Ludy Europy Wschodniej
System of beliefs

Nowadays, it is difficult to tell, without ambiguity, which part of the beliefs was the “primitive” religion and what it really was. It seems that early Turkic beliefs and rituals are of greatest meaning, as it could be proved not only with the ethnic membership of the Kypchaks, but also strong influence, or even “turkisation” of the Mongol Kimaks. Furthermore, the ancestors of the Polovtsians were under strong Chinese, Iranian, Arabic and Manchurio-Tunguskan influences.

The most information on the “primitive” religion of the T'u-küe, the population of many tribes that spoke in similar dialects of one language group comes from the Chinese sources – the chronicles of Vei-Shu and Suei-Shu, dated for the 7th century and referring to 6th century, in which the rituals that honoured the ancestors and customs, related to worship the spirit of the sky, the rising sun and the cult of the mountain, were listed.

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The cult of the sky T'ien, the apotheosis of the forces and phenomena of nature and the cult of the ancestors belonged to the oldest elements of Chinese religion. There is a clear similarity and it is difficult to define the mutual influence of both sides on those notions, proper to the most religious systems. From the oldest Turkish inscriptions, Orkhon inscriptions from the 7th century, it is known that „The Turkish Khagan resembles Sky and by Sky he was created. (...), Sky (tur. tängri) [footnote 1] is Turkish (...), the Turkish Khagan was sent by the the Sky to the earth and all are obliged to obey him. (...) The Turkish people is entitled to rule whole world”. Mahmud of Kashgar described the God Tengri as: ”The Highest”, „glorious and ascended”, „almighty God”. „Tengri made the plants grow (...), the water flow, (...) the flooding (...), created man and other beings, (...) Tengri calls to life and restores it, (...) Tengri has sent the rain, (...) the snow, (...) Tengri made the light of the thunder, (...) raised the cloud”. The Chinese emperor ant the Turkish kaghan were responsible for the fate of their people and the natural disasters in country were the sings of the rage of Sky. Whenever they happened, the old ruler was dethroned and a new “master of the world” ascended to the throne. The cult of Tengri survived till the Polovtsians came to the steppes of the Black Sea, to which refers, e.g.: a rite on an anthropomorphic stele – imaging a rider, a vision of the God Sky, „the god of a nation that conquers the world” (the collection of the Historical Museum in Cherson). The God Sky commanded meteorological phenomena, the spirits present in the air and mankind and its fate. To assure oneself the friendliness of the deity, one needed to sacrifice animals and food to it.


The Turkic cult of Earth, referring to minor forces, such as the spirits of the soil, seed and crop, was also linked with the Chinese influences. With the passing of time, the cult evolved, as a result of personification, into the God Yer-Su (literally, earth-water), lord of the earth, water and plans, who also controlled the fate of the dead in the underworld. He was a cruel and evil god, hostile to mankind. Horses and deer were sacrificed to him. There is a known representation of Yer-Su on a burial stone from the 4th century early Turkic cementary in Kudyrge (East Altay). An anonymous artist presented the deity's head in form of a triangle face with slanting eyes, long nose and ears of a lynx. The followers of shamanism, until recently, according to L.R. Kyzłasov, imaged the earth spirit as a man, who could, in no time, change his shape into any of the cat animals. He quotes the words of a Tungi elder: “There is only one Yer-Su; he “kattu” - vile, cold, evil and remorseless and therefore, he needs to be placated with sacrifices.” [footnote 2] . The face of Yer-Su was imaged on the outer edge of the stone, in opposite to the helpful Goddess Umai. It is worth mentioning that the name of Yer-Su have never been changed during 1300 year, since the Orkhon inscriptions in the 7th century, till modern days.


Yet another analogy between the beliefs of the T'u-küe and the Chinese was the cult of the ancestors, though its roots reach so distant past, that it has already been, in the period that is being described, much more developed. It consisted in the worship of the ancestors and sacrifices, which were meant to gain their care and friendliness to the living. The chronicle of Tshou-Shu (late 4th century) and the one written 50 years later by Suei-Shu, narrate the course of a celebration, in which a Turkish kaghan with and the aristocrats took part. The sacrifices were made in the cave of the ancestors. It is probable, that what was originally worshipped were the “animal-ancestors”, related to the totemistic cult, originating from the nomad tribes that spoke Turkish and Mongolian, and to the animistic cult, related to the peoples of Siberia. With the passing of time, this cult has been developed into a worship of the “heroic-human-ancestors” that were praised mostly by the nobles, under Chinese influence.


