Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Bird of Golden Silk (Kirghiz/Kirgiz)

There once lived a very poor old man, and just about all he, his wife and son owned were a hut and a single apple tree. At the very top of this apple tree grew one solitary apple once a year. Every year the old man looked forward to eating this apple, for the fruit made him a grow a bit younger.

Now one year he discovered the apple was gone before it had even completely ripened. "Oh, well," he said, shaking his head and wondering who or what had come and taken his apple when no one was looking. The next year the old man stood guard over his tree and every day watched the little bud form into an apple. However, one morning he woke up only to find the apple was gone once again. The third year he had his wife stand guard with him, and they took turns watching the tree day and night. The wife fell asleep just for an instant early one morning at daybreak. Lo and behold--when she awoke, the precious apple was gone!

By now the old man was desperate; he had missed eating his apple three years in a row. He now ordered his son to watch over the tree, and this he did day and night.

One day the son watched a beautiful silky golden bird approach the tree from the heavens. The bird then swooped down and snatched the barely ripe apple. Handy with a bow and arrow, the son managed to shoot some arrows off and succeeded in knocking off one of its feathers, which then fluttered back to earth. The bird itself, though, disappeared into the clouds with its catch.

The son took the golden feather to his father and said, "Father, no matter what it takes, I am going to find this bird!" He then immediately rode off before his father or mother could say a word.

After one day of riding, the son came to a fork in the road. In the center of the fork was a boulder with a message written upon it: "Go to the right and lose your horse. Go to the left and lose your life." The son set out on the road to the right.

He then rode for many days, and, by now, he and his horse were considerably thinner and hungrier. Suddenly out from the side of the road leaped a huge gray wolf, which now barred the young man's path. Without a word the son dismounted and killed his horse right on the spot. He then butchered it and offered the freshly cut meat to the wolf.

The wolf gobbled down the horse meat, licked its lips and said, "That was good, very good! Now you have no horse, but do not worry. Ride me wherever you wish to go. Let this be my way of thanking you."

"I am searching for the bird of golden silk," said the son.

"The bird of golden silk. Fine. Just climb onto my back and close your eyes," said the wolf. "We are headed for the Land of the Great City."

The young man did as he was told and hung on to the wolf's neck for his life. He didn't know how many high mountains the wolf scampered over or how many raging rivers the wolf swam across when all of a sudden the wolf said, "All right, we're here. You can open your eyes and climb down."

The son did so and saw that he was now in a huge bustling capital of onion domes and noisy, colorful markets where one could find every manner of man and woman.

"Now listen closely," said the wolf. "The bird you seek is in that dwelling over there. Quietly enter. Whatever you do, do not grab the bird's claws. Instead, gently take hold of one wing."

The son entered the dwelling the wolf had indicated, and, as expected, he saw the bird of golden silk resting upon a perch. However, he had gotten the wolf's words mixed up and lunged at the bird, grabbing it by the feet. The bird, of course, squawked and flapped its wings. The commotion alerted the guards, who rushed in and promptly arrested the young man, later tossing him into a dungeon. Early the next morning, the son was taken to the Khan's palace, where the Khan himself would decide the young man's fate.

"What do you have to say for yourself?" asked the Khan.

The son stood before the Khan and told him of his father's apple tree and the solitary magic apple that grew upon it once a year.

"This bird of golden silk," he continued, "comes every year to eat my father's apple. Now my father has become weak because he has not eaten the apple for three years. It is for this reason I find myself in your city."

The Khan was moved by the young man's devotion to his father. "I can see you are a dutiful son," he said. "You must do something for me, however, if you ever wish me to release you and let you have the bird. The neighboring khan, the one who rules the Land of the Five Great Palaces, has a horse with a golden mane and a golden tail. Bring that horse to me, and only then can I let you leave the city with my bird of golden silk."

The son then departed the Khan's palace and found the wolf, which had been patiently waiting for him. Tearfully, he told the wolf all that had happened. The wolf in turn told him not to fear and to climb onto his back as he had done before. He did and off they went.

After a long journey, an even longer one than before, the wolf told the son to climb down and to open his eyes. He discovered that he was now standing on a vast plain. Before him stood five great gleaming palaces, each one gold-plated and more magnificent than the one next to it.

"Go to the fifth palace," said the wolf. "Enter it and you shall find the horse with the golden mane and tail. Do not take him by the reins. Rather, take hold of his mane and gently lead him out."

The son entered the fifth palace and found the horse which had both a mane and tail of gold. However, once again he got the wolf's instructions mixed up and grabbed the horse's reins. The horse immediately neighed and started kicking. The noise was heard by the guards, who rushed in and arrested the son. He was then brought before the Khan.

When asked by the Khan what business he had in the Land of Five Great Palaces, the son told the truth.

"You may have the horse, young man," said the Khan, "if you do something for me. In the land next to mine lives a maiden, a princess, whose beauty is second to none. Bring her to me and only then may you have my horse with the golden mane and tail."

