Face Music - Religion of the Altai people




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P & C December 1998
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more information about Religion of the Turkish people in Altai - available in German

- Burkhanism or Ak Jang (White Faith)

During the Russian-Japanese War 1904-1930 there were brought about tumults and chaos among the Altai population, resulting in many casualties. There was developed a new religious movement, an anti-Russian movement, the zenith of with coinciding with the Japanese victory over Russia. This resulted in Messiah-Millenaristic movements together with the distribution of Lamaism among the Turk tribes being initiated, which was associated with a shamanistic concept. Groups having religiously motivated concepts of a future eschatological kingdom developed, which should bring about peace and prosperity. There were praised the four superior deities: Altai-Kutai (God of the Altai Mountains), Dver-Suu (God of the Earth), Umai-Eme (God of Fertility), and Tengri (Superior God of the Sky). This interpretation was based on a national epic of a well-known and acclaimed leader, the Oirot Khan of the Oirots, who were Altai-Turks in the Dzungar-Oirat Alliance. This is a narration of a ruler, who will return in order to free the people from suppression. A hero, who once left his people, will return as a liberator and will lead his people into a new form of freedom.

I
n the Altai area, this Oirat Khan was the Dzungar king Amyr-Sana, who once ruled in Western Mongolia during the Dzungar-Oirat Alliance. Over time, such heroic narrations have been lost. But in connection with this revolts, such stories melted with a modern Altai culture and, once again, revived. Today, there may still be found traces in varied versions, in which such historically important points of time are revived. A former god, Ak-Burkhan ("White God of the Sky") has become alive during these revolts. He was considered the most powerful god of the sky in Tengerism (Shamanism) as well as in the Mongolian concept. Ak related to the Upper World (Heaven’s Realm) of the Three-Worlds-Cosmology (Underworld, the terrestrial world and the Upper World), the “Sky” of the Old Turks and Mongols. Powers existing in these worlds were ghosts and spirits, deities and mythological figures. According to traditions, these were very powerful and holy. As has been orally handed over from generation to generation, Üch-Kurbustan (Üch = number 3) was considered a unity, a father of three sons (heroes), who had once been powerful and being given supernatural powers. In this epics on Kurbustan there seems to have developed an inspiration, in these orally transmitted Turk-Mongolian narrations on heroes, who liberated their people from suppression: A god-like ruler or warrior of the “three male descendants”, who achieved great.

Oirat-khan or Galdan-Oirat: A mythological leader, liberator of the Turk-Mongolian tribes in Western Mongolia.
Amyr-Sana: Legendary leader and tribal chief of the Oirats. He died in the course of the invasion and conquest by the Manchu Army in 1756 of Western Mongolia in the territory ruled by the Dzungar-Oirats.
Shunu (Ashina = wolf: An Altaic version of Asena (Aschina)). Supreme totem among the Old Turks (origin was the first mother of all Turks who was a she-wolf).

Deities and “ancestors” like Üch-Kurbustan in the mythology of the Turk-Mongolian peoples were their supreme heaven’s god and like in Shamanism Tengri – the eternal heaven’s god. Üch-Kurbustan was their sole god and father of three sons, whose origin Ahura Mazda arose from Indo-European connections. This was a form-less god, transmitted from the Iranian, who may have been adopted from the Buddhists from Sogdia, who had invaded Central Asia as well as Manchuria as far as Kazakhstan and Tibet. He acted as a “cult god”, with whom the people were not able to communicate directly. One of the oldest associations with an originally Central-Asian tradition was the Bon-Po (Bön), a religion from Tibet.
Different names of this supreme god were as follows: Kurbustan, Khormusta, Khurmast and so on, and maybe were the same as Ahura Mazda (creator god). There are further many mythological, linguistic and ritual elements, which are associated with an Indo-German mythology and the ritualization thereof.

