Turkic Religions

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TURKIC RELIGIONS . Throughout the course of their long history, the Turkic peoples have simultaneously or successively practiced all the universal religions (Christianity, especially Nestorian Christianity; Judaism; Manichaeism; Buddhism; and Mazdaism) before the majority of them were won over to Islam. However, before yielding to these religions, they held their own system of beliefs, their own personal representations. These are generally identified as "animism" or "shamanism," even though the last term cannot even begin to cover the whole of the religious phenomena. Their "national" religion, largely shared by the Mongols and certainly the Tunguz, is still practiced today. It has been kept alive among certain Siberian and Altaic groups and, to a much greater extent than is realized, within the very institution of Islam, to which it has more or less adapted without abandoning or altering many of its original characteristics.

This is not to say that the indigenous Turkic religion is free of every foreign element. It developed in contact with other ideas, notably those from China and Iran. It has continually evolved and grown richer over the course of centuries, either through internal development or the influence of great civilizations. It is, in fact, quite flexible and is based on tolerance and religious coexistence. Certainly, it is essentially a mystic religion. Its beliefs have never been solidly unified, and, as we are beginning to better understand, they are like two diverging branches of a common trunk: the popular one is centered on shamanism, totemism, and a vigorous polytheism; the imperial one is antishamanist, antitotemist, and has monotheistic tendencies in its advocacy of the supremacy of Tengri, the sky god.

Although they are separate, these two branches have not escaped interpenetration. One branch developed under the tribal regime, the other during the formation of the great empires of the steppes, such as those of the Hsiung-nu, the T'u-chüeh or Türk (sixth to eighth century), the Uighurs (eighth to ninth century), or the Mongols (thirteenth to fourteenth century). It must be remembered that the Turkic peoples played a major role in the Mongol empire. This is reflected in the use of the name Tartar (Turkic, Tatar ), which was used to refer to the armies of Chinggis Khan and is none other than the name of a very ancient vassalized Turkic tribe. This expressive name also evoked an infernal river of antiquity, the Tartarus, and had the connotation of "barbarian" as well.

Whether tribal or imperial, however, the prevailing political and social regime allowed a memory of the former to remain, and when the prevailing order was temporarily abolished, along with it was abolished a part of what it had imposed. Nevertheless, it is important to consider the beliefs common to both the popular religion and the imperial religion apart from the beliefs that pertain more particularly to one or the other.

Until recently, it had been considered impossible to understand the religion of the Turkic people in its ancient form. Studies, especially ethnographic ones, have been written on groups of people who continued to practice the religion in modern times (nineteenth to twentieth century). Only recently has it been observed that the inscribed Turkic stelae of the sixth to the tenth century, certain manuscripts (including the dictionary of Mamūd al-Kāshgharī, eleventh century), and foreign sources (especially Chinese but also Byzantine, Arabic, Latin, Armenian, and Syrian) present a considerable wealth of information. This information takes on full meaning when compared with ethnographic notes, medieval Mongolian sources, and pre-Islamic remnants in Turkic-Muslim plastic and literary works. Thus we begin to have, if not a complete knowledge of the ancient Turkic religion, at least a satisfactory view of the overall picture.

Of course, we have acquired more information on some periods and peoples than on others. We have a fair understanding of the religious situation under the empires but know little of the religious situation of the tribes, at least before the modern era. We know something of certain ethnic groups but nothing at all of others. In general, we have sufficient documentation on the period between the foundation of the Türk empire (sixth century) and the conversion of the Oghuz to Islam (eleventh to thirteenth century), as well as on the present era.

