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Bashkir epic «Akhak-kola»

«Akhak-kola» (in Bashkir – «Аҡһаҡ ҡола», which translates as «Lame dun horse») is a monument of Bashkir literature, the Bashkir epic, which tells about the descendant of noble horses that came out from the bottom of Lake Shulgan. Through this legend the Bashkir people told about their hard fate in the era of feudal relations and tried to express their desire for freedom. The epic also contains knowledge and ideas about the world, ideological attitudes, moral and ethical guidelines and aesthetic values of the people.
The epic tells about a dun stallion named Akhak-kola (literally – «Lame dun horse»). According to the plot of the epic, a horse of a noble breed of horses, that came out from the bottom of Lake Shulgan, falls into captivity to a cruel owner and, unable to withstand such a life, runs away from owner and takes a herd of horses with himself. The owner's son and his assistants go in pursuit of the fugitives, overtake the horses, ask them to return, but then they kill the herd for disobedience.

In other versions young man swears an oath to Akhak-kola not to punish runaway horses, but deceives and shoots an arrow at their leader. And a wounded horse, in turn, for violating the oath kills the traitor with a hoof kick.

The meaning of this folk tale is being investigated to this day. According to scientists, the epic tells not only about the inevitability of punishment for cruelty and treachery. The people have invested much deeper thoughts and values in this work.
Variants of the work
It should be noted that the epic «Akhak-kola», like other folk legends, was passed down from generation to generation by sesens (singers-storytellers), and therefore the work has come down to us in oral existence in various versions.
The folklore collections of Bashkortostan contain about 20 variants of «Akhak-kola» recorded on the territory of our republic and the Orenburg oblast.
Mukhametsha Burangulov
For the first time the legend of the lame dun horse was recorded in 1907 by the Bashkir poet and playwright, folklorist Mukhametsha Burangulov in the village of Verkhne-Ilyasovo of the Buzuluk uyezd of the Samara governorate from Khasan-sesen Burangulov. This is the only pre-revolutionary record.
Gata Suleimanov
In 1943 the kurai player Gata Suleimanov recorded the legend of the lame dun horse in the unity of melodic performance from the famous sesen Karim Diyarov in the village of Basayevo in the Baimak district of the Republic of Bashkortostan.
Akhnaf Kireyev (Kirey Mergen)
The most complete version was recorded in 1960 by the literary critic Akhnaf Kireyev (Kirey Mergen) from the sesen Gibadulla Agishev in the village of Kolman of the Orenburg oblast.

In the epic Akhak-kola is a descendant of horses that came out of the bottom of Lake Shulgan, a representative of a noble breed of horses that were considered sacred. Immediately after birth the foal gets injured – his leg is damaged, he becomes lame and begins to live in captivity with people. The owner uses the stallion on the most difficult household chores, which makes him suffer. And then one day Akhak-kola leaves the owner and takes the whole herd of horses with himself.
Nigmat Shunkarov
Subsequently short texts with melodies, retellings of the plot accompanied by the melody «Akhak-kola» were outlined by folklorists Nigmat Shunkarov, Akhmet Suleimanov, etc.
Mukhtar Sagitov
In 1971 the epic about the lame dun horse called «Bish kolon» (translates from Bashkir as «Five foals») was recorded from a retired teacher Zainap Zubairova in Ufa by Mukhtar Sagitov. There is a completely different development of events and other characters, with the exception of the stallion. Akhak-kola does not want to leave the Urals, and Yanuzak (the name of the young man who chases the herd) needs to return to his place of residence in the valley of the rivers Tok and Bolshoy and Malyj Uran. On the advice and wise instructions of the aksakal (head of the clan, elder, respectable person) Yanuzak decides to stay in the Urals. This version of the epic is inspired by the ideas of love for the Motherland, loyalty to the native land.
In general, the differences between the texts of the sesens, with the exception of the version of «Bish kolon», are insignificant. Almost all versions of the legend are characterized by the stability of the content.
There are different climactic moments: in one legend the entire herd is killed for disobedience, in another – after breaking the oath the owner shoots at Akhak-kola, for which the stallion kills him with a hoof kick. In the third legend the owner's son trampled to death by the herd itself.

