A statue of Seyyid Battal Gazi

A Glimpse into the World of Turkic Mythology, Legends, and Beliefs

Dolgan Turks in Northern Siberia
Dolgan Turks in Northern Siberia. credit@ Quora

Inhabiting Europe, North Africa and parts of Asia are a collection of ethnic groups collectively known as the Turkic people. According to research, the earliest Turkic people are descendants of agricultural communities from Northeast China. In the late 3rd millennium BC, these communities moved to Mongolia and adopted a pastoral lifestyle. Towards the 1st millennium BC, the groups had become equestrian nomads. Over subsequent centuries, numerous ethnically different groups became part of the Turkic people through conquest, language shift, religious conversion, adoption and intermixing. Certain Turkic people share cultural traits, historical experiences and ancestry from a common gene pool. Today, the most notable Turkic-speaking ethnic groups include Turkish people, Uyghur people, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmens and the Azerbaijanis.

Turkic mythology

An old symbol of Tengrism.
An old symbol of Tengrism. Credit@ Wikipedia

The main aspects of Turkic mythology stem from the groups’ beliefs in Tengrism, Animism and Shamanism, along with numerous other social and cultural beliefs that arose due to their nomadic existence. Later on, especially after the Turkic migration, many myths were embellished to a certain extent due to the influence of Islamic symbolism. Turkic mythology shares a lot of common points with Mongol mythology, and it is believed that these took shape when a nationalist mythology was syncretised with Tibetan Buddhist elements. Other local mythologies have also played a role in influencing Turkic mythology.

During the time of the early Turks, they practised all the then-current major religions, like Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism and Manichaeism. A majority of them converted to Islam. Elements from these religions were always syncretized with their prevailing mythological beliefs.

Deities in Turkic mythology

Personified creative and ruling powers, deities are always in the foreground of Turkic mythology. The Turkic belief system does not have a pantheon of deities, like Greek or Roman polytheism. In modern Western usage, many of the deities are believed to be more like spirits or angels who travel between humans and their settlements in the spiritual realm. The Turkic people believed in İye or guardian spirits who controlled specific natural elements. Other entities include Geniens or genies (Çor) and demons (Abasi).


The first of the primordial deities of the early Turkic people, Kök Tengri, is the Creator God (yüce or yaratıcı tengri.) When the Turks started to migrate and leave central Asia, they were influenced by monotheistic religions. Tengrism, a religion with pagan or polytheistic origins, became more like Zoroastrianism after its change. Out of the numerous original gods, only two remained- Tengri (the good god) and Erlik ( the evil god of the underworld). Uçmag was a place like heaven or Valhalla.) Tengri controls the fates of all the people and acts freely. His will is what determines the well-being of people. He is fair, as he rewards and punishes. The physical description of Tengri remains unknown.

Other deities

While Tengri is the first and most important god in Turkic mythology, there also exists a variety of other deities whom they worship.

Umay is Tengri’s daughter. She is the goddess of virginity and fertility. Her name is an indication of her powers- in the Turkic language, the Turkic root ‘umāy’ originally means ‘placenta, afterbirth.’ Umay resembles the earth or mother goddesses of various other religions. Tengri has three sons who are deities as well.  Öd Tengri is the ruler or god of time. Boz Tengri, Tengri’s other lesser known son, is the god of the steppes and grounds. Tengri’s third son, Kayra, is the Spirit of God. He is the primordial god of the upper air, the highest sky, space, light and atmosphere.

Kayra has three sons. Ülgen is the god of goodness. He controls all the Aruğ (Arı) or the good spirits in Altaic and Turkic mythology. They carry out good deeds on earth. Ülgen’s brother, Mergen, is the god of mind and intelligence. Seated on the seventh floor of the sky, it is believed that he knows and can afford everything. Seated two floors above him in the sky is Mergen’s brother, Kyzaghan, the god associated with war. Depicted as strong, powerful and young, he rides a red horse with a spear. Other deities include Ak Ana or the White Mother, the primordial creator-goddess of Turkic peoples.