The son was then released. He left the fifth palace and found the wolf, which had been waiting for him outside. After listening to the son's latest experience, the wolf told him to climb onto his back and to close his eyes. They then left the Land of Five Great Palaces.

They rode an even longer time than before, and when the wolf finally told the son to dismount, it was the break of day. They now stood before a dark forest.

"Just stay right here," said the wolf. "I must hide." He then ran off into the nearby woods.

The son stood around until the sun was well up in the sky. Soon he heard voices. He then spied not far off the loveliest young lady he had ever laid his eyes on, the local khan's daughter, the very maiden of whom the neighboring khan had spoken. Accompanying her were her forty ladies-in-waiting who were all carrying baskets of berries.

The wolf suddenly bounded out from the woods and headed directly for the princess. The ladies-in-waiting screamed and fled in forty directions as the wolf seized the Princess and carried her off towards the son. Then, like a shot, the son and the Princess rode off on the wolf, leaving behind everyone else to gape in amazement.

During the journey out of this land, the son and the Princess fell in love. I never want to leave her! he thought. Perhaps the wolf can help me!

"I cannot bear parting with the Princess," the son later told the wolf. "Please think of a way so that we may together!"

The wolf nodded his head and said, "Leave it to me." He then carried the son and the Princess back to the Land of Five Great Palaces. Outside the Khan's fifth palace, the wolf changed himself into an even more exquisite beauty than the coveted Princess herself.

"Now escort me into the palace and introduce me to the Khan as the Princess," instructed the wolf. "Leave the palace when you get the horse with the mane and tail of gold. Then you, the Princess, and horse must wait for me outside."

The son led what looked like the most enchanting young lady in the world into the Khan's palace, and the pair were soon ushered into the Khan's chamber. The Khan's eyes nearly bulged out of his head when he gazed upon the wolf that had changed itself into a beautiful woman. He quickly handed the son the reins to the horse with the golden mane and tail and told him to be off.

Seated with what he thought to be the most exquisite woman alive, the Khan dismissed his guards. He then smiled and told the lady to sit beside him and to sip tea. However, she immediately turned back into a ravenous, drooling wolf and devoured the Khan's flesh right on the spot. The wolf then capered out a rear portal and went around to the front of the palace, where the son, the real princess and the horse were waiting.

"Climb onto my back," he said to the son, and the Princess. "We are off to the Land of the Great City to deliver this horse to the Khan." The three with the horse in tow then disappeared into the dust and the night.

On the way back to the Land of the Great City, the son said to the wolf, "I would like to keep this marvelous horse. Please think of a way so that my wish might come true!"

"Leave it to me," said the wolf.

When they had finally reached the city itself, the wolf changed itself into the very likeness of the horse with the golden mane and tail.

"Present me to the Khan as the horse with the golden mane and tail, " said the wolf ". Leave the palace when you receive the bird of golden silk. Once you are outside, you, the Princess, the horse and the bird are to leave without me. Just tell the horse where you want to go, and it will see to it that you get there. I shall catch up with you on the road later."

The son led the transformed wolf into the palace, where the gleeful Khan gave him the caged bird of golden silk in exchange for what he thought was the horse. The son took the bird, exited the palace, and, along with the Princess, rode towards home on the real horse with the golden mane and tail.

Wishing to show off his latest magnificent "horse," the Khan called for a grand hunt. He climbed onto the wolf's back and led his mounted retinue to a forest. There, they tethered all the horses to some trees and set off on foot to do some light hunting. As soon as they left, the wolf changed back into his original form and chewed through the leather rope that bound him to the tree. He then approached each tethered horse and ate them all one by one, leaving behind neat piles of horse bones.

The Khan and his men returned a couple of hours later to find the grisly remains of their horses. The Khan put his hands to his bald head and howled up to the heavens in shock and anger. There was nothing for him and his men to do but trudge all the way back to the palace.

The wolf had meanwhile caught up with the son and the Princess. He accompanied them to the fork in the road, and there they said their farewells and went on their separate ways. In time the Princess became the son's wife, and they remained happily married until the end of their days. And never again would the son's father miss eating his yearly apple of youth!

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Xinjiang minjian gushiji, pp. 68-90

The wolf has an exalted role in Altaic mythology as an ancestor and guide (Roux 324). Roux also identifies the horse as a sacrificial animal for the sky deity of the pre-Islamic Turkic peoples of Central Asia (324). Not surprisingly, this somewhat gruesome and violent tale of treacherous characters features a wolf that guides and horses destined to be sacrificed. The bird of golden silk, the firebird, may be cognate with the lucky Chinese phoenix whose gold color results from its connection with fire and of which it is popularly said: "A phoenix will only alight where something precious can be found," perhaps something as precious as a magical apple that guarantees youth (Ong 42-43). Classified as AT 550, "The Firebird," this tale is known in Turkey as "The Three Brothers" (Noy 152-157). Motifs: B580, "animal helps human to wealth"; H1331.4, "quest for marvelous horse"; K2357.8, "disguise as woman to enter castle"; and L161, "lowly hero marries a princess."

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