I’m consistently asked by strangers, “Do you know Manas?” It takes me a few seconds every time to realize that they’re not asking about a specific neighbor or colleague – but rather, they’re asking whether I’m familiar with the central figure in a half million-line epic poem that weaves myth and fact, culture and history. (Oooh, that Manas?) He might not be alive today, but Manas is a community member all the same.
The Manas Epic is the longest in the world: at 500,000 lines, it’s some twenty times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined, but the poem is not exceptional only because of its length; this traditional poetry also showcases the richness of the Kyrgyz language. The poem is a trilogy that follows the lives of Manas, his son Semetei, and his grandson Seitek. It begins with Manas’s parents, Jakyp and Chyiyrdy, who struggle to conceive a child; they eventually make it work (thank goodness) and Manas is born. Manas grows up to marry the beautiful, but also intelligent and highly skilled, Kanykei. He is killed before he sees the birth of his son Semetei. Semetei eventually marries Aichurek, and together they have a son named Seitek. A lot can happen over three generations – across these particular generations, the 40 tribes of ancient Kyrgyzstan are displaced and , and between the half-million lines, a person hears about epic battles and invasions as well as touching stories of family relations and the passing down of wisdom.
Though it exists in written form today, the Manas Epic has traditionally been shared in oral form by various singers over the centuries. Someone who performs the Manas Epic is called a манасчы, manaschy. The way of singing Manas is unique and quite hypnotic; men wave their hands and they sing/chant/yell in a way that I swear sounds like a spirit has entered their body. My host mom, Cholpon, tells me that this is exactly what happens when a true manaschy recites the poem – they don’t memorize Manas, per se, but rather open themselves up to have the words just flow from their mouth. Not just anyone can recite with that type of skilled/willed inspiration, and in fact, there are different degrees of manaschy status. The highest and most honorable is that of chong manaschy (grand manaschy). Grand manaschys from throughout history are well-respected today; the most famous manaschys have their faces on banknotes and have cities and streets named after them all over the country.
The characters that appear in the trilogy are also well-known – in addition to cities/grocery stores/restaurants/streets/everything being named after these people, it’s also still very popular to name babies after the most prominent characters in the epic. In any given class at school, there’s at least one kid named for someone in the Manas Epic. Parents name their kids in the hopes that they’ll grow into the personality of their namesake, so a baby named Manas should grow into a strong protector and a baby named Kanykei should become a clever and fierce woman. So maybe the real Manas and Kanykei lived hundreds (thousands?) of years ago, but their spirits continue to thrive.
All of this goes to show just how important Manas is to Kyrgyz culture – the poem preserves major historic events; it’s been a form of public entertainment for centuries; and it serves as a key symbol of Kyrgyz cultural identity. During our Peace Corps training last summer, a handful of volunteers (all men) learned how to recite Manas. Because of this, I thought manaschy status was only open to men. It wasn’t until a concert at the university in Jalal-Abad where two girls had a “Manas-off” that I saw women perform — you bet I’ve got it on my Kyrgyzstan bucket list to summon the manaschy spirit and recite a few lines.