It was the 12th century of the common era.
In the land of evergreen pastures, where hills and valleys lay far and wide apart, and the rivers flowed bountifully from mountains topped with glaciers melting slowly; roamed a people, hardened by the vast wilderness and united through families and kinship.
Herds of cattle, bison, sheep, and goat roam freely around encampments formed by families of nomadic herders who follow their flock around the steppe in much the same way that their flock follow grazing seasons across the year.
It all seems peaceful. Quiet moments dot the daily vicissitudes of life around the wilderness. Grazers aren’t really meant to fight - or so their ancestors would say.
But in this moment in time, this part of the world was filled with strife. Ruling warlords fight one another viciously, raids in camps happen almost every week. People die, most commonly with a sword through their necks - but there was order, there are practices followed; anarchy was an expectation - but with it comes traditions.
One of these traditions are related to marriages.
On a bright, sunny day - within the steppes of Asia - a man rode his steed in haste. The horse bore gifts of clothes and hand-made jewelry. His destination, a small tribe encamped near a nexus of a river along the steppes. His intention was to marry one of the women in the tribe.
You see, in steppe tradition, marriages were done not only with dowry but also with time - and hard labor. A man must provide for the family of their intended for some odd years from a young age - so as they grow older, they also grow accustomed to one another.
As the couple became old enough, they were married. Shamans from the camp would perform ritual blessings for the couple, as they ask for the graces of the nature gods to make their union bountiful.
A time after the celebration, the couple would then travel to the man’s tribe to be part of their kinship as well. So the man and woman rode on horseback to the man’s camp. But their travel will be cut short.
Thing was, not every man in the steppe is as rich as the man who married this woman. Those who were not as wealthy have to resort to more nefarious ways to secure a bride.
With their horse riding fast as the wind, the man noticed more hoof stomps than his own steed’s. He looked behind him, past the woman he just married a short while back - holding on for dear life around his waist, and noticed a small band of raiders riding towards them. They’ve been spotted.
The man willed his horse to gallop faster. He knows what these raiders want. His father had warned him of this. Raiders formed by bands of men who had nothing to their name but wanted wives of their own - or more if they can catch them. He must not allow his woman be taken.
In his mind he knows he loved her, and she him. He knows he’s worked several years for her family, not to only let raiders take her from him - and so he pushed faster. His steed making noises as if straining in their combined weight.
“Shit!” he gasps. If they continue, his steed won’t last much longer. They’re slowing down a bit. He knows if they catch both of them, he will be killed - and his wife taken as their own. His wife knows this as well. She beckons to him, stop the steed.
He looked back at her, eyes in tears - but resolute. He stopped the steed. Their chasers fast approaching. She got off the horse, and looked at her husband as they do every night before going to sleep. Her husband looked distraught, but all the more alert of the raiders closing in on them.
She took off her garb, and gave it to him, with a bid of farewell, and their usual sweet nothings - never spoken, only shared in a sweet moment. The last one…
Her garb, brimming with her scent, is as their beliefs entail, filled with her essence and spirit. In steppe tradition, a person’s spirit radiates to their scent and bodily fluids - as such she wants him to remember her by.
She hit the back of his horse so hard that the steed couldn’t help but gallop and run fast. Her husband safely behind its back - will reach his tribe and be safe from these raiders. They will not get to him, but they will capture her. She will become a wife to one of these raiders, forced. She is fine with that - in exchange for keeping her husband’s life.
Her name is Hoelun - Genghis Khan’s mother.
Yes, I was befuddled as well when I learned of this story. A woman, with the sole desire of happiness and compassion, but whose dreams were cut short by the nature of their world. Sad as it may be, we can choose how to respond to these situations, but never what situations we get put in.
The very first question that came to mind, “was the person who caused the deaths of 40 million people within the short span of his empire’s rule really born of such a strong woman, in a near idyllic environment?”
We often think of a cruel man and woman as the result of destitute environments, that brings out the worst in any person. We also may consider a person of such evil to have been born that way.
The usual nurture vs. nature argument is always upon us, a common form of discussion in these kinds of topics. Much was the nature of great men throughout history, because simply put - history is written only by the victors - bias is everywhere.
But is that really the case? Was Genghis Khan, very much like the evil villains of the 21st century?
Stalin, Zedong, Hitler? Was the great unifier, really evil?
This is the question, we shall answer in this blog series about the Great Genghis Khan. Watch out for the next installment tomorrow.
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