views updated


ERLIK , or Erlik Khan ("King Erlik"), is a deity of the Turkic peoples of Siberia (Yakuts, Altai-Sayan Turkic tribes, Tuvin) and of the Mongolian tribes (Mongols, Buriats, Oirats/Kalmucks). Generally, Erlik is considered to be lord of the lower world and judge of the dead.

It seems, however, that Erlik (possibly meaning "the mighty one," from the Old Turkic term erklig ) originally was a celestial god. This role can be surmised from Erlik's character as Lord Spirit of the Blue Boundlessness in the religion of the Yakuts of northeastern Siberia, who separated from their Turkic and Mongolian kinsmen in early times. Erlik's heavenly origin is also attested by Altai-Sayan Turkic tradition. Here, however, he has already been degraded to a position second to Ülgen (Kudai), their supreme deity. He is the first man, Ülgen's brother or created by him, assisting him in the creation of the earth. Erlik wants to become equal to Ülgen, however; he wants to create land himself. He also tries to seize all human beings created by Ülgen, seducing them to take forbidden food from the first tree. As a result, Erlik is banished from the celestial realm.

Thus Erlik becomes the ruler of the lower world, the king of the realm of darkness, which is opposed to the upper world, the realm of light. Erlik, his sons and daughters, and a host of other mischievous spirits created by him cause all kinds of misfortune, sickness, and death. Animals must be sacrificed to pacify the evil forces, sometimes with the help of shamans who risk the dangerous descent into Erlik's world. Specific sites in this place of horror, such as the lake of tears and the bridge of one hair that must be crossed, as well as details of Erlik's sanguinary appearance, are vividly described in various myths.

Heavenly origin is also attributed to Erlik in Buriat, Tuvin, and Mongol traditions. In Buriat shamanism, Erlen (i.e., Erlik) Khan leads the cruel black or eastern spirits against the friendly white or western spirits. At the same time he is the king of the lower world.

Erlik's role, however, has not become completely negative, as can be seen from the special relationship between him and the souls of humans. In Altai-Sayan tradition Ülgen makes the body from soil and stone, and Erlik blows in the soul. When Erlik became the devil, he remained as subject to Ülgen as he had been when he assisted him in creation. Of course, he tries to force the souls of the deceased into his realm in order to make them his servants. Soon he becomes an agent of divine justice, however, the judge of the dead who administers his office by order of Ülgen. His judgment is not arbitrary, but just.

Erlik remained a figure in the religious thought of the Christianized Turkic peoples, and he became identified with the Mongolian Buddhist judge of the dead, the Tibetan Gsinrje, and the Indian Hindu-Buddhist Yama. Erlik, the bull-headed, dreadful "protector of the [Buddhist] religion" (nom-un sakighulsun) and "king of Dharma" (nom-un khan ), judges the dead using his mirror and the count of white and black pebbles representing good and evil deeds. Those condemned to hellish punishments are tortured by Erlik's executioners. There can be no doubt that Erlik also preserves traits of the Indian Yama's Iranian counterpart Yima, who is regarded as primordial man and primordial king.

See Also



Erlik's character in the religion of the Altai-Sayan Turkic peoples has been discussed by Wilhelm Schmidt in volume 9 of his Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (Münster, 1949). Erlik's fall is impressively related in an Altai Turkic myth translated by V. V. Radlov in his Proben der Volkslitteratur der türkischen Stämme, vol. 1 (Saint Petersburg, 1866), pp. 175184. Erlen Khan of the Buriats is described in Garma Sandschejew's "Weltanschauung und Schamanismus der Alaren-Burjaten," Anthropos 23 (1928): 538560, 967986. Notes about Erlik Khan and his cult among the Mongols can be found in Aleksei M. Pozdneyev's Religion and Ritual in Society: Lamaist Buddhism in Late Nineteenth-Century Mongolia, edited by John R. Krueger, translated from the Russian by Alo Raun and Linda Raun (Bloomington, Ind., 1978), pp. 122123. Important additional information about Erlik can be found in recent Russian publications, for example, see T. M. Mikhailov's Iz istorii buriatskogo shamanizma (Novosibirsk, 1980), pp. 168169, which also examines divergent opinions about the etymology and character of Erlik/Erlen.

New Sources

Rinchen. Les matériaux pour l'etude du chamanisme mongol. Wiesbaden, 1959.

Roux, Jean P. "Les religions dans les societes turco-mongoles." Revue de l'Histoire des Religions 201 (1984): 393420.

Urbanaeva, I. S., and Institut mongolovedeniia buddologii i tibetologii. Shamanskaia filosofiia buriat-mongolov: tsentral'noaziatskoe tengrianstvo v svete dukhovnykh uchenii: v 2-kh chastiakh. Ulan-Ude, 2000.

Klaus Sagaster (1987)

Revised Bibliography