Who is the epic horse of the olonkho?

Tatyana Pavlova

Horse in festive harness and rider in festive clothes. Yakutia
Early 20th century

The core of myth is the form of a worldview: what has been set up in this world and how, how relationships are constructed in this life and why, and so attempts to decipher the cultural and philosophical code of myth will always be relevant – from several different angles and on various different levels. To gain a better understanding of the famous Yakut heroic epic poetry or olonkho, it is important to solve the riddle of its “grey cardinal” – the image of the horse: who is this animal to the hero, and what is the meaning of its actions?

The horse, as in all Turkic and Mongol cultures, occupies a special place in the worldview of the Sakha (as the Yakuts name themselves), and is considered a particularly revered and sacred animal. In the pantheon of gods that inhabits as many as nine tiers of heavenly realms, Dyosyogyoi Aiyy, the protector of horses and patron of horse breeders, occupies the fourth heaven. The main Yakut ritual holiday, Ysyakh, still celebrated on the summer solstice to this very day, is dedicated to the patron of horse rearing as well as to Yuryung Aiyy Toyon, the creator of the Universe and supreme deity. And all because the inhabitants of the Middle World, the people of Aiyy, descend according to Yakut mythology from Dyosyogyoi Aiyy. We are reminded of this kinship, of the connections tying humanity to the upper world, by the common expressions Arghaһyttan teһiinneekh Aiyym aimagha (“I have reins upon the backs of my people”) or Kökhsütten teһiinneekh Künüm dyono (With reins behind their backs, my people of the sun), oft-times repeated in all olonkho texts: no address is ever made to the people without making use of these formulations.

The divine nature of the horse is reflected, for example, in the traditional epic formula “sins that a horse will not bear; guilt that a bull will not drag”, i.e. that neither heaven nor earth will accept (the horse is the symbol of the heavens, the bull of the earth). Moreover, the universe itself is identified with a beautiful stallion in the prime of life – aigyr silik. Descriptions of horses are often conveyed through comparisons with natural phenomena:
S. Lucancy, "Yakut Horse," 2016
In the form of blue-grey wings,
The reins are woven
From the playful rays
Of the eastern sky,
Made from the floating
Clouds is the halter,
Bridles of beams of light
Of a lofty rainbow,
Eight rows of beads
Depicting the spirits,
White sun to you
The tether is long,
An image of the heavenly dome
Is the high saddle,
On seven braids
The ringing stirrups,
The scarlet edge of a cloud
Of the illumined dawn
Are the light saddle skirts,
With checkerboard trim
With bright fringes
And a broad saddlecloth
Embroidered with silver,
Flung over the spine
With its shifting shoulders
There grew triple
Pairs of silver wings
Not seen anywhere else,
Never born on this earth
There stands a wondrous horse.

(D.M. Govorov, The Invincible Myuldzhyu Byogyo, 2003, p. 155).
The horse is of key importance in the heroic olonkho epic, which takes the form of a complex system of symbols. Many researchers have noted that the image of the war horse complements the image of the hero, with some emphasising the equivalence of these images. This is reflected, first and foremost, in the naming of the central hero, in which indications as to the colour and characteristics of his equine comrade in battle are obligatory: “Kharyadzhylaan Bergen, the master of a black steed with a white head up to the crook of the neck” (Khangkyiar khaaldyygar dieri-e/Kharryadyy mangaas attaardaakhyi/Kharyadyylaan Bergen), “Mighty Er Sogotokh, in command of a dark red horse with a maned head towering above the dark forest thicket” (Boskho khara tyany/Mooidookh bahynan kuotar/Moghul kugas attaakh/Modun Er Soghotokh), “Riding a black colt with the power of speech, the Horse’s Son, Warrior Dyyrai” (Tyllaakh-stöökh/Khara Kulun attaakh/Sylgy uola Dyyrai Böghö).

The hero receives his irreplaceable helper and counsellor as a gift from the protectors of the Middle World, the highest Aiyy. The steed then performs a transport function for him, overcoming great distances and daunting obstacles. Typically, this horse is the only means by which its master can travel between the worlds. But there are olonkho in which the hero himself can transform into animals, birds or sacred objects in order to get into other realms. This ability is possessed, for example, by the heroine Kyys Debiliye, who turns into the three-headed bird Yeksekyu (Öksökü). There is an assumption that heroes from the Upper World are naturally endowed with such abilities. For those of us born on the earth a faithful friend and ally must come to our aid. Special study is required for an unambiguous statement to be made on this issue.
Necklace "Blessed songs" ("Algystaah yryalaarym"), by H. Doktorova
Helping the hero to gain victory is the next function of the horse. In addition to direct participation in battle with its owner or an independent clash with the mount of his opponent, the epic horse, possessing of course the gift of human speech, gives lifesaving advice and instructions to its master, and its instructions are so deep that one is left in no doubt as to the beast’s gift of foresight, special intuition, and that it knows even more than it is letting on. So, for example, in the olonkho The heroic girl with a red-brown horse, Kyys Ursun Udaganka by Anastasia Alexeyeva, an artist of the Olonkho Theatre who has been reciting epic poetry from the age of five, the heroine’s horse warns her that she is heading into a world from which they would not return alive, and gives the girl water mixed with the blood of her ancestors to save her from perishing, and give her strength. In this case, we can talk about some kind of initiation rite into one’s destiny by birth, since the horse is the only connecting thread between the heroine and her biological parents, and the heroine only learns about her origins at the end of the olonkho.

