THE BOOK OF DEDE KORKUT, transl. Geoffrey Lewis, Penguin,
This is a very entertaining and wonderfully fascinating feast of
traditional Turkish tales. This Celt often felt he heard the voice
of an Irish bard as so many aspects of traditional Irish literature
greeted his delighted ear and eye. To begin with, here we have
prose often mounting the "falcoln-swift" steed of verse.
The first story is of Boghach Khan, son of Dirse Khan. Dirse Khan is
upset when Bayindir Khan, leader of the Oghuz Turks, relegates him
to a black tent. He is informed that the order is that men with sons
are entitled to a white tent, men with only daughters to a red tent,
and men with no offspring to a black one. Dirse Khan exchanges
poetry with his wife about their desire to alter their childless
state. He offers sacrifice of stallions, rams and he-camels.
When Dirse Khan's son is fifteen, he's playing knuckle bones and
Bayindir Khan's prize bull attacks him. His fellow gamers flee, but
the son of Dirse Khan stands his ground.
The boy gave the bull a merciless punch on the forehead and the
bull went sliding on his rump. Again he came and charged the boy.
Again the boy gave him a mighty punch on the forehead, but this
time he kept his fist pressed against the bull's forehead and
shoved him to the end of the arena. p. 30
They struggle for a while, until at last the boy decapitates the
bull, obtaining thus his name, Boghach, Bull-man.
He's richly rewarded, but his father's forty warriors are jealous
and resentful. They tell tales to Dirse Khan, falsely saying Boghach
plans to commit patricide. Dirse Khan strikes first. As the boy lies
there bleeding, the crows and ravens being kept at bay by Boghach
Khan's two dogs, his mother comes upon him. They exchange poetic
concern about his wound and assurance that he'll recover. He does
and the villains seize his father. He rides with his men to the
He led his forty men, he charged, he faught and gave battle. Some
he beheaded, some he took prisoner, and he freed his father.
The second story (pp. 42-58) is about the pillaging of Salur Kazan's
house. Salur Kazan is having a great drinking party and decides to
go hunting. While he's away, raiders strike, carrying off all his
goods, as well as all the people there, including Kazan's wife. They
decide to seize also Kazan's sheep, but these are guarded by three
brothers, including one worthy of an Irish saga. When the raiders
arrive with their loot and captives, demanding the sheep and offering
the shepherd a princedom, if he hands them over, the shepherd
responds with satirical verse and his sling.
When he shot his first shot he toppled two or three of them; when
he shot his second he toppled three or four of them. Terror
filled the infidel's eyes. Karajuk the shepherd with his sling-
stones laid three hundred of the infidel low. p. 45
Despite putting the foe to flight with three hundred dead, Karajuk
finds his master ungrateful.
Why are you angry with me, Lord Kazan? Is there no faith in your
heart? Six hundred unbelievers attacked me too, my two brothers
were killed, I killed three hundred unbelievers, I faught the
good fight, I did not let the unbelievers have the fat sheep and
the thin yearlings from your gate. I was wounded in three places,
my dark head was stunned, I was all alone; is this what you're
blaming me for. p. 48
The shepherd feeds Lord Kazan and offers to go and retrieve Kazan's
goods and people or die trying. Kazan, feeling shame at the thought
of being accompanied by a mere shepherd, ties the guy to a tree.
Karajuk simply pulls the tree out of the ground and runs, carrying
the tree with him, after Kazan. Kazan unties him and they proceed
While Prince Shokli is trying to learn which of the forty-one women
he's captured is Kazan's wife so he can take her as a concubine,
Kazan and Karajuk arrive. There comes here a description of
The leather of Karajuk's sling was made of the skins of three
year old calves, the thongs were of the skins of three goats, and
one goat skin made the tassel. At every shot it threw a
hundredweight of stone. The stone it fired would not fall to
earth; if ever it did fall it would shatter into dust, it would
explode like a furnace, and for three years no grass would grow
where the stone fell. p. 53
Verse, boasting and satirical, is exchanged and then there's a listing
of Oghuz notables who arrive to take part in the fun.
On that day there was a battle like doomsday and the field was full
of heads. Heads were cut off like balls. Falcon-swift horses
galloped until they lost their shoes, pure black steel swords were
wielded until they lost their edges, the three-feathered,
beech-wood arrows were shot until they lost their points. p. 57
There's a great victory celebration. Dede Korkut comes and tells tales.