The Common Heritage

With a few small exceptions, the Turkic religion has offered structures to all peoples of all social classes in all regions of the Turkic world throughout history. Admittedly, there was a less influential period during which the religion was developing, but it appears to have been firmly established as early as the first century ce. It would be incorrect to believe, for example, that at the beginning of the Türk empire, the western Türk borrowed a cult of fire that was unknown to the eastern Türk from Iran (where it is known to have flourished), for the cult was already pan-Turkic. Because Sogdian, the language of an Iranian people, was used as a written language as far north as Mongolia in the early sixth century, the fact that literary evidence for the fire cult exists in an Iranian language cannot be used to prove that the cult was of Iranian origin. Far less important practices seem to be known in the east but not in the west, such as the wearing of plumes, which did not spread to the west until the Mongolian invasions.

Although the religion was fairly well established early on, certain innovations appeared over the course of time. Without doubt, the dualism already apparent in the Turkic religion has been accentuated through the influence of Manichaeism. From Buddhism has come a conception of hell as a cosmic zone situated under the earth in symmetry with the sky (a deity), as well as the transformation of one of the great mythological characters, Erlik or Erklik ("the virile one, the valiant one") from a warrior who killed the stars at daybreak to the god of the underworld, a king of innumerable demons who not only live on the earth but haunt the entire universe. Equivalent to the Indo-Iranian Yama, he is attested to in Turkic sources as early as the 1200s. The idea of paradise seems to have taken shape in a similar way; the Sogdian word for it, utchmaq, has been confused with the Old Turkic infinitive utchmaq, which means "to fly away" and which was traditionally used, at least in speaking of great individuals, to signify "to die." An innovation that seems to be more important was observed by the Chinese in about 628: "In the past, the Türk had the custom of burning the dead; now they bury them." However, one must consider that the Turkic peoples have always fluctuated between incinerating and burying the dead. Of the pre-Slavic Bulgarians and, in a general way, of the western Türk, it is said, "One phratry burns its dead, the other buries them." The Kirghiz continued to use incineration until they came into contact with Islam.

Ideas that have remained unchanged are those relative to death, the afterlife, and funerary rites (apart from the issue of burial versus incineration). Death, which one hopes will be violent and unnatural (in spite of the respect that is occasionally shown the elderly) is considered the Necessity, Kergek (perhaps a deity). However, it is deeply dreaded and has given rise to bitter regrets, supposedly issued from the mouths of the deceased. Death is eminently contagious and requires a sober approach toward the dying one (generally abandoned) or the deceased. The type of afterlife to be attained depends primarily on the treatment accorded the skeleton. It must be cleaned perfectly: the flesh must be scraped off and the cadaver set on a platform in a tree and exposed. When the bones are clean, they are either buried in the ground (if the deceased is to retain his earthly ties) or burned (if he is to lose them and gain access to the kingdom of the dead). The funerary ceremonies have also survived the centuries without having been changed: they include lamentations and ritual mutilations, declamations (agit) of the virtues of the deceased, a sacrifice, and a communal meal. The meal has been especially important, so much so that the word yog, originally designating the funeral as a whole, would eventually connote only the meal.

The varying forms of the obsequies clearly demonstrate the margin of liberty or of uncertainty that remained within a well-defined context. This latitude occurs again and again primarily in the view of the world. The universe is generally represented as composed of two parallel plains, the sky and the earth (ultimately extended to three with the addition of the underworld). At the same time, it is also seen as a square plateau (earth), covered by a circumscribed dome (sky), with the four corners of the earth being allowed to exist outside the shelter of the sky. The cosmic axis that links the sky, the earth, and the underworld can be a mountain or a tree with seven branches, each branch representing a level of the sky. The levels of the sky are in turn derived from the seven planets still known to have been popularly believed in during modern times but also attested to by prehistoric engravings and by every construction with symbolic value, for example, the pillar of the tent, the ensemble formed by the central hearth of the yurt, and its upper opening, through which the smoke escapes. This axis is at once the support for the sky and the path that permits access to it. Among the numerous microcosms consonant with this view, the yurt, a circular tent in the form of a bell, is the most characteristic. It is protected from exterior influences by the powerful deity of the threshold, which one must kiss upon entering. Although circular in shape, the yurt was oriented first toward the rising sun and then toward the south.