The special giftedness, intuition and mysticism of the epic horse is often reflected in its appearance, the description of which (not to mention its actions) involuntarily prompts musings about the shamanic world, where the main “actors” are spirit-helpers drawn from the animal world.
The unruly Kulun Kullustuur,
In command of his horse
With a curlew-bird on the ears,
A cuckoo-bird on the back of its neck,
A hawk-bird on the shoulder blades,
A drake-bird on the rump,
A dove-bird on its hips,
Grey rabbits on the knees,
Known in Upper Siberia as:
The Fiery Red Horse
Who, gambolling, shakes his head;
Known in the underworld as:
The Wild Red Horse
Which, gambolling, kicks out its hooves;
Known in the Middle World as:
The Whirling Red Horse
Which, gambolling, flicks its tail.

(The Unruly Kulun Kullustuur, Moscow, 1985, p. 287)
D.Boytunov Illustration to the olonkho "The Invincible Myulju byogyo" ("Bүdurүҋbet Mүldү Бөҕө"), 2008
В. С. Karamzin, I. D. Koryakin, E. S. Sivtsev Illustration to the olonkho "Nyurgun Buootur the Aspiring" ("Dyuluruyar Nyurgun Bootur"), 1975
The abilities and functions that make an epic hero akin to the shaman include the ability to move between worlds, knowledge about the protagonist’s past, seeing his future, and a desire to help him achieve a liberating victory. V.I. Kharitonova has suggested that, in plunging into an altered state of consciousness, the shaman seems to be taking the path of “reverse evolution”, going back through the subconscious into the depths of the unconscious mind. It is possible that entering an altered state of consciousness turns off the more recently developed areas of the cerebral cortex. Therefore, a person undergoing this not only temporarily loses their usual properties and functions, but also “returns to the past”, actualising earlier states and abilities of the body, turning them into ancestors, animals or plants, and even giving them complete rest (V.I. Kharitonova, Feniks iz pepla? Sibirsky shamanizm na rubezhe tysyacheletii [Phoenix from the ashes? Siberian shamanism at the turn of the millennium], 2006, pp. 36–37). Perhaps the heroic horse is a symbol of the hero’s submersion in the unconscious, from whence he “obtains” the strength, knowledge and solutions needed to save the Middle World. Thus, recalling the symbolic nature of mythological thinking, it is proposed that we should see “a certain tradition of psychic life” of the hero himself in the image of the shaman-horse, which enables him to go back to the beginning of time and find there the optimal solutions for his problems.

How are the solutions found in the unconscious expressed? What is so supernatural in what the heavenly horse proposes to its master? Let us take an example from the olonkho Tamallaaiy Bergen. Here, the main character sets about his heroic deeds after having received his chestnut horse as a gift from the highest Aiyy. When he comes to the far limits of his native land, arriving at a crossroads where three roads lead off to three other countries, his horse, speaking in a human voice, gives him a detailed outline of further actions to take in the other world:
“There are three variegated hairs in my fringe, pluck them out and use a charm to turn them into spears, which you must throw at the beginnings of the three roads. In my mane I have a hair with eight branches, pluck it out and place it in your pocket: it will turn into the front and rear parts of a woman’s finery. In my tail I have a hair, piebald in eight places, and four-sided. Turn this hair into a silver ring. When you put it on, it will wind itself into a rope, to tie and twist around. There is living water in my left ear; take it and keep it in your bosom”
(N.V. Yemelyanov, Syuzhety yakutskikh olonkho [Themes in Yakut Olonkho], 1980, p. 192).
Later on, having followed all these instructions, Tamlaaiy Bergen defeats his enemies, enchaining them with the iron stocks and bars that the woman’s jewellery had transformed into. In a further feat, he turns completely into a heavenly wild stallion by means of the same horse hairs.

These unexpected manifestations of the horse’s “activity” at moments when the hero encounters the unknown, entering into the territory of the “other”, and the appearance of help from an unexpected source, all permit us to attribute the image in question to the archetype of the Spirit, according to Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes. This archetype is often defined as the Wise Old Man or senex who appears in the dreams of fairy tale heroes. “The old man always appears when the hero is in a hopeless and desperate situation from which only profound reflection or a lucky idea – in other words, a spiritual function or an endopsychic automatism of some kind – can extricate him. But since, for internal and external reasons, the hero cannot accomplish this himself, the knowledge needed to compensate the deficiency comes in the form of a personified thought, i.e., in the shape of this sagacious and helpful old man. (C.G. Jung, Dusha i mif: shest’ arkhetipov [Soul and Myth: Six Archetypes], 1996, p. 300).

