Album Review: The Gereg
This entire album (with one exception) is in the key of Eb at A440, which leads me to think Mongolians tune their instruments a half-step lower (the way Western musicians have during certain periods of history) and that they are playing in what they would consider E. The “folk” aesthetic of the band would seem to suggest the use of pentatonic scales, but this is not the case. Only two songs can be said to be pentatonic: “Wolf Totem” and “The Legend of Mother Swan.” “Wolf Totem” isn’t so much pentatonic as it is brutally direct; besides some horsehead fiddle soloing (most notably in the introduction) and a variation of the main riff at the end, the mostly percussive fight song contains only three tones: 1, 3 and 4. Of the nine songs on the album, five are major and four are minor, with some caveats. The Hu does not use the raised seventh in the minor mode and actually lowers the seventh in the major, which means there are no leading tones. The home key is established by droning the tonic, on various instruments and via throat singing, more or less throughout the album. In a couple places a shortened or hexatonic scale seems to be implied. “The Great Chinggis Khaan,” in Eb minor, contains no seconds except as a passing tone during the bridge. Except for the fiddle solos, “The Same” lands on a second in only one part of the verse and utilizes a lowered second in a phrasing variation in the bridge. “Shireg Shireg,” in Eb major, uses a lowered seventh only as a suspension between verses. The use of the lowered seventh in the major mode gives those songs a certain modal indeterminacy—a lowered seventh is a minor third above the dominant. In at least one example, “Yuve Yuve Yu,” there is an instance of a raised sixth played on the guitar in the second half of the bridge. “Shoog Shoog” is the only song on the album in which the bassline is in constant motion and the Eb tonic is not droned in the background. The song utilizes the same Eb natural minor scale as the other minor key songs on the album, but is not tethered to the Eb tonic and seems to want to resolve on the third, i.e. it is actually in the relative major of Eb minor, Gb major.
From a strictly musical point of view, the most interesting thing about Gereg
is its careful instrumental layering. All of the songs on the album are built from a small number of simple parts; several of the songs contain no more than a single melody or progression. The album (which is almost fifty minutes in length) holds the listener’s attention by varying the layers of instruments and vocals, and by a very subtle crafting of intros, interludes, bridges, and outros. The role of the individual instruments in the band and of the vocals is less defined, less partitioned, than in conventional rock music. The horsehead fiddle can serve as a droning texture in the background, a base pattern like a rhythm guitar, a complement to the vocal line, or a true “solo” lead used as often in the introduction as the bridge. The Mongolian guitar (I do not know the actual names of any of these instruments so I will use common names), without electronic augmentation and thus one of the least prominent instruments in the mix, is most often used to carry the basic progression, but is sometimes called upon to add a melodic flair at the end of a verse or other transition. Vocal duties are shared throughout the band. It seems most of the time the vocal line is sung by co-leads. But chanting by both the leads and the full band plays a large part in several of the songs, and the throat singing may be the biggest contribution here to the tradition of rock music—at once an expression of inner tranquility and a declaration of war, the best part of every song is the part where the throat singing comes in. “Yuve Yuve Yu” contains a bridge where the melody of the verse is sung in a falsetto with the syllable “doo” and “Song of Women” contains a female co-lead vocal track. Often, the modern drum kit enters only after the mood has been set by traditional Mongolian percussion.
