Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

A Mongolian Just-So Story


Please note: I have no doubt that this adaptation flouts all kinds of Mongolian storytelling conventions and adds, changes, or leaves out many details. The bare bones of this story were translated to me over lunch this past weekend, and I have retold them in the fairytale style familiar to me. Mongolian friends, if you have names or commentary to share, please feel free to do so.

Long ago, the world was not the cold and snowy place it is today. Instead of one sun in the sky, there were seven, and they scorched the earth with their harsh rays. The rivers held barely a trickle of water, the ground was dry and sandy, and the sheep and goats were always hungry because the grass was brown and dead. The people were hungry too; a starving sheep will not feed many people, even if you eat his lungs and his eyes and make soup from his intestines. The people were dying of hunger and thirst in that land baked dry by seven suns, but no one knew what they could do to make things better.

Finally, a young man stepped forward. He was the best archer in the land, but he was also very proud and arrogant. “I can solve this problem,” he bragged. “I will shoot the suns out of the sky, and then we will no longer live in a desert.”

The others laughed at his ridiculous boast. “You’re crazy,” they told him. “Shoot the suns out of the sky? That’s impossible.”

“I can,” he insisted. “In fact, I’ll bet that I can shoot every one out of the sky using only seven arrows. If I can’t, I will eat grass for the rest of my life. And I will cut off my thumbs, so that I can never draw another bow.”

Everyone laughed and said that they hoped he liked grass, but they all gathered to watch as the young man gathered his seven straightest arrows and strung his bow. The crowd fell silent as he knocked his first arrow. Even the earth held its breath, for there was no wind to send his arrows astray.

He let the first arrow fly, and it whistled high into the air and out of sight. For a moment, nothing happened. Then there was a great burst of light, and the first sun exploded into nothingness. The crowd erupted with a great roar as the explosion faded, and the world got a little darker and a little colder.

Again and again the young man took aim, and he time he loosed an arrow, another sun exploded and disappeared from the sky. The people cheered louder and louder, but the animals grew quiet, for they were watching too. They were glad to feel the world air cooler, but now there was only one sun left, and the world had gone quite cold. What would they do if there was no sun, and no light, and no heat?

But the young hunter had knocked his seventh arrow; he was aiming at the last sun, and he hadn’t missed yet.

As he drew back the string to fire, a bird shot into the air and flew in front of the sun. The arrow struck the bird’s long, lovely tail and split it in two. The arrow kept flying, but the bird had knocked it off course, and though it came very close, it did not hit the last sun.

The man cried out in anger, but the animals sighed with relief as they examined the wise bird’s split tail, which he would pass on to all nestlings, and they to theirs. The last sun was safe.

The crowd jeered, and the young man ran away to cut off his thumbs and eat grass, as he had promised. The people never saw him again, but several of them did notice a new creature running through the grass on the nearby hills, with long teeth and only four toes on each paw.

And to this day, the world grows cold with the light of only one sun, and the flesh of the marmot is still called хүүн мах, or “person meat.”


Author: everywherebuthome

Linguist. Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Expat in Mongolia. Writer. Scout, dancer, gymnast, equestrienne.

3 thoughts on “A Mongolian Just-So Story

  1. The young man’s name was Erkhii-mergen (Эрхий-мэргэн). Эрхий-мэргэн translated as pollex – sharpshooter. According to legend it was a great and very proud hunter.
    Proud Erkhii-mergen vowed to cut off his big toe (pollex) – the most important for an archer if he ever misses, and then go underground and only eat grass until his death.
    The arrow struck the bird’s long, lovely tail and split it in two. So there was a bird that we call as swallow.
    Marmots in Mongolia called tarbagan (Тарбаган).
    Хүү мах (huu mah) if translate from mongolian to english – boy meat, correct is хүн мах (hun mah) – person meat.

    I know a few variants of this story.

    Katelin, please tell us about the hunt for tarbagans, if that is possible with photos of hunter. For a man who looks at the action from the outside, it seems funny.

    • Thank you for the details and corrections! This story was related to me in a school cafeteria between bites of бууз, so I wasn’t able to hear the ‘n’ in хүн. (Also I’ve only been studying Mongolian for a few months, so mine is pretty terrible). And the telling I heard did not include names, so I’m glad to have them!

      Alas, I know no stories about hunting marmots. Is there somewhere that I can read Mongolian folk tales (in English) online?

      • Hunting for tarbagan is more like staging the play with a tragic ending, in which the main role is played by the hunter, and the viewer, who then paid the price for his curiosity – tarbagan. Hunter wears a white robe, animal ears and starts waving his arms and tail of the yak on a stick, jump and dance to far from sitting at the burrow animal. And Mongolian marmot, forgetting caution, instead of hiding in a hole, enthusiastically watching the strange white monster, which only this need and is slowly but surely creeping and dancing at a distance of Steady Shot …

        About mongolian folk tales – check gmail.

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