Histroy of Shamanism – Central Asia

The Cambridge Medieval History
Vol 1
The Christian Roman Empire and the Foundation of the Teutonic Kingdoms
The Macmillan Company, 1911

Chapter XII
The Asiatic Background
By T. Peisker, Ph.D., Privatodcent and Librarian, Graz


p 343-346

The religious conceptions of a group of primitive people inhabiting such an enormous district were of course never uniform. Today the greatest part of the Altaians is Buddhist, or Islamitic, and only a few Siberian Turkish tribes remain true to the old-Altaian Shamanism.

The Organization of the Cosmos

The universe consists of a number of layers separated one from another by a certain, something. The seventeen upper layers form the kingdom of light, seven or nine the underworld of darkness. In between lies the surface of man’s earth, constantly influenced by both powers. The good divinities and spirits of heaven protect men, but the bad endeavour to destroy them. Originally there was only water and neither earth nor heaven nor sun nor moon. Then Tengere Kaira Khan (“the kind heaven”) created first a being like himself, Kishi, man. Both soared in bliss over the water, but Kishi wished to exalt himself above the creator, and losing through his transgression the power to fly, fell headlong into the bottomless water. In his mercy Kaira Khan caused a star to rise out of the flood, upon which the drowning Kishi could sit ; but as he could no longer fly Kaira Khan caused him to dive deep down and bring up earth, which he strewed upon the surface of the water. But Kishi kept a piece of it in his mouth in order to create a special country out of it for himself. This swelled in his mouth and would have suffocated him had he not spat it out so that morasses formed on Kaira Khan’s hitherto smooth earth. In consequence Kaira Khan named Kishi Erlik, banished him from the kingdom of light, and caused a nine- branched tree to grow out of the earth, and under each branch created a man as first father of each of the nine peoples of the present time. In vain Erlik besought Kaira Khan to entrust to him the nine fair and good men ; but he found out how to pervert them to evil. Angered thereat Kaira Khan left foolish man to himself, and condemned Erlik to the third layer of darkness. But for himself he created the seventeen layers of heaven and set up his dwelling in the highest. As the protector and teacher of the now deserted race of man he left behind Mai-Tar a (the Sublime) . Erlik too with the permission of the Kaira Khan built himself a heaven and peopled it with his own subjects, the bad spirits, men corrupted by him. And behold, they lived more comfortably than the sons of the earth created by Kaira Khan. And so Kaira Elan caused Erlik’s heaven to be shattered into small pieces, which falling on the- earth formed huge mountains and gorges. But Erlik was doomed until the end of the world to everlasting darkness.

And now from the seventeenth layer of heaven Kaira Khan controls the destiny of the universe. By emanation from him the three highest divinities came into being: Bai Ulgbn (the Great) in the sixteenth, Kysagan Tengere (the Mighty) in the ninth, and Mergen Tengere (the All-wise) in the seventh layer of heaven, where ** Mother Sun” dwells also. In the sixth is enthroned “Father Moon,” in the fifth Kudai Yayutshi (the highest Creator), Ulgon’s two sons Yayik and Mai-Tara, the protecting patrons of man- kind, dwell in the third on the milk-white sea Siit-ak-kol, the source of all life ; near it is the mountain Suro, the dwelling of the seven Kudai, with their subjects the Yayutshi, the guardian angels of mankind Here is also the paradise of the blessed and righteous ancestors of living men, who mediate between the divinities of heaven and their own descendants, and can help them in their need. The earth is personified in a community of spirits (Yer-su) beneficent to man, the seventeen high Khans (princes) of the seventeen spring districts, whose abodes lie on the seventeen snow peaks of the highest mountains, by the sources of the seventeen streams which water the land In the seven layers of the dark underworld prevails the dismal light of the underworld sun peculiar to them. This is the dwelling of all the evil spirits who waylay men at every turn : misshapen goblins, witches, Kormos, and others ruled by Erlik-Khan the dreadful prince on the black throne. Still deeper lies the horrible hell, Kasyrgan, where the sinners and criminals of mankind suffer just punishment. All evil comes from Erlik, cattle-disease, poverty, illness, and death. Thus there is no more important duty for man than to hold him steadfastly in honour, to call him “father Erlik,” and to appease him with rich sacrifices. If a man is to be born, Ulgon, at the request of the former’s ancestors, orders his son Yayik to give a Yayutshi charge of the birth, with the life-force from the milk-white sea. This Yayutshi then watches over the newly-born during the whole of his life on earth But at the same time Erlik sends forth a Kormds to prevent the birth or at least to hamper it, and to injure and misguide the newly-born his whole life long. And if Erlik is successful in annihilating the life-forces of a man, Kormos drags the soul before Erlik’s judgment-seat. If the man was more good than bad, Erlik has no power over him, Kormos stands aside, and the Yayutshi brings the soul up to paradise, But the soul of the wicked is abandoned by its Yayutshi, dragged by its Kormos to hell in the deepest layer of the underworld, and flung into a gigantic caldron of scalding tar. The worst sinners remain forever beneath the surface of the tar, the rest rise gradually above the bubbling tar until at last the crown of the head with the pigtail comes to view. So even the sinner’s good works are not in vain. The blessed in heaven reflect on the kindnesses once done by him, and they and his ancestors send his former Yayutshi to hell, who grasps him by the pigtail, pulls him out of the tar, and bears the soul up to heaven. For this reason the Kalmucks let their pigtails grow, as did many of the nomad peoples of history.

However, there is no absolute justice. The gods of light, like the spirits of darkness, allow themselves to be won over by sacrificial viands, and, if rich offerings are forthcoming, they willingly wink at transgression; they are envious of man’s wealth and demand gifts from all, and so it is advisable to stand well with both powers, and that can only be done through the medium of the Shamans. So long as Erlik is banished in the darkness, a uniform ordering of the universe exists till the last day when everything created comes to an end, and the world ceases to be.

With Shamanism fire-worship was closely associated. Fire purifies everything, wards off evil, and makes every enchantment ineffective. Hence the sick man, and the strange arrival, and everything which he brings with him must pass between two fires. Probably fire-worship was originally common to all the Altaians, and the Magyars also of the ninth century were described by the Arabian geographer as fire- worshippers.