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Myth / Nart Sagas

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If our lives be short,
Let our fame be great!

The Nart Sagas are the collective name for the mythological tales of the North Caucasus, representing the traditions of the Circassian, Abazin, Abkhaz, Balkar, Ossetian, Chechen and Ingush peoples, as well as that of the Kartvelian Svans and Georgian highlanders.

The tales concern the deeds of the eponymous Narts, a tribe of heroes set on performing great feats. They are not only characterized by their courage and strength, but also by their virtues and goodness, and love carousing and merriment as much as battle and glory. Among the most prominent of their numbers include:

  • Setenaya/Shatana, matriarch of the Narts, a font of wisdom and trickster in her own right.
  • Warzameg/Urizhmag, the "Great Nart" and husband of Setenaya.
  • Sosruko/Soslan, son of Setenay, born from stone, a great warrior and Guile Hero.
  • Tlepsh/Kurdalægon, Ultimate Blacksmith and god of the forge.

Although they share core commonalities and Iranic influences, the epos vary between and within traditions. The Circassian and Abkhaz stories, for instance, retain more archaic elements reflective of ancient customs and beliefs. The elaborate Ossetian sagas uniquely divide the Narts into three separate tribes hostile to one another, each characterized by either bravery, wealth, or wisdom. Yet perhaps the most drastic difference is found in the Vainakh (Chechen-Ingush) tradition. Whereas the Narts are generally portrayed as heroic and good-hearted Boisterous Bruisers, the Vainakh Narts are typically bloodthirsty marauders in conflict with humanity. Naturally, these tales focus on the struggle of human heroes against more powerful enemies.

See also Scythian Mythology, the sagas presenting echoes of former Scythian and Sarmatian beliefs.

The Nart Sagas provide examples of:

