Sagas from the Far East; or, Kalmouk and Mongolian Traditionary Tales | Annotated Tale

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THE origin and migrations of myths have of late been the subject of so much sifting and study, the elaborate results of which are already before the world, that there is no need in this place to offer more than a few condensed remarks in allusion to the particular collections now, I believe, for the first time put into English. Translations of some chapters of the "Adventures of the Well-and-wise-walking Khan" have been made by Benj. Bergmann, Riga, 1804; by Golstunski, St. Petersburg, 1864; and by H. Osterley, in 1867. Of "Ardschi-Bordschi," by Emil Schlaginweit; by Benfey, in "Ausland," Nos. 34-36, and the whole of both by Professor Jülg, 1865-68; of these I have availed myself in preparing the following pages; I know of no other translation into any European language except one into Russ by Galsan Gombojew, published at S. Petersburg in 1865-68 [1].

               The first thirteen chapters of the "Well-and-wise-walking Khan" are a Kalmouk (1) collection, all the rest Mongolian; and though traceable to Indian sources, they yet have received an entire transformation in the course of their adoption by their new country. In giving them another new home, some further alterations, though of a different nature, have been necessary. However much one may regret them such transformations are inevitable. It seems a law of nature that history should to a certain extent write itself. We know the age of a tree by its knots and rings; and we trace the age of a building by its alterations and repairs--and that equally well whether these be made in a style later prevailing, utterly different from that of the original design, or in the most careful imitation of the same; for the age of the workman's hand cannot choose but write itself on whatever he chisels.

               It is just the same with these myths. They cannot remain as if stereotyped from the first; the hand that passes them on must mould them anew in the process. You might say, they have been already altered enough during their wanderings, give them to us now at least as the Mongolians left them. But it is not possible, most of them are too coarse to meet an eye trained by Christianity and modern cultivation. The habit of mind in which they are framed is in places as foreign as the idiom in which they are written; I have, however, made it an undeviating rule to let such alterations be as few and as slight as the case admitted, and that they should go no farther than was necessary to make them readable, or occasionally give them point.

               As I have said these stories have an 'Indian' source, it becomes incumbent to spend a few lines on defining the use and reach of the word [2].

               The words Ἴνδος and ἡ Ἰνδικὴ occur for the first time among writers of classical antiquity in the fragments that have come down to us of the writings of Hecatæus, B.C. 500. Herodotus also uses the same; from these they descended to us through the Romans. They both received it through Persian means and used it in the most comprehensive sense, though the Persian use of their equivalent at the time seems to have been more limited. It is probable, however, that later the Persian use became further extended; and through the Arabians, who also adopted it from them, it became the Muhammedan designation of the whole country. When they, in 713, conquered the country watered by the lower course of the Indus, namely, Sinde, they confirmed the use of this more extended application of the Persian word Hind, reserving Sind, the local form of the same word--apparently without perceiving it was the same--to this particular province.

               The later Persian designation is Hindustan--the country of the Hindu--and this is generally adopted in India itself to denote the whole country, though many Europeans have restricted it to the Northern half, in contradistinction from the Dekhan, or country south of the Vindha-range (2), often excluding even Bengal.

               The original native names are different. In the epic mythology occur, Gambudvîpa, the island of the gambu-tree (Eugenia Jambolana), for the central or known world of which India was part, and Sudarsana, "of beautiful appearance," to denote both the tree and the "island" named from it. The Buddhist cosmography uses Gampudvîpa for India Proper. Within this the Brahmanical portion, lying to the south of the Himâlajas, is designated as Bhârata or Bhâratavarsha. In the great epic poem called the Mahâ Bhârata, the name is derived from Bhârata, son of Dusjanta, the first known ruler of the country, and several dynasties are called after him Bhâratides, though it is more probable his name rather accrued to him from that of the country, the word being derived from bhri, "to bring forth" or "nourish," hence, "the fruitful," "life-nourishing" land. Bhârata is also called (Rig-Ved. i. 96, 3) "the nourisher," sustentator.

               The native historical name is undoubtedly "Ârjâvata," the district of the Ârja--"the venerable men"--or more literally, "worthy to be sought after," keepers of the sacred laws, the people of honourable ancestry; calling themselves so in contradistinction to the Mlêk'ha, barbarous despisers of the sacred laws (Manu, i. 22; x. 45), also Ârja-bhûmi, land of the Ârja. The Manu defines rigidly the original boundaries of this sacred country; it lies between the Himâlaja and Vindhja mountains, and stretches from the eastern to the western seas. Though Ptolemy (Geog. vii. I) calls the people of the west coast, south of the Vindhja, Âriaka, this was a later extension of the original term.

