CASI Literature Week: “A Moveable Feast? The Horse as Companion and as Food in Central Asian Oral Literature”

CASI Literature Week: “A Moveable Feast? The Horse as Companion and as Food in Central Asian Oral Literature”

December 4, 2017

Literature Week is a part of CASI’s Workshop on Literature and History. Supported by a generous contribution from Matthew Nimetz, the aim of the workshop is to create a community of junior scholars and advanced graduate students committed to studying literature and to applying literary tools and methodologies to the study of literary art in the Central Asian past.

SPEAKER: Gabriel McGuire, Nazarbayev University

Abstract: The paradox of the horse in Central Asia is that it appear, at first glance, to simultaneously hold the place of ideal companion and ideal food. In Kazakhstan, the meat of horses above all other animals holds the highest value: its acquisition drives households to band together to collect the money necessary for its purchase; its presence at funerals, weddings, and seasonal celebrations mark these events as qualitatively different from everyday life. Yet in both legend and everyday life, the horse as companion can possess an individuality that blurs the boundary between the equine and the human. Horses can possess individual names, personal burial sites, exalted lineages, and even legendary biographies, as in the tales of horse herds whose descent is traced to a stallion that emerges from under the sea. The seeming intimacy of the horse and the human would appear to make the act of consuming horse-meat uncomfortably akin to cannibalism, creating challenges both for how horses are interacted with and how they are talked about. This paper pairs a survey of horses in oral literary source--epics, legends, folk tales, and proverbs--with ethnographic material from the south of Kazakhstin in order to elucidate the divergent ways in which the category 'horse' is conceptualized as horses transgress the boundaries between the edible and the inedible.

Bio: Gabriel McGuire, Ph.D. (2013) from the department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. He is currently an Assistant Professor in the faculty of Languages, Linguistics, and Literatures at Nazarbayev University. His research interests include the ethnography of village life and of folklore in Kazakhstan, and the relationship between oral and folk literary texts and the emergence of written literature.


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