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The diamond fund of Yakut poetry

On 24 November, Yakutia celebrates Olonkho Day, the national treasure of the Sakha people

25 november 2022

Seventeen years ago, on 24 November 2005, UNESCO declared the Yakut heroic epos Olonkho a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, recognising its great value to world culture. In honour of this event, Olonkho Day and the Olonkho Decade are celebrated annually in Yakutia.

The Olonkho is both the oldest epic art of the Yakuts and a heroic folk epic. The tales included in the Olonkho tell the story of how the universe works. At its centre is the World Tree, whose roots are in the Lower World, a haven for dark forces; the crown grows in the Middle World, where people live, and the branches point to the sky, where the deities of the Upper World live. The stories are about how the heroic forefathers of humans, who were banished from the Upper World, became the first inhabitants of the Middle World and managed to achieve a happy and wealthy life. And the Olonkho philosophy teaches: continue the human race, do good, share love and beauty with other people.

The heroic epos is performed in Yakutia by the folk storytellers, the olonkhosuts. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were several olonkhosuts in every Yakut settlement. They took no money for their performances, only the donation of food so as not to starve to death, although their 'work' was very, very difficult. All the tales had to be learned by heart—and each had an average of 10,000 to 15,000 lines.


The Olonkho has no musical accompaniment, so the olonkhosut does not have to rely on rhythm and melody for help. He alone acts in three roles—singer, actor and reciter—as the song sections alternate with speech sections in each tale. In essence, the Olonkho is a one-man theatre, where the olonkhosut skilfully portray different characters, sing and speak in the different voices of their characters. Therefore, the olonkhosut must possess outstanding talents, including expressive mimicry, the art of reincarnation and, of course, the gift of improvisation. After all, a true master could once have composed huge epic tales out of individual songs. Unfortunately, they all remain unrecorded. Only one masterpiece, Nyurgun Bootur the Impetuous, has been saved. Today it is the most famous of the Yakut Olonkho. It consists of 36,000 lines of verse, and was performed for seven days and nights.

Olonkho art is still alive in Yakutia today. Ysyakh has been celebrated here since ancient times, a festival dedicated to communicating with Heaven, whose symbol is considered by the Yakut people to be the Sun. Since the Olonkho was proclaimed a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, the Ysyakh Olonkho is also celebrated in Yakutia. The main festive activity is the olonkhosut competition. The importance of the Olonkho Ysyakh to the Yakuts is demonstrated by the fact that the right to hold it is transferred from ulus to ulus every year as a valuable prize.

To preserve the encyclopaedia of wisdom and poetry of the Yakut people, the Olonkho Centre holds festivals and conferences, organises seminars and master classes. The Scientific Research Institute of Olonkho within North-Eastern Federal University publishes Olonkho texts, studies the heroic epos and translates its masterpieces into other languages of the world. And during the Olonkho decade, dozens of events take place—competitions and festivals, performances, scientific and practical conferences, round tables, seminars, master classes and creative evenings.

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