Monday, 30 January 2012

‘Keeka rika’, Epic Circassian War Songs, Heroic Chants, Ballads for the Brave, and British ‘Jingoism’

[Адыгэхэм зауэм къыщаIэта кIий макъхэр; лIыхъужьхэм яхуауса уэрэдхэри усыгъэхэри]

Keeka rika”, the blood-curdling Circassian battle-cry[1]

‘All this was bad enough: still it might have been borne, had it not been that I was favoured with a visit from the jackal, whose cry was so melancholy, shrill, and fearfully wild, that, when numbers howl in concert, which was, unfortunately for my slumbers, the case, it is sufficient to shake the nerves, even of the most stouthearted, who hears them for the first time.

‘It is singular that the war-cry of the Circassians is an exact imitation of the howl of this animal; and, when screamed at the same moment by thousands, is the most fearful, unnatural, and intimidating yell, ever uttered by a people in presence of an enemy. The Russian officers assured me, that so paralysing is its effect upon troops who hear it for the first time, that they are rendered incapable of defending themselves.

‘Nothing short of actual representation can convey any adequate idea of the impetuosity of a Circassian charge; to the very bravest European troops it must be absolutely terrific, being executed literally with the rapidity of lightning, accompanied with a frightful war-cry, resembling, as I before observed, the scream of a jackal: such also is the admirable training of horse and rider, that I daily witness feats of horsemanship, even by the meanest soldier, far superior in dramatic effect to any public equestrian exhibition I ever beheld in Europe, appearing almost impossible for the human body to execute. For instance, a Circassian warrior will spring front his saddle to the earth, plunge his dagger into the breast of the horse of his enemy, again vault into the saddle; then stand erect, strike his adversary, or hit a mark, almost at a hair’s breadth, with his light gun: and all this while his horse is proceeding at full gallop.’ — Edmund Spencer,Travels in Circassia, Krim Tartary, & C. Including a Steam Voyage down the Danube, from Vienna to Constantinople and round the Black Sea, in 1836, London: Henry Colburn, 1837 (2 vols). Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 20 December 2011). [Also available on Google Books]

The dementing howl

‘It was assuredly a most exciting scene to behold these brave peasants, armed with every species of weapon—bows, arrows, javelins, muskets, sabres, make the hills around reecho their frightful war-cry, eager for the fray.

‘This war-whoop of the Circassian warriors is indeed terrific, somewhat resembling the howl of a pack of jackals; so startling and earthly, that it is said to have caused insanity in some persons who heard it for the first time. We can easily imagine the panic it might spread among an army composed of the ignorant and superstitious peasants of Russia, surprised in some lonely glen or defile of the Caucasus by a band of these infuriated mountaineers, all yelling their war-cry, as they are accustomed to do when they commence an attack.’  Edmund SpencerTurkeyRussiaBlack Sea and CircassiaLondon: Routledge, 1854, pp 306-7. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 20 December 2011).

Berserkers raging amok

‘The reader may therefore picture to himself the resistless impetuosity of a headlong charge of these flying horsemen of the mountains, sweeping like an avalanche on some devoted body of their country’s foes beneath them,—at the same moment making the heights around reecho with their fearful war-cry, discharging their carbines with terrible effect on coming to close quarters, while the stout staves of the Cossack lances that oppose their course are severed like reeds, by the vigorous and skilfully-directed blows of their admirably tempered blades. They will cut their way through an entire battalion, throw a whole column into disorder, and then as suddenly disappear through the yawning portals of some mountain gorge, or beneath the everlasting shadows of their primeval forests—before the smoke of their last volley, or the dust raised in their wild fray, has cleared off—and before their panic-stricken foes, in spite of their most strenuous efforts, have been able to bring their artillery to bear on the fierce band of guerrillas, who, although coming upon them and disappearing with the rapidity of a clap of thunder, leave yet a memento of their prowess behind them in the scattered bodies of their enemies that everywhere cover the ground.’  Edmund SpencerTurkeyRussiaBlack Sea and CircassiaLondon: Routledge, 1854, pp 363-4. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 23 December 2011).     

War songs

The words (in English) and sheet music (arranged for the pianoforte) of a war song of the Circassians in the 19th century during their long war against the Russians was documented by Edmund Spencer (2005, pp 234-40; available on Google Books).


Raise, oh raisethe banner high!
Arm! arm all, for Attéghéi!
Guard the valley, guard the dell,
Hearth and home, farewell, farewell!