It is possible that the sky and the earth originally may have been placed side by side, but there is more speculation than truth to this. The Orkhon inscriptions (eighth century) speak about origins in two lines: "When the sky above was blue and the earth below was dark, the son of man appeared between them." The Turkic peoples were little interested in the cosmogonical problem or in eschatology. Of the more recent cosmogonies (after the tenth century), the well-known one reported by Wilhelm Radloff (1884, vol. 2, p. 3) and all allusions to the creative power of the sky god were influenced by foreign religions.

The observation of stars is an important occupation. The phases of the moon are considered lucky or unlucky. No projects are to be undertaken when the moon is in its last quarter, although a good time to launch a military campaign is when the moon is waxing or is full. The last days of the lunar month are favorable for obsequies because they mark an end and announce a rebirth. Similarly, human life closely parallels plant life. Trees are born each spring and die each autumn; thus the cadaver is saved for the biannual obsequies, which take place either when the leaves begin to fall or as they grow green again, a fact that explains the aforementioned techniques used to preserve the skeleton. When great personages are taken to their place of final rest, an attempt is made to be in harmony with the vegetative season, the phases of the moon, and the beneficial moments of the solstices and the equinoxes.

The four classic elements make up the universe. Water and fire are of exceptional value. Moreover, they are antagonists and complementary components: fire comes from wood, which is born from water. The last has a fertilizing capacity but above all is pure. It is forbidden to dirty water, even though water does not purify. A "mass of water" is a symbol of knowledge and intelligence, qualities of the sovereign. Fire, which eventually would become a god, is an alter ego of the shaman because of its hypnotic, elevating, and healing powers. It is the great purifier. All defiled objects or those suspected of being defiled, notably anything that enters the camp, must pass between two fires, jump over the fire, or go around it. However, this ancient belief became obsolete in the nineteenth century, while fumigation, also a purifier, remained popular. The hearth, considered the reflection of the family, is protected by numerous taboos. To extinguish it and disperse the ashes would amount to destroying the race. Since ancient times, the great priest of this fire has been the "prince of fire," the ottchigin (derived from ot tegin ), the youngest son to inherit the paternal residencethe heart of the empireafter the older sons had been provided for or endowed with a distant appanage. Today, this office is held by various members of the family, occasionally women. Like thunder, lightningfire from the skyarouses terror and is seen as a divine punishment against the one it strikes.

Every existing thing is inhabited by a force of varying intensity that we could call, although not quite accurately, "spirit," "soul," or "master-possessor." Each force can be broken down into a multitude of forces or can be combined with others to constitute a more vast, collective force. The tree is powerful, but the grove or forest is more powerful. The "eternal" stone is fully effective only when combined with others to form cairns (obo), piles generally located in dangerous passages or passages recognized as such by a sacred mystery. Anything complex like a man or woman, has several souls; human souls reside particularly in the blood (the shedding of which is forbidden), breath, hair, skull, sexual organs, and elsewhere. Thus nothing is simple or stable; everything has variable dimensions, a sort of ubiquity. But everything makes reference to the animal, zoomorphism being the form par excellencethe form of all spirits and of human spirits before their birth, during their life, and after their death. Consequently, everything that exists can appear as it is or in animal form.

In one way or another, all animals have had a numinous role, but certain animals are different from others: the bird of prey, the eagle or falcon, is a divine messenger that flies near Tengri and sits enthroned on the summit of the cosmic tree; the stag is often considered a saint, but is hunted nevertheless; the hare's position is as ambiguous as that of the camel, which is totemized or tabooed as impure; the bear is the quintessential lunar animal, whose hibernation stirs the imagination; geese or swans, which appear in the widespread legend of the swan maiden, may symbolize the celestial virgin; all birds are souls; and the horse, a member of the clan, is the epitome of the sacrificial animal and also often a solar or aquatic symbol.