In the olonkho the “wise old man” appears in a number of different guises while helping the hero to rise above his capabilities and tackle obstacles. These are the guardian spirits of places, the udaganki of the upper world, etc. But it is the horse, as the hero’s faithful companion throughout the entire journey, as his second “ego”, that most clearly demonstrates the whole mechanism of the “universal innate mental structure that comprises the content of the collective unconscious”. The appearance of the wise old man in the form of a horse ridden by the hero Aiyy “with the reins behind his back” is quite logical, given that the horse is the mythological progenitor of the Sakha people.
M. Starostin "The cloud and the Red Horse", 2005
Yu. Votyakov "On a Horse", 1977
The peculiarity and, if it may be so phrased, the practical exploitation of archetypal images lies not only in establishing a connection with the collective unconscious (thanks to which the language of culture, art, and human nature as a whole becomes more or less understandable), but also in creating one’s own response, a personal interpretation of the archetypes. The image of the horse could not fail to find reflection in the art of Yakutia. Many artists have turned to this theme (see the album-catalogue Obraz konya v izobrazitel’nom iskusstve Yakutii [The Image of the Horse in the Fine Art of Yakutia] from the series “Museum and Artist” published by the National Art Museum of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), 2006).

One of these is the artist and jeweller Khristina Doktorova. Khristina’s necklace entitled “Blessed Songs” (Algystaakh yryalarym) attracts the attention by its distant resemblance to the image of the eagle-billed horse associated with another Yakut cult figure – the three-headed eagle. The artist admits that images of animals most often come to her in dreams – a bear, a horse, a bull, snow cranes, etc.

“First came the image of a horse, then suddenly I saw a girl’s face and imagined her riding the horse. How she, dressed in beautiful Yakut clothes, rode across the alaas, enjoying the free clean air, the nature of her native land, and the singing of the birds. After some attempts, I came up with a sketch, which was then brought to life in this piece.
I don’t know how to decipher it, but my intuition tells me that this was some kind of signal from above, a connection with the ancestors who wanted to convey some information to us. For some reason, the lineaments of my works are never limited to some faceless patterns or drawings alone; images of animals and even people are always present. Many might be sceptical about this, but I believe that there is something that is beyond our understanding, some kind of subtle world, a link with our ancestors. The process by which images appear in my head, and are then given form in finished items jewellery, has no explainable system or pattern. It all happens on the subconscious level.”
Anastasia Alekseeva, artist of the Olonkho Theater, author of the olonkho " The Girl-Warrior with the Red-Brown Horse Kyys Ursun Udaganka" ("Uraty uraanai dyylҕalaah, kyrgyhyga kölüyir kyhihar kyhyl attaah Kyys Ursun Udaҕan")
The words of the French scholar and populariser of olonkho epic poetry, Jacques Yankel Karro, who translated into French (together with the translator Lina Sabaraikina from Yakutia) the legendary epic Nyurgun Bootur the Swift, are of particular relevance here, in view of how subtly and deeply he captured and expressed the primordial power of animals: “An animal is a being conditioned by time and space, with ordinary life cycle functions, nourished by the circulation of the cosmos, and which can also be termed a “world soul”. This being was present at the beginning of time and consequently is an epic or legendary actor alongside the hero – be he a god, a warrior, a slave or a victim. ... it acts in the role of an omnipotent teacher and conductor of the divine or human will; not only does it devise plans of action, it implements these in person. Taken together, this represents the dream of absolute volition. This is the very function – the main one in an animal – which governs fate in its course, still vital, and still existing in time and in our minds. Today, we must bear in mind the danger we face by placing animals at the mercy of the consequences of the deliberate blindness that allows us to sacrifice nature – that which remains the guarantor of our survival – for the immediate benefit of political and economic coalitions. Is this not a consequence of our conscious anxiety and fear of squandering vital resources? Dimly as it may be, we are beginning to understand that conserving and sparing the animal and plant kingdoms means protecting ourselves from extinction, since we are still inextricably part of them” (Yakutsky epos v kontekste epicheskogo naslediya narodov mira: sbornik nauchnykh statyei [Yakut epic poetry in the context of the epic heritage of the peoples of the world: A collection of scientific articles], 2004, p. 34).
  1. D. M. Govorov "Invincible Müldzhu bego", 2003, p. 155.
  2. The obstinate Kulun Kullustuur, M., 1985, p. 287.
  3. V. I. Kharitonova “Phoenix from the ashes? Siberian shamanism at the turn of the millennium ”, 2006, p. 36-37.
  4. N. V. Emelyanov "Plots of the Yakut olonkho", 1980, p. 192.
  5. CG Jung "Soul and Myth: Six Archetypes", 1996, p. 300.
  6. Korolenko Ts. P., Dmitrieva N. V. "Basic archetypes in classical Jungian and modern concepts", "Medical psychology in Russia", 2018.
  7. See the album-catalog "The Image of the Horse in the Fine Arts of Yakutia". Series "Museum and Artist" of the National Art Museum of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), 2006.
  8. J. Ya. Carrot "The Yakut epic in the context of the epic heritage of the peoples of the world": collection of scientific articles, 2004, p. 34.