The Book of Dede Korkut

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The Book of Dede Korkut


A heroic epic set in Central Asia and Asia Minor in the eighth to the thirteenth centuries; probably written down in the fourteenth or fifteenth century; published in Turkish (as Kitab-i Dede Korkut) in 1916, in English in 1972.


Twelve tales depict chivalry daring, and heroism among the noble men and women of the Oghuz Turks.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Takes Place

The Epic in Focus

For More Information

The Book of Dede Korkut tells the stories of Bayindir Khan, leader of the Oghuz Turks, and his circle of lords and ladies as they battle enemies, free captives, and fall in love. The Oghuz were a federation of Turkic tribes who would become the ancestors of the modern Turks, as well as other Turkic peoples (such as the Azeri and the Turkmen who settled in the regions of Azerbaijan, Northern Iran, Iraq, and Turkmenistan). The Book of Dede Korkut differs from a typical epic and in some ways defies classification. Instead of following the adventures of one hero or one family though a number of different trials, the episodes each focus on one of several different families of the Oghuz nobility, giving the work a collective (rather than an individual) hero. In addition, the narrative uses a combined form of verse and prose typical in Turkic oral narrative but rare in the Western epic. The episodes, although each a distinct story, are united by a common framework and a consistency of tone. Like all heroic epics, this one describes a legendary age populated by larger-than-life-characters. The text looks nostalgically back on the heroic days of the nomadic warrior Oghuz, when “the nobles’ blessings were blessings and their curses were curses, and their prayers used to be answered” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 59). Originally the tales would have been told and sung by a minstrel (ozan) accompanied by a stringed instrument called a kopuz. Sometime in the fourteenth or fifteenth century the stories were collected and written down by an anonymous scribe. The manuscript subsequently disappeared from the annals of history. Lost for hundreds of years, one version was found in the Dresden library in 1815, while a shorter manuscript with only half of the stories was found later in the Vatican library. First published in Turkish in 1916, The Book of Dede Korkut is considered by many to be a national epic of the Turkish people. The work is accepted worldwide as a masterpiece of folklore and has been honored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) as one of the world’s cultural treasures. It has furthermore been recognized as a repository of ethnic history and foundational values and customs of the Turkish people.

Events in History at the Time the Epic Takes Place

Layers of history

Originally oral tales, sung for hundreds of years before being written down, the stories in The Book of Dede Korkut refer to two distinct periods in the history of the Oghuz. The first period covers approximately the eighth to the eleventh centuries, when the Oghuz lived in Central Asia, in the region of the Syr Darya and Amu Darya Rivers (in present-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan). At that time their enemies were other Turkic tribes, such as the Kipchaks and the Pechenegs. The second period is set during the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, after the Oghuz had migrated westward to a region that includes today’s Azerbaijan, Northern Iran, and Eastern Turkey. There they fought against local enemies such as the Byzantine Greeks, the Georgians, and the Abkhazians. In the stories, this second layer of historical context is superimposed on the first: the reader thus finds Georgian kings with Turkic names from the earlier period (such as the evil King Shokli) and Central Asian rivers (such as the Emet) flowing through the plains of Turkish Anatolia. The stories represent life in an imaginary Oghuz homeland, which combines various elements from the real places that the Oghuz lived.

After leaving Central Asia, the Oghuz federation divided into several branches, such as the Turcoman, the Seljuk (who led the way into Anatolia in the eleventh to twelfth centuries), and the Osmanli (who founded the Ottoman empire at the end of the thirteenth century). As the influence of Persian and Arabic literature grew, emerging literary forms, such as Ottoman lyric and religious poetry, became increasingly prominent (see Leyla and Mejnun , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Liter atures and Their Times, for an example of a Turkish adaptation of a traditional Arabic tale). The Turks developed a sedentary culture, and heroic oral narrative, presumably connected to former nomadic social forms, became associated with the legendary past.

