Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Horse-Head Fiddle (Mongol)

There was once a seventeen year old boy named Suhe who lived alone with his widowed mother. He was a good boy, fond of animals, particularly a white colt he had delivered one dark night. Suhe was also a master fiddle player and singer and known to all the local herders who regularly gathered to hear him play.

One day, when his young colt had matured into a swift horse, Suhe received some news: the Khan was sponsoring a horse race by a temple. The winner would take the Khan's daughter as a bride. All of Suhe's friends urged him to enter, and so the next day, he set off for the temple.

At the race were the noblest horsemen of the plains all lined up and ready to gallop home to the finish line. Suhe was the only commoner among them to sign up.

Then came the moment of the race . . .

At the signal, they were off! Except for Suhe, each man whipped his horse furiously as he dug his heels in. Suhe alone rode his horse as he always did, as much for the horse's pleasure as his, and he was way in front. He and his white horse crossed the finish line without a serious challenge.

"Order the rider of the white horse over here at once!" said the Khan to a guard.

Suhe rode back and dismounted. He walked up the platform and respectfully presented himself before the Khan.

The Khan looked at him and was not happy. He had not planned on a commoner to win the race. On the other hand, he did want the white horse, Suhe's horse.

"Young man," said the Khan, "I shall present you with three valuable prizes, and you, in turn, shall give me your horse."

"Great Khan," replied Suhe, "I came here to win the race and marry your daughter, not to sell my horse."

"Why, you insolent clod! Who do you think you are to speak to me that way?" said the Khan, mortified. "Hand me a cudgel!" he told a guard.

The Khan then mercilessly beat Suhe until the young man lay unconscious. He then slipped his velvet-booted foot under Suhe's stomach, lifted him up an inch or two and rolled him down the wooden stairs of the platform, at the bottom of which Suhe ended up in a bruised, bloodied heap. Some friends then spirited Suhe away to safety before the Khan decided to do any more harm. The Khan's men then took hold of the white horse and led it away.

Suhe's mother nursed her son back to health. Within a few days, he was able to return to herding.

One night he heard the wooden gates of his stockade being knocked and rattled, so he went outside to look. There before him was his white horse! After rubbing his eyes in disbelief, he joyfully ran to greet his friend, and then he noticed the horse had been gravely wounded. In fact, seven to eight arrows protruded from the horse's body. Suhe guessed what had happened. The white horse wouldn't let the Khan ride him, and then, when the horse had burst out of the Khan's pen, the angry ruler ordered his archers to shoot it dead.

Suhe tried his best to save the horse's life. He carefully removed each arrow. Blood still flowed freely even though the horse had already lost a lot of blood. Despite Suhe's best efforts, the white horse died that morning.

Suhe was brokenhearted.

Suhe remained inconsolable for many days and many nights. He could not sleep at all until one night when he had a particularly vivid dream. In his dream, his arm was draped around the white horse's neck as he petted its mane and muzzle.

Finally, the horse spoke to him.

"Master," it said, "try as you might, you shall never bring me back from where I am now. If you want to remember me and hold me in your hands, do this. Take my bones and carve them into a fiddle. Then you and I will be together whenever there is happiness and music and light."

And so the next day, Suhe took some of the white horse's bones and carved them into the first Mongolian horse-head fiddle, a fiddle with a carved horse's head on top. This is the fiddle we can still see today whenever herders, shepherds, and nomads gather to relax, be among friends and loved ones and listen to the melodies of those who came before them.

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Mengu minjian gushi, pp. 121-124

This is arguably the most famous Mongolian legend. Motifs: B211.3, "Speaking horse"; H172.1, "Horse permits only master to ride."

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