...Until They Regain Their Wisdom: The Story of the Snake Goddess Şahmaran and the Man's Betrayal
Told by the guerrilla fighter Mehmet Nuri Ekinci
Myths and orally transmitted stories that have been passed down from one generation to the next for centuries are not only extremely exciting, but at the same time have a great deal to say about the actual history of the region. They can often be used to trace the slow transformation of social structures. This is a method that Abdullah Öcalan, for example, likes to use in his Defense Writings. And one of the myths to which he refers or whose illustrations can still be found on the walls of the houses of many families of Kurdish origin is that of Şahmaran. For this story deals with the role of the woman, who is initially respected as a natural deity and then, however, betrayed by the man. Snakes are also central to this story as a symbol. However, since the myth is very old, older than the Bible, the snakes are not yet suspected of betrayal here, but are themselves the betrayed.
I do not want to say too much about the myth, but leave it to the readers themselves to draw their conclusions. The following version was told by guerrilla fighter Mehmet Nuri Ekinci many years ago in the evening sitting around a campfire in the South Kurdish area of Behdînan. He himself had learned the story from his grandfather when he was a small child and played by himself on the slopes of Ararat, where the myth is said to have taken place.
Long ago, a widow and her three children lived in a small village in Mesopotamia. They earned their little money by selling the milk of some goats, which the old woman and her son Cîhan drove daily to graze on the plateaus of the nearby mountain. On some days when the old mother could not come with them, Cîhan, who was very popular in his village, went with his friends to the plateau. There they gathered various herbs and firewood to pass the time and prepare their own food and tea. Apart from this occupation, the small family had no other income.
One day, Cîhan went to graze with the goats alone. He had already been walking for a long time and the warm spring air did the rest, so that he lay down exhausted in the shade of a tree to rest. He dozed without losing sight of the goats. He watched a honeybee doing its work, always coming to disappear into a small hole in the ground in front of him. Shortly thereafter, it would reappear fully loaded and fly away, only to reappear in front of him shortly thereafter. He had become curious as to what might be in the hole. So he scrambled to his feet and took a small stick to enlarge the hole. To his surprise, there was an opening hidden behind it that was full of honey. He took a bottle from his pocket and filled it with the honey. When he had collected everything down to the last drop, he discovered a large round stone. It seemed as if the honey was welling up behind it. Gently at first, he tried to roll the stone aside, but his youthful strength was not enough. After several attempts, he gave up and decided to return with his friends.
The next day he returned with two friends whom he had told about his golden find, and together they managed to roll the stone aside. In doing so, they discovered to their delight that a deep cave was hidden behind it, which seemed to grow larger and larger the further they dug. This cave, like the hole discovered the day before, was also filled with honey. They shared the work. Cîhan took a bucket and went down to fill it, and the other two took it from him and decanted the liquid gold into containers they had specially brought that spring day. The day passed, and although they had already scooped vast quantities, the honey hardly seemed to have diminished. So they agreed that from now on they would come here every day to collect the honey and then sell it every evening to the inhabitants of the surrounding villages. It was wonderful honey with such a beguiling taste that no one had ever tasted it before. Cîhan joyfully told his mother about it and explained to her and his siblings that they would never have to work again, since the sale yielded enough for them to provide for the whole family.
After the friends had been living off the spring for many days and had already collected a lot of honey, the cave had already become very deep. It could no longer be entered without further ado. It was only possible to descend into the depths with the help of a rope. So one day Cîhan explained to his friends that he didn't think the long and strenuous walk out of the cave was necessary every day. Instead, he could stay down for a few days. They should only bring him enough water and bread every day. So they continued to extract even more honey every day and thus earn even more money.
After weeks of work, the honey was finally finished. The source, which never seemed to end, had dried up. When the last bucket was filled, Cîhan asked for the rope so that he could finally climb out of the cave again. But his friends, with whom he had never before experienced quarrels, but on the contrary had until then gotten along better than many brothers do, decided otherwise. The money had made them greedy, which is why they had forged a plan some time ago, which they now wanted to carry out. They wanted to cheat Cîhan out of his share. So instead of throwing him the rope as usual, they closed the cave with the stone they had rolled aside together weeks ago. They camouflaged the hole and left their former friend to his fate.
Once in the village, they told Cîhan's mother and siblings, feigning tears, that he had disappeared. They had searched for him forever and yet had not been able to find him. After the people from the village had searched for days and gradually given up, Cîhan's former friends gave the widow some money to comfort her. While their emotions gradually turned from deep sorrow to despair, Cîhan's cries for help went unheard in the locked cave, which was darker than the darkest night.