Another similarity between the religions of Turks and Chinese were the animistic cults. The sunlight, the „blue sky” (tur. kők tängri), the Moon, the planets and the phenomena of nature, the forms of water and the terrain, such as: the mountains, the rocks, the caves and old trees.

The shamanism of the T'u-küe appeared between 7th and 12th century, though first written sources on this subject are related with the journey of Zymarch, a Byzantean emissary to the court of a Turkic khagan in 568. It have also been narrated by Menander in 6th century, who described a ritual, consisting in a repulsion of the evil spirits by the yada – the wizards (tur. yãtči – the seer, wizard), and cleansing people, including the emissary, with fire. The chronicle of Sin-Tanshu (11th century) that was mentioned before, gives the name of a Turkic shaman in Chinese transcription – kam, about whom, confusing him with a deity, Giovanni da Pian del Carpine informs: „And when the demons speak to them, they believe that it is God himself. That god (...) the Cumans call (...) Kam (...) [footnote 3] ”. Actually, kam-shaman (tur. qãm – shaman, enchanter) called with his drum and spells, eternal spirits, unrelated to nature, to fight the souls of the dead. Mahmud of Kashgar enumerated the occupations of a shaman: the kam „prepared the spell”, „observed a good sign”; while yada „,made predictions with stones, related to the coming of clouds and rain”. Fortune-telling was very common and usually consisted in the predictions of the future. Mahmud of Kashgar narrated: „The Turks assume that certain features, related to each year, exist and they find there the sign. They say (...) it is the year of the chicken – there shall be a lot of food, but also there shall be combat among people, as the seed is what the chicken eats and they are swarming around death (in search for the seed). It is the year of the serpent or the crocodile – there shall be rains and a lot of grass, as water is the element of those animals (...). In that way, they attach something to each year”. It is difficult not to see here an influence of Chinese calendar, in which 12 animals, standing for the following years, appear. Yada, using stones (tur. yat) could also control the elements – „The emir ordered the seers to summon the wind and the rain”. The old genealogy of the shamanism may well be proved by the stones covered with rites (linked to Tashtic culture, associated with the early-Turkic tribes of the Sayan-Altay foothills; 1st century BC - 5th century AD), which were very widely spread across the territory of Minusinsk Depression. Those stones contain narrative scenes about the struggle against the evil forces of nature and sickness, the combat against evil spirits, rituals in worship of natural fertility, spells connected to the loot of both warriors and hunters. An important piece of a shaman's inventory was the drum, known not only from Tashtic images on stones, but also from drawings on Khakas and Shoreck fabrics. On such oval drums, the division of world into three was marked. The Sky - Kok-Tengri, with astronomical objects, the Earth – imaged as vertical belts, filled with zigzags and the Underworld, interlinked by the tree of the world – tree-life – a tree reaching to the sky [footnote 4] (different versions in particular Turkic tribes). The tree was, for example, according to the Khakas, a birch. The drum had a hem of 12 bells, proper to the shaman and his attributes. Equally old are the rituals of sacrifices made to all kinds of supernatural forces and the dead.


