The Ancient Practice of Tengriism, Shamanism and Ancient Worship of the Sky Gods
In ancient times, people in Central Asia practiced a religion known as Tengriism, which focused on living in harmony with the natural universe. While this religion was founded and most widely practiced during ancient times, there are groups that still practice Tengriism to this day.
Tengriism (sometimes called Tengrism, Tengerism, Tengrianism, or Tengrianizm) is a religion that revolves around the sun deity Tengri, and focuses on balance with nature. The actual founding date of Tengriism has not been confirmed, but it is believed to have begun sometime around the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3,300 B.C. through 1,200 B.C. It is considered to be one of the oldest religions, and incorporates characteristics of shamanism, animism, totemism, both polytheism and monotheism, and ancestor worship. Those who practice Tengriism hold the belief that their very existence is sustained by the eternal blue Sky (Tengri), the fertile Mother Earth (Eje), and the holy spirit of the sky.
Spelling of Tengri in the Old Turkic script. Public Domain
Under Tengriism, the origins of the universe began with Tengri, and his self-created companion, Kishi. The two flew above the primordial deep together until one day, Kishi decided he wanted to fly higher than Tengri. Due to his arrogance, Kishi lost his ability to fly, and fell into the sea. He called out for Tengri to save him. Tengri brought forth rocks and earth from the sea, creating a primal mound to stand upon. From this mound grew the Cosmic Tree – the tree of life, and from its branches emerged people and lesser gods. He guarded against evil with dogs and snakes. Tengri lived in harmony with Yer – the earth spirit. Some say they were married, and that is what led to the creation of man. Yer gave man his physical body. Tengri gave man his soul at birth, and takes it back upon death.
A representation of the Tengriist world view on a shaman's drum. Creative Commons
There are some variations in Tengriism among the many who have practiced over time. For example, Tengriist Mongolians believe in 99 deities, and Turkish Tengriists only believe in 17. Most commonly, the deities of Tengriism are believed to be Tengri, and sub-deities Yer, Umai, Erlik, Water, Fire, Sun, Moon, Star, Air, Clouds, Wind, Storm, Thunder and Lightning, and Rain and Rainbow. It’s believed respect for the deities will lead to prosperity and well-being. The main principles of Tengriism are:
- Tengri is the one supreme god. He is the all-knower, and the judge of people’s actions, good and bad. He is unpredictable.
- Tengri is the power behind all of nature, and all of nature is controlled by him.
- There are many diverse spirits among Tengri, good and bad. They can reside in the heavens, the underworld, or as spirits of the land. They can harm people.
- There is no one true religion of the world. A man may be any religion, and Tengri may still judge who is righteous.
- All humans are weak, and there should be tolerance for shortcomings. There should be tolerance for different religions and beliefs. No one is perfect.
Tengriism played a large role in the Gok-Turk Empire and the Great Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan and many of his followers believed in Tengriism. It was also known for promoting tolerance of other religions, and unlike many religions, there has never been a push for Tengriism to dominate the religious landscape. Möngke Khan, of the Great Mongol Empire, said “We believe that there is only one God, by whom we live and by whom we die, and for whom we have an upright heart. But as God gives us the different fingers of the hand, so he gives to men diverse ways to approach Him.” (“Account of the Mongols. Diary of William Rubruck”, Religious debate in court. Documented by W. Rubruck in May 31, 1254.)
Letter of Arghun to Philip the Fair, 1289, in Mongolian language and classical Mongolian script. In the center of the magnified portion, the sacred phrase 'Tengri-yin Kuchin' (Power of Tengri) is separate from the other sentences, forming a sacred pause. Wikipedia
Today, Tengriism is practiced in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Sakha, Buryatia, Tuva, Mongolia, and Turkey in parallel with Tibetan Buddhism and Burkhanism. A Tengriism movement began in Central Asia in the 1990s, and continues to spread today. This illustrates the durability of this ancient religion, and how it has withstood the test of time to remain something that today’s people can believe in, much like their ancient ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Featured image: Tuvan shaman Ai-Churek during a Tengi fire ceremony in Tuva, Russia. Wikipedia CC-BY-2.0-de
In the Beginning was Tengri: “Grace is the heart of belief” – Siberian Dragon. Available from: http://siberiandragon.weebly.com/tengriism-the-oldest-religion-on-earth.html
Tengriism – Wikispaces. Available from: http://tengrism.wikispaces.com/
Tengrism – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tengrism
Tengriism – New World Encyclopedia. Available from: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Tengriism
By M R Reese