Small Genres of Folklore


The ability to express one's thoughts and ideas through using proverbs has always been a highly valued skill among the Kalmyks. Kalmyk proverbs reflect the culture, values, history and unique experiences of the Mongolian groups, including the Kalmyks. Being based on culturally specific ideas about morality and truth, Kalmyk proverbs are recited for educational, judgemental, descriptive, as well as entertainment purposes.

Since proverbs are a component of social communications, as society changes proverbs that no longer relate to modern living tend to get dropped. Given that Kalmykia has undergone rapid changes and modernisation in the past seventy years alone, it is important to identify and document proverbs, especially the older ones that are still in circulation but are in danger of becoming forgotten.


In the past riddles are believed to have had more of a mythical and symbolic character, and were used in the explanation of a wide range of phenomenon from natural to social. With time riddles developed their main function for which they are known today – that of training and honing the mind. In riddles things are substituted or represented by other objects that are in some ways similar, and which are clues to guessing what the original thing may be.

To test their interlocutors' wit, Kalmyks often used in their speech riddles in the form of parables, short tales, numerical puzzles, charades, and triads. Riddles have also served to pass knowledge and experience down the generations.

Kalmyk riddles reflect the worldview of their bearers, for they (riddles) include elements of ancient rituals, archaic language, valuable observations of natural phenomenon and other rudiments from nomadic and hunter-gatherer's lifestyles.

Unfortunately, this type of Kalmyk folklore has been gradually disappearing, and today riddles – numerical puzzles and triads in particular – are practiced only in schools.


Triads are unique philosophical riddles that question and enquire after a variety of topics, such as the meaning of life, moral values, feelings and many other themes. Triads usually use metaphors that reflect the nomadic worldview. The game is played as follows. The enquirer comes up with a word denoting a certain characterstic and asks his/her opponent to name three things/phenomena that share the same characteristics. Here are some examples:

Question: What are the three whites in the universe?

Answer: White teeth of a smiling person. White hair of the old. White bones of the dead.

Question: What are the three things that people lack?

Answer: Sleep for the wealthy. Fat for a running horse. Intelligence for the fool.

Question: What are the three sharps?

Answer: A hungry person has sharp teeth. A dying person has a sharp look. A ray of the sun between the clouds is sharp.

Question: What are the three that are in butter (i.e. good, prosperous)?

Answer: The hands of a master are in butter. The mouth of a cattle breeder is in butter. A smart person's decision is in butter.

Alena Lidzhieva, Riddles

A riddle: A mouse fell into a well. It was not the mouse that suffered but the well. What is that?

(Answer: a speckle of dust in one’s eye).

A riddle: All the dogs of the nomadic camp barked together. What is that?

(Answer: smoke coming out of the yurt pipe).

A riddle: Half a bortsg (traditional biscuit) sits on the smoke pipe of the yurt. What is that?

(Answer: the moon).

A riddle: A piece of old meat inside a wardrobe. What is that?

(Answer: earwax).

A saying: Thousand camels stumble on the shit of one camel (it is said when one person does something bad, and as a result many suffer).


Oleg Mandzhiev, About Kalmyk Folklore