The written version of the epic adds two more layers of historical context. Although the stories were taken from oral narrative, the scribe who selected these specific tales and wrote them down left his own traces in the manuscript as well. Numerous quotes from the text show that the scribe comes from a culture that considers the Oghuz customs antiquated. For example: “In the days of the Oghuz the rule was that when a young man married he would shoot an arrow and wherever the arrow fell he would set up his marriagetent” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 68). Place names, vocabulary, and cultural references help narrow the time of the work’s composition. Although no one knows the exact date that the stories were first recorded, from clues in the text, Geoffrey Lewis and other scholars have argued that the manuscript was written down in the sphere of the Turcoman White Sheep (Ak-koyunlu) Empire, which ruled in Northern Iran, Northern Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Eastern Anatolia from 1378–1508. The White Sheep dynasty claimed Bayinder Khan as their ancestor, and thus would have had particular reason to tell the heroic adventures of these Oghuz leaders. The manuscript found in Germany has references to the Ottoman Empire that place the existing copy in the sixteenth century, most likely recopied from a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century version. In retrospect, The Book of Dede Korkut, retold and rewritten over hundreds of years, reflects Turkic culture as it changed and developed.

The Oghuz way of life

The Oghuz lived nomadically, traveling on horseback as they moved their sheep from summer to winter pastures. They housed themselves in tents made of thick felt on a collapsible wooden frame, portable quarters that were easy to disassemble and carry. Although there were several hundred thousand Oghuz, The Book of Dede Korkut, like most heroic epics, describes only the aristocratic few who lived in sumptuous tents with “golden smoke holes” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 53). The Oghuz not only herded sheep, horses, and camels but also carried out raids against their enemies, taking both plunder and captives. At times they also acted as paid mercenary guards for Arab and Persian merchants. Such a way of life was fraught with danger; consequently values such as bravery, loyalty to family and tribe, and the ability to fight were highly esteemed.

Although constantly on the move, Oghuz society had a well-organized structure to it. The people were a confederation of 24 tribes divided into two branches, which the text refers to as the “Inner” and “Outer” Oghuz. Each tribe had a territory (yurt), which was ruled over by a lord called a Bey. A council led by a head Bey administered each of the branches, and a joint council led by a grand Bey, or Beylerbeyi, administered a confederation of the two branches. A Great Khan, or king, presided over the entire structure. In The Book of Dede Korkut, Bayindir is the Khan of all the Oghuz, and his son-in-law, Salur Kazan, is the Beylerbey.

Originally the Central Asian Oghuz subscribed to a religion with a strong reverence for nature. The religion is often classified as shamanist, a faith whose adherents believe nature is a gateway to the spiritual realm and whose shaman-priests use music and other devices to communicate with that realm. Over time the Oghuz encountered Islamic societies to the south and by the eleventh century the Oghuz had converted to Islam, although they infused into their practice of the new faith many elements of their pre-Islamic past, such as ceremonially giving a young man his name only after he had performed a valiant act: “In those days, my lords, until a boy cut off heads and spilt blood they used to not give him a name” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 60). Contrary to the beliefs of many about Islamic societies, the one featured in The Book of Dede Korkut allows the drinking of wine and kumis (fermented mare’s milk). If the stories are an indication, drinking wine was a common pastime in Oghuz culture, although then, as now, it often led to foolish acts. The Oghuz were monogamous, and Oghuz women were very active; in The Book of Dede Korkut they are shown riding, wrestling, and even taking part in battle.

The Epic in Focus

Plot summaries

Each of the stories in Dede Korkut focuses on an individual hero and his family. The first story, “Boghach Khan Son of Dirse Khan,” begins with Dirse Khan and his wife praying and doing good works in hopes that they will be blessed with a child. They have a son who grows up so strong that he can wrestle a bull and who is given the name Boghach (means “bull”) by Dede Korkut. Dirse Khan’s private warriors become jealous of Boghach and slander him, prompting Dirse Khan to shoot his son in the back with an arrow and leave him for dead. When her son does not return home, his mother goes out looking for him, finds him, and heals his wounds with flowers and breast milk. The 40 warriors, worried that they will be punished when Dirse Khan finds out the truth, kidnap Dirse Khan and take him to enemy territory as a captive. Boghach’s mother implores him: “My lord, my son, arise! Take your [own] forty warriors, and deliver your father from those forty cowards. Bestir yourself, son; if your father showed no mercy to you, Do you show mercy to your father” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 38). Boghach bravely rescues his father and after a tearful embrace they return home. A great feast is held where Dede Korkut sings a tale of the heroes of this adventure, and Bayindir Khan grants Boghach a principality.