In another version of the legend the ending of the plot is different – Akhak-kola runs away from the owner, and the annoyed owner's son stops at his bride on the way home. At night he sees a dream in which the bride predicts his imminent death. He gets home in 40 days and falls dead to the ground. Sesen's story ends with the words: «So, because the owner's son broke his oath, he said goodbye to his life».

There was also an optimistic outcome of the epic, where everyone remains alive. The owner's son asks for forgiveness from Akhak-kola, who was wounded by him, and the lame dun horse, along with the herd, returns victorious to the nomads' camp.

The hidden meaning of the epic «Akhak-kola»
In the traditional nomadic ecosystem of the Bashkirs the horse was the central link. The animal was considered a symbol of wealth, a criterion of well-being and the basis of a prosperous, secure existence. The Bashkirs took care of horses, cases of bullying and inhumane attitude to the animals were extremely rare.
«The horse is a particularly revered animal in the epic works of the Bashkirs. In Bashkir fairy tales he is depicted either in the form of a winged horse (Tulpar), or in the form of an all-powerful faithful assistant-clairvoyant (Buz Tulpar), or in the image of a mythical creature with which you can overcome any obstacles (Akbuzat). But Akhak-kola in the legend of the same name acts as a conflicting image, fighting against a person. This is new for the Bashkir epic, and the ideological meaning of the plot should be sought in public relations that have developed against the background of the development of private property and the emergence of classes», – said Bashkir writer, folklore scientist Akhnaf Kireyev.
According to him, the events in the work are depicted against the background of deepening social contradictions in the era of feudalism, when society was divided into classes, and some began to oppress others. And it was in this work, through the image of Akhak-kola, that the social image of the people, who were oppressed, humiliated, tortured by the rich landowners and cattlemen, as well as their desire and attempt to escape from their oppressors in search of will, happiness and a better fate, was veiled, as some researchers of Bashkir epic legends believe.

In the old days storytellers, indeed, could not openly talk about the struggle of the people's batyrs (heroes, brave warriors) for social justice, it would be tantamount to a call to action. Therefore, the sesens told about the activities of good positive forces allegorically.
«The "beauty of horses", which once gave a person happiness, ceases to perform the function of a support and base of the family, and turns into an instrument of exploitation and an object of oppression, – Akhnaf Kireyev notes. – In the monologue-complaint of Akhak-kola the motifs of the call to fight against a heavy fate are evident».
«The contrasts and contradictions between classes clearly appear in the work», – the scientist continues. – On the one hand, there are described feasting beys (leaders of clans), khans (rulers, military leaders), preening beys' wives, on the other hand – maids whipping kumis, daughters-in-law going to get water». «The rulers are feasting, beys are competing at the races, they are drinking kumis with a song», and at the other pole of life there are the masses of the people, representatives of labor, who work dutifully day and night, are oppressed and, in addition, are humiliated.

That is why Akhak-kola, in protest, not only left the owner, but also took away a whole herd of horses.
The names of the heroes of the legend also carry a certain social burden. The son of the owner, who went in search of a herd, is called Bai uly (literally – the son of bai, a rich man), and his companion, with whom he went in search of a herd of horses, is Karagul (literally – a black slave). Bai uly behaves quite arrogantly, haughtily. When he meets a shelter on the way, a girl comes out of it (in other versions – a bride) and offers him the help of maids, he contemptuously refuses it.

Having caught up with the herd, Bai uly calls on Akhak-kola to return, in other words, to surrender. The leader of the animals agrees to this on the condition that «only if you do not injure anyone», and demands him to swear, eating the earth at the same time. Bai uly agrees. «If you do not keep your word, the oath will fall on your head», – says the lame dun horse. The horses give up, but the owner's son breaks the oath: he takes a bow, pulls the string and shoots an arrow at Akhak-kola, but the stallion remains alive. The arrow hits him in the tail and, having drawn a furrow along the ridge, flies through, piercing his ear.

Then, according to one of the versions of the legend, Akhak-kola kicked the merciless owner's son with a lame foot, and he immediately died. «Because Bai uly broke his oath, which he gave by eating the earth, and this, according to the views of the ancients, was considered a great sin», – concludes the storyteller-sesen.

