Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.11.01

Karl Reichl, Das usbekische Heldenepos Alpomish: Einführung, Text, Übersetzung, (Turcologica 48.).   Wiesbaden:  Harrassowitz Verlag, 2001.  Pp. 311.  ISBN 3-447-04423-3.  DM 98.  

Reviewed by Stephanie West, Hertford College, Oxford (
Word count: 1415 words

The relevance to Homeric study of the oral epics of Central Asia has long been recognized in principle. Milman Parry was initially attracted to this area but was frustrated by the extremely volatile political situation and so went to Yugoslavia instead. Our view of the actual practices of epic singers would certainly be significantly different if he and Albert Lord had done their fieldwork in Central Asia. The study of Turkic oral poetry became the preserve of Soviet scholarship, and for a long time if we wanted to go beyond what could be gleaned from Bowra's Heroic Poetry,1 we depended on the supplement to Nora Chadwick's discussion of Tatar epics by the eminent Formalist V. M. Zhirmunsky (1881-1971), a specialist in Comparative Literature, but not an Orientalist.2 Karl Reichl has done much to make this material more accessible, above all by his fascinating Turkic Oral Epic Poetry: Traditions, Forms, Poetic Structure.3 A mediaevalist by training, drawn to Central Asian literature from a comparativist standpoint, he has carried out extensive fieldwork in the Turkic-speaking areas of the former Soviet Union and China.

The epic of Alpamysh 4 is an outstanding representative of this tradition. It falls into two parts. The first deals with the hero's wooing, the second (much longer) with the vicissitudes which he undergoes as a result of attempting to assist his father-in-law and his return home after seven years just as his wife is about to be forced to marry a usurper. The parallels between the second part and the Odyssey were explored by Zhirmunsky, and his conclusions made available to Anglophone readers in his lecture on "The epic of 'Alpamysh' and the return of Odysseus".5 His stimulating exposition excited widespread interest but did not give a clear sense of the work's structure and balance, leave alone style. Scholars with a good knowledge of Russian and plenty of stamina might (if they could get hold of it) avail themselves of the translation by the poet Lev Pen'kovskiy 6 (first published in 1949) of the version recorded from the singer Fazil Yuldashev (Yoldashogli, 1878-1955); I doubt if many did. Zhirmunsky's observation 7 that "we find in both Alpamysh and the Odyssey a highly poetic representation of a much earlier phase of human society, which Karl Marx most rightly designated as 'the happy childhood of humanity'" should warn us that there was an intellectual price to be paid for academic travel to the West; we are bound to wonder whether Soviet ideology and cultural policy affected Zhirmunsky's presentation of his material in other, less obvious, ways.8

Reichl's edition has supplied what has long been needed. His very full introduction deals judiciously with virtually all the questions likely to occur to students of Homer. He offers a general account of Uzbek oral epic and its singers. It is invariably prosimetric; the prose passages are usually spoken (or perhaps rather, declaimed) and verse, normally employed for speeches, is sung, commonly to the accompaniment of the dombira, a plucked, lute-type instrument without frets; night is the regular time for performance. Particular attention is paid to Fozil Yoldashogli, who produced what has come to be regarded as the "classic" Uzbek version of Alpamysh, too long, unfortunately, to be suitable for this edition; Reichl gives a ten-page summary. The singer's concluding comment (in verse) on the historicity of his narrative is interesting: "Der Sänger Fozil spricht, was er weiss:/ Von diesen Worten mag manches Lüge sein, manches auch Wahrheit". Fozil commanded a repertoire of some forty epics; they included a sequel, in which Alpamysh's son Yadgar played the central role.

