kurdish folktales

Corduene folk tales are of the same root as Iranian lore. They contain motifs and settings common to tales told by Persian speakers and the peoples of Luristan, Azerbaijan, Gilan, and Mazanderan. The ones collected in Mohammed Hamasalih Tofiq’s Kurdish Folktales, are the result of ten long years of methodical collecting, done in the Sulaimani and Kerkuk regions of Iraqi Kurdistan. The plots unveil in surprising ways, and the values depicted weigh differently than in the tales of the West. They make for a rich and diverse reading.

The King of the East[1]

They say that a long time ago there was a merchant who had a daughter. The daughter was mad, and lest she harm anyone they locked her up in a room and gave her food and water through a window. Once the merchant packed up his goods and set out to trade in a distant country. He journeyed for a long time, and along the way he went and sat down by a stream to rest. He looked and saw something round floating down the stream. He pulled it out. It was a human head, of which only the bones remained. When he examined it closely, he saw that on the forehead it was written: “Although I am dead, I will have an offspring, and he is fated to kill forty men.” To himself the man said, “By God, I must hide this skull and not let the killing of those forty people come about.”

Then he got up, crushed it to smithereens with a rock, put the remains in a bag, and took them away. When he had completed his business, he went back home and put the bag on a shelf. One day one of the children picked up the bag from the shelf and took it to the mad daughter’s window. The girl grabbed it and ate some of the contents. Immediately she was cured and called out to her mother, saying “Why am I in chains in this room? I am not ill, and there is nothing wrong with me.”

They called a doctor, and he proclaimed her well. After a time the girl’s belly began to swell, and it was obvious that she was pregnant. She was examined, but it turned out that she had not done anything bad except to have eaten some of the pulverized fragments from the bag. The father knew in his heart that something extraordinary was going to happen, and after nine months and nine days the girl gave birth to a boy. The child grew in such an extraordinary fashion that when he was only five or six years old he had the intelligence and understanding of fully grown man.

The merchant also had a son who worked as a farmer. One day there was no one to take him his noon meal, and the child said, “I’ll take it.” Although they told him he was only a child and couldn’t do it, it was of no use. When he took the food to his uncle and they sat down together to rest, they saw a man carrying a burden on his back and headed toward them. “Uncle,” the boy said, “that man who is coming toward us is going to the judge in order to have a dream interpreted. He had a dream last night, and in his dream a ray of light from the sky fell onto their hearth. The judge will interpret it to mean that there is a jar of money under the hearth. When the judge is interpreting the dream he will try to play a trick and say, Was it our hearth? Meaning the judge’s. If the man says yes, by virtue of that word the jar of money will go under the hearth in the judge’s house, and they will get it for themselves. I’m going to call him because that’s not how it is supposed to be.”

“Uncle”, the boy cried out, “didn’t you have a dream last night?”

“Yes, I did”, the man said.

“In your dream did a ray of light come through the skylight in your house and fall on your hearth?” The boy asked.

The man was astonished and said, yes, that is how it was. How did you know? Uncle, said the boy, come, let me explain it to you. Your dream indicates that there is a treasure under your hearth. During the interpretation if the judge asks you if it was his hearth, say, No, it was our own hearth. Otherwise the jar of money will go under his hearth.

The man thanked him with skepticism and went to the judge.

When he got there he put down his sack of gifts and told the judge why he had come. Exactly as the boy had said, the judge asked him, was it our hearth? However, he said, No, your honor, it was our own hearth. The judge repeated his question again, but the man did not change his initial response.

“From whom did you learn this?” The judge asked, and the man told him about the boy.

“Go on your way, said the judge, for you have your treasure.”

Then the judge sent two men to the farmer. Before they went he said:

“He has a boy with him who is a seer and knows hidden things. Go, buy him from the farmer, and no matter how much he asks, give it to him. Then kill the boy. I’ll give you a sufficient reward.”

The men went to the farmer and explained to him what they wanted. He was confounded and said:

“He is my nephew. How can I do such a thing?”

The boy called to his uncle and said:

“Uncle, I am not your son, and I do not belong to you. Agree to sell me on condition that they give you my weight in money.”

