Tengriism (Tengerism, Tengrianism, or Tengrianizm) was the major belief of the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Turkic, Bulgar, Mongolian, Hunnic, and Altaic peoples before the vast majority accepted Buddhism, Islam, or Lamaism. It centers around the deity Tengri (also Tangri, Tangra, Tanrı) and incorporates elements of shamanism, animism, totemism, and ancestor worship. Tengriism replaced an earlier polytheistic Turkic religion; it was also the religion of the Huns, Eurasian Avars, and early Hungarians. In the ancient Turkish world, as it is now, the word for god was "Tengri." Tengri, identified with a “celestial sky,” timeless and infinite, was the chief deity responsible for the creation of the universe. Subordinate to Tengri were a number of lesser deities, including Yer-sub, goddess of the homeland, and Earth, whose marriage to Tengri resulted in the appearance of human beings on the earth. The other deities were Umai (a life-giving deity), Erlik (god of the underground world), Water, Fire, Sun, Moon, Star, Air, Clouds, Wind, Storm, Thunder and Lightning, and Rain and Rainbow. Prosperity and well-being of the individual and the nation depended on maintaining reverence and respect for these deities and living in harmony with the universe.
The khans of Turkic states before the Middle Ages, among them the Göktürks, based their power on a mandate from Tengri, presenting themselves as sons of Tengri and His representatives on earth. A ruler reigned under Tengri’s protection for as long as he was in accord with the laws of Heaven, but if he ruled improperl,y Tengri withdrew his support, and he either perished or fell from power. This concept is similar to the Confucian “Mandate of Heaven” which shaped the Chinese historical perspective.
Tengriism is still actively practiced in Sakha, Buryatia, Tuva, and Mongolia, along with Tibetan Buddhism and Burkhanism. Some rituals and celebrations are still publicly observed in other areas but have lost their profound spiritual significance. There are also modern movements to revive Tengriism, particularly in respect to living in harmony with natural forces and caring for the earth.
Overview of Tengriism
In Tengriism, the meaning of life is found in living in harmony with the natural universe. Tengriist believers view their existence as sustained by the celestial blue sky, Tengri, the fertile Mother-Earth, and life-spirit Eje. Heaven, Earth, the spirits of nature and ancestors provide for every need and protect all humans. By living an upright and respectful life, a human being will keep his world in balance and experience prosperity, well-being and success. Shamans play an important role in restoring balance when a disaster or illness occurs.
Tengriism was the belief system of the Gokturks and the ancient Mongols. It is likely that Tengriism was the religion of the Huns, Eurasian Avars, early Hungarians, and of the early Bulgars who brought it to Europe.
In modern Turkey Tengriism is called Göktanrı by some scholars. Though there is insufficient research, Tengriism is thought to heavily influence the Alevi belief system. Today, there are still large numbers of Tengriists living in inner Asia, such as the Hakas and Tuvans.
Old-Turk inscriptions on stone plates in the steppes dating from the sixth century contain references to Tengriism. The eighth century “Orkhon inscriptions,” discovered in 1889 in the Orkhon Valley in Mongolia, contain many references to Tengri in accounts of the accomplishments of the Göktürk khagans. In the Secret History of the Mongols (written 1227), Genghis Khan began all his declarations with the words, "By the will of Eternal Blue Heaven." References to Tengriism are also found in writings by the Persians and Arabs. The Yakuts called Tengriism ayy.
Ancient and Early Middle Ages writers reported a number of revolts caused by attempts to supplant or overthrow the traditional religion. One was reported in Scythia Minor in the Crimea, when the Scythian nobles learned about their king's inclination toward Greek culture. Another revolt in 682 C.E., reported in Armenian sources, was caused by the elteber of the Dagestani Huns, Alp Ilitver, who converted to Christianity following a proselytizing mission by the Albanian bishop Israel. In that case, Alp Ilitver demolished sacred trees, destroyed kurgan statuary, ruined sacral chapels, and suppressed a popular revolt.
