Chechen intellectual and artistic culture, just as other cultures of the world, originally rested on oral tradition. Practically all its genres and types—mythology, verbal art, the theatre, music and dancing—were born in folklore. Chechen folklore appeared in a specific ethnic cultural environment.
In the 3rd millennium B.C., the Caucasus was a crossroads of cultural influences of diverse civilisations as the region was straddling the shortest routes linking ancient land-tilling civilisations and the nomadic East European world. Chechen material culture, mythology, pagan worship and folklore retain features pointing at contacts with the earliest European, West Asian and Mediterranean civilisations.
These contacts are observed even more graphically with in-depth study of mediaeval Chechen mythology and pagan cults, which reveal numerous parallels with pagan deities and mythological heroes of the great ancient civilisations.
Chechen folklore study and recording started fairly late, even compared to the folklore of other North Caucasian ethnic entities. That was due to warfare in Chechnya, which lasted through the late 1980s.
That was why entire layers of folklore representing all genres were lost irretrievably—mainly pagan myths, the Nart epic and primeval cosmogony.
The domestic policy of Imam Shamil played a prominent part in the ousting of folklore. He intended to establish authoritarian hereditary theocracy on the basis of the Imamate, and saw traditional democratic Chechen culture as the principal threat to it. He ruled Chechnya for a quarter of a century. Throughout that time, everything that had a bearing on Chechen music, dancing, myths, rites, customs and pictorial arts was eradicated mercilessly. Religious songs were alone tolerated. Such persecution certainly was destructive to folklore and the entire Chechen culture. Yet, even despite that, Chechens retained their ethnic and cultural identity.
The genres of Chechen folklore are characteristic of the folklore of a majority of European nations:
- - mythology
- – heroic epic
- – tales:
fairy tales, tales of animals, and tales of everyday life
- – legends and traditions
- – songs:
ritual, labour and love songs, lullabies and heroic epic songs (illi)
- – proverbs, sayings and riddles
- – children’s lore (ditties, counting rhymes, tongue twisters and riddles)
- - religious folklore (Hadiths, traditions, songs and nazm)
- – zhukhurgs’ and tyulliks’ plays, verse and songs
Only fragments of Chechen mythology are extant. The folk calendar has preserved echoes of totemic beliefs, remnants of land-tilling and stock-breeding cults, and cosmogonic traditions to this day.
The names of deities personifying elements reveal Chechen animist ideas—Latta-nana, Mother of Earth; Khi-nana, Mother of Water; Mekha-nana, Mother of Winds, and Un-nana, Mother of Diseases.
Chechen cosmogony is preserved in a wide range of myths on the genesis of Earth, Sun, Moon and stars. The Chechen myth “How Sun, Moon and Stars Appeared” presents Sun and Moon as a boy and a girl who chase each other on a circular root but are not destined to meet. The names of stars and constellations also derive from cosmogonic myths. Thus, Chechens know the Milky Way as Cha Takhina Tacha (the route of scattered straw) and Great Bear as Vorkh Veshin Vorkh Seda (the seven brothers’ seven stars).
Also extant is the myth of Pkharmat, the Nart smith sentenced to eternal torment for bringing heavenly fire to humans. This Chechen myth is analogous to the Greek myth of Prometheus and the Georgian of Amirani.
The Greek myth of the Golden Fleece echoes an ancient Caucasian (mainly Nakh) sacral feast which, to all appearances, derived from calendar cycles, though many scholars hold to this day that it reflected a widespread Caucasian gold-washing technique.
According to Said-Magomed Khasiev, a Chechen feast connected with the 11 year calendar cycle, which survived as late as the Middle Ages, demanded the skin of a white ram endowed with nine indispensable characteristics. After special treatment, the skin was spread on a cruciform oak frame known as jaar. The resultant relic, named dasho ertal (“golden fleece”), was supposed to retain magic power for eleven years and demanded careful watch.
Despite its specifics, the Chechen heroic epic belongs to the general Caucasian epic system both in terms of plots and typology.