Ahura Mazda – “The wise Lord” or “Lord of Wisdom” (Central-Persian Ormusd or Ormus) is the creator god in Zoro-Astrism, who has created the spiritual world (Menok) and then the material world (Geti); he personifies the power of light, he is creator and conservator of the world and humanity, he is the god of fertility and of all living beings; in the Kelin scriptures of the Persian Great-Kings he was called Ahuramazda.
Bön had been the dominant religion in Tibet, before Buddhism reached the country in the 8th century. For its followers the word Bön means “truth, reality” and “true teaching”. With Buddhism entering Tibet, this led to a mutual influence, wherein from the Bön, e.g., ritual and shamanistic elements and Bön deities were transferred to Buddhism; inversely, Buddhism has influenced the philosophy of Bön.
Ak-Burkhan was the most important deity, supreme heaven’s god under Ak Jang (White Faith), depicted as an old man with white hair, a white coat and white hat, riding on a white horse. This is probably an analogy to the Mongolian “White Old Man”, the Tsagaan Ebügen, the Lord of the Earth and “Protector of Fortune”, he stands for a long life and family.
Jajyk – a form-less spirit and mediator – who may be compared with the Christian Holy Spirit – he helps in the communication between the Ak-Jajyk (White Jajyk), communicating messages from the Gods of the Upper World, and the Sary-Jajyk (Yellow Jajyk), who communicates messages for the Gods of the Middle World. He is identified with the fire place.
Umai, the Goddess of Birth and the Children, in the Turkic language she is also called lore – but not in the Altai area – she is the wife of the supreme god Tengri and, hence, originally a mother figure.
Ot-en, the Mother of the Fire – she is praised before any sacrifice, especially during one of the three big festivities of the Burkhanists.

The gods of the Earth (Middle World) are the “Jer-sub”, also called “Arzhans”, who exist in the world we live in, and who take care of the problems of human beings. These gods comprise the ruler spirits (owner spirits), which are associated with mountains (Taika-eezi), Lords of the Places, spiritual sites, holy springs and “Lords of the Game”: Such places or groves and trees are decorated using colourful ribbons, or there are erected piles of stone (Ovoo) in order to appease the spirits at path crossings or mountain passes.

Pantheons (temples) have included such spiritual powers, with totems (animals), astral deities, heroes and ancestors. These may also be assigned to certain clans (sööks). There were discovered worshipping ceremonies for a sun god, as was common with the Scythes, the Sarmatians, the Sauromats and the Alan people. Apart from praying to gods like “Kun”, “Khwar” or “Yduk Jer-sub”, also spirit owners existing in our world, “Holy Springs”, “God of the Earth”, “Master of the Place” or “Holy Mountains” were appraised using rituals, which were only allowed to be performed by specialists or High Priests. Altai-eezi, the “Master of the Altai” was also a form of local consciousness. Ulgan, ancestor of the Altai clans, was originally a personal name, but cannot be determined anymore nowadays. Some sources describe Ulgan as the creator of the universe. He is also mentioned in Burkhanism, but here as God of the Underworld, which seems to be, however, more of a misunderstanding. Ruler of the Underworld actually was Erlik (Yerlik) – the Lord of the Dead, the Underworld and Misfortune. His name seems to have originated with the old Uiguric Erklig Kagan (once a very powerful ruler). He was also the protector and patron of the shamans.

Pantheon is the old name of a holy site (place, house or temple) dedicated to all deities. This concepts has its origins with the Sumerian, Greek and Manichaean mythology, and was rather soon associated with a concrete place or temple, respectively.

Rituals and prayers were celebrated for the sun, the moon and the gods: Ak-Burkhan, Kun-Burkhan, Ot-Burkhan, Üch-Kurbustan. Birch trees were decorated with ribbons, on “holy places” and fire places for the sacrificial ceremonies. In the rituals, fermented mare’s milke was spread into all directions. In prayers to the deities or important spirits, there were performed incense ceremonies using juniper (archyn), which had been adopted from old religious concepts like the “Bön”. Instead of bloody sacrifices (human beings, horses or other animals), the celebrations only included juniper or mare’s milk (araka). Originally, these prayer meetings were very simple. People gathered around the yurts, were covered with juniper and spread mare’s milk into the direction of the mountains, praying and singing ritual songs in order to praise the Altai (Altai-eezi). Over the time, more and more pilgrims from other regions settled on the slopes of the surrounding hills in order to participate in these gatherings, and in the valleys they met in large groups and slaughtered 30-40 horses. Such meetings took place from April to mid-June.

