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The Religions of Ancient Eurasia: Turko-Mongols, Finno-Ugrians, Balto-Slavs
241. Hunters, nomads, warriors
The terrible invasions of the Turko-Mongols—from the Huns in the fourth century to the time of Tamburlaine in the fourteenth—were inspired by the mythic model of the primitive hunter of Eurasia: the carnivore pursuing his game on the steppes. In the suddenness and rapidity of their movements, their massacres of entire populations, and their annihilation of the external signs of sedentary cultures (towns and villages), the horsemen of the Huns, Avars, Turks, and Mongols were like packs of wolves hunting the cervidae on the steppes or attacking the herds of nomad shepherds. Certainly, the strategic importance and political consequences of this behavior were well known by their military chiefs. But the mystical prestige of the exemplary hunter, the carnivore, played a considerable role. A number of Altaic tribes claimed a supernatural wolf as their ancestor (cf. §10).
The flashing apparition of the "Empires of the Steppes" and their more or less ephemeral character still fascinate historians. In effect, the Huns in 374 crushed the Ostrogoths on the Dniester, provoking the precipitous migration of a series of other Germanic tribes, and then, leaving the Hungarian plains, ravaged several provinces of the Roman Empire. Attila succeeded in overwhelming a large part of central Europe, but shortly after his death (453), the Huns, divided and bewildered, disappeared from history. Similarly, the enormous Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan in twenty years (1206–1227) and expanded by his successors (to Eastern Europe after 1241; to Persia, Iraq, and Anatolia after 1258; and to China in 1279) declined after the failure to conquer Japan (1281). The Turk Tamburlaine (1360–1404), who considered himself Genghis Khan's successor, was the last great conqueror inspired by the model of the carnivores.
We must insist that these various "barbarians" surging from the Central Asian steppes were not unaware of certain cultural and religious creations of civilized peoples. Moreover, as we will see in a moment, their ancestors, prehistoric horsemen and nomadic shepherds, had likewise benefited from the discoveries made in the diverse regions of southern Asia.
The populations speaking Altaic languages occupied a vast territory: Siberia, the Volga region, central Asia, north and northwest China, Mongolia, and Turkey. Three principal branches are distinguished: (1) common Turkish (Uigur, Chagatai); (2) Mongol (Kalmyk, Mongol, Buryat); and (3) Manchu-Tungus. The primitive habitat of these Altaic peoples had in all likelihood been the steppes around the Altai and Ch'ing-hai mountains, between Tibet and China, extending to the north, as far as the Siberian taiga. These diverse Altaic groups, as well as the Finno-Ugrian populations, practiced hunting and fishing in the northern regions, nomadic shepherding in central Asia, and, in a very modest way, farming in the southern zone.
From prehistory, northern Eurasia had been influenced by cultures, skills, and religious ideas coming from the south. The breeding of reindeer in the Siberian regions had been inspired by the domestication of the horse, most probably effected on the steppes. The centers of prehistoric commerce (for example, the Island of the deer on Lake Onega) and metallurgy (Perm) had played an important role in the elaboration of Siberian cultures. Furthermore, central and northern Asia had gradually received religious ideas of Mesopotamian, Iranian, Chinese, Indian, Tibetan (Lamaism), Christian (Nestorianism), and Manichaean origin, to which it is necessary to add the influences of Islam and, more recently, of Russian Orthodox Christianity.
One must add, however, that these influences were not always successful in modifying the original religious structures. Certain beliefs and customs specific to the Paleolithic hunters still survive in northern Eurasia. In a number of cases, one recognizes these archaic myths and religious conceptions in Lamaist, Muslim, and Christian disguises. As a result, despite the diverse syncretisms, one can distinguish certain characteristic conceptions: the belief in a celestial god, sovereign of mankind; a specific type of cosmogony; mystical solidarity with animals; shamanism. Nevertheless, the great interest in the religions of central and northern Asia resides chiefly in the syncretistic structure of their creations.
242. Tängri, the "Celestial God"
Of all the gods of the Altaic peoples, the most important and best known is indeed Tängri (Tengri among the Mongols and Kalmyks, Tengeri among the Buryats, Tangere among the Tatars of the Volga, and Tingir among the Beltirs). The vocable tängri, meaning "god" and "sky," belongs to the vocabulary of the Turks and the Mongols. Existing "from the prehistory of Asia, it has had a singular fortune. Its field of influence in time, in space, and across civilizations is immense; one knows of it over two millennia; it is or has been employed across all of Asia, from the borders of China to the south of Russia, from Kamchatka to the Sea of Marmara; it has served the Altaic 'peasants' by designating their gods and being their supreme God, and has been conserved in all the great universal religions which the Turks and the Mongols have embraced in the course of their history (Christianity, Manichaeanism, Islam, etc.)"
