Tengriism or Shamanism Part I

Tengriism, also known as Shamanism, is evidently a very ancient and corrupted tradition. It has varied from monotheism to polytheism for thousands of years at the very least. Tengriism is known as a tradition of the steppes and Siberia, but this does not necessarily mean that it has its deepest origins in these areas; its deepest roots could have come from anywhere in Eurasia in my opinion. Regardless of its geographical origins, Tengriism has been predominantly limited to the steppes, Siberia, and their immediate surroundings. In the places where Tengriists conquered great swathes of sedentary land, they had a tendency to adopt the traditions of the sedentary people.

Tengriism is lacking in any centralized authorities, and has therefore been open to all kinds of influences throughout the ages, some harmful and some rejuvenating. This is the prime cause of its extreme degeneration. Whatever initiatic chains preserving the tradition were established long ago, they have long since been infiltrated and subverted by ignoramuses and sorcerers, such that if any authentic chains going back to a prophet still exist, they must be extremely rare and difficult to find.

The nomadic warlords who dominated the steppes were generally of a more worldly than spiritual intelligence. Rather than safeguarding the good in their traditions, they indiscriminately endorsed and practiced simple superstitions which they were incapable of distinguishing from authentic traditions. Their religion was largely pragmatic in nature: they supplicated the spirits and engaged in divination and sorcery whenever they saw anything to gain from these practices, and generally did not seek to sacrifice this world for the next, or to sacrifice the lower elements of this life for knowledge, enlightenment, and perfect virtue. It seems to me that both the moral and intellectual elements of Tengriism were corrupted a long time ago, with only the practical and ritual elements remaining relatively intact.

The central religious figure in Tengriism is the shaman, whose functions have included sorcery, divination, exorcism, invoking blessings, communicating with spirits, and practicing traditional medicine. They also had some influence on politics in the past, an influence which seems to have vanished entirely with the rise of Islam and secularism.

As in many traditions, the Supreme Deity in Tengriism is conceived of as the Sky God. He is known as the Eternal Blue Sky/Heaven (Munkh Khukh Tengri); this should obviously be taken in a purely metaphorical sense, but considering the superstitious tendencies that have characterized popular Tengriism for millennia, it seems likely that many Tengriists have not understood this. Tengri’s predominant characteristics are Omnipotence, Purity, and Goodness. His purity is symbolized by a white goose. Tengri is often considered as a Father, while Mother Earth is considered as His mother and/or His wife, with whom He is said to have begotten men and gods. Some of the other deities are also said to be wives of Tengri, and many of them are said to be His children. The duality of Tengri and Earth is clearly an instance of the primorial duality of purusha and prakriti which is expressed by every intact tradition. As for the other gods, they are numerous, but it is not at all clear that Tengriists generally conceive of them as being in any way “partners” or “equals” of Tengri.

Instead of following verbal revelations, Tengriists infer Tengri’s opinions from nature and the course of events. Weather is considered as indicative of Tengri’s Will, Wish, Pleasure, and Displeasure. Lightning is a sign of His displeasure, or of a site of spiritual power, from which holy energy can be collected, put into a drink, and ingested. Due to the lack of revealed laws, Tengriists do not distinguish between Tengri’s Will and His Command as Muslims do. Thus, when the Mongols slaughtered hundreds of millions of innocent people, they justified it as the Will of Tengri and had no conception of Him objecting to it, because the idea that slaughtering innocent peasants could be intrinsically wrong was foreign to them. The Mongols also believed in collective punishment, which may have been a long-standing Tengriist norm.

One of the main Tengriist moral principles is to avoid wasting anything. This includes refraining from slaughtering animals superfluously. Tengriist moral principles have often been misunderstood and put into practice incompetently. For example, defiling water is taboo in Tengriism. During the Mongol conquests, Tengriist Mongols objected to the Muslims abluting themselves in running water. The Mongols, being ignorant of the proper meaning of this principle, were not motivated by moral or intellectual concerns so much as practical and superstitious ones: they feared that the ablutions might bring a catastrophe such as lightning upon them, or that the ablution was some kind of sorcery.

Pious Tengriists involve Tengri even in activities which other religious codes declare to be immoral. For example, they may offer alcoholic beverages to Tengri, Earth and the ancestors upon opening a new bottle. Hospitality toward and respect for Tengri is a part of everyday life for the pious Tengriist. Women share non-alcoholic beverages with Him, and keep their cooking utensils clean to avoid offending Him.

