Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Superhuman: King Gesar of Ling
by jaimie l. elliott

"Other" Mythologies

Mythology in modern times seems relegated to video games and cartoons.  Even in literature, which owes a great deal to myths for their powerful themes, the topic is often dismissed as juvenile, an allegorical exercise into formulaic fantasy.  Fertile for Hollywood summertime blockbusters but not for serious thought.

Mythology is vast.  It touches everything.  Its vastness may, however, be exceeded by the ignorance of its vastness.  Ask an English-speaking person to describe mythology.  What do you expect as a response?  Most likely a vague reference about Hercules and Zeus.  Perhaps a comment concerning the Norse gods.  Maybe, on rare occasion, the mentioning of the Egyptian pantheon or even the archaic Gilgamesh.  Now question him or her on the longest epic poem in the world and, if the question was even understood, you might get a mumbled rejoinder about the Iliad or the Odyssey.

He or she would be wrong.  The correct answer is, of course, up to debate.  But a good candidate would be the Epic of King Gesar (also known as Gessar, Gesar Khan, Gesser, or Kesar), a Tibetan oral ballad that is still performed by singers today.  It is, by some estimations, over 20 million words long.  As with other oral traditions, the orator memorizes the verses, related from one generation to the next.  And you thought IRS tax forms were burdensome.

Intrigued, I rummaged around for an English version of the Epic of King Gesar.  Most books cited were out of print or in other languages.  In the end, I decided upon The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling, by Alexandra David-Neel and the Lama Yongden.  I knew the epic to be 25 to 50 times longer than the Iliad.  Imagine my shock when I received a relatively skinny, red book with a meager 271 pages between its worn covers.

It is difficult to criticize Ms. David-Neel, however, since there is no authoritative version of the Epic of King Gesar.  There are countless variations depending on localities and singers.  To her credit, she went straight to the source, traveling to Tibet and Lhasa during a time when women simply did not do such things (circa 1920's, a fascinating adventure in itself).  Furthermore, what scant reviews I found of her work stated that it was accurate, if somewhat tailored toward the casual reader.

King of Ling

Thubpa Gawa is a reluctant hero.  Before he is reborn to the realm of mortals to combat the plague of demons that threaten the Religion, he extracts numerous, and often selfish, concessions from the other gods.  They acquiesce and the superhuman savior arrives unto the world as the infant of a virgin nagi.  After living a feral existence with his mother, he becomes the King of Ling by winning a horse race at the age of twelve.  He is renamed Gesar.  Armed with celestial weapons and riding a mystical charger, he goes on to conquer the four demonic kingdoms to the north, south, east, and west.  He then subdues King Tazig for good measure.  Along the way, he deals with his evil yet comical uncle Todong and his unfaithful wife Dugmo.  Finally, at an old age, he and his closest followers meditate one last time and ascend to paradise.

Rooted in Tibetian Buddhism, many of the concepts in the epic are foreign to Western readers.  Although a powerful warrior, he is often a trickster.  There is a bit of Odysseus in him.  He readily changes shape, a trait he shares with another Buddhist hero, the monkey Sun Wukong.  He is not above soliciting the assistance of the gods or employing an indirect approach to overcome an enemy.  Some of his actions, from our vantage point, would be construed as unethical or even immoral.  For example, as a consequence of Dugmo's infidelity, she bore a demonic son.  She extracts from a devious Gesar a promise not to slay her child.  Instead of harming the boy directly, the gods raise a pillar and Gesar places him underneath.  The gods then lower the pillar back into place, crushing the child to death.  Another case in point is the incident with King Tazig.  Todong steals Tazig's fabled blue horses.  When Tazig takes revenge and apprehends Todong, Gesar sees this as an excuse to assault and pillage Tazig's kingdom.  Gesar's soldiers, however, view this as unjust and rebuff their king.  The evil Todong, by stealing the horses, deserves retribution.  The gods intervene and give blessing to Gesar's endeavor.  The soldiers, inspired by greed and the divine, relent and agree to the cause.  Gesar slays Tazig, captures his queen, and conquers his kingdom.

One of the fascinating aspects of studying mythology is that the myths and legends are reflective of the society or societies that created them.  We struggle when we see something alien to our mindset, to our culture.  With the two instances above, individual actions cede to a greater purpose.  If the demonic son had grown to adulthood, he would have threatened the Religion.  Tazig, although at peace with Gesar, was a selfish and evil ruler and destined by the gods to be defeated.  Gesar’s responsibility is neither to Dugmo nor Tazig but to the world.  This is Dharma.  It is reminiscent of Arjuna’s struggle to slay his kin, where Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, explains to Arjuna the purpose of being (this conversation is known as the Bhagavad Gita).  Suddenly, Gesar’s actions are no longer simplistic and cruel.  They become a complex philosophical discussion of right and wrong, of the macro and the micro, of the dualistic nature of one’s individuality and one’s place in society.

Mythology’s supposed superficiality arises from a perception on our part, a choice not to spelunk into the dark recesses of the collective consciousness.  However, despite our refusal, we live it everyday, and through us, it continues to evolve.

Spelunking the Mythology

The following are good sources to delve deeper into the legend of Gesar:


Lama Yongden, Alexandra David-Neel; The Superhuman Life Of Gesar Of Ling, 1959, Rider & Company

External Links

http://zt.tibet.cn/tibetzt/gesaer_en/doc/1000.htm [includes articles on modern singers]
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandra_David-Neel [the life of Alexandra David-Neel]

© 2007 Jaimie L. Elliot

Mr. Elliott currently resides in Marietta, Georgia, with a wife and step-daughter, where he spends much of his time working as a project manager for IBM. His first love is fantasy, although he dabbles in poetry and literary fiction as well. He won first prize in the short fiction category in the Georgia Writers Association yearly contest and has been published in Aphelion and Swords Edge. He's currently looking for an agent for his novel Vicious Moon Cats.

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