The Epic of Manas: An Epic Still Alive The epic Manas is one of the most precious expression the Kyrgyz national heritage. Composed in oral form and rhyme, Manas has preserved its significance as the magnum opus of the Kyrgyz epic tradition for centuries past. Despite being relatively unknown, Manas is an epic that constitutes a role as large as those of the Homeric epics. Moreover, Manas is still not entirely recorded and Turkologists from all over the world continue an ambitious project to get the Epic of Manas recorded and translated.
Exceeding half a million lines, Manas is still not totally available for international scholarship and the available knowledge on Manas is fairly limited. Yet, even this limited knowledge manages to demonstrate the significance of Manas, not only for the Turkic peoples but also for the epic tradition and is of such paramount value for the Kyrgyz that globally-acclaimed Kyrgyz writer Cengiz Aytmatov had called Manas “[the expression] of the Kyrgyz’s worldview, pride and dignity, battles and their hope for the future. Before comparing Manas to other Western epics, it is necessary to understand what Manas is and what it stands for. As said earlier, Manas consists of about half a million lines, which makes it almost twenty times longer than the Homeric epics, ranking it the second-longest epic after the Indian Mahabbarata. The size of Manas makes it unique among other such epics, especially in comparison to Homeric epics. Yet, it would be unfair to limit Manas’s significance to its tremendous length. Together with its size, Manas is also rich in content and demonstrates a unique success in its eloquent poetry.
Renowned German Turkologist Wilhelm Radloff had called Manas, due to its technical and literary success, “the highest level of traditional poetry. ” Similar to Homeric epics but exceeding them, the Manas reflect all aspects of the Kyrgyz’s life. The epic provides modern scholars with priceless data on the ethnic composition, economy, traditions and customs, morals and values, aesthetics, codes of behavior, their relationship with their surroundings and nature, their religious worldview, their knowledge about astronomy and geography, and artistic oral poetry and language of Kyrgyz and in general, early nomadic Turkic peoples.
Manas is also musical, collectively composed through the ages and sung by bards, unlike Homeric epics which were written in prose. Another difference between Homeric epics and Manas is their structure. Manas was previously said to be an epic of tremendous length. Many Turkic scholars believe that Manas had evolved into this length by engulfing other epics into it. The Manas is the sole epic of the Kyrgyz and the trilogical structure of the Manas affirms the thesis that Manas had evolved into its current form by incorporating other epics into its narrative.
In this context, Manas is the central and only epic of the Kyrgyz, a quality that differs between Manas and Homeric epics. The Homeric tradition and Manas do exhibit differences in their structure and content, some of which will be discussed in greater detail later in this paper. Yet, what distinguishes Manas from almost any other epic story is that it is still alive. Still, in Kyrgyzistan, one can find Manaschis, bards that sing the Epic of Manas. The epic is basically a narrative of the fictional lives of Manas, the protagonist who is also the namesake of the epic, his son Semetei and grandson Seitek.
The epic recounts the birth and growth of Manas, his rise to reputation, marriage and military prowesses. After a turn of fate, Manas dies and his wife is forced to flee with his sons. In a motif common in almost every other Turkic epic, the son walks through the path of his father and regains power, only to lose at again with his death, restarting the biographical cycle with Manas’s grandson. Throughout their history, the nomadic Turks had engaged in many battles with Kalmuks, Manchi and the Kithays (Chinese).
Since they were nomadic and had no land to clung onto, they were forced to exile in distant lands in every defeat and their social chronology was basically a cycle of exiles and returns, as in the epic of Manas. Thus, unlike the Homeric epics, Manas focuses not only on a particular battle but rather on the military and social log of the Kyrgyz clan. Like the Homeric heroes Odysseus and others, Manas and his sons too have extraordinary abilities, military prowess and carry divine favor.
Like Genghis Khan, Manas too is also to have been born with a clot of blood in his hand. Thus, the folklore seems to have used Manas as a prototype to Genghis Khan: “In his right hand, khan Manas / Came out holding a clot of black blood… ” Atypical births are commonly found in Turkic epics and to a certain extent, they could even be found in the Homeric epics, like the story of Achilles. In a certain sense, these lores seem to parallel the motif of being chosen and having divine favor.
Like Achilles and Odysseus, Manas too shares a certain extraordinaire to his birth and life. For example, the epic recounts Manas’s father being foretold in a dream that his son would be a future hero who would take over the entire world. Like Homeric heroes, all accounts of Manas in the epic attest to him traditionally “epic” and “mythic” qualities: “He is created from the beam between the Sky and the Earth / He is created from the waves of a river under the moon /He is created from the blend of gold and silver. His physical descriptions reflect a supernatural image of ancient hero, like Homeric heroes. Together with its structure and content, Manas also exhibits one unique quality that distinguishes from all other epics: the presence of Islam. Even though it probably had pantheistic/pagan figures in its origin, Manas has evolved to involve Islam inside it over time. Recent versions of the epic tells Manas to be a “pious Muslim” who fought against the infidels whose ancestors were blessed by Allah, The Prophet Muhammad, and Sufi saints.
In the opening lines of the epic, this Islamic glorification is found in its most typical expression: “His forefathers were all khans / Blessed by Kidir from the beginning / His ancestors were all khans / Blessed by Kidir from the beginning / In places where they had stayed overnight / Sacred shrines were built, for / God had blessed them from the beginning. / In the places where they had passed by / A city with a bazaar was established, for / God had blessed them from the beginning. / They had exchanged greetings with twenty Sufi masters, / Learned writing from a caliph, / And they thus were called great “sahibs. (18) As said above, the epic of Manas was probably pantheistic in its origin. Yet, after the Turks converted to Islam after the Battle of Talas, it is most likely that Manas evolved to consist an increasing degree of Islam in it and the bards had “Islamized” Manas and his story. Today, in the Western world, Homeric epics are extremely popular and have been extensively analyzed in the ages past. Moreover, the Homeric epics are being commonly used in colleges. To a lesser extent, Indian epics like Mahabbarata and Ramayana and Chinese epics have become popular in Western colleges.
Yet, in comparison to these epics, the Manas is relatively unknown even in the Turkic world. There are of course certain reasons behind this reality. First of all, as said earlier, Manas is still a “living” epic and thus, it is hard to come up with a unified version of the Manas as there are differences among regional versions. Moreover, the peripheral geography of the Turkic world and the authoritarian Soviet rule suppressed the Turkic identity for more than a century, studies on Manas have only recently become active.
In other words, under a century of Soviet rule, Turkic studies have gone dormant, greatly delaying scholarship on Manas. Yet, in the past years, Manas has attracted increasing attention from scholars and its unique significance has started to be appreciated in the globalacademia. As an epic that reaches and possibly exceeds the structural excellence and literary richness of Homeric epics, hopefully, the value of Manas will become more evident with further scholarship and Manas would rise to its deserved status in the history of civilization.