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TENGRI . The earliest attested occurrence of a word in an Altaic language is the transcription into Chinese of the word tengri in the Qian Han shu (juan 94). It has kept this or a related form (tenggeri, tanara, tängri, tanri, tari, et al.) down to the present day. Etymologically, the word appears to be linked with a verb that means "to turn." It has been used continuously, not only by the "shamanistic" or "animistic" Turco-Mongols but also by those who have adopted universal religions. I shall concern myself here only with its meaning in the former case.

The original use of the word tengri was in designating the physical sky, as in such statements as "The sun is in the sky" or "The clouds darken the sky." This long-held meaning eventually was lost. With the deification of the sky, the word took on two other interpretations as well, either that of sky god or the more vague sense of "god," "deity," and, adjectivally, "celestial" and "divine." It is not always possible to determine whether tengri is being used as an adjective or a noun.

Deities Named Tengri

At the same time that Tengri the sky god emerges (second half of the first millennium ce), Old Turkic inscriptions mention various deities named Tengri, but little information is available on these. Yol Tengri is the "god of roads or paths" or "god of luck" (yol has these two meanings), Öd Tengri is the "god of weather"; there is a Tengri who lies among the reeds as well. No evidence indicates the nature of the relationship between these characters and the sky god. Any attempt to make such a determination is complicated by the fact that the same inscriptions more often refer to much greater divine powers that were never called tengri. "Venerated" or "worshiped" celestial bodies also were never called tengri.

From toponymy and foreign sources, we know that in certain cases mountains are called tengri (for example, Tengri Tag, "celestial mountain"; Chin., Tianshan), as are some lakes (for example, Tengri Nor, "celestial lake," in Mongolia). To add to the confusion, an eleventh-century observer, Mamūd al-Kāshgharī, remarked that the word tengri applies to everything that appears enormousa huge tree, for instance. Knowing this, it is no surprise today to see the sky god, who has a greatly attenuated reality, gradually replaced by great deities who are often called Tengri. Even if one has every reason to believe that the word is an adjective, does this usage not make a god out of a divine being or object? Such is the case with certain shamans, like the one who enthroned Chinggis Khan, Teb Tenggeri ("very celestial"); certain sorcerers ("a holy old woman"); the nation ("my sacred nation"); and most of the khans ("my holy khan"). In fact, there was a Türk sovereign who had no name but Tengri Khan (r. 734741). Finally, scholars are unsure to what extent something called "blue" (in Turkic languages, kök; Mong., köke ), in the sense of an attribute of the sky, is to be identified with God. Examples of this usage are found among the Turkic peoples and among the Mongols; as, for instance, in the case of the Mongol emperor Möngke: Köke Möngke ("blue eternal").

The Sky God

The modern Turco-Mongol peoples who have preserved their ancient religion have less of an interest in the sky god than previously. Most often, the sky is the abode of a celestial god, sometimes anthropomorphized, who has numerous assistantshis sons and daughters, his wife, and many others. The sky is divided into levels, generally seven according to the supposed number of planets. Even in areas where Russian Orthodoxy or Buddhism has had little influence, there are many unstable tengri s, a fact that corresponds perfectly to the traditional ideology. All attempts to classify them are wholly imposed from without and lack foundation in the tradition. As for the sky god, in areas where belief in him persists, he is nonetheless considered to be very distant. The Altaic tribes call him Tengere Kaira Khan ("merciful lord sky"), but his sons and assistants hold the real power, notably the power of creation: they are Bai Ülgen alone or together with Kysogan Tengere and Mergen Tengere. The great god of the Yakuts is Iuriung Aĭyy Toĭon ("white lord creator") or Aĭyy Toĭon. It is believed that he gradually became a deus otiosus. In fact, it appears that he has always been such for the masses. As early as the tenth century, Balik Bayat, "supreme old one" or "supreme wealthy one," is regarded as the creator. I must point out, however, that the ancient cosmogonies are inconsistent and that the problem of origins has only recently been addressed. When creation was later attributed to the sky god, it seems likely that it was in response to questions posed by Muslims or Christians.

