All sections of society reflect the background mythology of that society, because over time, that mythology permeates into a society’s culture and becomes a part of it.
When you look at various civilizations in ancient times, you may notice many similarities in their mythologies when two societies lived under similar conditions. For example, the nomadic races like the Celts, Picts, Native Americans, and Turks all believed in shamanism and polytheism. They had many gods and goddesses, but when you check out their mythologies, you’ll find they were quite simple compared to those of the more economically stable and civilized societies of the same era. While the nomadic tribes’ beliefs were fascinating, they were simple and their stories were short. In contrast, the Greek and Egyptian myths were full of drama, wars, backstabbing, and scheming. As the nomadic tribes didn’t invest their time in building statues and temples, their stories were slowly forgotten or absorbed by other cultures as time passed. As new religions popped up, the old ones were dismissed, banned, and left to be forgotten. Thankfully, as technology advanced, archeologists have found various new sites to excavate and fresh ways to uncover the old stories, myths, and religions.
When we consider the ancient Turkish nomadic tribes, we see that although the key elements in their religions and mythologies were identical, each tribe added something new to it. Some of the creation myths are very similar, but in this article, I choose to explain the popular myth from the Altay Turks. You will notice that over time, the gods and goddesses have evolved with the tribes, and the stories were adapted according to their changing culture and society. As there were many nomadic Turkish tribes in Asia, they interacted with each other a lot, so their belief systems also interacted. As most of these mythological tales have survived to this day through word of mouth, it’s common to see that although the stories and morals of the stories are the same, the creatures in them appear with different names and aspects. Some gods have different names, but they have very similar powers and origins.
So, let’s take a look at some of the major gods and goddesses in Turkish mythology.
Tengri : Tengri (or “Tanri” nowadays) basically means “God” in Turkish. In those days, there were multiple gods, however, so Tengri was just used as a generic name. Gok Tengri was used to refer to the sky god, while Turk Tengri referred to the god of the Turks. Throughout history, Tengri was also used to describe the biggest and the mightiest of the gods. In order to avoid this getting more complicated than it already is, I will use Tengri in its generic meaning of “God” from now on. In some stories, Tengri is a shortened version of Gok Tengri (Sky God), the mightiest and greatest deity.
Kayra Han : Also called Kaira, Kaira Han, or simply Tengri is the creator of the universe. According to Turkish mythology, he is neither male nor female and is instead a pure-white goose that flies constantly over an endless expanse of water (which represents time). Kayra Han got bored with the endless water and started feeling lonely. Just at that moment, Ak-Ana emerged from the water and told him to create.
As I explained in the beginning, these stories have borrowed from each other and evolved greatly, so the creation myth varies from tribe to tribe. In some tribes, the white goose is called Ulgen and mentioned as Kayra’s son, while in some tribes, Ulgen is the greatest deity.
Again, in some stories, Kayra Han is seen as the greatest deity, while in others he is the son of Gok Tengri. In some, he is actually Gok Tengri himself.
According to the Altay Turks, the Heavens comprised 17 floors, and Kayra Han sat on the top floor. Sometimes, the Heavens are represented as a tree, and it’s said that Kayra Han lived on the 17th branch. This tree is commonly referred to as a birch tree, and it’s regarded as a cosmic connection between the Earth and the Heavens. Kayra Han has three sons, Ulgen ,Erlik, and Kizaghan. In some other stories, Kayra has more than three children, and in some stories, Erlik is a grandchild of Kayra via Ulgen.
Ulgen: As with most religions, the old religion of the Turkish tribes involves elements of duality. Here, purity and goodness are symbolized by Ulgen (in a monotheistic religion, this character would be presented as an archangel), while evil is symbolized by the other son Erlik (what would probably be the devil in monotheism). According to different tribes’ beliefs, Ulgen may actually be the same god as Kayra Han, while in others he is Gok Tengri.