Blessings are called upon the royal listener.
The third story (pp. 59-87) is that of Bamsi Beyrek of the Grey Horse.
He's born in response to the prayer of his hitherto sonless father. The
now delighted father summons merchants and bids them obtain splendid
gifts for the newborn. They travel to the Byzantine metropolis of
For Prince Bure's son they bought a grey horse, sea-born; a strong
bow too they bought, with a white grip, and a six-ridged mace. p. 60
The trip took a while. After sixteen years, as they are nearing Turkish
territory, five hundred bandids attack them. One escapes to tell his
tale to a warrior who at once mounts his steed and rides to the rescue.
The appreciative merchants say he can take whatever he wants from his
goods. What catches his eye are the three gifts for the son of Prince
Bay Bure. When informed of this, he says then he'll wait till they
give these gifts to him in the presence of his father.
Now, when Beyrek's father had prayed for a son, another had prayed for
a daughter to marry that son. Beyrek encounters this maiden while
hunting deer. The boy and the girl have great fun racing their horses,
having an archery contest and then a wrestling match, and Beyrek
decides this is the one he wants to marry. Dede Korkut acts as
intermediary. The maiden's brother, Crazy Karchar, wants a dowry of
a thousand camels, a thousand horses, a thousand rams, a thousand dogs
and, "a thousand huge fleas" (p. 67). He gets his wish and Dede Korkut
even helps him with his infestation of fleas by telling him to jump in
However, Beyrek has barely donned his bridegroom's crimson caftan,
when seven hundred raiding Abkhazians attack and carry him off. After
they've held him for sixteen years, despicable Yaltajuk, son of
Yalanji, violating traditional Turkish truthfulness, says Beyrek is
dead, and even shows the bride one of the groom's shirts which
Yaltajuk dipped in blood. The news of her new betrothal to Yaltajuk
reaches Beyrek. He becomes sad, something noticed by the Abkhazian
'Why are you downcast, my kingly warrior? Whenever I have come I
have seen you cheerful, smiling and dancing. What has happened
now.' p. 73
He tells her, and she offers to help him escape, if he agrees to
return and marry her. He replies:
May I be sliced on my own sword, may I be spitted on my own arrow,
may I be slashed like the ground, may I blow in dust like the
earth, if I reach the Oghuz land safely and do not come back and
marry you. p. 73
He first encounters his grey sea-born horse which gladly greets him.
He recites a poem to it, calling it, "better than any brother" p. 74
and meeting a bard, borrows the bard's lute, handing over his horse
as surety. Then, disguised as a bard, he meets his sister and other
wedding guests. Using his own strong bow, he wins an archery contest
against despicable Yaltajuk. He then reveals himself to the bride.
The joyful news spreads and Beyrek marries the Abkhazian princess.
The fourth story (pp. 88-107) is that of the captivity of Uruz, son
of Prince Kazan. One day as beautiful girls are passing around goblets
of red wine, Uruz notices his father sigh. He's told this is because
Uruz is now sixteen years old and still hasn't taken any enemy heads.
Thus, he won't be accepted as Kazan's successor. Uruz asks to be shown
how it's done. Kazan thinks that's a splendid idea. He takes his son
and three hundred and forty warriors hunting near enemy territory.
Sixteeen thousand enemy come at them. Kazan fights well, and Uruz
bravely scatters foemen right and left, but at last Uruz is
overpowered and carried off.
Kazan exchanges several pages of verse with his wife and then rides to
rescue his son. He exchanges verse with his son, before an unequal
battle that leaves Kazan wounded. Kazan's wife arrives and a long list
of Oghuz heroes. A tremendous battle is fought.
Wild Dundar with the nobles of the Outer Oghuz attacked on the
right, Kara Budak with his brave warriors attacked on the left.
Kazan with the nobles of the Inner Oghuz attacked the centre. He
rushed at the infidel lord, at King Shokli, he made him scream, he
unhorsed him and spilled his red blood on the earth. On the right
wing Dundar met King Tara Tuken, put him to the sword and brought
him down. On the left wing kara Budak met King Bughachuk, ran him
through, and brought him down, then without giving him a chance to
move, he cut off his head. The Lady Burla the Tall aimed a blow of
her sword at the infidels' black standard and brought it down.
