This myth from Mongolia will introduce to you some creatures you’ve probably never heard of before. So let’s first size up this unfamiliar cast of characters. A jerboa is a small, large-eared, long-tailed desert rodent that can pass for a miniature kangaroo with long hind legs to hop with. A marmot is a giant ground squirrel and a swallow, in this context, is a bird!
Long, long ago there were seven suns in the sky. (Remember it’s Mongolia, desert country, where this tale comes from). All day long the suns blazed down and the earth was red, dry and cracking. The rivers dried up, plants withered and animals began to die in the drought. The people were distraught as the heat began to take its toll on them too.
They thought about it for a long time and someone came up with a solution. They turned to Erkhii Mergen, expert archer and hunter. “The heat is just getting too much for all of us to bear. There seems to be the only one way left for us. That is for you to shoot down those seven suns! Otherwise, all of us shall perish in heat and hunger,” they begged of him.
Erkhii Mergen for all his skill and bravery was also a conceited young man. He took his role of super hero a bit too seriously. So he assured them with great confidence. “Oh don’t worry, I’ll do it. Not too much trouble. And that too, I’ll shoot them down with an arrow each, seven arrows for seven suns and all in a day’s work. If I fail... ” Here he paused dramatically for effect, and noting with satisfaction his saucer-eyed audience, “I shall cut off my thumbs and no longer be a man. I‘ll go live as a marmot in a hole in the ground, drinking muddy water and eating dry grass of the last year!”
Needless to say, all the people hailed him and gave him a grand send off as he set off on his trusted horse Quarcagai-Alag. From east to west he travelled, chasing the seven suns that were moving westward across the sky to the horizon.
He shot the first sun with his first arrow, then the second and the third. Bulls-eye every time all the way to the sixth (he was an excellent shot, it must be admitted). But when he aimed his arrow at the seventh and last of the suns, a swallow got in the way. Not the bird’s fault, of course, but just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mergen’s arrow hit the swallow’s tail and the tail was split in two! Know that after that mishap, a swallow’s tail is always forked and grows in two directions. The seventh sun, now frightened, hurried towards the western mountains to hide from Erkhii Mergen.
Mergen, needless to say, was very, very angry. “Everything was going just as planned and now this idiot bird spoils it all! Come on, Quarcagai! Let’s chase that swallow and shoot it down.” Quarcagai-Alag, trusted steed of his master, was eager to please. In his enthusiasm, he told Eikhii Mergen, “Be assured, I’ll chase that swallow from dawn to dusk and if I haven’t caught up with him, you can cut off my forelegs and abandon me on the steppe.”
So Mergen and his horse chased the swallow which flew ahead cheerfully, sometimes even swooping low over their heads. But no matter how much they raced, they could not keep up with the bird. And then dusk fell. Erkhii Mergen was livid and cut off the forelegs of Quarcagai-Alag. And that was how the jerboa came to be, a little mouse-like creature with its long hind legs whose home is the harsh desert land.
As for the cheeky swallow, he still flies above riders’ heads in the evenings, chirping noisily what translates to: You can’t catch me… You can’t catch me....
Poor Erkhii Mergen who was so mad and so sad, that he cut off his thumbs for he had to keep his promise, after all.
He didn’t wish to be a man anymore and turned himself into a marmot. Off he went to live in a dark hole so that he didn’t have to see anyone. He had truly lost face. He never drank the clear spring water again and always ate the dry grass of the previous year.
Marmots only have four claws since the day Mergen cut his thumbs off. And no one is allowed to eat a part of a marmot that is called ‘the human meat’ because the Mongolians believe that it’s a part of Erkhii Mergen’s flesh.
But Erkhii Mergen still remembers his promise to shoot down that last shining sun. So every morning and every evening, forgetting that he is no longer the ace archer he once was, he steps out of his burrow to see if he can still shoot down the sun.
And the poor terrified sun makes a dash across the sky and quickly hides behind the western mountain in the evenings so that Erkhii Mergen does not shoot him down. Thank god for that for what would we do without the one sun we have?