               What gives the word a great historical importance is the circumstance which must not be passed over here, that the original native name of the inhabitants of Iran was either the same or similarly derived. Airja in Zend stood both for "honourable" and for the name of the Iranian, people. Concerning the Medes we have the testimony of Herodotus that they originally called themselves Ἄριοι, and we owe him the information also that the original Persian name was Ἀρταιοὶ, a word which has the same root as Ârja, or at least can have no very different meaning. They do not seem ever to have actually called themselves Ârja, although the word existed in their ancient tongue with the sense of "noble," "honourable."

               The earliest Indian Sagas speak of the Arja as already established in Central India, and give no help to the discovery of when or how they settled there. Like most other peoples of the old world, they believed themselves aborigines, and they placed the Creation and the origin of species in the very land where they found themselves living, nor do their myths bear a trace of allusion to any earlier dwelling-place or country outside their Bhâratavarsha (4). It is true, that the sanctity they ascribe to the north country, and the mysterious allusions to the sacred mountain-country of Meerû, the dwelling of the gods in the far, far north, over the Himâlajas, is calculated to mislead for a moment with the suggestion that they point to a possible immigration from that north, but a closer observation shows that that very sacred regard more probably arose from the very fact of its being an unknown country; while the effect of the majestic and inaccessible heights, with their glorious colouring and their peculiar natural productions, was enough to suggest them the seat of a superior and divine race of beings.

               The fact that Sanskrit, the ancient tongue of the Aryan Indians, is so closely allied to the languages of so many western nations, establishes with certainty the identity of origin of these people, and lays on us the burden of deciding whether the Aryan Indians migrated to India as the allied peoples migrated to their countries from a common aboriginal home, or whether that aboriginal home was India, and all the allied peoples migrated from it, the Indians alone remaining at home.

               Reason points to the adoption of the former of these two solutions. In the first place, it is altogether unlikely that in the case of a great migration all should have migrated rigidly in one direction. It is only natural to expect they should have poured themselves out every way, and to look for the original home in a locality which should have formed a central base of operations. The very feuds which would in many cases lead to such outpourings would necessitate the striking out in ever new directions. Then, there is nothing in the manners, ideas, speech--in the names of articles of primary importance to support life, in which at least we might expect to find such a trace--of the other peoples to connect them in any way with India. Had they ever been at home there, some remnants of local influence would have been retained; but we find none. Besides this, we have, on the other hand, very satisfactory evidence of at least the later journeyings of the Indian family. Their warlike and conquering entrance into the Dekhan and crossing of the Vindhja range is matter of positive history. Some help for ascertaining their earlier route may be found in the necessity established by the laws and limits of possibility. Encumbered with flocks and herds, and unassisted by appliances of transport, we cannot believe them to have traversed the steep peaks of the Himâlajas. The road through eastern Caboolistan and the valley of the Pangkora, or that leading from the Gilgit by way of Attok, or over the table-land of Deotsu through Cashmere, are all known to us as most difficult of access, and do not appear at any period to have been willingly adopted. But the western passes of Hindukutsch, skirting round the steep Himâlajas--the way trod by the armies of Alexander and other warlike hosts, no less than by the more peaceful trains of merchants, with whom it was doubtless traditional--affords a highly probable line of march for the first great immigration.

               We are reminded here of the fact already alluded to, of the common origin of the earliest name of both Indians and Persians, leading us to suppose they long inhabited one country in common. For this supposition we find further support in other similarities: e. g. between the older Sanskrit of the Vêda and the oldest poems of the Iranian tongue; also between the teaching, mythology, the sagas, and the spoken language of the two peoples. On the other hand, we find also the most diverse uses given to similar expressions, pointing to a period of absolute separation between them, and at a remote date: e.g. the Indian word for the Supreme Being is dêva; in Zend, daêva, as also dêv in modern Persian, stands for the Evil Principle. Again, in Zend dagju means a province (and its use implies orderly division of government and the tranquil exercise of authority); but in the Brahmanical code dasju is used for a turbulent horde, who set law and authority at defiance.

               Such transpositions seem the result of some fierce variance, leading to division and hatred between peoples long united.