Uruz is rescued. There's a great victory celebration and a verse
yearning for the valiant warriors of those days.
The fifth story (pp. 108-116) is that of Wild Dumrul, Son of Bukha
Koja. He was the fierce warrior who on encountering the lamentations
of the mourning challenged Azrael, the Angel of Death. Azrael appears
to him later, when Dumrul is at table. Dumrul unsheathes his sword,
Old Man death turns into a dove and flies up the smoke hole. Dumrul
takes his hawk and goes dove hunting. Azrael terrifies Dumrul's
horse. Dumrul is thrown. Azrael sits on his chest. Dumrul asks
forgiveness for what he said while drunk. He is told to address God.
He does, appropriately, and is told he can escape if he can find
someone else willing to die. His parents refuse and he goes and tells
his wife to take another husband after him, so their two young sons
will not be fatherless. She refuses, offering instead her life for
his. He begs God not to let him live without her. This pleases God
who takes the lives of Dumrul's parents and grants another hundred
and forty years to Dumrul and Dumrul's wife.
This tale contains much poetry. Conversations are largely in verse.
there are places that struck me as pre-Islamic, such swearing by
earth and sky.
The sixth story (pp. 117-132) is that of Kan Turali, Son of Kanli
Koja. Kanli Koja tells his son he wants the lad to marry. Kan Turali
states his criteria;
Before I rise to my feet she must rise; before I mount my
well-trained horse she must be on horseback; before I reach the
bloody infidels' land she must already have got there and brought
me back some heads. p. 117
It happens that the King of Trebizond has a daughter who can shoot
two bows at the same time, one to the left and one to the right.
However, to win her a suitor must slay three fierce beasts or forfeit
his head. Thirty-two heads hanging at the castle do not deter Turali.
Inspired by the praise poems of his forty companions, calling on God
and blessed by Muhammad, Kan Turali bare handed easily vanquishes
the three fierce beasts. He takes his prize home to meet his parents.
He falls asleep at the feast and the girl, attired and armed for
battle, mounts prepared to repel any attack.
When six hundred enemy arrive she wakes him up. She scatters some of
the foe, and rides up to help him out. He's bleeding from a wound
over the eye and doesn't recognize her. In verse, he admonishes this
warrior riding to his aid, saying it's wrong to attack someone's
enemies without his permission. She answers in verse, letting him
know who she is and suggesting she'll take half and he can have half.
The couple quickly overcome the enemy.
Kan Turali tells her in verse that he can't stand having her boast
how she helped him. She replies that boasting is for men. He insists
on fighting; removing the point from the arrow, she draws her bow.
The arrow, "sent the lice in his hair scuttling down to his feet"
(p. 131). He kisses her and says he was only fooling. Stallions, rams
and he-camels are sacrificed and there's a great wedding feast. Dede
Korkut tells tales and makes wonderful music. And what great deeds
and what great heroes there used to be.
The seventh story (pp. 133-139) is that of Yigenek, Son of Kazilik
Koja. When he's fifteen years old, he learns that his father is being
held in an enemy castle, and goes to rescue him with heroes from the
twenty-four provinces, i.e. the twenty-four Oghuz tribes. The heroes,
including Wild Dundar, Son of Kiyan Seljuk, fail. Yigenek, calling on
God, defeats the giant enemy king, and rescues his father. The rescued
Kazilik Koja asks whether the wife he left pregnant bore a boy or a
girl. Yigenek replies:
You left the she camel of the herd heavy; a stallion was born.
You left your ewe in the black land heavy; a ram was born.
You left your beautiful chestnut-eyed wife heavy; a lion was born.
The eighth tale (pp. 140-150) tells how Basat slew Goggle Eye. It
begins when a lioness finds a baby in a camp, abandoned during a
night attack. When he is reunited with his people he is called Basat.
The baby's father has also raped a peri, whence Goggle Eye, a giant
having one eye and an invulnerability ring given him by his
supernatural mother. He has defeated the great heroes of the Oghuz,
and when Dede Korkut is sent to plead terms, they are two serving men
plus a daily feed of two men and five hundred sheep.