  • Abduction Is Love: Justified; bride abduction was a marriage ritual in the North Caucasus. That said, it was often pre-arranged with the the woman's family, and a non-consensual abduction would be seen as a serious breach of social norms. In the tales themselves, it can be difficult to tell just how consensual some of these encounters are.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Subverted by Arkhon Arkhozh's illicit abduction of Psatina in a Circassian tale. He doesn't want to make her his bride, but to use her as bait to draw out a Worthy Opponent.
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Yaminizh, the personification of cholera. He destroys the Narts' golden tree because its medicinal powers were depriving him of victims.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: The animals whom Warzameg selflessly aids on his travels later assist him on his quest.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: The Narts are energetic warriors famed for their prowess in battle.
  • The Brute: The cruel swineherd Argwana, who is stupid but strong. Because of a prophecy, he is recruited by Warzameg to help him in the abduction of Setenaya, but others in the party become quickly concerned he will try to take her for himself... Which he does.
  • Child by Rape: In some traditions, the mighty hunter Shebatinquo is conceived when Argwana rapes Setenay.
  • The Clan: The Narts are an entire clan of warrior-heroes.
    • In the Ossetian epos, the Narts are divided into three rival clans, each defined by unique characteristics and skills: the Akshartagketta are distinguished as renowned warriors, the Alagata for their intelligence and cunning, and the Borata for their riches and cattle-breeding.
  • Cool Horse: Zhaqa, a giant horse fit for a actual giant, and whose name literally means "grave mound". His speed and strength is only rivaled by the mare who bore him.
  • Damsel in Distress: In an Adyghe (Circassian) tale, Setenaya's "sister" Psatinanote  is abducted by the giant Arkhon Arkhozh, and must be rescued by Warzameg. She isn't entirely helpless, however, and provides her hero with information that helps her escape.
  • Depending on the Writer: Setenay takes on a multitude of roles in the sagas, many of them seemingly contradictory. In different tales she may play the part of the wise woman, the innocent maiden, the seductive temptress, the rape victim, the manipulative bitch, the compassionate mother, the quasi-scientist, or the wily sorceress.
  • Determinator: Nothing will stop Warzameg from rescuing Psatina, be it his family's worries, an old sorceress who threatens to eat him, or a scaly giant who rides a monstrous horse.
  • Disposable FiancĂ©: Psatina is abducted at her wedding feast, yet there is no further mention of the groom after the fact and she is freely able to marry Warzameg after he rescues her.
  • Engagement Challenge: A self-imposed one in Warzameg's rescue of Psatina. In this instance, the damsel herself gets to decide whether the suitor is worthy (and she does).
  • Fantastic Fruits and Vegetables: The two-toned apples from the Narts' golden tree, which ripen over the course of a single day. If a barren woman takes a bite of the white side, she will have a white-haired daughter; if she takes a bite of the red side, she is to have a white-haired son. Once a year, there is also a special apple that grows at the very top of the tree, rounder and larger than the others, that possesses powers of healing and immortality.
  • The Ferryman: The little old boatman and his wife are the guardians of the souls of the Narts. Closely linked with the land of the dead, he dispenses wisdom to the heroes and ensures their safe passage.
  • Fountain of Youth: One who eats the special apple from atop the golden tree will grow younger with each passing year instead of older, among other powers.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Warzemeg assists a number of creatures on his quest to rescue Psatina: an injured hawk, a trapped wolf, a stranded catfish, and baby birds threatened by a snake. For his kindness, they promise to return the favor when he calls.
  • Happily Married:
    • Setenay and Warzameg, who despite setbacks, manage to have an intimate and enduring relationship.
    • Meghazash and Pizighash in the Circassian tradition end up Happily Married after a near-fatal first encounter.
      • The happiness of their Ossetian counterparts, Zerashsha and Akhshartag, is conversely short-lived, cut short by A Tragedy of Impulsiveness.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The Bitch-Witch of the Flying Wagon threatens to eat Warzameg if he loses any of her horses.
  • Jumped at the Call: The Narts are given the choice between living an eternal life that is comfortable but without glory or honor, or a short life filled with greatness and heroic deeds. They don't spare a moment to respond in favor of fame and glory.
  • "Just So" Story: In the tale "Why the Sun Pauses on the Horizon at Sunset", Setenay enters a friendly competition with a youth, in which each demonstrates craftsmanship: he will make a saddle, while she will sew a dress. At the end of the day, Setenay has not completed her work, and bewails, "if only the Sun could halt awhile!" Because in these days wishes had power, the sun halts its descent a little while longer, allowing Setenay to complete her project.
  • Love at First Punch: Meghazash is pierced by Pizighash's arrow while stealing an apple in the form of a dove. The spilled blood or damaged wing he collects in his handkerchief is used to restore her health, and as a reward, he is given her hand in marriage, which in the Circassian version, turns out to be a happy one.
  • The Maze: In the Circassian tales, Ghund-Ghund is a labyrinthine city filled with narrow and twisted streets, that one who becomes lost may never find their way out.
  • Meaningful Name: Argwana, whose name in Circassian may be broken down etymologically as "to stuff the vagina", reflecting his role as Setenaya's rapist. Interestingly, his name has been linked to that of the Gorgons, and it is hypothesized that the Greek word is ultimately of Northwest Caucasian origin.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Arkhon Arkhozh, a scaly giant. In some accounts, he is a humanoid reptilian demon, while in other variants he is depicted as a serpent.
  • The Power of the Sun: Satanaya can will the sun to move as she pleases. Given that the Scythians did have a sun goddess once...
  • Rescue Romance: Warzameg wins over the Princess Psatina by helping her escape from the giant Arkhon Arkhozh.
  • Sacred Hospitality. Guest right was an important part of life in the North Caucasus, and this is consistently reflected within the Nart epos.
  • Sibling Team: Pija and Pizighash, sons of Tatemquo, who team up to recover the apple stolen from the golden tree.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: The daughters of the water goddess wear the skins of doves and fly to the Narts' homeland in search of good husbands.
  • The Smart Guy: Setenay, as brainy as she is beautiful, demonstrates an affinity for observing and investigating the world around her. She is credited with revealing the life-giving power of water to the first people, and in one tale assesses the properties of a magical apple through experiments.
  • Solitary Sorceress: The Bitch-Witch of the Flying Wagon, who lives in an isolated cove with her herd of horses.
  • Standard Hero Reward: If a hero rescues a lady, it's a safe bet she'll be his wife by the end of the story.
    • The trope is invoked in at least one telling of Warzameg's rescue of Psatina: who is more worthy to wed the lady than the man who endured so much hardship to save her?
  • Ultimate Blacksmith:
    • Tlepsh, the Narts' god of the forge, known as Kurdalægon in the Ossetian epics.
    • The Vainakh tradition has Pkharmat, an analogue to Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods for the benefit of humankind. Like his Greek counterpart, he is chained to a mountain as punishment, where his liver is devoured by a falcon each day.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Setenaya, who is said to have beauty unparalleled.

Alternative Title(s): Circassian Mythology, Ossetian Mythology