               Proceeding now to trace the original wandering farther on, we find some help from Iranian traditions. The Zendavesta distinctly tells of a so-called Aîrjanem Vaêgo as a sacred country, the seat of creation, and place it in the farthest east of the highest Iranian table-land, the district of the source of the Oxus and Jaxartes; by the death-bringing Ahriman it was stricken with cold and barrenness (3), and only saw the sun thenceforth for two months of the year. The particularity with which it is described would point to the fact that the locality treated of was a distant one, with which the race had a traditional acquaintance; while at the same time it cannot be adopted too precisely in every detail, because details may be altered by a poetical imagination--merits may be exaggerated by regret for absence, and defects magnified by vexation, or invented in proof of the effects of a predicated curse.

               If we may conclude that we have rightly traced up the Indians and Persians to a common home between the easternmost Iranian highlands and the Caspian Sea, it follows from the linguistic analogies of the so-called Indo-European peoples that this same home was also theirs at a time when they were not yet broken up into distinct families. This common local origin gives at once the reason for the analogies in the grammatical structure of their languages, and no less of their mythical traditions, which are far too widely spread, and have entered too radically into the universal teaching of both, to be supposed for a moment to have been borrowed by either from the other within the historical period, or at all since their separation.

               It remains only to say a few words on the scope and object of the work, and the profit that may be derived from its perusal. I know there are many who think that mere amusement is profit enough to expect from a tale, and that to look for the extraction of any more serious result is tedious. But I will give my young readers--or at least a large proportion of them--credit for possessing sufficient love of improvement to prefer that class of amusement which furthers their desire for information and edification.

               The collections of myths with which I have heretofore presented them have all had either a Christian origin, or at least have passed through a Christian mould, and have thus almost unconsciously subserved the purpose of illustrating some phase of Christian teaching, which is specially distinguished by keeping in view, not spasmodically and arbitrarily, as in the best of other systems, but uniformly, in its sublimest reach and in its humblest detail, the belief that an eternal purpose and consequence pervades the whole length and breadth of human existence.

               Whether the story of "Juanita the Bald" was originally drawn by a Christian desirous of inculcating the sacred principles of the new covenant, or adapted to the purpose by such an one from the myth of OEdipus and Antigone; whether that of "St. Peter's Three Loaves" was really a traditional incident of our Lord's wanderings on earth too insignificant to find place in the pages of Holy Writ, or adapted from the myth of Baucis and Philemon; or whether all were adaptations according to the special convictions of various narrators of great primeval traditions, mattered very little, as each had an intrinsic purpose and an interest of its own quite distinct from that accruing to it through ascertaining its place in the history of the world's beliefs. In telling them, it needed not to point a moral, for the moral--i.e. some more or less remote application of the sacred and civilizing teaching of the Gospel--was of the very essence of each.

               With the Tales given in the following pages, however, it is quite different. They come direct from the far East, and in most of them nothing further has been aimed at than the amusement of the weary hours of disoccupation, whether forced or voluntary, of a people indisposed by climate, natural temperament, or want of cultivation from finding recreation in the healthy exercise of mental effort.

               To me it seems that before we can take pleasure in giving our time to the perusal of such stories, we must invest them with, or discover in them some sort of purpose. Nor is this so far to seek, perhaps, as might appear at first sight.

               Some, it must be observed, belong to the class which deals with the deeds of heroes--fabling forth the grand all-time lesson of the vigorous struggle of good with evil; the nobility of unflinching self-sacrifice and of devotion to an exalted cause, setting the model for the lowly sister of charity as much as for the victorious leader of armies, and each all the while typical of Him who gave Himself to be the servant of all, and the ransom of all. A German writer rises so inspired from their study that he bursts forth into this pæan:--"Eine Fülle der Göttergeschichte thut sich hier auf, und nirgends lässt sich der eigenthümliche Naturcharacter in Fortbildung des Mythus vollständiger erkennen, als an diesen Alterthümern. Götter und vergötterte Menschen ragen hier, wie an den Wänden der Tempel von Thebe hoch über das gewöhnliche Menschengestalt. Alles hat einen riesenhaften Aufschwung zur himmlischen Welt [3]." Subsidiarily to these conceptions of them, stories of this class have the further merit of being one chief means of conveying the scanty data we possess concerning the early history of the people of whose literature they form part (5).

               Others again may be placed in a useful light by endeavouring to trace in them the journeyings they have made in their transmigration. Benfey, a modern German writer who has employed much time and study "in tracing the Mährchen in their ever-varying forms," while pointing out as many others have also done (6), that the great bulk of our household tales have come to us from the East, and have been spread over Europe in various ways, points out that this was done for the South in great measure through the agency of the Turks; but for the North it was by the Mongolians during their two centuries of ascendancy in Eastern Europe; the Slaves received them from them, and communicated them to the German peoples (7).

