John Colarusso–East of the Sun

k7375Imagine waking up one morning and discovering an entirely new part of the world that no one ever realized existed. That was what it was like for me when I discovered the Nart Sagas. The Nart Sagas a collection of myths and legends from Circassia and Ossetia, cultural regions that were swallowed up by Russia so long ago that nobody today even recognizes the names. But they are there, and “White Caucasian” has never been so unrepresented before.

Joining us today is John Colarusso, a linguist and translator of the Caucasus myths and legends. It’s been fourteen years since the publication of his first collection “Nart Sagas of the Caucasus.” The second “Tales of the Narts” was just released last week. Why should you care? According to many comparative mythologists, the Nart Sagas may have strongly influenced both traditional Greek and Scandinavian mythology. Really though, why should you care?

Because there are entire lands and peoples with multiple books full of stories and adventures that the rest of the world has never seen before. It’s like finding a magical portal to another world. So fasten your seatbelts and be prepared to learn more than you ever thought there was to know about the language and literature of the Caucasus mountains.

John Colarusso first studied physics and then took two degrees in philosophy (BA Cornell, MA Northwestern). He earned his doctorate in linguistics from Harvard University in 1975. Since 1967 he has studied the Caucasus, its languages, myths, and cultures. He has taught at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario since 1976. Since 1992 he has been active in advising leaders and policy makers in Washington, Ottawa, Moscow, and the Caucasus itself. In addition to more than sixty-five articles on linguistics, myth, politics, and the Caucasus, he has written three books, edited one, and is finishing two more. He is married and the father of three children. When relaxing he enjoys hiking and biking, or reading math, palaeontology, and the works of William Faulkner.

1-adygian-epic-literature-illust4Until I started reading the Nart Sagas I didn’t realize that Circassia and Ossetia even existed. It was like discovering some fantastical new land, and the world instantly got bigger for me. How did you discover the culture of the Caucasus, and what made you decide to make it your life’s work?

I had a similar experience: the world grew suddenly bigger and history grew suddenly deeper.

I studied the languages of the Caucasus first. I was a grad student in Linguistics at Harvard when the late Cal Watkins handed a cassette to me and asked me to make a phonetic analysis of the language. The language was Abaza, with many throat sounds (pharyngeals) and only two vowels. I was amazed! I had studied Ancient Greek and Armenian, being attracted to their scripts, Then for a similar reason I had studied Farsi and Old Georgian, Ossetian slipped between Farsi and Old Georgian, because Farsi and Ossetian are both Iranian, and Georgian and Ossetian are both from the Caucasus. After the Abaza cassette I studied Ubykh and Circassian, both from the family to which Abaza belongs. They are extraordinary languages, with upwards of over 80 consonants and never more than 3 vowels. They are complex at every level.

When I arrived in Ontario there was no one here to work with on these languages, so I began to translate the Nart sagas merely to keep my command of these languages alive. The myths proved to be almost as extraordinary as the grammars. So, I began to study the cultures more.

When wars broke out in the Caucasus in the 90s I was called on to advise the Clinton administration on the region. I spent 9 years doing this while holding down my academic position. I came to understand the national aspirations of these peoples, most of whom live in exile from their homeland.

Georges Dumezil ties the Nart Sagas back to some of the original Greek myths, like those of Prometheus, but little of his work has ever been translated into English. What are your thoughts on the influence of the Narts on the Greeks? Are we giving the credit for timeless archetypes to the wrong civilization?

To some extent this is accurate. The Greeks had trading posts along the Black Sea coast and some of these put them in touch with the ancient Circassians, Ubykhs, and Abkhazians (of which the Abazas are a later branch). Prometheus is certainly of Caucasian origin, as are the Amazons, which is a Circassian word meaning ‘the Forest Mother.’ The quest for the Golden Fleece takes Jason and his Argonauts to Colchis, which is Ancient Circassian for ‘Mountain Country.’ Medea’s brother is named Apsurtas, which is simply ‘the Abkhazian One.’ So, for many Greek myths there is a tight blending of Greek and Caucasian themes. Giants in he Nart sagas are one-eyed, whence the Greek figure of the Cyclops, which within Indo-European traditions seems instead to refer primarily to a figure with a large round eye as well as a second eye.

51hBIW2ldVL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Last week we visited Scandinavia and talked a lot about the Norse Sagas. Can comment on the main points of similarity and difference between the Vikings and the Narts?