Researchers have gathered many sources, archaeological data, old Turk runes on stone piles and Chines chronicles. There were also found Turk sources, which were transmitted in scriptures by Iraq Bitiq. The Book of “Prophecies”, written in the 10th century and found in Dunhuang, contained information given by Turk-Mongolian visitors. The Altai people used the spirits of their ancestors (aru-tös) in rituals, who were contacted in ceremonies – deceased clan leaders and shamans, who strictly adhered to this clan pool identity and reflect an Altai tradition, which was once monopolized by the (manjaktu kam) and who could not be taken their authority due to their connection with Erlik, the Ruler of the Underworld. ”Ak Jang” (White Faith) was more present in ritual ceremonies, who had a “holy person” (deity or war hero) with the core in the Altai tradition. This was deeply rooted in a religious and social hierarchy of this Turk-Mongolian culture. The "Ak Jang” was further accused to appraise a „supreme form”, a heavenly realm, in regard to a holy kingdom and associated with a heroic king, who will – as a kind of messiah – liberate the people. This is supposed to have established a connection with the Indo-European concepts.

Records in stories of the creation of the Turk-Mongols are parts of legends, which have been found in runic scriptures. – In the beginning there was the blue sky and the brown earth, and in-between there were created the sons of the people. – Also part thereof are the two main gods – the Heaven’s God (
Tengri, Lord of the Upper World, the Sky or Kagan of the Heavenly River, the patron of the warriors) and Mother Earth (Umai, God of the Upper World, Goddess of Fertility and of the New-born, who represents femininity); then there was Yduk Yer-Sub (Main God of the Middle World, the Earth, God of the Holy Water, the Spring and the Mountains) and Erlik (Lord of Death, Lord of the Underworld, patron of the shamans and of misfortune). Further spiritual powers were addressed in rituals, including: totems (animals), astral deities, heroes like Geser-Khan or ancestors (those deceased), Powerful and influencing mankind were also the sun, the moon, the heavenly thunder and high bare trees (once struck by lightning). The universe of the early Turk-Mongolian peoples consisted in the concept of a cosmology of the three worlds: the Underworld, the Middle World and the Upper World. This universe was populated by a large number of smaller deities and spirits, who were ruled by several main gods. While the smaller gods were not mentioned in runes, the most important main gods were exactly described including the rituals to be celebrated. They were worshipped across a territory reaching from Manchuria to the Danube, as has been found in various inscriptions. Records on the Creator Ulgen were found in Central Asia, the Caucasus area, in the area of today’s Turkey and in the Volga region. He has been known from early times on among Turk-Mongolian and Manchu-Tungusic tribes.

There were brought about blends with the earlier nature religions (animism) with the Tengri cult (shamanism) and Ak Jang. Rituals like rainmakers (yadachi / yadadji) or stone piles (ovoo) show that sacrifices were continued. Forms with magic, fortune telling and clairvoyance were continued to be performed within the family or the clan, this were prayers addressed to local phenomena “genien loci” – there were appraised spirits or deities in the local area, they were asked to appear and participate in a ritual. Furthermore, there was animism, this is “magical faith”, all human beings, animals and things in the nature have a soul – a spirit who has various meanings and different characters. The difference between soul and spirit is explained as only human beings having a soul, while the term “spirit” is a more abstract designation, which is associated with a wider spectrum of natural phenomenon. Spirit or soul were not considered an object but rather existed in the universe in a hierarchy in horizontal structure (object was only the address for the invocation). In other words, in a yurt there is waiting the spirit of the fire (ot-en “Mother of the Fire”), together with the ancestors (aru-tös), which are addressed to appear in order to participate in a ritual. In the nature, there are existent so-called spirit-masters of the place (eezi), of a mountain (taika-eezi), of a valley or Master of the Altai (Altai-eezi). In the form of
yer-sub there were also existent gods or spirits living on the Earth. Shamanistic performances like trance or invocation to rituals were not only part of this Turk-Mongolian early religious concepts. These were further also connected with an antique concept of the Middle Ages with priesthood, and these have further developed in modern times in the 18th century under the influence of Ak Jang. This Burkhanism with old practises, which are essentially not different from shamanism, consisted of three rituals, which were oriented towards a large community, and they distinguished in their orientation in “levels” of these Three-World Cosmology. They were only different in their scale of invocation in the course of meetings, oriented towards a larger community, which was held by specialists or priests – they were not determined directly for family and home but rather oriented on a clan level (sööks) with tribal meetings or a supra-ethnical or imperial community. For example, a kagan (tribal leader) or clan representative (zaisan) were allowed to participate in such a complex of ceremonies, wherein a group of deities was invocated; these meetings were integrated together with other communities in larger meetings. Such rituals were not found in Old Turkic runic scriptures. The Altai people knew of two “lines” of spirits of ancestors (aru-tös), the ancestors of their heavenly clan patrons (former leaders) and the ancestors of the shamans, who belonged to this “identity pool” of an Altai tradition, which was monopolized by shamans (manjaktu kam) and had an ongoing authority. They were plurivalent due to their relations with Erlik, Master of Death and the Underworld.

