Face Music - Religion of the Khakas and Altai people




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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016


more information about Religion of the Khakass people - text available in German


Religion of the Khakas and Altai people

Shamans (Shamanisums = Kham Kirtinizi) play an important part in the Altai and Khakassia region. They wear richly-decorated costumes and beat big frame drums (tüür) on which the Altais or Khakass paint a representation of the universe and its divisions.

Shamans mediate between the world of spirits and that of mankind. They know how to drive out the demons which settle in the human body and cause illnesses or, if they are holding the person's soul captive, how to persuade it to release him or her, sometimes by making a sacrifice. In the minds of these people, human beings have several souls that lead them through the various phases of life. The loss of one such soul does not bring about an immediate but a long drawn-out death. The shamans can also banish the spirits into small idols (figurines made of wood or bone).

The Altais and Khakass believe that the universe consists of several layers of Heaven above our Earth and of just as many layers of the Underworld beneath it, all inhabited by good and evil spirits. The highest Heaven, however, is reserved for the highest God of Heaven, as if the world were a mountain in the middle of the universe. They believe in spirits which take possession of people, and in spirits of animals and of the dead.

Two major sacrificial festivals in spring and autumn determine the course of the year. An animal, usually a horse, is slaughtered at this time and a banquet follows at which the animal's flesh is eaten and mare's milk drunk (kumys). This is when the popular wrestling matches and horse-races take place. The Khakass also celebrate their festival "tun pairam" on the first Sunday in June with singing, riding and archery contests.

Descriptions of shamans' journeys into the upper and lower worlds, and drawings of shamans' drums (a single-headed frame drum) provide a chance to see the world from the Altai shamans' point of view. "Two valuchs' skins are equal" – this is the formulation of the equal greatness of the Sky and the Earth. In the epic legends, in the descriptions of shamans' journeys, terms such as "The bottom of the Sky," "The bottom of the Earth," "The basis of the Sky and the Earth" and "The borders of the World" are often mentioned.

According to the belief of the Altaic people there are many skies: the closest is the one we can see, and it is followed by many more invisible ones. It has the appearance of an upside-down cup and touches the Earth with its edges, constantly oscillating. The Earth is shaped like a dish, and the sky is like a dome. Together they form a sphere that contains the human world. Alongside our sun-and-moon world there are ninety-nine further worlds with their own Sky, Earth and Underworld (Hades). In each world there are rulers, and humans are created there. Our world is the smallest world at the bottom, "Kara-tengere" (black sky): Our sky has thirty-three circles or layers, one higher than the other. That is the Altaic shaman view of how our world is structured.

The Earth, where we live, is referred to by Altaics as the real Earth. Under that Earth is another Earth, where Eternal Darkness rules. That layer is the lower world, or the farther Earth. The real Earth, in the present time, is living through the second period of its existence. The beginning of the second period relates to the Flood, of which the following is said: The messenger of the Flood's coming was the blue goat with iron horns. Seven days he ran around the Earth and bleated furiously.
- For seven days the earth quaked.
- For seven days the mountains burnt.
- For seven days it rained.
- For seven days the storm with hail raged.
- For seven days it snowed.
- Then the frosts came.

The two most popular Altaic gods are Ulgen and Erlik. Ulgen acts as a creator god, a heavenly anthropomorphic creature, living in the sky with a family, a mother, a wife and lots of sons and daughters. Ulgen is the embodiment of heaven but is also considered as kind and benevolent. His counterpart is Erlik, the brother of evil.

The Khakas universe consists of three worlds: the upper world with Khudai or Khan Tigîr (“Ruler Sky“) and other spirits having supernatural powers; the underworld with Erlik, the ruler over the evil powers, and the middle world in which we live together with a wide range of spirits, of which the mountains spirits have the greatest impact on human life.

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


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