Trapped Cîhan slowly lost himself in his thoughts. He lost track of when night fell and when day broke. He constantly fell asleep, but without being able to really recover. He only thought about how his family was doing.
In one of those lost-in-thought moments, his eyes long since accustomed to the deepest darkness, he thought he spotted a scorpion sitting in his nest. He remembered the words of his grandfather, who had died many years ago. He had always told him to be careful when he sat on the ground, because scorpions liked to build their nests underground, but close to the earth's surface. If you sat on them, they would inevitably come out and sting you. Cîhan therefore felt hopeful that he had found a possible exit. He shooed the scorpion away from its nest and began to dig. He dug further and further until he finally felt the fine roots of the grasses between his fingers. With joy he made a small leap forward, but in doing so he stumbled and fell sideways into a shaft that he had noticed before. Thus he fell into a tremendous depth until he finally hit the ground hard and lost consciousness for some time.
When he gradually regained consciousness, he could hardly believe his eyes. He had landed in an incredibly sparkling and shiny place. Everything seemed as if it had been dipped in gold. But not only that. He looked around and discovered countless of the best fruits and vegetables, a clear flowing stream with ice-cold water, and much more that Cîhan had never dreamed of before. He looked around and noticed that only snakes seemed to inhabit this idyll. The sight of them amazed him as much as it frightened him. Fascinated, he hesitantly approached two large and beautiful snakes. They told him to follow them, which he did without much thought.
So they led him into a huge decorated hall, which seemed to be made only of gold. In the center stood a golden throne. On it sat a woman, but she was not a normal woman. From the head to the hips she was a human being, from there she had the body of a snake. On her head she wore a golden crown, decorated with snake heads. The beauty of the woman enchanted Cîhan, so that he did not wonder at all about all the snakes that had also come into the hall.
The woman introduced herself to Cîhan, saying that she was Şahmaran, the mistress of all snakes, the guardian of wisdom and all secrets. She told him that she knew his fate and knew about the betrayal of his supposed friends. At the same time she reassured him, "Don't be afraid, as long as I am here, the snakes will not harm you or anyone else." Cîhan was surprised and listened with pricked ears to what Şahmaran prophesied to him. Indeed, she went on and promised him that he would be allowed to stay for some time to recuperate. She even wished it, as she liked him very much. However, if he then felt the desire to return to the surface, it would be granted to him. And so it happened.
After some time, Cîhan had grown into a young man by now, he approached Şahmaran: "However much I love you, I miss my siblings and my mother. They have no one to take care of them. I beg you to let me join them." Although Şahmaran was not particularly keen on letting her beloved Cîhan go, she did not want to deny him his request: "I will let you go. But let me tell you this: I have seen that if I let you go, you will be the cause of my death. You will be the one to have me killed." Cîhan, however, shook his head, "Never. You took such good care of me, gave me everything. How could I kill you for that? On the contrary, even if it cost me my head, I would defend you." Şahmaran replied, "Of course, I know that you cannot know that this moment will come. But as I said, I promised you then to show you the way back, and I will keep my word." Cîhan rejoiced. He soon threw Şahmaran's words to the wind and forgot about them. He did not yet know that she was on top of everything and could also see into the future.
Before letting Cîhan go, however, she informed him, "There is a land of high pastures above which rises a great mountain. The people of this land go to the pastures every year and on a special day of the year they gather at a spring and celebrate together. Then they fill containers with milk and leave them. When they leave, all of us snakes come out, drink the milk, and retreat again. I want you to know that on that day dedicated to us, I will be there too." Finally, she told the snakes to bring Cîhan to the surface, thus granting him his wish.
When Cîhan returned to his village after such a long time, his siblings had grown up, his mother's eyes were blinded by grief and weeping, and his two treacherous friends had become rich merchants with the honey they had won. Cîhan entered the village, which had become strange to him, went to his family's house and knocked on the door. His mother opened and looked inquiringly at the supposed stranger with her dull white eyes. Before he could say anything, she fell into his arms, for she had recognized him. Her eyesight returned with joy and she saw that her son had grown into a handsome young man. Thus he gradually rejoined the village and began to take care of his family. The two who had betrayed him had to struggle hard with their consciences and showed remorse. So he decided to put what had happened behind him and forgive them.