“How Salur Kazan’s House Was Pillaged” describes how Salur Kazan, the Beylerbey of the Oghuz, drinks too much wine and takes the Oghuz out on a hunting trip, leaving his family at home unprotected. The evil King Shokli takes advantage of the situation, pillaging Salur Kazan’s house, stealing his property, and kidnapping his mother; his wife, Lady Burla the Tall; and his son, Uruz. The infidel army also tries to steal his sheep, but is repelled by a brave shepherd, Karajuk, who destroys the infidels by shooting goats at them with his giant slingshot. When Salur Kazan returns, Karajuk informs him of the tragedy. Salur Kazan gathers a huge army of Oghuz and attacks the infidels, killing the evil King Shokli in a bloody battle and saving Lady Burla, Uruz, and his mother. After they return home, Salur Kazan holds a great feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of the heroes of this adventure.

“Bamsi Beyrek of the Grey Horse” is a longer tale that combines a number of different subplots. The story begins when one childless couple is granted a son and another a daughter, and the babies are betrothed in the cradle. The boy reaches 15 and proves his valor by protecting a merchant caravan from an infidel raid. He is given the name Bamsi Beyrek by Dede Korkut, who sings,

May God Most High give him good fortune.

Your pet-name for your son is Bamsa

Let his name be Bamsi Beyrek of the grey horse.

I have given him his name; may God give him his years.

(The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 63)

One day while out hunting, Bamsi Beyrek comes to the camp of Lady Chichek, his betrothed. She tells him that “Lady Chichek is not the kind of person to show herself to you … but I am her serving woman. Come, let us ride out together. We shall shoot our bows and race our horses and wrestle. If you beat me in these three, you will beat her too” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 64). After the competition, she reveals her identity and they pledge themselves to each other. Bamsi Beyrek goes to his father and asks to marry her, but it turns out that she has an insane brother named Crazy Karchar who kills all her suitors. Dede Korkut is sent to negotiate, which he does, taming the wild brother with a host of fleas. On the eve of his wedding, Bamsi Beyrek and his soldiers are captured by enemies and whisked away for 16 years. Meanwhile, the unscrupulous Yaltajuk falsely reports Beyrek’s death and becomes engaged to Lady Chichek. Hearing about the wedding, Beyrek escapes with the help of an infidel


Although almost certainly not the author of these stories, the character Dede Korkut is one of the most interesting figures in them. Combining the attributes of seer, wise man, tribal elder, and religious leader, he gives young men their names, advises the Oghuz, and intercedes in difficult situations (such as bargaining with the Cyclops). At the end of each story he is depicted as the minstrel who chronicles the tale, playing on a threestringed instrument called a kapuz.

The figure of Dede Korkut (or “Korkut Ata”) is known throughout Central Asia and seems to have been a real person. Historian Rashid al-Din (d. 1318) describes a Dede Korkut who was a ninth-to-tenth-century statesman and diplomat, noting that he gave advice to the Great Khan of the Oghuz, that he gave names to the Oghuz children, and that he lived for 295 years (the historian considered legend to be a historical source). Dede Korkut is known, in his religious or shamanic role, as protector of epic singers and inventor of the kopuz. People also came to see him as a popular saint who could be called on for assistance. Synthesizing attributes of a shaman and Muslim saint, the figure of Dede Korkut achieved near cult status in Central Asia, where tales about him abound. His legendary tomb is situated on the banks of the Syr Darya river in Kazakhstan.

princess, who makes him promise that he will return and marry her. Returning home in the disguise of a minstrel, he is recognized by Lady Chichek and prevents the wedding from taking place. However, he cannot marry his betrothed, for he must return to the enemy kingdom, free his captive warriors, and honor his promise to marry the infidel princess. All this he does. The story ends with a huge wedding feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of the heroes of this adventure.

