its performance were often censored as “bourgeois nationalist.” Officially, it was presented only in short fragments and with commentary comparing the forty tribes to the peoples of the USSR and how they should be unified. However, the poem survived in private homes, with individuals continuing to learn and recite hundreds of thousands of lines of poetry by ear. Most people today say that they know of Manas through the stories their grandparents or parents taught them.

Manas remains potent and pertinent in Kyrgyzstan for many reasons. Kyrgyzstan still sees itself as divided into those same forty tribes. The official flag of the republic bears a sun with forty rays pointing a single yurt, the traditional domestic architecture of Kyrgyzstan. The Tulip Revolution was fought in part because it was perceived that the president was too deeply entrenching his own tribe into politics and the economy at the expense of other tribes.

The Uyghers, incidentally, still exist as a people as well. They are based mostly just across the Kyrgyz border in western China, but also constitute 1.1% of the population of Kyrgyzstan. Relations with these minorities seem to be placid, however, and Uygher food is fairly widely available and well-liked in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz Currency – note the Manas the Noble monument on the face, and the Manas Mausoleum on the Reverse

The poem has also become both an official and popular expression of national pride. In 1995, the Kyrgyz government pumped what is, for a small, poor agricultural country, a fairly amazing eight million USD into celebrations of the poem which, in part, marked its status as a newly independent state and attempted to show that Kyrgyzstan was getting on its feet economically. New statues and monuments were unveiled and a major dramatization of the myth, involving hundreds of actors and technicians, was enacted. UNESCO also helped fund the event, after recognizing the poem as a world heritage treasure.

This cursory introduction has tried to introduce the reader to basic story of Manas, its relationship to world literature, and a few reasons why continued study should be given. It has not, of course, given a full or complete understanding of the tale or its history. That is left for future studies. However, there is hope for future studies. With the UNESCO recognition, and the recent festival, there is tons of information online about the poem, including most of Elmira Köçümkulkïz’s translation. Also, of course, with the close cooperation of Kyrgyz government and the American, as well as the presence of English-speaking educational institutions, the opportunity is ripe for western scholars to plunge into the culture and its epic.

About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh lived in Moscow from 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS, until 2022. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Internship Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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