Olonkho (Russian: Олонхо́, Yakut: Олоҥхо) is a series of heroic epic tales of the Yakuts and one of the oldest epic arts of the Turkic peoples. The term refers to the entire Sakha epic tradition as well as its central epic.
There are over one hundred poem epics recorded of which a small number have been published - each can contain several tens of thousands of verses. As originally performed the epics were narrated/sung not written, with each character or principle indicated by the tone and musicality of the performer's voice. The poems contain numerous literary devices including metaphor, simile, etc. and contain fantastical elements and archaic concepts. They are thought to originate from times when the ancestors of the Yakuts lived further south. Oral performance of an Olonho contains both spoken (descriptions) and sung (dialogue) parts.
The epics were first recorded by westerners after the Russian conquest of Siberia starting in the 18th century onwards. Western exiles to Siberia during the 19th century made major contributions to the recording of these epic, and after the formation of the Yakut Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, government-backed organisations took part in collating and archiving versions of the epics.
The best known Olonho "Nyurgun Bootur the Swift", consists of more than 36,000 verses, and has been translated into several languages.
Performance and presentation
In their original form, Olonkho was an orally presented epic 'sung' by a narrator. Difference characters, male/female, good/evil etc. were distinguished only by the performer's voice using intonation and melody. They contain archaic language, complex grammar, fantastic and symbolic imagery, as well as metaphor, simile, epithets, and hyperbole.
The Olonho poems vary from a few thousand up to forty thousand verses in length  Typically an Olonkho performance would last 7–8 hours, starting at the beginning of an evening and continuing throughout the night, during which time approximately 7,000-8,000 lines of verse could be performed. Some Olonho may have taken over a month to complete.
The beginning of a performance starts with a poetic recitation - other descriptive parts of the epic also take this form. Dialogue is sung. Gestures and facial expressions also form part of the performance.
Nyurgun Bootur the Swift
Nyurgun Bootur the Swift is the most well known and widely disseminated of the Olonhos. Platon Oyunsky created a written version of the tale in the 1920s and 1930s. In terms of its impact, it is well known by most Yakut speakers, is used in teaching in the Yakut language, and is one of the few Olonhos to have been translated into a variety other languages. It is even considered to be a key part of the Sakha identity.
Oyunksy made an addition to the story when he added Taas kiele ogo, a character who speaks about a core principle of the Sakha world view. This principle is rooted in the belief that there are three separate worlds - the upper world ("gods"), the middle world ("people"), and the lower world ("devils"). It is considered taboo to upset the balance between the three worlds, for example when an inhabitant of one world fails to carry out their traditional role. In Oyunnsky's story, Taas kiele ogo becomes involved in the narrative because of an imbalance in the worlds, and Popova 2018 proposed that Oyunksy added the character to the tale to warn of contemporary and future threats to the Sakha (such as nuclear war).
Vladimir Derzhavin published the first Russian version of the tale, which was published in 1975. A Russian translation with notes was produced by Egor Sidorov in 2012. The first English translation was produced in the 1990s from the Russian translation by Vladimir Derzhavin. A translation of Oyunsky's text into English was published in 2014 as Olonkho: Nurgun Botur the Swift. Other translations include: Slovak (Miloš Krno, 2012); Kyrgyz (2014); Evenki (Krivoshapkin-Nyimkalan, 1996-2003). A version for children was produced in French by Jankel Karro and Lina Sabaraikina.
Tuyaryma Kuo was created by Platon Oyunsky in the 1930s as a drama based on Nyurgun Bootur the Swift - it was first performed in 1937 at the Yakut National Theater. The main character, Tuyaryma Kuo, is a symbol of female beauty and character.
Prose versions of the story in Yakut were made by Elena Sleptsova-Kuorsunnaakh in 2007, consisting of 201 tales. The work has also been converted to cartoon form, in Yakut, as well as English and German voiced versions.