In “How Prince Uruz, Son of Prince Kazan, Was Taken Prisoner,” Salur Kazan laments to his son Uruz that “You have not drawn bow, shot arrow, cut off head, [or] spilled blood” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 89). Uruz retorts, “When have you ever taken me to the infidel frontier, brandished your sword and cut off heads? What have I seen you do? What am I supposed to learn?” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 90). Salur Kazan agrees and takes his son off on an educational hunting trip. On the trip they are attacked by a huge infidel army and become separated. Uruz fights bravely but is taken captive. Angrily thinking that his son had run off to his mother, Salur Kazan returns home to Lady Burla, who furiously demands to know what happened to her son. Trying to avoid the wrath of his wife, Salur Kazan tells her that the boy is out hunting. He then goes to raise an army to rescue him. Realizing her husband is lying, Lady Burla and her 40 maidens ride out to help free Uruz by joining Salur Kazan in the battle. Lady Burla strikes down the enemy standard and Salur Kazan’s army defeats 15,000 infidels in a huge battle. Uruz is freed; husband, wife, and son embrace; and the Oghuz go home with their plunder. After they return, Salur Kazan holds a huge feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of these heroes.

“Wild Dumrul, Son of Dukha Koja” diverges from the typical plot to center on a religious mother. The tale features a man named Wild Dumrul, who will fight anybody. When a warrior falls ill and dies, the man, Wild Dumrul, asks who the murderer was—Azrael (the angel of death in Islamic belief), he learns. Not realizing that his adversary is Death, Wild Dumrul naively asks, “And who is this person you call Azrael, who takes men’s lives? Almighty God, I conjure you by Your Unity and Your Being to show me Azrael, that I may fight and struggle and wrestle with him and save that fine warrior’s life” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 108). God is not pleased and sends Azrael to take Wild Dumrul’s soul. Wild Dumrul begins to fight, but then realizes Azrael’s power. Claiming that he was drunk and knew not what he was saying, he begs Azrael not to take his soul. Azrael tells him to ask God, since it is God who takes souls, and he is only God’s servant. Wild Dumrul retorts, “Then what good are you, you pest? Get out of the way and let me talk to God Most High” (The Book of Dede Korkut,p. 111). Thereafter, Wild Dumrul asks God to take his soul directly, without involving Azrael. God is pleased, and tells Wild Dumrul that he can live if he can find someone to die in his place. Wild Dumrul first asks his father, who refuses and tells him to ask his mother. His mother also refuses. Giving up, Wild Dumrul finds his wife, bequeaths her all the property, and tells her that if she loves anybody, she should marry him. She refuses the offer and asks to give her life as sacrifice in place of his. Wild Dumrul asks God to either take both him and his wife together or to leave them both alive. God then orders Azrael to take the lives of Wild Dumrul’s parents, and Wild Dumrul and his wife live another 140 years. Thus, Wild Dumrul’s parents are punished for not being willing to sacrifice themselves for their son, while he and his wife are rewarded for their devotion to each other.

“Kan Turali Son of Kanli Koja” is the most romantic story of the collection. Kanli Koja wants to marry off his son, but his son has very high standards for a wife:

Before I rise to my feet she must rise; before I mount my well-trained horse she must be on horseback; before I reach the bloody infidels’ land she must already have got there and brought back a few heads.

(The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 117)

After much searching, a suitable girl is found, the daughter of the infidel king of Trebizond. Kan Turali rides off to the infidel Byzantine castle, where he has to defeat a lion, a bull, and a savage black camel to win the hand of Princess Saljan. Refusing to go to the bridal tent before he has received his parent’s blessing, Kan Turali heads for the land of the Oghuz with his betrothed. The infidel king regrets giving away his daughter and sends an army to attack the betrothed couple while Kan Turali is sleeping. Caught off guard, Kan Turali fares badly in the fight and Princess Saljan saves him, which leaves him furious that he has been shown up by a woman. He threatens to kill her, whereupon she promises not to boast about saving him, but still he is furious. Annoyed, she proposes they settle the matter with their bows. She shoots first and fails to kill him only because she does not remove the tip from her arrow. Realizing that they really love each other and do not want to kill each other, they embrace and reconcile. Returning to the land of the Oghuz, they hold a grand wedding feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of these heroes.