Symbols in Turkic mythology

The Turkic nomadic lifestyle, culture and other world religions have influenced a major part of their mythology. Some of them are as follows.

The horse is one of the main figures in Turkic mythology. Horses are extremely important to them- they consider the horse to be an extension of a person (generally attributed to the male). A person is considered complete with their own horse. This might have led to the Turkic people being named ‘at-bey’ or horse lord.

A relief of the 'wolf-dragon.'
A relief of the ‘wolf-dragon.’ credit@ Tarih Ve Arkeoloji

The dragon (Evren or Ebren) is also portrayed as a lizard or snake. It is the symbol of might and power. The Turkic people, especially those inhabiting the mountainous region of Central Asia, believe that dragons live in the mountains of Tengri Tagh and Altay. In ancient Turkic tradition, dragons symbolize Tengri the god, but dragons themselves weren’t worshipped as god.

Tree of Life Turkic Mythology
The Tree of Life. Credit@ DefenceHub

Central to Turkic mythology is the World Tree or Tree of Life. The Altay Turks believe that humans are the descendants of trees, while the Yakuts believe that the White Mother sits at the base of the Tree of Life. The tree’s branches extend up to the heavens and various supernatural beings have made themselves at home among the branches. The blue sky surrounding the tree denotes the peaceful atmosphere of the country. A red ring surrounds all of the elements, and represents the Turkic beliefs in rebirth, development and growth.

Among the animals, the Turkic people believed that the deer was the mediator between the earth (humans) and the spiritual realm (gods.) Thus, during funeral ceremonies, sacrificing a deer is an important ritual. The deer’s soul is believed to be a psychopomp (a guide of souls to the place of the dead.) The soul of the deceased is accompanied by the spirit of the deer to the underworld or Tamag. This deer motif in Turkic mythology appeared in the 13th century tale of the Sufi mystic, Geyiklü Baba (which means ‘father deer’) of Khoy. During his later years, he retreated to the mountainous forests of Bursa and lived the life of an ascetic. Different sources carry different tales about Geyiklü Baba- one narrates how he rode deer and wandered around in the wild with herds of deer, clad in their skins.

Legends of Turkic mythology

The Legend of the Grey Wolf

The Coat of Arms of Turkey, depicting Asena, proposed in 1925
The Coat of Arms of Turkey, depicting Asena, proposed in 1925. credit@ Wikipedia

In Turkic mythology, a mythical wolf gave birth to ten sons, one of them of the name Asena. The wolf is a symbol of honour and considered, by most of the Turkic people, to be their mother.

According to legend, a young boy was the sole survivor of a raid on his village. A female wolf finds the wounded boy and nurses him back to health. Later on, he impregnates the wolf, who flees from his enemies by crossing the Western Sea and takes refuge in a cave near the Qocho Mountains. She gives birth to ten creatures- half-wolf and half-human. Asena, one of the off-springs, grows up to be their leader and establishes the Asena clan, who ruled the Turkic nomadic empires. Later, the first Turks migrated to the Altay region.

Ergenekon legend

The Ergenekon legend narrates about a great crisis at the time of the ancient Turks. After a military defeat, the Turks retreated to the legendary Ergenekon valley where they remained trapped for four centuries. It was a blacksmith who finally helped them escape by creating a passage by melting the mountain. It was Asena who led the Turks out. A ceremony is performed during the New Year to honour the Turks’ legendary escape from Ergenekon.

Mythology of Siberian Turks

The Turkic people of Siberia are those who kept their mythology the most lively and colourful. To this day, they worship the sacred spirits of Tengrism and continue to keep their legends alive. For example, the Dolgans, who live in the Tundra region in the far north of Siberia, came across mammoth corpses during their nomadic migrations. These animals haven’t been thawed out of the earth for more than 10,000 years. According to the Dolgans, Erlik, the lord of the underworld, took the mammoths to his abode so that they could serve him. Those mammoths were always trapped in the underworld, and those who tried to escape back to earth would freeze to death and be buried as punishment. The mammoths’ corpses which they encountered from time to time would be half buried in the earth, half out.