Uzdiat Dalgat, prominent expert on North Caucasian folklore, advanced the following systematisation of it based on the content and etymology:
- Group One (tales of giant forebears) comprises epic tales:
a) of cyclopean giants;
b) of giants unlike Cyclopes (including the idea of a giant race that allegedly existed in the past);
c) of mighty semi-mythical and semi-historical giant forebears
- Group Two, tales of three types of heroes:
a) the Nart Orstkhoi—a local version of the Nart epic common to the entire Caucasus;
b) local heroes;
c) anonymous Narts
- Group Three, tales, legends and traditions unconnected to the Nart epic but possessing a heroic epic typology.
On the one hand, the Chechen epic preserves the Nart tales proper in a rather fragmentary way, and very often in their later versions. On the other hand, however, it graphically represents the varieties of cyclopean and non-cyclopean giants to testify to the antiquity of the Chechen epic in general.
Archaic motifs preserved in Chechen tales of the Narts also confirm the local origin of the Nart epic. Such motifs include the earliest layers fixed in Chechen tales of the Narts and closely paralleled by Greek myths of the early 1st millennium B.C. or even older. In the opening lines of Book III of The Iliad, Homer compares the battle of Achaeans and Trojans with a battle of cranes and Pygmies:
“When the companies were thus arrayed, each under its own captain, the Trojans advanced as a flight of wild fowl or cranes that scream overhead when rain and winter drive them over the flowing waters of Oceanus to bring death and destruction on the Pygmies, and they wrangle in the air as they fly.”
(Translated by Samuel Butler)
Homer’s comparison bases on the ancient myth of Pygmies, who live on the south shore of Oceanus and wage war on cranes attacking them every time they make their annual flight south. The Chechen version of the myth, as recorded by Said-Magomed Khasiev, explains the reason of their feud: “Narts’ pride and trespasses called down the wrath of God. To punish and abase them, God created the dwarfish race of pkhagalberi [‘hare-riders’ in Chechen—L.I.]. Invulnerable to any weapon, they were the strongest of all in the world and could live in many dimensions. The dwarfs vanquished Narts again and again. Their heinous cruelty and perfidy made not only Narts but every living thing on earth pray to God for deliverance. At first, Narts thought the dwarfs were invulnerable only to man’s hand, but even Amazons could not fight them. That was when the Maker recalled His promise and called from under the highest mountain peaks the souls of damned warriors cruel to their enemies. God turned them into cranes to smite the dwarfs. That was how the war of cranes and Pygmies started”.
(Translated by Samuel Butler)
The Chechen versions of epic heroes’ personal names show the archaism of the Nart epic and its connection with primeval land-tilling cults.
“Nart Orstkhoi”, one of the variants of the name of Narts in the Chechen version of the common Caucasian heroic epic, points only at the geography of their settlement, meaning “the Narts living in the foothills and the Black Mountains”. Initially, the Chechen word “Orstkhoi” (derived from arts/ars, which means “foothills” or “wood-grown hills”) stood for people of the foothills, irrespective of ethnicity and tribe.
However fragmentary, the Nart epic of the Vainakh includes almost all the heroes of the general Caucasian epic—Soska Solsa, Botkiy Shirtka, Khamchi Pataraz, Sela Sata and others.
The following themes dominate the Vainakh Nart epic:
1) Raids, armed clashes and jousts.
4) The death of the Narts.
The appraisive accents on epic heroes’ conduct shifted in the Chechen version of the epic later—probably, due to a radical change of the Chechen social system and value scale during the anti-feudal war of teips (clannish communities), which eventually brought clan democracy.
Uzdiat Dalgat also mentions it in her monograph: “The figures of the Nart Orstkhoi lack graphic epic colours observed in the Nart epic. There is, however, every reason to recognise the heroic interpretation of those characters, though evil underlies their valour—it is, so to say, negative heroism. The treatment of local characters is quite different. The tales pay special attention to them because it is them the people idealise. Their idealisation rests on the difference of social, economic and aesthetic criteria. The concept of the ideal hero expands and becomes more profound. Apart from such indispensable qualities as strength, courage and valour, the epic extols the sense of duty, responsibility to kinsmen and tribesmen, and self-sacrifice to common weal”.
The Chechen Nart epic needs reappraisal and new studies—in particular, with an account for archaic passages recorded by Chechen folklore students in the concluding decades of the 20th century. It is also necessary to better systematise its comparison with other North Caucasian peoples’ epics. Only then will objective appraisal of the genesis of Chechen legends of Narts be possible.