“Yigenek Son of Kazilik Koja” returns to the subject of capture and rescue. One day when Bayindir Khan has a feast, Kazilik Koja drinks some wine and decides to raid an infidel castle, leaving a baby son, named Yigenek, at home. Kazilik Koja is captured and imprisoned by the infidel King Direk, who wields a half-ton mace, a war club with a spiked metal head. When he is 15, Yigenek sallies forth with an army of Oghuz nobles to rescue his father, but all are defeated by the half-ton mace. Yigenek prays to God, and then is able to withstand the mace and kill King Direk. When Kazilik Koja asks who freed him, Yigenek reveals himself as his son and they joyously embrace. The Oghuz plunder the king’s castle and return home to have a great feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of the heroes of this adventure.

The next story, “How Basat Killed Tepegöz,” is a variation on a familiar theme of the world’s epics. The first part of the tale concerns a baby who is lost and raised by a lioness. When the child is found, he is returned to his father, Uruz Koja (not to be confused with Salur Kazan’s son Uruz), but the boy attacks horses and sucks their blood. Dede Korkut explains to the boy that he needs to act like a human and gives him the name Basat (means “attack-horse”). Sometime later, a shepherd traveling with flocks of sheep happens upon a peri (a flying supernatural being) and rapes her. A year later she comes back and leaves a baby with only one eye on the top of its head, a Cyclops. Calling it Tepegöz (“eye on top”), Uruz Koja brings the child home, but the baby Cyclops bites the noses and ears off his playmates and is driven out of the house. Because Tepegöz, the Cyclops, starts attacking and eating many people, Dede Korkut strikes a deal to provide Tepegöz with two men and 500 sheep daily. Returning from a military campaign, Basat learns of the monstrous behavior of his “brother” and goes to his cave to fight him. Basat blinds Tepegöz with a spit and tricks him, finally beheading him. The Oghuz rejoice and have a great feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of this hero.

In “Emren Son of Begil,” the warrior Begil falls off his horse and breaks his leg, but in his embarrassment tells no one. Finally, his wife hears him groaning in his sleep and begs him to let her know what the matter is. He tells her, and she tells her slave-girl, who tells the gate keeper, and thus, “what came out past thirty-two teeth [is] broadcast to the whole encampment” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 155). Soon the evil King Shökli finds out and orders his army to attack and plunder Begil’s lands. Getting wind of the plan, Begil tells his son, Emren. Emren dons his father’s huge suit of armor, jumps on his father’s horse, and sallies forth to defeat the invaders. The infidels recognize Begil’s horse and Begil’s armor, but see that the person in the armor is much smaller than Begil. Realizing that it is a boy, the infidel warriors taunt him, but he bravely taunts them back. Emren falls into hand-to-hand combat with King Shökli, who is much stronger than he, so the boy calls on God to help him. God orders Gabriel to give Emren the strength of 40 men and he defeats King Shökli. “Mercy, warrior! What do you call your religion? I accept it,” says Shökli, who converts to Islam (The Book ofDede Korkut, p. 160). After witnessing this, the infidel army flees, and Emren and his father return home to a sumptuous feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of this hero.

“Segrek Son of Ushun Koja” is another capture-and-rescue story. Caught during a raid, Egrek, the older son of Ushun Koja, is thrown into a dungeon. His younger brother, Segrek, finds out that Egrek is captive, then vows to go and save him. Wanting to keep Segrek home, his parents get him a lovely bride, but he refuses to enter the bridal tent without having freed his brother. Finally his parents give Segrek their blessing, and he rides off to rescue his brother. On the way, he falls asleep in a park that belongs to the enemy king. The king sends 60 men after him and he drives them off, after which he is again overcome by sleep. The king sends 100 men after him and he drives them off, after which he again falls asleep. The infidel king summons the captive Egrek and tells him that if he kills this crazy warrior, he will win his freedom. Seeing the young man asleep, Egrek recognizes that he is an Oghuz and asks him to identify his clan and his parents. Segrek reveals his name, and they realize they are brothers and embrace. Together they defeat the enemy soldiers and then round up all of the horses and drive them home. Their parents rejoice, and Dede Korkut sings a tale of these heroes at their double wedding.

