Mongolian Folk Tales Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Mongolian Folk Tales

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A Mongolian warrior and a hare looking down from the night sky

In Mongolia, the oral tradition of songs and tales has been, and still is, very important. Until the beginning of the 20th Century the ability to read and write was mostly reserved for the lamas, the Buddhist monks, and the Khan's1 writers. Written literature didn't play as important a role as it did in Europe.

There are countless versions of the tales. The Mongolians say:

There are as many versions of a story as there are tongues telling it.

Every narrator embroiders the tale a little bit more. On the other hand, they maybe forget a detail originally belonging to the tale, or perhaps only part of a much longer and more complex story is told. When, in the 16th Century, Lamaism (the Tibetan version of Buddhism) finally spread out across Mongolia, many tales were altered to better reflect the new view of the world.

Of course, there are also common characteristics that are typical of Mongolian folk tales, such as their sense of humour. Also, Mongolian tales are not as moral on the surface as some European tales.

Mongolian folk tales can be roughly divided into four groups: legends, animal tales, tales about everyday life and magical and riddle tales. In the following you will find a few words about each of these groups and a folk tale as an example.

Mongolian Legends

Legends are probably the oldest examples of folk literature in Mongolia. It seems to be a basic urge of human beings - whether they are from Mongolia or anywhere else on this world - to understand the world surrounding them.

Today we have science to help us with understanding; we know that mountains were created by volcanic activity or the continental drift, and we are able to explain characteristic features of animals with evolution theory.

Modern science is, however, a pretty new achievement and so the people living on this world hundreds of years ago tried to explain things in other ways; it was gods that created the mountains, and the animals stole tails from each other and picked out each other's tongues. When they put these ideas of how the world works into tales, they created legends.

One of these legends is included here to give you a taste of how the Mongolian people thought the world works.

'Erkhii Mergen' or, 'Why the Marmot Doesn't Have a Thumb'

Once upon a time there were seven suns up in the sky and a terrible drought made the soil redden and crack. The rivers dried up, the plants and the trees withered, the people suffered from the heat and the animals were dying. All this seemed to be inevitable.

But, in one region, there lived a handsome archer called Erkhii Mergen who shot at what he saw and hit what he shot at. Many people and animals came to him and begged him, 'Please shoot the seven suns in the sky and destroy them.'

The archer Erkhii Mergen was very conceited about his accuracy as an archer and thought himself a brave, strong and proud man. So he took an oath:

If I can't shoot the seven suns with seven arrows, I will cut off my thumbs and no longer be a man. I will no longer drink clear water, eat the dry grass from the last year and continue my life as a marmot living in a dark hole beneath the earth.

From the east, he shot at the seven suns moving high up in the sky, one after another, from the east to the west. After he had shot the sixth sun, he aimed carefully at the seventh, but just then a swallow came flying along and concealed the sun. When the arrow was released from Erkhii Mergen's bow, it didn't hit the sun but the swallow's tail; that's why the swallow has a forked tail. The last sun was afraid of Erkhii Mergen and hurried to hide behind the mountains in the west.

Erkhii Mergen thought, 'The swallow obstructed my view,' so he took his piebald horse and set out to chase the swallow and kill it. His horse swore, 'I will chase the swallow from dusk to dusk. If I haven't caught up with the swallow by then, cut off my forelegs and throw them away. Then I will be no longer a horse but live in an uneven and rough place.'

But, no matter how fast the horse ran, the swallow was always just out of reach and boldly flew around their heads. Finally dusk came upon them and the horse hadn't been able to catch up with the swallow. Erkhii Mergen got very angry and cut off the two forelegs of his piebald horse. Since then, it lives in an uneven and rough place and has become a Mongolian jumping mouse whose front legs are short, too. It is said that the swallow is still mocking riders crying 'catch me if you can!' when, at dusk, she flies in circles around the riders' heads.

The proud Erkhii Mergen stayed true to his own word and cut off his thumbs. He didn't live as man anymore but became a marmot. He didn't drink pure water anymore, ate the dry grass from the previous year and lived in a hole beneath the earth. Since then, it is said, the marmot has only four fingers on each paw and, early each morning, Erkhii Mergen forgets that he has become a marmot whereupon he comes out of his hole and waits for the sun to rise, wanting to shoot this last sun from the sky.

There is a piece of meat in a marmot called 'man's meat' that no human is allowed to eat because the Mongolian people believe that it is Erkhii Mergen's flesh. The only sun remaining in the sky is still afraid of Erkhii Mergen and hides behind the mountains in the west. That's why there is a day and a night.

Animal Tales

The Mongolian people seem to know an infinite number of animal tales and fables, though the distinction between the two is pretty hard to make. Fables, you can read in clever books, and these distinguish themselves by their obvious moral. The Mongolian tales, in general, are not so obvious in imparting a moral, making it harder to press them into European literature categories - but it's more fun to read them.