One way or another, the uncle had to agree on condition that they give him the boy’s weight in money. They went off to the judge and got a lot of money with which they satisfied the man’s demand. They got the boy, but first he filled a sack with the money paid for him, gave the remainder to his uncle, and said good-bye. Along the way, when the men were about to kill him, he said to them:

“I’ll give you this sack of money, which is several times your hire. If you go to the judge and say you’ve killed me [the blade] will fall on your necks! Let me go, and I promise you I’ll leave this country, and you can tell the judge you’ve killed me.”

The judge’s men liked what the child said to them, so they took the money and set him free.

The boy went his own way through several cities and several countries until he reached the edge of a body of water. He looked and saw an old man who was busy fishing. He went up to him, greeted him, and said:

“Uncle, this is not your job. Why don’t you go home and rest? Why do you bother with the headache of such a task?”

“What can I do, my son?” The old man said. “I have no child or anybody else to make a living for me. I have no choice but to work hard in order for us to live.”

“Uncle,” said the boy, “I am a child who has nobody and nothing – neither father nor mother. I’d like you make me your son.”

This was just what the old man had been wanting, so he was very happy. He took the child home with him, and his wife was also very happy with him. The boy began interpreting dreams, telling fortunes, and doing that sort of thing and he made so much money that they became rich, and the old man and woman flourished. However, the old man stuck to his old habits and went out fishing every day. The boy kept saying “Father, it is a shame with us being so rich. Give it up!” But it was of no use.

One day he threw out his hook, and when he drew it in, there was a beautiful white fish on it. “By God,” said the old man, “this fish would be good for the king’s daughter. It is so beautiful she could keep it.” Putting the white fish in a pot of water, he took it to the king’s daughter.

Instead of thanking him and expressing her gratitude, she said quite frankly:

“This fish is male, and it can’t stay near me because it would be against religion for me to look at it.”

With these words the fish began to guffaw.

The girl got angry with the old man and him arrested and put in prison. Night fell, and when the old man didn’t come home, the old woman said:

“There are a thousand dangers he could have fallen into.”

However, the boy told her that the king’s daughter had detained him.  Early the next morning the boy took himself to the king’s daughter and begged her to release his father, but the girl said:

“I won’t release him until you tell me why that fish laughed at me.”

“It would be better for me not to tell you,” the boy replied. And he had an exchange of strong words with the king’s daughter.

Then the servants came and took him before the king. When the king asked why he had come, the boy said angrily:

“Your daughter had my father arrested. Now you give an order for his release. If you don’t, I’ll do to you what was done to the king of the east.”

“Now, my small son,” said the king, “tell me that the king of the east was and what happened to him. Tell me the story.”

“Your Majesty,” said the small boy, “the king of the east was a king of great might and power. He had a wife who was without equal for her knowledge and cleverness, and she was called Long-Tress. The king loved his wife very much.

The king also had a parrot he kept in a cage.

Early one morning the king got up and saw another parrot sitting on the cage, and the two parrots were chirping together. After a while the second parrot flapped its wings and flew away. The king’s parrot curled up and burst into tears.

“Parrot,” asked the king of the east, “who was that who came to you?”

“That was my brother, the parrot said. “He invited me to his wedding, but I, as you can see, am a prisoner in this cage. I began crying out of sadness.”

The king was quite moved and said:

“Parrot, if I let you go to your people, will you promise you’ll return to me? “‘

Swearing he would return, the parrot flapped his wings and flew away to his own country, where he attended his brother’s wedding. Then he asked his father for permission to leave. His father gave him an apple sapling and said:

“Anyone who plants this apple sapling in a pure state and waters it while in a pure state will get an apple, and anyone who eats it, no matter if he is eighty or ninety years old, will turn into a fourteen-year-old boy. “

Early one morning the king woke up, looked, and saw that the parrot had returned to his cage. The king rejoiced and welcomed the parrot back. The parrot in turn gave him the apple sapling, saying:

“My king, this is a gift from my father to you. Plant it thus and so in order for it to bear fruit. “

A few years passed, and the tree bore fruit. One night a violent wind storm knocked an apple from the tree, and just then a poisonous snake found it and bit into it.