With the exception of the act of killing another human, combat between an animal and an adolescent, or another animal designated to represent him, constitutes the principal rite of passage. This rite allows a male youth to become part of adult society and gives him rights to women or, rather, constitutes marriage in itself. In effect, the match is an enactment of the sexual act: to conquer the animal is to become both its spouse and its son. It renews and reenacts the primordial ancestral struggle: murder, copulation, and birth. This rite is an ancient legacy clearly attested by the animal art plaques of the steppes, medieval manuscripts, and modern commentary.

Despite a strong family structure, accounts of adoption by animals or humans are numerous, and fraternity is not dependent upon birth alone. Fraternity can be pledged between two strangers through the exchange of significant gifts (osselets, arrows, horses) and particularly through the mixing of blood. The rite that establishes fraternity consists of the two postulants' joining their slashed wrists or drinking mixed drops of their blood from a cup that is often made from the dried skull top of a murdered enemy chief. This giving of one's blood to another man is actually only one variant of the oath. The other form is the giving of blood to the earth, realized through the pouring of one's blood or the blood of a sacrificed animal; this act is performed before the sky, which deeply involves those making the pledge.

The Popular Religion

Despite the pretensions of certain shamans to positions of tribal leadership, shamanism is essentially a religious phenomenon, a dominant one in the religious life of contemporary non-Muslim Turkic peoples and one that is at the heart of the popular religion. It speaks to the people of things that interest them mostthe preservation of their life (magical healings), their future (divination), and their relations with the familiar gods and spirits (the shaman's sacerdotal role, his cosmic voyage). The institution of shamanism is surely quite ancient. Although poorly discernible in antiquity, it was in full bloom by the time of the Middle Ages, despite the total silence of the Türk inscriptions on the subject. This silence does not prove the nonexistence of shamanism but, rather, reflects the care taken to exclude it from imperial records. The oldest descriptions of shamanic séances date back almost to the era when the Old Turkic word for shaman, qam, clearly appears, and when magical healings and divinations were attested to among the Oghuz. Descriptions of such rites among the nomadic Turkic tribes come to us from Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), while similar accounts regarding the Kirghiz come from Marvazī.

Shortly after this period, numerous traces of shamanism appeared among the tribes converted to Islam who became part of the Seljuk hordes. From then on, the information continues to increase and become more precise. In the thirteenth century, van Ruusbroec provided a remarkable description of the séance. From all this medieval information, it appears that the shaman had the ear of the people, communicated with the sky god, was visited by demons, and went into trances to accomplish his cosmic voyages, during which he met many spirits and their auxiliary, or adversary, spirits. His objectives were to cure the sick by expelling the spirits that had entered them or by finding the spirits that had left their bodies, to predict the future, and to exercise certain sacerdotal and political powers. In other respects, the shaman seems to have been a sort of blacksmith, a manipulator of two numinous objects, fire and metal. In any case, he already had rivals: for healing, the first official doctors; for divination, the astrologers (seers who were closer to the princes than to the people) and all kinds of sorcerers, diviners, and prophesiers who waved their wands or arrows and used osselets and dice, who used haruspicy, scapulimancy, and, especially, oneiromancy, and who interpreted divinatory texts. One type of sorcerer who became the shaman's most threatening rival was the "rainmaker," the yadadji, who, with the help of a bezoar, produced thunderstorms on demand. These sorcerers, like the astrologers, worked more freely under the imperial religion than did the shamans, because the sorcerers had no pretensions to power or claims of intimacy with the sky.

The totemic system, which can exist only in tribal societies that employ it to determine basic structures (families, clans), plays a role in the popular religion that is almost as important as that of shamanism. For a long time, totemism was unknown among the Altaic peoples in general; however, in the mid-twentieth century pioneering research by P. J. Strahlenberg, Cho-dzidlo, A. Billings, N. Shchukin, and others revealed a totemic system among both contemporary and extinct Turkic societies, such as the Bashkirs, the Oghuz, and the western Türk. Since the eighth century, the Arabs (as confirmed by certain medieval Turkic texts) have observed a tie between clans of certain tribes and certain animals. The study of these observations reveals, beyond all possible doubt, a totemism, naturally misunderstood in the Arab and medieval Turkic accounts.