It was also reported that at the court of the Khazar Kagan, who was ethnically a Khazar, the power belonged to the Bulgar nobles, who maintained their traditional Tengriism and forcefully resisted any attempts to introduce Christianity, Judaism, or Islam as a state religion, to the point of secession. Originally, the Khazars practiced traditional Turkic shamanism, focused on the celestial god Tengri. The Ashina clan considered themselves to be the chosen people of Tengri, and their leader, the kagan, to be bestowed with power by the sky-god. At some point in the last decades of the 8th century or the early ninth century, the Khazar royalty and nobility converted to Judaism.
The Tengriist universe consisted of three worlds, a lower or underground world, the middle world in which human beings lived, and the upper spiritual world. The lower world could be entered by means of a spiritual “river.” The middle world connected with the upper world by means of a sacred World Tree. There are no official symbols of Tengriism, however the symbol of the World Tree with nine leaves and the four directions symbol are common. Rituals and ceremonies were typically performed on a mountain top or by a sacred tree, places where human beings could come into contact with the spiritual world.
The ancient Turks perceived Yer (Earth) and Tengri (Spirit of the Sky) as two complimentary aspects of a single beginning. A man was born and lived in a material shell on the earth, distinct from other men; he was given a Kut (soul) at birth by Tengri, who took it back when he died. Tengri was considered a father, Yer a mother. Tengri was supreme, and any supplication to Yer also included the name of Tengri.
(see main article: Tengri) Tengri is the supreme god of Tengriism. In ancient Mongolian cosmology, the Sky-Father (Tengri/Tenger Etseg) and Mother Earth (Eje/Gazar Eej) were the central beings of a group of 99 deities. The ancient Turks believed that Tengri was the leader of the seventeen deities who ruled the universe: Tengri, Yer-Sub, Umai, Erlik, Earth, Water, Fire, Sun, Moon, Star, Air, Clouds, Wind, Storm, Thunder and Lightning, and Rain and Rainbow. His greatness was emphasized by adding the title "Khan" to his name. Turkic peoples had similar names for the Sky God: Tatars, Tengri; Altais, Tengri or Tengeri; Turks, Tanri; Khakases, Tigir; Chuvashes, Tura; Yakuts, Tangara; Karachai-Balkars, Teyri; Kumyks, Tengiri; Mongols, Tengeri. Ancient Turks and Mongols believed that Tengri governed all existence on earth, determining the fate of individuals as well as that of entire nations and their rulers. Tengri was believed to act of his own volition, but with fairness, meting out rewards and punishments. It was believed that Tengri assisted those who revered Him and who were active in trying to accomplish His will.
For the ancient Turks and Mongols, the words "Tengri' and "Sky" were synonymous. The physical appearance of Tengri was unknown. He was not visualized as a person, although he was said to have at least two sons. Tengri was considered to be timeless and infinite like a blue sky. The term Kuk-Tengri (Blue Sky) referred to a spiritual, celestial “sky,” and the epithet “kuk” (blue), when applied to an animal, such as a horse (kuk at), ram (kuk teke), bull (kuk ugez), or deer (kuk bolan), was a reference to the animal’s divine origin.
Tengri was omnipresent and was worshiped simply, by lifting the hands upwards and bowing low, praying for him to bestow good mind and health, and to assist in performing good deeds.
Yer-Sub had two meaning for ancient Turks, “Great Deity,” and the visible world. They believed that Yer-Sub existed in the middle section of the Universe, and resided on a mountain called Lanshan at the upper course of Orkhon river, in modern Mongolia, known as the Otüken homeland. The Yer-Sub Deity was depicted as a beautiful, voluptuous woman. Yer-Sub Deity patronized the Homeland (Land and Water) of the Türks and Mongols, and except for man, all nature and living things were subordinated to her. From the Orkhon inscriptions, it is apparent that Yer-sub had a role in determining human destiny, with the approval of Tengri. Though she occasionally punished people for wrongdoing, she was viewed primarily as a kind and benevolent goddess. Sacrifices were made every spring to appease Yer-sub, in preparation for cattle breeding and field work, and every autumn after the harvests. During the Türkic Khaganates, sacrifices to Yer-Sub took on a national character and were conducted in the upper flow of the river, on the banks of a lake. A horse of reddish color was sacrificed with appeals for the fertility of the cattle, crops, health, and well being of the Türks. After the disintegration of the Turkic states, these rituals became localized, usually involving the sacrifice of white rams along the upper reaches of rivers and on lake shores, followed by feasts, celebrations and gift-giving.
