The ancient Turks believed that 17 Deities ruled the Universe, whilst the Mongols counted 99. From ancient and medieval sources (Turkish, Mongolian, Chinese, Byzantine, Arab and Persian) we learn that in both the Turkic and Mongolian Pantheons superiority belonged to Tengri. The various Turkic peoples had similar names for the Sky God: Tatar - Tengri; Altai - Tengri; Turks - Tanri; Khakases - Tigir; Chuvash - Tura; Yakuts - Tangara; Karachai-Balkars - Teyri; Kumyks - Tengiri, Mongols - Tengeri. The Turks and Mongols believed that all existence in the Universe was attributed to Tengri, the Sky God. It was Tengri who ruled the fate of entire nations and their rulers, the Khagans. The Orkhon Stone contains the following inscription: "All human sons are born to die in time, as determined by Tengri." Tengri was worshipped by lifting one’s hands upwards and bowing. Prayers to Tengri were only for health and assistance in good deeds. Tengri later received a Persian name (Khodai) and missionaries attempted to identify him with the Christian God or the Islamic Allah, in order to win converts. However, the great Sky God, Tengri became neither God, nor Allah.
Yer (Earth-Spirit) and Tengri (Sky-Spirit) existed in harmony and complemented each other. The Earth gave man a material shell, but his soul (Kut) was given at birth by Tengri who took it back after death. There is an element of dualism here, but Tengri reinged supreme. It is known from Chinese sources that the ancient Turks believed that Tengri determined man’s longevity. Tengri justly rewarded and punished. Expressions such: ‘Tengri jarlykasyn’ (may Tengri reward you), ‘Kuk sukkan’ (damned by the Sky) and ‘Kuk sugar’ (the sky will damn) are heard even today. Tengri gave the Khagans (Khans) wisdom and authority. We read on the monument honouring Bilge-Khagan: "After the death of my father, at the will of Turkic Tengri and sacred Turkic Yer-Sub (Earth-Water), I became Khan... Tengri who gives the states (to Khans), made me Khagan, it should be known, so that the name and glory of the Turkish people would not disappear." In the monument honouring Kul-Tegin, we read: "Tengri, who rules my father, Ilterish-Khagan, and my mother, Ilbilgya-Katun, from above, ennobled them... As Tengri gave them strength, the army of Khagan, my father, was like a wolf and his enemies like sheep."1 On the 8-9th century stone carvings, found on the banks of the Orkhon and Tola rivers, in Altai and in Tuva, the Turkic Khans-Batyrs (mighty Heroes) left to their descendants these words: "… For the Turkic people I did not sleep nights and days, did not rest... Let not the Turkic people vanish! Let not the name and glory of the Turkic people perish!"
After a Khagan ascended to the throne, he was referred to as a son of Tengri, for it was Tengri who had given the Khagan to his people and it was He that punished those who turned against their ruler, "... instructing the Khagan, who attends to state and military affairs."2 A man became Khagan, and lived under Tengri's protection only for as long as he himself lived by Tengri's laws. During the election of a Khagan, the Beks felt that Tengri Himself had determined the outcome. A legitimate Khan was therefore looked upon as "Tengri-like... begotten by Tengri... a wise Turkic Khagan". A Khagan (Khan) should be brave, clever, honourable, vigorous, fair, and have the virtues of a Bozkurt (wolf). With these qualities, a Khagan could unify Turkic tribes into a single nation. Ancient Turkic inscriptions refer to punishments by Tengri of individuals and tribes. Oath breakers were subject to heavy punishment, as was disobedience to the Khagan. However, Tengri could also punish the Khagan. Chinese chronicles describe a case where one Khagan decided not to keep his promise to give his daughter as a wife to the emperor of the Northern Chow dynasty. He later kept his original oath out of fear of punishment. If the Khagan ruled improperly, it was said that it was Tengri who caused him to lose his authority, via the will of the people. Divine punishment followed transgression during one's lifetime and Tengri's power over man ended after his death.
Timing and Protocol of Sacrifices to Great Kuk Tengri
The Kuk-Tengri (Blue Sky) is a non-material spiritual Sky, the words ‘Tengri’ and ‘Sky’ being synonymous. The epithet ‘Kuk’ was also given to some animals, such as horse (kuk at), ram (kuk teke), bull (kuk ugez), deer (kuk bolan), dog (kuk et), wolf (kuk bure). This did not describe the animal's colour, but rather it’s divine origin.