Since the 1990ies, the Altai people and their guests from Tuva, Khakassia, Kalmykia, Buryatia, Yakutia and Mongolia celebrated the festivities of
Joloyn, where all clans (sööks) gathered for competitions and religious rituals, and wherein it was important that these were accompanied by Kaichi (throat singers), who performed long epics, thus providing a decorative basis for the festival. These singers performed stories on origin, ancestors and historical events. As confirmed by Nohon Shumarov, great masters of their art performed within a religious gathering with followers of the Ak Jang. And indeed, each festival included an altar, a place for ceremonies of Ak Jang. The central and essential element of every Joloyn event was that texts were being performed using throat singing, which had a direct relation with the Ak Jang: epics on Oirot-Khan, Amyr-Sana, Ak-Burkhan, Altai-Kudai and further important person. Nowadays, such meetings and performances have become lost due to changes and new situations, having assumed the meaning of a folkloristic festival.

- “S
hamanism” was a very popular description of a phenomena; it was used for curing and invocation of spirits to participate and help in magical, curing and religious practises. During the Soviet times, shamanism was considered a primitive and archaic form of a religion, which was prohibited.
In the Altai tradition the shamans were not bound to certain clans (sööks) in ceremonies due to their costumes (manjaktu kam), but they were rather sent and guided by Erlik the “universal ruler of the Underworld”.

- Erlik and Kara-tös
The variety of gods and spirits of the Underworld is united and ruled by their “Ruler”; God of Death and the Underworld. He war in general recognized by all Turk-Mongolian tribes, and he has, as it seems, always been given the same function. As the God of Death and Misfortune, Erlik has always played an important role in the traditional pantheon – he was called to appear in the case of a crisis of an individual or a whole community, and in meetings he was asked to solve problems.
His followers and further “leaders” are the Kara-tös (impure, or black ancestors). They are Erlik’s numerous sons and daughters, various demon spirits and, finally, a very important group – the souls or spirits of dead shamans (as a rule, also historical person, the “war-heroes”). The spirits of deceased are responsible for the training and education of new shamans, they are connected with them (by way of long suffering or misfortune), and they have to follow their call. The shaman is the only person entitled to communicate with the Underworld.

- The Near World or the Middle World
This world is full of spirits – they have a varied number of local and spiritual powers, a Master of the Game, and so on. They are united, either as a “collective unity” or as subjects of a god (goddess).
Yduk Jer-sub (Holy Spring) was one of these old Turk-Mongolian deities. In the Altai, this deity is often designated as Altai-eezi (Master of the Altai).
In the area of the Altai-eezi or Jer-sub there are very important “social” and spiritual spirits was well as Taika-eezi (Master of the Mountain). Rituals are realized on clan level (sööks), forming a type of “Earth-focussed” protector. Every person has his or her own clan mountain with his/her own protector, the Taika-eezi. Shamans (manjaktu kam) of the Underworld are not entitled to perform such ceremonies, as these are reserved for specialists and priests, who are entitled to perform a “holy ritual” – often called “
Ak kam” (White Shaman) or “Jelbichi“, who performed rituals using smoke ceremonies with juniper (yarlykchi). These spirits of the Middle World may be addressed privately (within a small group) or by mediation of seers.
Furthermore, there are groups which are not associated with a “Heaven’s World” (Upper World), the “universal” or “old” deities. In general, these are not “localized” in today’s Altai tradition but rather fixed to the Middle World, and they are, in general called Ot-en such as, e.g., the “Mother of the Fire” or “Umai“, the patron of the birth and children. It is worth mentioning that according to earlier records, Umai was the wife of the supreme heaven’s god “Tengri“; according to traditions nowadays, however, she is not considered to be connected with him anymore. Ceremonies for Ot-en were performed by natural persons, in the house or on the occasion of clan meetings; they may also be performed by shamans. Competencies for such a performance of rituals are obviously dependent on the profession rather than on special persons, not only shamans. For this reason, the main persons, who may address such Ot-en in order to call them to appear for a reunion, are primarily the elder of both sexes.
Umai rituals are not exclusively performed by women. In earlier times, these ceremonies were only reserved for specialists (priests or priestesses), and they formed a part of a “Dyad” – this relation of Tengri (father) - Umai (mother). Todays, ceremonies are only performed privately at home, as it is the case with the Ot-en; in this way, inter-action and competences are reserved for the elders (in this case, a female person) in the course of a birth; they often act as “professionals”. Shamans (manjaktu kam) did not deal with such events regarding the Umai as a rule – and, indeed, their “help” might result in a misfortune or death, as they communicate with the Underworld and could therefore probably use these powers of the Underworld for their help.