The ancient Türks called the visible world occupied by people Yer-Sub (Land-Water) or the place of Middle Earth, emphasizing its central location. Each clan and tribe owned a territory consisting of fields, meadows, mountains, pastures, summer and winter hamlets, and hunting grounds. This territory was their world, and beyond its boundaries were the possessions of others and little-known regions. Each tribe viewed its territory as a self-enclosed microcosm of the universe, a center of order and harmony. Members of a tribe were willing to die to protect their territory, because no where else could they live under the protection of Tengri and be happy.
In the beliefs of the ancient Türks and Mongols Umai (Ymai, Mai, Omai) was a female Deity associated with benevolent deities and spirits, a favorite wife of Sky God Tengri, living in the heavenly zone. Like Yer-Sub, Umai directly deferred to Tengri and carried out assignments for Him. Her role was to give a special divine power to the people, a vital life-energy linking man with heaven. Everything spiritual and physical in the universe was subject to the two Deities Yer-Sub and Umai. Ancient Türks did not offer animal sacrifices to Umai, dedicated dairy and meat dishes to her with solemn ceremonies. After the disintegration of the ancient Türkic states, the Goddess Umai began to be considered only as a protector of pregnant women and small children from bad spirits of the earthly world.
The ancient Türks and Mongols considered Erlik (Erglik, Erlik-Khan) a deity of the Underground World. Erlik is described in the appeals of Kams (shamans) as an old man with an athletic build. His eyes and eyebrows are as black as soot, his parted beard reaches to his knees, his mustache curls behind his ears like tusks, his hair is curly and his horns are like tree roots. Erlik was associated with disasters such as epidemics among people or cattle, which he caused so that man would be forced man to offer Him a sacrifice. People were afraid to say his name, and called him Kara-Name (something black) instead. Erlik had sons who helped him to rule the underground world, where there were lakes, rivers and seas. His daughters, numbering from two to nine in Turkic myths, were described as idle, sexually promiscuous, temptresses. Erlik was thought to associate closely with Kams (shamans). He rarely caused evil to man, and did not control peoples’ souls. Erlik’s domain included evil spirits who sometimes ascended to the earth to harm people. Sacrifices to Erlik of domestic animals with a defect such as a broken horn or lame leg were conducted at night.
The deity Earth was considered to be a mother and a wife of Tengri, and appeared as a force of nature. According to ancient mythology, human beings appeared from a marriage of the deities Tengri and Earth. People are born, live and die on the earth, and after death, earth swallows them. The people revered the Earth as a giver of crops and abundance, as a source of treasures that give material happiness to humans. In the spring, before the beginning of the production year, and in the autumn, after finishing the work, as a sign of gratitude for the abundance of food and happiness of the people, the ancient Türks and Mongols sacrificed milk, kumys, and tea to deity Earth. were sacrificed to her.
Ancient Türks believed the deity Water was born earlier than the deity Earth and was her elder sister. It was believed that the Earth began from Water. From the bottom of Water, "a heavenly duck" lifted the sand, clay, silt, from which the Earth was created. A closely related deity, Rain, helped grow the children and grandchildren of Water, seas, rivers, lakes and springs. Rain was hostile to deity Fire.
The ancient Turks had a contradictory attitude towards Water. Water was associated with primordial chaos, and was the possession of spirits and the entrance into another world. To wash the face with water in mythological tradition was to "die" symbolically. At the same time, Water was greatly respected because life, fertility and productivity of land depended on her. Sacrifices were brought to river sources and lakes, to Earth and Water, asking for good harvests, increase of cattle, and prosperity.
