Journey behind a Name: Reviving Circassian Mythology

I have often been questioned about my name in my home country. Every year, on the first day of school, all students looked the same; grey pants, striped shirts and maroon ties. But when roll call kicked off, I slid deeper into my seat and waited for the barrage of inquisitiveness from my teachers about my uncommon name. "Are you from here?" "Is your mother a foreigner?" "What does Merissa mean?"

My name is not only non-Arab, it is also pagan. In Jordan, an Arab and predominately Muslim country, it is a simple reflection of the diverse ethnic and religious groups; Armenian Christians, Arab Christians, Muslims Chechens and Circassians and others that make up Jordan's colorful social fabric. Pulled out of a book about ancient mythology of the Caucuses by my mother, my name carried me through a journey to dig deeper into my ancestral homeland and my Circassian roots.

The Circassians, an ethnic minority of around 100,000 people have lived in today's Jordan since the days of the Ottoman Empire, where they were expelled in the late 19th century from their ancestral homeland by Russian Tsarist troops. This homeland, known as Circassia covers the region between the Black Sea to the west, Caucasus Mountains to the south, Ukraine to the north and Chechnya to the east.

A century and half after their tragic defeat and agonizing expulsion on 21st May 1864, the Circassians continue to uphold their ethnic identity in their host communities in Jordan and elsewhere in the Diaspora including Syria, Turkey, Israel, Europe and the United States. It is through the romantic music and dance, evoking the virility of their ancestral mountaineer warriors and the poise of the women, that the Circassians have preserved the culture. However, beyond the dance, their rich history and inspiring mythology remain intimately known to a few scholars of the Caucuses.

Mythology Behind the Name

'Merissa', I discovered, was a powerful deity that protected the mountain bees from the wrath of thunder by hiding one bee in her sleeve, which later contributed to repopulating the bees in the forests. By protecting the bee species, 'Merissa' guarded one of the Circassians' principal items of "nourishment;" honey, which for her people, is also an integral article for their domestic economy.

This story is one of thousands of the mythology tales known as the Nart Sagas. Closely resembling the myths of ancient Greece, the tales of the Narts depict the heroism of the Circassian warriors, the wisdom and mystic allure of Circassian women and the prominence of justice and freedom as core values of their community. Part of an oral storytelling tradition, these tales proved to be crucial for the preservation of Circassian identity throughout history, particularly during trying times.

The Narts are the brave Circassian knights that are central to the myths. In one prominent tale, a swallow asked the Narts whether they prefer a short life with glory or a long life without it. Their response, which the story emphasizes was "as quick as thought itself," was: "If our lives are to be short, then let our fame be great, let us not depart from the truth, let fairness be our path, let us know no grief, let us live in freedom!" These values kept Circassian nationalism and morale alive during the vicious war of attrition the Russians waged against them in the 19th century. It is no surprise that 'Nart' remains to be the most popular male name amongst Circassians in different parts of the Diaspora. "I am proud of my name and its roots in spite of its unfamiliarity to some," notes Nart Pshegubj, a Circassian Jordanian cultural advocate.

Another key figure in Circassian mythology is the complex and "multi-faceted" Lady Satanay. Featured in many stories, Satanay embodies intelligence and sagacity, but also sorcery and prophecy. Having compared her to other female dieses, John Colarusso, renowned expert on the Circassians and author of the Nart Sagas from the Caucuses, deduces that "few traditions, either literary or cultural, afford women such a central position and such a high status as does that of the Caucasian Nart sagas." Today, Satanay remains another popular name in Circassian communities where women still hold high status. Mythology and Competing Identities

These gripping mythic stories are, unfortunately, largely unknown to most Circassians in the Diaspora, including youth, who often only identify with the mystical music to which they tiptoe dance with fervor and pride.

Jonty Yamisha, Chairman Emeritus of the Circassian Benevolent Association in New Jersey, believes this is due to "confusion between pagan mythology and the Circassians' Muslim identity." Most Circassians, for example, see the pagan stories depicting the 'god-like' knights or the goddesses of nature as contradictory with the Islamic core belief of Tawhid or oneness of God.

As "relics of a pagan time, and hence of an earlier mentality," the Nart Sagas "were meant as entertainment," Colarusso explains. "To confuse them with religion and to fear them now is like confusing a cartoon with the Qur'an or the Bible," he adds.

Another challenging reality linked to the general disavowal of mythology is that most Circassian youth, including myself, do not speak the language of our ancestors, through which thousands of tales were passed on from one generation to another. Language, says Colarusso, is the "medium through which a community conducts its life" and myth is the "medium through which that community will find its place in the world, both physical and spiritual." Reviving Mythology

At the Circassian school in New Jersey, which Yamisha co-ran for twelve years, there was discussion about how best to transmit the Nart Sagas. The Circassian-Muslim identity confusion was finally creatively settled by treating these pagan mythological tales as "fantastical episodes that were on par with super heroes from comic books." An adaptive approach to be replicated in other Diaspora communities.

Across history, mythology anchored the Circassian warriors in wartime, preserved a Circassian woman's position in society, and elevated justice and respect for human dignity as core values of the Circassian people. It is why, we, Circassians must revive these stories and adapt them to our times and reconcile the complexities of Circassian identity.

As beautiful and stirring as the Circassian dance and music are, they cannot remain to be the sole medium through which Circassians preserve their identity. The responsibility is ours, particularly the youth of today and the leaders of tomorrow to uphold our ancestral cultural heritage and let the pages of the Nart Sagas unfold.