Translated and Annotated by

Elmira Köçümkulkïzï

Table of Contents

Translator's Introduction

Kyrgyz are one of the ancient Turkic peoples of Central Asia, who inhabited the mountains and valleys of the Yenisey and Altay regions and later the Tien Shan mountains. For hundreds of centuries, they led a nomadic life, their socio-political organization was based on tribal confederacy and their economy was centered on animal husbandry. Kyrgyz became sedentary involuntarily after the 1930s when Stalin introduced the sedentarization policy to establish Soviet rule among the various nomadic tribes of Central Asia.

The nomadic Kyrgyz did not have a history of a long-established written culture. It is known that the Turks had their own runic alphabet in the 5th-8th centuries CE. There is little evidence, however, to prove that they actually used it in their every day life or in writing songs, poems, and epics. The nomadic lifestyle did not permit Kyrgyz to practice a written language, because written/textual culture was more suitable for a sedentary society. Kyrgyz, however, like the other nomadic peoples of Central Asia, e.g., Kazakhs and Mongols, excelled in creating the highest level of oral art. In his introduction to the Kojojash volume, the internationally renowned Kyrgyz writer Chingiz Aitmatov notes: “If other peoples/nations displayed their past culture and history in written literature, sculpture, architecture, theatre and art, the Kyrgyz people expressed their worldview, pride and dignity, battles and their hope for the future in epic genre.”[1] The well-known Russian scholar of German descent, V. V. Radloff, who collected oral material among the northern Kyrgyz in the 1850s, was quite fascinated by the eloquence of Kyrgyz oral poets and admired the people for their artistic/rhythmic language in speech and poetry. He noted that even ordinary Kyrgyz speech sounded like poetry, for they often used proverbs and proverbial sayings.

Among all the genres, epic poetry occupies a significant place in Kyrgyz oral literature. Kyrgyz scholars of the epic genre agree that since the nomadic Kyrgyz historically experienced many wars and battles against their external as well as internal enemies, people needed strong men and heroes to protect them and remembered their heroic deeds and kindness for a long time. The carriers of oral tradition, shamans, epic singers, oral poets, and storytellers developed some of those major historical events into epic songs which glorified the life and the deeds of the hero. Epic poetry became popular because it was sung by poets and epic singers at major gatherings and feasts. Thus Kyrgyz oral epics are the most valuable sources for learning about their cultural values, traditional worldview, and socio-political history and organization.

The recording of Kyrgyz oral literature began in the second half of the nineteenth century by the Kazakh ethnographer Chokan Valikhanov and the Russian scholar V. V. Radloff. The massive recording of all the genres, including epic poetry, dates from the 1920s when the new Soviet government promoted national languages and cultures of non-Russian nationalities. The recording of Kyrgyz oral literature began with the epic Manas sung by one of the last master epic singers, Sagïmbay Orozbak uulu (d. 1930). In the 1950s, however, like many oral epics of other non-Russian peoples of the former Soviet Union, Kyrgyz epics, especially Manas, were condemned by the Communist Party for their "bourgeois-nationalist" and religious content. Those epics, which were published in Kyrgyz and translated into Russian, were heavily edited.

After Kyrgyzstan became independent in 1991, Kyrgyz scholars at the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences began a serious academic project to publish original versions of all the oral epic songs as well as other previously unpublished genres of Kyrgyz oral literature. This literary series, titled People’s Literature, will consist of forty volumes, excluding the epic Manas.

The first seventeen volumes contain only various kenje, i.e., “small, minor” oral epics. Kyrgyz scholars categorize the Kyrgyz oral epics into two groups: minor and major epics. The “minor” epics are called “minor” only in contrast to the epic Manas, the longest version of which contains half a million poetic lines. The remaining volumes of the series are dedicated to other genres of Kyrgyz oral literature such as proverbs, riddles, mourning songs, folktales, historical poems, love poetry, songs of advice, genealogy, myths and legends, children’s songs, and aytïsh songs, i.e., the improvising singing contest between aqïns[2].