Fire was an omnipotent deity, associated with birth, growth, development, and life in general. The ancient Turks visualized the deity Fire in the image of a red cow, red bull, and red rooster. Fire was personified as a female, Ut-Ana, Mother Fire. Ut-Ana was believed to be the mother of all people. When Fire whistled or cracked in the hearth, they bowed to the flame and chanted: "Fire, you are our Mother with 30 teeth, you are our mother-in-law with 40 teeth."
Nomadic Turks and Mongols regarded their dwellings (yurts) as microcosms of the universe. In the yurt, Fire was considered an extension of the sun (Heavenly Fire). The hearth in the center of the yurt was round in imitation of the sun. Sun and fire, and the link between them and life, were extended to the woman as a forebear and guardian of descendants. Fire was believed to be a clan deity, but each family had a family Fire, and it was a desecration to mix Him with another family’s Fire. The hearth had to kept clean, and ashes were disposed of in a secluded place undisturbed by animals. If the family Fire was not properly respected and cared for, the family would be punished with various illnesses, deprived of the protection from malicious spirits, and might even lose their dwelling to fire. Once a year family prayers to Ut-Ana were organized in the yurt. Sacrificial food for deities and spirits was prepared on the flames. People ate the meat, and the deities and spirits feasted on the smell of the roasted meat. Fire was also used for spiritual cleansing, and for the treatment of certain diseases and ailments.
Sun was an esteemed God, the son of Tengri and mother Earth. Therefore, it circled between the father and mother. The ancient Turks and Mongols worshiped the power and vital force of the god Sun. An ancient ritual was to greet the sunrise, welcoming the ascending Sun and bowing to him. Solar rays were regarded as a medium transmitting life from Tengri to man. 
Moon (Ai) was a daughter of Tengri and Earth. Ancient Turks were frightened of the goddess Moon and at the same time they loved Her. The moon was represented as a lady and as a symbol of the night, the time when malicious spirits emerge from all holes, when witches conducted rituals and robberies and murders took place. At the same time, the Turks trusted the magic force of the Moon. To please Moon those born during a full moon were given names such as Aisylu, Aituly, Ainir, Aizirek, and Ainaz. Turks associated the cycles of the moon with fertility and birth.
Tengri or the god of blue sky was the main god of the Turkic pantheon, controlling the heavenly universe. In the ancient Turkic creation myth, Tengri is a pure, white goose that flies constantly over an endless expanse of water, which represents time. Beneath this water, Ak Ana ("White Mother") calls out to him saying "Create." To overcome his loneliness, Tengri creates Er Kishi, who is not as pure or as white as Tengri and together they set up the world. Er Kishi becomes a demonic character and strives to mislead people and draw them into its darkness. Tengri assumes the name Tengri Ülgen and withdraws into Heaven from which he tries to provide people with guidance through sacred animals that he sends among them. The Ak Tengris occupy the fifth level of Heaven. Shaman priests who want to reach Tengri Ülgen never get further than this level, where they convey their wishes to the divine guides. Returns to earth or to the human level take place in a goose-shaped vessel.
Tengri as a source of political power
In former Turkic states before the Middle Ages, among them the Göktürks, the khans based their power on a mandate from Tengri. These rulers were generally accepted as the sons of Tengri who represented him on Earth. They assumed titles such as tengrikut, kutluġ, or kutalmysh, based on the belief that they had attained the kut, the mighty spirit granted to these rulers by Tengri.
Khagans were elected by a council of Beks (tribal elders) who consulted until they felt that Tengri Himself pointed to the candidate. A legitimate Khan should be `Tengri-like, begotten by Tengri, a wise Türkic Khagan, brave, clever, honorable, vigorous, fair, in all features a real bozkurt (wolf), able to hold the respect of the people and the nobles. A Khagan lived under Tengri’s protection for as long as his thoughts and actions were in accord with Tengri. When the Khagan ruled improperly Tengri withdrew his support. When a Khagan lost power, it was considered a sign that he had not acted in harmony with celestial law, and if he had not already perished, he was typically ritually executed.