The next morning that very apple was taken to the king, who said:

“Now, Long-Tress, divide it into two, and each of us will eat a piece to see whether the parrot is telling the truth that we’ll be young again.”

The king had a very wise and clever vizier who said:

“Long live the king. First let’s give a bit of it to an animal lest parrot has plotted against us.”

The vizier’s opinion suited the king, and a little of the apple was given to a sheep, which immediately dropped dead. The king ordered the parrot’s head cut off. Then his suspicions landed on his wife Long-Tress’s head as he said to himself, ‘One way or another, she has had a hand in this plot.’ And he gave an order for her to be killed too.

Now, there was an old man in the king’s city. He had young women to serve him, but he always found fault with them and in the end sent them away. Finally the old man got sick of living and decided to go eat some of the apple in the king’s house and rid himself of his headache.

When he ate the apple he immediately gave a shiver and became a fourteen-year-old boy. This became the talk of the town at the news spread far and wide. When the king heard about it, he realized that the first apple had been bitten by a snake, and in his grief and regret he turned into a wild boar, upon which the dogs were set and tore it to pieces.

“Now, king,” said the boy, “I swear by God that if you don’t release my father, I’ll do to you as was done to the king of the east.”

The king laughed and said:

“Small boy, your stories are nice. Come tell us another.

“King,” he said, “I am not a story teller. For the last time I’m telling you that if you don’t let my father go, by God I’ll do to you as was done to the hunter.”

“Tell me what happened to the hunter,” said the king.

“Your majesty,” he said, “Once there was a hunter. He had a very clever hawk with which he hunted. This hawk would grab any prey upon which it was set and not let go. On account of this hawk the hunter never returned empty-handed and for this reason he loved his hawk more than anything. One day in a parched and waterless desert, the water in his water bag spilled, and he got so thirty he almost went blind. After much searching for water, he chanced upon a waterfall and a pool. He looked and saw that yellowish water was dripping drop by drop. As he was about to go blind from thirst, it was hard for him to cup his hand, and it took him a long time to get a handful of water. He was just about to take it to his mouth when the falcon flapped its wings against him and made him spill the water.

“The man was very angry with the falcon, and when he filled his hand with water again, the falcon made him spill it just as it had done before. This time the man had had enough, so he grabbed the falcon and wrung its neck. Then he stepped back not far from the pool and looked. What he saw was a dragon lying there and-wouldn’t you know it? – The water wasn’t water; it was the dragon’s poison dripping into the pool. In a fit of regret the man sprouted two great horns and turned into a mountain ram. A hunter set his dogs on him, and they killed him.

“Yes, your majesty, by God I’ll do to you just as that hunter did if you don’t let my father go. The king sent for his daughter and asked her, “Daughter, why did you have this man arrested?”

“Father dear,” she replied, “this man brought me a fish that laughed at me. That’s why I had him arrested. And I told him that unless he told me why the fish was laughing I wouldn’t let him go.” The young boy said:

“Your majesty, I’ll tell her, but on condition that she must do whatever I say and not refuse me.”

The boy went through all the rooms in the palace, and in the daughter’s room he discovered a secret door leading underground. He asked the girl for the key.

The girl turned pale and said:

“I’ve lost it.”

However, her father forced her to produce it, and they opened the door and looked in. There were thirty-nine huge men inside. The small boy said:

“Your majesty, your daughter enjoys herself every night with these men but she tells my father that if the fish is male she can’t look at it!”

On the spot the king put a sword into the boy’s hand and said:

“Cut all thirty-nine of them into ribbons.”

He cut off all their heads and then, at the king’s command, he killed the girl. In this way the forty murders that were foretold on the forehead of the skull came true. The boy was well rewarded by the king, and he returned to his old grand mother, they lived happily ever after.

[1] from Kurdish folktales, collected by Mohammed Hamasalih Tofiq, translated by professor Wheeler Thackston, department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, Harvard University.


a Romanian translation of this story can be found here.


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