It is clear that the people, organized under the tribal system, worshiped numerous gods of human dimension and that they cared little about great deities, notably the Sky. We have seen that they were surrounded by innumerable forces that they had to use or protect: natural forces and even fabricated objects (the "master" of the weapon, its "soul," could render the weapon ineffective). The "masters" of the herd, of game, fish, hunting and fishing territories, and doubtless others all had to be conciliated. The masters that the Old Turkic texts call iduq yer sub, "sacred lands and waters," concerned them most. These also could be the ensemble of indivisible lands inhabited by the tribe, or better, their "master-possessors" (those of other tribes and of foreigners such as the Chinese were recognized). It could also refer to certain privileged parts of this ensemble, often cited by name. The latter lands were "left free," as conveyed by the word iduq. In these areas it was forbidden to carry out any secular activity: hunting, fishing, or felling trees. The idea that the parts of a whole should always be respected was extended to everything. There were also iduq animals within the herd that could not be milked, sheared, or mounted. It was important for the hunters to allow some animals to escape from the game they encircled. At least the first fruits of the harvests had to be set aside unused. At each milking and at each meal, it was customary to set apart a portion of milk or meat to be offered to the gods.

Out of a desire to maintain control over the earth's products, the people made "soul supports"; these represented the spirit protectors of animals and harvests. They were among the numerous idols placed in the yurts and were also transported in carts, which became veritable traveling altars. Constructed of felt, wood, and metal, these zoomorphic or anthropomorphic idols could also represent and contain the soul of ancestors and of all imaginable powers. One took care of them, fed them, and painted them with blood. Ethnographers eventually began to call these idols by the Mongol word ongon (Turkic equivalents: töz, tyn, kürmes ), although ongon actually refers to totems. Some of the highest deities were affected by this idolization, either through a spontaneous irruption of the practice as applied to the lower spirit protectors or through absorption of elements from the imperial religion. In a general way, the cave, the waters, the trees, and the stars were venerated. Every elevation of ground became a place of cult worship: it established the image of an ascent toward the sky, a distant and vague god.

Whereas the tribal and familial deities of ancient periods are poorly understood, it is almost impossible to define the possible ties of the people to the great gods as revealed to us by the imperial texts alone, at least for the period during which the people were not under the empire.

The Imperial Religion

It is difficult to comprehend the significance and the success of the imperial religion without taking into account the tribal organization of society, with its attendant instability, internecine wars, anarchy, and misery. Divided, the inhabitants of the steppes were powerless. United, they became invincible. Therefore, their strength assured free commerce and made possible raids and conquests of the rich lands of sedentary peoples. Despite the tribes' pronounced taste for independence and their attachment to tradition, the empire presented certain advantages that the tribes were prepared to accept, even if it meant losing part of their patrimony along with their autonomy. Certainly the sovereign, promoted through his own genius or through circumstances, was descended from the tribal regime and practiced the popular religion. This fact, together with his need to secure mass support, inclined him to tolerate the tribal religion; but he reorientated it, promoting elements that had been secondary, diluting or eliminating elements that were in essence antimonarchist. The two great victims were shamanism and totemism.

From the imperial viewpoint, shamanism had no alternative but to adapt. During the long medieval periods, shamans had not only attained positions of tribal leadership (without necessarily having the gifts or the means for leadership) but had also pretended to maintain privileged relationships with the invisible, to climb to the sky. As tribal chiefs, they had to accept a superior authority, something that was more difficult for them than for others. As religious leaders, they had to acknowledge that the kaghan, the emperor, had relationships with the invisible world and the sky, relationships much closer than their own. Thus, there was an inevitable conflict between the shaman and the sovereign. However, the contest being unequal, it often ended abruptly or resulted in the inevitable elimination of the shaman. Chinggis Khan's suppression of the influence of the great shaman at his court can be seen as an epitome of this conflict. Even though we have no information, we can assume that the process was the same in other political structures with pan-Turkic tendencies. It is characteristic that the Old Turkic texts do not contain a single word about shamanism: we have already seen why. Nevertheless, it took real courage on the part of the sovereign to disregard the fear inspired in the Turkic peoples by all those who held religious or magical powers, including priests of the religions with which they came in contact.

