The Manas epic
The epic strenghthens the population´s attachment to its past
For the Kyrgyz “Manas”is the national epic par excellence. It is an impressive work both in volume and content. With its more than 500,000 lines in verse Manas is one of the most voluminous epic works in the world. The Kyrgyz also indeed love to compare the volume of the epic with the Iliad and the Odyssey, which have respectively 15,700 and 12,100 lines in verse.
The work contains inter alia a mythical presentation of early Kyrgyz history and tells the story of how the Kyrgyz under the leadership of the mighty and almost invincible general Manas came to Central Asia, conquered the population that lived there and took over power. The epic is written in a style that changes between descriptions of events as they may in fact have taken place and descriptions of fantastic events and figures with supernatural qualities.
Right up until it was written down in the last century “Manas” was handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation. The work was learnt by heart by specialists, manastshy, who in different connections read aloud, or to put it more correctly sang5, the content to people around the country. The content has changed a great deal in the course of time. It was also part of the intention behind the epic that a manastshy would interpret and reproduce the work in his spirit. Those specialists who could present good interpretations of their own of the epic enjoyed great respect among the Kyrgyz population. A good interpretation required that manastshy, in addition to having a good knowledge of those events that were considered to have actually taken place, also had a wide knowledge of the Kyrgyz world of gods and spirits, of various legends and stories, of families and family relationships, as well as familiarity with local rituals and traditions. A manastshy was therefore at the same time as being an expert on the epic also regarded as a kind of specialist on Kyrgyz tradition and culture.
The epic describes important events that occurred in the course of history, while events that were not relevant are left out. Since the work was interpreted by different manastshy who lived in the same period, it follows that interpretations of the epic were at times contradictory.
Since the interpreter’s political view could be reflected in his interpretation, the Kyrgyz could choose sides according to which manastshy one considered to have the best political message. In spite of certain politically related changes, it is however claimed that in all the different versions the main lines and characters have been retained.
“Manas” was not written down until the 1920s and in this way acquired a “frozen” form. The writing down of the epic and the introduction of reading and writing skills meant that the art of reproduction became superfluous. The really good manastshy are therefore a race that is dying out. In that it became possible to read the epic, it also became less important for the average citizen to learn parts of it by heart. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and in connection with the building up of the Kyrgyz nation, it does however seem that “Manas” has had a certain renaissance.
Excerpt with political content
It is important for the Kyrgyz population to show that they have their roots in this area of the world and that they are therefore the rightful inheritors of the land. The “Manas” epic helps in this. In the epic there are descriptions of how the Kyrgyz managed to win this area through wars with surrounding groups. “Manas”also contains accounts of families, tribes and clans as well as the names of areas. When the Kyrgyz hear or read the epic, they can recognise these names and connect them with their own family names, their own personal names and names of areas in which they have their rights. Even though the epic has in the course of history been retold and interpreted to fit into a particular age, the events and characters are described as if they were from a remote past. Through the comparison of different aspects of Kyrgyz life, as they are described in the epic, with aspects of Kyrgyz life in modern times, an assumed kinship can thereby be established between past and present. It may be argued that here it is less important whether the events that are described actually took place. As is the case with what applies to assumed real history, the utility value in myths and stories also plays a significant part.
In the Soviet period the reading of “Manas” was mainly connected with gatherings at which only Kyrgyz people were present. The work was looked upon as the national sacred relic of the Kyrgyz. In many circles weight was placed on teaching the young about the epic and its value for the Kyrgyz section of the population. Excerpts of the epic were recited on the occasion of various rituals such as weddings and name ceremonies. The Soviet authorities for their part considered that the work contained material that was hostile to the state, inter alia because it defended clan-based political organisation. They were therefore opposed to any promotion of the work in the public sphere.