Chuvash Religion

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CHUVASH RELIGION . The nearly two million Chuvash-speaking peoples inhabit the Chuvash Republic, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan, all autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. The Chuvash have had a long history of contact with Islam and Christianity that has in varying degrees affected the traditional indigenous religion.

In the first few centuries bce the Turkic language family separated into two groups: the first now includes the Turkish spoken in Turkey and the Turkic languages spoken in the Russian Federation, Poland, Iran, Afghanistan, and China. The second group, which included Khazar and Bulgar until they became extinct in the Middle Ages, is now made up solely of Chuvash. Thus the Chuvash language and people play a key role in reconstructing most of what is known today of ancient Turkic religion.

In the eighth century the Chuvash moved from the south to the middle Volga region, where they formed the major part of the Volga Bulgar empire, a state that came under Khazar jurisdiction. A gradual Islamization from the region of Khorezm, however, led to the Volga Bulgar emperor's acceptance in 922 of the religious authority of the caliph in Baghdad. The empire flourished until the Mongol invasion of 1236, when the Chuvash found shelter and a fair degree of autonomy in the forested regions on the right bank of the middle Volga. The Kipchaks of the Kazan region, however, posed a constant threat and tried to spread Islam. By the middle of the sixteenth century Russian colonization reached the Chuvash territory; after their occupation of Kazan, the Russians began attempts to Christianize the Chuvash, who tried to evade conversion by fleeing to the lands between the Volga and the Ural.

The Chuvash joined forces with Muslim Tatars and Bashkirs in several unsuccessful uprisings against the Russians in the eighteenth century. By the 1860s large numbers of Chuvash tried to convert to Islam as a last resort, but these efforts were also thwarted by the Russians, who, in addition to their existing policy of translating the Bible and Russian Orthodox religious books into Chuvash, began to set up schools that featured Chuvash as the medium of instruction and a curriculum that was almost entirely religious. By the end of the nineteenth century more than fifty such schools had been established among the Chuvash. Although many Chuvash finally converted as a result, the indigenous traditions, amalgamated with some Christian and Islamic elements, continued to flourish into the twentieth century.

Chuvash popular religion comprises traditional elements to which have been added significant layers of Islamic influence and a certain, though superficial, stratum of Russian Orthodox Christianity. The core of the traditional religion has preserved elements of the ancient Turkic religion.

The central figure of the Chuvash pantheon is Tura, whose name is a Chuvash derivative of the Old Turkic deity name Tängri (Tengri). The name Tură is also used for the Muslim and Christian God and was adopted in the Chuvash translations of the Bible. The Old Turkic name Tängri denoted both "God" and "sky." The latter meaning is now absent from Chuvash, but its earlier presence can be inferred, and its disappearance can be attributed to a transformation of beliefs through the influence of Islam and Christianity. The concept is still retained to a certain extent; "to thunder," for example, is expressed in Chuvash by Tură aśatat, where aśa- carries the original meaning of "father, grandfather, God the father, thunder." Tură, like Tängri prior to contact with Christianity and Islam, is qualified also as the creator, Śuratakan.

The Chuvash medicine man is called yumśă and can be either male or female. The yumśă s cure various types of disease, perform particular rituals, trace stolen or lost animals, take part in weddings, and assist at childbirth. Some scholars have identified the yumśă s with shamans, but this hypothesis is unacceptable, for the yumśă s feature none of the salient characteristics of the shaman, for example, trance, journey to the otherworld, and use of a special garment and a sacred drum. Additionally, it has been recognized that if the yumśă were indeed a shaman, the term itself would be etymologically identical to the Turkic qam, "shaman." Szalontai-Dimitrieva (1982, pp. 171178) has pointed out the difficulties of this identification and suggests that the term may be a recent loan from a Tatar term that can be traced to the Old Turkic form, yumči, which has a corresponding Mongolian form, domči ("sorcerer, medicine man"). Another important Chuvash figure is a different type of sorcerer, the tuxatmăš. In this case there is no doubt that the concept and role of the tuxatmăš is borrowed. The term can ultimately be traced to the Arabic duʿāʾ ("prayer"). In Chuvash tuka tu- or tuxat- denotes "to cast a spell or charm," and thus the tuxatmăš is the person who casts the spell; the prayer of the Muslim muezzin came to be identified with the sorcerer's incantation. In its present linguistic form, the term appears to have been a recent loan, perhaps from the southern Bashkirs.

Some traits of the Old Chuvash religion can be reconstructed only with the help of other sources. A certain type of sorcerer (Old Turkic, bögüči ) is no longer extant among the Chuvash but most likely was a part of old Chuvash culture. The evidence for this comes from the Hungarians, who borrowed and preserved the concept and role of the bögüči from the Chuvash during their close contact from the sixth to ninth centuries.

Other influences can be found among the Finno-Ugric Mari (Cheremis) people, whose term for sin (sulak ) is derived from the Chuvash śilăx. The Christian Tatars have borrowed their word for prayer, keläü, from the Middle Chuvash. Chuvash also borrowed from contacts with other peoples; their word for human being (śin ) is a loan from the Middle Persian jān ("soul"). Later, the same Iranian term came as a New Persian loan into Chuvash a second time through the Tatar in the form of cun and retained the meaning of "soul."