The succession of oral epics in the volumes is arranged according to their age or origin. The epic Kojojash constitutes the first volume of the Series for it is considered to be the oldest poem reflecting the ancient totemic and animistic worldview of the Kyrgyz, who were still a hunting society. The volume includes three different versions of the epic recorded from Sulayman Konokbayev, Tölömüsh Jeentayev and Alïmkul Üsönbayev, all of whom lived most of their lives during the Soviet period. The epic Kojojash was written down for the first time on 24 June 1924 in the Arabic alphabet from Sulayman Konokbayev.[3] A Bashkir ethnographer named Kayum Miftakov did the recording of the epic from Konokbayev. Miftakov played a significant role in recording Kyrgyz oral literature in 1920s. The second version by Tölömüsh Jeentayev was recorded in 1949 in the Ïsïk-Köl region.[4] According to a well-known Kyrgyz scholar, Kengesh Kïrbashev, there is a difference between these two singers’ versions of Kojojash and that of Üsönbayev, the third akïn, in regards to their singing styles and poetic skills. The first two versions are much shorter, as if the singers have omitted or forgotten some of the episodes. Unlike Alümkul Üsönbayev, these two poets did not travel much among the people and did not sing the epic as often as Üsönbayev did.[5] The main difference between the versions of Konokbayev, Jeentayev and that of Üsönbayev is that unlike the latter, the first two end with the death of Kojojash. Konokbayev mentions the fact that Zulayka is left pregnant. In Jeentayev’s version, Kojojash is not married but is said to be engaged to a woman named Kermekash. Kermekash appears at the end of the story when she is brought to the cliff to have the final chance to engage in a somber dialogue with her fiancée.

Of the three versions, Alïmkul Üsönbayev’s version of Kojojash is the longest, rich in content and complete in terms of its themes and motives. Üsönbayev’s version includes the second part of the epic, the story of Moldojash, Kojojash’s son. According to Kïrbashev, “this part seems to be have been added later as people started to understand more about the laws of nature.”[6] Üsönbayev excels in his use of rich vocabulary and extraordinary poetic skill and improvisational talent. His detailed and vivid descriptions of certain scenes and customs attest to the fact that he was extremely knowledgeable about his own culture and his people’s history.

Although the epic is considered to be archaic, there are elements and ideas that contradict its “archaic” content. For example, the hunter uses a gun, Ak Barang[7], instead of another ancient hunting weapon, e.g., bow or spear. There is also a mention of a letter delivered to Kojojash’s camp from Zulayka’s father Karakojo, who lives in a city. This demonstrates that the Kyrgyz hunting society did not live in isolation, but interacted with the sedentary world. The new elements or “contradictions” might be later additions of akïns or jomokchus, epic singers/story tellers of the nineteenth and twentieth century. They were thus knowledgeable about guns and the written language. As improvising poet-singers, they added new elements and themes and interpreted the epic according to their own worldview and poetic skills. It is important to note that once the singers sang the epic songs out loud, their renditions became permanent. However, the core theme or the main idea of the epic Kojojash, i.e., struggle for life between human being and animal, remained unchanged.

There are three especially moving scenes in Üsönbayev’s version of Kojojash: one is the powerful dialogue between the two main heroes of the epic, Kojojash and Sur Eçki. This part of the epic is generally known as a “The Curse of Sur Eçki.” The second emotional scene is Kojojash’s farewell to his father Karïpbay, his beloved wife Zulayka, and his Kïtay kinsmen. Finally, the epic’s culmination is the scene where Kojojash throws himself down the high cliff. Üsönbayev was not only a poet who was able to improvise poetry in rhyme with the accompaniment of a komuz[8] but also a great koshokchu, a mastersinger of mourning songs. In the epic, upon Kojojash’s death, the poet sings the young widow Zulayka’s lament in a traditional form which expresses the anguish of Zulayka. This traditional rendition is emotional for both the akïn and the audience which reads or listens to it in Kyrgyz.

We can see that the poet had traveled extensively among his people, experienced their rich nomadic life, its customs such as funerals and feasts, and listened to women’s koshoks, mourning songs. Traditionally, when a well-known or well-respected person died, Kyrgyz invited a koshokchu, who sang about the life story of the deceased and his good deeds. Üsönbayev must have been one of those male koshokchus. Moreover, he must also have been a skilled hunter himself or a connoisseur of hunting. For example, he enjoys detailing ways in which Kojojash prepares for a hunt and provides detailed descriptions of his gun Ak Barang. While reciting Kojojash, Üsönbayev proves his geographic knowledge and rich travel experience by depicting the Kyrgyz lands in detail. In the episode where Kojojash chases Sur Eçki for six months, Üsönbayev names every mountain, pasture, valley, pass, ravine, gorge, river, cliff, etc., located in the present day territory of Kyrgyzstan, through which Sur Eçki and Kojojash pass.