Other instruments that make a subtle impact throughout the album are the mouth harp and the flute. The mouth harp is played at some point on almost every song, most frequently in the intros above the bass. An instrument often used in America for comedy, the Hu have somehow found a way to use it for intimidation. The flute is featured prominently on “Shireg Shireg,” “Legend of Mother Swan” (where it meets the other instruments at the top of the long verse phrase in the instrumental bridge and closes the second and third verse), and introduces “Shoog Shoog” with what sounds like a bird call. It seems that synthesizers or samplers are used very judiciously on the album. “Wolf Totem” begins with the sound of windswept tundra. “The Same” begins with the sound of contemplative darkness. “Song of Women” begins with an aural representation of mystical enchantment. A high-pitched ghost sound, similar to a theremin, appears behind the chorus of “Yuve Yuve Yu” beginning with the first repeat. But it is difficult to determine how some of these sounds are made. The Hu seem to use their instruments to imitate animal noises—most noticeably the neighing horse played on the fiddle in the middle of “Yuve Yuve Yu”; possibly the squawking gull that appears at the beginning and end of “Wolf Totem”—and may be producing these other effects in a similar manner, possibly with the help of electronic processing. There are a couple of places where what sounds like a distorted electric guitar appears, although when mixed with the other instruments the horsehead fiddle resembles a distorted electric guitar in the upper registers. An electric guitar may be mixed behind the horsehead fiddle in some cases. A distorted rhythm guitar and bended high note can be heard in the introduction and under the falsetto bridge of “Yuve Yuve Yu” (right after a handful of piano notes) and is probably incorporated into the plaintive descending motif in “Song of Women.”
A few examples of the detail of the instrumentation. The first track on the album, “The Gereg,” begins with a simple droning of the Eb tonic with Mongolian guitar and mouth harp, accented by a traditional drum emphasizing the first beat of each measure (there is also a two-note figure played on the bass that is mixed very low). The kick drum and hi-hat come in after several measures with the horsehead fiddle layering the guitar and bass. The full drum kit and bass enter after a slow-building snare fill and throat singing on the tonic. Then there is an interlude where the drums fall away, a crescendoing fill is played on what sounds like crash cymbals, and the Mongolian guitar plays the first two bars of the vocal melody twice. Nearly a full minute of introduction, using two notes, before the first verse starts. “Wolf Totem” begins, after some atmospherics, with dueling horsehead fiddle solos over pounding tribal drumming. The first verse is chanted a capella
in a call-and-response over the drums—the only time in the song and on the album that a call-and-response is used. The guitar introduces the basic three-note riff, the solo fiddle returns, and then the drum kit enters as the horsehead fiddle drones on the upbeat for several measures. The second verse culminates with throat singing on the tonic. The chant of “hu” is heard only once as the throat singing begins. The third verse contains a few words that are chanted with the lead, to great effect, and leads again into throat singing on the tonic. This time, the “hu” chant appears throughout the section on the upbeat. The bridge begins with a horsehead fiddle solo in two sections—with and without throat singing, mirroring the verses but with the throat singing dropping one step towards the end. Then one line is spoken over a rhythmic break. The fourth verse contains more chanted accents and throat singing on the tonic, with “hu” now falling on the second downbeat. The fifth verse returns to “hu” being chanted on the upbeat. Another, more severe break with fiddle solo announces the beginning of the end of the song. It is layered with a new, more complex chant until the final verse comes in. This time there is no chanting above the throat singing. The “hu” chant begins at the end of the section over a syncopated version of the main riff and is sustained until the end.
But the music may simply be amplifying what is the most fascinating thing about the band: its anti-modern stance in the form of a specific, and quite notorious, ethnic nationalism. Their first video, “Yuve Yuve Yu,” begins with a thirty-five second long introduction in which the band members are depicted coasting through life in the modern world—texting in a restaurant, playing video games, eating junk food while watching TV, sleeping in—when they each open their door or turn to their screen and see an untouched Mongolian landscape. One of the members is seen picking up a Mongolian guitar by a lake in the landscape and the music starts. If the message here isn’t clear enough, the lyrics are sure to drive the point home (quotes are from the booklet; the video translation is in many ways better. Improper use of language is actually quite poetic):
It has been so long eating and drinking being merry / how strange how strange
Why the valuable ethics of ancestors become worthless?
