First Year Course on Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan)
Mother is consistently used in the Secret History of the
Mongols in several ways, most often and most importantly as either a title
for Hö’elün, the mother of Genghis Khan, or as a simple
plot reference to somebody’s mother. The word is also used as a
metaphorical title for several natural elements- “Mother Onon,”
“Mother Earth,” and “Mother Sun.” The general
idea of mother is invoked, but never explicitly stated, in two instances.
First, as an insult from Güchülük Qan to describe his father,
Tayang: “That old woman Tayang is like a pregnant woman, who does
not go beyond her pissing place.” Secondly, it is used as an appeal
for unity addressed to Genghis Khan’s quarreling sons Jochi and
Cha’adai: “From her womb’s warmth did the two of you
not happen to be born from the self-same belly? From her womb’s
heat did the two of you not happen to emerge from a single womb?”
These instances, however, are unique and mother is usually used as a title
or as a reference.
The word mother carries, as do all words, a certain cultural
significance that is dependant on exactly which culture and time period
is being considered. In the Mongol culture of the 13th century, mother
conveys the dual meaning of a respected and necessary role that is nonetheless
relevant only within certain contexts. A mother is never mentioned for
the sake of being a mother, but in relation to other events. In a western
account of the same century, we can see that the role of mother is given
much less importance. Giovanni DiPlano Carpini, an Italian monk who travels
to Mongolia in the years following Genghis Khan’s death, never recognizes
the importance of Toregene, the regent of the region and mother to Cuyuc,
whom she installs as emperor. A modern western view of mother is well
displayed by the John Wayne film “The Conqueror,” in which
Hö’elün, treated very respectfully in The Secret History,
is depicted as a senile, batty, and old mother-in-law.
Ultimately, mother does not carry an enormous amount of historical significance. However, mothers did play some role. Hö’elün, as Genghis Khan’s mother and as the primary figure in his childhood surely had an impact on him in his formative years. Further on in history, after Ogodei’s death, the Mongol empire was ruled by queens, like Toregene, who exercised their power through their sons. In addition, mother plays a role in how we perceive the history of the Mongols. Because the author of the Secret History was most likely Shigi-Khutukhu, an adopted son of Hö’elün, the mother-son relationship dictated in part the manner in which the history is conveyed to us.
by Laura Buchholz