Kojojash is a skilled hunter who feeds his family and Kïtay tribe with the meat of wild animals such as mountain goats. Üsönbayev’s version of Kojojash begins with the childhood story and marriage of the hunter, Kojojash, to Zulayka. After marrying Zulayka, Kojojash forgets about hunting and enjoys his life with his new beloved wife, who is against his hunting profession. One day he sees a bad dream and asks first his wife to interpret it. Zulayka interprets his dream as a bad omen and begs him not to go off to hunt. Not satisfied by her interpretation, Kojojash turns to an aksakal, an elderly man, who interprets the dream positively. At the same time Kojojash saw his dream, the mother goat Sur Eçki also sees a bad dream and tells it to her teke (husband) Alabash. The old and lazy Alabash ignores her warning and he and their kids become the victims of the hunter Kojojash. Sur Eçki begs Kojojash to give her husband Alabash’s dead body to her, but Kojojash refuses and tells her that he will make a drinking cup from his horns and a sitting mat from his hide for his old father. Sur Eçki tells Kojojash that she will visit his camp next spring. Kojojash swears to Sur Eçki that when she does he will not use his gun but catch her by hand. Sur Eçki, who is capable of speaking the human language and who has all the human feelings, wanted the hunter and his wife, parents, and tribe to suffer and mourn in the same way as she did when Kojojash killed her children and husband, Alabash. Finally, after being chased by the hunter for six months in the mountains and cliffs, Sur Eçki takes her revenge on the hunter by stranding him on a high cliff. Sur Eçki’s curse on the hunter is very powerful. The poet-singer uses eloquent words to express the mother goat’s anger and rage. Thus, the first part of the epic ends with the tragic death of the hunter Kojojash caused by a sacred mother goat, Sur Eçki, who is the protector of the hoofed animals grouped under the name kayberen. As Chingiz Aitmatov points out, Kojojash is “an ancient drama” about a hunter and his struggles with one of nature’s forces, i.e., wild animals.[9]

Although told and composed in an ancient hunting society, the moral of the epic is very relevant to the modern world. It sends a strong ecological message to the people, i.e., to respect and preserve nature and animals by making proper use of them but not exploiting them. It shows that the people are not the masters of nature. It tells that we, the humans and animals alike, are all children of nature and that animals also have a soul and feelings like human beings and that they also love their children and family as we do.

The second part of the epic is about Kojojash's son, Moldojash, who was in his mother’s womb when his father died. It is important to note that the story of Moldojash contains an interesting motif which is not found in other Kyrgyz/Turkic epic songs. It is a motif involving the marriage between a human being and an animal: Moldojash marries Ashayran, the daughter of Sur Eçki. This motif may be related to some of the basic principles of shamanism. The main idea of shamanism practiced in Siberia and Central Asia is centered on life-giving or life-sustaining rituals which ensure the reproduction of society. Roberte N. Hamayon divides shamanism into three main types: “the shamanism of hunters,” which is mainly practiced among hunting or archaic societies; “the shamanism of pastoralists” found in pastoral societies who live in the steppe and mountains; and what he characterizes as “peripheralized” shamanism.10 The shamanic worldview in the epic Kojojash seems to correspond to the first type of shamanism, i.e., “hunting shamanism,” which is based on the idea of an exchange with animal spirits. Traditionally, Siberian hunting societies relied on various animals and birds to sustain their everyday lives. In their view, animals had their own power and spirits which had to be pleased or rewarded before being hunted. Human beings had to make alliances with animal spirits to maintain a good relationship with them, and this task of negotiating was carried out by the shaman. As Hamayon points out, “The shaman’s action on the spirits is a prerequisite for the hunter’s action on the animals. Relationships with animal spirits are conceived of as similar to relationships within society . . . Thus, human actions (obtaining good luck and then killing game) must occur in the framework of an exchange relationship and must be balanced by a compensation” (p. 79).

Although in Kojojash there is no mediating shaman between the hunter and the sacred mother goat Sur Eçki, the acts of the hunter Kojojash seem to reflect this ancient shamanic principle. In essence, the hunter himself can be seen as the shaman, for he plays a kind of “a killing game” with the mountain goat by not shooting her with an arrow (or gun) but pledging to her that he will catch her with his bare hands. When Kojojash slaughters Sur Eçki’s kids and her husband Alabash, Sur Eçki decides to punish the hunter by trapping him on the side of a very high cliff. This act by the mother goat seems to confirm the assumption that animal spirits had the power to manipulate and harm human beings if they are mistreated. Therefore, people considered animal spirits as sacred and worshipped them. According to Hamayon, while giving life to humans, animals could demand it back from them sooner or later.

