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Sino-Platonic Papers #135, May, 2004


John J. Emerson

(Somewhat revised Dec. 2, 2004)



Of all the peoples of the world, the Mongols of Chinggis Qan are among the strangest to Western civilization – a warlike Asian people without agriculture,  cities, or writing. However, three episodes in the Secret History of the Mongols can be matched with comparable episodes in Western literature.  The significance of this kind of cultural comparison is uncertain; perhaps here I am merely using my anecdotes as a convenient literary hook on which to hang my reflections on the relationship between the peoples of the steppe and those of Western Europe. I call these three stories "The Rainstone", "The Proud Princesses", and "The Jealous Bloodbrother".






A. "The same Buyiruq-Qan and Quduqa, who knew how to use the magic stone, used the magic stone and created a storm.  But the storm turned and came down on top of themselves".
 Secret History
, #143.


B. "And beside the spring thou shalt find a massive stone... if thou wilt take of the water in the basin and spill it upon the stone, thou shalt see such a storm come up that not a beast will remain within this wood.... for thou wilt see such lightning-bolts descend, such blowing of gales and crashing of trees, such torrents fall, such thunder and lightning, that, if thou canst escape from them without trouble and mischance, thou wilt be more fortunate than ever any knight was yet".
Yvain, p.  185.


Many of the Turkish and Mongol steppe peoples believed that it is possible to bring rain and storms by pouring water on certain magic "yad", "yat", or "jada"  stones.1  Frazer has collected examples of this belief from various places throughout the world -- significantly, none of them from the classical Mediterranean world.2  Not surprisingly (because of their exposed position on the treeless steppe), Mongols had a peculiar fear of lightning and of storms, and the rainstone was often used in warfare -- sometimes, as here, to perverse effect. (Perhaps the ancient Celts' fear that "heaven would fall on their heads" was the fear of lightning.)


As it happens, there is a possibility of a link between these geographically widely-separated but roughly contemporary stories (Yvain: ca. 1185 A.D.; SH: after 1228 A.D.). Yvain, though written in French, traces back to the Breton legends of King Arthur. The Bretons, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons, had come to Brittany from the British Isles about 500 A.D. There they met and intermarried with descendants of the Alans. The Alans, originally  a steppe people of the Scythian type, after serving as cavalry units  in the forces of the Huns, the Romans, and the Goths,  had  ended up settling in Armorica (what is now Brittany) not too long before the arrival of the Bretons, and their presence there can be traced historically through personal names (e.g. "Gaor") and place names (e.g. compounds including the elements "Alan" or "Alain").  While the Bretons of King Arthur served the twelfth-century authors of romances as an archaic backdrop, they were actually newcomers to the region in the sixth century, and it is quite possible that the Breton legend of the rainmaking stone at the fountain of Barenton was actually originally an Alan legend, and that the Alan belief, in turn, could be traced back to the Alan's steppe ancestors. 3


The Alans are thought to have been responsible for bringing to Northern Europe the particular style of heavy-armed cavalry which later became characteristic of chivalry, and mounted archery,  a Breton skill, was the trademark of the steppe peoples.  The turning point of the battle of Hastings in 1066 (when William the Conqueror gained England) came when the Bretons on the left side of William's line, led by one Count Alan, suddenly broke and retreated -- but when the Anglo-Saxons broke ranks to pursue them, they were chopped to pieces by the revived Normans.4  


The way the story is usually told, the Breton retreat was a disaster, and only William's heroism  saved the day. But the story has all the earmarks of the feigned retreat characteristic of the steppe peoples (although the Romans, who had steppe cavalry units in their forces, had learned it  from them well before this time).


The armored knights of chivalry, the tactic of the feigned retreat, mounted archery, and the "rainstone" at Brereton all might be traceable to the steppe ancestors of the Alans who had settled in Armorica.  It might also be asked whether the Breton legends and poems, which in their French adapatation have had such an enormous influence on Western literature might not have had an Alan element too.  After all, the Alans arrived in Armorica at about the same time that the historical King Arthur did.4.1  




A. "At that [Gurbesu, the mother of Tayang Qan of the Naiman]  said " What will you do with them? These Mongqol people smell bad and their clothing is filthy.  They live at a distance, far away.  Let them remain there.  But perhaps we will have their neat daughters-in-law and girls brought here.  We will make them wash their hands and their feet and then perhaps we can have them milk our cows and sheep....... .[After the defeat of the Naiman] Chinggis Qahan had Tayang's mother, Gurbesu, brought in and said to her, "Did you not say that the Mongqols have a bad smell?  Why have you come now? Then Chinggis Qahan took her as his wife."
Secret History
, #189 p. 93; #196 p. 102.