- Tsagaan Ebügen - Chaghan Ebügen or Tsagaan uvgon (Mongolian) - Old White Man
He is depicted as an old man, who is clothed in white and rides a white reindeer or a white horse.
He is the link between the heavenly deities (Upper World) and the Near World (the Middle World), and as such he is the Master of the Earth. He is the protector of fortune, the patron of long life and family.
In general, he is no Old White Man, he may rather also be a woman:
Ak-en (White Mother), who is considered co-creator in the creation of the world (co-creator together with the creator Üch-Kurbustan or Ulgen).
This figure of the “
Old White Man” plays a clown role in the Tsam ritual of the Buddhists, representing happiness and a long life.

- Aru-tös (pure ancestors)
They are “inhabitants” of the Upper World. The Altai people also worship Ulgen as supreme god of the sky and creator. He is not only a god or a deity in the proper sense of the word but also a
Tös (spiritual ancestor) of Altai clans. Such Aru-tös essentially have the same rule in the Upper World as the Taika-eezi have on Earth. They have the form of a totem spirit of an ancestor of clans (sööks). They further constitute a very important basis among the Turk-Mongols due to their strict ancestor line in the traditional inter-clan-relation (by way of exogamic marriages in particular). Aru-tös are seen like families, based in their origin on the Altai clans with their relations among each other being strictly ordered. In this way, the Aru-tös and their appraisal is closely connected with a clan tradition. They are the key to religious rituals performed exclusively on clan level – wherein they are essential for the clan identity. The Manjaktu kam (the shamans sent by the Underworld) must not participate in Aru-tös ceremonies. They may only address Aru-tös if they change in their person and, hence, come into contact in a different ritual pattern (including clothes etc.). There is also existent another “rank order” among shamans, the Ak kam (White Shamans), who had only little in common with the Manjaktu kam. The Ak kam celebrated most of the rituals using incense for Aru-tös. Furthermore, it seems as if Aru-tös was also celebrated by the Eldest or Jelbichi (special priests), which performed invocation ceremonies using incense and rituals.
Another important spirit belonging to the Upper World as well as the Middle World was the
Jajyks. These spirits were form-less, similar to the “Holy Spirit” in other religions. It was very important to worship him in ceremonies, in particular in such addressing a supreme spirit. Invocations within ritual sessions could also be performed by laymen, using the Jajyk as a messenger. While this spirit did not demand, in contrast to other spiritual beings in the tradition, a comprehensive form of sacrifices, he was a “medium”, a messenger, who transmitted messages (including prayers) to the respective addressee. It is further important mentioning that in the case that these messages were addressing the Underworld, a Jajyk must not be used: instead, his part was taken over by a soul-spirit of an animal sacrificed (Pura or Bora).

