Tengrism, also known as Tengriism, Tenggerism, or Tengrianism, is a Central Asian religion characterized by shamanism, animism, totemism, poly-, and monotheism, and ancestor worship. It was the prevailing religion of the Turks, Mongols, Hungarians, Xiongnu and possibly Huns, and the religion of the five ancient Turkic states: Göktürk Khaganate, Western Turkic Khaganate, Great Bulgaria, Bulgarian Empire, and Eastern Tourkia (Khazaria). In Irk Bitig, Tengri is mentioned as Türük Tängrisi (God of Turks).
Tengrism has been advocated in intellectual circles of the Turkic nations of Central Asia (including Tatarstan, Buryatia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan) since the dissolution of the Soviet Union during the 1990s. Still practiced, it is undergoing an organized revival in Sakha, Khakassia, Tuva and other Turkic nations in Siberia. Burkhanism, a movement similar to Tengrism, is concentrated in Altay.
Khukh tengri means “blue sky” in Mongolian, Mongolians still pray to Munkh Khukh Tengri (“Eternal Blue Sky”) and Mongolia is sometimes poetically called the “Land of Eternal Blue Sky” (Munkh Khukh Tengriin Oron) by its inhabitants. In modern Turkey, Tengrism is known as the Göktanrı dini (“Sky God religion”); the Turkish “Gök” (sky) and “Tanrı” (God) correspond to the Mongolian khukh(blue) and Tengri (sky), respectively. According to Hungarian archaeological research, the religion of the Hungarians until the end of the 10th century (before Christianity) was Tengrism
The word “Tengrism” is a fairly new term. It is conventionally used to describe a form of Tengri-centered shamanism that prevailed on the Eurasian steppes mostly among early Turkic and Mongol Khanates. Tengrism differs from Siberian shamanism in that the polities practicing it were not small bands of hunter gatherers like the Paleosiberians but a continuous succession of pastoral, semi-sedentarized Khanates and empires from the Xiongnu Empire (founded 209 BC) till the Mongol Empire (13th century). Among Turkic peoples it was radically supplanted by Islam while in Mongolia it survives as a synthesis with Tibetan Buddhism while surviving in purer forms around Lake Khovsgol and Lake Baikal. Unlike Siberian shamanism which has no written tradition, Tengrism can be identified from Turkic and Mongolic historical texts like the Orkhon inscriptions, Secret History of the Mongols and Altan Tobchi. However, these texts are more historically oriented and are not strictly religious texts like the scriptures and sutras of sedentary civilizations which have elaborate doctrines and religious stories. On a scale of complexity Tengrism lies somewhere between the Proto-Indo-European religion (a pre-state form of pastoral shamanism on the western steppe) and its later form the Vedic religion. The eastern steppe where Tengrism developed had more centralized, hierarchical polities than the western steppe. Tengrism has been noted as more centralized, less polytheistic, less myth-intensive and more historically focused than the paganism that grew out of the western Proto-Indo-European religion. Nonetheless, the chief god Tengri (Heaven) is considered strikingly similar to the Indo-European sky god *Dyeus and the structure of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European religion is closer to that of the early Turks than to the religion of any people of Near Eastern or Mediterranean antiquity.
Tengrists view their existence as sustained by the eternal blue sky (Tengri), the fertile mother-earth spirit (Eje) and a ruler regarded as the holy spirit of the sky. Heaven, earth, spirits of nature and ancestors provide for every need and protect all humans. By living an upright, respectful life, a human will keep his world in balance and perfect his personal Wind Horse, or spirit. The Huns of the northern Caucasus reportedly believed in two gods: Tangri Han (or Tengri Khan), considered identical to the Persian Aspandiat and for whom horses were sacrificed, and Kuar (whose victims are struck by lightning). Tengrism is practised in Sakha, Buryatia, Tuva and Mongolia in parallel with Tibetan Buddhism and Burkhanism.
Kyrgyz means “we are forty” in the Kyrgyz language, and Kyrgyzstan’s flag has 40 uniformly-spaced rays. Tengrist Khazars aided Heraclius by reportedly sending 40,000 soldiers during a joint Byzantine-Göktürk operation against the Persians.
Several Kyrgyz politicians are advocating Tengrism to fill a perceived ideological void. Dastan Sarygulov, secretary of state and former chair of the Kyrgyz state gold-mining company, established the Tengir Ordo(Army of Tengri): a civic group promoting the values and traditions of Tengrism. Sarygulov also heads a Tengrist society in Bishkek claiming nearly 500,000 followers and an international scientific center of Tengrist studies.
