The Secret History of the Mongols and Western Literature

The Secret History of the Mongols and Western Literature

By John J. Emerson

Sino-Platonic Papers, No. 135 (2004)

Abstract: Of all the peoples of the world, the Mongols of Chinggis Qan are among the strangest to Western civilization – a warlike Asian people without agriculture, cities, or writing. However, three episodes in the Secret History of the Mongols can be matched with comparable episodes in western literature. The significance of this kind of cultural comparison is uncertain; perhaps here I am merely using my anecdotes as a convenient literary hook on which to hang my reflections on the relationship between the peoples of the steppe and those of Western Europe. I call these three stories “The Rainstone”, “The Proud Princesses”, and “The Jealous Bloodbrother”.

The Rainstone:

A. “The same Buyiruq-Qan and Quduqa, who knew how to use the magic stone, – used the magic stone – and created a storm. But the storm turned and came down on top of themselves“. Secret History, #143.

B. “And beside the spring thou shalt find a massive stone… if thou wilt take of the water in the basin and spill it upon the stone, thou shalt see such a storm come up that not a beast will remain within this wood … for thou-wilt see such lightning-bolts descend, such blowing of gales and crashing of trees, such torrents fall, such thunder and lightning, that, if thou canst escape from them without trouble and mischance, thou wilt be more fortunate than ever any knight was yet“. Yvain, p. 185.

Many of the Turkish and Mongol steppe peoples believed that it is possible to bring rain and storms by pouring water on certain magic “yad”, “yat”, or ”jada” stones.  Frazer has collected examples of this belief from various places throughout the world — significantly, none of them from the classical Mediterranean world. Not surprisingly (because of their exposed position on the treeless steppe), Mongols bad a peculiar fear of lightning and of storms, and the rainstone was often used (sometimes, as here, to perverse effect) in warfare. (Perhaps the ancient Celts’ fear that “heaven would fall on their heads” was also the fear of lightning.)

As it happens, there is a possibility of a link between these geographically widely-separated but roughly contemporary stories (Yvain: ca. 1185 A.d.; SH: after ca 1228 A.D.). Yvain, though written in French, traces back to the Breton legends of King Arthur. The Bretons, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons, had come to Brittany from the British Isles about 500 A.D. There they met and intermarried with descendants of the Alans. The Alans, originally a steppe people of the Scythian type, after serving as cavalry units in the forces of the Huns, the Romans, and the Goths, had ended up settling in what is now Brittany (then Annorica) not too long before the arrival of the Bretons, and their presence there can be traced historically not only through personal names (e.g. “Gaor”) but also through place names (compounds including the elements “Alan” or “Alain”).

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