Or, Camel vs. Mouse
It's almost time for the Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar), the old Mongolian New Year, so it's soon going to become the Модон Хонины Жил (Modon Honiny Jil), or the Year of the Wooden Sheep. In America the twelve-year cycle of animals is often called the Chinese Zodiac or Chinese Horoscope, but it is found far beyond China. The practice of twelve-year cycles with animals presiding over each of the years is found not only in Sinosphere nations like Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, but also among the Thai, Tibetans, Kazakhs, ancient Persians, and even the ancient Bulgars.
These far-spread cultures use much the same assemblage of beasts, but here and there they swap one animal for another. Instead of the rabbit, the Vietnamese have the cat,1 and instead of the tiger, the Kazakhs have the snow leopard. More bizarrely, the Kazakhs also replaced the dragon with the snail.2
Of course, this system is used in Mongolia too. The cycle for the Mongolians is:
- хулгана (hulgana) - mouse
- үхэр (üher) - cattle
- бар (bar) - tiger
- туулай (tuulai) - rabbit
- луу (luu) - dragon
- могой (mogoi) - snake
- морь (mori) - horse
- хонь (honi) - sheep
- бич (bich) - ape
- тахиа (tahia) - chicken
- нохой (nohoi) - dog
- гахай (gahai) - pig
The Mouse, the Camel, and the Twelve-Year Cycle
- a mouse's ears
- a cow's stomach
- a tiger's paws
- a rabbit's nose
- a dragon's body
- a snakes eyes
- a horse's mane (albeit underneath his neck)
- a sheep's wool
- an ape's hump
- a rooster's crest
- a dog's legs
- and a pig's tail
Happy Tsagaan Sar! Сайхан шинэлээрэй!
- “Year of the Cat,” http://www.viethoroscope.com/year-of-the-cat/. Accessed Feb 16, 2015.
- Kazakh zodiac: “Architect tells story behind Almaty’s renowned
fountain,” (Foster, Hal - http://www.universalnewswires.com/centralasia/viewstory.aspx?id=2278.
Accessed Feb 16, 2015) and "The historical information of the
architectural complex" (http://www.library.kz/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=214&Itemid=49.
Accessed Feb 16, 2015). Interestingly, the words for dragon or
snail in several languages sound similar. Kazakh ұлу
(ulw) and Kyrgyz үлүл (ülül)
mean "snail," while Chinese (Mandarin) lóng,
Kyrgyz улу (ulu), and Mongolian луу
(luu) mean "dragon." Mongolian has water spirits named лус (lus), and Tibetan has water spirits named klu which are
snake-like (more info at James Alvarez's "The Klu: Their Roles
Within the Shamanic and Buddhist Contexts,"
Note that Mongolian луу and лус
must be borrowed because native words almost never begin with L.
So there may be some secret connection between snails and
dragons. Or maybe the snail took advantage of phonetic confusion
to usurp the dragon. Those clever snails! (For your curiosity,
the Mongolian word for snail is эмгэн хумс, "old
- I have read around the nets that Zhao Yi 赵翼 ascribed a nomadic
origin to the zodiac, but I have not found anything that Mr.
Zhao himself wrote.
- This, by the way, is true. If the sun rises over a plain,
mountains to the west will light up before the sun itself
appears, and conversely, at dusk mountains to the east will stay
lit up after the sun itself is no longer visible.