Totemism was an equally formidable obstacle erected by the tribal regime against the empire. Classificatory and divisive by definition, it was diametrically opposed to the imperial ideal. The duty to which the sovereign was thus called to devote himself consisted of renouncing the various totems of the clan cults and insistently promoting the totem or totems of the ruling dynasty. The ruling dynasty, like every family, like every tribe, was descended either from two united animals or from an animal that had had sexual relations with a human. The sex of the animal or human was not as important in this matter as was the complementarity of the different species. The latter was indicated more clearly and can be seen in the animal art of the steppes: a wildcat and a herbivore, a bird of prey and a rodent, an animal and a human. The myth of origin that was the most widely believed (because it simultaneously served the Türk, the Mongols, and other, smaller, groups) first presented a she-wolf who fed a young boy, married him, and gave him children, thus becoming his mother and wife at the same time. Later this was changed: a wolf was believed to have united with a doe. The content of this myth is particularly rich, especially among the Türk, because it involves the intervention of fertilizing water (the marsh where the she-wolf finds the child), the cave (where she gives birth), and even the bird of prey, which flies above the couple.

However, widespread as it is, this myth is only one among many. One could say that there are as many myths as there are Turkic peoples. Hence, the ancestor of the Kirghiz was a bull or a dog married to forty virgins; the ancestors of the Karakhanids, a lion and a camel. The Oghuz have demonstrated how a theme was able to change owing to unknown influences. Oghuz Kaghan, the eponymic ancestor of the confederation (whose name was etymologically ogush, "tribe") was first named "colostrum" (agiz), then "young bull" (oghuz) after his ancestor, while the wolf remained his guide and protector. Later, the Oghuz had six birds of prey as "totems" when they were divided into six clans and twenty-two or twenty-four when the number of their tribes increased. The exaltation of one's ancestors was emphasized in the Türk empire. Each year the sovereign either went in person or sent a high dignitary to the birthplace (cave) of his family. Türk flagpoles were topped with golden wolves' heads; thus the wolf continued to lead his descendants into battle and also to march ahead of them in migrations.

The imperial ancestor was clearly a divine animal who came from the sky. He was "blue" like the sky and, as described in a relatively recent (post-Chinggisid) text, he could be associated with luminous rays that emanated from the sun and moon. Thus, two different traditions concerning the origins of great men seem to have existedone involving the sexual union of animals, one involving light that came and impregnated a woman or that, itself a radiant daughter, seduced heroes like Oghuz Kaghan. Some attempt was made to combine the two traditions, but never with much success, not even in the case of the Mongols, whose Secret History reveals the efforts made in this respect, or in the Turkic Oghuz name, which owes much to the former.

The popular gods suffered less from the imperial religion. Any major force that contributed to the power of the empire was welcomed, and the Turkic peoples, with their fundamental beliefs in the diffused divine, opposed the disappearance of these gods. (Popular sentiment also had to be respected.) Nevertheless, their fate was not always the same. Some were more or less forgotten, while others were promoted. Still others were obviously approached from a new perspective. The various iduq yer sub, the "forbidden places," the "master-possessors of the earth and waters," were apparently reduced to those originally belonging to the imperial family. The mountains saw their strength become concentrated in two or three summits, such as the Ötükän, where the prince was seated. On the other hand, everything that appeared to be universal, common to all humankind, grew disproportionately. The earth goddess was often associated with the sky god and partook of his indivisibility. The sky himself, principally Tengri, became the sky god and was "blue," "elevated," and "endowed with strength"; he clearly became, at least eventually, "eternal," the supreme god above all others because he was the god of the emperor and was as exceptional as the latter was. The sovereign was "born from the sky," "resembled the sky," and was some times the sky's son, acting in his name as if he were his great priest; but he was also more, something like the sky's projection, his "shadow," as the Muslims would say. He directed the sky's cult, the collective prayers and ceremonial sacrifices in which he had all his people participate. From then on, Tengri concerned all people, all animals, all vegetables. He gave them life, made them grow, and protected them through two specific gifts, kut, a viaticum and celestial "soul," and ülüg, "luck."