Not only comparative linguistics but also contemporary Chuvash folk practices serve as a source for reconstructing traditional Chuvash religion. One of the incantations spelled by a yumśă on a sick person refers to a pillar that stands in the middle of the world and supports the sky with the sun and moon on either side. The sky is said to be like the roof of a nomadic tent whose roof cover is closed with a ring. This fits the description of a yurt, although the Chuvash have not lived in yurts for more than seven hundred years. In contrast, the world beneath is not said to be the steppes of the early Chuvash, who were nomads. Rather, this world is said to consist of four types of forest: the "black forest" of leafy trees, the spruce forest, the poplar forest, and the juniper forest. Thus there is a conjunction of the Inner Asian concept of the four cardinal points with the typical "forested" world image of the Finno-Ugric peoples.

The dominant elements of contemporary Chuvash popular religion, however, do not originate from traditional Chuvash religion but from Islam. In some places Chuvash peasants worshiped a god called Xărpan, to whom they sacrificed a white ram. It is thought that the role of this deity, or at least his name, was influenced by Islamic sacrifice, called qurbān in Arabic. The lord of the wolves that protect the sheep is venerated as Pixampar, a name derived from the New Persian payghamber ("prophet"). The Chuvash recognize an evil spirit, who is called Šuytan, from the Arabic shayān.

The most respected of all spirits is the kiremet. The kiremet is the soul of a deceased person. Some Chuvash groups specify that it is the soul of someone who was wicked or evil or who died a violent death. Kiremet s dwell beneath the earth, and all localities have their own kiremet s. In many regions, forest clearings, meadows, cemeteries, hills, or brooks may be worshiped as kiremet s; in this sense the word bears the closest resemblance to its Arabic cognate, karāmah ("miracle"). Usually the area is encircled with a fence and cannot be plowed or used for secular purposes. Periodically, sacrifices are offered within this area. In some regions of northern Chuvashia kiremet s inhabit trees and have a special guard, the kiremet ketüśi ("herdsman of the kiremet "). This designation indicates the influence of the nomadic herdsmen on the nonnomadic forest peoples of northern Chuvashia.

The Chuvash also derived their notion of the angel of death from Islam. He is known both as Esrel (cf. Arab. ʿIzrāʾīl) and Masar Puśě ("ruler of the cemetery," cf. Arab. mazār ). The central orientation in prayer, however, is not toward Mecca, but toward the east, following the Türk tradition. Thus during prayers or sacrifice the Chuvash faces east, and in the grave one's head is positioned on the western side because one must look eastward. The eyes of the dead, and sometimes also the nose, mouth, and ears, are covered with small linen patches. Excavations in the Volga region and in Hungary indicate similar burial customs dating to the ninth century. Until recent times the Chuvash also placed money and food in the grave, and sometimes the saddle, harness, and parts of the horse as well. These practices can be traced to burial customs in southern Russia and Hungary between the eighth and tenth centuries. In some parts of southern Chuvashia the funeral feast is not held until the Friday of the seventh week after death.

In northern Chuvashia the funeral ceremonies include placing a plank between a chair and a table that serves as a "bridge." The soul of the deceased must travel from the chair across the bridge to the table and from there to God. The ceremony is called the Feast of the Grave-post and is derived and transformed from Islam and early Iranian religion. The various elements contributing to Chuvash popular religion are evident in different Chuvash practices; many aspects of this religion, however, remain to be studied systematically by scholars.

See Also

Islam, article on Islam in Central Asia; Tengri; Turkic Religions.


Denisov, Petr Vladimirovich. Religioznye verovaniia chuvash. Cheboksary, 1959. A historical overview of Chuvash religion with attention to the political history of these peoples.

Magnitskii, Vasilii Konstantinovich. Materialy k ob'iasneniiu staroi chuvashskoi very. Kazan, 1881. One of the first descriptions of the "black faith" of the Chuvash, with original texts and Russian translations.

Mészáros, Gyula. Csuvas népköltési gyüjtemény, vol. 1, A csuvas ősvallás emlékei. Budapest, 1909. Materials collected in 1906 in Chuvashia on religion, customs, and folklore; contains original texts with Hungarian translations.

Nikol'skii, Nikolai Vasil'evich. Khristianstvo sredi chuvash srednego Povolzh'ia v XVIXVIII vekakh. Kazan, 1912. Working with original documents, the author describes not only the Christianization of the Chuvash but also their popular beliefs.

Szalontai-Dimitrieva, Judith. "The Etymology of the Chuvash Word Yumśă 'Sorcerer.'" In Chuvash Studies, edited by András Róna-Tas, pp. 171178. Budapest and Wiesbaden, 1982. Includes an analysis of the functions of the yumśă.

New Sources

Braslavskii, Leonid. Religioznye i okkul tnye techeniia v Chuvashii. Cheboksary, 2000.

Salmin, Anton Kirillovich. Religiozno-obriadovaia sistema chuvashei. Cheboksary, 1993.

Trofimov, Aleksei Aleksandrovich. Chuvashskaia narodnaia kultovaia skulptura. Cheboksary, 1993.

Vovina, Olesia Petrovna. In Search of the National Idea: Cultural Revival and Traditional Religiosity in the Chuvash Republic. Washington, D.C., 2000.

Werth, Paul William. "Subjects for Empire: Orthodox Mission and Imperial Governance in the Volga-Kama Region, 18251881." Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1996.

AndrÁs RÓna-Tas (1987)

Revised Bibliography