“How Salur Kazan Was Taken Prisoner and How His Son Uruz Freed Him” describes how Salur Kazan is tricked by a falcon sent to him by the Byzantine king of Trebizond. The falcon flies away and leads Salur Kazan to the land of the enemy, where he is captured and thrown into a pit. His son Uruz grows up and, upon discovering that his father is a captive, sets off with an army of Oghuz nobles to free him. On their way, they capture a citadel. The infidel king decides to give Kazan an army and sends him to kill the invaders. Not recognizing him, Uruz charges his father, Kazan, and wounds him in the shoulder, at which point Kazan declaims:

Summit of my black mountain, my son!
  Light of my dark eyes, My son!
  My hero Uruz, my lion Uruz, Spare your
white-bearded father, son!
           (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 180)

Uruz recognizes him, and kisses his father’s hand. Together with the nobles they rout the infidel army and return home to a sumptuous feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of these heroes.

“How the Outer Oghuz Rebelled Against the Inner Oghuz and How Beyrek Died” describes a breakdown of relations within the Oghuz. Once every three years Kazan lets both branches of the Oghuz nobles pillage his tent and take anything they wish. One year, he lets the Inner Oghuz pillage his tent before the Outer Oghuz arrive. The Outer Oghuz nobles are outraged at being slighted, and they swear enmity to Prince Kazan. Uruz Koja (the Bey of the Outer Oghuz) invites Bamsi Beyrek, his son-in-law, to join the rebels in an effort to test his loyalty. Beyrek refuses to rebel against Kazan, and Uruz kills him. Kazan and the Inner Oghuz come to the Outer Oghuz to avenge Beyrek’s death. In the ensuing fight, Kazan kills Uruz Koja. The Outer Oguz nobles beg Kazan’s forgiveness, which he grants, and Uruz Koja’s house and lands are pillaged, after which there is a feast where Dede Korkut sings a tale of the heroes.

The final chapter, “The Wisdom of Dede Korkut,” does not fit thematically or culturally with the rest of the stories. Probably it was added by the Turcomen White Sheep and Ottoman authors. The chapter lists sayings attributed to Dede Korkut, including a prophecy that the Ottoman Empire will rule until the resurrection. Most of the sayings are proverbs, such as “unless one calls on God, no work prospers; unless God grants, no man grows rich” (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 190). Ending the section is a satirical description of “the four types of wife”—the pillar, the withering scourge, the ever-rolling ball, and the one who does not listen—figures that have no relation to the heroic females portrayed in the epic (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 191).

Cultural values in The Booh of Dede Korkut

The Book of Dede Korkut promotes such healthy ideals as loyalty and self-sacrifice, respect and love between family members, and bravery and heroism. Considerable space in the individual narratives is actually devoted to the transgression of these values, particularly the pitting of father against son, husband against wife, brother against brother, and even a bloody civil war in which the hero, Bamsi Beyrek, is murdered by his own father-in-law. What is remarkable about the epic is the stability, confidence, and adaptability of the social order it describes. The Oghuz heroes are able to express and resolve transgressions of highly cherished values such as family loyalty and to preserve the whole.

Many of the conflicts involve families and their children. Sometimes fathers do not fulfill their duties to safeguard their families but make poor decisions that lead to the families’ capture (as in “How Salur Kazan’s House Was Pillaged”); other times, fathers make poor decisions and themselves are captured (as in “Yigenek Son of Kazilik Koja”). In most of the stories the selfsacrificing heroism of a husband, wife, son, mother, or brother leads to the happy reunion of the members of the family and the festive reintegration of the family into society. Some of the stories relate very serious betrayals, such as when Dirse Khan shoots his son in the back and leaves him for dead (“Boghach Khan Son of Dirse Khan”). However, the conflicts are all successfully resolved. Voluntary self-control, seen as the overcoming of such harmful passions as rage or vengeance against a member of one’s family (Boghach Khan and his mother must overcome any feelings of anger against Dirse Khan), helps the Oghuz overcome their familial conflicts. So does conscious re-channeling of aggression (such as when Lady Burla transforms her anger against her husband—for losing track of their son—to anger used productively to help free her son in “How Prince Uruz Son of Prince Kazan Was Taken Prisoner”). Strong and enduring bonds of love between family members help them to understand and forgive, and family harmony is seen as the greatest happiness. In similar fashion, bonds of loyalty and affection in larger society overcome anger, as when the Inner and Outer Oghuz are able to reunite without damage to the social structure, even after many on both sides have been killed.