You’re born in ancestor’s fate, yet sleeping deeply can’t be awakened
The song serves as a gateway to the band’s overall message and ethos: the present is flawed—search the past, search your traditions, for guidance. But the lessons of history vary depending on who you are talking to, so a return to tradition always begs the question: Which tradition? Which past? It’s not always so easy. The first way that Gereg
answers this question is with a kind of blanket, mantra-like reverence for Genghis Khan and for the early years of expansion of the Mongol Empire. This sentiment is the subject of the opening track, “The Gereg”—a kind of romance of the Mongolian warrior at the height of the Empire—and more obviously of “The Great Chinggis Khaan,” a paean. “Yuve Yuve Yu” ends with a fairly rigid affirmation of the theme:
With the future of eternal prosperity, the wolf totem Mongols have the blessings of heaven
Born with undeniable fate to gather nations, the Lord Chinggis declares his name on earth
Oh, black banner be awakened
Oh, the Khanate rise and rise forever
But this flag-waving leaps over an almost bewildering amount of history. Genghis Khan lived for sixty-four or sixty-five years from 1162 (or 1163) to 1227. He was proclaimed sole ruler of the Mongols, or great khan, by a council of Mongol chiefs called a “kurultai” in 1206, at the age of forty-three. Problems over succession would develop almost immediately with the first transfer of power (although they did not blow open until later): Genghis Khan’s eldest son, Jochi, and second eldest, Chagatai, disputed over Jochi’s perceived weaknesses in military tactics and doubts about his paternity (Genghis Khan’s wife was abducted for several months by a rival tribe after their marriage). Although tradition favored Jochi as the first-born to succeed, Genghis Khan made the two agree to accept his third-born, Ögedei, as successor, with his three other sons receiving khanates within the empire. Ögedei ruled the empire successfully until his death in 1241, but a decade of instability followed. As tradition dictated, Ögedei’s widow Töregene took over until a kurultai could elect a new great khan and she campaigned successfully to have Ögedei’s son Güyük elected by the council. But Jochi’s son Batu refused to come to the kurultai to finalize the succession until Genghis Khan’s youngest brother Temüge threatened to seize the throne. Batu eventually sent a delegation and Güyük was elected by the council in 1246. After taking many steps to consolidate the empire, Güyük raised an army and began marching west in 1248 to confront his cousin Batu but died—possibly of poisoning—before the two could settle their differences. Batu then called his own kurultai on his territory in 1250 and nominated Möngke, the son of Genghis Khan’s fourth son Tolui, to rule over the empire.
With Möngke’s ascent, power within the Mongol Empire shifted permanently to the descendants of Tolui. But despite an attempt to call a more formal kurultai at Karakorum, the capitol, the Ögedeid and Chagataid factions did not recognize Möngke as the legitimate great khan. One of Ögedei’s grandsons Shiremun attempted to oust Möngke in a coup but was caught. Möngke held trials throughout the empire, purged several hundred Mongolian aristocrats and confiscated Ögedeid and Chagataid family estates. Möngke appointed his brothers Hulagu to rule over Persia and Kublai to rule over North China, and led expansionist efforts in both regions, most notably sacking Baghdad in 1258. He died in 1259 in southern China, with no historical consensus on the cause. When Kublai did not immediately return to Mongolia, being preoccupied with his campaign in southern China, his younger brother Ariq Böke engineered his own election at the kurultai at Karakorum. Upon learning of this news, Kublai held his own kurultai at Kaiping in 1260, in Guangdong, and secured support from the aristocracy of North China and Manchuria, which set off the Toluid Civil War between Kublai and Ariq Böke. Their allies, Hulagu and Berke, fought a separate war simultaneously in the Caucuses. Ariq Böke surrendered to Kublai in 1264, but the western khanates never recognized Kublai as the great khan and the empire would never be centrally unified again. Kublai succeeded in conquering southern China in 1276 when the Song imperial family surrendered to him, founding the Sinicized Yuan Dynasty. Kublai died in 1294 and was succeeded by his grandson Temür. A Chagataid ruler initiated a proposal for peace leading to a treaty in 1304 in which the western khanates recognized Temür as the nominal supreme ruler but operated independently. By mid-century, all four khanates had entered into a political decline that was severely complicated by the Black Death pandemic that spread across the Eurasian continent at the same time (Mongols contributed to the spread of the disease but were not the sole cause). In China, the Mongols fled to their homeland in 1368 after a long period of economic crises, natural disasters, mismanagement, and political infighting that would allow the Ming Dynasty to emerge from the widespread popular rebellions that rose up against the Yuan.