Chinese references to Kuk Tengri rituals are few. The Choushu Chronicles state: "In the 5th month, the Turks usually slaughter sheep and horses as a sacrifice to Tengri." Another record adds: "Each year the Khagan leads nobles to the cave of his predecessors with offerings... to Tengri’.4 The ancient Turkic ritual of sacrifice to Great Kuk Tengri is still preserved among the Altai peoples. Likewise, Khakases organise the annual prayer to Tengri in the middle of June. This coincides with the time of prayer recorded by the Chinese sources, which in the modern calendar falls between the 5th and 10th of June. Tatars also preserve the celebration at the beginning of summer, but only in a truncated form and under the name Saban-Tui. The Buryats living in Transbaikalia and Siberia use the name Subarkhan. The epithet of the deity, ‘Kuk Tengri’ (Blue Sky) is a distinctive aspect of ancient Turkic and Mongolian ritual terminology, carried through the centuries and preserved by the Altai.5 For almost 1,500 years (2nd c. BC to 14th c. AD) the Turkic kingdoms organised annual national sacrifices to Tengri, lead by the Khagan himself. In the beginning of summer, at a time determined by the Khagan, the tribal leaders (Beks), important warlords and Noyons would gather in the Horde (capital). Together with the Khagan (Khan) they would go to the sacred mountain to sacrifice a colt to Tengri. Thousands of people from nearby auls (villages) and cities would gather at sacred mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and springs simultaneously and tens of thousands of fires would be lit on these sacred grounds, prior to the sacrifice of horses and sheep. Sacrifices ended with common celebratory feasts and competitions.
The rituals of the ancient Turkic peoples had various functions and consequently they varied. Some were accompanied by sacrifice, whilst others were limited to prayer. The national ritual sacrifices were meant to reconstruct the most sacred point in the Universe, the Cosmic Tree. The ritual was conducted on a spring morning on a mountain between four sacred birches, symbolising the four points of the compass. A large sacred fire was lit in the East. The East symbolised the beginning of space and time and became a starting point in the creation of the world. Then, whilst walking in the direction of the sun, each mountain and river were honoured by invoking their names. The symbolic Universe was filled with objects, in imitation of the Cosmos, and participants circled the periphery of this ritual space. At the beginning, a rope was tied to the eastern birch. Whilst circling, it was stretched around the four birches, replicating an enclosed space with a boundary, as a sign of stability. The same symbolism defined the forms of many ritual structures, i.e., the ‘memorial fences’, of the ancient Turks. In mythological tradition the world is reliable if the same coordinates coincide for all its spheres. It becomes repeatable, reproducible and as a consequence, controllable by humanity.
L.P. Potapov studied the ancient beliefs of the Turks for more than a half-century in the Altai. He collected, recorded and preserved valuable materials about worship and sacrifices to Tengri by the Kachines and Beltirs, commonly called Khakases today.
Prayer was organised on the top of a specific mountain, next to a sacred birch (bai kaen). If no naturally growing birch was there, it was dug out from elsewhere with the roots, brought here and replanted. The Abakanian Kachines (Troyakov, Ulus) organised worship to Tengri on a mountain called Saksor. The inhabitants of various seoks (localities where particular clans lived) gathered there. The ceremony was sponsored by only one seok, in accordance with an agreement reached at a previous gathering. Neither women, nor girls were permitted to participate and even female domestic animals could not be present. The sacrificial lambs were mostly white males, preferably with a black face. Three to 15 were sacrificed, depending on the number of participants who had brought animals. Men coming to the ritual attached two ribbons, white and blue, to their headdress. After their arrival on the mountain the ribbons were removed, fumigated with a medicinal herb (yerben od) and attached to the branches of the sacred birch.