As a cultural narrative, Dede Korkut can be seen as a set of directions for behavior, showcasing challenging situations that place stress on family and social relations but give examples of ways to repair them. There is an underlying assumption that all people, even Oghuz nobles, make mistakes, but mistakes are forgivable if everyone shares a common belief in the importance of family and social bonds. It is perhaps the very use of oral narrative as a way to continuously tell this society about itself—integrating the past and the present, and resolving contradictions in the varieties of experience encountered—that kept the integrity of Oghuz culture whole even as it moved through time and space. Unsurprisingly the narratives changed as they were retold, but importantly the newer and older elements (such as Islamic and pre-Islamic beliefs) are blended rather than set against each other, showing a strong tendency to synthesize differences, adapt to new situations, and resolve conflicts. It may be this ability to adapt and forgive, rather than the perceived warrior ethic of riding into battle, “cutting off heads, and spilling blood,” that is the real heritage of The Book of Dede Korkut (The Book of Dede Korkut, p. 161).

The women of Dede Korkut

Although the Turkish intellectual Ziya Gökalp wrote optimistically that “the ancient Turkish women were all amazons,” the image of the woman in Dede Korkut is more complicated (Gökalp, p. 8). In the epic, the female figures are highly individual, perhaps even more so than the men, but they are not all “amazons.” While it is true that Princess Saljan bravely cuts down enemy soldiers to save her husband (in “Kan Turali Son of Kanli Koja”), it is Begil’s wife in “Emren Son of Begil” who foolishly leaks the information that her husband’s leg is broken, prompting an attack by an enemy king. More often, though, women show extreme loyalty to and a willingness to sacrifice for their husbands, such as Wild Dumrul’s wife, who offers to die in his place. Additionally, it is important to note that although wives are loyal to their husbands they are not dominated by them. The women in The Book of Dede Korkut freely confront their husbands, as Lady Burla does when Salur Kazan returns without Uruz. In no case is a woman ever punished for speaking her mind or chastising her husband. Although no historical documents describing the position of women in this society have been found, the similar treatment of women in other Turkic epics and tales, as well as the high status of women in traditionally pastoral nomadic societies of today’s Central Asia, testify to the legitimacy of the descriptions in The Book of Dede Korkut.

Often giving good advice or getting their husbands out of trouble, women are clearly respected in Dede Korkut. The majority of the women depicted are wiser than their husbands and have an equal capacity for heroic and selfsacrificing behavior, although they do not act in all the same spheres. Women, for example, do not go hunting with the men, nor do they go on raids to pillage the infidel, or take part in the men’s wine-drinking parties, which inevitably lead to disaster. But, as far as we know, they are free to drink wine at the feasts that follow the heroic acts. Also it seems that, like Lady Chichek, they can hold their own in shooting, racing, and wrestling. It is doubtful that all Oghuz women were such able sportsmen, but given the Oghuz way of life, they probably needed to be able to ride and to defend themselves against enemy raiders.

Sources and literary context

The Book of Dede Korkut is only one example of a vast oral tradition still alive in Turkic regions of China, Central Asia, Siberia, Northern Iran, Northern Iraq, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Oral literature of many varieties continues to be performed throughout the Turkic world. Huge epic cycles such as the Kyrgyz Manas (with over a million verses), as well as romantic minstrel tales sung in Anatolia, are only two examples of this living tradition. Like Dede Korkut, many of these narratives are comprised of mixed prose and verse forms, and employ the same themes, legends, and characters. Other adventures of characters from the epic—including Bamsi Beyrek, Salur Kazan, and Dede Korkut—appear in songs, folktales, and legends of several Turkish-speaking peoples of Central Asia and the Middle East. Moreover, this set of Oghuz stories (Oghuzname) was apparently not the only one of its kind. A fourteenth-century historian refers to another such work, indicating that there were more written collections of Oghuz legends at the time. However, The Book of Dede Korkut is the only one that has survived into the present.