The word tängari is used to express the divine. As applied to the great celestial god, it is attested among the Hsiung-nu in the second century B.C. The texts present him as "grand" (üsä), "white and heavenly" (kök), "eternal" (möngkä), and endowed with "strength" (küc). In one of the Paleo-Turkic inscriptions of Orkhon (seventh to eighth centuries), it is written: "When the blue sky on high, and the somber earth below were made, between the two were made the sons of men (=humankind)." One can interpret the separation of the Sky and the Earth as a cosmogonic act. But as to a cosmogony proper, having Tängri as its author, there are only allusions. The Tatars of the Altai and the Yakuts, however, refer to their God as a "creator." And, according to the Buryats, the gods (tengri) created man and the latter lived happily up to the moment when the evil spirits spread sickness and death upon the earth.
In such manner the cosmic order, and thus the organization of the world and society, and the destiny of mankind, depend upon Tängri. Accordingly, every sovereign must receive his investiture from heaven. One reads in the inscription of Orkhon: "Tängri who had elevated my father to Kaghan ... Tängri who gave the empire, this Tängri has established me as Kaghan." In effect, the Kaghan is the "Son of Heaven" according to the Chinese model (cf. §128). The sovereign is the envoy or representative of the Celestial God. The cult of Tängri is maintained in all its strength and integrity by the sovereign. "When anarchy reigns, when the tribes are scattered, when there is no longer an Empire (as in our times), Tängri, formerly so significant, tends to become a deus otiosus, to leave his place to secondary celestial divinities or to break apart into pieces (the multiplication of Tangris).... When there is no longer a sovereign, the celestial God is slowly forgotten, the popular cult is strengthened and tends to become primary." (The Mongols knew 99 Tengris, most of them having their own names and precise functions.) The transformation of a celestial god and sovereign into a deus otiosus is a universally attested phenomenon. In the case of Tängri, his multiplication or his substitution by other divinities appears to have followed the breakup of the empire. But a similar process is verified in innumerable historical contexts (cf. Patterns, §§14ff.)
Tängri did not have temples, and it is unlikely that he was represented in the form of a statue. In his celebrated discussion with the Imam of Boukhara, Genghis Khan said to him: "The entire universe is the house of God, to what advantage is it to designate a particular place (for example, Mecca) in order to go there?" As everywhere else, the celestial god of the Altais is omniscient. In taking an oath, the Mongols would say, "May Heaven know it!" The military chiefs climbed mountain tops (images of the Center of the World) to pray to God, or, before their campaigns, they lived apart in their tents (occasionally for three days, as Genghis Khan did), while the troops invoked Heaven. Tängri manifested his discontent by cosmic signs: comets, famines, and floods. One would address him in prayers (for example, among the Mongols, the Beltirs, etc.) and one would sacrifice horses, cattle, and sheep to him. Sacrifice to celestial gods is universally attested, especially in cases of calamity or natural catastrophe. But, in central and northern Asia, as elsewhere, the multiplication of Tängri is followed by their assimilation to other gods (of the thunderstorm, cosmic fertility, etc.). Thus in Altaic, Bai Ülgän (the "Most Grand") is replaced by Tengere Kaira Kan ("the compassionate Heavenly Lord"), and it is to the latter that one performs the horse sacrifice (see below, §§248ff.). Remoteness and passivity characterize other celestial gods. Thus Buga ("Heaven," "World") of the Tungus receives no cult; he is omniscient, but does not interfere in human affairs or punish evildoers. Urün Ai Toyon of the Yakuts inhabits the seventh heaven, governs all, but does only good (which is to say he doesn't bring punishment).
243. The structure of the world
The cosmology and cosmogony of the Altaic peoples are of great interest. For one thing, they conserve archaic elements found in a number of traditional cultures. In addition, the forms by which they have been transmitted indicate a long syncretistic process of assimilation and reinterpretation of certain ideas received from other peoples. What is more: the cosmology does not always seem to account for the most widespread Asian cosmogonic myth. To be sure, we must take into account the heterogeneity of the evidence at our disposal: the cosmogonic myth has circulated above all in popular cultural contexts—an important point whose significance will soon be underscored.
In Asia, as in many other parts of the world, the structure of the universe is understood on the whole as having three tiers—Heaven, Earth, Hell—interconnected by a central axis. This axis passes through an "opening," a "hole," by which the gods descend to the Earth and the dead into the subterranean regions. It is through this opening that the soul of the shaman is able to fly away or descend during his celestial or infernal journeys. The three worlds—which are inhabited by gods, men, and the Sovereign of Hell with the dead—are thus imagined as three superimposed planes.
A number of Altaic peoples have imagined that heaven is like a tent; the Milky Way is the "seam"; the stars, the "holes" for the light. From time to time, the gods open the tent to look out on the earth, thus causing meteors. Heaven is also conceived as a cover or lid which happens not to have been perfectly fitted to the edges of the earth; thus the great winds penetrate through the openings. And it is through this reduced space that heroes and other privileged beings are able to slip through and reach Heaven. In the middle of Heaven shines the polestar, which supports the celestial tent like a post. It is called "the Golden Pillar" (by the Mongols, Buryats, etc.), "the Iron Pillar" (by the Siberian Tatars, etc.), "the Solar Pillar" (by the Teleuts, etc.).