While Cîhan was slowly returning to his old village, a great evil was developing far away. The old king of the country fell seriously ill. He summoned all the country's physicians and healers to the palace. Whoever could cure him was promised an unimaginable reward. However, whoever could not provide him with a cure for his illness would be beheaded. Many came, some because they were after the reward, many more because they were forced. One by one, their heads fell. All that remained was a cunning medical man. He knew that no remedy in this world could cure the king, so he came up with one from another world. He had heard stories about the legendary Şahmaran, whose body parts were said to have strong healing powers. So he went to the king and spoke that the only medicine that would be able to save him could be made from Şahmaran's body parts. He also told him that he had heard of a man in the country who knew where Şahmaran was. This one, he said, was marked by a mark on his back. So he recommended to the king to give the order that all men of the country had to purify themselves in the royal hamam. There they would recognize the one who bore the mark of Şahmaran. And so the desperate king followed the recommendation and had all the men of the land summoned to him in the royal hamam.
They were examined by him and the physician for the sign. But in vain, no one bore the mark, for no one had ever seen Şahmaran before. The king was furious and was about to have the physician led to the judgment block, but he remembered the remote villages in the mountains at the last second and so the king gave him one last chance and had his messengers sent. These soon learned of a widow and her family. They heard that their son had long been considered missing and had only recently returned to the village. So they searched for Cîhan, and when they found him, they took him to the royal hamam without informing him what it was all about.
He undressed unsuspectingly, exposing Şahmaran's golden mark on his back. The medic cried out loudly and the king had Cîhan arrested. It was immediately clear to him that they could only want one thing from him, namely to know Şahmaran's whereabouts. However, he refused to speak. Despite all the torture, he kept his word that he would rather lose his head than betray his beloved Şahmaran. Only when the king had Cîhan's mother and siblings brought to the palace and threatened to kill them did he weaken. With tears he revealed - what Şahmaran had prophesied to him - how once a year, after the beginning of spring, the inhabitants of the high pastures went to the described spring, filled the containers with milk, the snakes then came to the surface of the earth for milk, and that Şahmaran would be among them.
Thus, as Şahmaran had foreseen, Cîhan had betrayed her and had set in motion her death.
The king did not let much time pass, he made his preparations and waited for the day when he would be able to catch Şahmaran. Then he set out for the spring with his medic and a handful of his soldiers to ambush Şahmaran. The people gathered for the ritual, performed their prayers, distributed the milk and disappeared again. Then, one by one, just as Şahmaran had predicted, all the snakes came out, drank of the milk, and retreated back to their nests. Thus half the day passed until the king finally caught sight of Şahmaran. With her head held high and surrounded by her snakes, the guardian of wisdom and secrets went to the place of the ritual, when the trap snapped shut. Most of the snakes were killed before Şahmaran also fell into captivity. Her resistance and lamentation were ineffective against the men from the distant city. So she turned to the men, among whom was Cîhan: "I knew that you would betray me, but I will not resent you. Instead, let me say a few last words to my serpents." Without waiting for a response, she turned and now spoke directly to hers, "Turn around and go back underground. If I should return within nine days, let us forgive the people for their deeds and reward them richly. If, however, this should not be the case and I have not returned to you after nine days, then spread yourselves all over the globe, for then there shall be enmity between the serpents and the people until they have regained their wisdom."
So the men departed, taking Şahmaran with them, which they brought into the city like a wild animal in a cage. The king did not hesitate for long, he let go of all caution and had Şahmaran dismembered. In three different pots, Şahmaran's head, torso and abdomen were cooked respectively mixed with medicinal herbs. At first, the suspicious king made Cîhan drink from the broth from the pot with the boiled torso. Nothing happened. But from now on Cîhan was eternally plagued by remorse, since he had not kept his promise, betrayed his beloved friend and thus brought about her death. The king was furious and already thought that the physician had lied to him. The latter quickly grabbed the ladle and drank from the pot in which the head had been boiled. Suddenly the physician understood the languages of all the creatures and plants of the earth and could even foresee some events. However, this ability was not to bring him much luck. It took only a few days before the people of the city resented him, partly out of jealousy and partly out of a lack of understanding for his new abilities, and insidiously stabbed him in his sleep. The king, however, was impressed by the abilities the potion had given the medic, and now hoped that the third pot contained the liquid that would cure his illness. What he did not know, however - all the venom of a snake is concentrated in the tail of the animal. So what he drank was not the cure for his disease, but an even deadlier poison than people had known until then. No sooner did the broth wet the king's lips than he keeled over. Before his body hit the ground, life had already left him.
And thus this story, marked by betrayal and human weakness, comes to an end. The campfire where Mehmet had told the story had already burned down. Only the embers were left. No one said anything, for everyone's mind was still with the story of Şahmaran and Cîhan. Night had gradually fallen, and everyone slowly rose and went to sleep. Mehmet himself fell asleep with the question in his mind that he had always asked his grandfather after the story, even back then as a child: "How can we humans regain this wisdom?"
This article was first published in the May/June 2022 edition of the Kurdistan Report.