The Book of Dede Korkut also fits into the broader epic tradition, which includes heroic tales from all over the world, such as the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf the Indian Ramayana, and the Finnish Kalevala. Heroic epics share many qualities: they all refer to a legendary past age; they all recount feats of strength and daring in battle; and they all champion moral goodness and selfsacrifice. Many epics share common themes, such as the fight against a monster. Scholars have been especially intrigued by the close relation of the story of Tepegöz to the story of Odysseus and the Cyclops in Homer’s Odyssey. Some scholars argue that the Homeric story somehow found its way into the Turkic version; others argue that Homer took the story from an earlier tradition circulating in Asia Minor.

Impact of the epic

Although The Book of Dede Korkut was discovered in Germany in 1815, it was lost to the Turks until 1916, when the first edition of it was published in Istanbul. Its timing could not have been better. Dropped into a vigorous intellectual climate surrounding the demise of the Ottoman empire and the birth of the Turkish Republic, The Book of Dede Korkut had an enormous impact. In 1920, sociologist Ziya Gökalp published The Principles of Turkism, a small volume which was vital in shaping and defining a new concept of Turkish nationalism as it was being formulated by the emerging Republic. Seeking to overcome the devaluation of Turkish culture during the Ottoman era, Gökalp urged intellectuals to read The Book of Dede Korkut, the “Iliad of the Oghuz,” as a source for pure Turkish language, culture, and values (Gökalp, p. 90). Citing especially their show of Turkic strength, optimism, and family ties, and their active, unveiled women, Gökalp held up the Oghuz as models for modern Turks. His emphasis on the oral narratives of the Turks (such as The Book of Dede Korkut) stressed the importance of their pre-Islamic heritage in Central Asia over that of the acquired Islamic culture of the Persian and Arab peoples.

Since the early twentieth century, The Book of Dede Korkut has been reprinted in Turkey in many scholarly and popular editions. Noted twentieth-century writers, such as Yaşar Kemal and Latife Tekin, have incorporated themes and motifs from The Book of Dede Korkut into their novels (see Kemal’s Memedy, My Hawk , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). A recent essay (“Women Who Save Their Husbands From Difficult Situations in The Book of Dede Korkuf) in a Turkish women’s-studies journal shows the enduring interest of the epic for Turkish women. Folklorists in Turkey and abroad are still debating and discussing aspects of the epic. In Soviet and post-Soviet Azerbaijan, many scholars have used studies of it to rediscover and discuss Azeri culture. More than five centuries after it was written down, in the year 2000, the Director General of UNESCO declared The Book of Dede Korkut a protected Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity (a reference to oral lore), confirming the work’s importance to both Turkey and the world.

—Anna Oldfield Şenarslan

For More Information

Başgöz, Ilhan. “The Epic Tradition among Turkic Peoples.” In Heroic Epic and Saga. Ed. F. Oinas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

The Book of Dede Korkut Trans. Geoffrey Lewis. Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin, 1974.

Chadwick, Nora, and Victor Zhirmunsky. Oral Epics of Central Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Gökalp, Ziya. The Principles of Turkism. Trans. Robert Devereux. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968.

Güneli, Gün. “World Literature in Review: Turkey.” World Literature Today 57, no. 4 (autumn 1993): 886–87.

Güngör, Seyma. “Women Who Save Their Husbands From Difficult Situations in The Book of Dede Korkut” Kadin Araştirmalari-Dergisi/Journal For Woman Studies 2, no. 2 (2000): 25–47.

Hasluck, Frederick William, Christianity and Islam under the Sultans. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 1929.

Hickman, William. “Traditional Themes in the Work of Yaşar Kemal: Ince Memed” Edebiyat 5, no. 1: 55–68.

Lewis, Geoffery. “Heroines and Others in the Heroic Age of the Turks.” Women in the Medieval Islamic World. Ed. Gavin Hambly. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Matsuura, Koichiro. “Speech to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).” Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University, Lubbock. 5 May 2000. (30 May 2002).

Sümer, Faruk, Ahmet Uysal, and Warren Walker.