Mongolian folktales survived, as is probably the case with the folktales of any other country, by the tradition of storytelling. Only in the 20th century did Mongolian academics begin to collect them to write them down. Of course every storyteller added a few details, so the tales changed quite a bit during the centuries. And - as the Mongolian people say - there are as many different versions of a story as there are people telling it.
One can divide Mongolian folktales into four main groups:
- First are the tales that feature animals acting like men. One might call these stories fables but maybe an European reader would get the wrong impression if you did because the Mongolian animal-tales are a little more subtle concerning the moral message. There's nothing like:
'And the moral of this tale is...'
- Secondly there are tales that tell of a hero who defeats his enemy and wins the beautiful, young woman. Again there is a difference to the European stories: in the Mongolian tales this young man is often not a prince but a simple hunter or the son of a poor shepherd.
- Then there are tales about magic beings such as magic horses, fairies and - instead of the dragon in European tales - the Mongolians have the "Mangus", a truly horrible beast.
- Finally, of course, there are tales which discuss the problems of everyday life. Into this group fit the tales about one special figure within the Mongolian tales: The Badarcin, a travelling monk, who resembles Robin Hood or, even more, Till Eulenspiegel. He helps the poor against the rich, fighting with humour and intelligence.
The next section is devoted to a few examples of Mongolian folktales. The first one is quite popular among the Mongolian people. And the other two... well, you can guess which group of tales I like the best .
The Legend of Erkhii Mergen, the Archer.
Once, long ago, seven suns appeared in the sky. The heat of so many fiery suns was so intense that the earth below began to burn. A terrible drought spread over the land. Streams and rivers dried up, and all the plants and trees began to wilt and die. The people of the earth and every living thing suffered terribly from the intolerable heat. Finally, both man and beast began to die.
During these terrible times, there lived a young man named Erkhii Mergen who was famous as the best archer in the world. Erkhii Mergen could shoot an arrow better than anyone and he always hit his target.
The suffering people came in droves to Erkhii Mergen, begging him:
'Erkhii Mergen, help us! Use your skill to shoot down the seven suns, or everything in this world will surely perish!'
Erkhii Mergen was proud of his ability, his strong thumbs, and his immense strength. He was young and fierce and felt ready to take on any foe. In his pride, Erkhii Mergen said to the people:
'Not only will I shoot down the seven suns, but I promise to use only seven arrows to accomplish the deed. If I should not succeed, I swear to you all that I will cut off my thumbs! I will cease to be a man and will become an animal, an animal that never drinks pure water, that eats only last year's dry grass and that lives forever in one of the earth's dark holes!'
The people were grateful to Erkhii Mergen, but wondered at his boundless confidence.
When the suns rose in the east the next morning and began tormenting the earth below, Erkhii Mergen set out to find a spot to do battle. From the summit of a high hill, as the suns passed over his head one by one, the fearless archer drew back his powerful bow, aimed his arrows and let them fly. The twang of Erkhii Mergen's bowstring vibrated over the land as the archer destroyed six of the seven scorching suns with six sharp arrows.
Now taking aim at his final target, Erkhii Mergen let go the seventh and last arrow. At that very moment, a swallow crossed the arrow's path! The arrow ripped the bird's tail, forking it as it remains today. Missing its mark, the arrow fell to the earth.
The seventh sun, seeing how Erkhii Mergen had destroyed its brothers, quickly disappeared In fright behind a western mountain.
Stunned by what had happened, Erkhii Mergen became enraged at the unfortunate swallow and determined to catch and destroy it.
Mounting his loyal piebald horse, he commanded it to give chase. The devoted steed told him:
'Master, our honour is at stake. I will chase after that swallow until the sun sets. If my swift legs should not succeed in catching it, then you may cut them off and throw them into the desert, where I shall spend the reminder of my days!'
Erkhii Mergen and his piebald horse thundered across the Mongolian steppe, chasing the swallow for many hours. But no matter how fast it ran, the piebald horse could not capture the bird. Each time the horse got close, the swallow would dart away and avoid being caught, almost as if the bird were mocking the angry horse and its rider.
As the seventh sun began to set and the sky grew red, Erkhii Mergen, now more frustrated than ever, did as the horse demanded: he cut off the animal's forelegs and threw them into the desert. At that moment, the archer's piebald horse changed into a jerboa, a jumping mouse, and it is for this reason that the jerboa's front legs are shorter than its hind legs.
Now Erkhii Mergen kept his boastful but horrible promise to the people. He cut off his thumbs and changed himself from a man into a marmot. He sought out a dark hole deep in the earth and began drinking impure water and eating old grass. If you look at a marmot's claws you will see that there are four, because Erkhii Mergen cut off his own thumbs. In the marmot's body there is a piece of meat the Mongols call 'man's meat'. This piece was originally Erkhii Mergen's flesh. People ceased eating it out of respect for the archer who saved the world by destroying six scorching suns.
