Origin and synopsis of the epic
Dede Korkut is a heroic dastan (legend), also known as Oghuz-nameh among the Oghuz Turkic people, which starts out in Central Asia, continues in Anatolia and Iran, and centers most of its action in the Azerbaijani Caucasus. According to Barthold, "it is not possible to surmise that this dastan could have been written anywhere but in the Caucasus".
For the Turkic peoples, especially people who identify themselves as Oghuz, it is the principal repository of ethnic identity, history, customs and the value systems of the Turkic peoples throughout history. It commemorates struggles for freedom at a time when the Oghuz Turks were a herding people, although "it is clear that the stories were put into their present form at a time when the Turks of Oghuz descent no longer thought of themselves as Oghuz." From the mid-10th century on, the term 'Oghuz' was gradually supplanted among the Turks themselves by 'Turcoman' (Turkmen); this process was completed by the beginning of the 13th century. The Turcomans were those Turks, mostly but not exclusively Oghuz, who had embraced Islam and begun to lead a more sedentary life than their forefathers. In the 14th century, a federation of Oghuz, or, as they were by this time termed, Turcoman tribesmen, who called themselves Ak-koyunlu established a dynasty that ruled eastern Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq and western Iran.
The twelve stories that comprise the bulk of the work were written down after the Turks converted to Islam, and the heroes are often portrayed as good Muslims while the villains are referred to as infidels, but there are also many references to the Turks' pre-Islamic magic. The character Dede Korkut, i.e. "Grandfather Korkut", is a widely renowned soothsayer and bard, and serves to link the stories together, and the thirteenth chapter of the book compiles sayings attributed to him. "In the dastans, Dede Korkut appears as the aksakal [literally 'white-beard,' the respected elder], the advisor or sage, solving the difficulties faced by tribal members. ... Among the population, respected aksakals are wise and know how to solve problems; among ashiks [reciters of dastans] they are generally called dede [grandfather]. In the past, this term designated respected tribal elders, and now is used within families; in many localities of Azerbaijan, it replaces ata [ancestor or father]." The historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani (d. 1318) says that Dede Korkut was a real person and lived for 295 years; that he appeared in the time of the Oghuz ruler Inal Syr Yavkuy Khan, by whom he was sent as ambassador to the Prophet; that he became Muslim; that he gave advice to the Great Khan of the Oghuz, attended the election of the Great Khan, and gave names to children.
The tales tell of warriors and battles and are likely grounded in the conflicts between the Oghuz and the Pechenegs and Kipchaks. Many story elements are familiar to those versed in the Western literary tradition. For example, the story of a monster named "Goggle-eye" Tepegoz bears enough resemblance to the encounter with the Cyclops in Homer's Odyssey that it is believed to have been influenced by the Greek epic or to have one common ancient Anatolian root. The book also describes in great detail the various sports activities of the ancient Turkic peoples: "Dede Korkut (1000–1300) clearly referred to certain physical activities and games. In Dede Korkut's description, the athletic skills of Turks, both men and women, were described to be "first-rate," especially in horse-riding, archery, cirit (javelin throw), wrestling and polo, which are considered Turkish national sports."
(Titles given by translator Geoffrey Lewis.)