First, the most striking similarity is that of Odin, earlier “Wodan.” This war god seems to have Caucasian roots drawn from an Iranian language like Ossetian. Out of some 2,100 pages of Nart tales gathered by the late Asker Hadaghat’la (in Russian,Gadagatl), only ywo referred to Nart Wardana, or in the Shapsegh dialect Wadan, pronounced [wodan]. Odin’s brothers are often depicted as two ravens, Nart Wadan had a brother named ‘Old Rook’. Odin had the fastest horse, Sleipnir, Wardana rode the fastest horse. Odin ‘killed his own,’ Nart Wadan killed all of his nephews except one infant, named ‘Knife’. Odin was blind in one eye, Nart Wadan was blind.

Second, Vikings were raiding bands. The Nart tales give the best depiction we have of the old warband.

Third, the Odinic warrior cult promised resurrection to Valhalla, the Nart hero, She Batinuquo, Pataraz, or Sosruquo, all seem to be resurrected.

While working on your translation, you’ve spent some time in the Caucasus, correct? What is that like? What do you love most about it? What aspect of the culture would most surprise an average American?

I worked on the translations while in the US and in Canada. I worked with members of the diaspora. I have been to the Caucasus twice. It is beautiful and the people are hospitable and friendly. The food is good and abundant. The air blowing in from the Black Sea felt pure. It is still sparsely populated. The cities are Russianized, spacious and modern, but the countryside is still Circassian speaking. My guess is that half the city population of Maikop speaks Circassian, even though official accounts out the figure at 18%.

Let’s talk about Russia. I think most people think of Russia as one great homogeneous mass when, in fact, it’s made up of many diverse groups of people who were not all originally unified, and may not even prefer to be. The idea of ethnic diversity within a country is gradually becoming more prominent in the public eye, such as the differences between Native American tribes, and the 56 different ethnic groups within China. But nobody has talked much about cultural diversity within Russia, and her Southern neighbours. Can you highlight the cultural diversity within the Caucasus and Russia?

Let me say merely this about this vast question. Russia is the only surviving empire from the great age of imperialism. It has survived because it was the only contiguous land empire. It has been undergoing contraction since the early 18th century in some areas (Hawaii, what is now California), and expanded to its practical height in the late 19th with the acquisition of the Caucasus and then of the Central Asian emirates. It’s numerous peoples range from reindeer herders and Arctic hunters in its north to sophisticated trading cultures in Central Asia, to exotic mountain peoples in the Pamirs and Caucasus. Under Yeltsin it relinquished Central Asia, but only the South Caucasus (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). Putin has sought to reassert Russian influence if not outright control over its “near abroad,” with mixed success. The Kremlin has gone to substantial lengths to keep this diversity away from outside scrutiny, fearing outside influence. This imperial legacy is the biggest challenge facing Russian survival in its present form. Putin seems to want to Russianize the whole, to make his country into a version of something like the US, but its history is too different for this to succeed in any simple way. My guess is that some degree of social “federalization,” some form of autonomy will be needed to correct what is in effect social overextension. Whether this vast nation is geographically overextended will probably depend upon the success or failure of its social evolution. The diverse ethnic groups, big and small, are not likely to go away.

And finally, in the appendix to the Nart Sagas you mentioned that within a generation many of the languages you currently study may be lost. I, for one, would consider this an irreparable tragedy. Is there anything that we can do to help keep these countries, and their cultures, alive and talked about?

john-colarussoI myself just published a reader in NWC languages, with transcribed, analyzed, and translated texts (mostly of the Narts) in three dialects of Circassian, in Ubykh, in Abaza, and in two dialects of Abkhaz. This sort of language “salvage” work is intended to preserve a record not merely of the grammar of the languages, but also of how they were used. But, this is a work of pessimism. A language represents the medium through which a community lives. If that community is dispersed, then the best hope is for that language to become a heritage language. This is the most that one can expect of these languages in the diaspora. In the homeland a language can survive pressure as long as the people retain an identity. This will depend on how they see their history and subjugation, and how they see their future prospects. Then too, if there are songs in the language, it will survive since people love to sing. The NWC languages are among the most remarkable, in structure, expressive power, and complexity, of any ever studied. I agree with you. Their loss would be an irreparable tragedy.


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