How Korkit Outsmarted Death

Considering the long bout of radio silence, I decided to put another Kazakh folk tale I translated up here. There were several stories about the grandfather of poets, Korkit, who spent his life running from Azrael, the angel of death. There is a strange and sad reflection of our own fears here. I will lead with a crudely translated poem that was included in the book of stories. Many thanks to my teacher, Amangul Nukhnabi, who helped me with every step of this translation.

 Kazakh family in a ger, 1911/1914, stolen shamelessly from Wikipedia

Kazakh family in a ger, 1911/1914, stolen shamelessly from Wikipedia

In the world there is no place like the Altai,
There was the Altai beteke golden grass
At the Altai's edge there was a gold heaven
Many years ago the Alash people dwelled there.

… In those days there was a hero of six nations,
Of one blood with many, but of a different soul.
He knew himself, and concerned himself with nothing,
As a young man, he was nothing like you and your kind.

They named this hero's name Korkit,
The kind country called the young man hero.
Multitudes were surprised every day to see such a man,
Korkit's character was pure white good.

… One day he awoke, as from dreaming, afraid,
He carved the kobyz from the larch tree.
He strung the horsehair through the kobyz to give it a voice
The Altais echoed with his heart-voice sound

From the Kobiz came a mournful voice,
He played the music like a steady trot.
Sometimes, he played it like a wild foal,
Sometimes, it moved like a calm yellow camel.

… He is the grandfather of the poets: Poet Korkit,
In life, wherever he goes, he digs holes…
Swimming in the tears of his eyes were songs played,
The larch-instrument hugged to himself, lies Korkit.

--Magjan Jumabaev "Korkit"

 Gustave Doré - print

Gustave Doré - print

Korkit saddled his fast flying horse and escaped from Death. But, no matter where he went, the Angel of Death Azrael and his gravediggers followed, unrelenting in their pursuit. Although sometimes, Azrael’s feelings of pity were awakened, so that even when he came nearby he could not take Korkit’s soul. One day, the dastardly angel constructed an ornate golden box in which to keep the soul of his treasured mark Korkit. Korkit knew the day would come he would die, yet he did his utmost to thwart fate.

One day, Korkit and the Angel of Death Azrael met face to face, and the Angel said to him, “Come inside this box!”

Korkit, being clever, had already composed an answer to this question, for when Death calls, lesser men are obliged to simply do whatever they are asked. “Very good. I will come inside the box, but it is small. How can I fit when the ceiling is only so high?” He held his hand out. “Why don’t you show me yourself how one might squeeze himself into that tiny space?”

Azrael, unaccustomed to simple questions, obliged Korkit and showed him how to enter the golden box. Once he was inside, Korkit leapt upon the lid and slammed it shut with a dull thud, latched the box and threw it into the nearby river. Just like that, Azrael floated down the swift current as the waves played at the sides of the box, but Korkit stayed alive. So, during that time, with the Angel of Death indisposed, people were not susceptible to Death’s snares, and their souls did not pass on.

In that time, a fisherman lived on the shores of the estuary that connects the sea and the river. One day, he spied a golden box shining in the current’s flow, and caught it in his net. When he opened the lid, immediately there shot out the enraged Angel of Death who emerged with a loud shout. The poor fisherman’s soul was snatched right away, and he died. Knowing he owed a debt of death, Azrael stole away into the night to search for Korkit. Any time one feels the soul-gatherer coming, he hears a sad music composed just for Korkit, and the Angel of Death plays it on his instrument for the people.