               If therefore you find some tales in one collection bearing a close resemblance with those you have read in another, you should make it a matter of interest to observe what is individual in the character of each, and to trace the points both of diversity and analogy in the mode of expression in which they are clothed, and which will be found just as marked as the difference in costume of the respective peoples who have told them each after their own fashion.

               All of them have at least the merit of being, in the main, pictures of life, however overwrought with the fantastic or supernatural element, not ideal embodiments of the perfect motives by which people ought to be actuated, but genre pictures of the modes in which they commonly do act. As such they cannot fail to contain the means of edification, though we are left to look for and discover and apply it for ourselves. To take one instance. The Christian hagiographer could never have written of a hero he was celebrating, as we find it said of Vikramâditja, that as part of his preparation for the battle of life "while learning wisdom with the wise, and the use of arms from men of valour," "of the robber bands he acquired the art of stealing, and of fraudulent dealers, to lie." If he had been illustrating the actual biography of a Christian hero, it is a detail which could not have entered, and if drawing an ideal picture, it would have been entirely at variance with the system he was illustrating. Circumstances like this which fail to serve as subject for imitation, must be turned to account in exercising the powers of judgment, as well in distinguishing what to avoid from what to admire, as in taking note of these very variances between Christian and the best non-christian morality.

               The author feels bound to apologize for any inaccuracies which may have crept into these pages owing to being abroad while preparing them for the press.


(1) Kalmuck. "The Khalmoucks or Calmuks, are very far from enjoying in Asia the importance our books of geography assign them. In the Khalmoukia of our imagining, no one knew of the Khalmouks. At last we met with a Lama who had travelled in Eastern Tibet, and he told us that one of the Kolo tribes is called Khalmouk." The Kolos are a nomad people of Eastern Tibet, of predatory habits, living in inaccessible gorges of the Bayen Kharet mountains, guarded by impassable torrents and frightful precipices, towards the sources of the Yellow River; they only leave their abode to scour the steppes on a mission of pillage upon the Mongolians. The Mongolians of the Koukou-Noor (Blue Lake) hold them in such terror, that there is no monstrous practice they do not ascribe to them. They profess Buddhism equally with the Mongolians. See "Missionary Travels in Tartary, Tibet, and China," by Abbé Huc, vol. i. chap. iv.

(2) "The various Dekhan dialects, i.e. of the Tuluvas, Malabars, Tamuls, Cingalese, of the Carnatic, &c., though greatly enriched from Sanskrit, would appear to have an entirely independent origin. The same may be said of the popular traditions." Lassen, vol. i. 362-364.

(3) The Tirolean legend of the Curse of the Marmolata, which I have given at pp. 278-335 of "Household Stories from the Land of Hofer," may well be thought to be a reproduction and reapplication of this, one of the most ancient of myths.

(4) Even the Mahâ Bhârata, however, gives no consecutive and reliable account of the original settlement in the country. Franz Bopp, one of the earliest to attempt its translation, thus happily describes it. He likens it to an Egyptian obelisk covered with hieroglyphics, "an dem die Grundform von der Erde zum Himmel strebe, aber eine Fülle von Gestalten, (von denen eine auf die andre deute, eine ohne die andre räthselhaft bleibe,) neben und durch einander hinziehe und Irdisches und Himmlisches wundersam verbinde."--The pervading plan of the work is one straining from earth upwards to heaven, but overlaid with a multiplicity of figures, each one so intimately related with the other, that any would be incomprehensible without the rest; the thread of the life of one interwoven with those of the others, and all of them together creating a wondrous bond between the things of this world and the things which are above.

(5) "The only way to gain acquaintance with the early history of India is by making use of its Sagas." Lassen, Indische Alterthumskunde, vol. i., pref. p. vii. But I shall have more to say on this head when I come to the story of Vikramâditja.

(6) Some, however, seem to go too far, when they labour to prove that this is the case with every individual European legend, many of which are manifestly created by Christianity; and write as if every accidental similarity of incident necessarily implied parentage or connexion.

(7) See introduction to his Translation of Pantschatantra. I have thought it worth while to mention this on account of the present collection being Mongolian.


[1] The few notes I have taken from Jülg's translation, I have acknowledged by putting his name to them.

[2] The following paragraphs are chiefly gathered and translated from Lassen's work on the Geography of Ancient India, vol. i.

[3] Heeren, Indische Literatur.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Preface
Tale Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Book Title: Sagas from the Far East; or, Kalmouk and Mongolian Traditionary Tales
Book Author/Editor: Busk, Rachel Harriette
Publisher: Griffith and Farran
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1873
Country of Origin: Mongolia & Russia
Classification: Introduction

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