The epic ends with the marriage of the human being to the animal. Many years after his father Kojojash’s death, Moldojash goes on a mission to take revenge for his father from Sur Eçki, but he ends up marrying Sur Eçki’s beautiful daughter Ashayran.[11] This idea of a peaceful ending is also based on the ancient “shamanic” principle of preserving and nurturing the harmony between human beings and nature, in this case with animals. Hamayon asserts that “This human-animal exchange prospect accounts for the shaman’s status as an in-law in super-nature: to acquire the necessary legitimacy for the performance of his task, he must ritually marry the daughter (or sister) of the game- giving spirit, so that he can act in the supernatural world as a rightful husband and not as an abductor” (p. 79). So Moldojash’s marriage to Ashayran should not be understood as a real marriage, but rather a symbol signifying the continuity of a balanced relationship between humans and animals. Sur Eçki’s offering of her daughter does not signify the defeat of animals/nature by “smart” and “strong” human beings, but rather nature’s kindness towards humankind. Sur Eçki is giving the hunter’s kinsmen the second chance to continue their life by eating the meat of deer. Or as Hamayon notes, the animals’ “spirits are considered to be ambivalent: they give life but must take it back sooner or later . . . ,” if they are mistreated, one should add.

In a way, Moldojash plays the role of a shaman. In order to win Eçki or to be successful in his hunt, he had to please her spirit. In the epic, however, this is not stated openly. This is because the meanings of some of the ancient shamanic/traditional beliefs of a hunting society in the epic changed over time. And the twentieth-century singers or storytellers had long forgotten the spiritual life of the hunting society of which they are no longer members themselves. Moldojash, in reality, did not win Sur Eçki, but was able to please the kayberen, master spirit of deer, by becoming one of them, i.e., a son-in-law. This idea is best explained by Hamayon:

. . . it is with the shaman, whose task is carrying out the exchange process with them . . . His activity consists of making himself identical with his “in-laws”; his costume makes him similar to the main game animal; he imitates his behavior, first in the manner of a husband (he jumps, prances, cries, and snorts), second in the manner of a killed animal (he falls down, as if he were dead). His practice is pragmatic and personalized. This is not liturgy to apply but an art to exert, and it implies seducing, negotiating, and even tricking. (p. 79)

In Kojojash, we are dealing with an ancient hunting society whose life completely depended on animals. According to Hamayon, in Siberian hunting society, shamans were the community leaders; however, their exercise of power was “controlled by community.” “If the hunting season was not successful, the shaman who has performed the ritual is thought to be no longer able to seduce his supernatural wife sufficiently to obtain much game from her, and he will be replaced by another one at the following ritual. . . . The shaman’s power is strictly dependent on his efficiency. He enjoys authority not being by shaman but by proving useful as such” (p. 81).

Notes on the personal names of the main characters in the epic

Kojojash: the main hero of the epic. Although the epic is believed to be the most archaic poem or story, that is, antedate conversion of the Kyrgyz to Islam, the name of the hunter tells us clearly about the obvious influence of Islam. Kojo comes from the Arabic term khoja, and khojas were the descendants of the first caliphs. There are many sayings and expressions dealing with khojas among the Kyrgyz, but they usually have negative connotations. One popular saying states: “Ishengen kojom suuga aktï, aldï-adïngdan tal karma,” i.e., “The khoja whom I myself believed drowned in the water, so you should all hold onto a poplar tree," i.e., "One should not rely on a khoja, but seek other things for help." Another saying goes: “Akïrïn baskan moldodon saktan, ala chapan kojodon saktan,” i.e., “Stay away from a mullah who walks quietly and from a khoja who is dressed in a striped coat.” Historically, the nomadic Kyrgyz learned about Islam through their Uzbek and Tajik neighbors who adopted Islam much earlier than they. The nomadic Kyrgyz called the oasis people “ala chapan sarts,” i.e., sarts dressed in striped coats. In nomadic popular view, mullahs and khojas were religious men who earned money by deceiving people. The second part of the hunter’s name has the Turkic word jash/yash “age; youth, young.”

Moldojash: Kojojash’s son. Moldo is the Kyrgyz equivalent of Arabic mullah, religious clerk. He also has the same ending “jash” as in his father’s name.

Karïpbay: The father of Kojojash who has a quite “ambiguous” name. Karïp comes from Arabic meaning “destitute, miserable.” However, the second half of his name “bay” confers the opposite meaning of “wealthy, prosperous.”

Zulayka: Kojojash’s wife. Since she is the daughter of Karakojo from a city, she has a Persian/Uzbek name. The epic mentions that she covers her face with a purdah, which is worn by Muslim women.

Sartkoshchu: Kojojash’s stepbrother. His name consists of two words. “Sart” is a “merchant; or oasis person” and “koshchu” is a Kyrgyz term meaning “person or assistant who accompanies someone on a trip or journey.” “At koshchu” is someone who takes care of horses.