There are several more options that end with the death of an epic hero. So, the death of the owner's son means the death of the oppressor, the people remain invincible.
The folklorist Salavat Galin also spoke about the fact that the plot of «Akhak-kola» is based on the problems of social injustice and class contradictions. With the appearance of classes in the social development of the ancient Bashkirs the form of reflection of historical reality in epic legends also changes. The further development of productive forces plays a major role in the formation of a class society. For the peoples living a nomadic or semi-nomadic lifestyle this is determined by the development of cattle breeding, as a result – private property appears in the form of cattle, which gradually begins to concentrate in the hands of the leaders of the clans – beys, at the same time a social group of disadvantaged shepherds and hired workers is formed.
As a result, orders based on the oppression of some by others are established in society. At the same time such orders are strengthened by tribal customs, which in a refined form contribute to oppression. This is clearly manifested in the epic legend «Akhak-kola» («Lame dun horse»).
As for the plot of the legend called «Bish kolon», it seems to be one of the variants of the legend of a later time, in which there is clearly a reflection of two epochs – the older, archaic, and the later, with moral and ethical motifs (loyalty and love for the native land, its glorification).
Our contemporary, scientist and ethnographer Rozaliya Sultangareyeva believes that the epic work «Akhak-kola» captures in a coded form the most ancient realities, myths, beliefs, knowledge about the Universe, the sides of the world, rituals and magic.

Rozaliya Sultangareyeva
«The idea of unity and harmony, rather than struggle and confrontation with the surrounding world, with nature as a principle of survival of ancient man – this wisdom is succinctly, artistically and symbolically expressed in this work in a good literary style. The ideas of humanizing the mythical horse, the stories of the disappearance of horses of different colors and their mass slaughter in unity with the poetic and verbal component recreate a complex sacred text. Thus, the resentment of Akhak-kola at the owner is a profane form of archaic sacrificial rites marking calendar cycles. The origins of this resentment are not connected with the realities of the "cruel treatment" of the owner, but with the cycles of renewal of the seasons. The departure of the herd is the departure of a certain period of time. The central character – the lame horse is read not so much in the context of the cult veneration of the horse, but is associated with the originally archaic confrontation between the Horse and the Man – representatives of the two worlds. Choosing the lame dun horse as the main character in the epic is associated not so much with the highest adoration and veneration of the horse, but rather the transmission in this image of epochal information about the origin of the "horse from man" and the totemic idea of the "horse – the returned ancestor". The horse is a mythologized animal among the Bashkirs since ancient times, traces of its special veneration are active in everyday traditions. The moment of the horse's revenge is demythologized and has historical and social motivations. It most clearly preserves the universals of the archaic cult of the horse – the sacred ancestor, who teaches a person the norms of behavior. In addition, the lameness of Akhak-kola is a sign of sacredness. The motive of killing horses is associated with the horse sacrifice ritual – Ashvamedha. The archaic ritual has all the correspondences with the architectonics of the epic "Akhak-kola", and the Bashkir epic is presented as a reinterpretation and artistic transfer of the sacrificial ritual. The killing of a whole herd of horses in the legend is projected as a sacrificial rite in the name of the rebirth of the family, renewal. The main semantic episodes of the epic are: the escape of the herd (a symbol of the disappearance of stars, the change of phases of time and the onset of timelessness), the chase of the owner's son for the herd (an image of understanding the past time), fighting and achieving goals (killing horses – the departure of the old time), breaking an oath (testing the hero and moving to another world), prophetic dreams, predictions (contacts with other worlds) and the death of the hero (a symbol of the end of the time cycle). Hence, the whole plot of the epic is built as a transfer of information about the birth and departure of the old time, an assessment of a person's actions in time, about the test – comprehending life through the prism of attitude towards ancestors (totems), patrons and receiving well-deserved luck or punishment (in the epic punishment for breaking an oath)».
In general, almost all the texts of the epic «Akhak-kola» reflect several main thoughts.
According to the morality of a nomadic society, a person – the owner of domestic animals – should take care of them as equal members of the collective. The legend expresses the idea that causing resentment to the sacred horse, disrespect entails a heavy punishment – the death of the owner.
The epic legend «Akhak-kola» testifies to the high level of moral and ecological thinking of the Bashkirs. The people condemn the cruel, merciless and ungrateful attitude towards the animal to which they owe their well-being. Life shows that a humane attitude to trusting and defenseless creatures morally ennobles a person, and evil cripples him, brings him both moral and physical death.
In conditions of social inequality this folk tradition in an allegorical form conveys in the image of Akhak-kola the people's desire for freedom, condemns any kind of oppression against themselves and calls for active actions.
And most importantly, the work makes it clear how our ancestors lived many centuries ago.
Poetics and melodiousness of the epic «Akhak-kola»
The epic «Akhak-kola» is of exceptional value from the point of view of its language and melodiousness.
«Akhak-kola» refers to the kind of epic in which poems alternate with prose (in Bashkir this genre is called «irtek»). The prose part is told, and the poetic part is sung or performed accompanied by a musical instrument (dombra).

