Spring 2005 (13.1)
Truth Beneath the Surface of Tales
by Sadnik Pirsultanli
Dove Bird of Peace
about the Rose
Sun and Moon
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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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