It is possible to say that the Mongol Empire was the world’s first form of globalization. The Mongols created a vast network of trade and commerce that allowed money, goods, technology, art, culture, and ideas to flow across the known world with unprecedented freedom. A mail relay system known as the Yam (“örtöö” in Mongolian) conveyed information faster than the Pony Express service that ran for eighteen months in the US between 1860-61. The system was preserved by Tsarist Russia after the fall of the Golden Horde khanate. Kurultais in the Mongolian capital were attended by an array of dignitaries from within and without the empire, including Rome. The capital Karakorum contained what we must assume were state-funded examples of Chinese, Persian, and European architecture by the most respected artisans and craftsmen. This interconnectedness allowed knowledge to be transferred from the two most advanced civilizations of the time: the Islamic Caliphate and Song Dynasty China. Thus, China during the Mongol occupation (Yuan Dynasty) learned from the Islamic world (especially mathematics and astronomy) and Chinese technology was spread to the edges of the Pax Mongolica (the Mongols had a policy of appointing the best Chinese craftsmen to positions outside of China proper). Paper money or fiat currency was introduced to the world in this way (although the early attempts to circulate fiat currency were short-lived). Even the beginning of empiricism and the scientific method came from the Islamic Caliphate and had a parallel development in Song-era China, as the cosmic spiritualism of the previously dominant Buddhist tradition was considered a particular weakness. Jared Diamond’s guns, germs, and steel were bequeathed to Western Europe via the Mongol Empire:
Situated at the end of the Eurasian continent, Europe was at a distance from the great currents of civilization and the great trade routes. But its situation also explains its immunity, at any rate in its western areas, from the most serious invasions; it was making progress at the very time when the Mongol occupation, from Mesopotamia to the Bay of Bengal, was leading to the decline of the Islamic world. It profited from the new waves of trade and borrowings set in motion by the creation of a vast Mongol empire extending from Korea to the Danube. What we have acquired the habit of regarding—according to a history of the world that is in fact no more than a history of the West—as the beginning of modern times was only the repercussion of the upsurge of the urban, mercantile civilizations whose realm extended, before the Mongol invasion, from the Near-East to the Sea of China. The West gathered up part of this legacy and received from it the leaven which was to make possible its own development. The transmission was favoured by the crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The mere enumeration of East Asia’s contributions to medieval Europe at this time—indirect borrowings or inventions suggested by Chinese techniques—is sufficient to indicate their importance: paper, compass, and stern-post rudder at the end of the twelfth century, the application of the water-mill to looms, the counterweight trap, which was to revolutionize warfare before the development of firearms, then the wheelbarrow at the beginning of the thirteenth century, explosives at the end of the same century, the spinning-wheel about 1300, wood-block printing, which was to give rise, as in China, to printing with movable type, and cast iron (end of the fourteenth century). There we have, together with innovations of lesser importance, all the great inventions which were to make possible the advent of modern times in the West. (Gernet, Jacques. A History of Chinese Civilization. Cambridge UP, 1999. 347-8)
But the Mongol Empire is remembered negatively by every civilization it invaded. The Mongols laid waste to hundreds of cities and towns. They killed so many people they changed the demographics of the world. The amount of destruction they caused may actually be found in the geological record as forest regrew over previously inhabited land, altering global CO2 levels. Many settlements voluntarily submitted to Mongol rule to escape wholesale slaughter. Victorious Mongolian soldiers systematically raped women and young girls by the thousands as a matter of policy. They used forms of biological warfare and they burned farmland to starve local inhabitants. In at least one instance, the Mongols returned to a city several days after razing it to catch any returnees. The populations of Kievan Rus’ (the precursor to most modern-day Slavic states) and of China may have been halved during the conquest of those areas (there is a debate as to how much of the population loss was due to direct military action and how much to other factors such as disease and census inconsistencies). The Iranian plateau may have lost up to three-quarters of its population from the invasions and from the subsequent famines and disease. The sacking of Baghdad in 1258 is considered one of the most catastrophic events in Islamic history. Along with palaces and mosques that had taken generations to build, the Mongols destroyed libraries containing hundreds of thousands of historical manuscripts, original works, and translations of works from several languages, including one of the greatest library collections ever assembled in the House of Wisdom. When Möngke died in 1259 and Hulagu withdrew from his campaign in Syria to return to the capitol, Christian Crusaders and Muslim Mamluks formed a truce to fight the Mongols, whom they both saw as the greater threat. The irony of The Hu’s music is that they are vying for and have in many ways succeeded in gaining a form of cultural influence or soft power that the empire they sing about never had.