The verse form of such epic works in some respects resembles the Kazakh zhyr, Altai kai, Karakalpak dastans.

Some variants of «Akhak-kola» mostly have a nine-syllable verse. Poetic monologues and dialogues of characters are usually performed as a song that has its own melody. This epic is characterized by its own everyday melody, which combines recitative, repetition of melodic phrases. Fragments of the epic are performed in the khamak-kyuy style. Khamak-kyuy (literally – «hamak song») means a narrative-spoken manner of singing, keeping in a recitative or declamatory melodic style.

Different singers brought their own individual shades to the performance of the legend of the lame dun horse: they emphasized the ends of the half-stanzas, colored the sound in different ways, increased the volume of the sound in particularly pathetic stanzas. The versions of the melody were recorded and written in the form of a musical notation by Khusain Akhmetov, Zagir Ismagilov, Lev Lebedinsky.
The epic in our days
The Bashkir folk epic is still performed by folk sesens and folklore groups.
The epic «Akhak-kola» performed by the director of the folklore collective «Dert» Vilmir Abubakirov (city of Mezhgor'e)
Gradually the epic chant of «Akhak-kola» became an epic song. Melodic recitation was replaced by a wide chant, the laws of melodiousness came out in the first place.
The song «Akhak-kola» performed by the «Asanai» ensemble from the village of Saitbaba, Gafuriysky district of the Republic of Bashkortostan
The song «Akhak-cola» performed by the group «Argymak» against the background of a sand animation by the artist Ekaterina Korol
The epic «Akhak-kola» is translated into some languages of the world. There are translations into Russian and Turkish.

Unfortunately, today few people fully possess the skill of performing such genres of Bashkir folk poetry as irteks, kubairs. To do this, it is necessary to pay more attention to the study, revival and development of the ancient Bashkir storytelling art, the best traditions of verbal, verbal and song competitions.
The epic performed by the Honored Worker of Culture of the Republic of Bashkortostan, folk storyteller Asiya Gainullina
The TV program «Akhak-cola» from the archive of the «BST» TV channel (author – A. Suleimanov)

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3. Kireyev A. N. (1970). Bashkirskiy narodnyi geroicheskiy epos [Bashkir folk heroic epic]. Ufa: Bashkirskoe knizhnoe izdatel'stvo, 304 p. (in Russian).
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5. Psyanchin A. V. (ed.) (2018). Dukhovnaya kul'tura bashkirskogo naroda. Fol'klor i iskusstvo [Spiritual culture of the Bashkir people. Folklore and art]. Ufa: Bashkirskaya entsiklopediya, vol. 1, 352 p. (in Russian).
6. Suleimanov A. M. Bashkirskie seseny [Bashkir sesens]. Vatandash, no. 9, pp. 108–149 (2012); no. 10, pp. 100–159 (2012) (in Russian).
7. Suleimanov R. S. (2005). Bashkirskaya narodnaya pesnya [Bashkir folk song]. Abstract of D. Sc. dissertation (Art Criticism). Russian Institute of Art History, Saint Petersburg, 73 p. (in Russian).
8. Zaripov N. T. (ed.) (1998). Bashkort khalyk izhady. Epos [Bashkir folk art. Epics]. Ufa: Kitap, vol. 3, 448 p. (in Bashkir).

Photos: «Bashinform» news agency's photo bank; Internet sources.

Audio and video: the fund of the TV and radio company «Bashkortostan», the fund of the Department of folklore studies of the Institute of History, Language and Literature of the Ufa Federal Research Center of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Internet sources.

Author (compiler): G. Z. Akulova-Suleimanova, 2021