This ritual did not involve a Shaman (Kam), but was led by an old man who knew The Algys (the words of a text called Algyschan Kizi). He was dressed in felt clothes and wore a high headdress. A sacred fire had been lit some distance behind the western birch. Between it and the birch was a little table, made from branches. Cups, dishes and spoons made from bark were placed upon it. The ritual started with an appeal to the sacred birch and utensils. Simultaneously the procession encircled the birch three times. The Algyschan Kizi would make appeals to the sacred birch, whilst followers splashed wine and milk onto it. After a third circle, they stopped, drank one sip of the remaining wine and milk from the cups and slaughtered the lambs. This was done the ancient way, Osot Sogarcha, where the animal was rolled onto its back, a hole made in the thorax, before a hand plunged through the incision to rip out the aorta. The blood could not be spilled onto the ground during the ritual slaughter. The meat was then cooked and the broth with pieces of meat was put on the little table, together with wine, milk and cheese. Another procession followed, which again circled the birch three times, whilst participants carried the table. After each round, the Algyschan Kizi threw pieces of meat, cheese and sprayed wine and milk over the tree, whilst asking Tengri for health. Simultaneously everybody raised their hands to the sky, bowed and exclaimed: 'Tengre! Tengre!' With the last circle around the sacred birch the prayer ended and the ritual meal began. After the meal, all remaining meat, bones and the skin of the sacrificed lamb, including the head and legs, were burnt in the sacred fire. Before departure they agreed which seok would sponsor the following year's ritual. After the descent from the mountain, the games and entertainment began.
The Tengri rutual of the Beltirs had some specific features. It was organised by the Beltirs in the Teya River basin. The supplier of the sacrificial lamb braided an eight-yard rope and bought a dead eagle or bercut. The bird was plucked before the ceremony and those that would attend took feathers, from which they made feather hat-bands (ul durbe). Adult sons living with their parents did not wear hat-bands. In addition to feathers, red, black and white ribbons were added to the hat-bands. The feathers and the ribbons alternated between facing up and down. This attractive band was worn over the headdress at the time of departure for the ceremony, after performing an Alas (fumigation with ‘yerben’ grass). On the day of the ceremony, the man who provided the sacrificial animal left home early. He was called Tutchan Kizi and had to be the first to arrive at the site to light a sacred fire. Reaching the top of the mountain, he approached the four birches, unsaddled his horse, spread shabrack (kichim) on the site and placed his headdress on it. Then using only flint, he started a fire near the birches. Not far from the main fire (ulug ot) was a second, smaller fire (kichi ot). The first fire was intended for burning the sacrificial animal, the second for cooking the meat of another eight lambs, slaughtered for the ritual meal. Only men were allowed to participate, who removed their hats on arrival and placed them on the shabrack, next to that of the Tutchan Kizi.
Climbing the mountain was possible only on colts or geldings. Those arriving on a mare, left it at the base of the mountain and ascended by foot, or joined some other rider. The men sat to the south of the small fire and drank araka, before slaughtering the lambs. The sacrificial lamb was slaughtered the ancient way, the others as per usual, by slitting the throat. The sacrificial lamb’s meat was cooked on the main fire, the others on the smaller one. The cooked meat of the sacrifice was placed in a separate wooden dish (tepsi), and the meat of the other eight lambs placed in another. During cooking one of the Beltirs, who knew the words of the Tengri prayer, approached the pile of headdresses (uldurbe) and attached them to a long rope (chilpag). He braided the rope with the ul durbe bands, then went to the opposite (eastern) sacred birch and attached the end of the rope to it. Then, holding in his hands the other end of the rope, he went southwards for its full length. Behind the man with the chilpag (Chilpag Tutchan Kizi) there were two Beltirs with tepsi. The leader made a prayer to Tengri, whilst a man standing behind him sprinkled sacrificial wine towards the Sky with a bark spoon. The men holding dishes with boiling meat extended their hands and the man with the chilpag rope raised and waved it. The old man leading the prayer called the names of prominent mountains and rivers, turning towards the four directions, each time raising boiled meat, waving the chilpag, sprinkling wine and bowing. After the ritual, they ate lamb, drank araka and burnt the meat of the sacrificed lamb on the first fire, together with its entrails, skin and bones, until nothing remained. The chilpag rope was tied to all four birches. The plucked bird was left to dry on the birch, where the chilpag had been tied. After the prayer, the men discussed who would supply the sacrificial lamb and start the fire the following year. When a man was chosen, a large wooden cup of araka was offered to him. The ceremony ended before sunset.
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