The national god of the Turkic peoples, Tengri, was also the god of all men and demanded that all recognize him, that is, that they submit to the Turkic kaghan a demand that caused him to take on the characteristics of a god of war. The worst transgression was to revolt against the prince, that is, against Tengri, and the god knew no other punishment for this than death. Before sending death, Tengri "applied pressure," sent messengers, and intervened in a purely psychological manner. In serious cases, he intervened simultaneously with the more popular gods. In medieval times, at least, there does not seem to have been any notion of retribution or postmortem punishment.

If the popular religion has been passed over in silence by imperial Turkic texts, and often by others, there are nonetheless numerous deities that appear around the sky god without our knowing their connections to him: the earth goddess, the iduq yer sub and other master-possessors, the sacred springs and rivers, the trees, fire, and the mountain. Whether this last represented the "god of the earth," as with Boz Tengri, or whether it constituted the earth's axis, the center of the empire, like the famous Ötükän (in the Greater Khingan Range), its role eventually became so great and imposing that it was generally designated in Central Asia, as the god of the earth. (For example, the sacred mountain of the Mongolians is the Burkhan Qaldun.) The most powerful and stable of these deities that appear around the sky god is Umai (often still called this today but also known by other names, for example, Aĭyysyt among the Siberian Yakuts), a placental goddess of whom al-Kāshgharī says, "If one worships her, a child will be born." She protects newborns and mares and safeguards against puerperal fever. Certain attempts seem to have been made to bring her closer to Tengri; she has been called "close to the khatun," that is, to the empress.

Finally, in addition to grandiose ceremonies (in terms of the empire), the imperial religion apparently promoted cults and new rites. The banner cult supported a particular soul, either of an ancestral animal (often evoked through a statuette or horse or yak tails atop a pole) or of one of the sovereign's ancestors. This gave rise to the feast of the unfurling of standards and to solemn sacrifices. The imperial family adopted the ancient practice of bloodless animal slaughter: they were strangled, suffocated, or stoned. Funerary temples, erected structures that are the only Turkic temples outside of natural sanctuaries (caves, groves, springs, mountains) or domestic sanctuaries (tents, carts carrying idols), have unfortunately come down to us in a deplorable condition. What remains of them, the balbal and the baba, may also be an imperial innovation. The balbal are shapeless stones (eventually wood was used, for instance among the Cumans and Kipchaks) erected to represent enemies slain in combat or immolated during obsequies. The slain enemies represented by the balbal are supposedly at the service of their murderers. For great personages, these monoliths number in the hundreds.

The baba are the funerary statues of deceased princes and, occasionally, princesses. They were not viewed as images of the departed but as images of the living, who, after their death, remained among the people. Not of great aesthetic value, these huge, crude statues, of which a good number of specimens are known, represent the individual standing or seated, always holding a cup in the right hand, which is drawn back over the stomach. These works were the original image of the "prince in majesty" of classical Islam.

It is impossible to know whether belief in an afterlife in the sky was of imperial or popular origin, although there is no lack of presumptions that favor imperial origins: having come from the sky and belonging to it, the prince can only return there. In so asserting, one says that he "flies away," later that he "becomes a gyrfalcon" or that he "climbs up to the sky" where he is "as among the living." But there are also attestations of a celestial beyond for those who did not attain sovereigntya place for those close to the prince, his servants, horses, concubines, and all those who could serve him or be useful to him. However, even if the sky was easily accessible to allsomething we do not knowthere was nothing to prevent the various souls of the same man, even those of a kaghan, from finding other places to inhabit (the tomb, the banner, the balbal, the baba ), from being reincarnated in a new body, or from roaming the universe as an unsatisfied phantom.