Yakuts and other Siberian Tturks believe that both good and evil spirits are present who control the blessings of the Turks. To keep the spirits pleased, prayers and sacrifices are carried out.

Buddhist Turkic Mythology

A statuette of the golden gazelle
A statuette of the golden gazelle. credit@ DW

In the 9th century, the Turkic people adopted Buddhism and, based on this religion, they developed the first large Turkic culture to be established. The Uyghur monks translated thousands of scriptures from Buddhism from Sanskrit and Chinese to Turkic. At the time, many foreign legends were translated into Turkic and ancient Turkic epics and history were written down too. The largest library of the period was built in the city of Khotan, which was unfortunately destroyed when the Kyrgyz attacked (ethnic groups regularly fought battles and raided each other.) Very few of the pages narrating the history and Turkic epics were left, but these few pages show how detailed and extensive the books were before they were destroyed. Among the pages left, there are legends that describe material life as evil.

According to some narratives in Turkic mythology, the Buddha was reincarnated in other forms, such as the gazelle. One of the tales narrate how a ruler hunted and killed thousands of gazelles with his men. The leader of the gazelles was a golden gazelle who, after repeated warnings to the ruler to mend his ways, punishes the men.  

Influence of Turkic mythology in Europe

The migrations of the ancient Turkic people to Europe has led to their mythologies being integrated into several parts of Europe. The subjects of many tales and epics are the Huns and proto-Bulgarians or the Turkic Bulgarians. School children are taught the saga of Asparuh, which the Turkic Bulgarians brought to the Balkans. During the spring festival called ‘March Mother’, plays are put up enacting the tale of Asparuh, with children playing the roles of the characters.

The tale narrates how Asparuh Khan founded the first Bulgarian state and wanted to make a dedication to Tengri, the god of creation. But to do so, he needed to burn dill (an herb) in a sacred ritual. Unable to find dill anywhere, it was Asparuh’s sister from the Volga shores who sent him a bunch of dill. She did so by tying it to the feet of a hawk and sending it to Asparuh. To this day, the Turkic people consider the hawk to be an important animal in their mythology. In some epics, Atila the Hun is also the main subject.

Other epics of Turkic mythology

Some of the other epics of Turkic mythology include

A statue of Seyyid Battal Gazi.
A statue of Seyyid Battal Gazi. credit@ Yeni Akit
  • Epic of Manas: The epic narrates the story of Manas and his descendants, who carry out exploits against their enemies. The epic is divided into three books. The first narrates the story of Manas, while the second and third cover the lives of Semetei (Manas’s son) and Setek (grandson.)
  • Battal Gazi: A Muslim, saintly figure, Seyyid Battal Gazi was a warrior from Anatolia. The epic of Battal Gazi is based on the real-life ruler and exploits of Abdallah al-Battal, an 8th century Umayyad military leader. The legends are an important part of Turkish folk literature.
  • Epic of Köroğlu: The Epic of Koroghlu is a heroic tale that has an important place in the oral folklore of the Turkic people, mainly the Oghuz Turks.The legend is about a hero who carries out justice for any wrong doing. The tale is often put to music and played at sports competitions to inspire the competing athletes. Koroghlu is the protagonist of the epic.He is someone who struggles against unjust rulers and carries out heroic deeds. Many Turks consider him to be a Robin Hood-like figure. The migration of the Oghuz Turks and their assimilation with other ethnic groups has rendered the Epic of Koroghlu an immensely popular tale.
  • Danishmend Gazi: Danishmend Gazi was the Turkmen general and later, the founder of the Dannishmends. ‘The Tale of Danishmend’ is a 13th century epic romance in the Turkish language which narrates the life of Danishmend Gazi, along with the exploits of Seyyid Battal Gazi and Abu Muslim, a Persian hero.