- Tengri (Heaven’s God) - The name "Tengri”, also "Tangra”, was found in nearly all runic scriptures along the Danube, in the former Bulgarian Empires (6th century A.C.) as well as in the Caucasus area, in Tadzhikistan and in eastern Mongolia.
This Turk-Mongolian supreme god Tengri, or Heaven’s God, was very popular. He was a very supreme and important god, who was worshipped in ceremonies, and who was equivalent to a kagan (a leader) who represented the supreme level of a Turk-Mongolian hierarchy and of the social concept within the federation or realm. Epic narrations, legends and myths on Tengri were rather common and well-known in various forms in the Altai. This god, however, was mostly latent, meaning he was more or less “in a state of rest”. Never was issued an invocation towards him within private ceremonies or within a family. Also worshipping Tengri was only allowed to be performed by White Shamans because of their competence and authority – up to the time when it was prohibited in the Soviet area to participate in such festivities with shamanistic rituals. There are more forms of ceremonies for Tengri among the Altai people and their close relatives. It is probable that he was only dedicated ceremonies together with the Aru-tös in the modern Altai culture. There is, however, a certain similarity between deities and specialists, which is to be solved, but this similarity is not “linear”, wherein a certain ritual was only celebrated strictly for a certain god or a group of gods. The holy sites in the tradition do not only differ in regard to their “effectiveness” (i.e. to a deity) but rather in their function and characteristic in such a complex system of “spiritual and religious” connection. Furthermore, apart from shamans, there also participated and appeared specialists, among them some kaichi (bards), which were on the same level as the shamans. They recited songs about a certain deity and/or they narrated of ceremonial complex ceremonies, they were connected with, during which simultaneously there were transmitted important religious information.
Officiating levels, which were not connected with professional shamans, became a “free radical opposition” within the community. Specialists and officials of these “small religious offices” were not explicitly reserved for a clan ritual but rather connected in a structure with integrated clan connections officiating in such larger gatherings and meetings. They represented with the Ak kam a new clan identity in such special religious rituals of communities. Finally, it was them who performed with the Jelbichi (incense priests) and/or the eldest from then on ceremonies with religious services for Tengri under Ak Jang, wherein the function and role thereof coincided with those of a shaman (manjaktu kam). They represented the officiating level for rituals that were spanning clans and were analogous to the “khan level” (leaders).
The ceremonies were held on the top of a mountain, always at the same place. This site was characterized by the holy birch trees (bucht kaiyng). Neither married women nor girls were allowed to participate in such events. It was also strictly prohibited for female animals to enter such a site. The sacrificial lamb was in general a male animal. The ceremony was performed without participation of a shaman (manjaktu kam). The ceremony must be performed by a specially elected eldest, who thoroughly knew these prayers and invocations (alghys), i.e. the words of the prayers directed to heaven, which were called “Alghyschankizhi“. Horses were slaughtered, and their blood was distributed under the trees on the ground. Heads and skins were then put on poles, whereas the corpse was burnt in the sacrificial fire. Shaman and Tengri cults were celebrated on various levels, and these were not different in their contents of a concept within a community and in their sequence. They could be performed within a family, at home, on the occasion of clan meetings and, finally, on a supra-ethnical or “imperial” level.
There were also performed festivities led by “persons” (bilerkizhi = people of knowledge), fortune tellers (“yarynchi“, who gave information on the basis of throwing shoulder blades of sheep), or rainmakers (yadachi, yadadji, the owners of this “weather stone”). Curers, sorcerers and fortune tellers celebrated rituals at a pile of stones (ovoo) using the shoulder blade of a sheep: dream readers or seers cited from a book or used a medium (yrymchi).

- Manjaktu kam (shaman). This was in general the designation for shamans in the Altai, who dealt with the bad influence of the Underworld affecting daily life and with Erlik, the Master of the Underworld, and his followers. They celebrated using a drum, a gift given by Erlik, which exclusively accompanied him during his travels in the Underworld. Persons having a precondition or gift for the profession of the shaman were obliged to become shamans – while herein this pressure was exerted by the “kara-tös“ (black ancestors), who made this person sick, with the sickness lasting until he or she accepted his/her fate of becoming a shaman. These kara-tös were especially spirits of deceased shamans. The most important function of a shaman was to maintain the connection with Erlik, as all problems, and this was the general belief, had their origin essentially with Erlik and his spirits in the Underworld. Shamans were professional in their tasks and independent of a clan structure.
Religious rituals in the Turk-Mongolian tribes were in addition to the shamans also performed by priests and specialists for Tengri cults. Access to these universal gods were also shared by: healers, fortune tellers, dream readers, seers and rainmakers. The kaichi (bards) participated in rituals with their epic narrations, historical stories and performances of mythologies, creation stories and myths about ancestors (aru-tös) of the clans (sööks) using throat singing; these were on the same levels as the shamans.