Articles on Tengrism have been published in social-scientific journals in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev and former Kyrgyz president Askar Akayev have called Tengrism the national, “natural” religion of the Turkic peoples.
- Gun Ana – the sun (featured in most flags)
- Umay – Goddess of fertility and virginity
- Bai-Ulgan – Greatest deity, after Tengri
- Erkliğ – God of space
- Erlik – God of death
- Flag of Sakha Republic
- Flag of Kazakhstan
- Flag of Chuvashia
- Göktürk coins
- Tree of Life
Tengrism was brought to Eastern Europe by the Bulgars. It lost importance when the Uighuric kagans proclaimed Manichaeism the state religion in the eighth century.
Tengrism also played a large role in the religion of the Gok-Turk and Mongol Empires. Gok-Turk translates as “celestial Turk”. Genghis Khan and several generations of his followers were Tengrian believers until his fifth-generation descendant, Uzbeg Khan, turned to Islam in the 14th century.
The original Mongol khans, followers of Tengri, were known for their tolerance of other religions. Möngke Khan, the fourth Great Khan of the 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 William of Rubruck on May 31, 1254).
As in most ancient beliefs, there is a “celestial world” and an “underground world” in Tengrism. The only connection between these realms is the “Tree of Worlds” that is in the center of the worlds.
The celestial and the subterranean world are divided into seven layers (the underworld sometimes nine layers and the celestial world 17 layers). Shamans can recognize entries to travel into these realms. In the multiples of these realms, there are beings, living just like humans on the earth. They also have their own respected souls and shamans and nature spirits. Sometimes these beings visit the earth, but are invisible to people. They manifest themselves only in a strange sizzling fire or a bark to the shaman.
Subterranean world (underworld)
There are many similarities between the earth and the underworld and its inhabitants resemble humans, but have only two souls instead of three. They lack the “Ami soul”, that produces body temperature and allows breathing. Therefore, they are pale and their blood is dark. The sun and the moon of the underworld give far less light than the sun and the moon of the earth. There are also forests, rivers and settlements underground.
Erlik Khan (Mongolian: Erleg Khan) one of the sons of Tengri, is the ruler of the underworld. He controls the souls here, some of them waiting to be reborn again. If a sick human is not dead yet, a shaman can move to the underworld to negotiate with Erlik to bring the person back to life. If he fails, the person dies.
The celestial world has many similarities with the earth,as if there would be no humams. There is a healthy, untouched nature here, and the natives of this place have never deviated from the traditions of their ancestors. This world is much righter than the earth and is under the auspices of Ulgen another son of Tengri. Shamans can also visit this world.
On some days, the doors of this heavenly world are opened and the light shines through the clouds. During this moment, the prayers of the shamans are most influential. A shaman performs his imaginary journey, which takes him to the heavens, by ridig a black bird, a deer or a horse or by going into the shape into these animals. Otherwise he may scale the World-Tree or pass the rainbow to reach the heavenly world.
View of the world
According to the adherence of Tengrism, the world is not only a three-dimensional environment, but also a rotating circle. Everything is bound by this circle and the tire is always renewed without stopping. The three dimensions of the Earth consists of the movement of the sun, the season which are constantly moving, and the souls of all creatures that are born again after death.
Three souls of human
It is believed that people and animals have many souls. Generally, each person is considered to have three souls, but the names, characteristics an numbers of the souls may be different among some of the tribes: For example, for Samoyets, a Mongol tribe living in the north of Siberia, believe that women consist of four and men of five souls. Since animals also have souls, humans must respect animals.
According Paulsen and Jultkratz, who conducted research in North America, North Asia and Central Asia by Paulsen and Jultkratz, explained two souls of this belief are the same to all people:
- Nefes (Breath or Nafs, life or bodily spirit)
- Shadow soul / Free soul
There are many different names for human souls among the Turks and the Mongols, but their features and meanings have not been adequately researched yet.
- Among Turks: Özüt, Süne, Kut, Sür, Salkin, Tin, Körmös, Yula
- Among Mongols: Sünesün, Amin, Kut, Sülde
In addition to these spirits, Jean Paul Roux draws attention to the “Özkonuk” spirit mentioned in the writings from the Buddhist periods of the Uighurs.