There is a sense, then, that The Hu’s return to tradition is revisionist. In many ways, Genghis Khan himself rose to power by going against tradition. Genghis Khan recruited from a wider range of social classes than other tribal leaders and instituted a form of meritocracy, where the most skilled warriors and officers would be given promotions over elites who had a family claim. He also promised to share the spoils of war with his men and civilians, instead of giving everything to the aristocrats. He brought those he defeated from rival tribes under his protection in exchange for absolute loyalty, even giving orphans to his mother to raise. This was the basis of the rivalry between him and his childhood friend Jemukha, as Jemukha upheld the traditional tribal aristocracies. He also introduced writing to Mongolians, adapting the Uighur alphabet to their language.
However, the biggest problem with the glorification of this specific history is that it never addresses what happened between then and now. The Mongol Empire broke up fairly quickly after Genghis Khan’s death. By the third generation the four khanates began competing with each other and by the fourth generation there was civil war. One of the central questions throughout this incremental fracturing and decline was whether the Mongols should retain their traditional nomadic mode of life or adopt the sedentary practices of the peoples they conquered. Kublai Khan’s lifelong interest in Chinese culture, including his decision to Sinicize the name of his empire and to move the capitol to Beijing (then Khanbaliq) was openly opposed by the other descendants of Genghis Khan and by much of the Mongolian aristocracy. In the end, the different parts of the Mongol Empire were absorbed—politically, culturally, and in large part genetically
—by the civilizations they had forcibly subdued.
One of the most obvious ways this album’s version of traditional Mongolian culture gives away its modern perspective is with its presentation of Mongolian religion. There are several references to the shamanistic Tengrist religion of Genghis Khan and only one reference to any other religion (Buddhism). These references appear in “The Gereg” (Bearer of the will of the eternal Tengri / Fearless warrior and Tengrist), “The Great Chinggis Khaan” (The scourge of the eternal Tengri / Engaged the world with the wisdom of Tengri / The Bearer of the eternal Tengri), and “Shoog Shoog” (The worshippers of the blue Tengri). (The word “Tengri” refers to the sky. Contrary to popular depictions, Tengrism as a shamanistic belief system was mostly monotheistic and that single deity was the sky. References to “blue sky” or “eternal sky” elsewhere in the lyrics may also be considered references to Tengrism.) But Tengrism was never a state-wide part of Mongolian identity the way one might think of Christianity or Islam today. Even during Genghis Khan’s life there were Mongol converts of almost every known religion, including Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. (As a side note, Arabs and Jews were both referred to as huihui
by the Mongols.) Ögedei and Hulagu’s wives were Nestorian Christian. (Hulagu's wife, Dokuz Khatun, successfully intervened to spare the lives of Christians in Baghdad in 1258.) This is seen as the basis for the Mongol’s religious tolerance—even as they wreaked havoc across the Eurasian continent, they allowed their subjects to retain their native religious practices. Freedom of religion was encoded into Mongolian law and religious leaders were exempted from taxes and public service. Religion was seen more as a personal choice than an inherent part of a national identity, and Tengrism as the Mongols practiced it was compatible side-by-side with other religions. Genghis Khan himself consulted sages and priests of other faiths during his life. And, ultimately, the three western khanates converted to Islam and the Yuan Dynasty to Buddhism.