One of the deities, the patron of children, mothers, pregnant women and newborn children, but also the Goddess of Fertility was Umai. Her cult, according to L.R Kyzłasov, survived, among the inhabitants of Central Asia and Southern Siberia, until the 20s of 20th century. Umai was imagined as a shining womanlike character, coming from the sky and dressed in velvet robes, with her hair pinned into three horns, or wearing such kind of a hat on her head. (3, similarly to 7 was a holy number to the Turks). She is mentioned by the Orkhon inscriptions and the Chinese chronicles. Her representations rare enough. One of them was mentioned hitherto, it is a rite on a tomb stone from a burial ground in Kudyrge, presenting Umai as a carer of a dead boy, protecting him from Yer-Su. An image of the goddess which is slightly different was made on two earrings, found at a burial place in Kojbała (Krasnoyarsk Krai), dated for 8th-13th century and associated to the Turkic tribes. The goddess has wings and a tail, and she holds a vessel near to her stomach and she also has a necklace, adorned with symbols made of three leaves, which referred to the tree of life and fertility. The Goddess was there to give a soul to the children, which was linked with the vegetative soul, of which the last associated with mother's placenta, therefore it is connected with Umai. She was also imaged as a white bird, carrying to the children their blood and body. Perhaps that the vessel in her hands symbolized the dwelling of a child's soul, being prepared to venture to its mother's bosom. The character is very similar to younger anthropomorphic steles of the Polovtsians, in which a vessel, held in both hands, is a canon.


The faith in ghosts and souls and a perilous journey to the Underworld was another similarity between the beliefs of the peoples that are being discussed. It was imagined that one soul flies away from a human as a bird that carries it to the Underworld and so, for example, among the Ugrans in the region of Ob river, neighbours of the Kipchaks and the Kumyks – if a man died in Winter, the bird was a black grouse or a wood grouse, if he died in the Summer, the bird was a duck or a hooded crow. Among the particular peoples of Altay, the numbers of souls were different – from three to ten. According to another version, the soul that protected man from misfortune was dwelling in a belt – so it could never be lost, sold or given to anyone. The suicides, murdered people, unmarried women, mentally and physically disabled persons, shamans, misshapen foetuses, children, calves, foals, killed totem animals and those who were not buried according to the ritual, could change into evil spirits, harming their relatives or all mankind. The evil spirits carried pain, disease, death and all disasters. It was believed that a shaman can contact the dead and that a dead, turned into an evil spirit, or a ghost, can only move in straight line, so that various stone or wooden walls and ditches were constructed to divide the dwellings of the dead from the living.

According to Sayan-Altay shamanists, the dead led “normal” lives in the Underworld: they ate meals, used the items they used to have in their mortal life, raised animals, hunted, they even kept the shape they used to have and some organs as well. That is why it was necessary to provide them all necessary items, which helped the dead to go all the dangerous way to the Underworld and to start there a “new life”. Those items were gathered in a grave and burned, as burned items, in form of smoke, could reach the other dimensions. The souls of the slain enemies were cast into balbals, unprocessed stones, and the dead gained servants in that way. It was believed, that the Underworld is functioning as a mirror reflection, so the items, used by the dead, were put in inverse order. Slain animals also accompanied the dead on his way and were meant to be the beginning of his farm, so many Turkic peoples sacrificed horses or pieces of horse bone and hide. Willem de Ruysbroeck narrated: „I have seen the grave of a recently deceased, near to which they have hanged 16 horse hides on high poles, four for each side of the world; and they have put before him (the dead) kumis to drink and meat to be eaten (...) [footnote 5] ”. During a journey to the Underworld, placed somewhere in the West, great peril, by the will of Erlik-Khan, the spirit of hells, awaited the dead. The Turkic hell, probably of Iranian origin, was built of three, seven or ten layers (holy numbers of the Turks). Erlik was imagined as an elder with a beard, sailing across a river of human tears, on a boat with no oars, to prevent the souls to escape his estate. His sons mediated between the dead, the shamans and Erlik himself. Erlik had a right to make the souls go threw several trials and, according to the results, he could permit them to go to the Underworld. He could also send evil spirits to haunt the living.


Due to their contacts with the Indo-Iranian peoples, the Turks acquired the cult of fire and water. Those elements had purifying powers that could cure the diseases, “spread by the evil spirits”, although it needs to be mentioned, that according to the concepts of Zoroastrianism, the elements of fire, water and earth were worshipped, while the Turks believed the fire and water to have magical features. The traces of fires, that were raised on kurgans and the places of the cult of the ancestors, appear to be an echo of Iranian influence.


