ÜLGEN , sometimes called Bai Ülgen ("rich Ülgen"), is a deity venerated by the Turkic peoples living in the Altai and Sayan mountains in southern Siberia. Ülgen is also known to the east, among the Mongol Buriats.
In Altai-Sayan Turkic mythology Ülgen figures as the highest deity. He created earth and heaven and all living beings. He is the master of the good spirits, the lord of the upper world, the realm of light; he is the protector of humankind. After him stands Erlik Khan, the lord of the lower world, the realm of darkness; Erlik is the master of the evil spirits. Both Ülgen and Erlik Khan determine the fate of human beings, who live in the middle world.
In the Buriat pantheon Ülgen plays a secondary but revealing role: the deity is regarded as female, a goddess of earth. The Buriats call her Ülgen Ekhe ("mother Ülgen") and consider her the female counterpart of Ünder Tengeri ("high heaven"). Ülgen becomes directly equated with earth in the expression ülgen delkhei, which connotes both "wide earth" and "mother earth."
The Buriat Ülgen seems to be a relic of an ancient Turco-Mongol cult dedicated to Ülgen as a terrestrial deity. Her character, however, has undergone an essential transformation in the religion of the Altai-Sayan Turkic people. Ülgen has gradually usurped functions of the male deity Tengere Kaira Khan ("heaven, the gracious khan"), the highest god of heaven, thus changing herself into a male deity. But Ülgen has not been able to supplant Tengere Kaira Khan completely. Thus Ülgen sometimes figures as the first of Tengere Kaira Khan's sons, not residing, as he does, on the seventeenth level of heaven, but on the sixteenth.
Nevertheless, in some of the myths, as well as in popular belief, Ülgen has succeeded in attaining the rank of highest deity. His name has been placed beside those of other deities used by Turkic and Mongol peoples to designate their highest being: Tengri ("heaven"; Türk); Köke Möngke Tengri ("blue eternal heaven"; Mongols, Buriats); Esege ("father") and Malan Tengeri (Buriats); Khormusta (Mongols, Buriats, Tuvin, and Altaic Turkic peoples); Iuriung Aĭyy Toĭon ("white good lord"; Yakuts); Burkhan Bagši ("teacher Buddha"; Tuvin); and Kudai ("god"; Altaic Turkic peoples).
The various sources do not give a uniform description of Ülgen's character. Several indigenous conceptions of different historical and regional origin became mixed with foreign ideas, owing to Russian Orthodox missionary work and contact with Buddhist neighbors. Nevertheless, Ülgen's form and functions are sufficiently clear, in spite of discrepancies and contradictions in detail.
Hovering over the primeval ocean, Ülgen and the first man, in the form of two ducks, create the earth from mud taken from the bottom of the sea. In other traditions Ülgen uses mud to create the first human. Both motifs are indigenous conceptions. Christian influence may be evident in two other motifs: Ülgen makes the first woman from two ribs of one of the first seven men, who then becomes her husband; the woman, seduced by a snake, eats forbidden food from the first tree and then gives it to her husband.
Having attempted to become like Ülgen, the first man is expelled to the lower world by the deity, who names him Erlik—a figure also well known in Buddhist mythology. The second man, Mangdyshirä, the Buddhist bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, directs the three fish that support the earth, using a leash that is fastened to heaven. Thereby he controls heaven and earth. Having created the first parents of humankind, Ülgen retreats into his castle on the top of the cosmic mountain. He entrusts the supervision of humans to the third man, Maitärä, the Buddha Maitreya.
Ülgen is described as an old man with a long beard. Thus he becomes identical with White Old Man, a fertility god who is also known among other peoples. Ülgen also preserves distinct characteristics of a tribal deity. He has a wife, sons, daughters, and servants; many of his sons are spirits of Altaic clans.
The fact that Maitärä, the third man, is Ülgen's representative on earth does not exclude people from direct contact with Ülgen and does not prohibit them from asking him, for instance, for abundant cattle, for good crops, or for protection against all kinds of evil. The means that can be used for this purpose are prayer and sacrifice, which are also offered to other good gods and spirits, including Erlik Khan. The animals used for sacrifice seem primarily to be horses and sheep. Sacrifices can (but need not) be made with the help of a shaman, as in the famous horse offering described by Wilhelm Radloff. The shaman kills a horse and, accompanying its soul, penetrates through all the layers of heaven until he reaches Ülgen. The deity informs the shaman whether or not the offering has been accepted favorably, and the shaman learns of impending dangers, such as bad harvests. It is uncertain if the cult of Ülgen has survived to the present day.
Ülgen's character, cult, and position in the religion of the Turkic peoples of southern Siberia have been discussed in great detail by Wilhelm Schmidt in volume 9 of his classic Der Ursprung der Gottesidee (Münster, 1949). Schmidt gives ample quotations from the works of Russian scholars, particularly from Wilhelm Radloff's Proben der Volksliteratur der türkischen Stämme, vol. 1 (Saint Petersburg, 1866), and Aus Sibirien (Leipzig, 1893), and from A. N. Anokhin's Materialy po shamanstvu u altaitsev (Leningrad, 1924). Ülgen and the horse sacrifice dedicated to him have also been dealt with by Mircea Eliade in his Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, rev. & enl. ed. (New York, 1964). Brief but valuable elucidations of Ülgen's role in Turkic and Buriat religions have been given in recent Soviet publications by such authors as V. P. D'iakonova, T. M. Mikhailov, and S. Iu. Nekliudov.
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Klaus Sagaster (1987)