The Mongolian animal tales follow two basic rules:

  • The smaller, weaker animal always beats the bigger, stronger one.
  • A herbivore will always defeat a carnivore.

According to these rules the animals, acting as protagonists in the tales, can be divided into 'culprit/aggressor' (aka carnivores or omnivores) and 'victim/defender' (aka herbivores or omnivores). These two groups of animals clash in specific scenarios - sometimes meeting an animal of a third group, the 'rescuers'. Animals of this group are most often especially small (and therefore especially clever) herbivores rescuing the endangered animal through cleverness and cunning. Sometimes the rescuer is a stronger carnivore or omnivore - mainly the bear who, after all, eats more berries than meat anyway.

Of course, these respective roles reflect the desire of the people to be able to beat their oppressors as easily as that. It is interesting, though, that violence is not the way to defend oneself. Instead, cleverness is the weapon of choice.

Put like this it may sound as if Mongolian animal tales are terribly dull, but they aren't, as the following example hopefully shows.

'The Foolish Wolf' or, How a Black Pudding, a Mare and a Calf Trick a Wolf

Once upon a time a wolf was walking along a road when he saw a black pudding lying right in the middle of it. The wolf wanted to eat it at once but the black pudding cried, 'Mister Wolf, do not eat me! A little way further a three-year-old mare is stuck in the mud. Why don't you go there and eat her instead?'

The wolf followed the black pudding's advice and there really was a mare stuck in the mud. When the wolf saw her, he wanted to eat her but the mare said, 'Mister Wolf, if you want to eat me, you'd better pull me out off the mud first.' So that was what the wolf did.

He pulled the mare from the mud and was just about to eat her, when the mare said, 'Oh, but I am covered in mud. You should lick me clean first before you eat me.' Once again the wolf did as the mare told him and licked her clean.

But when he wanted to eat her, she told him, 'There is something written on the hoof of my hind leg. Wouldn't you like to read it before you eat me?' When the wolf went to her hind legs to read what was written there, and the mare kicked out. She hit his neck and ran away while the wolf lost consciousness and fell to the ground.

When he came to again and looked around, the mare was already far away. So he got to his feet and with his nose sniffing at the ground he ran to and fro between the bushes and the hills. He was lucky and found a one-year-old calf on one of the hills. The wolf went to the calf wanting to eat it but the calf said, 'If you eat me up here on the hill, humans will see you. It would be better if you'd take me to a small gorge and eat me there!' So the wolf brought the calf down from the hill.

'Mister Wolf, you seem to be tired and exhausted. Sit on me and I will carry you!' the calf told him. The wolf did as the calf told him. 'When we climb down into the gorge, you'd better close your eyes so you won't get dizzy,' the calf suggested. And so the wolf closed his eyes. The calf, though, carried the wolf right in front of the ail2 of a family of Mongolian nomads. As soon as the people saw the wolf, they started hollering and beating him and then chased him away.

The wolf fled and thought to himself:

What am I doing in the distant mountains?
What am I doing near the humans?
I was a fool going along this way.
I was a block-head to be tricked by a black pudding.
Am I the owner to pull the horse from the mud?
Am I the mother to lick the mare clean?
When did I ever learn to read and write?
And do I not have legs of my own to walk with?
I am dumb and now I am dying...

Tales About Everyday Life

Many of the Mongolian tales describe the hardship and the problems the Mongolian nomads are faced with in everyday life. Also, the relationship between the 'simple' nomads and the Mongolian khans plays an important role in these tales.

Ever since the Manchurians conquered Mongolia in the late 17th Century the khans are shown to be greedy and cruel. The tales do reflect the actual circumstances of life at that time. While the khans lived in luxury by getting into debt to Chinese merchants, the simple people had to pay for it, literally. Of course, the Manchurian government used this situation to keep the Mongolian khans under control.

As serious as the content of the tales often is, the tales themselves are often very funny. The tales often describe a greedy but dumb khan, or a rich stockbreeder, who is then tricked or defeated by a simple man, an underdog.

The classical underdog in the Mongolian folk tales is the wandering lama3, the badarcin. He's a kind of mixture of Robin Hood and Eulenspiegel, using his cunning to help the poor. He also is the hero in the following story.

'The Tale of the Khan and the Badarcin' or, Why You Should be Careful Making Promises

Once upon a time there lived a khan4. One day he announced, 'I will leave my throne to the man telling a lie that makes a sitting man stand up and wakes a sleeping man.'

