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.


  1. By the way “Chechen” is a Circassian word meaning “horse driver” (it is a known fact, not a guess).

  2. I was hoping you’d show up, Ruslan!

  3. I read your blog regularly mate! My primary interest is historical and political matters around Caucasus.
    As far as mythology is concerned, Circassian myths and gods resemble those of Greeks, moreover words like ‘god’ and ‘soul’ (TEOlogy, PSYchology) are almost identical in Circassian and Greek.
    And there is as modern meaning of ‘nart’ — National Adiga Radio and Television 🙂
    You can watch a promo trailer here:

  4. I wonder how live Circassian speach sounds to your
    ear, what does it resemble?
    A couple of interesting facts for you:
    A good guy from Greek mythology called Prometheus was chained to a rock in Circassia.
    Maize is called нэрт-ы-ху (nart-y-hu) meaning millet of the heros (narts). According to the saga it was presented by the gods to the people as a memorial to the narts.
    Modern day ‘nart’ in Circassian also means ‘redneck’ 🙂

  5. I actually couldn’t watch the promo — it requires some software I don’t have. As for Prometheus, yes, one of the things that fascinated me about the Nart tales was that there’s one, “How Pataraz Freed Bearded Nasran, Who Was Chained to the High Mountain,” which is very much like the Prometheus story.
    Modern day ‘nart’ in Circassian also means ‘redneck’
    See, how would I ever learn something like that without this blog and a reader like you? Thanks!

  6. I’m not sure how non-Circassian Caucasians use ‘nart’ today though, and not sure if they use it at all.
    I’m sorry to hear the link didn’t work for you, here is another one as a compensation:

  7. Or better yet, an ancient гъыбзэ (knell) performed by present day artists. Knells are not related to burials, they are just sad songs about tragic events, but I wouldn’t be sure there is a better translation into English.

  8. snippet view will tell me that maize is “food of the narts,” but not where or how it’s said. Is that an alternative or a similar idea from elsewhere (nearby in the grand scheme of things)?
    This page outlines a tale:

    “The creation of cereals”: The mother of the Narts milks the milk which overflows her breast on the ground. On that place maize starts to grow.

    but the source doesn’t look very accessible.

  9. It’s exactly the same idea.
    Нарт-ы-ху (I misspelled the second letter before) literally means ‘millet of the narts’.
    However both millet and maize are cooked by drying, pounding into flour and boiling them. After its introduction in Western Circassia maize superseded millet. In Eastern Circassia both millet and maize are used for this meal. Food that you get as a result is the most important and substantial part of a Circassian meal and is used instead of bread.
    In Italy they call it polenta. In Romania they call it mamliga. In Circassia and Greece this is called pasta.
    So the point here is that pasta is the most important meal for a Circassian, it is something that will save you from famine, something you take with you in a military campaign because it’s easy to carry and cook and is very nourishing (this became less important after the introduction of McDonalds).
    Thus if you take into account the importance of maize in the Circassian culture, despite the literal translation it is perfectly fine to translate as ‘food of the narts’ as it does not distort the meaning.
    Pasta + melted butter + acacia honey mmmm yummy.

  10. SnowLeopard says

    Ruslan, can you recommend a recipe or method of preparing this? I have some millet and have been looking for a good use for it. And are you saying that in Eastern Circassia both maize and millet are used together, or that either one can be used separately? Thanks.

  11. You can see a little bit more info about “illesh” (the plural of “illi”) and other Chechen literature from the book Amjad Jaimoukha edited on the Chechens here at Google books. Unfortunately one of the rekevant pages is missing.

  12. JCass: What’s the URL?

    If that doesn’t take you to the relevant page, it’s 206 (or search inside the book for “illesh” and it’s the page with “The illesh – Chechen heroic ballads Johanna Nichols…” as part of the text).

  14. The site to which Ruslan has directed us previously has an article on Circassian Cuisine.
    In the polenta / mămăligă / გომი family, the other Georgia has grits. Alton Brown did a show (transcript. YouTube.) on the delicate question (to Southern and Italian Americans) of whether grits and polenta are the same thing.