Geser, a hero of Tengriism, is a reincarnation of a sky spirit sent to earth to help serve people as a shaman. His story is recounted in a very long epic text, Epic of King Gesar, meant to be performed over the course of several days to the accompaniment of a horse head fiddle (moriin huur).
Crimes against the Khagan, such as disobedience or an attempt to overthrow him, were punished by Tengri himself, or by the Khagan who had the authority to act as an agent of Tengri. Whether the criminal died a natural death or was executed by order of the Khagan, his death was considered to be the will of Tengri. If the Khagan or the nation conflicted with Tengri, they were punished with famine, death, defeat or captivity. Disobedience to a deity or resistance to His will was inevitably punished by death. Happiness and misfortune during earthly life depended on Tengri, and reward and punishment followed immediately after offenses. Tengri’s power over a man ended with his death.
Khagans themselves were fearful of the punishment by Tengri. Chinese chronicles describe a case in which one of the Turkic Khagans reneged on a promise to give his daughter in marriage to the emperor of the Northern Zhou dynasty, but later reversed his decision because he was afraid of a punishment by Tengri.
Ancient Chinese chronicles refer to the Turks making annual sacrifices of sheep and horses to Tengri. Another reference speaks of the Khagan and nobles gathering every June at the River Tamir to sacrifice to God Tengri.
From about the second century B.C.E. until the fourteenth century C.E., Turkic and Mongolian states organized grandiose public ceremonies in early summer. Led by the Khagan (Khan), nobles, tribal elders and generals gathered in the capital and went together to a scared mountain to sacrifice a colt to Tengri. On the same day, thousands of men gathered at holy sites to make sacrifices and pray for the crops, prosperity, health, and good fortune. They then rejoined the rest of the people for feasts, games, competitions and races. Several of the Altaic peoples, including the Khakases, Mongols, Tatars (Saban-Tui) and the Buryats living in Transbaikalia and Siberia (Subarkhan) continue to observe a celebration in early summer.
Anthropologist L.P. Potapov (1905-2000) studied the religious rites of the Kachines and Beltirs, Altaic peoples who retain many of their ancient traditions, and noted that some were simply prayers while others were accompanied by ritual sacrifices. The annual collective sacrifice to Tengri was performed as an act of Creation, symbolically reconstructing the cosmos at its most sacred place, near a holy tree. One sacrifice was conducted early on a spring morning on a mountain between four sacred birches, with a large sacred fire to the east of them. The spring season, early morning and eastern direction represented the beginning of space and time. In the ritual, the East became a starting point in the "creation" of the world. Walking in the direction of sun, participants invoked the name of each mountain and river in their domain, symbolizing the creation of space. They then symbolically replicated the Cosmos by tying a rope to the easternmost birch tree, stretching it around the other birches and tying it to the westernmost tree. This boundary represented steadiness and stability.
Another sacrifice was led, not by a shaman but by an elder who knew the words of the Tengri litany. Only men and male animals could be present. The elder and two assistants carrying wine and kumys (a milk beverage) circled a sacred tree three times, followed by householders leading sacrificial lambs. Wine and milk were sprinkled on the tree, then the lambs were sacrificed and cooked, and pieces of meat, cheese and more wine and milk were tossed on to the tree. While the men circled the tree again, the elder repeated:
Sacred is the birch with nine leaves. Tengri!
Nine lambs we offered up, Tengri!
We ask for a rain, Tengri!
We ask for a crop, Tengri!
Let the life be prosperous. Tengri!
After the prayer ended, the participants consumed a ritual meal, then burned all the remains of the sacrificial lamb in a sacred fire, before descending from the mountain to enjoy games and entertainment.
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- Excerpt from Tengrianizm: Religion of Turks and Mongols, by Rafael Bezertinov
- Shamanism (Tengerism) in Mongolia
- Julie Stewart's course in Mongolian shamanism—introduction
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