A tailor heard this and came before the khan. 'Dear khan, dear khan! In the heavy rain of the day before last, the edges of heaven got torn and I went and sewed them up again using the tendons of a louse,' he lied. Complacently he thought, 'Now I have surely told a lie that will make a sitting man stand up and wake up a sleeping one.'

But the khan said, 'Bah, you sewed it up badly. After all it rained again yesterday morning.' The tailor left the room silently.

Then an herdsman stepped in front of the khan and told him, 'Dear khan, dear khan! My deceased father owned a whip with which he struck the stars from the sky.'

The khan answered, 'That's nothing. My own deceased father, the former khan, owned a pipe. When he lit it up, the smoke curled around the stars in the sky and tied them all together.' The herdsman didn't know what to say to that and went away in silence.

Just then a badarcin came into the room carrying a bucket. The khan asked him, 'Badarcin, what do you want?'

'What, don't you recognise me?' asked the badarcin, 'After all you have borrowed a bucket full of gold from me. I have come to get my gold back.'

The khan then jumped out of his seat and demanded to know, 'And when should I have borrowed that gold from you? You are lying!' The noise woke up the khatan5 who had slept nearby. 'You are lying when you claim to have borrowed my gold. Beat him, hit him!' the khan yelled.

The badarcin said, 'If I am lying then leave me your throne, dear khaan.'

The khan thought about that for a moment and then he replied, 'Wait a moment! You are telling the truth. I did borrow the gold from you. I just remembered.'

'Then give me my gold!' demanded the badarcin.

Thus, the badarcin told a lie which made a sitting man stand up and woke up a sleeping man. He gained a bucket of gold and taught the careless khan a lesson.

Magical and Riddle Tales

In this category belong all the tales in which the protagonists have some kind of magical power. In the course of the folktale they use their power either to help somebody or to accomplish a task seemingly impossible to accomplish. The magical tales are somewhat related to the epics in Mongolian literature.

The riddle tales are related to the magical tales, as the protagonists featured in them often do have magical powers too, or the reader is confronted with fantastic situations and events. However, most importantly, these tales present the reader with a riddle, so these tales are something like the 'whodunnits' of the folk tales - in the sense that the reader is expected to solve the riddle himself.

'The Story of the Ox' or, Who or What is the Biggest Anyway?

A long, long time ago, there was an enormous ox. In his head, his kidneys and in his rear end each lived a rich man. The rich man living in the ox's head had a winter and a spring place. The man living in the kidneys had a winter and a spring place, and a summer place too. The rich man in the head said to the one in the middle, 'For days this ox hasn't eaten any grass.'

The rich man in the middle delivered the message to the man in the ox's rear end, 'His empty and hollow belly is starting to fall inwards.'

'Well, I've been living at this place for years. Yet the ox not once did make a blot. How can that be?' the rich man living in the rear asked. This man used to gather the ox's droppings and use them to make fire6. But now the ox was dying and a fox ate his fill for three years until there was nothing left of the ox's cadaver.

Only the shoulder blade remained, laying in the steppe. Seventy warriors camped on the shoulder blade and pitched their tents there. Once the warriors had left again, a bird flew by, took the bone in his beak and flew away with it.

Somewhere else an old man sought shelter from the rain in the beard of a fat, white he-goat when the bird took a seat on the goat's horns. But when he prepared to eat the shoulder blade, it fell down and landed in the old man's eye. Because it hurt the old man so much, his neighbours came and used shovels and pickaxes to dig the bone out again, but it didn't work. So the old man went back home and his wife used her tongue to lick the bone of the ox out of her husband's eye.

So, which one was the biggest?

Only a fool would believe that the shoulder blade was the biggest. Only an idiot would think that the bird was the biggest. He who thinks that the man was the biggest has thought long and hard. He who claims that the woman was the biggest didn't spent much thought on this. A wise person would say that the he-goat was the biggest, and an imaginative person would think that the seventy warriors were the biggest of them all.

1In the times of the Mongolian empire the khans ruled parts of it. For example, the Khan of the Golden Horde ruled over Eastern Europe and Russia. In 1386 the Mongolian empire went under and so the khans ruled what parts of it that were left, mainly districts in Mongolia.2An ail is an accumulation of a few yurts, a mobile settlement so to speak. A yurt (ger in Mongolian) is the traditional home of the Mongolian nomads; it is a kind of mixture of a tent and a house.3A lama is a monk of Lamaism, the doctrine of Buddhism practised in Tibet and Mongolia.4While the khans ruled only parts of the whole empire, the khan ruled the whole empire. You may have heard the title in the name of Cingis khan, the founder and first emperor of the Mongolian empire.5The khatan is the wife of the khan and therefore the Mongolian equivalent of the Queen consort.6Since there is very little wood to be found in Mongolia, the Mongolian nomads do indeed use the droppings of their animals to make fire.

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