See Also

Chuvash Religion; Erlik; Islam, article on Islam in Central Asia; Ongon; Tengri; Umai.


Much research has been done on the formation of religious concepts among the people of the steppes and of Siberia. Mario Bussagli's Culture e civiltà dell'Asia Centrale (Turin, 1970) is a good historical presentation of nomadic cultures. For earlier periods, see Karl Jettmar's Die frühen Steppenvölker (Baden-Baden, 1964), translated by Ann E. Keep as The Art of the Steppes (New York, 1967). For the Huns, see Otto J. Mänchen-Helfen's The World of the Huns: Studies in Their History and Culture (Berkeley, 1973), which has a complete bibliography. Wilhelm Barthold gives the historical context of medieval Central Asia in Turkestan down to the Mongol Invasion (1900), 2d ed., translated from the Russian (London, 1958). For a comprehensive overview of Turkic religion, see my La réligion des Turcs et des Mongols (Paris, 1984), which has a vast but nonexhaustive bibliography. For contemporary religious practice, Uno Harva's Die religiösen Vorstellungen der altaischen Völker, "Folklore Fellows Communications," no. 125 (Helsinki, 1938), is a useful reference work, although quite biased. It has been translated as Les représentations religieuses des peuples altaïques (Paris, 1959). Wilhelm Radloff has devoted himself to a vast study, most of which can be found in Aus Sibirien, 2 vols. in 1 (Leipzig, 1884). Wilhelm Schmidt collected considerable documentation in volume 9 of his Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (Münster, 1949), see also volumes 1012 (Münster, 1955). On the subject of funeral rites and the beyond, see my La mort chez les peuples altaïques anciens et médiévaux (Paris, 1963). On the position of animals and vegetables, see my Faune et flore sacrées dans les sociétés altaïques (Paris, 1966). For a study of the phenomenon of shamanism, see Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, rev. & enl. ed. (New York, 1964). For examples of pre-Islamic relics in Turkic Islam, see John K. Birge's The Bektashi Order of Dervishes, "Luzac's Oriental Religious Series," no. 7 (1937; reprint, New York, 1982), and my Les traditions des nomades de la Turquie méridionale (Paris, 1970). Much work on Turkic religion has been widely published in journals, notably in Central Asiatic Journal (The Hague, 1957). Noteworthy articles in English include those by John Andrew Boyle in Folklore: "A Eurasian Hunting Ritual," Folklore 80 (Spring 1969): 1216; "Turkish and Mongol Shamanism in the Middle Ages," Folklore 83 (Autumn 1972): 177193; and "The Hare in Myth and Reality: A Review Article," Folklore 84 (Winter 1973): 313326. See also Glaubenswelt und Folklore der sibirischen Völker, edited by Vilmos Diószegi (Budapest, 1963).

New Sources

Bainbridge, Margaret, ed. The Turkic Peoples of the World. London, 1993.

Baldick, Julian. Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia. New York, 2000.

Elverskog, Johan. Uygur Buddhist Literature. Turnhout, Belgium 1997.

Garrone, Patrick. Chamanisme et islam en Asie centrale: la baksylyk hier et aujourd'hui. Paris, 2000.

Jettmar, Karl. "Die Religion der Alttürken." In Die vorislamischen Religionen Mittelasiens, edited by Karl Jettmar and Ellen Kattner, pp. 219228. Stuttgart, 2003.

Lieu, Samuel. Manichaeism in Central Asia and China. Leiden, 1998.

Roux, Jean-Paul. L'Asie centrale: histoire et civilisations. Paris, 1997.

Van Deusen, Kira. Singing Story, Healing Drum: Shamans and Storytellers of Turkic Siberia. Montreal, 2003.

Jean-Paul Roux (1987)

Translated from French by Sherri L. Granka
Revised Bibliography