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First Year Course on Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan)

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Eat

Nadaam feast in Mongolia painted by L. Dar'suren, 1967
Mongolian forms:
Cyrillic
идэх
Classical

Latin

idekü

Literary Analysis

In The Secret History the meaning of the word is straightforward. It is almost always used in a literal sense, exemplifying that this person was eating and then from that deriving other ideas. Very few of these ideas are metaphorical, and even then the word itself remains literal while the situation that arises is one of metaphorical background, usually involving social status and hierarchical importance within Mongol society. For example the story of Bodonchar's alienation from his family exemplifies both aspects. In paragraph 26 it says:

"When he was without food, he would lie in wait and kill wild beasts that wolves had cornered at the foot of the cliffs and shoot and kill them. Together with the hawk, he would pick up and eat what the wolves had left behind. So as the years passed, he nourished both his own gullet and the hawk's."

(The Secret History Para. 26)

On the other hand visual entertainment, especially television and movies, often tries to brighten things up, make them more spliendid. this is tru to some extent in the Chinese series on Genghis Khan. Although the series remains faithful to the story itself, there are a few embellishments, wherein common feasts trun into elegant banquets with dancers and eloquent speeches.

Cultural Significance

The relationship between food and status is exemplified many times in many different sources. For example, Jack Weatherford's book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, gives us insight into the importance of what a tribe ate and its role in tribal hierarchy when describing Hoelun's adaptation to Yesugei's clan and her new life after the kidnapping:

"She was accustomed to the abundant and rich diet of meat and milk offered by the life of the steppe. By contrast, the small tribe of her new husband subsisted on the northern edge of the herding world, where the steppes pushed up against the wooded mountains, without enough grassland to feed large herds. She would now have to eat harsher hunter's foods: marmots, rats, birds, fish and the occasional deer or antelope."

(Weatherford, pp 13)

The relation between food and relationships is most strongly seen in the marriage feast and the ritual of sworn brothers. The "sheep's - neck feast" as it was called, was named so because the meat from the sheep's neck was eaten by the couple to be wed, in the hopes that their union would be as tough as the meat of a sheep's neck. In the ceremony of swearing brotherhood, the two men eat "the food that is not to be digested" (a mixture of gold dust dissolved in a small amount of liquid) in order to show the permanence of this bond between them.

Historical Significance

The historical aspects of "eat" in Mongol society range anywhere from the hierarchy in relation to the serving, the importance of the organization of the army, the building of cities, and even who was the stronger, more fit opponent in a war.

Violation of the hierarchical serving pattern could, and did, result in conflict. Night guards, the most highly respected in Genghis Khan's army were in charge of caring for the food. Even in warfare the Mongol diet played a large role, the diet of meat and milk (pure protein) made them stronger, more energetic, and able to endure more than their largely grain fed opponents.

 

More Information

E-mail me: kbarber@macalester.edu

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