Christ as the Bandit of Peace: Russell Talks at NAASR About the Legacy of the Koroglu Epic

BELMONT, Mass. (A.W.)—On Sept. 17, Prof. James R. Russell, the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, spoke at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in a lecture titled, “From Parthia to Robin Hood: The Armenian Version of the Epic of the Blind Man’s Son.”

Marc A. Mamigonian, NAASR’s director of programs and publications, introduced Russell, stating, “It’s pretty well known in this room that NAASR established the Armenian studies chair at Harvard, and over the years we’ve kept in very good relations with the two professors of that chair, Professor Thomson and Professor Russell. It must be mentioned that when the chair was first established in 1958, there had never been a chair created by Harvard, or in fact America, in Armenian studies and created by such grassroots community efforts.”

“NAASR is proud to have been the publisher or co-publisher of many of these books over the last quarter century,” he noted of Russell’s research in Armenian studies.

The epic of Koroglu is a heroic legend prominent in the oral traditions of many Turkic clans and groups. The legend typically describes the hero Koroglu, who seeks to avenge the wrongful blinding of his father and becomes an infamous bandit leader. It was often put to music and played at sporting events as an inspiration to the competing athletes.

The legend first began to take shape sometime around the 11th century. It exists in many variants in a number of different Turkic languages and is common to several different cultures.

Russell said that “most reciters of the epic were poor sharecroppers and did not know all the episodes of Koroglu entirely.”

He also noted two facts that make the Koroglu epic stand out historically—the first, that “Koroglu’s best friend is, in fact, his horse” and the second that “Koroglu is a Shia, not Sunni, Muslim. Koroglu was an Ottoman Turk by race. His actual dwelling place was somewhere around Kars.”

Unlike the epic of David of Sassoun or tales of Vartan Mamigonian, Russel said, the Koroglu epic is the only epic historically told and re-told by Armenians that features a very Muslim hero.

Koroglu himself is an anti-hero, whose views on life and the justifications for his actions are summed up in his quote within the narrative, that “repaying good for good is the work of every man, but repaying evil for evil is the work of the brave.”

Russell talked about the socio-economic and geo-political factors that came into play during the origin period of the Koroglu epic. “There was no strong ruler in the kingdom, so men did as is natural to their inclination… Poverty was so great in the region at the time that there were instances of cannibalism and in fact this chronicle may perhaps be the first large migration of Armenians into the diaspora. Political and economic chaos allowed charismatic leaders to rise, as many believed they were living in the end times.”

Russell compared the Koroglu epic to it natural correlations with the Robin Hood mythos of northern Europe as well as to the Gospels of Christ—the latter standing out all the more for its inversion of similar themes and tailoring to notions of love and brotherhood.

“The ones about whom legends grow usually do not start out as criminals, but as avenging figures,” he said. “And the charismatic leader is always killed by treason or betrayed and cannot be killed conventionally. Bandits also often rise up against foreign oppressors.” In the Gospels the oppressors are the Romans, and in other regions in other periods the tribe or group of the hero and oppressors vary depending on the affinity of the bard.

Though unlike the jaunty brigands of Robin Hood’s merry men, Koroglu’s cohorts are dark and their names reflect the infamy of their deeds and modes: “Cut and Cut Some More,” “The Dark Hour,” and “Son of the Dagger.”

Even the ending of the Koroglu epic is rooted in darkness and vengeance. As Russell said, “He will remain in Crow’s Rock in Van until the earth in the end of days is hardened with the corruption of man and his horse’s hooves will at last be able to grip the earth to bring forth the Apocalypse.”

Turning to compare the epic’s themes to those in real life that have been motivated by real bandit leaders resisting authority and oppression, Russell cited the anonymous Spanish Republican soldier that committed bandit raids during the Spanish Civil War. “We were knightly, but also spiritual,” he had recalled.

Russel also compared the themes in Koroglu to those of the real-life deeds of the Bielski Brothers operating in German-occupied Poland during World War II. “Tuvia [Bielski] is a stately figure, always talked about riding a horse wearing his leather jacket, with Tommy gun in hand, known as Judah the Maccabee.”

“Human affairs and human nature being what they are—we’ll have to do it again, and that’s why studying these narratives matter,” he ended.

Asked during the Q&A to explain his parameters for an epic, Russell said that “it depends on the definition of an epic, but an epic hero is someone who is plausible but also larger than life and engages in a battle crucial to the community that embodies the social values of that community and always with supernatural elements.”

“I usually look for a magical horse,” he said, “but one of the salient features is that epics are a collective social work of literature. Epics are social and meant to be told. When they aren’t told, they don’t survive. Look at Gilgamesh; it didn’t survive, it had to be rediscovered.”

In regards to the scholarly processes he used to study the Koroglu epic, Russell noted of its arduousness, “There’s a vast amount of information in Turkey on the Koroglu epic, but one of the impediments to the study of the epic are the national affinities that block the study by co-opting it for Turkish nationalism.”

Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin

Andy Turpin has been the assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly since 2006. He was raised in Palma City, Fla. His family is of Italian, Welsh and Armenized-Romani stock. He graduated from Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., with degrees in history and journalism. Following graduation, he went to Armenia as an English as a Second Language (ESL) U.S. Peace Corp volunteer. He received his CELTA-ESL degree from Cambridge University in 2006.

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