John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus (Princeton University Press, 2002)
If our lives are to be short,
Then let our fame be great!
Let us not depart from truth!
Let fairness be our path!
Let us not know grief!
Let us live in freedom!
So starts the first saga of the Narts in John Colarusso's compilation of the myths and legends of the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs of the Caucasus region. The valor and determination of the Narts in this response to God's question about how they wanted to spend their lives is reflected in the durability of their stories. The peoples of the Caucasus have survived centuries of invasion and conquest, including forced exile into Turkey for entire ethnic groups. The Nart legends stand as an example of the will of a people to survive. Originating in a region that has been a crossroads of migration for thousands of years, they also show connections (both subtle and overt) to the myths and legends of Indo-European cultures from India to Scandinavia.
The Narts are a legendary race of heroes, whose deeds form the basis for the culture of the Caucasus. The stories are examples, both inspirational and cautionary, of how a warrior of the Caucasus should measure his life. The language is extraordinarily direct; the sagas' talent for understatement is difficult to equal: "I must catch up with them [giants] and take my herd back home. The giants are not likely to take this sweetly." (357) The Narts were also practical: "They held a discussion about him [Bataraz] and decided that he would grow up to be a great warrior. 'At least he will probably be of help to us in some way.'"(305)
The Narts' traditional enemies, the ayniwzh (a race of one-eye giants) were not so practical. When the greatest Nart, Sosruquo, stole millet seeds from an ayniwzh, the ayniwzh left his field and "unharnessed his horse, came back home, had a rest, had dinner, then saddled his horse and began chasing him [Sosruquo]." (207) This directness of language and the blunt, plain dialogue provide a light-hearted tone to the sagas. The occasional anachronism (in one story, an elderly god contacts the Narts by sending a letter) and the oddly entertaining dialogue make the collection highly readable.
Where this collection really stands out, however, is in the scholarly analysis that accompanies each of the ninety-two tales. Colarusso includes extensive endnotes for each saga, carefully pointing out parallels between Nart names and words from other cultures. He also makes a thorough effort to show the deep parallels between the Nart sagas and other Indo-European mythologies.
These parallels range from the very strong similarities with Greek myths (there was a centuries-long exchange between the two cultures, stemming from the Greek settlements on the eastern edge of the Black Sea) to parallels between Nart figures and Hindu and Norse deities. Several versions of a Prometheus story are included, as well as a parallel to the Norse god Odin in the Nart Wadana. Colarusso delves deeply to find these connections, even finding comparisons to some of the Arthurian stories of Britain. Where Colarusso finds the parallels most significant, he includes an analysis within the saga's endnotes. For the linguist, there are also a series of detailed appendices on the Circassian, Ubykh, Abaza, and Abkhaz languages.
The endnotes also help tie together the stories in each corpus within Nart Sagas. Many of the stories in each corpus are duplicated in one or the other corpus within the book. Colarusso takes the time to illustrate how the stories link together and suggests why the multiple versions differ from each other. The analysis of how the tales overlay older stories, how characters have been combined or lost, and the varying influences of outside cultures make for reading almost as interesting as the stories themselves.
Nart Sagas from the Caucasus sheds light on the traditions of a region that is otherwise primarily known for the ongoing war in Chechnya. The stories are a useful and important inclusion in the library of any folklore enthusiast. With a unique style and unusual dialogue, the Nart sagas offer a refreshing alternative to more familiar myths. Serving as a bridge between the western and eastern Indo-European traditions, the Nart tales offer an intriguing perspective on how the different Indo-European mythologies can be tied together.