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The Ancient Practice of Tengriism, Shamanism and Ancient Worship of the Sky Gods

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

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

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. Ghengis-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.

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

Sources

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

Comments

rbflooringinstall's picture

That's pretty much the basis for just about all Native American beliefs as well. thank you for the article.

Peace and Love,

Ricky.

Ancient turks and native americans have many common sides, also in believes and language

Now this is a "Religion" an Atheist like me could tolerate very easily :)

If only All Monotheistic religions where like this, one can dream.

We don't know much beyond biased secondary sources about the personality of Ghengis Khan; and like many ancient conquerors, he can seem eye wateringly violent. It does seem to be the case though, that the only things he discriminated against were traitors and the enemy ignoring demands. Oh and condescension, didn't go down well. At a personal level, culture/race or religion were treated with respect, if in a rough and ready form.  It always makes one think when looking at the history of ethics/moral philosophy, that circumstances relating to beliefs, traditions and individuals can throw up fascinating combinations of hard vs gentle approaches to life.

Early medieval Mongol society had all the tolerance discribed above but would regularly simply steal opposing clan's girls and women (and ponies) when a bit more genetic variety was needed. And if someone tried to stop them...

You had three days to surrender to Ghengis and if he said everyone was getting killed in your city he wasn't playing games...

All quite interesting because to modern thinking as a whole it seems contradictory. But then again, all societies right through to today will show some of this because they aren't being autocratically directed by one person. Two moustachioed atheist guys gave it a go in the twentieth century and managed to kill more people than all  religiously centred regimes put together!

It may be that the origin of an ancient mushroom religion, as proposed by ethno-mycologists Robert Gordon Wassons, is rooted in the shamanism of the Siberian forest people and came to the New World as early as the Paleolithic. According to Wasson, the term shaman is not native to Mesoamerica or even to the New World but derives from the languages of Siberia. Siberian shamanism incorporates ecstatic trances brought on by a ritual of dance and the inducement of hallucinations, most commonly through the consumption of some hallucinogenic substance. The intention was to open communication directly with the spirit world, often through a form of animal transformation. The worship of animal spirit companions and the concept of human-animal transformation is so ancient, that the origins of these beliefs appear to predate the development of agriculture. Since these beliefs are also present throughout North and South America that they may very well have been brought there by the first hunters and gatherers to reach the New World. We find the first evidences of these shamanistic rituals in Mesoamerica in the art of the ancient Olmecs along with the development of agriculture, food production, and settled village life. The foundation of shamanism, was the sacred substances used in rituals to attain divine ecstasy, which became the foundation of nearly all the religions of Mesoamerica and South America.

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