Azerbaijan International

Spring 2005 (13.1)
Pages 64-73

Azerbaijan's Legends

Truth Beneath the Surface of Tales
by Sadnik Pirsultanli

Legends compiled by Sadnik Pirsultanli
The Dove Bird of Peace

Legend about the Rose
The Sun and Moon
Stone Bride
Mourning Rock
Aghri Dagh

Sadnik Pirsultanli is no ordinary collector of legends. He's someone who knows the stories associated with so many rocks, springs, mountains, flowers, animals and even castles in Azerbaijan. While collecting this information over the past 35 years, he has been the esteemed guest in countless villages. He likes to say: "I've visited 1001 villages in the process of collecting these legends." It sounds like an exaggeration but it may not be, as his research has taken him beyond the borders of Azerbaijan to follow Azerbaijani immigrants who were exiled during Soviet years.

Sadnik was convinced that the Soviet Union would collapse one day and so he stashed away the legends that he was not able to publish patiently awaiting the day when he could publish them in the future. Sadnik is a lively conversationalist. He punctuates his discussion with songs and dances. Words alone are not powerful enough to convey his thoughts and emotions. Interviewing him was a live folklore performance - entertaining, thought-provoking and passionate.

Prior to Sadnik's work with legends, this folklore genre had not been studied and investigated in Azerbaijan so we asked him to share some of the lifetime experiences collecting legends and what he has come to discover about the nature and value of such tales.

Are Legends True?

Left: Ruins of Shabran Castle, which date back to 6th century. The castle fortified one of the most important cities of Caucasian Albania. Located north of Baku on the road to Khachmaz.

People often ask me: "Are legends really true?" Clearly, legends are not factual history. But on the other hand, they aren't completely devoid of history either. Usually some aspect of history is evident in them. In the process of being told over and over again, they become a sort of literary work. A legend is like a jacket upon which each nation embroiders its own decorations.

Legends are the unwritten history of a nation. By that, I mean that our past - our yesterdays - live on in our legends today. We shouldn't ignore them; they are the bridge between the past and the present. They even link us beyond to our tomorrows.

But apart from the issue of historical truth, legends are treasuries of moral truth. They convey the mentality, spirit and values of our nation and, in that sense, they ring very true. They are rooted in reality - not like butterflies in flight. They are like rose bushes or deep-rooted trees, which blossom every year and bear new fruit. Each new generation adds new colors to those legends, and they revive and flourish over and over. From this aspect, the legends are among those genres of folklore, which are the most wide spread with the deepest historical roots.

Once a shepherd told me about a fortress: "The King ordered 40 masons to construct it. One of the requirements was that the masons should incorporate into its foundation whatever living creature happened to come along first.

Then the Khan sent his own son and his son's dog. The masons killed the dog, but didn't dare touch the Khan's son. They built the dog into the fortress wall. News traveled back to the Khan who rebuked them: "I sent my own son to be encapsulated into that wall. I didn't send my son's dog. Who will defend this wall if a dog is built in its foundation? This fortress will only be defended if the Khan's son is built into the wall. My son will live for 100 years, but this fortress will exist for thousands of years. Why didn't you follow my orders in regard to my son?"

In each legend, the nature, character of the specific nation is revealed. This legend shows the love of the Khan for his Motherland. He agreed to sacrifice his son so that his country would be safe.

How is it that mankind has such an urge to explain his surroundings? Legends make things more lively and interesting. If a castle doesn't have a legend associated with it, people won't remember much about it over time. They will view it as unimportant if it doesn't have a legend.

Left: Beshbarmag Dagh (Five Finger Mountain) at 520 meters is located on the road north from Baku to Guba. A strange mixture of Aminism and Islam are evident of this site. Most motorists stop to leave a small donation for the construction of the new mosque there. Strange-shaped mountains and unusual rock formations frequently provide the basis for folk legends.

Each legend provides an overview of a specific period, along with their beliefs and attitudes towards life. Each legend consists of several layers and you, as researcher, must know how to decipher the writings on each layer.

Sometimes, I can identify 10 to15 separate layers of meaning within a single legend. The top layer, obviously, has information in common with our contemporary world. The layer just beneath that one provides clues related to communism. Underneath that layer, you'll find capitalism (Oil Boom Era) and on and on, back through history.

