The ‘warrior and mystic, ogre and saint’ who became Paul Atreides
Shamil, Part I: On the inspiration for Dune, ‘The Sabres of Paradise’
Dune is a titanic work. Its themes are grand in scale: the weight of history, man and fate, mystical immanence, ethnogenesis and environment, holy war and fanaticism, degradation and nobility.
Frank Herbert - despite his genius - could not have produced such a work without drawing upon the stories of men and civilizations that came before. Today we return to one of those stories: that of Shamil, terror of the Russian Empire.
The great chronicle of the wars of Shamil is Lesley Blanch’s 1960 The Sabres of Paradise. Herbert loved this biographical epic, and its influence pervades the universe he created.
Readers of Becoming Noble have much to learn from Shamil in their quest for aristocratic ascendency. This will be a multi-part series covering the birth of a faith, the wielding of fanaticism, the cultivation of personal mystique, the binding of peoples, environmental hormesis, and the orientation of a warrior race.
In this first post, we will set the stage by clarifying the relationship between Dune and The Sabres of Paradise, and will provide the historical foundation that Shamil’s lessons are embedded within.
To Shamyl, who straddled these mountains like a legendary giant, they were his birthright, his kingdom. From their shadows he first unfurled his black standard. In the name of Ghazavat! Holy War! he wielded the dissenting mountain tribes into the implacable army of fanatics whose private feuds were submerged in their common hatred of the Infidel invaders. For twenty five years, he dominated both land and people. For twenty five years, the Caucasians accepted lives of bleak abnegation and hardship − for Shamyl. His Murids revolved around his dark presence with the slow set circling of planetary forces. In life and death his word was law. All of them were vowed to resist Russia to the death. His four wives bowed before him in love and submission. His little son was sacrificed to the cause of freedom. His sister flung herself into a raging torrent, six hundred feet below, to die on his command. His mother lay at his feet, beaten unconscious on his orders when she pleaded mercy for a defaulting tribe.
Our story takes place in the Caucasus, the mountain land to the south of Russia. Here, in 1801, the kingdom of Georgia fell to the Tzar Alexander. Imertia and Mingrelia followed in 1803 and 1804. But in the north, from the peaks of Dagestan and Chechnya, a warrior people resisted. Their desperate violence became the Murid Wars, a name taken from Shamil’s fighters: Muslim tribesmen and fanatical monks known as Murids, and their leaders, the Naibs. No Naib was ever taken alive.
Shamil was more force of nature than man. Before he arose, the tribes fought each other. Through Shamil, the catalyst, the Avar, the chosen of Allah, the brother wars ceased. Powerless to resist his holy gravity, their fates were bound together under his banner. The mystical and political tides of the land converged into a single raging stream: Ghazavat. Holy War.
[Shamil] sprang on to the scene in a flash of steel, a clap of thunder, like some flamboyant Prince of Darkness, the dramatic nature of his legend and his black banners matched by his backcloth of towering mountains, perpendicular rock cliffs topped by eagle’s-nest aôuls, or fortified villages, hung over ravines slit so deep no light ever penetrated the abyss where torrents raged and a never-ceasing wind howled down the passes.
The Russians had never seen such resistance. Their imperial forces were legion, their advance was unstoppable. They expected to take the Caucasus in a summer. Instead, these sparse and unknown mountain tribes mounted a furious resistance that lasted decades, slaughtering and being slaughtered without hesitation or remorse.
To understand the Fremen one must understand the deserts of Arrakis. To understand the Murids, one must understand the mountains of the Caucasus.
Elbrus dwarfs the Alps. Tolstoy was obsessed with these divine peaks, with the psychological impact of nature on man in such a land. “‘But the mountains! The mountains!’ he cried, galloping towards their vast horizons… “Now life begins,” seemed to be sounded in his ear by some solemn voice.”
‘When shall blood cease to flow in the mountains?’ runs a local proverb. ‘When sugar canes grow in the snows’, comes the answer. Aloof, yet dominating this violent land, stood the mountains, majestic and unchanging through the centuries. They were the ‘frosty Caucasus’ of which Shakespeare sung. The Mountain of Stars, where the Djinn Padishah, the mighty chief of the Furies, lives; Kazbek, where legend has it Prometheus was chained; Elbruz, highest peak of the Black Mountains, ‘which no man may scale without God’s leave’, and where, in the hollow between its twin peaks, they tell you the Ark rested on its way to Ararat.
Dune scholars will note the term that later appeared in Herbert’s lexicon: Padishah, king of kings. They will likewise recall the sietch, the deep-desert cave systems in which the Fremen dwelled. “The Naibs one by one sleep in the sand, but the sietch endures."
This is a term that Herbert took from the region’s Zaporozhitz Cossacks, ‘the wildest of all the cossacks’ and bitter enemies of the Murids. Their base camps were the sietches. There these cossack tribes, loosely controlled by the Russians, lived lives of brutal violence and bacchanalian delights:
At the Sietch they practised their marksmanship, learned to swim the Dnieper against the current, hunted for game, gambled and drank; enjoying gargantuan feasts in keeping with their roaring appetites. Drunkenness was considered almost a tribal rite. Here this apparently undisciplined, yet actually rigidly controlled, republic of adventurers lived by their own laws. Thieving among their own people was punished by death. The culprit was bound to the Pillar of Shame, a heavy club beside him. Each passerby was bound to deal him a blow until he died. A murderer’s end was hideous. He was placed alive in an open grave, the body of his victim, in a coffin, laid on top of him and the earth was shovelled over both of them, stamped down by the silver-heeled boots of the whole camp. No novice was considered a true Cossack until he had reached the Sietch by swimming the Dnieper, (the great, flat-bottomed ferry boats were for proven men, traders and horses), and by killing at least one Moslem.