Notes on translation

This is my first translation of a Kyrgyz epic into English. Readers should be aware that I consider it to be a draft, not a finished product. The current translation still needs to be polished and refined. My English speaking readers can help me with suggestions for improvement. Moreover, readers will undoubtedly have questions regarding some of the Kyrgyz customs and practices, beliefs and rituals, and socio-cultural issues mentioned in the epic which will require that I provide additional comments and annotations.

Every non-native translator faces difficulties in rendering a work into another language. In the beginning, I hesitated to do the English translation of Kojojash, because I felt that my English was not good enough to carry out the work. When I mentioned the epic Kojojash to my advisor Professor Daniel Waugh, he said to me “Why don’t you translate it into English?” It was encouraging for me to hear from my professor that he believed I am very much qualified to do the translation. Moreover, among Kyrgyz epic songs, Kojojash has always been my favorite, for it conveys a very powerful message about preserving nature/animals, and I had wished it were translated into other languages, especially into English. Today, the modern world faces many ecological problems; many wild animals are endangered. Modernization has distanced people from the natural world. As I mentioned earlier, the nomadic Kyrgyz culture has a lot to offer in terms of how we think about the relationship between humans and nature. Sometimes, the modern world needs to turn to the ancient wisdom and knowledge of traditional societies.

My approach to the translation of the epic is quite simple. I tried to stay as close as possible to the original text and not eliminate or alter certain words or verse lines. Ninety percent of the lines follow the order of the original text. I have provided annotations to those traditional terms and expressions which have no English equivalent, but occasionally have left in the Kyrgiz words even where I venture to translate them. A few problematic places have been noted with question marks. Since English is not my native language it has not been easy for me to give the best English translation. In contrast to the epic Manas though, the language of the epic Kojojash, which is a lot smaller in size, is simpler, i.e., less formulaic and has few archaic words. The reason for that is that the poet singer Alïmkul Üsönbayev did not always sing epic songs; he mostly traveled among various Kyrgyz tribes and participated in the traditional singing contests, aytïsh. It is important to note that his son, Zamirbek Ünsönbayev, is also one of the greatest living oral poets in Kyrgyzstan. One of the main episodes of his father’s version of Kojojash, known as “The Curse of Sur Eçki” is in Zamirbek Üsönbayev’s repertoire, which is rich in traditional Kyrgyz poetry and songs. His performance of this part will be included as an audio file on our website. He has young pupils who learn the history and nature of the aytïsh tradition and skills of improvising the traditional rhythmic poetry.

It is indeed difficult to translate epic poetry such as Kojojash, which is rich in traditional expressions and phrases. The Kyrgyz text of the epic is entirely composed in verse and, like all other Kyrgyz epic songs, maintains seven to eight syllables in each verse line and strictly follows initial alliteration and end rhyme. Only English-speaking poets might be able to provide a poetic translation keeping the same number of syllables and end rhymes. Therefore, I would hope eventually to work in collaboration with a poet whose native language is English, because the epic deserves a much better quality English translation reflecting the beautiful flavor of the original language.


1. Kojojash. The first volume of the People’s Literature Series. Bishkek: “Sham” Press, 1996, p. 6.

2. Akïn is an improvising oral poet.

3. Kojojash, p. 38.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., pp. 38-39.

6. Kojojash, p. 44.

7. Ak (White)Barang is a Kyrgyz version of a word “farang” which is a borrowing into Iranian from French. The word denotes a powder gun.

8. Komuz is a Kyrgyz three stringed traditional instrument.

9. Ibid., pp. 6-7.

10. "Shamanism in Siberia: From Partnership in Supernatural to Counter-Power in Society," in Nicholas Thomas and Caroline Humphrey, eds., Shamanism, History and the State (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996), pp.76-89.

11. This ancient idea is interpreted quite differently by some Kyrgyz scholars, including Kengesh Kïrbashev, who wrote the foreword to this epic in the Series. Kïrbashev notes the following: “There are two heroes of nature, one is the intelligent hunter Kojojash and the other is Sur Eçki, the master of kayberen. At the end, Eçki wins and the victory goes to kayberen. The reason for that is that there still exists a strong mythological belief in mankind’s primitive mind, and he is not yet capable of solving the mysteries of nature. However, in spite of that, as time changes mankind’s thinking develops, and at the end he defeats (nature). This is clearly proven in the struggle between the skilled hunter Moldojash, Kojojash’s son and Sur Eçki.” Ibid., p. 41.

© 2004 Elmira Köçümkulkïzï