First, one should try to define the period of time when the story line was created. For example, there is a legend about a place in Samukh called "Pir of Snakes" (sacred place of the snakes). Despite the fact that hundreds of snakes exist there, people believe that none of them will attack you because whoever goes there takes a bowl of milk to feed those snakes. The belief exists that snakes will never strike a person who has fed them milk. What does it mean? Simply, this legend was created in a period of time when people idolized snakes as God.

When Arabs came to Azerbaijan, they destroyed the Avesta, the holy book of the Zoroastrians in which were recorded our ancient traditions, beliefs, and customs. Now our legends are the only source where such early information is stored. Therefore, our folklorists should be very careful in regard to documenting them.
I always say that the person who collects legends should have three qualities: (1) a heart to fall in love with this genre, (2) feet to travel non-stop, and (3) a brain to distinguish which legends are worth remembering and which are not.

I started collecting legends in 1969 so it has been 35 years that I have tirelessly been working on this. "I didn't have nights and days," - as we say.

I used to go around the countryside collecting these legends. During the process, I developed some patterns and routines. I would go to a specific region, collect the legends, but before leaving, I would publish them in a local newspaper. Often, people would write back variations of the legends. There were so many variations. One should never ignore them.

Variations are important to study: essentially there are no "right" or "wrong" versions. Each variation reflects the personality of the teller and helps us understand his belief system. It's only natural that a person will modify the narrative according to his own interests, experiences, moral values, and even according to his audience. Even mood can affect how legends are told - what parts are left out, what parts are embellished and enhanced. Legends have as many versions as they have retellings. Even the same person retells the same legend in a slightly different way each time.

I became so passionate about studying legends that I visited hundreds of places - villages, regions in Azerbaijan, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other republics of the Soviet Union. Then I was able to go abroad to foreign countries - Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey - to collect legends that were told among Azerbaijanis living in those countries.

While others were scraping together money to buy a car, I was running after legends. I didn't run after comfort. I pursued these narratives with the intensity of a young man who had fallen in love. I worked very hard. I spent my entire lifetime in the regions gathering folklore. I lived with these legends. They became part of my life. Legends are such a broad genre that a person who knows this field well becomes extremely knowledgeable about other genres as well - especially epics, bayatis (folk poetry) and proverbs.

Sadnik's youth

Left: Mardakan Castle on the Absheron Peninsula near Baku. Castles are frequently a topic upon which folk gelends are told and embellished.

I was separated from my father and mother when I was quite young. Actually, it wasn't their fault. The circumstances of the times dictated such things. It just so happened that my uncle Abdul Karim (my mother's brother) was a very religious man. He had worked on translating the Koran into Azeri. That led to his arrest during the Great Repression (late 1930s).

I don't even know whether he finished the translation or not. But I remember that my grandmother dug a hole in a place called Gold Rock, and placed all the books that belonged to my uncle there, covering them back up again with sand to protect them from being found by the Soviet authorities. Later when my uncle was rehabilitated, we tried to reclaim those books, but they had already rotted and disintegrated in the ground. Nothing was left.

Everyone who was related to my uncle - even remotely - was afraid that they might be targeted next since he had been branded as an "Enemy of the Nation". My father was a policeman but he was afraid they would come after him next and so in an effort to save his life, my parents decided to divorce.

They didn't do anything to my mother, but my uncle's family - his wife and kids - were taken to Krassnavodsk, Russia, where they died.

My parents decided that if they put me in an orphanage, I would have a clean slate, a clean background and nothing would hinder my being able to join the Communist Party in the future and make a career for myself. So that's what they did. I was about four or five years old at the time. I didn't really understand anything that was happening at the time.

When I graduated from high school, my mother found me. I started to visit her. When I decided to get married, I asked her who my father was. She showed me the street where he used to live and I went and found him.
My mother and father never got back together again. My mother remarried but wouldn't let my father get close to her in order not to offend her new husband. I was their only child. But later on, when the children from their respective marriages grew up, I was the one who took care of them to make sure they married well.

My grandmother was from Ganja. She died when she was 130 years old. She was a wealthy woman and always sewed money inside her vest - gold coins which she had collected before the Soviets took power.

My grandmother knew so many legends. Actually, she was my university, my academy - my world of tales. Despite her age, she had no wrinkles. She was a real "Leyli" - as we say - a very beautiful woman. She was very supportive of me. When I would return from my trips, she would ask: What new legends have you gathered?" I would tell her and she would say: "Just look at those pearls that you have collected." Prior to my work investigating legends, this folklore genre had not been studied in Azerbaijan.