As one would expect, this cosmology has found a model in the microcosm of the human world. The world axis is represented in a concrete fashion, whether by the pillars which support human habitations, or in the form of single, isolated posts, called "Pillars of the World." When the form of the habitation is modified (from the hut with a conical roof one passes to the yurt), the pillar's mythico-religious function devolves upon the high opening for the removal of the smoke. This aperture corresponds to the similar orifice of the "House of Heaven," assimilated to the "hole" which the polestar makes in the canopy of heaven. This symbolism is extremely widespread. The underlying idea is the belief in the possibility of direct communication with Heaven. On the macrocosmic level, this communication is represented by an axis (pillar, mountain, tree, etc.). On the microcosmic plane, it is signified by the central pillar of the dwelling-place or the highest opening of the tent. One may thus say that every human habitation is projected as a "Center of the World," that every altar, tent, or home makes possible a rupture of levels and consequently communication with the gods, and even (in the case of the shamans) the ascent to Heaven.
As we have remarked several times before, the most widespread mythical images of the "Center of the World" (traceable even in prehistory; cf. §7) are the Cosmic Mountain and the World Tree. These images are encountered also among the Altaic populations and throughout Asia. The Tatars of the Altai imagined Bai Ülgän in the middle of Heaven, seated on the Golden Mountain. The Abakan Tatars called it "Iron Mountain." The fact that the Mongols, Buryats, and Kalmyks knew it under the name of Sumbur, Sumur, or Sumer, which clearly betrays an Indian influence (= Meru, the mythical mountain), does not necessarily imply that they were ever ignorant of this archaic and universal symbol. As for the World Tree, it is attested to every-where in Asia and plays an important role in shamanism. Cosmologically, the World Tree rises from the center of the earth, from the point of the earth's "navel," and its highest branches touch the palace of Bai Ülgän. The Tree unites the three cosmic regions, for its roots are sunk into the inmost depths of the earth. According to the Mongols and Buryats, the gods (Tengeri) feed off the fruits of the Tree. Other Altaic peoples believe that the souls of infants, before birth, repose like little birds on the branches of the Cosmic Tree, and that it is there that the shamans go to look for them. The shaman is supposed to fashion his drum from the wood of the World Tree. Replicas of this tree are found before and inside his yurt, and he also draws it on his drum. What is more, as we will see (§245), when the Altaic shaman climbs the ritual birch, he effectively climbs the Cosmic Tree.
244. The vicissitudes of creation
The cosmogonic myth best known among the peoples of central and northern Asia is almost universally dispersed, although in quite different forms. Its archaism (cf. §7), its considerable diffusion—outside of central and northern Asia, it is attested in Aryan and pre-Aryan India, in Southeast Asia, and in North America—and the multiple modifications that it has undergone in the course of the centuries are features of this myth that present the historian of religions with one of his most stimulating problems. In order to place the specific characters of these central Asian versions (and those of eastern Europe, §250) in relief, let us first present what appear to be the myth's earliest forms. The landscape is always the same: the Great Waters before the Creation. The scenario permits these variations: (1) God, in the form of an animal, himself plunges to the bottom of the abyss to bring up a little mud in order to fashion the Earth; (2) he dispatches an amphibious animal (an aquatic bird); or (3) he gets a creature (sometimes an ornithomorph) to dive, whose existence he was unaware of till that time and who, in what follows, turns out to be his adversary. The first version is found in Hinduism (a great god—Praj?pati, Brahm?, Vi??u—transformed into a boar descends to the bottom of the Waters and lifts up the Earth; cf. vol. 1, p. 441). The second is extremely widespread (pre-Aryan India, Assam, North America, etc.). Let us note that in this version the animal divers and the Creator are in no way opposed to each other. It is only in Asia and eastern Europe that the cosmogonic dive takes on "dualistic" overtones.
Among the different Turkish peoples one sometimes comes across the fusion of these last two versions. A Buryat myth presents Sombol-Burkan resting upon the primordial Ocean. Seeing an aquatic bird, he asks it to dive into the depths. With the mud carried back by the bird, he creates the Earth. According to other variations, Burkan then fashions man, always with the mud. In a myth of the Lebed Tatars, a white swan dives on the command of God and brings back to him a bit of earth in its beak. God forms the Earth, flat and smooth. It is only afterwards that the Devil arrives, to make the marsh. According to the Tatars of the Altai, in the beginning, when only the Waters existed, God and "man" swam together in the form of black geese. God sent "man" to find the mud. But the latter kept a bit in his mouth, and when the Earth began to grow larger, the mud began to inflate. He was obliged to spit it out, in this manner giving birth to the marsh. God said to him: "You have sinned, and your subjects will be evil. My subjects will be pious; they will see the Sun, the light, and I will be called Kurbystan (= Ohrmazd). You, you will be Erlik." The syncretism with Iranian ideas is evident. But the scenario of the cosmic dive is almost entirely preserved. The identity between "man" and the Sovereign of Hell, Erlik Khan, is explained by the fact that the First Man, the mythic Ancestor, was also the first to die (a mytheme found in many traditions).
Excerpted from A History of Religious Ideas, Volume 3 by Mircea Eliade. Copyright © 1985 Mircea Eliade. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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