- further information on shamanism – Shamanism (Tengerism) in Mongolia
- further information on shamanism – Religion of the indigenous people of Siberia

There were further active persons having special abilities and knowledge due to their profession: medium “yrymchi”; fortune teller “telgochi” and “yarynchi” who predicted the fortune on the basis of throwing shoulder blades of sheep; seers “kospochi”, also predicting the future; rainmakers “jadachi”, the owners of a “weather stone”, who were able to give prophecies on the weather on the basis of this magical jade stone. Among these, there were also to be found fortune tellers who uttered prophecies on the basis of a burnt should blade of a sheep; the whisperers “arbyschi”, who performed their rituals using a piece of cloth (ribbons) attached to a birch twig; priests “jelbechi” who accompanied holy rituals using incense, and in many other forms and sessions “chosen” persons were active.
All these persons with the gifts, they were awarded by the higher powers in the form of gifts, are part of an active Altai tradition, in the form of a Pre-Ak Jang as well as the later Ak Jang, as well as the shamans (manjaktu kam), who in general were not associated with a given clan. Functions such as “seeing into the future” or a “bedevilled gift” were shared with shamans, but other medial forms or blessing not. In contrast to the shamans, the “small” specialists of the Saints in the Altai, who were called “bilerkizhi”, a name for the persons of knowledge, assumed an important but ambivalent role within the community. Especially those, whose charisma had benevolent features, e.g., the algyschtschi (blessers) or arzhanga ulus bashkarar (leader to the springs), were commonly respected. They were elected elders due to their specific gifts or capacities. In contrast to shamans, they were no professionals but rather especially committed members of a clan community. They were committed to the “Near World” (Middle World), in particular those who in their function had a certain “channel” to a deity or a god with whom they were communicating. For example, a seer had a special relation with a Master of the Mountains “taika-eezi” and could participate in a hunting group as a member or as an “expert” in a hunting game. An “Arzhanga ulus bashkarar” – leader to the holy springs – accompanied such festive pilgrimages. They officiated due to their particular connection with a spirit of the “feather”. It is possible that such professions like “algyschtschi” (blesser or messenger) established a connection with the “spirits of the height” (archyn koror) via the medium “yrymchi”, but this is not sure. These “holy” persons within the Altai tradition represent a variety of offices and functions, they are “officials” or neutral in regard to religious activities, which served directly for maintaining or consolidating the clan structures. In other words, they functioned within a clan level. But there were also other specialist belonging to the “invocation” of powers, who communicated with the Middle as well as the Upper World, they are hinges of the shuo level, celebrating religious performances with aru-tös (ancestors – in a certain sense a kind of ancestor cult).

- Ak kam (White Shaman) - The “White Shamans” were important and primarily “holy” persons, but not much is known about their special function, about their work in the Middle and Upper Worlds. They were indeed considered to be “strong” and much respected persons. They did not communicate with spirits of the Underworld, and they did not address Erlik for the solution of their problems. They communicated first of all with the Aru-tös (ancestors), these heavenly patrons – ancestors of clan members, with Ot-en (Mother of the Fire), Umai (Goddess of Birth) and many others. They also were authorities in the performances of a ceremony with Taika-eezi (Master of the Mountains), who represented the patron for a clan; this is seen as an analogy to the heavenly Aru-tös (ancestors) and spirits of the Jer-sub complex (Gods of the Middle World). Seasonal rituals were dedicated to those who were responsible as patrons of the clans or for larger social structures of a community. In the ceremonies they did not travel to other worlds, and did not even get in trances; they acted more as clan priests performing sacrificial rituals, who were then visited by the whole clan. There were not sacrificed any animals but it was rather mare’s milk or alcohol that was spread around the “holy” site. The shaman used neither a drum nor did he wear a manjak (costume): He wore white clothes and a hat, which was embellished with ribbons (chalu). The celebrations were performed together with a jelbichi (priests performing holy rituals using incense) and yarlykchi (priests who were “messengers” to the gods).
Dressed in white cloths and hat, similar to a woman, they asked Tengri (supreme god in heaven) in meetings and gatherings in the mountains for help using ceremonies. These were often performed by an elected eldest, who then wore these special ceremonial dresses. The dress is similar to that of an Ak kam. The Ak kam or an officiating eldest performed such Tengri ceremonies constituting the main rituals among clan communities. This is the reason why these were also called specialists. The ritual ended with a festive meal, when the mutton had feasted on the sacrifice, and mare’s milk, “araka”, was drunk under the light of the moon. All leftovers and bones were handed over to fire. The prayer to “heaven and sun” was directed beyond the sphere of the bad spirits, and this is why the presence of a shaman was not necessary in such “Tigir-taikh” ceremonies.