Julie Stewart, who devoted her life to research in Mongolia described the belief in the soul in one of her articles:
- Amin ruhu: Provides breathing and body temperature. It is the soul which invigorates. (The Turkish counterpart is probably Özüt)
- Sünesün ruhu: Outside of the body, this soul moves through water. It is also the part of soul, which reincarnates. After a human died, this part of the soul moves to the world-tree. When it is reborn, it comes out of a source and enters the new-born. (Also called Süne ruhu among Turks)
- Sülde ruhu: It is the soul of the self that gives a person a personality. If the other souls leave the body, they only loss consciousness, but if this soul leaves the body, the human dies. This soul resides in nature after death and is not reborn.
A revival of Tengrism has played a role in Central Asian Turkic nationalism since the 1990s. It developed in Tatarstan, where the Tengrist periodical Bizneng-Yul appeared in 1997. The movement spread during the 2000s to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, Buryatia and Mongolia.
The term “shamanism” was first applied by Western anthropologists as outside observers of the ancient religion of the Turks and Mongols, as well as those of the neighbouring Tungusic and Samoyedic-speaking peoples. Upon observing more religious traditions across the world, some Western anthropologists began to also use the term in a very broad sense. The term was used to describe unrelated magico-religious practices found within the ethnic religions of other parts of Asia, Africa, Australasia and even completely unrelated parts of the Americas, as they believed these practices to be similar to one another.
The earliest known depiction of a Siberian shaman, drawn by the Dutch explorer Nicolaes Witsen, who wrote an account of his travels among Samoyedic- and Tungusic-speaking peoples in 1692. Witsen labeled the illustration as a “Priest of the Devil,” giving this figure clawed feet to express what he thought were demonic qualities.
Since the 1990s, Russian-language literature uses Тенгрианство (“Tengrism” or “Tengrinity”) in the general sense of Mongolian shamanism. Buryat scholar Irina S. Urbanaeva developed a theory of Tengrianist esoteric traditions in Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the revival of national sentiment in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
Although Tengrism has few active adherents, its revival of a national religion reached a larger audience in intellectual circles. Presenting Islam as foreign to the Turkic peoples, adherents are found primarily among the nationalistic parties of Central Asia. Tengrism may be interpreted as a Turkic version of Russian neopaganism. A related phenomenon is the revival of Zoroastrianism in Tajikistan.
By 2006, a Tengrist society in Bishkek, an “international scientific centre of Tengrist studies” and a civic group (Tengir Ordo, the “army of Tengri”) were established by Kyrgyz businessman and politician Dastan Sarygulov. His ideology incorporated ethnocentrism and Pan-Turkism, but did not receive strong support. After the Kyrgyzstani presidential elections of 2005, Sarygulov became state secretary and set up a workgroup dealing with ideological issues. Another Kyrgyz proponent of Tengrism, Kubanychbek Tezekbaev, was prosecuted for inciting religious and ethnic hatred in 2011 with statements in an interview describing Kyrgyz mullahs as “former alcoholics and murderers”.
Arghun expressed the association of Tengri with imperial legitimacy and military success. The majesty (suu) of the khan is a divine stamp granted by Tengri to a chosen individual through which Tengri controls the world order (the presence of Tengri in the khan). In this letter, “Tengri” or “Mongke Tengri” (“Eternal Heaven”) is at the top of the sentence. In the middle of the magnified section, the phrase Tengri-yin Kuchin (“Power of Tengri”) forms a pause before it is followed by the phrase Khagan-u Suu (“Majesty of the Khan”):
Under the Power of the Eternal Tengri. Under the Majesty of the Khan (Kublai Khan). Arghun Our word. To the Ired Farans (King of France). Last year you sent your ambassadors led by Mar Bar Sawma telling Us: “if the soldiers of the Il-Khan ride in the direction of Misir (Egypt) we ourselves will ride from here and join you”, which words We have approved and said (in reply) “praying to Tengri (Heaven) We will ride on the last month of winter on the year of the tiger and descend on Dimisq (Damascus) on the 15th of the first month of spring.” Now, if, being true to your words, you send your soldiers at the appointed time and, worshipping Tengri, we conquer those citizens (of Damascus together), We will give you Orislim (Jerusalem). How can it be appropriate if you were to start amassing your soldiers later than the appointed time and appointment? What would be the use of regretting afterwards? Also, if, adding any additional messages, you let your ambassadors fly (to Us) on wings, sending Us luxuries, falcons, whatever precious articles and beasts there are from the land of the Franks, the Power of Tengri (Tengri-yin Kuchin) and the Majesty of the Khan (Khagan-u Suu) only knows how We will treat you favorably. With these words We have sent Muskeril (Buscarello) the Khorchi. Our writing was written while We were at Khondlon on the sixth khuuchid (6th day of the old moon) of the first month of summer on the year of the cow.
