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Epic Manas  » The Epic Manas

The Epic Manas

Today there are about sixty versions of the epic Manas recorded from various epic singers and oral poets. Its longest version, consisting of half a million (500553) poetic lines, was written down from one of the last master-manaschï (singers of Manas) Saiakbai Karalaev (1894-1971). The epic is indeed unique in its size. It is twenty times longer than the Homeric epics Iliad (15693) and Odyssey (12110) taken together and two and a half times the length of the Indian epic Mahabharata

Although we, the Kyrgyz, naively boast that our Manas is the longest epic in the world, the world knows very little or nothing about our epic. This is largely the result of the seventy years of Soviet totalitarian rule, which simultaneously preserved national cultures (albeit in distorted fashion) and denigrated its non-Russian nationalities' cultural and historical heritage. Among other things, the heroic epics of the non-Russian peoples were a potential threat to the Soviet/Communist system, because they glorified their past and carried powerful messages that could stir up or awaken people's pride in their national identity, history, and culture. As with many other non-Russian heroic epics, the epic Manas was also condemned as being "bourgeois-nationalist" and "religious" in its content. All the epic's texts published during the Soviet period were the combination of various versions, which were heavily edited to suit the Soviet and Communist ideology.

The epic Manas should not only be recognized for its vast size, but it should equally be valued for its exceptionally poetic language and rich content. The German scholar Wilhelm Radloff, who collected Kyrgyz oral literature in the nineteenth century, noted: "It is clear that the [Kyrgyz] people, who very much enjoy an eloquent language, consider a rhythmic speech as the highest art in the world. And therefore, the traditional poetry was developed to the highest level among the Kyrgyz ..." Chokan Valikhanov (1835-1865), the nineteenth-century Kazakh ethnographer who recorded one of the major episodes of Manas in the Ïsïk-Köl area, said the following about Manas: "Manas is an encyclopedic collection of all Kyrgyz myths, folktales, legends brought together in time and centered around the hero Manas."  A well-known Kyrgyz scholar of Manas studies, Roza Kïdïrbaeva elaborated on Valikhanov's thought: "The epic Manas is not only the history of the Kyrgyz people, it is a true epic drama which widely reflects all the aspects of their life: i.e., their ethnic composition, economy, traditions and customs, morals and values, aesthetics, codes of behavior, their relationship with their surroundings and nature, their religious worldview, their knowledge about astronomy and geography, and artistic oral poetry and language." 

For many decades the Homeric epics have dominated the field of epic studies, leaving little space for research on other oral epics that are still being sung, especially in Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, and India. The Central Asian Turkic oral epics occupy a significant place in world's epic tradition. They exist in large numbers and contain almost all the elements of classical or traditional oral epic songs, many still not known in western scholarship. This ignorance of Turkic epic is due to the lack of translations into western languages, most importantly into English. Western scholars lack the knowledge of the relevant languages to do comparative research. The Russian scholar A. N. Veselovskii suggested that in order to understand the classical epos of the Greeks and the epic songs of the Germanic peoples of the Middle Ages which are only available in written form one needs to study the living epic traditions such as, e.g., the epic songs of the Kirghiz which are being performed even today. Whereas it is no longer possible to find in Germany a singer of the Nibelungenlied or in Greece a performer of the Odyssey, one can easily find singers of epic songs among the Kyrgyz people today.

The epic Manas is a trilogy, "a biographical cycle of three generations of heroes, i.e., Manas, his son Semetei and grandson Seitek." The plot of the Manas trilogy consists of the following main episodes:

I. In Manas
  • Birth of Manas and his childhood;
  • His first heroic deeds;
  • His marriage to Kanïkei;
  • His military campaign against Beijing;
  • Death of Manas, destruction of his achievements.
  • II. In Semetei
  • Kanïkei takes Semetei and flees to Bukhara;
  • Semetei's childhood and his heroic deeds;
  • Semetei's return to Talas;
  • Semetei's marriage to Aichürök;
  • Semetei's battle against Kongurbai;
  • Semetei's death or mysterious disappearance;
  • III. In Seitek
  • Destruction of Semetei's family; Capture of Aichürök and Külchoro;
  • Seitek's growing up in Kïiaz's palace;
  • Fighting against the internal enemies;
  • Seitek's marriage;
  • His defeat of the external enemies and death.
  • The nomadic Kyrgyz historically experienced many wars and battles with Kalmyks, Manchus, and Kïtai (Chinese), who were their traditional enemies. In difficult times when they were defeated by their enemies and exiled to far away lands, as it is the case in Manas, people longed for an ideal hero or "baatïr" to reunite and protect them. In traditional Kyrgyz epic songs, the main hero should not die. If he dies, he leaves an heir behind to protect his people. In many heroic epic songs of Central Asia, the parents of the hero are usually old and without children. In the beginning of Manas, Jakïp, father of Manas, very much laments the fact that he is getting old and he has no son to inherit his livestock, protect and lead his people. Therefore, upon Manas' death, his son Semetei continues his legacy, and when Semetei dies, his heir Seitek is born to protect his people. The epic Manas does not end, however, with Seitek. As many scholars put it, Manas is truly an oceanic epic. In the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China (Eastern Turkestan), one of the great living manashcïs, Jusup Mamai, recites the epic Manas up to the seventeenth generation.

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