There is one instance of a non-historical form of revisionism. “The Great Chinggis Khaan” contains what appears to be a reference to congenital dermal melanocytosis, commonly known as Mongol spots or, colloquially, blue butt. The line is: “Brought unity to blue-sealed Mongols.” Congenital dermal melanocytosis is the presence of blue or grey birthmarks in newborn infants, typically in the region of the buttocks, that disappear in childhood. Mongol spots are mistakenly believed to be a genetic trait specific to or most common among Mongols; their prevalence throughout Asia is sometimes erroneously thought to be a legacy of the Mongol Empire. But they occur with the same frequency in populations that successfully defended against Mongol incursion, such as the Japanese, as well as in populations that had no contact with the Mongol Empire at all, such as Oceania, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and the Americas. About 80% of East Asians are born with the spots, 90% of Polynesians and Micronesians, 80-85% of Native Americans (46% of Latin Americans), and 90-96% of African Americans. They occur in only 5-10% of full-blooded Caucasians.
Something interesting happens, however, with the remaining songs on the album. If you check off the two songs explicitly about the Mongol Empire (“The Gereg” and “The Great Chinggis Khaan”), the one song pointing listeners in its direction (“Yuve Yuve Yu”), the stand-alone fight song (“Wolf Totem”), and the harmless travel guide song (“Shoog Shoog”—this song could be used by the Mongolian state tourism bureau and should come with a full-color brochure), you end up with a balance of four songs that are free of the constraints of either history or religion. Instead, these songs all base themselves in some form of folk wisdom or folk mythology.
In an ironic twist to the rock tradition, “Shireg Shireg” portrays elderly parents offering advice to a (presumably) male child as he prepares to leave home. The song is structurally one of the simplest on the album, consisting of five four-line verse stanzas broken up by an instrumental suspension on a lowered seventh. The tempo is slowed and a quarter-note bass drum pulses throughout the song—the snare never assumes its standard rock placement on the second and fourth beat of the measure. The first and second stanzas remind the listener to “remember the kindness of your old and grey father” and “remember the compassion of your old and caring mother” as the father offers what is perhaps one of the greatest opening lines in the history of rock music: “Water your red horse with the piebald mane without the gag-bit.” The middle two stanzas (second verse) cover slightly less immediate areas of concern, concluding: “Have the intuition to see the evil / Have the strength to endure barriers.” There is a subtlety to the composition that adds depth to the prosaic well-wishing. The musical backdrop to these lyrics captures the strange emotional tension between the anticipation of adventure abroad and the warmth and security of home.
“Song of Women” is the closest thing on this album to a ballad. The first two-thirds of the song is performed over a slow-rocking 3/4 rhythm, with some of the best kit drumming on the album entering on the second stanza. (The pulse rhythm is almost identical to the greatest 3/4 pop song ever made, “Kiss from a Rose” by Seal; “The Great Chinggis Khaan” is also in 3/4.) The meter changes dramatically to 4/4 in the middle of the second half of the song in a shift that feels double-time. The song is structurally very open. After the introduction it begins with three long-phrased stanzas comparing women to various natural phenomena: “The palm tree grows and flowers / As she sings softly my soul retains / Honorable lady / Compassionate and delicate.” A sprawling instrumental break spaces out the second and third stanzas. Mid-way, the song transforms into a long B section in which the remainder of the vocals are chanted and the lyrical voice modulates from homage to petition. In another paternalistic turn, the speaker exhorts the women of Mongolia collectively (not individually, as is typical in the rock tradition) to respect their parents, love their country, and to “have a fighter spirit in your body,” drawing comparisons to medieval weaponry. This song may be the purest example of the Hu’s use of simple repetition as a form of beauty. No other song contains as much chanted text as “Song of Women”; it also begins with a simple chant. This tendency seems to derive from the pre-modern roots of music itself, where simple repetition was the first way humans organized the chaos of the natural world around them. It makes sense that the strongest use of repetition on the album would come in a song addressing and praising the mystery of femininity.