Arghun expressed Tengrism’s non-dogmatic side. The name Mongke Tengri (“Eternal Tengri”) is at the top of the sentence in this letter to Pope Nicholas IV, in accordance with Mongolian Tengriist writing rules). The words “Tngri” (Tengri) and “zrlg” (zarlig, decree/order) are still written with vowel-less archaism:
… Your saying “May [the Ilkhan] receive silam (baptism)” is legitimate. We say: “We the descendants of Genghis Khan, keeping our own proper Mongol identity, whether some receive silam or some don’t, that is only for Eternal Tengri (Heaven) to know (decide).” People who have received silam and who, like you, have a truly honest heart and are pure, do not act against the religion and orders of the Eternal Tengri and of Misiqa (Messiah or Christ). Regarding the other peoples, those who, forgetting the Eternal Tengri and disobeying him, are lying and stealing, are there not many of them? Now, you say that we have not received silam, you are offended and harbor thoughts of discontent. [But] if one prays to Eternal Tengri and carries righteous thoughts, it is as much as if he had received silam. We have written our letter in the year of the tiger, the fifth of the new moon of the first summer month (May 14th, 1290), when we were in Urumi.
When Boorchi and Ogedei return wounded from the battle against Toghrul, Genghis Khan strikes his chest in anguish and says “May Eternal Tengri decide” (paragraph 172). Genghis Khan tells Altan and Khuchar “All of you refused to become Khan, that is why I led you as Khan. If you would have become Khan I would have charged first in battle and brought you the best women and horses if high Khukh Tengri showed us favor and defeated our enemies”. After defeating the Keraits Genghis Khan says “By the blessing of Eternal Tengri I have brought low the Kerait nation and ascended the high throne” (paragraph 187). Genghis sends Subutai with an iron cart to pursue the sons of Togtoa and tells him “If you act exposed though hidden, near though far and maintain loyalty then Supreme Tengri will bless you and support you” (paragraph 199). Jamukha tells Temujin “I had no trustworthy friends, no talented brothers and my wife was a talker with great words. That is why I have lost to you Temujin, blessed and destined by Father Tengri.” Genghis Khan appoints Shikhikhutug chief judge of the Empire in 1206 and tells him “Be my eyes to see and ears to hear when I am ordering the empire through the blessing of Eternal Tengri” (paragraph 203). Genghis Khan appoints Muqali “Gui Wang” because he “transmitted the word of Tengri when I was sitting under the spreading tree in the valley of Khorkhunag Jubur where Hotula Khan used to dance” (paragraph 206). He gives Khorchi of the Baarin 30 wives because he promised Khorchi he would fulfill his request for 30 wives “if what you say comes true through the mercy and power of Tengri” (paragraph 207). Genghis mentions both Eternal Tengri and “heaven and earth” when he says “By the mercy of Eternal Tengri and the blessing of heaven and earth I have greatly increased in power, united all the great nation and brought them under my reins” (paragraph 224). Genghis orders Dorbei the Fierce of the Dorbet tribe to “strictly govern your soldiers, pray to Eternal Tengri and try to conquer the Khori Tumed people” (paragraph 240). After being insulted by Asha Khambu of the Tanguts of being a weak Khan Genghis Khan says “If Eternal Tengri blesses me and I firmly pull my golden reins, then things will become clear at that time” (paragraph 256). When Asha Khambu of the Tangut insults him again after his return from the Khwarezmian campaign Genghis Khan says “How can we go back (to Mongolia) when he says such proud words? Though I die I won’t let these words slip. Eternal Tengri, you decide” (paragraph 265). After Genghis Khan “ascends to Tengri” (paragraph 268) during his successful campaign against the Tangut (Xi Xia) the wheels of the returning funeral cart gets stuck in the ground and Gilugdei Baatar of the Sunud says “My horse-mounted divine lord born with destiny from Khukh Tengri, have you abandoned your great nation?” Batu Khan sends a secret letter to Ogedei Khan saying “Under the power of the Eternal Tengri, under the Majesty of my uncle the Khan, we set up a great tent to feast after we had broken the city of Meged, conquered the Orosuud (Russians), brought in eleven nations from all directions and pulled on our golden reins to hold one last meeting before going our separate directions” (paragraph 275).