- Boghach Khan Son of Dirse Khan: tells the story of the miraculous birth of Boghach Khan, how he grew up to become a mighty warrior and earned a princedom, how his father Dirse Khan was tricked by his own warriors into trying to kill him, how his mother (unnamed) saved his life, and how he rescued his father from the treacherous warriors; Korkut arrives at the celebration and creates the story;
- How Salur Kazan's House was Pillaged: tells how the infidel (i.e., non-Muslim) Georgian King Shökli raided Salur Kazan's encampment while Kazan and his nobles were hunting, how Kazan and the heroic shepherd Karajuk teamed up to track down Shökli, how Kazan's wife Lady Burla and son Uruz showed quick-thinking and heroism in captivity, and how Kazan's men arrived to help Kazan defeat Shökli;
- Bamsi Beyrek of the Grey Horse: tells how the young son of Prince Bay Büre proved his worth and earned the name Bamsi Beyrek, how he won the hand of Lady Chichek against the resistance of her brother Crazy Karchar, how he was kidnapped by King Shökli's men and help captive for 16 years, and how he escaped upon hearing that Lady Chichek was being given to another man and how he won her back; Korkut appears as an actor in the story, giving Beyrek his name and later helping him outwit Crazy Karchar;
- How Prince Uruz Son of Prince Kazan was Taken Prisoner: tells how Salur Kazan realized that his son Uruz was sixteen but had never seen battle, how Kazan and Uruz were attacked by the infidels while on a hunt, how Uruz entered the fray and was taken captive, how Lady Burla reacted on realizing her son was in danger, how Kazan tracked down the infidels and how Uruz begged him to flee, and how Lady Burla and Kazan's men arrived and helped Kazan rescue Uruz; this story mentions three infidel kings: Shökli, Kara Tüken, and Bughachuk, who is beheaded;
- Wild Dumrul Son of Dukha Koja: tells how Wild Dumrul offended Allah by challenging Azrael, how Dumrul realized his mistake and found favor with Allah on condition that someone agree to die in his place, how Dumrul's parents refused to die in place but his wife agreed, how Dumrul asked Allah to spare his wife and how Allah granted them 140 years; Korkut commands that this story be kept alive by the bards;
- Kan Turali Son of Kanli Koja: tells how Kan Turali won the heart and hand of infidel Princess Saljan of Trebizond by bare-handedly defeating a bull, a lion, and a camel, how the Princess's father changed his mind and sent 600 warriors to kill him, and how the Princess helped Kan Turali defeat her father's men; Korkut also appears in the story as the storyteller at the wedding;
- Yigenek Son of Kazilik Koja: tells how Kazilik Koja is captured by the infidel King Direk of Arshuvan while trying to raid Düzmürd Castle on the Black Sea, how he was held 16 years, how his son Yigenek grew up not knowing his father was a captive, how Yigenek found out his father was alive and asked permission from Bayindir Khan to rescue him, and how Yigenek defeated King Direk after Bayindir's other men failed; Korkut shows up at the celebration;
- How Basat Killed Goggle-eye: tells how Basat was raised by a lioness and how Goggle-Eye was born of a human father and a peri mother, how the two boys were raised as brothers, how Goggle-Eye terrorized the Oghuz by demanding they continually provide young men and sheep for him to eat, how Basat was convinced by one of the Oghuz mothers to fight Goggle-Eye, and how Basat defeated Goggle-Eye in a fight that borrows heavily from the Polyphemus story in the Odyssey; Korkut plays a role in this story of the mediator between Goggle-Eye and the Oghuz;
- Emren Son of Begil: tells how Begil becomes warden of Georgia for Bayindir Khan, but is tempted to rebel after feeling slighted by the Khan; how he breaks his leg after being thrown from a horse while hunting; how Shökli learns of his injury and attempts to attack him; how Begil's son Emren takes his armor and leads Begil's men to defend him; how God answers Emren's prayer for strength and how Emren gets Shökli to convert to Islam; how Begil and Bayindir Khan are reconciled;
- Segrek Son of Ushun Koja: tells how Ushun Koja's elder son, Egrek, was captured by the Black King near Julfa and thrown into the dungeon of Alinja Tower; how Ushon Koja's younger son, Segrek, grew up not knowing about his brother's captivity until he is taunted about it by some boys; how Ushon Koja and his wife tried to prevent Segrek from going to find Egrek by marrying him; how Segrek refused to lay with his wife until he found out his brother's fate; how Segrek finds his way to the Black King's castle and fends off several attacks by the Black King's men, but is eventually overtaken by sleep; how the Black King promises to release Egrek if he will take care of this mysterious assailant; how Egrek and Segrek recognize each other, defeat the Black King's men and return home;