A masterly discussion of Alpamysh's structure and narrative elements is followed by the most complex part of Reichl's introduction, "Der Alpomish-Stoff in der Turkepik". The wealth of variant versions provides almost infinite scope for comparative work. Any attempt to clarify the origins and development of the epic must go far back beyond the oral compositions recorded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The earliest attested version of the story comes from the Book of Dede Korkut, a collection of twelve stories (prosimetric, but with prose predominating) set in the heroic age of the Oghuz Turks; these are preserved in two sixteenth-century MSS., but are basically much older. (Anglophone readers have the advantage of the attractive and well annotated Penguin translation by G. L. Lewis.9) The third story, of "Bamsi Beyrek of the grey horse", is indisputably a version of the tale of Alpamysh. More unified than the Uzbek epic it is still better regarded as a conflation of stories about the hero than as a single coherent narrative. The Oghuz moved steadily westward from their ninth-century home in the area of the Altai Mountains and Lake Baikal towards Anatolia, and the transmission of Grandfather Korkut's tales has clearly not been altogether straightforward. The affinities between another of his stories (No.8), "How Basat killed Goggle-Eye (Tepegöz)", and Odysseus' encounter with Polyphemus was noted as early as 1815, by the Orientalist H. F. Diez; but the Giant's name, Tepegöz (Head-eye, Apex-eye) almost certainly represents a corruption by popular etymology of the Greek Sarandapekhos, "Forty cubits", and thus implies a debt to a Greek source other than (though not necessarily independent of) the Odyssey.10 The transmission of oral narrative can be so simple and casual that the attempt to trace the paths of a tale's migration over millennia can hardly rise above more or less plausible speculation. Motifs may be dropped and then reintegrated, perhaps given a new purpose. There are dangers in over-emphasising features common to Alpamysh and the Odyssey without sufficient regard to differences. But undeniably Reichl has put Homerists in a far better position to form their own view of the relationship between the two. There follows a section on style, understood to include metre, musical accompaniment, and singing style. Reichl's interest in the musical aspect of epic performance has been clearly demonstrated in the collection of papers which he edited on The Oral Epic: Performance and Music 11 (reviewed for BMCR by Minna Skafte Jensen).

We are then given an introdution to the version of Alpamysh chosen for this edition, that of Saidmurod Panohogli (1858-1945), originally taken down between 3 October 1938 and 24 January 1939, in the Latin script then in use, by the thirteen-year old Shamsi Murodov.12 Saidmurod's version apparently reflects deliberate compression and abbreviation, to allow performance within a restricted period. This aspect of the oral poet's technique deserves attention; study has generally concentrated on skill in elaboration and extension.

An appendix by the Director of the Institute of Language and Literature of the Uzbek Academy of Sciences, Tora Mirzaev, surveys versions of Alpamysh offered by other Uzbek singers and includes some fascinating prosopographical details; this is evidently, and not surprisingly, a male-dominated speciality.

In his translation Reichl has sought to unite fidelity to the original with readability, giving a rhythmical form to the verse passages without attempting to imitate the metre of the original. Unfamiliar terms are carefully glossed, and further annotation offered where necessary. We are not the audience for whom the poem was composed; its manners and customs are alien to us, and we do not readily suspend our unbelief before its fantastications. But any reader who is tempted to abandon the work before reaching the end should press on for the sake of seven-year old Yadgar, whose situation movingly parallels Andromache's fears for Astyanax (Il.22. 448 ff.). The dialogue between the boy and his mother when he is sent to fetch his father's immensely heavy iron bow, a test of his strength which will establish that he is truly Alpamysh's son, makes the Odyssey's recurrent motif of family likeness (1. 20ff., 3. 122-5; 4. 141-6) look rather anaemic.

Literacy has not, as might once have been feared, brought death to the oral literature of the Turkic peoples. Independence of the Soviet Union and a renewed sense of nationalism are likely to work in favour of this immensely important part of their heritage. Alpamysh may not throw a clear light on the origins of the Odyssey's plot, but it offers a memorable specimen of the products of an ancient, and still lively, tradition of heroic poetry in many ways more closely comparable than the South Slavic to the tradition in which Homeric epic developed. Reichl's publication is potentially very valuable to all students of heroic epic, and it is devoutly to be hoped that the demarcations imposed by library classification systems (and corresponding budgetary restrictions) do not make it practically inaccessible to Homerists.


1.   London, 1952.
2.   Nora K. Chadwick and Victor Zhirmunsky, Oral Epics of Central Asia (Cambridge, 1969), 269-339, 347 f.
3.   Albert Bates Lord Studies in Oral Tradition 7, New York, 1992; see also his contribution on "Uzbek epic poetry: tradition and poetic diction" in Traditions of Heroic Epic Poetry ii: Characteristics and Techniques, ed. J. B. Hainsworth and A. T. Hatto (London, 1989), 94-120.
4.   The orthography of the hero's name is variously given; this form has become conventional in English.
5.   PBA 52 (1966), 267-86.
6.   In the transliteration of Russian and Turkic names I have for the sake of simplicity generally adopted the forms used by Zhirmunsky in his English publications.
7.   op.cit. 280.
8.   See further H. B. Paksoy, Alpamysh: Central Asian Identity under Russian Rule, Hartford, Ct., 1989.
9.   Harmondsworth, 1974.
10.   See Lewis, 22 f.
11.   Berlin, 2000.
12.   Maxima debetur puero reverentia: a later transcription of part of the poem suggests that the singer had bowdlerized his recitation for the schoolboy.

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