We will dare the battle strife,
We will gladly peril life;
Death or liberty’s the cry!
Win the day or nobly die!

Who would fly when danger calls?
Freemen’s hearts are freedom’s walls;
Heav’n receives alone the brave—
Angels guard the patriot’s grave!

Beats there here a traitor’s heart,
Duped by wily Moscov art,
Who his land for gold would give?
Let him die, or childless live!

Hark! oh hark! the cannon’s roar!
Foe meets foe, to part no more!
Quail, ye slaves, ‘neath freemen’s glance!
Victory’s ours! advanceadvance!

Epic balladeers

‘Circassian bards composed many kinds of songs. Heroic and epic songs were sung in honour of champions who accomplished great feats. Every nation needs its ample share of heroes and conquerors, and this genre provided young warriors with ideals to aspire to. After each famous battle, a descriptive song was composed. The song of Andeimirqan (Андемыркъан), the hero who championed the cause of the poor, a Circassian Robin Hood, stands out as a classic. His exploits inspired Sheibler to compose a cantata ‘Andeimirqan’ in his honour in 1939. Heroic songs were based on wonderful poetry and beautiful tunes, and their structure was very close to song-poems and ballads.
‘Heroic songs were closely associated with songs of praise, usually composed to immortalize feats of war. Heirs, kinsmen or friends of great warriors who fell in battle commissioned bards to expound their heroism. When a minstrel finished composing a ballad, he sang it first in the presence of connoisseurs who acted as censors and editors. It was only when the panel of experts pronounced its judgement in favour that the song was promulgated. The following poem is an account of the heroism of Prince Yelgheroqwe Qanoqwe (Пщы Елгъэрокъуэ Къанокъуэ), potentate of all the Beslanay (Беслъэней; a tribal offshoot of the Kabardians), in one of the myriad wars between the Circassians and their mortal enemies, the Crimean Tatars and Kalmyks:

An arrow bolted from the Hero’s bow,
Shimmering across the sky,
Presaging certain death to the Khan,
And his inimical black swarms.
His dutiful steed Yemish,[2]
Crushed the skulls of the Kalmyks
With his mighty hooves,
Laying myriad corpses all around.
The Tatar vanguard,
 Witnessing such a carnage,
Took to its heels,
Consumed with fear.

After his demise, he was survived by
His one true friend: his Sabre.’

— Amjad Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A HandbookLondon: RoutledgeCurzon (Taylor & Francis); New York: Palgrave and Routledge, 2001, p227.

Vocal manifestations of British sympathy with the Circassian cause:

by Archer Thompson Gurney[3]

SONS of Circassia, for battle prepare!
The flags of the despot are flaunting the air:
The Czar and his Russians our souls would enslave;
Up then, and on them, the young and the brave!

These mountains were made for the valiant and free:
To the home of the eagle no vulture may soar; —
Let our war-shouts be heard like wild blasts o’er the sea,
Let our falchions be bathed in the enemy’s gore!
Ay! infancy, manhood, and age shall unite
To baffle the spells of the blood-wading Czar;
His locusts our fields and our harvests may blight,
But their hosts shall be quench’d in the red flames of war.
Sons of 
Circassia, for battle prepare!
The flags of the despot are flaunting the air:
The Czar and his Russians our souls would enslave;
Up then, and on them, the young and the brave!

Ye children of beauty, our spirits’ delight,
Ye maids of our mountains, oh, join in our cry! —
Bid those lovers who woo ye rush far from your sight,
Till beneath their red falchions the enemies die!
Then, hail them with smiles, and with whispers of bliss,
Let the valiant, the conqueror sink in your arms!
And remember, the cry of Circassia is this, —
First the foe’s gleaming sword, then the maid’s heavenly charms!

Sons of 
Circassia, for battle prepare!
The flags of the despot are flaunting the air:
The Czar and his Russians our souls would enslave:
Up then, and on them, the young and the brave!

Archer Thompson Gurney, Poems. SpringLondon: T. Bosworth, 1853, p45.


Macdermott’s War Song (1877)

Written and composed by G. W. Hunt (1839-1904); sung by Gilbert Hastings MacDermott; inspired by the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

“The Dogs of War” are loose and the rugged Russian Bear,
Full bent on blood and robbery, has crawl’d out of his lair;
It seems a thrashing now and then, will never help to tame
That brute, and so he’s out upon the “same old game.”
The Lion did his best to find him some excuse
To crawl back to his den again, all efforts were no use;
He hunger’d for his victim, he’s pleased when blood is shed,
But let us hope his crimes may all recoil on his own head.