Probably the most ominous song on the album is “The Same.” Another song in five verse stanzas with no proper chorus (only a refrain similar to blues music), “The Same” seems to be a kind of shamanistic ontology of human nature in the natural world. Each stanza compares two types of beings, one high and one low, and finds a commonality in their underlying motivations. The pairs themselves are ordered from higher to lower: king in heaven/king on earth; buddhist recluse/enlightened civilian; henchman on earth/henchman in heaven; people “striving” for material gain/animals in the forest; theif/wolf. What is interesting about these comparisons is that there are no real moral judgements; the full range of human passions—from highest to lowest, from “happiness and affection” to a “desire to kill and devour”—is presented as a fact of nature, the way one might describe the seasons or the ocean tide. Most of the dominant religions today are urban in origin. The system of ethics they abide by developed in densely populated sedentary cultures with a division of labor and a layer of insulation against natural forces. The Hu seems to have located a form of religious truth that precedes these ethics and that clears away the clutter of modernism that is the by-product of them: we sometimes forget that we are, in fact, merely animals. “The Same” also has what may arguably be the most compelling melodic line on the album—each stanza is one long, segmented phrase, with each segment of the phrase building off of the previous segment to a clear and direct resolution.
It would be easy to dismiss the fourth track on the album, “The Legend of Mother Swan,” as filler. The song does not stand out musically and, of course, the lyrics are in a foreign language. Made up of three long verse stanzas plus a chanted portion at the end and (again) no chorus, the lack of musical events in the writing may have been necessary to accommodate what is the only true narrative on the album—“The Legend of Mother Swan” contains a complete folk mythos. Taking place at a “bottomless blue lake at the end of the world” (Lake Baikal, by volume the largest and deepest lake in the world, is just north of Mongolia in southern Siberia), the Legend tells the story of a female swan who returns to the lake in the spring but cannot find her “lover.” She finds him in the middle of summer, “they loved each other as nothing else matters,” and she becomes pregnant and bears seven cygnets—“How beautiful was life / How tasty was happiness.” Summer ends and it is time for the swans to migrate south—but her cygnets are too young to fly. The lake freezes, the swan tries to save her babies “with half-grown feathers” by taking them “under her wings,” but dies.
The first figure the average Westerner will recognize here is that of the Mother-Hero. The swan, an elegant and beautiful bird, sacrifices her life out of pure maternal love for her children. But this doesn’t explain the emphasis in the legend on her suffering as she freezes to death, the fact that she is ultimately not able to save her babies from also freezing, or the peculiarity of the plot of finding a mate too late in the season to migrate. Given the overall pre-modern, shamanistic nature-worship of the album, one interpretation of the legend may be of the powerlessness of the individual against the natural order. The Romantic hero that emerged from the European Enlightenment wants to believe that his fate lies in his own hands. What began as a rejection of social caste has since expanded to include all manner of human conditions that are only partially defined by society, including the familiar drum of race, gender, and sexuality. But the Romantic spirit grew out of a society that had begun to master nature itself with the Industrial Revolution and primarily oriented itself to that society, in many ways imbuing nature with its own optimism. As the contemporary descendants of the Romantic individual fight for what they perceive as “justice” at every turn, "The Legend of Mother Swan" reminds us that nature itself is inherently unjust
. The Mother Swan figure is there to remove the question of intentionality from the equation completely: it does not matter how pure your intentions are, how righteous your cause, or how moral your justification. The Mother Swan is out-of-sync with nature. If you deny nature, you may be successful for a time, but ultimately you will die tragically trying to protect what you love:
As the fire of her eyes quenched her tears stayed pouring
As the last breath left her body her heartache was still there
Died in her tears for half-grown feathers the Mother Swan
Departed in lullubying between sleeping and awake the Mother Swan