I’ve gotten interested in Chechnya and the Chechens, and after reading two superb books by reporters that came out after the First Chechen War, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power by Anatol Lieven (excellent historical and cultural background, on both Russians and Chechens) and Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus by Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal (great reporting—Gall in particular must have an amazing ability to convince hard-bitten and secretive rebels to let her accompany them to hideouts), I have moved on to Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory by Yo’av Karny, an odd but gripping book by an Israeli who became fascinated with the “mountain peoples” of the Caucasus. He mentions the Narts, the mythical race of giants whose tales are told throughout the North Caucasus (I wrote about them here and here), and in the process of investigating the Chechen versions of the Nart saga I discovered the
later illi epics, comparable to Homer or the Serbian epics (JonArno Lawson says “This ancient rhyming form of the heroic ballad, which has been passed down until recently as oral literature, is peculiar to the Chechens. It is their oldest form of self-expression as a people”); an online book (pdf), The Culture of Chechnya: History and Modern Problems, contains an essay, “The Inception of Chechen Artistic Writing: Ethni-historical and Aesthetic Prerequisites” by Kh. R. Abdulayeva, that describes them as follows:
Deserving special attention are the illi, dramatized epico-heroic long poems—a form prominent in Chechen folklore… [N.b.: The plural is actually illesh—LH.]
The epic quality is graphically manifest in detailed descriptions, which are justified from the ideational point, and compositionally. Direct speech—dialogues and, more seldom, monologues—occupies a greater part of the illi. That is one of its specifics. Whatever the hero wants to tell or ask, he necessarily makes a long speech. Even when a particular situation does not demand any details, they will be provided by the epic song. Its hero speaks in picturesque words with all kinds of epithets, similes and metaphors—occasionally unexpected and paradoxical—as he describes the situation in detail.
The narrator gives much time to descriptions of the hero’s attire, his horse’s harness, his social status in the native village, etc. The bard bestows heroic traits on his characters not through merely relating what they do (unlike the Nart epic, the illi usually does not ascribe any fantastic traits and properties to its characters) but through an extolling manner of their depiction, which imparts significance to the hero’s every movement and word. That is why all illis (“The Song of Bibolat Son of Taima”, “The Song of Surkho Son of Ada”, “The Song of the Black Nogai” and others) concentrate on meticulous and emphatic description of the hero’s every movement. They emphasize a slow and dignified rhythm in elevated words….
The illi are tremendously popular, their heroes are household names. A Chechen knows no better compliment than comparison with such a hero….
The names of those gifted folk poets and singers have not come down to us. Unlike other genres, open to all for recording and recital, the illi demanded special gifts. Naturally, the best of illanchis were improviser poets. Many might have taken part in military campaigns they extolled.
Illi recitals demanded vast audiences, which were to be active. Sung by men along, the illi was open to all ears. The recital was solemn and ceremonial.
N. Semyonov described a typical illi recital: “The Chechen did not sing but spoke to the tune of his balalaika, not unlike in an operatic recitation. Every stanza finished with a long and quick lilting passage as he ran his fingers along the strings. The narrator felt one with the hero in his plight, and there was an impression that he was improvising. There was genuine inspiration in his wistful voice as he described the dead abrek. True, he was really improvising—or the impression of the song would not have its remarkable integrity”.
Importantly, the illi started a trend toward the one language of Nakh folklore. “Among the spoken Nakh dialects, we already have a certain interdialectal form common to the whole people. That is the idiom of folk poetry, used by speakers of all dialects <…> Formally, it almost fully coincides with Chechen,” wrote Z. Malsagov.
The illi are now recited only seldom, but interest in them survives. The songs are recorded, and stay popular with researchers and the reader-at-large. The heroic songs had a tremendous impact on Chechen written poetry, and to this day win admiration with the perfection of poetic form and profound content.
I was particularly struck by the part about the unifying epic dialect; it would be interesting to see a comparative study of the dialect used in epics of different peoples.