Category Archives: mythology

Nations of the World: Kurdistan

Şahmaran

“Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” – Kurdish saying

The Kurdish people today live in parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, a largely mountainous region they have occupied for perhaps as much as 2,000 years. Kurdish people have lived under the rule of the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans, and others. While they lack a single autonomous country of their own (see however: Iraqi Kurdistan) they have proven to be an irrepressible ethnic group.

The Turkish government, in its nationalist zeal, attempted to suppress Kurdish culture by calling the people “Mountain Turks” and prohibiting use of the Kurdish language. Yet today there are between 20 and 30 million native Kurdish speakers.

The Kurdish myth of Shahmaran, the queen of snakes, is more heart-warming than it sounds. There are of course many variations, as the story has traveled thousands of miles and probably thousands of years. In this version, the queen of snakes saves a young man abandoned by his friends in a well. He later betrays her unwillingly to the king’s men, who cut her into three pieces. But even as she dies she manages to save the young man and to outwit their enemies.

Although Kurds today embrace more modern religions, the myth of Shahmaran persists in Kurdish culture. With the head of a woman and body of a snake, you might expect her to be terrifying, but she is more of a positive image than a frightening one. And as a figure divided but still powerful, I find her a worthy symbol of the Kurdish people.

 

Nations of the World: Navajo

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Today I read about the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and you should, too. The short version is that coal mining and uranium mining was developed in the region with the promise of developing the economy. Instead it left the region and the Navajo people with polluted air, a depleted aquifer, and a ruined economy.  Now local activists are working to replace the defunct coal mines with solar energy, turning polluted, damaged land into something that can produce real value to the region. (Click the link above to learn more or donate.)

The Navajo live in the Four Corners region in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, having moved into the region about 600 years ago. The nation has over 300,000 enrolled tribal members – about the same number of people as Iceland.

Navajo mythology contains one of my favorite mythical characters of any time or place: Coyote, the trickster. But, I stumbled across this legend that’s more modern, and worth a quick read (and a thoughtful chuckle): The Navajo and the Astronaut.

The Navajo nation, contrary to what your high school history book may have lead you to believe, is not defunct. They are struggling with economic hardships, poor high school graduation rates, and high levels of cancer and diabetes. But they are still telling stories, and they are still developing their land to make a home for their families.

Traditional Navajo houses are always built facing East to welcome the morning sun, the way Coyote taught them. I can’t think of a better metaphor for hope.

Nations of the World: Hungary

Probably one of the most significant events about Hungary during my lifetime was the opening of its border with Austria in 1989, which helped lead to the reunification of East and West Germany and the collapse of the Soviet bloc – an amazingly bloodless transition.

Hungary is an old, land-locked nation, formerly of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hungary joined Axis powers during World War II, and still harbors a sizable neo-nazi party today (not unlike a number of other countries, unfortunately). Hungary also contains a fairly large population of Romani (also known as Gypsies) who make up somewhere around 5% (or more) of the population.

I just read through the history of Hungary, and hoo-boy, that is a long and complicated story. But I promised not to write about history too much, so I’ll let you look that up yourself. One thing you should know, though, is that Hungary is famous for mathematicians and scientists! Thirteen Hungarians have received the Nobel prize, and Hungary is famous for a number of inventions including the electric motor, the transformer, the cathode ray tube, the electron microscope, the ballpoint pen, and the Rubik’s cube!

The Hungarian language is an isolate, a member of the Finno-Ugric language family, and unrelated to any of the Indo-European languages spoken by most Europeans. The English word “coach” comes from the Hungarian kocsi, meaning “wagon from Kocs” – the Hungarian village where it was invented (of course!). Goulash and paprika are also Hungarian words. Yum.

In ancient Hungarian mythology, the white stag is an important figure. According to various sources, the white stag represents the heavens, the gods, or the will of the gods. In the origin story of the Hungarian people, a white stag leads the brothers Hunor and Magor to Scythia, and these brothers are said to have founded the Hun and Magyar cultures. There is a children’s book called The White Stag by Kate Seredy that is supposed to be very good. Adding it to my reading list!

Hungary was in the news recently because a couple in Budapest were doing some renovating and found 6,300 files from the Nazi era stuffed in their walls – the documents recorded information about where Jews were living in Budapest at the time, and where they were going to be taken. Many of Budapest’s Jews perished during World War II, but most survived. However, many of the Jews outside of Budapest were sent to Auschwitz. Today, the largest percentage of Jews in Hungary live in Budapest.

Recently the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe met to elect their new chairman in Budapest. The choice of Hungary for the meeting was not a coincidence; European liberals are worried about Hungary’s strong and growing far-right movement. ALDE also reminded everyone that when 250,000 Hungarians fled their country during the 1956 revolt against the communist regime, Europeans took them in (many came to the United States, too). Yet Hungary has been more than unfriendly to the Syrian refugees attempting to enter their country in this decade.

The Hungarian government would do well to remember their own history. It takes about 45 minutes to read it all on Wikipedia. Maybe a white stag will show them the way.

white-stag