B. "They burned down the farm of a great chieftain called Thorkel Geysa, and carried off his daughters in chains to the ships because they had made derisory remarks the previous winter about King Harald's plans to invade Denmark; they had carved anchors out of cheese, and said that these could easily hold all of the king of Norway's ships.... It is reported that the watchman who first caught sight of King Harald's fleet said to Thorkel Geysa's daughters, "I thought you said that Harald would never come to Denmark".  "That was yesterday," replied Dotta."
Harold Hardrada's Saga, p. 80.


Harald Hardrada, king of Norway,  was killed at Stamford Bridge in 1066 -- about a century before Chinggis Qan's birth  – during an attempt to gain the English crown. He was a fearsome warrior and, as the half-brother of St. Olaf, was one of the first generation of Norse Christians. He also had served for many years in the Varangian Guard in Constantinople, where he was prominent enough to be mentioned in the Byzantine records. Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic author who told Harald's story, died in 1241 and was an almost exact contemporary of Chinggis Qan.  Harald's slaving may seem un-Christian to us today, but it did not seem to bother Snorri much; and in fact, Chinggis Qan, whose daughter was a pious Christian, was only slightly farther removed from Christianity than Harald was.


Real connections going back at least to 400 A.D. between the Germanic world and the steppe world left a permanent mark on the Germanic traditions.  Attila appears as Atli in the Norse tradition (even in Greenland) and as Etzel in the German Nibelungenlied, and Eormanric (a Goth defeated by the Huns) is referred to in Beowulf.  Wolfram 5 has described the Ostrogoths of the period following Eormanric as "Scythized" (i.e. steppified), and when the Rus descended  the Vistula from Scandinavia and reached Constantinople, the Byzantines spoke of their leader as a "chaganus" or Khagan.6 Indeed, when Snorri (identifying Hec-tor as Thor!) derives the Germans from the Trojans in order to root them in the classical tradition -- as was very common from the Roman period on -- he also describes the Trojans as Turks.7 But the most amazing Germanic attempt to root themselves in the classical world is probably that of Jordanes, a Goth writing in Latin ca. 550 A.D.  Jordanes affiliates the Goths with the legendary Scythian Amazons and with Tomyris the Scythian Queen who killed Cyrus, and even declares the Huns to have been descended from outlawed Gothic witches who had mated with evil spirits.8


In Beowulf, the Nibelungenlied,  and the sagas can be found a continuous oral  historical tradition beginning with Eormanric and continuing through Theodoric, Attila,  and Hengist and Horsa (the legendary Anglo-Saxon conquerors of Britain) at least up to the time of Beowulf, whose patron Hygelac raided the Merovingeans early in the sixth century.  Even as late as 1200 A.D., the Germanic peoples seemed aware of their own otherness to the classical world and the Empire, even to the point of identifying themselves with the Amazons, the Scythians and the Turks.




A. "Temujin and Jamuqa made camp together in the Qorqonaq forest.  They remembered how they had sworn brotherhood to each other formerly and the renewed this brotherhood, saying that they loved each other (#116). .... In the earlier days , in the words of old men, it was said that, "Men who are sworn brothers share one life.  They do not abandon each other but protect that life..... They enjoyed themselves with feasting and more feasting and at night they slept together under one quilt."
 Secret History
, #116 -- #117.


"You have pacified the whole of our people, you have unified all the foreign peoples . They have shown the throne of the Qan to you. Now, when world is ready for you, what use is there in becoming a companion to you? On the contrary, sworn brother, in the black night I would haunt your dreams, in the bright day I would trouble your heard.  I would be the louse in your collar, I would become the splinter in your door panel...If you favor me, sworn brother, let me die without shedding my blood.... Then eternally and forever I will protect the seed of your seed, and become a blessing for them."
Secret History, #200-1.


B. "[Ivan and Petro] lived as brother lives with brother.  "Look Ivan, whatever you gain, it's all half and half: when one of us is merry, the other is merry; when one of us grieves, we both grieve; if one of us gets some plunder, the plunder is divided in two; if one falls into captivity, the other sells everything and pays the ransom, or else he, too, goes into captivity." And truly, whatever the Cossacks got, they divided everything in two; and if they stole cattle or horses, they divided everything in two. ..... So King Stepan announced that if some brave man could be found who would bring him the pasha dead or alive, he would pay him as much as he paid his whole army.  "Let's go after the pasha, brother!" said brother Ivan to Petro. And the Cossacks went, one in one direction, the other in the other.

