Olonkho
Yakut Heroic Epos
 

The term “Olonkho” refers to the texts of numerous Yakut poetic tales. Olonkho belongs to the oldest epic arts of the Turkic-Mongolian peoples. It is performed in the Sakha Republic, situated in the north east of the Russian Federation.

This epos is the major poetic genre of the Yakut and is a means of education. The length of the poetic tales varies from 10-15 lines to 20 000 lines, the longest amounts to 50 000 lines. It describes Yakut beliefs, shamanism and customs, interpreting them and explaining different elements of life and consists of numerous legends about the deeds of ancient booturs (warriors) and the epic memory of the nation. As oral literature, Olonkho has great moral power and is closely linked to shamanic folklore. Its content reflects the period of tribal society desintegration and describes a vivid mythology with deities, spirits, evil monsters and a range of animals and birds. It also reflects the socio-economic way of life of a small nation struggling for survival at times of political constraint and in unfavourable climatic and geographical surroundings.  

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Each community had its own narrator with a rich repertoire and thus Olonkho circulated in numerous versions. The tradition was developed within the family context and was the best entertainment during the long winter evenings. Speeches are performed in the form of a song; descriptive and narrative extracts are recited at a quick pace. The narrator must be an actor, a talented singer and master of eloquence, perfect in poetical improvisation.

Before the Second World War there were over 400 known performers. The political and technological changes in twentieth-century Russia threatened the existence of the Sakha epic tradition by not supporting or preserving it. Olonkho was prohibited during the soviet and post-perestroika years. The narrative tradition is also being lost due to rapid urbanization, the decline in the national culture of the Yakut community, and the ageing of the older generations of olonkhohuts.  Today, the epic environment is being lost due to language changes, social and historical factors and the development of writing, printing, radio and television.