When Basat returns from a raid, a mother pleads for her son, and
informs Basat that Goggle Eye has killed Basat's brother, Kiyan
Seljuk. There's some moving verse here as Basat mourns Kiyan
("Brother, strength of my strong back!" p. 144). Basat confronts
Goggle Eye and with the strength of God defeats him, wounding him in
the eye, and then cutting off his head. Some commentators have
explored parallels between this story and Odyseus killing the
Cyclops. I note eastern elements such as the references to tiger,
dragon and bamboo lance.
The ninth story (pp. 151-160) is that of Emren, Son of Begil. Now
Begil was named warden of the Oghuz, when he accepted the tribute of
a horse, a sword and a mace, rather than gold. He was such a great
hunter that he could catch a deer by wrapping his bowstring around
its neck. When teased that this was due to the skill of his horse,
he returns the horse. However, on his next hunt the horse he had
wasn't up to this trick and threw him. The enemy learn he's hurt and
attack. Begil's son Emren faces them. The enemy begin with some fine
Irish style satire:
Boy, boy, boy!
The red horse you're on is a bag of bones, boy.
Your pure black steel sword is gap-toothed, boy.
The spear in your hand is broken, boy.
Your white-gripped bow is coming apart, boy.
The ninety arrows in your quiver are a bit sparse, boy. p. 157
Emren replies in verse and there's an epic clash between him and the
enemy king. They fight with mace and sword and bamboo-shafted spear,
and neither is the victor. They wrestle, and when Emren calls on God
for aid, the enemy king taunts,
If you have one God, I have seventy-two temples full of idols.
This latest version of the tale comes not from a pagan, so God tells
Gabriel to give Emren the strength of forty men, the enemy begs for
mercy and converts to Islam. The Oghuz have a great celebration with
Dede Korkut telling tales and making music.
The tenth tale (pp. 161-170) is that of Segrek, Son of Ushun Koja.
When Segrek was a baby, his brother Egrek was taken prisoner. Segrek
grew up, learns he has such a brother, resists all attempts to deter
him and goes to rescue Egrek. He so well defeats the enemy, they at
length send out Egrek to fight the wild warrior. The two discover
they're brothers, scatter the foe and ride off. One minor point is
that unlike tales of horsemen able to sleep in the saddle, this one
has Segrek lying down to sleep with the reins in his hands, and his
horse even slips away once while he's sleeping.
The eleventh tale (pp. 171-181) tells how Uruz frees his father,
Salur Kazan. Kazan fell asleep in enemy territory.
It seems, my Khan, that the Oghuz nobles used to sleep for seven
days on end. p. 171
His nobles are killed over him. He's seized asleep, bound and taken
into the enemy stronghold. He's brought up from underground, when
he says he's bothering the dead and eating the food the enemy give
their dead. When told he'd be freed, if he praises the foe and
curses the Oghuz, he replies with several poems refusing to do so.
They are not pleased, but don't kill him, because he has a brother
and a son.
Uruz was a baby, when his father was taken. He grows up, learns his
father's a prisoner, and sets out to free him. He and his force
seize a great Christian church on the way. Kazan is released to
fight the invaders. He bests some warriors, and asks them to send
their leader. His son rushes at him, sword in hand. Kazan, after
taking a mere four finger's width blow to the shoulder, identifies
himself and joins the Oghuz host in vanquishing the foe.
The twelfth story (pp. 182-189) tells how the Outer Oghuz, deprived
of the customary sack of Kazan's tent, take an oath on the Koran to
rebel. Uruz, their leader, invites Beyrek, his son-in-law and the
minister of Kazan, to come and resolve the dispute. However, Beyrek
is pressed to join the rebellion and is killed by Uruz on his
refusal to do so. Kazan mourns Beyrek and goes to war. Kazan slays
Uruz and the fighting stops. There's a great celebration, and Dede
Korkut comes and tells tales and sings songs.
There's an epilogue of wisdom sayings that could have been written
The bard roams from land to land, from prince to prince,
carrying his arm-long lute; the bard knows the generous man and
the stingy man. p. 192
These tales are entertaining on their own, and of very great
interest for their portrayal of heroic Turkic ways, for their
suggestions of pre-Islamic customs, and for apparent similarities
between these and other heroic societies, such as the Celts.