The T'u-küe, the Uyghurs, as well as the peoples living in Mongolia and finally the nomads of the steppe near the Black Sea have encountered also the doctrines of the great religions. The Turks that inhabited the Chinese Empire and those, who lived within their own state, especially on the courts of khagans, under Sogdian influence, have been converted to Buddhism. Manichaeism was an episode in Turkish history of the late 8th century. Judaism had a significant role in the Khazar Khanate. It was accepted as state religion in 740. It was also known to the Polovtsians. Initially, Islam did not influence the beliefs of the Turks significantly and it never managed to erase the original customs and traditions. It has been finally accepted by the Turkic peoples of the Golden Horde in 1316, under the rule of khan Özbeg (1313-1341) and it did influence the customs of the Polovtsians in a significant way. The varieties of Christianity, episodic Nestorianism and similarly present Catholicism did not expand among the Polovtsians. The short term missionary activity of Bruno of Querfurt among the Christianised Pechenegs, as well as the efforts of the Franciscans of Italy and Germany had no results. The Eastern Orthodox Church became significant as late as in the middle of 16th century.

[1] All names of words in Turkish transcription are from E. Tryjarski's. „Zwyczaje pogrzebowe ludów tureckich na tle ich wierzeń”, 1992; „Kultura ludów tureckich w świetle przekazu Mahmuda z Kaszgaru (XI w.)”, 1993.

[2] „Йер-су только один; он „катту” - жестокий, холодный, поэтому его нужно умилостивлять жертвами”, Кызласов Л. Р., КСИИМК 1949.

[3] „И когда им отвечают демоны, они веруют, что ето говорит им сам Бог. Этого Бoга (...) Команы именуют Kам” (tłum. z języka rosyjskiego wszystkich zamieszczonych w niniejszej pracy cytatów dokonał autor).

[4] The informations accquired during the lectures of dr Wiesław Bator.: „Shamanism and Diffusionism”; Faculty of Philosophy of the Jagiellonian University, Institute of Religious Studies

[5] „Я видел одного недавно умершего, около которого они повесили на высоких жердях 16 шкур лошадей, по 4 с каждей строны мира; и они поставили пред ним для питья кумыс, для еды мясо”.


Gumilow L.
1972 - Dzieje dawnych Turków; PWN, Warszawa.

Tryjarski E.
1991 - Zwyczaje pogrzebowe ludów tureckich na tle ich wierzeń; PAN; Komitet Badań Orientalistycznych; Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN; Warszawa.

1993 - Kultura ludów tureckich w świetle przekazu Mahmuda z Kaszgaru (XI w.); PAN Instytut Archeologii i Etnologii; Komitet Nauk Orientalistycznych; Warszawa.

Гуркин C. В.
2000 - O прeдкaх кипчaков и кимaкoв; Плeмeнa и нaрoды; Дoнскaя Археoлoгия; Нo. 3 – 4/2000; Рoстoв нa Дoну; с. 6 – 23.

Карпини Джиовани Плано дель
1957 - Иоанна де Плано Карпини, архиепископа антиварийскегo История Монгалов, именуемых нами Татарами; пер. А. И. Малеина; Москвa.

Кызласов Л. Р.
1949 - К истории шаманских верований на Алтае; Краткие Сообщения Института Истории Материальной Культуры Имени Н. Я. Марра; АН СССР; Москва-Ленинград. C. 48-54

1990 - О шаманизме древних Тюрков; Сoвeтскaя Архeoлoгия Нo. 3; (рeд.) С. А. Плетнева; Aкaдeмия Нaук CCCP Институт Aрхeoлoгии; Издaтeльствo «Нaукa»; Мoсквa, c. 261-264.

Рубрук Гильом де
1957 - Путешетвие в Восточные Страны Вильгельма де Рубрука в Лето Благости 1253; пер. А. И. Малеина; Москвa.

Скобелев С. Г.
1990 - Подвески с изображением древнетюрской богини Умай; Сoвeтскaя Архeoлoгия Нo. 2; (рeд.) С. А. Плетнева; Aкaдeмия Нaук CCCP Институт Aрхeoлoгии; Издaтeльствo «Нaукa»; Мoсквa, c. 226-233.рилва Л. Н.

1990 - О семантике рисунков на половецких изваяниях; Исследования по архeoлoгии Поднепровья, Межвузовский сборник научных трудов; Издaтeльствo ДГУ; Днепропетровск; c. 124 - 137.