Whilst the term Olonho refers to the saga/epic itself, an Olonhohut is the person/storyteller who performs the saga, and Olonholoo- is the act/art of presenting/performing the story in the form of words and sound.
Origins of Olonhos and Sakha
The origins of the Olonho epics is of interest not only in the context of Yakutian history, but also in the wider field of comparative Turkic mythology. The Yakuts (whose ancestors are thought to originate in southern Siberia/central Asia) were broadly isolated from the rest of the Turkic world for approximately 1000 years - the Olonhos are thought to have retained many archaic aspects of ancient Turkic myths.
In the late 19th century, thought that the Yakuts had their origin somewhere to the south of the River Lena, an idea which informed contemporary attempts at explanation of the origin of the Olonhos. In 1927 P.A. Oyunsky inferred that the Yakuts originated in the Aral Sea area, moving via the Transbaikal to the Lena River basin, using the Olonhos as a source themselves. Ethnographer G.V. Ksenofontov (1888–1938) proposed a southern origin for the Sakha - part of the evidence of this was a supposed oral chronicle preserved in the Olonho. Historian Georgiy Basharin also supported the idea of a southern origin, and suggested that the Olonhos arose together with the northern migration, and the people's struggle for 'nationhood'.
In the 1950s A.P. Okladnikov proposed the Olonhos represented a memory of the culture of the 'Sakha' before the northern migration to the Lena basin, and dates to a period when the Sakha's predecessors lived near the Altai and Sayans with the Mongol's predecessors. Okladnikov claimed there was linguistic evidence for an origin of the Yakut language not in the mid Lena basin, but somewhere where other Turkic and Mongol peoples lived. He linked their origins to the western Baikal region, where the Orkhon-Yenisei script using Guligans and Qurykans lived, and suggested that those tribes ancestors were the Yakut's ancestors - so-called "forest peoples", who lived east of the Yenisei Kyrgyz in lowlands around the Selenga River, on the banks of Lake Baikal, and around the Angara River.
In the 1970s G.U. Ergis suggested that the 7th century Orkhon Turks had folklore that corresponded to the beginnings of the Yakut's myths. In the 2000s I.V. Pukhov made a comparative analysis of the epics of the Altain and Sayan peoples, and the Yakutian Olonho, finding similarity with the Altain Maaday-Kara epic, and commonalities with most epics of Turkic-speaking peoples in the Altai region. 
Ye.M. Meletinskiy stated that the historical conditions of epic creation were those of a nomadic cattle breeding lifestyle, coupled with migrations, and conditions of rapidly forming military unions, conflicts, and other violence in a system of 'military democracy'.Ivanov et al. 2018 state that the plots, characters, etc. of the Olonhos well match such conditions.
Olonho research and translation
The Russian Academy of Sciences played a key role in the collection and publication of Olonho texts - though their primary purpose was the geographic and geological analysis of Siberia they also collected information about the region's inhabitants, and their cultures and languages. Early collectors of Sakha culture included Gerhard Friedrich Müller and Yakov Ivanovich Lindenau in the 18th century. During an expedition of 1842-5 biologist Alexander von Middendorff also collated a short section of the tale Eriedel Bergen, published in 1878, becoming the first published Olonho. A summary of Ereydeeh Buruuydaah Er Sogotoh by A. Y. Uvaroskiy was published in German translation in 1851 in the work Über Die Sprache Der Jakuten.
P. K. Maak was an official in the Bülüü region (Verkhnevilyuysk) in the 1850s and compiled the Olonholoon Oburgu in his Vilüyskiy Okrug Yakutskaya Oblast (1887). Tsarist exile V. L. Serosevskiy compiled important information on the Onlonho tradition in his monograph Yakuti, though he did not record any Olonhos. A. Hudyakov also compiled some Olonhos and other oral material during his exile in Verkhoyansk between 1867 and 1874, including Haan Cargıstay, which was compiled as it was performed, and so represents the earliest useful source for the tradition.