The active sky god is an imperial creation that concerns only the imperial religion: the people devoted attention to him only in times when imperial power was sufficient to command widespread obedience to the deity. Occasionally, sincere devotees of the sky god would appear. Such mystics were claimed to be "slaves of Tengri," but no Islamic influence can be discerned in this appellation. The sky god appears already before the common era among the Xiongnu, then later, continually, in all the great political formations up to the fourteenth century. Under the Türk (sixth to eighth century) and under the Mongols (thirteenth to fourteenth century), he is particularly visible. The former call him "blue," "elevated" or "above," and "endowed with power"; the latter add to these qualities that he is "eternal," a characteristic supposedly long implied.

It is not an exaggeration to say that no other deity has responded so much to the needs of his loyal followers. The Turco-Mongol emperor first wanted to gather all those of his race, then the entire world. His god was national (the Tengri of the Türks and Mongols), then universal and unique. There is but one god in the sky and one sole sovereign on earth: such is the ideology. It represents a desperate but unsuccessful effort to promote monotheism; the other deities remained alive in the minds of the people and were more or less associated with the sky god. Even so, the sky god is as predominant as the emperor himself, who "comes from him," "resembles him" (and is sometimes his son), conducts privileged conversations with him, receives and transmits his orders, conquers in his name, names dignitaries in his name, rewards and punishes with death (the only punishment of Tengri, used often against those who revolt), distributes to everyone, man or beast, kut, a vitality that brings happiness, and ülüg, luck. Nevertheless, the sky god can do without the emperor when he is weakening or has lost his divine mandate. In such a case he "applies pressure," or sends his messengers: an eagle, an enigmatic angel, some rays of light often accompanied by "dazzling daughters," or the animal guides, particularly the wolf, who are none other than the imperial ancestors. Anyone can talk to the sky god, but shamans are forbidden to have closer relationships with him than the prince does: any pretension of having such a relationship will lead to the shaman's destruction. In contrast, great respect is shown to all those who are specialists in spirituality, notably to foreign priests who are protected and exempted from taxes on the condition that they pray for the emperor's longevity.

It appears that in ancient times the Tengri cult thrived for only short periods; nevertheless, it developed rapidly. Sacrifices of white horses or other animals were offered to Tengri annually or daily, usually on fixed dates or during special events. Prayer itself spread and became an essential element in the Tengri cult in the thirteenth century. Great orisons were conducted by the sovereign from an elevation where, over a period of time lasting from one to three days, he continually bowed in prayer to the sky with bare head and loosened belt. It has always been common practice to go around in a circle on horseback: this is called "going around the sky."

It is a common belief among practitioners of the Tengri cult that souls reside in Tengri before their incarnation and that the souls of the deceased return to him. In fact, when a death is announced, one says "He flew off" or "He became a gyrfalcon." The destination is specified: "He climbed to the sky with his body" and "In the sky you will be as among the living." However, beliefs probably concern particularly great personages and those who will be needed in the beyond to serve them.

See Also

Buriat Religion; Chuvash Religion; Mongol Religions; Turkic Religions; Ülgen.


For the most part, the sky god of the Altaic peoples has been studied in works relative to their religion, particularly contemporary beliefs. Wilhelm Schmidt, in his perspective of primitive monotheism, accords Tengri an eminent place in Der Ursprung der Gottesidee, vols. 912 (Münster, 19491955). Paul Pelliot has written primarily a linguistic work: "Tängrim> Tärim," T'oung pao 37 (1944): 165185. The only monograph is my "Tängri: Essai sur le ciel-dieu des peuples altaïques," which appeared in four parts plus additional notes in Revue de l'histoire des religions 149 (JanuaryMarch 1956): 4982, (AprilJune 1956): 197230; 150 (JulySeptember 1956): 2754; (OctoberDecember 1956): 173212; and 154 (JulySeptember 1958): 3266.

New Sources

Birtalan, Ágnes. Die Mythologie der Mongolischen Volksreligion. Stuttgart, 2000.

Rona-Tas, Andras. "Materialien zur alten Religion der Turken." In Synkretismus in den Religionen Zentralasiens: Ergebnisse eines Kolloquiums vom 24.5. bis 26.5.1983 in St. Augustin bei Bonn, edited by Walther Heissig and Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, pp. 3345. Wiesbaden, 1987.

Jean-Paul Roux (1987)

Translated from French by Sherri L. Granka
Revised Bibliography