- How Salur Kazan was Taken Prisoner and How His Son Uruz Freed Him: tells how Salur Kazan was captured at Tomanin Castle in Trebizond; how he taunted the infidels and refused to praise them; how his son Uruz grew up not knowing about his father, and how he found out about his father's imprisonment; how Uruz led an army of nobles to rescue Salur Kazan; how they attacked the Ayasofia in Trebizond; how Salur was sent to protect the castle from the assailants, but learned who they were and did not kill them; how he and his son were reunited, how they attacked the infidels, and how they returned home;
- How the Outer Oghuz Rebelled against the Inner Oghuz and How Beyrek Died: How the Outer Oghuz rebel against Kazan Khan after feeling he had slighted them in favor of the Inner Oghuz; how Kazan's uncle Uruz, leading the rebels, tries to get his son-in-law Beyrek to join the rebellion, and how he kills Beyrek for refusing; how Beyrek is taken home, where he calls on Kazan to avenge him; how Kazan and his forces defeat Uruz, after which the surviving rebels surrender and reconcile with Kazan;
- The Wisdom of Dede Korkut:
Since the early 18th century, the Book of Dede Korkut has been translated into French, English, Russian and Hungarian. However, it was not until it caught the attention of H.F. Von Diez, who published a partial German translation of Dede Korkut in 1815, based on a manuscript found in the Royal Library of Dresden, that Dede Korkut became widely known to the West. The only other manuscript of Dede Korkut was discovered in 1950 by Ettore Rossi in the Vatican Library. Until Dede Korkut was transcribed on paper, the events depicted therein survived in the oral tradition, at least from the 9th and 10th centuries. The "Bamsi Beyrek" chapter of Dede Korkut preserves almost verbatim the immensely popular Central Asian dastan Alpamysh, dating from an even earlier time. The stories were written in prose, but peppered with poetic passages. Recent research by Turkish and Turkmen scholars revealed, that the Turkmen variant of the Book of Dede Korkut contains sixteen stories, which have been transcribed and published in 1998.
Dating the composition
The work originated as a series of epics orally told and transferred over the generations before being published in book form. There are numerous versions collected of the stories. It is thought that the first versions were in natural verse, since Turkish is an agglutinative language, but that they gradually transformed into combinations of verse and prose as the Islamic elements affected the narrative over time.
Various dates have been proposed for the first written copies. Geoffrey Lewis dates it fairly early in the 15th century, with two layers of text: a substratum of older oral traditions related to conflicts between the Oghuz and the Pecheneks and Kipchaks and an outer covering of references to the 14th-century campaigns of the Akkoyunlu Confederation. Cemal Kafadar agrees that it was no earlier than the 15th century since "the author is buttering up both the Akkoyunlu and the Ottoman rulers".[Note 1] However, in his history of the Ottoman Empire, Stanford Jay Shaw (1977) dates it in the 14th century.[Note 2] Professor Michael E. Meeker argues for two dates, saying that the versions of the stories we have today originated as folk stories and songs no earlier than the 13th century and were written down no later than the early the 15th century.[Note 3] At least one of the stories (Chapter 8) existed in writing at the beginning of the 14th century, from an unpublished Arabic history, Dawadari's Durar al-Tijan, written in Egypt some time between 1309 and 1340.
A precise determination is impossible to come by due to the nomadic lifestyle of the early Turkic people, in which epics such as Dede Korkut passed from generation to generation in an oral form. This is especially true of an epic book such as this, which is a product of a long series of narrators, any of whom could have made alterations and additions, right down to the two 16th-century scribes who authored the oldest extant manuscripts. The majority of scholars of ancient Turkic epics and folk tales, such as Russian-Soviet academician Vasily Bartold and British scholar Geoffrey Lewis, believe that the Dede Korkut text "exhibits a number of features characteristic of Azeri, the Turkish dialect of Azerbaijan".