E. K. Pekarsky was exiled to the region between 1881 and 1905, initially in Taatta (Tattinsky District), there drawing on the rich local oral tradition of olonhohutlar (epics), algısçıtlar (prayers), and oyuunlar (games). Helped by the local populace his compilation work continued until his death, producing records of folklore that continue to be important to later researchers. An anthology of Sakha folklore Obraztsı Narodnoy Literaturı Yakutov [Examples of Yakut Folklore], the first volume of which was published in 1907, include work by Pekarsky as well as other researchers, including material from a research expedition of 1894-6 funded by gold mine owner Aleksander Mikhaylovich Sibiryakov. This work focused mainly on the central region of Yakutia, including Taatta, Amma (Amginsky District), Uus Aldan (Ust-Aldansky District), Mene Hanalas, Çurapçı (Churapchinsky District), and Cookuskay. Material from other regions remained essentially uncollated due to transportation difficulties.
The publication of the series Obraztsı Narodnoy Literaturı Yakutov was a cultural turning point in the compilation and study of the Olonhos. A Slovar Yakutskogo Yazıka [Sakha-Russian Dictionary] was published in 13 volumes between 1905 and 1930, also edited by Perkarskiy - examples of word usage drew on folklore and especially Olonho texts.
Another exile S. V. Yastremskiy also made contributions to the study of Sakha culture. Having learnt the Sakha language he took part in the work funded by Sibiryakov, and translated full texts of Er Sogotoh, Kulun Kullustur, and Sün Caahın into Russian in the 1929 volume of Obraztsı Narodnoy Literaturı Yakutov.
P. A. Oyuunuskay also made a very important contribution to the wider dissemination of the Olonho scholars. However, unlike previous researchers he did compile his version of the tales from the oral tradition, but instead wrote the Olonho in his own words - written between 1930 and 1937 Culuruyar Nurgun Bootur Olonhosu in nine episodes totalling 36,000 words. A ban on the publication of his works was not lifted until after Stalin's death in 1953 - his works were published 1959-60 in seven volumes; the fourth, fifth and sixth volumes formed the Culuruyar Nurgun Bootur Olonhosu’na.
The Saha Dili ve Kültürü Bilimsel Arastırma Enstitüsü [Sakha Institute of Language and Cultural Research] was formed in 1934, establishing folklore archives. In the late 1930s it began field expeditions to record oral culture in the region. After the great disruption of the Second World War the institute was renamed to Saha Dilini, Edebiyatını ve Tarihini Arastırma Enstitüsü olarak degistirilir. in 1947. In the 1960s and 70s focus of the institute switch to textual analysis rather than collation, Important works during this period include the Yakutskiy Geroiçeskiy Epos Olonho - Osnovnıe Obrazı [Main Characters of the Yakut Heroic Epics - Olonho] (V. Puhov, 1962); as well as Oçerki Po Yakutskomu Folkloru [Essays on Yakut Folklore] (Ergis, 1974).
Important later publications include Cırıbına Cırılıatta Kııs Buhatıır (1981), an Olonho whose main protagonist is a woman; and Kuruubay Haannaah Kulun Kullustuur (1985) published in a free Russian translation alongside the Sakha with the aim of both being as close to the original as possible.
In 1997, Olonhos were recognized as part of "Humanity's Oral and Intangible Heritage" by UNESCO. Since the 1990s Olonho have been used by the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Sakha as teaching aids to primary school children - however some of the language of folklore (idioms, proverbs, riddles etc.) is considered too difficult, and simplified, shortened texts have been prepared.
As of 2009, only one Olonho, the Culuruyar Nurgun Bootur’dur had been translated into French and English. First translated into Russian in 1947, the French text was based upon the Russian translation, and summarised the tale. The text with Russian and English translations was published in 2002.
- Timofey Stepanov produced a series of large scale paintings based on Ohlonho.
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