Murder Most Foul: Fratricide in History

After the death of his father Yesugei , the young Temujin  (who would eventually become Genghis Khan / Chinggis Qan) and his mother and brothers were abandoned by everyone except a few loyal retainers. Yesugei had been a contender for Mongol leadership, and his Tayyichi’ut allies (or followers) intended to make their own claim for leadership. For them, Yesugei’s heirs could only be an impediment to their plans, and while custom did not allow them to kill Temujin while he was still a child, they planned to return and finish the job later when he had become a man.

a\As the story goes, this tiny  family was able to survive only by the heroic efforts of their mother, Ho’elün. At that time Temujin had one full brother, Qasar, and two half brothers, Bekter and Belgutei. Bekter and Belgutei bullied Temujin and Qasar, and after Ho’elün had proved unwilling or unable to settle the dispute, Temujin and Qasar stalked and killed Bekter.  Here is their mother Ho’elun’s rection, as reported in the Secret History, #78

When they returned to the yurt, the noble mother saw the looks on her two sons’ faces and understood what happened, and she said:  

He who burst from my hot womb clutching a clot of blood, that one —   like a Khazar dog snapping at its afterbirth
like a panther attacking a cliff
like a lion uncontrollable in rage
like a dragon engulfing its prey
like a falcon striking its shadow
like a pike swallowing in silence
like a camel nipping a foal’s heel
like a wolf stalking in a blizzard
like a duck eating its unruly chicks
like a gang of jackals guarding its den
like a tiger relentlessly seizing its prey
like a mad dog attacking blindly  —
  he has killed!  

Just when We have no other friend than our shadow, and no other whip than our horse’s tail, and just when, unable to endure our Tayyichi’ut brothers’ outrage, we ask ourselves who should take vengeance on them — you behave this way to one another, saying ‘I cannot live with you’.  

Thus she spoke, Repeating the old sayings, reciting ancient words, mightily reviling her sons.

This is only the most vivid of a number of passages showing Temujin ruthlessly destroying his own kin, and some have speculated that the compiler of the Secret History belonged to an anti-Temujin faction of the Mongol nation.  However, I think that this story is ambiguous in meaning, and marks  an internal tension in the Secret History and within Mongol society itself.

Family solidarity is a major theme in the Secret History.  Early in the book we hear the traditional story of Mother Alan and her sons — complete with the nearly-universal metaphor the unbreakable bundle of arrows which can each be broken singly.  (Mother Ho’elün tells this story herself earlier in the passage I am citing.)  The Mongol social groups seen early in the Secret History are political-military organizations and are defined (with some fudging) primarily by kinship, and in war absolute loyalty is a requirement.

However, the Secret History is primarily the story of Temujin’s rise to power, and Temujin did not respect family solidarity during this rise. Bekter is only the first of his many victims — of the patrilineal kin contemporary with Temujin named in the Secret History, at least half die at his hand, on his orders, or fighting against him in battle. Furthermore, much the same is true of his main rival, the Kereit Ong Qan, who killed at least two of his brothers and also came into violent conflict with one of his uncles.

Among the Mongols succession was decided by a special form of election called “tanistry”[i]. All the adult males of the tribe, without regard for seniority or closeness of relationship to the deceased, were eligible to succeed him. Candidates for leadership put forward their claims, and the other members of the tribe chose sides. In some cases a consensus could quickly be reached. More often there would be two or more contenders, and the supporters of the contenders would fight until one of then was victorious and the others were dead. Most of the followers of the loser (except his own closest kin) would simply be incorporated into the winner’s forces. (Much the same would be done when a tribe was defeated by a different tribe: the tribal leadership would be killed, and the commoners, women, and childen would be absorbed into the other tribe).

Temujin’s killing of Bekter was just the first in a series of tanistry fights by which he gained control of an increasingly large number of kin. By killing his brother Bekter, Temujin became the leader of his father Yesugei’s descendants and their dependants and subordinates.[ii] Later he gained control of his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s descendants by killing his uncle Daritai and a number of cousins. In his further career his own kin (except for his sons) were of secondary importance, but his established practice was to destroy the families of the leader of a defeated people and distribute its commoner members throughout his following.  Chinggis Qan’s ulus was ultimately a rationally-organized political-military machine subject entirely to the Qan’s will, within which kinship groups were were kept weak and were relatively unimportant.**

The Mongols really had two models of social order. One was the familiar kinship model of the segmentary or conical clan, and the legend of Mother Alan early in the Secret History was an affirmation of this model. The other model was the Big Man: the strong military leader who brought unity to the Mongols by terrible means, welding them into a powerful unit which was able to plunder and dominate the neighboring sedentary, urbanized peoples. Chinggis Qan’s career follows the second pattern.

From this point of view, in the context of the book as a whole Ho’elün’s lament can be given a different interpretation. Rather than simply condemning Temujin for killing his brother, she can be seen to be prophesying that her son, resembling as he does all the savage beasts she evokes, could never accept defeat or subordination and would become an irresistable force which would eventually dominate the world. This interpretation has the advantage of being consistent with the rest of the story (which glorifies Chinggis Qan)and also with the facts of history.

Tanistry is only an extreme case of state-formation, one characteristic of nomadic societies without fortifications, real property, or permanent institutions. In these societies the deceased ruler had nothing to hand down to his heir except the family charisma, andt the heir needed to heroically appropriate this charisma and refound the state under his own leadership. Historically, the transition from clan organization to state organization is usually engineered by bloody tyrants who murdered their own kin — something which was recognized by Plutarch in his biographies of Aeneas and Romulus, and which was also at work in the Greek myth of Jupiter and Saturn and the Athenian stories about Drakon and Solon.

According to this analysis, the problem with Macbeth was not that he was murderous, but that he was chicken (as Lady MacBeth knew all too well. Once tanistry is recognized as a sometimes-normal succession practice, many of the horrible family murders and bloody succession struggles in civilized history can be reclassified as a late survivals, rather than as monstruous and unthinkable abominations.


[i] See Joseph Fletcher, “The Mongols: Social and Ecological perspectives”, IX in Studies on Chinese and Islamic Inner Asia, Variorum, 1995 

[ii]  Bekter is aware of what’s happening. Just before he is killed he says “Just when we cannot put up with the outrage of our Tayichi’ut kinsmen and ask ourselves who will be able to take vengeance on them….how can you harbor such thoughts about me?” (Secret History #78, de Rachewiltz tr. p. 21.)   In other words, the half-brothers Bekter and Temujin had already been wondering which of them would be the leader of the inevitable attack against the Tayichi’ut.  Many of Bekter’s words are almost identical to those of “Ho’elün’s Lament”, and probably were borrowed from that song by the compiler of the Secret History.  

In the same speech Bekter, knowing that he will be killed, asks that his younger full-brother Belgutei be spared by his half-brothers: “Anyway, do not destroy my hearth, do not make away with Belgutei”. Mongol kinship is patrilineal, and Bekter is asking that his own full brother (Temujin’s half brother) be spared to allow the continuation of the lineage of his and Belgutei’s father.

Further discussion of “Ho’elün’s lament”
(including Mongol text)