The Tengriist cosmology consists of three worlds: the upper realm (the heavens), the middle (which we physically inhabit), and the lower. The heavens are inhabited by spirits or “gods,” the middle realm is the world normally inhabited by humans, and the lower realm is inhabited by beings with only one soul. This is different from animals, who have two souls, and humans, who have three souls.

The Tengriist trinity of the self, according to one Mongolian source, consists of the cosmic soul (suns in Mongolian), which shines like a star, the body soul (ami in Mongolian), which is a red point of light, and the lower soul (suld in Mongolian). The suns and ami souls can be temporarily separated from the body, but if the suld is separated, the individual will die. The suld is located at the crown of the head, through which it has a direct connection with Tengri. The suns and ami move back and forth through seven holes on the vertical body axis, corresponding to the seven chakras or lataif. If a person is well balanced, the suns and ami will be on opposite sides of this axis. 

The most important aspect of the self is the hiimori (windhorse), which is seated in the heart. Individual intelligence and spiritual competence are attributed to the windhorse. Windhorse power comes from Tengri, but it must be deliberately cultivated through righteousness and pious acts. The individual’s windhorse receives energy and power both from Tengri through the crown of the head, and from the Earth through the parts of the the body which contact it, or perhaps only the feet.

The Tengriist view of time is circular, and wise Tengriists are perfectly aware of the illusory nature of time. Thus, time is said to be irrelevant in shamanic rituals. A shaman can enter the “eternal present” and thus gain access to any point in time which Tengri allows. Space is also said to be relative and therefore irrelevant for shamanic rituals.

The lower realm of existence is said to have forests, mountains, settlements, shamans, and other features of the middle realm. It is said to be inhabited by people who have died and are awaiting reincarnation. Tengriists do not often attempt to make forays into the lower realm, and only do so when they want to appeal to the governor in hopes of recovering the souls of people who have prematurely left this world while their bodies are still alive. These journeys, undertaken by shamans, are reportedly dangerous and sometimes result in the death of the shaman. One means of getting to the lower realm is to go through the World River (or River of Death), which is full of rapids. Other means of access to the lower realm include caves, whirlpools, springs, and the tunnels through which beings from the lower realm travel into this world.

The upper realm (or “Heaven”) is also described as being similar to this world, but unlike this world, the inhabitants are uncorrupted and live wholesomely. When shamans want to travel to this realm, they may try to climb up the World Tree. This tree is the entirety of created existence considered as a tree, and it has been said to “stand at the border of day and night.” The top of the World Tree touches the Polar Star (Altan Hadaas), which serves as a nail to hold up the upper realm. There is a World River which passes through the World Tree from top to bottom. The World Tree and World River are said by some to be interchangeable, yet the connotations are clearly different; the former is neutral or “ascending,” and the latter is “descending.” The World Tree is often represented by a physical tree, which the shaman may physically climb. Another method used to reach the upper realm is flying, either on a flying steed or by transforming into a bird.

Tengriist beliefs concerning the afterlife have been diverse, but it has always been widely agreed upon that there is an afterlife. Animals are believed to reincarnate, usually as newborn animals of the same species. For this reason, Tengriists have often taken care to kill animals in an inoffensive manner, lest they should cause trouble once they are reincarnated.

The suld of humans is said to remain on the earth as an ancestral spirit, which initially lives with its relatives but later goes to live somewhere in nature such as rocks, springs, or trees. For this reason, it is taboo among Tengriists to needlessly damage natural phenomena. The suld does not have any past experiences from former lives. The suns, on the other hand, has experiences from past lives. It is the suns which travels to the lower realm after death, then reincarnates, unless it happens to be destroyed for its extreme evilness. The ami reincarnates as well, often among relatives. Between incarnations, the ami returns to the World Tree, resting in the branches between Heaven and Earth.

Formal Tengriist rituals begin with the invocation of Tengri, the Earth, and ancestors. A notable detail to be found in Tengriist practices is the raising of the hands to the sky and bowing while praising and supplicating Tengri. This bears obvious resemblance to the Islamic takbir and bowing.

Another notable Tengriist practice consists of kneeling nine times on top of a mountain or hill with one’s head uncovered and one’s belt around one’s neck, with the aim of attaining direct and uninterrupted access to Tengri. This has been described as a “worship of high places,” but that would obviously be an innovation; the proper practice, if the ritual is not completely invented, must be “worship on high places.” This would be comparable to the Islamic practice of invoking the help of God by mentioning the name of a prophet or saint. The Muslim asks God to help them for the sake of whomever they mention and through the conscious will of whomever they mention, but it is never imagined that the help could be given except by the permission of God, or that the message could be transmitted to the saint other than through Him. Another practice which is intended to attract divine blessings consists of making a clockwise circular motion with the hands while repeating certain words.