- Kaichi (Barden) - These are singers, who perform myths, sagas, legends and epics. They belong to the important conservators of this culture. Stories and tales are interwoven with religious concepts, practices and holy sites thereof. There is also given information on the origin and ancestors of the tribes (sööks), their leaders and heroic deeds, and on the creation tales. Such epics have been orally transmitted from one generation to the next one; the whole would fill up about 4,000 pages in books. Several epics are now existent in written form, such as: Altyn-Arygh, Ai-Mergen, Khan-Mergen, Khuban-Arygh.
Such as Ulgen, Geser (creator) or Aru-tös (ancestors) of Turkic speaking and Mongolian tribal communities. They are also called Kaichi, “the people of wisdom” – “neme bilerkizhi”. Such epics have been orally transmitted from one generation to the next one; such as, e.g., "Altaibuchai”, "Maadai-kara” and other tales of the Altaians, which are now existent in written form.

- Epic stories fundamentally are tribal history and the mythologies thereof. It is important to note that such epics may only rather seldomly be assigned to one special tribe (söök). The tribes are mutually related with each other, although not in an ethnical sense. There is spoken of the “collective memory” of all tribes sharing the same ancestors, including all Turkic speaking and Mongolian communities and the world concepts that were then rather similar. In every larger tale, there is given praise of a hero (mostly a male ancestor and leader of a community). There may, however, also be present female heroes such as in the legend "Ochibala" (female amazon warriors).

The stories and tales tell of male and female heroes, who were born under strange circumstances. They go on journeys (also in the form of a hunt), and when they come home, they find their communities suppressed and subjected or even destroyed by invasion or attacks. In these tales, the attackers are described, identifying suppression and subjugation with a character such as Erlik, the ruler of the underworld. In the heroic epics, also in the form of tales, the central figures are heroes having supernatural powers, who are given the virtues of force, craftiness and wisdom and who restore freedom. Suppressors are defeated or expelled, and the heroes are celebrated as leader and liberators. This has led to a form of idolization and deification. Examples thereof are tribal leaders such as Amyr-Sana, Schunu or the Oirot-khan. Among the population, there was also widely popular the story of and the belief in Ak Jang. There is also told the legend of the liberator, who returns and rescues the people (
Shambhala – the king returns from paradise in order to free the people).

Praying together, directing towards a “spirit-knight” (heroe) thanking for liberation, is celebrated in meetings together with priests. The following names have to be mentioned in this connection: Schunu, Altyn-tunter, Geser-khan, Khantolpytte, Bakshi-burkhan, Altyn-kerel, Altyn-topchy, Ak-anchilei and others. The three to follow are especially important heroes: Oirot-khan or Galdan-Oirot, Schunu (also called Ashina) and Amyr-sana – all three heroes are closely associated with the sufferings of the Dzungars under the attacks of the Manchu from the Qing dynasty (17th / 18th century).

Sources are unpublished manuscripts of the ethnographic and music scientist A. V. Anokhin, who spent more than 20 years in the Altai.

- more information and list of terms see: Glossary

A.V. Anokhin (†1931) lived in the Altai from 1920 to 1931. During his work as a music teacher in Ulala (Gorno- Altaisk), he actively studied folklore, music and religion of the Altai people. His work “Materialy po Shamanstvu u Altaitsev”, which was published in Leningrad in the year 1924, offers a complete and comprehensive illustration of Shamanism in the Altai. Anokhin also studied the “Ak Jang” from 1910 to 1930, and he was able to observe the developments thereof. The manuscript is owned by the Archive of the Institute for Altaic Studies in Gorno-Altaisk. – “Ak Jang” was developed to replace and supplement Shamanism. He tried to connect both traditions of sun worship according to various evolutionary theories of the religious sciences of the 19th century.
The works by A.G. Danilin remain the only published source dealing with the theology and the practical use of the “Ak Jang” in detail. Danilin also mentioned manuscripts by A.V. Anokhin.
Nicholas Roerich – a famous Russian occultist and artist, who promoted „Agni-Yoga” – a mixture of Buddhist (fundamentally imaginary), „esoterically” mixed with Christian and spiritual elements similar to the theosophy (Divine Wisdom). The essential aspect of this teaching was the „search for Shambhala”. He and his wife Elena Roerich, who was a well-acclaimed medium, produced a number of „Shambhala prophecies”, which were rather popular in the late 1920ies; Roerich and his wife travelled through the Altai, as was documented in Roerich’s book „The Heart of Asia”.

- map sketch Gorno-Altaisk

© Albi – April 2014 – translated by Hermelinde Steiner – July 2015


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