Morin Khuur is a traditional Mongolian stringed instrument, which is carved in the shape of a horse’s head. Here’s how it came to be made…
A very long time ago in the far eastern part of Mongolia lived a young man by the name of Khokhoo Namjil. Khokhoo is Cuckoo of course and Namjil got this name because he was blessed with a melodious voice. But like other young men of his village, he was called for army duty that took him all the way across to the Western borders.
Khokhoo’s superior singing skills impressed his Commander so much that he was assigned no other duty. So he spent the next three years of his army service as the resident bard. But young Namjil loved horses and missed his time with them. So he went to his Commander and said, “Sir, all my years in the army I have spent indoors singing. While I’m grateful for your kindness, I would like to request you to allow me sometime outside, tending the horses.”
“You've served us wonderfully all these years and your wish shall certainly be fulfilled," said the Commander. “In fact, your term is coming to a close. Take care of our horses for five days and then you can return home.”
Namjil tended to the horses with great care for he loved these gentle but swift animals. One day he drove the herd far, far away from the camp. Before long they reached a lake and Namjil stopped to give the horses a drink. Sitting on the banks of the lake Namjil began to sing a plaintive song. Just as the song ended, a beautiful maiden clad in an emerald green deel (a Mongolian cloak) emerged from the lake. She rode to the shore on a black horse, her dark hair flying behind her, though there was no wind and nothing stirred. “Such heavenly music! My parents have sent me here to fetch you. We would like you to visit our home,” she said. “Where do you live?" Namjil asked, for he had seen her come out of nowhere. “Sit behind me on my horse and close your eyes. Don’t worry about your horses, they’ll follow us.” Namjil sat on the black stallion behind the girl and closed his eyes. Just a moment later (or so he thought), she asked him to open his eyes and he found himself standing before the girl’s yurt (traditional Mongolian hut). The girl’s parents received him warmly. They appeared to be very wealthy and the maiden seemed to be their only child. “You must spend some time with us,” said the father. Namjil was happy to oblige but could he? “But sir… I’ve just five days left in the army and I shall be failing in my duties if I were to stay here and neglect the horses in my charge.”
“Oh... don’t you worry about that. One of my men will tend to them," assured the father. So Namjil stayed there for the next four days and enthralled the family with his singing. It was but natural for the girl to fall in love with the handsome young singer. Namjil reciprocated the feelings but soon it was time to leave.
“I must now return to my camp. But once I’m relieved of my responsibilities, I will return,” he told the girl. “And I’ll wait for you near the lake with my black stallion," she promised.
Back at the camp his Commander was very happy to see the horses looking shiny-coated and healthy. “You’ve done a marvelous job with the horses, Khokhoo! They have never looked better, how can I let you go?"
“But sir, you said I could...," Namjil pleaded and his superior did not press him further. Once released from the army, Namjil rushed back to the lake side. As he began to sing another haunting love song, the girl in the green deel appeared once more on her black horse and together they rode to that unknown mysterious destination.
The girl’s parents were very happy to get the young couple married. Namjil lived happily with his new family, oblivious of his past life. Now there is something you must know about that — back home in the east he had left behind his parents and a young wife. After a while, he began to think of his old home and wished he could go back.
His new wife gifted him a pale brown flying horse with wings. “This horse will take you home at day break and every night you can return here. But do not let anyone else ride it and before you enter your village, let it catch its breath," she said. So Khokhoo Namjil returned to his village with his beautiful brown horse and went back to his old life of herding horses.
His wife found it strange that he did not want to spend his nights at home. She also noticed how fiercely possessive he was about his new horse.
Every night Namjil herded the horses to a cave and then took off on his flying horse to his home in the West. But once he got late and while returning on his flying horse at daybreak, he forgot to let it slow down and catch its breath (that was when the magic wings folded themselves and became invisible) and rode all the way home. His first wife, who saw this from her yurt, went out with a huge pair of scissors and cut off the wings. The horse fell and bled to death.
Namjil was heartbroken for he knew he could never return to the girl in the green deel. He missed his pale brown horse too. He neither ate nor slept and mourned for three months. He then fashioned a piece of wood in the shape of his beloved horse and covered it with its hide.
He made a bow and two strings with horse hair and thus was born Morin Khuur, the Mongolian horse-headed fiddle. Playing his new instrument, he sang the sweetest and the saddest songs but that magic life he briefly had, would never return again.