  15. The missing page (207) is available via the “Search inside” facility at Regarding the Chechen version of the Nart sagas, it says, “The Prometheus figure who appears in the Chechen Sagas is called Pkharmat. Pkharmat is undoubtedly one of the key figures in Chechen folk literature and the history of publication for ‘Pkharmat’ under Russian occupation is nearly as dramatic as Pkharmat’s own legend.” More to follow…

  16. I’ll give a summary of the publication history of “Pkharmat”, as reported by Lyoma Ushanov. In 1937 the Chechen ethnographer Akhmad Suleimanov discovered two similar versions of the Pkharmat saga (called “Pkhari” and “Pkharmat” respectively) in Itum-Kala. Shortly afterwards, a third version emerged. But publication was banned for most of the Soviet era. In 1977, they were due to be published in Grozny but the censors destroyed the entire print run of 1,000 copies. Ushanov argues that the Soviet authorities didn’t like the idea that the Prometheus legend might have come from the Caucasus rather than Greece. Two versions of the saga were published before the outbreak of the recent Chechen Wars. A third was allegedly burnt during the conflict.
    Incidentally the name Pkharmat is said to mean “Blacksmith (p-har) of the country (mat)” (or “Blacksmith chained to the holy Mount Mat”).

  17. JCass’s link shows me the error of my assumption about chronology: “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.” I’ll fix the post accordingly (and get rid of those line breaks).

  18. John Emerson says

    “Blacksmith”: a lot of the early history of metallurgy took place in the Caucasus.
    Early blacksmiths had a mystique, since they magically got metals out of rocks.
    Many of the steppe peoples smelted their own metal. Genghis Khan’s given name was “Smith” (Temujin, Temur “iron” + -jin “suffix for trades”).

  19. Semi-unrelated, have you seen Prisoner of the Mountains (based on a book by Tolstoy)? It contains a lot of examples of Chechnyan speech. Good movie, too.

  20. Yeah, I saw it twice and enjoyed it thoroughly. They should really use different styles of subtitle to make it clear when people are speaking Russian, when Chechen, and when Georgian, but I guess not too many people care.

  21. There are Russian movies shot during the last two Chechen wars where Chechens speak Circassian.
    Most likely they could not find Chechen actors.

  22. John Emerson says

    Probably they just shot the Chechen actors as soon as they found them.

  23. You know, I’ll bet what I thought was Chechen in Prisoner of the Mountains was actually Circassian. I’ll have to watch it again.

  24. Sebastian Smith, in his book about the Chechen War, “Allah’s Mountains”, wasn’t too impressed by the film’s truth to life. “It used local languages with Russian subtitles to appear authentic, but then cast a Georgian-speaking actor as a Dagestani.”

  25. Yeah, I recognized the Georgian, but I have to give them a break there: as has been said, it has to have been hard to find Chechen actors, and American movies aren’t exactly bastions of linguistic authenticity.

  26. The conductor Valery Gergiev has been touring with a production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen that is supposedly based on Nart mythology. I saw it in New York last summer, but had no knowledge of the mythology, so the odd things in the production looked simply odd.

  27. SnowLeopard, I am sorry I missed your message:

    Ruslan, can you recommend a recipe or method of preparing this? I have some millet and have been looking for a good use for it. And are you saying that in Eastern Circassia both maize and millet are used together, or that either one can be used separately? Thanks.

    My favourite recipe is the following.
    Get some fresh lamb and boil it for an hour per every 2 lb. Put a few onions and salt in the pot in the beginning.
    Wash millet thoroughly and boil it in a little water on a slow fire, don’t put salt or anything else. Boil it until it looks like thick porridge, then take a wooden spatula and mix it constantly keeping it on slow fire to evaporate all the water. Your goal is yellow loaf like thing – pasta.
    Crush 5 cloves of garlic into a bowl, put there a teaspoonful of salt, one mug of natural yoghurt and 1/3 of a mug double cream and a few spoons of lamb broth. Mix that all up.
    Put a piece of hot pasta and hot lamb on a plate, some white sauce in a small bowl. Dip lamb and pasta into the sauce and enjoy!
    Better yet you could fry dried mutton, but I that might be hard to get. Boiled turkey and boiled chicken are other options, but they need to be boiled as a whole, boiling just breast for example will not work.
    This sort of food + exercising is very good for a long healthy life.

  28. SnowLeopard says

    Ruslan — This looks delicious. Thank you very much.

  29. I am sure you will love it. I forgot one thing — if you add a little corn meal or semolina while cooking pasta (in the beginning) it will be thicker and more solid. And I found an American word that is quite close in meaning — mush.

  30. Thanks, Ruslan!

  31. David Marjanović says

    Comparative maize nomenclature would make an interesting paper. Chinese: “jade rice”, Circassian: “hero millet”… or “redneck millet” as a hipster interpretation, I guess! Basque has shifted its “millet” word to maize wholesale and now uses its diminutive to designate millet.