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!
We’ve fought the Bear before and while we’re Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

The misdeeds of the Turks have been “spouted” thro’ all lands,
But how about the Russians, can they show spotless hands?
They slaughtered well at Khiva, in Siberia icy cold,
How many subjects done to death will never perhaps be told,
They butchered the Circassians, man, woman, yes and child,
With cruelties their Generals their murderous hours beguiled
And poor unhappy Poland their cruel yoke must bear,
Whilst prayers for “Freedom and Revenge” go up into the air.


May he who ’gan the quarrel soon have to bite the dust,
The Turk should be thrice armed for “he hath his quarrel just,”
Tis sad that countless thousands should die thro’ cruel war,
But let us hope most fervently ere long it will be o’er;
Let them be warned, Old England is brave Old England still,
We’ve proved our might, we’ve claimed our right, and ever, ever will,
Should we have to draw the sword our way to victory we’ll forge,
With the battle cry of Britons, “Old England and Saint George!”

Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 22 December 2011).


[1] I have tried to interpret the reference of foreign travellers to the Circassian war-cry “Keeka rika” (about which I read many, many years ago, but forgot the source in the mist of time). The best that I could come up with so far are “КIий-гуо” (= cry; din, hubbub), or a derivation thereof, and “КIийкIэрыкIэ” (= what results from shouting). Any help in this regard would be highly appreciated.
[2] Yemish=Емыш=Literally: Indefatigable.
[3] Reverend Archer Thompson Gurney (1820-1887) was an English poet and hymn-writer.

References & bibliography
Bereghwn (Baragunov), V. H. and He’wpeZh., Narodnaya instrumentalnaya muzika adigov (cherkesov) [National Instrumental Music of the Circassians], Nalchik: El’-Fa, 2005. [600 pieces]
Bereghwn (Baragunov), V. H. and Qardenghwsch’ (Kardangushev), Z. P’. (compilers), Adige Weredxemre PshinalhexemreYape Txilh. Narodnie pesni i instrumentalnie naigrishi adigov, tom 1 [Circassian Songs and Instrumental Folk-Tunes, Vol. 1], Moscow: All-Union Book Publishing House ‘Soviet Composer’, 1980. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 21 December 2011). [Edited by E. V. Gippius. This, and the other volumes in the series, are seminal works on Circassian musical lore. Some of the collected songs and chants are very ancient indeed]
— Adige Weredxemre PshinalhexemreYet’wane Txilh. Narodnie pesni i instrumentalnie naigrishi adigov, tom 2 [Circassian Songs and Instrumental Folk-Tunes, Vol. 2], Moscow: All-Union Book Publishing House ‘Soviet Composer’, 1981.
— Adige Weredxemre PshinalhexemreYeschane Txilh. Narodnie pesni i instrumentalnie naigrishi adigov, tom 3 [Circassian Songs and Instrumental Folk-Tunes, Vol. 3, Parts 1 and 2], Moscow: All-Union Book Publishing House ‘Soviet Composer’, 1986, 1990.
Gurney, Archer Thompson, Poems. SpringLondon: T. Bosworth, 1853, p45. [Available on Google Books]
Hunt, G. W., Macdermott’s War Song, London: Hopwood & Crew, 1877.
Mambet (Mambetov), H., ‘‘Wexwm yi Pezhip’er: 1928 Ghem Bax’sen Scheik’wech’ar [The Truth about the Affair: The 1928 Events in Bakhsan]’, in WaschhemaxweNalchik, no. 5, 1992, pp 71-8.
Qardenghwsch’ (Kardangushev), Z. (compiler), Adige Weredizchxer [Ancient Circassian Songs], NalchikElbrus Book Press, 1969. [34 songs; words in Kabardian; sheet music of each song; commentary at end of book]
— Adige Weredizchxer [Ancient Circassian Songs], NalchikElbrus Book Press, 1979. [61 songs; words in Kabardian; no sheet music; stories of the songs at end of the book]
Spencer, Edmund, Travels in Circassia, Krim Tartary, & C. Including a Steam Voyage down the Danube, from Vienna to Constantinople and round the Black Sea, in 1836, London: Henry Colburn, 1837 (2 vols). Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 21 December 2011). [Also available on Google Books]
— Turkey, Ruussia, Black Sea and Circassia, London: Routledge, 1854, pp 306-7. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 23 December 2011).
— The Propheet of the CaucasusElibron Classics, Adamant Media Corporation, 2005. [Available for preview on Google Books]

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