Petro might still have caught him or he might not have, But Ivan already came back leading the pasha to the king himself with a noose around his neck. "Brave fellow!" said King Stepan and ordered him to be paid as much as the whole army..... As soon as Ivan got his payment from the king, that same day he divided everything between himself and Petro. Petro took half of the King's pay, but he could not bear that Ivan should be so honored, and he kept revenge hidden deep in his heart...... 

[Much later] Petro rode beside [Ivan] all atremble and holding his breath for joy. He looked around and pushed his sworn brother into the chasm. And into the chasm fell the horse with the Cossack and his child".
Nicolai Gogol, "The Terrible Vengeance"
, pp. 102-103


This case isn't quite so clear, because the endings of the two stories are slightly different, but their dynamic is the same.  In both stories, young men swear eternal brotherhood, but become enemies when one of the two surpasses the other, destroying the friendship. Gogol's story, in which what happens is quite clear, serves to illuminate the fundamental instability of the Mongol's anda relationship. Within the relentlessly striving Mongol society, the anda relationship could only survive while both friends were still on the way up.  Once either friend attained power and success, the other would inevitably become a threat to him.


 In the Secret History, Jamuqa figures first as Temujin's blood brother (anda) and boon companion, but ends up his bitter enemy after a confusing series of betrayals and  reconciliations,  and ultimately Temujin (now Chinggis Qan) has him killed.  There are reasons to suspect that the story in the Secret History has been twisted to Chinggis Qan's advantage -- one suspects that Jamuqa did not volunteer for execution quite so nicely -- but I think it's clear enough that the tension between the equality of the anda relationship and the Qan's absolute power was what made continuation of the relationship impossible.


Several passages in the Secret History make it clear that the difficulties in the anda relationship are all over the issue of equality.  In theory the anda relationship, like friendship relations in other cultures, is an equal rather than a heierarchal one; but this means that in a society as striving as Mongol society, most anda relationships end badly. (Chinggis Qan was directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of several andas in the Secret History). The original break between Jamuqa and Temujin occurred because Temujin thought Jamuqa was claiming precedence. Much later, in his challenge to Jamuqa before the last battle, Temujin claims that Jamuqa was motivated by jealousy because Temujin had gained precedence over Jamuqa while they both served  Ong Qan (#179).  Finally, when Jamuqa finally chooses to die (as the story is told) rather than to try to be Temujin's anda again,  it is because he realizes that the pretended equality would not be real, and that any attempts on his part to claim equality  with Temujin (the new Chinggis Qan)  would eventually lead to his death  anyway.


This comparison is weaker than the others as an indication of Mongol / European commonality, since Russia has often been considered marginal to Europe, and the Cossacks themselves were atypical of (though also essential to) Russia.  But by way of Lermontov's Pechorin and various other impetuous, gallant cavalry officers in Russian and other literature (not to mention Isaac Babel's twentieth-century Cossacks), we can show that an important aspect of nineteenth-century life and literature had a real connection to the peoples of the steppe.


 The Cossacks were Turkified Slavs (~ "Kazakhs") just as the first Hungarians were Turkified Ugrians, and the early Bulgars of Bulgaria were Slavified Turks.  The Baltic-Black Sea corridor, especially along the Dnieper, connected the northern peoples both with Rome (Constantinople) and the Turks starting from the time of the Goths around 200 A.D., and it was on the northern shores of the Black Sea that the Huns from the East and the Goths from the North formed their hybrid society. The Rus (led by their "qagans") travelled this route in later centuries, as did the Swedish king Karl XII in the early eighteenth century, and the Cossacks (who also were Black Sea pirates and smugglers) were only the final example of this kind of hybrid society.






What all these stories have in common is a military connection. To the peasantry and the clergy the steppe is entirely hostile and foreign, but to the military aristocracies which dominated Europe politically for over a millenium, it really was not. The mounted knight with his hawk and his hound shared many things with the Turks and the Mongols which he did not share with his own subjects and religious counselors.   The original conversion of the barbarous and semi-Turkified Germanic rulers of Western Europe was very thin. A hybrid version of Christianity was concocted which allowed the rulers to continue most of their practices as long as they supported the Church, said certain prayers,  and respected certain taboos. Western Europe thus came to be ruled by two elites – one peaceful, celibate, and abstemious, and the other lusty, hearty, and brutal.  And at the beginning, the two elites even spoke two different languages: Frankish for the rulers, and Latin (or the "francien" popular romance dialect) for the commoners and clergy.