    Pasta + melted butter + acacia honey mmmm yummy.

    I should try that. Maybe I should try it right now.

  32. January First-of-May says

    The Russian name for maize is кукуруза, of apparently unknown origin (Wiktionary mentions several theories – Turkish from Albanian, onomatopoeic, and a few others without much mentioned detail).

  33. David Marjanović says

    I did try it (the honey I have at the moment isn’t acacia honey, but happens to be close). I recommend it. 🙂 Might need a hint of salt.

    of apparently unknown origin

    Kukuruz (with [t͡s], and with weakening of the middle vowel) is widespread in Austria and hasn’t, to my knowledge, been explained either, except that some kind of Balkan connection is obvious.

  34. I was going to make a weak joke about “some damned foolish word from the Balkans,” but then I tried looking up the wording and discovered that Bismarck’s famous quote is famous only in English — Germans don’t seem to know it exists, which suggests it may be spurious. Wikiquote sources it to “European Diary” by Andrei Navrozov (2008), which is very suspicious.

  35. Comparative maize nomenclature would make an interesting paper.

    If there were only time.

    Makki di roti implies that corn comes from Mecca.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Germans do know another Balkan quote by Bismarck: Der Balkan ist nicht die Knochen eines preußischen Grenadiers wert, “the Balkans aren’t worth the bones of one Prussian grenadier”. (Compare “never get into a land war in Asia”.) As it turns out, though, Wikiquote doesn’t know it, neither in English nor in German.

  37. The source of the Bismarck quote appears to be Churchill’s The World Crisis. On page 207 of volume I, Churchill begins:

    The night before (Friday), at dinner, I had met Her [Albert] Ballin. He had just arrived from Germany. We sat next to each other. With the first words he spoke, it became clear that he had not come here on any mission of pleasure. He said the situation was grave. ‘I remember,’ he said, ‘old Bismarck telling me the year before he died that one day the great European War would come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.’

    The quote, as variously reported, appears to be paraphrased from Churchill, from Ballin (a shipping magnate and the inventor of the modern cruise ship), from Bismarck.

  38. Since “European Diary” consists of excerpts from an unpublished novel, I have moved the quotation to “Misattributed” on the Wikiquote page.

  39. Well done. I’m disappointed that such a well-known (in English) and effective quote is so poorly sourced and so likely spurious. Oh well.

  40. Actually, it’s probably not spurious. A great diplomat who is not also a great writer is likely to say many quotable things in a way that doesn’t meet Wikiquote’s standards: it is not intended to be a collection of mots in general, but of commonly employed quotations from written works specifically.

    But if you care more about wit than scholarship (as in this connection I do), there are lots of excellent Bismarckisms (“historical, dubious, or mythical”, as The Hobbit’s narrator says of dragon-slayings) on the talk page.

  41. Actually, it’s probably not spurious.

    Why do you say that? I automatically assume that any quote provided in the form “Churchill said that Ballin said that he remembered Bismarck saying…” is more likely spurious than not; there are just too many links in the invisible chain. I don’t say it’s necessarily spurious, of course, just that if I had to bet I’d bet the other way. Sure, diplomats (and other quotable people) say many quotable things that aren’t reliably sourced; that doesn’t mean any quotable quote that isn’t reliably sourced is likely to be genuine. Let me introduce you to Kids Say the Darndest Things.

  42. And yet I believe it quite likely that J.B.S. Haldane actually did say “an inordinate fondness for beetles” in response to the question of what could be deduced about the Creator from his creation, though the only printed version is “a passion for stars, on the one hand, and beetles on the other”. As David M is fond of saying, weak evidence should be accorded weak belief rather than no belief at all.

  43. Well, we all have our own standards. I am very chary of belief.

  44. David Marjanović says

    Not original to me, of course. The quotable source Google offers is another David:

    In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. attributes this to “David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding”.

  45. David or David, no matter.

    The Bismarck quotation has been moved to “Disputed” as opposed to “Misattributed”. It’ll do.

    Another one that doesn’t appear on that page: “The neighbors of the United States to the north and south are weak countries. Their neighbors to the east and west are fish.”

  46. John Cowan says

    A lot of the Bismarck quotations are things he said in the Reichstag, which means they probably appeared in the newspapers or people’s memoirs but nowhere else. It can’t be helped.

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