Tengriists have historically engaged in animal sacrifice devoted to Tengri. One sacrifice ritual, the historical prevalence of which is unknown to me, involved an elaborate symbolical representation of the cosmos and the process of its creation. It was performed on a Spring morning, on a mountain between four birch trees (birch trees are held by Tengriists to be holy and immune from being struck by lightning). This location was symbolic of the center of the cosmos. To the East of the trees, a sacred fire was set up. A rope was tied around the birches, beginning with the Eastern rope and ending with the Western rope. This was intended as a symbol of steadiness and stability, among other things. The ritual began with the East as a symbolic starting point for the creation of the world, then, from East to the sun, the names of mountains, rivers, and other natural phenomena were invoked. Once they reached the sun they would repeat this process from another side of the world, and they would repeat it from each side. This could be done in clockwise order, and it is unknown to me if it could be done in any other. At some point during this ritual, probably during the invocations or immediately after them, animals were sacrificed. After sacrificing an animal, some Tengriists hang the hide and zuld (consisting of the head, throat, lungs, and heart) upon a vertical pole. Sometimes they hang the skull or skeleton as well.

Tengriists have also been known to sacrifice horses. The specific procedures must have varied greatly throughout history, but one of them is as follows. This is a Buryat Mongol ritual. The sacrifice begins in the morning. As the worshipers go to the mountain or hill upon which they will offer the sacrifice, they share drinks with the spirits. Once the people are assembled, a number of fires are lit. There may three, nine, or twenty-seven fires. The horses are purified by being led between the fires, then they are sprinkled with milk. The milk is also shared with the spirits, and supplications are made. The horse is led to the right side of a small birch tree, where it remains as the sacrificers turn to the West and the East, and invoke many spirits. After this, they tie ropes around the fetlocks of the horse, and pull it onto its back. A man with a knife approaches the horse, makes an incision in its breast, and with his hand he wrenches its heart from its connections. After a horse is sacrificed, it is skinned, quartered, and the flesh and bones are separated. The bones are placed on fifteen stone altars, and the flames of these altars are given some of the horses’ flesh, while the rest is eaten by the worshipers.

Pious Tengriists have been able to retain an awareness of traditional symbolism in their day to day lives. For example, the traditional nomadic home, the ger or yurt, is a symbol of the cosmos. Just like the dome of a cathedral or mosque, the round structure of the yurt represents the structure of the cosmos, with the point at the center symbolizing the Absolute. The Tengriist’s yurt is also a temple, with sacred objects situated at the holy North. People are arranged in the yurt according to their sex, age, and status; women and their tools are in the East, men and their tools are in the West, the North is for the respected and honored, and young people are situated in the least honorable South, near the exit. Movement in a yurt, like all ritual movements, should be clockwise. This is because the sunlight entering the yurt through the smokehole in the day moves clockwise. In the center of the yurt is its holiest feature, the fireplace. The vertical axis from the fire to the ceiling represents the World Tree upon which people ascend to the higher realms of existence, and the smoke rings from the fire represent the gateways into these realms.

Tengriists use icons (or idols) which are called ongon in Mongolian. These are objects created to house spirits, and in particular the suld spirits of the deceased. Any spirit can be present in multiple ongon at the same time and in different places. The ongon may be made out of a variety of materials: wood, leather, metal, fur, feathers, straw. They may be shaped like creatures or they may be abstract. The ongon may be kept in the sacred North of the yurt, outside the yurt, or in a special building made for the purpose. Pious Tengriists tend to their ongon by sharing food and drink with them. The use of ongon does not seem to be intrinsically polytheistic (in the sense of ascribing partners to God), though in practice it must very often involve some degree of polytheism.

The Tengriist shamans are said to be chosen and initiated by shaman spirits, in a process which is potentially life-threatening and involves the acceptance of an extra soul. This spiritual initiation is followed by an initiation and training by a human, which are only confirmations and extensions of the original initiation. There are many levels of spiritual attainment for shamans. A common figure given is nine, corresponding to the nine branches of the World Tree.

Shamans are generally divided into two types, Black and White. Black shamanism is associated with warfare, courage, and discipline, while White shamanism is associated with peace, healing, and blessings. Black shamanism has declined in recent times, while White shamanism has survived better in spite of being absorbed into Yellow (Buddhistic) shamanism to some degree.

To Be Continued, Insha’allah…


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