Ulgen is described in more detail than Kayra Han, however. He is known to be the protector of humanity, having even given the gift of fire to the humans. He constantly battles with Erlik, who wants to hurt humanity. Ulgen lives on the 16th floor of the Heavens, although some tribes put him on the 17th floor. He also lives in a golden palace with a huge golden door, all set on a golden mountain. He has long hair and carries a large shield. He can throw lightning with his bow and is in charge of the weather and space. He is equated with the color blue, and he has seven daughters and seven sons, separated into the Ak-oglanlar (the White Boys) and the Ak-kizlar (the White Girls). He also wields a mace that looks much like the tree of life. Two white suns accompany him on each side. He is always depicted as being stronger than his counterpart, namely his evil brother Erlik.
Erlik: Erlik is the representation of the devil in the old Turkish belief systems. He has been banished from the Heavens and the Earth and lives in the underworld, where he rules it from a silver throne inside a green castle made of iron. The story of how Erlik was banished from the Heavens is surprisingly similar to that of Adam and Eve. According to the story, Ulgen created humans from nine branches of a tree. He tells these humans that they can eat the fruit from five branches of this tree, but the remaining four branches are forbidden. Erlik tricks the male Torunge and the female Ece into thinking that these branches are not forbidden, so they can eat as much fruit from them as they want. He waits for the snake that guards the tree to go to sleep, and then he climbs the tree and picks the fruit for the humans. When Tengri realizes what has happened, he curses Ece into giving birth and experiencing all the pain, and he punishes Torunge by making him produce as many children as he should in order to create all of humanity. Erlik, meanwhile, is banished from the Heavens and the Earth, while the snake is punished by making it the embodiment of evil, something to be stomped upon by people. Both Torunge and Ece are banished from the Heavens and forced to live on the Earth.
Erlik is characterized as an old being who is athletic and strong. His hair, eyes, and eyebrows are pitch black. His beard, which has grown down to his knees, looks like a snake’s tongue. He also has horns, a huge black mustache that goes right up to his ears, and curly hair. He also carries a big shield and wields a large sword. He has nine daughters and nine sons. It is said that he rides a black horse or sometimes a black ox. He is associated with the color black.
Mergen: This god is one of Kayra-Han’s sons. He is the god of wisdom, and he lives on the seventh floor of the Heavens. He also wields a bow, and he is known as the god that banished evil from the Earth, because he knows everything. He is very similar to the Greek god Hermes, as they are both wise and quick, and both carry the “double wings” symbol, demonstrating that they are excellent archers. In some tribes, Mergen was associated with the planet Mercury, and people would look to the skies to request wishes from Mergen.
Kizagan: Another of Kayra’s sons, he is depicted as being extremely strong, being the god of war. He lives on the ninth floor of the Heavens. It’s believed that he helps the generals during wars. His rod is a rainbow, but he is symbolized by the color red. As the old Nomadic Turkish tribes were mostly made up of warriors, this god played an important role in their way of life. He is depicted as riding a red camel.
Umay Ana: The goddess Umay is sometimes believed to be one of Kayra’s children. She is considered a good-hearted goddess. She has three horns, wears a white dress, and has long white hair. She is described as a beautiful, middle-aged woman in. She is believed to protect pregnant women and children, and she is a goddess of fertility and light that sends dream spirits to humans. Mostly she lives in the sky, but from time to time, she visits the Earth, where she is seen with an elegant white swan or a white horse. She is associated with the color yellow.
According to some stories, Koyash, Yer Tengri, and Ay Ata are also considered children of Kayra Han. Nevertheless, according to more recent and detailed stories, these three are accepted as Oguz Kagan’s sons, and they have other brothers. So, these will be explained in detail in later articles, leaving one last goddess.
Ak-Ana: Ak-ana is the goddess that came out of the water and told Kayra Han to “create” when the universe was just an endless plane of water. Although she played an important role in creation, we never see her again in stories. She is believed to look like a mermaid with a bluish tail. It is also said that starfish swim/float around her. She also has small-but-pretty horns on her head, showing her might. She is said to live in the Mediterranean Sea. In some other stories, it is said she sometimes emerges from the water in the form of a deer.
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