The seventh sun, though it still warms the world, is frightened of Erkhii Mergen. It runs to hide behind the mountains for part of the day, and this is why day and night appear in succession.
Regarding the swallow who got away: its tail is still forked, but when it spies a man riding a horse, it flies to and fro around their heads as if to say:
'You cut my tail, but you can't catch me. Just you try!...'
The Flying Frog.
On the edge of beautiful Lake Hovsgol, in the north of Mongolia, there lived a flock of geese and one small frog. As autumn approached and the world grew cool, the geese began to discuss plans to fly south for the winter.
The frog overheard the geese talking about the warmth and joys of southern climes, and felt sorry for himself. Shaking his head sadly, he said to the geese with bitterness:
'Oh! What a life has a little earthbound frog! I am destined to spend all my days wallowing in this cold mud! But you! How happy you geese must be to fly across the big sky, to see the world beneath you, and feel the warm sun on your backs in winter!'
The head goose felt sorry for the little frog. Winter in Mongolia was indeed brutally cold. Turning to his flock, he said:
'Brothers, we geese have wings and the frog doesn't, but we are all one family in the animal world. Let's help the frog and show him something of this wonderful world. Who can think of a way to carry the frog with us as we fly south?'
The geese consulted each other. Finally one goose picked up a willow twig and suggested:
'What about this? While the frog bites down firmly on the middle of this branch, two of us can clamp the ends in our beaks. This way we can carry the frog as we fly through the sky.'
The head goose agreed to this clever idea and chose two of the biggest and strongest geese to transport the frog.
When the time came to leave, the delighted frog opened his mouth and bit firmly onto the willow branch. Off he flew, high in the sky with the flock of geese, saying goodbye to his muddy home. Looking down on the world from a great height, the frog thought to himself:
'How wonderful this is! Even though I don't have wings, I am flying at the head of these migrating geese. How clever I am!'
For many hours the geese flew effortlessly southwards whilst the little frog hung on and marvelled at the changing sights below. As more time passed, with the refreshing wind in his face and the sun warming his back, the self-satisfied frog grew more and more confident and felt himself to be more and more powerful.
When the flock flew over an encampment of several jurts, the people herding sheep and goats below looked, pointed, and exclaimed:
'Look at that! Look at those geese! Two of them are carrying a frog on a branch. What clever geese they are!'
The people were very impressed by the intelligence of the geese and marvelled at the incredible sight until the big birds had faded out of sight. But the flying frog had heard the people's shouts of wonder and became rather irritated and jealous. He said to himself:
'Why are these geese being praised? I'm the one that's flying through the air!'
And the frog began to become resentful of the geese.
Later in the afternoon, the geese flew over a small lake. The mud-bound frogs below looked up, and stared in amazement. Enviously, they all began croaking at the geese, saying:
'Hey! What about us? We want to fly too!'
The flying frog observed his cousins in the mud below with disdain and thought: "Ha! You poor devils! I'm the only frog that knows how to fly!" and he opened his boastful mouth to tell them as much:
'Hey, cousins, look at me! Flying's a breeze when you're as clever as I am!'
You can imagine what happened next. The moment he opened his big, bragging mouth, the flying frog slipped off the willow branch carried by two powerful geese and dropped to his death on the cold, damp earth.
The Foolish Wolf
Once upon a time, a wolf was going along a path and he found a blood pudding made of sheep's blood lying on the path. When the wolf saw it he was going to eat it, but the blood pudding said:
'Wolf, you can't eat me. To the south, not far from here there's a horse stuck in the mud. Can't you go there and eat that, please?'
The wolf listened to the words of the blood pudding and when he came to where the horse was, he found that it was true. When the wolf was going to eat the horse, the horse said:
'Mr. Wolf, if you want to eat me, won't you first pull me out of the mud?'
The wolf pulled him out and then got ready to eat, but then the horse said:
'Are you going to eat me while I'm still covered with mud? You may eat if you first clean me.'
The wolf licked the body of the horse all over and then he wanted to eat him, but the horse said:
'There's something written on the hoof of my hind leg. Before you eat me, read that, please.'
When the wolf went to look at the writing on the hoof of the horse's hind leg, the horse kicked at the back of the wolf's head and smashed it in, and then ran away. The dying wolf howled to himself:
'I was big-headed going along the road,
I was a blockhead when I was tricked by a sheep's blood pudding.
Am I the owner who should have pulled the horse from the deep mud?
Am I the mother who should have licked and cleaned the horse's body?
When did I learn to read and write?
I am stupid and now I am dying...'
I hope that you enjoyed this first impression of Mongolian folktales. If you'd like to read more, please tell me. I've lots of them...