Charlemagne, according to his adoring biographer Einhard, fathered children by eight different women-- but the first of the Rus qagans / czars to convert to Christianity, with his 800-or-so  wives,  outmatched him a hundredfold. In Gregory of Tours great efforts need to be made to convince the lords to quit raping nuns.  The aristocracy never ceased to be ruled by a code of honor which was non-Christian in its origins, and in key respects contrary to Christianity.  This is most clearly seen in duelling and honor-killings; not only was the church never able to wipe these out, but for centuries they were social and political obligations which nobles were not able to refuse, even to save their eternal souls. 

 In Don Quixote we read of a nobleman dying in a state of sin who wants to be confessed so that he will not die as a "heathen" instead of as a Christian: "morir com gentil, y no como cristiano". 9 "Gentil" (here "heathen" or "damned") in other contexts means "noble", "gentlemanly", "elegant", etc. By this time the Spanish nobility had been Christians for over a millenium, but their Visigothic ancestors had converted to a kind of hybrid Christianity which allowed them to continue their lives much as they always had, while subcontracting their religious duties to the clergy.

During the Renaissance and the Reformation, the priesthood's monopoly on both literacy and holiness was broken, even in countries which remained Catholic.  The aristocracy developed the ideal of the "gentleman" -- skilled at warfare, but also literate and fully Christian. The gentleman's code of honor included many Christian elements, but also many elements traceable back to the codes of the pagan German conquerors of Western Europe, whose Christianized descendents had retained power continuously while accepting Christianity almost entirely on their own terms, and the gentleman's code (even into the nineteenth century) still often included the obligation of duelling when honor required it. Many of the authors of the Renaissance and the early modern age were not merely laymen, but trained and experienced soldiers who took an interest in military affairs and training: a short list includes Dante, Cervantes, Montaigne and Rabelais.  The last of these is the most interesting: he was formally a member of the clergy (with connections to bishops of the du Bellay family), but in Chapter 27 of Gargantua he enthusiastically describes the heroic but brutal deeds of Frere Jean, a monk who singlehandedly massacres a band of pillagers, thus violating the vow of nonviolence which had defined the clergy for centuries.


Truth-telling ("his word is his bond") is a central component of military and aristocratic honor in various cultures.  This includes honesty, but primarily means promise-keeping: one of the marks of the hero is that if he says he'll do something, he does it, no matter how great the cost. In this context spoken words have the power of signed contracts, and even if a hero is tricked into agreement, or if he makes a promise to someone who he should not have, he still keeps the promise. (By contrast, monks, the bourgeoisie, women, and peasants, who because of the weakness and dependency inherent in their statusses are not able to fulfill promises, have no honor -- except for chastity in the case of women. In a sense none of them are agents, and are somewhat like minors in American law). 


Chinggis Qan's words to a man who had betrayed him, but to whom he had sworn an oath, could stand as an epitome of European chivalric honor: "If in the evening I break a promise I had spoken in the morning, or if in the morning I break a promise spoken the previous evening then I would be talked of and surely shamed.  Earlier I made a promise to you: let that be enough."10 And as it happens, in Steven Shapin's study of early modern science, we see that modern science itself was gounded on honor and truth-telling, a gentlemanly code grounded on syncretic pagan / Christian aristocratic ideas of honor tracable back to the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons.11

Perhaps the link between Chinggis Qan and modern science is a little far-fetched. However, the link of science to the Western European aristocracy, which was always an equestrian military elite, is not. And when we consider how much of modern civilization was produced by this military elite, the gulf between ourselves and Chinggis Qan becomes much narrower than we have believed it was.








1. Boyle pp. 184—192.

2.  Frazer, pp. 75-79. P. 75:  "Stones are often supposed to possess the property of bringing on rain, provided they be dipped in water or sprinkled with it, or treated in some other appropriate manner..... p. 76: There is a fountain called Barenton, of romantic fame, in those “wild woods of Broceliande,” where, if legend be true, the wizard Merlin still sleeps his magic slumber in the hawthorn shade. Thither the Breton peasants used to resort when they needed rain. They caught some of the water in a tankard and threw it on a slab near the spring. On Snowdon there is a lonely tarn called Dulyn, or the Black Lake, lying “in a dismal dingle surrounded by high and dangerous rocks.” A row of stepping-stones runs out into the lake, and if any one steps on the stones and throws water so as to wet the farthest stone, which is called the Red Altar, “it is but a chance that you do not get rain before night, even when it is hot weather.” It appears  probable that, as in Samoa, the stone is regarded as more or less divine. This appears from the custom sometimes observed of dipping a cross in the Fountain of Barenton to procure rain, for this is plainly a Christian substitute for the old pagan way of throwing water on the stone."