Don't think that collecting legends is easy work. I often had to meet with six or seven elderly people before I could persuade a single one of them to tell me any legends. They would all say that they didn't know any such stories. So I would start telling some of the legends that I knew. Only then would they open up and start talking with me. That's the way I collected most of these legends. Essentially, I was both a legend teller and a collector at the same time.

As a folklorist, I never travel privately by car. It was a great advantage to use public transportation when traveling from one region to another as it gave me a chance to talk with ordinary people. While en route to my destination, I used to learn about the traditions, the people and life of a specific village or region. I found out who the storytellers were and who the ashugs were (men or women who improvise poetry and epics and accompany themselves on the traditional stringed instrument called saz). I found out where such people lived even before I reached the village.

Sometimes I would choose a particular village because I had heard about it through history, or literature, or that there was something unique about its folklore. Each mountain, river or lake has its own legend; therefore, the folklorist should know the geography of his research area. But it takes work to uncover them. Legends are not there to go and pick them as easily as wild flowers on a hillside.

Darband Castle
Pursuing legends has taken me to so many interesting locales. Once I went to Daghestan [north of Azerbaijan, now part of Russia]. I met a man on the train with an artificial limb as his leg had been amputated. We were talking about the castle there in Darband and I mentioned that probably Alexander had built it." But he told me that this castle was related to Nushiravan. His proof was the legend that circulated about it.

The story goes like this: One day King Nushiravan suggested that he and his vizier go out and find out what the people were saying about him. He thought that he would hear marvelous things about himself that would cheer him up. But as soon as they left the palace, an old woman grabbed Nushiravan's horse and asked: "Where can I find that scoundrel Nushiravan to tell him of my grief. He asked what the problem was. She replied: "Nushiravan sent my son to war, but his own son comes to my house and tries to steal my son's wife."
Nushiravan ordered his vizier to go to her place and investigate the situation. He went and looked through window and realized that the woman was right. So then Nushiravan asked the woman to bring him some salt. The woman did. He put the salt on his tongue, entered the room, blew out the candle and took his sword and cut off the head of his own son.

The woman was grateful and said that Nushiravan had done right; he had made sure that justice was carried out. But the woman wondered why the king had put salt on his tongue and why he had blown out the candle. The king replied: "I asked for salt because I wanted to share salt with you" [An Azerbaijani expression says that if you cut bread and salt with someone, you cannot harm that person. You must always be loyal to him and never betray him]. "If I shared salt with you, then I would not be able to kill you."

"For you, I have killed my only son. I could never go beyond this and kill you. As for blowing out the candle, I'll tell you this: 'Love has eyes. Love is conveyed though the eyes. If I had seen my son's eyes, I would not have been able to kill him. My love for him would not have allowed me to hurt him. I had to take his life in darkness. Murders are carried out at night, not in the daylight".

Ganli Gol Lake
Here's another legend. Once there was a woman who hated men. She had a daughter and she decided that they should live in a place where her daughter would never see a man. Then she would never fall in love. So she took her daughter and went to live in the mountains.

During the summer months, however, the shepherds would graze their sheep in the mountains. One young shepherd was attracted to this woman's daughter like a magnet. They fell in love. The young man proposed marriage. But the girl rejected his proposal saying that her mother had had a bad experience with her father and she was afraid of getting married. "My mother and I don't like men," she told him.

The young man answered: "Gaze out across this vast cornfield. Do you see how it creates waves when the breeze blows? But the cornfield has thistles as well. And the thistles don't bend as the rest of the cornfield does. These thistles distort the perfect harmony of this cornfield. Your father was one of those thistles - one of the few bad ones among so many good. Don't judge all people by one individual. There are so many good ones around."
"I am determined," the young shepherd continued. "I want to marry you. There are so many noble families; you can't say that everybody is bad."

And so they agreed to marry each other. One lived on the one side of Ganli Gol (Bloody Lake) and the other was on the other side. [Ganli Gol today is in Daralayaz (the Azeri name) - a region, which is now in Armenian territory].

At night the girl would light a candle and the boy would swim to that side of the lake to meet her. They kept meeting this way. One day the girl's mother became aware of what was going on and she blew out the candle. The boy was not able to swim without the light and he drowned in the lake. The following day, the girl drowned herself in the lake. And so, today, this lake is called Ganli Gol (Bloody Lake).

