By Sabirzyan BADRETDIN

There is not a single child in Russia who doesn’t know who Baba Yaga, Kaschei Bessmertni and Zmei Gorinich are. They are the mythical characters of Russian folklore. In Tatar folklore, the name of Shurale is similarly well-known. This bogeyman is described as a human-like creature with a body completely covered by fur and a horn growing from the middle of his forehead. Shurale (Shoo - rah - leh , pronounced to rhyme with "sure, I lay") has long, bony pointy fingers with which he likes to tickle humans who are unlucky enough to have lost their way in the middle of the black forest (kara urman). Shurale patiently waits behind the trees for his victims. Once the abominable forest creature catches them, he usually tickles them to death.

There are many stories about Shurale that Tatar village elders (babailar) tell their grandchildren. One of them was re-told to me by my mother when I was a child:

In one village the local residents noticed that one of their horses regularly disappears every night and returns home early in the morning completely exhausted and lathered. They were totally flabbergasted by its mysterious disappearances. One day they decided to ask a local elder for help. The elder recommended covering the saddle of the horse with tar and letting it go. The next morning the people of the village were awakened up by ear-splitting screams. They looked out of their windows and couldn’t believe their eyes: On top of the horse, glued to the saddle there was a scary-looking dark creature that looked like a human being. The creature screamed at the top of its lungs. The village men caught the creature, who turned out, of course, to be Shurale, and killed him.

But the most famous story about Shurale was told by Gabdullah Tukai (Too - kai, pronounced to rhyme with "too high"), the greatest Tatar poet of all times. His poem "Shurale" belongs to the golden treasure trove of the Tatar literature. Probably, it is the most well-known Tatar poem in the entire 1000 year old history of the Tatar literature. Only Tukai’s other poetic masterpiece, "Oh, My Native Tongue!" can challenge that assumption. All attempts to translate "Shurale" are fruitless and will never succeed. People who are lucky enough to be able to read it in the original are truly blessed. The heart of any Tatar fills with warmth when he reads the magic words:

"Nek Kazan artenda bar der Ber avel - Kerlai diler..." (Near Kazan there’s a village, Known to people as Kerlai)

In Tukai’s poem, a young handsome woodcutter decides to go to the forest to get some wood. He prepares his horse-drawn cart and leaves the village of Kerlai late in the evening. Once in the forest, he fells a few trees and puts the timber on the cart. One of the pieces appears to be too big. In order to split it in half, the man puts a wedge into a slit in the log and starts hitting it with his ax. Suddenly he sees a horrible-looking furry creature with long fingers and a horn in his forehead. It is Shurale!

"Hey, young man," says Shurale, "why don’t you put your instruments down and play a tickling game with me?" The boy politely refuses but after Shurale’s demands become more insistent, he finally agrees. But he agrees to it under one condition: that at first Shurale will help him split the log. "Put your fingers into the slit in the log and pull it apart while I drive the wedge in," says the young man cunningly.

When Shurale reluctantly agrees, the young woodcutter, instead of driving the wedge in, suddenly drives it out with a few strokes of the ax. Shurale’s fingers get stuck in the log. The creature begins to scream and yell, threatening the boy with all kinds of punishments and then imploring him - all to no avail.

The young man, without paying the slightest attention to Shurale begins to leisurely prepare his terrified horse for the ride home. When he is finally ready to leave the forest, Shurale asks him desperately: "Oh you, cruel man, tell me at least what your name is, so that I know who to take revenge on!" The young man, before striking his horse with a whip, finally turns to Shurale and tells him with a wink: "My name is Belter!" (literally, "Last year")

The next morning, the forest kin of the Shurale gather around him and ask him why he is screaming so loud. The poor creature responds to them: "Oh! My fingers! Last year! (belter)" The other shurales start laughing at the hapless relative and scolding him: "You fool! Why are you screaming now if the accident happened last year?"

The poem "Shurale" inspired composer Farid Yarullin to write the music for the ballet "Shurale" (libretto by A. Faizi), which was staged for the first time in 1945. It has become one of the most popular Tatar ballets of all time.

E-mail: irek@moris.ru