Molnar, Adam, Weather Magic in Inner Asia, Uralic and Altaic Series #158, Indiana, 1994: A very thorough study. The word yada in its various forms is traced back to Old Turkish and then to an Iranian language, perhaps Saka (pp 104-5, 112-113, 140-1). Since the Alans, although a steppe people, were Northern Iranians rather than Turks, this strengthens my argument.


3.   On the Alans, see Bachrach, 1973.


4.  Tetlow;  Bachrach, "De Re Militari".  There is also controversy about the Lithuanian retreat during the 1410 battle of Tannenberg: Urban, pp. 214-220.


4.1 From Scythia to Camelot (C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malco, Garland, 1994) argues for a major Alan contribution to the Arthurian legends. This is a very thorough study, but I find it hard to use, since solid facts which I find very convincing are mixed in with comparisons and conjectures of various degrees of plausibility. The book also tries to identify Arthur with actual historical figures -- with only mixed success in my opinion (as is usually the case with historical identifications of legendary and mythical characters.)


5. Wolfram, p. 115.


6. Logan, p. 186, from 839 A.D.


7. Sturluson, Edda, pp. 4, 68, 35.


8. Jordanes,  VII 49 – VIII 56, X 61, XXIV 121.


9. Don Quixote, Part II, Ch. XXI: p. 199 (Spanish ed.); p. 541 (translation).


10. Secret History  #246; the original promise is at SH #204.


11. Shapin, p. 63, citing M. James, English Politics and the Concept of Honor,  page 11: "[T]he warrior values of ancient Germanic society continued to flourish as a corporate way of life in a setting whose dominant tone was Christian." (See also Shapin, pp. 68 and 106: truth-telling; truth and duelling; Russell, p. 18: the syncretic nature of chivalry; Toulmin, Ch. 11: "The Insulted Gentleman"; and Watson, Ch. 3: "Points of Conflict between Christianity and Pagan-Humanistic Ethics").



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Bachrach, Bernard, A History of the Alans in the West, Minnesota, 1973.


Bachrach, "De re Militari": http://www.deremilitari.org/RESOURCES/ARTICLES/bachrach3.htm

Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon text with Chickering translation), Anchor, 1977.


Black-Michaud, Jacob, Cohesive Force, Blackwell, 1975.


Bohdanowicz, L., "The Muslims in Poland", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1942, Parts 3-4, pp. 163—180.


Boyle, John Andrew, “Turkish and Mongol Shamanism in the Middle Ages”, Folklore, Vol. 83, Autumn 1972, pp. 177-193; also in Boyle, 1977.


Cervantes, Miguel de, Don Quixote, part II, Clasicos Castalia, 1978. (tr. Ormsby, ed. Jones and Douglas, Norton, 1981).


Christian, David, A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia, Vol. I, Blackwell, 1998.


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Douglas, Mary, How Institutions Think, Syracuse, 1986.


Fletcher, Richard, The Barbarian Conversion, California, 1997.


Frazer, James G., The Golden Bough, 1922:
www.bartleby.com/196/pages/page75.html (to /page_79.html).


Gans, Paul J.,  "Hastings and its Implications, or, Did the Anglo-Saxons have Cavalry?":


Gogol, Nikolai, tr. Hogarth, Taras Bulba, Everyman, 1918/ 1977.


Gogol, Nikolai, tr. Pevear and Volokhonsky, The Collected Tales, Vintage, 1998.


Gregory of Tours, (tr. Brehaut), History of the Franks, Norton 1969.


Hexter, J. H. "The Education of the Aristocracy in the Renaissance," in Reappraisals in History, Harper 1961.


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Kaeuper, Richard, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, Oxford, 1999.


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Nibelungenlied, tr. Armour, Heritage Club, 1961.


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Priscus: Priscus on Attila the Hun, Medieval Sourcebook:


Purnis, Jan, "Historical Legend in Beowulf":


Russell, James C., The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, Oxford, 1994.


SCA Bibliography on European Cavalry:


Shapin, Steve, A Social History of Truth, Chicago, 1994.


Sturluson, Snorri, tr. Larrington, The Poetic Edda, Oxford, 1996.


Sturluson, Snorri, tr. Faulkes, Edda, Everyman, 1987.


Sturluson, Snorri, King Harald’s Saga, tr. Magnusson/ Palsson, Penguin, 1966.


Tetlow, Edwin, Hastings, Barnes and Noble, 1992.


Toulmin, Stephen, and Jonsen, Albert, The Abuse of Casuistry, California, 1988.


Watson, Curtis Brown, Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor, Princeton, 1960.


Wikipedia: Trial by Combat:


Wolfram, Herwig, History of the Goths, California, 1988.