Autumn 1998 (6.3)
Tales That Shape Society
by Betty Blair, Editor
"Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created," says American writer Toni Morrison. She should know. For her prodigious work with narrative, she was named the Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1993 (See page 46).
Legends, too, fall into this category of radical narrative. In fact, the essence of their dynamic power is the fact that they do shape behavior even as they themselves are shaped. Morrison's observation brings to mind that age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg - the legend, or the social norms and mores that shaped the legend?.
Without a doubt, legends are the DNA of any given culture. Deeply imprinted into these entertaining tales are the values, aspirations and dreams of a society. Deep fears are there as well, along with a blueprint for the culture-specific behavioral responses that are deemed appropriate.
Legends reside in a land somewhere between the real and the imagined. Originally, these stories were based on some specific event, heroic figure, difficult task or geographic location. As centuries or even millennia pass, the facts get distorted and embellished, and possibly bear little resemblance to the original tale. Nevertheless, they still provide intellectual and moral power.
Despite the fact that exaggeration and distortion may be inherent in these stories, legends are told as truth, not fiction. And, therein, lies their value - belief by the teller who reflects truths revered in the society. Such stories shed considerable light on a community's world view and values. And that's why our magazine deems them relevant as contemporary study.
Of course, it's impossible to fit all legends into one neat category. There are always exceptions. But, in general, you'll find that Azerbaijan's legendary heroes have flaws, they stumble, they cheat and are deceived themselves. But despite all obstacles, the protagonists always muster enough strength to struggle on until the end when they triumph. Usually they have a sacrificial attitude, willing to suffer for the benefit of the society as a whole [see stories like Sumgayit (51) and Farhad and Shirin (42)].
Many heroes are on a quest for independence, yearning for the power to make their own decisions, rather than to be controlled by outside forces whether it be political systems, economic overlords, religious impositions or even traditional family practices.
In Azerbaijan, legends pop up in some of the most unexpected places, where you least expect them - operas (33), poetry, proverbs, names (42) and even oil drilling equipment. The first refurbished semi-submersible oil rig already in use in the Caspian has been dubbed "Dada Gorgud." He's the wise old character who narrates the earliest known collection of stories and legends (20) that have been documented in Azerbaijan's literary history and which share elements with the Odyssey and Iliad of Ancient Greece (9th or 8th century B.C.).
It may seem strange that the name Dada Gorgud would be given to this huge manufactured, welded mass of steel whose sole reason for being is to penetrate the deep bowels of the earth underneath the sea and bring up resources to enrich our lives. But isn't that exactly what legends do for us, too, by enabling us to draw upon resources of the past to resolve circumstances in our lives today?
We need legends. We need hope. We need belief. Especially today, these tales provide sharp contrast to the patterns of discourse that Western media constantly dump on us, with their shrill call for alarm, their screams about pending crises, imminent violence and an Apocalypse that is surely just around the corner.
Legends offer us heroes who have already "been there, done that," as the saying goes. They inspire us to step forward in the dark with confidence. We hope this introduction to some of these legends will whet your appetite to search for more verbal lore amidst the vast treasures of this country.
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