Here's another story about true love. Once there was a shepherd who fell in love with a woman who lived in a palace. They loved each other. To prove it and to punish the shepherd for his audacity, they brought him to the palace and had all the women pass in front of him. They thought that the shepherd's face would give away something when his beloved passed in front of him. In order not to reveal which girl it was and to protect her, he blinded himself with a knitting needle. That way when the girl passed in front of him, he didn't give away which one she was because he couldn't see her. Later on, the girl asked him how he had succeeded in not revealing his love. "How could I leave you in danger?" he asked. "To protect you, I made myself blind."

Look at this young fellow. See how true and sincere his feelings are towards his lover. He prefers to become blind rather than expose his lover's secret. He sacrifices his eyes. This proves that he was truly in love with that woman. This proves to millions of people that love exists. The love described in these legends is so pure that it makes you want to live in such a period yourself.

Soviet Period
You might wonder what the attitude of the Soviet government was towards folklore, especially legends? They kept their eye on us. Three times I was called in and questioned. But each time I was able to defend myself.
You might think that everyone was afraid of telling legends or allegories and jokes against the system, but that's not true. In every system there are those who are so tired of the system, so bored with it that they don't even care about death. They confided in me and told me those legends and I stashed them away in my archives. I realized that the Soviet system would collapse one day primarily because it was characterized by so much injustice. Such a system could not survive long. If there is injustice within a society, you can be sure such a system won't last long.

Here's another legend created during the Soviet era that criticizes the system: There were 15 frogs happily living in a lake. They were singing, dancing, taking strolls around the lake. One day a yellow snake appeared and swallowed up one of the frogs. The others frogs didn't join in to resist and fight off the snake because they thought the snake would never bother them. They started singing, "Croak! Croak! I'm alive!" The next day the snake ate another frog. Each day one frog disappeared from the lake. In the end, the snake devoured all the frogs. Those beautiful melodies were sung no more. Only from time to time when the snake opened its mouth to drink some water, were the frogs able to breath in some fresh air.

These 15 frogs represent the 15 Republics that were invaded by the Soviet troops at the beginning of the 20th century.

I collected so many tales, legends and ashug poems that expressed resistance against the Soviet regime but I wasn't able to publish them. So I stashed them away in my archive. Had I published them, they would have arrested me or taken away my job. So I decided to put those folklore examples aside and publish when the right time came. I was so sure that system would collapse one day. I felt it deeply. Intuitively. My only wish is that God grant me sufficient health and strength to publish them. Legends about bribery, tyranny, and lack of restraint were among those especially forbidden.

Even today legends are being created which criticize injustice in our society. For example, there's a legend about villagers who when they head to the mountains during the hot summer months, they lock their belongings in their homes. The villagers left one of their "aghsaggals" (literally, "white bearded ones", meaning "respected community elders") in each village so that no one would rob their property.

The story goes that only one village remained without an aghsaggal and everyday someone would either rob or burn down one of the houses. Afterwards, the villagers decided to choose one of the "aghsaggals" (village elders) to guard the place. The aghsaggal's grandson decides to stay with him. But at night, when the old man decided to go to sleep, his grandson refused, wondering who would protect the village. But the aghsaggal calmed him down by telling him: "Nobody will even come close to the village. It was me who carried out all of these crimes because I wanted to be elected the head of the village." You see: it's a new legend.

In Azerbaijani legends, it's true; people often get turned into a bird or a stone. That's because such people were seen as being so pure, so sinless, in the presence of God. It's not viewed as punishment. Rather it is a way of becoming memorialized and eternalized.

There's another theme that is often repeated - that of a boy and a girl falling in love with each other but not being able to marry and deciding to commit suicide. This is a common feature because of the inequality in society, which so often leads to tragedy. Of course, wealthy families want their daughters to marry someone of equal social status. When a wealthy man or woman falls in love with someone poorer, they confront too many social barriers. Their social status won't allow them to get married. That's why this topic so often gets repeated.

Collecting legends is like picking strawberries. You have to look under every blade of grass and under every bush to find even one strawberry. From dawn to dusk, you might succeed in filling only one small bowl. Don't think that I found the samples in my books from my first attempt. There were times when I couldn't find a single good legend though I had collected more than 100 legends in that region. But there were times when I encountered so many of them that I went crazy with happiness. It's not the work of one day.

Aytan Aliyeva interviewed Sadnik for this article.

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