Chechen tales (fairy tales, animal tales, and tales of everyday life) are no different from the same genres of other North Caucasian and European ethnic entities.
Figuring in fairy tales are magic artefacts, people of paranormal abilities, fictitious animals (dragons, winged horses, etc) and travel to other worlds. A younger brother who proves more intelligent, high-minded and courageous than his elder brothers is their frequent protagonist.
The cunning fox, the greedy wolf and the stupid bear are often protagonists of animal tales—just as in Russian and many other folk tales.
Anti-clerical and anti-feudal motifs dominate tales of everyday life, with their hypocritical mullahs, evil stepmothers and perfidious lords. Chechen lore also knows Mullah Nasreddin, so characteristic of the folklore of other Muslim peoples.
Good always triumphs over evil both in fairy tales and tales of everyday life, and their protagonist is always the winner in whatever predicament, because the didactic has always been essential in folklore on a par with the aesthetic.
Chechen folk song heritage is rich and versatile.
Ritual songs include magical—in particular, rain and other incantations; ceremonial: wedding songs, lamentations (belkham, sung by professional wailers, and tiizhar, sung by bereaved friends and relatives). Wailers were hired in Chechnya, as in the neighbouring areas, up to the middle of the 19th century. Their belkham praised the deceased for their virtues and wealth, extolled the power and multiplicity of his kinsmen, and said what the world had lost with his passing. Tiizhar lamentations were sung by the mother, sister, wife, daughter and other close female relatives of the deceased.
Labour songs belong to many trades—weavers, carpenters, haymakers, ploughmen, woodcutters, house painters, etc.
Lyrical songs are, for the most part, young girls’ songs of happy or unrequited love, addressed either to the beloved or to a confidante—mother or close friend.
Men’s songs (uzams) are philosophical meditations on life and death or on the hard fate of convicts and abrek outlaws. Many are dedicated to mother, a friend or the native land.
The illi, heroic epic songs, are the peak of Chechen folklore.
They appeared in the 16th-18th centuries—the time when free Chechen communities made war on local and foreign feudal lords.
The illi can be classified as follows according to their themes:
- patriotic songs (the epic hero’s clash with aggressors or foreign feudal lords);
- social songs (the hero’s clash with people of the local social top),
- songs of military raids and campaigns;
- songs of love and friendship.
The illi extol courage, friendship, loyalty, virtue, modesty, and respect of women.
The kIant (dashing young man) with all qualities required of the epic hero is the protagonist of the illi. Intelligent and resourceful, he is always ready to help the poor and the downtrodden, and die for his native land. He is modest and performs his feats of courage not for public praise.
In that, the concepts of kъonakh and kIant did not appear simultaneously, and occupy different levels in the system of ethical values.
Many of the illi display the specifics of Chechen democratic culture—respect for other peoples, frankness, tolerance, treatment of others based on their personal worth, rather than ethnicity and religion, and, last but not least, preference of personal freedom and dignity to whatever material values.
The 1917 Revolution brought new genres and themes to Chechen and other folklore in Russia. New songs were dedicated to the Revolution and its leaders—mainly Lenin, Stalin, Sergo Orjonikidze and Aslanbek Sharipov. Numerous songs were about such new phenomena as collective farms, the Young Communist League, the Soviet Army, etc. The large-scale literary drive, flourishing written literature, and the appearance of the Chechen theatre ousted many folklore genres.
At present, folklore is represented mainly by girls’ love songs, nazm (spiritual meditations) and religious traditions.
 Мадаева З.А. Вайнахская мифология//Этнографическое обозрение. 1992, № 3. – с. 109 (388)
 Хасиев С.-М. О традиционном отсчете времени у чеченцев // Рукопись (S.M. Khasiev. On Traditional Chechen Time Measuring. Manuscript)
 Далгат У.Б. Героический эпос чеченцев и ингушей. – М, 1972. – с.26 (71)
 Далгат У.Б. Там же, с.29.
 Гомер. Илиада.- М., 1980. – с. 125.
 Хасиев С.-М. Мифы о «заячьих всадниках» // Рукопись (S.M. Khasiev. The Hare Rider Myth. Manuscript)
 It might be also connected with the impact of a monotheistic religion denouncing violence and injustice.
 Далгат У.Б. Героический эпос чеченцев и ингушей. – М, 1972. – с.199-200 (71)