Although Herbert borrowed the term from these marsh-dwelling tribes, his Fremen hideaways far more closely resemble those of the cossack’s foes, the mountain Murids of Shamil, who lived in aôuls set in dry rock at blistering heights.
Aôuls − mountain villages − from which the women and children had been banished, and where only warriors lived, and from which they galloped out, to raid and die, chanting their death songs and fighting some last stand battle bound together, a living rampart against the Russians’ fire. Even the word aôul has an onomatopoeic harshness: a sinister ring conjuring desolation and doom.
This takes us to the people of these desolate precipices, the men and women with whom Shamil shared his blood.
Fighting was life itself to these darkly beautiful people − the most beautiful people in the world, it was said. They lived and died by the dagger. Battle-thrusts were the pulse of the race. Vengeance was their creed, violence their climate.
Theirs was a culture and a race oriented at every level to combat. Boys were trained from birth for war. No youth was to be seen without his kindjal, his two-edged dagger with which he was expected to demonstrate sublime artistry.
In this climate of drama, where vengeance was the first principle, weapons were personified, taking on a character, an entity of their own. I was made for Ammalet Beg, says one blade. I will help thee by day and by night (both legally and illegally), says another. I am slow to offend, quick to avenge, says a gold and ivory inlaid kindjal. May thy kindjal rust was a malediction. They were not the sickle-shaped scimitars of the romanticized East, but straight and heavy. The kindjal was a two-foot dagger, fluted and double edged; the shashka, a huge sabre, barely curved and very weighty. No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal. Women, too, wore a smaller, but scarcely less formidable dagger, thrust through their waist belt. The kindjal was used slashingly. ‘The cut’ was de rigueur. To kill with the point lacked artistry. Weapons were a cult, as dear as honour itself.
I will allow the Dune parallels to speak for themselves. And this was no pantomime; if the time came, the children were expected to fight. In the desperate defence of the mountain village of Akhulgo in 1837, with the men fighting back-to-back against oncoming Russian columns from all sides, the children were dispatched to crawl under the enemy’s bayonets and slash the Russian’s stomachs. Every child died. But not without taking foes with them.
To truly saturate a culture with fatalistic violence, it cannot simply be turned outwards, towards invaders. It must be turned inwards, towards one’s own, towards oneself. There must be no escape from conflict, no opportunity to settle into comfort and sloth. Thus, kanly.
In the Caucasus, kanly – vendetta − was the whole creed of these people, often pursued through three or four generations. Sometimes whole families were destroyed, fighting for days and nights, till the last man or boy fell. Others, known as ‘poor’ families, those who had no fighters left, no more blood to spill, were immured for the rest of their lives, old men, weaklings and women, in some lonely watchtower. They never dared to venture out, for they were disgraced and menaced.
When their nobles wanted to converse in secret, they did so in Chakobsa, the ‘Hunting Language’. One can imagine that this was not reserved for animal game. Trespassers made excellent sport.
This total, fanatical interiorization of violence produced behavior that would be unthinkable in a lesser people. The Russians themselves - no strangers to war - were staggered by the resistance that they met. It was unlike any that they had seen in their centuries of campaigning. The Murids would fight to a man, to a woman, to a child.
But the women, too, knew how to fight, for they were believed to descend from the Amazons. Beneath their veils they wore a dagger. When the inhabitants of Akhulgo were besieged by the invading Russian army in 1837, women fought beside men; when their ammunition had gone, they flung down rocks on the oncoming troops; when there were no more rocks, the men hurled themselves to death, on the bayonets below. And when the men were gone, the women flung down their children as living missiles, and leapt after them. Such was their desperate resistance. Such was this climate of violence.
This is the background against which we must understand Shamil. It is quite unlike our own, and I do not suggest that we should live as they lived. But, for those that wish to resist the homogenizing force of an empire that shares neither your culture nor your values, even without violence, there are lessons that can be found nowhere else so clearly.
The Murids were possessed by an unconquerable spirit, a conviction in their way of life, their traditions, and their peoplehood that would not be broken regardless of the pressure applied. And the source and summit of this spirit - Shamil.
Between 1830 and 1850 many remarkable figures appeared on the Caucasian scene. Some played great roles before they vanished. Some stood shadowed in the wings of history, awaiting a cue which never came. Some flitted across the immense landscape and were silhouetted for an hour, or a day, against the towering peaks; and then they, too, were gone. Some found themselves there by chance. Some, because of Shamyl; others, in spite of him… Writers, gun runners, adventurers, travellers and scientists: the Caucasus overshadowed all of them.
Yet, some landscapes, like some nations and people, reveal a second side, or other face. The Caucasus is such a land, at once harsh and exotic, forbidding and compelling. And Shamyl, the embodiment of his land, was at once warrior and mystic, ogre and saint, foxy and innocent, chivalrous and ruthless. Beneath the heroic overtones of both man and land elegiac murmurs were sometimes to be heard. Shamyl the Avar, the dread Chieftain, could love his wife with such a passion that he forgot everything − his battles, his men, his cause − to reach her bedside when she lay dying.
Regardless of our faiths, regardless of our beliefs, we must recognize this man of insurmountable will. He deserves our attention.
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You can find Part II here:
Sic transit imperium,
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"The Murids were possessed by an unconquerable spirit, a conviction in their way of life, their traditions, and their peoplehood that would not be broken regardless of the pressure applied."
Sounds like Afghans.
Is Islam the future?
Great insights into a great book. It's difficult to imagine what that kind of lifestyle would have been like.