Magically Strong Women in Central Asian Wonder Tales and Heroic Tales

By Veronica Muskheli,


In contrast to European folktales, Central Asian folktales more regularly feature women who by their magic are physically stronger and more skillful than men in hunt and war. Do those tales champion feminist values as claimed by some researchers? The answer is qualified. As in the European tradition, most tales of strong women in the region are of Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) Type 519 Strong Woman as Bride (Brünhilde). The tales are narrated from a male’s point of view with the hostile bride losing her magical strength upon marriage to the hero subsequent to her defeat by the hero’s magical helper. Uniquely, however, in Central Asian wonder tales and heroic tales, the supernaturally strong hostile bride is often won by the hero’s supernaturally strong female relative in male disguise, a daughter, or a younger sister, or in that polygamous environment, one of the hero’s wives or other brides. As unusual as it appears to be in the world oral tradition, the motif of a female relative as a magical helper of the suitor in ATU 519 is a very common motif in Turkic tales, not reflected, however, in Thompson’s Motif Index.

This female relative, interestingly, also loses her magic powers once the hero marries. Just as uniquely, those tales are often narrated from the female relative’s point of view. While the strong woman image appears to be permitted provided she performs her feats on behalf of her male relative(s), the persecution of the helper motif characteristic of Type 519 is frequently employed to punish the heroine; this punishment can be only interpreted as that for entering the male sphere of action. The strong but punished heroine allows for reconciliation of her image with the patriarchal context of the society. So in general I view those tales as expressing a need to control female power and to punish females for using that power. There is, however, an exceptional wonder tale type, apparently not known in Europe either that I call Woman’s Magical Horse and identify as a truly feminist voice in the Central Asian oral tradition. In this tale, narrated from the female protagonist point of view, most of the heroine’s actions are on her own behalf—often she escapes an unacceptable marriage to a monster, and when she marries a man of her choice, her supernatural powers in the form of a special connection with a magical horse extend beyond her marriage. Moreover, the attempts of the husband to strip her of her power are cast as wrong not only because they make the heroine and her son(s) vulnerable to the persecution by evil forces but because the husband too is punished for claiming her magical horse and condemned to wandering for many years searching for his family. By today, I have encountered five published versions of this tale spread over a considerable geographic area: two from Mongolia, one from Kalmykia, one from Kazakhstan and in the Far East, one from the Nanai tradition. From my studies, I conclude that the range of attitudes towards women in Central Asian folktales, at least in those available to me—mostly as translations into Russian, is wider than in the European tradition with discourse on gender issues reflecting what I interpret as more insistent creative arguments for, on one hand, women’s subservience, and on the other hand, for their equality.