Mythology and its figures are an important part of the Turkic peoples’ daily lives. Each ethnic group, however small in number, has legends and stories regarding their descent and ancestral lineage. Sometimes, there isn’t much distinction between the groups’ religion and mythological beliefs either. Today, Turkic mythology serves an interesting and important role in influencing other cultures as well.

One thought on “A Glimpse into the World of Turkic Mythology, Legends, and Beliefs

    “Ik ben Turk Bilge Kagan, hoor mijn woorden:
    O Turkse mensen, u bent bedrogen door de lieve woorden en zachte zijden stoffen van het Chinese volk, en u bent in grote aantallen gestorven.
    Turkse heren gaven hun Turkse titels op, namen Chinese titels, gingen in Chinese dienst en werden onderworpen aan de Chinese Khan.
    Het Turkse volk stond op de rand van uitsterven.De Turkse God nam mijn vader İlteriş Kagan en mijn moeder İlbilge Hatun uit de lucht en tilde ze hoger op zodat het Turkse volk niet zou omkomen. Mijn vader kwam in opstand tegen de Chinezen met 17 man, zij werden 70. Ze herschapen en onderwezen de staatlozen, de mensen die de Turkse gebruiken en tradities verlieten, volgens de gebruiken van hun voorouders. (…) Mijn vader, Hakan, voerde 47 keer campagne en vocht 20 keer. Omdat God het zo gebood, maakten ze de vijanden ondergeschikt, knielen en onderwerpen ze.
    O Oghuz heren, hoor de mensen: Zolang de hemel erboven niet valt en de aarde beneden niet wordt doorboord, wie kan uw staat en zijn wetten vernietigen?
    … Ik wekte de mensen op die zouden sterven, ik voedde de hongerige mensen, ik kleedde de naakte mensen, ik maakte de armen rijk. Ik heb de weinige mensen vermenigvuldigd, ik heb de sterke staat beter gemaakt dan de ene. Ik heb de volkeren van de vier districten altijd van mij afhankelijk gemaakt. Ik maakte het Turkse volk zonder vijanden, al deze volkeren werden afhankelijk van mij.”


    Hulagu Khan, de kleinzoon van Genghis Khan, werd geboren in 1217 in Karakorum. Zijn moeder, Sorgotani Beki, en zijn vrouw, Dokuz Hatun, waren Nestoriaanse christenen. Ondanks de gebruikelijke tolerantie van het Mongoolse rijk ten opzichte van religies, wordt aangenomen dat deze een effect hadden op de vijandigheid van Hulagu jegens moslims. Een andere opvatting is dat de slechte behandeling van de Omajjaden en enkele Abbasidische kaliefen tegen de Turks-Mongoolse volkeren, waardoor een wraakgevoel op Hülagü Han ontstond, een effect had op zijn vijandigheid jegens de moslims.

    Hülagün Han kreeg in 1255 van zijn oudere broer Mengü Han de opdracht om de verovering van de nog niet veroverde landen in het Midden-Oosten te voltooien. Hun missie was om de Lurs te onderwerpen, de Assassijnenorde te vernietigen, het Abbasidische kalifaat omver te werpen en de Ayyubid-Syrische landen binnen te vallen en de Mamluk-staat in Egypte omver te werpen. Mengü Han beval Hülagü om degenen die zich overgaven goed te behandelen en degenen die zich verzetten te elimineren.
    De Mongolen kwamen op 13 februari 1258 Bagdad binnen. De stad werd een week lang geplunderd, de mensen werden afgeslacht. Volgens historici is het aantal doden in de stad meer dan 100 duizend.

    Hülagü Han, de koning van Frankrijk, IX. In zijn brief aan Louis vertelt hij dat zijn leger ongeveer 200.000 mensen had afgeslacht. Moskeeën, paleizen en ziekenhuizen, die generaties lang nodig hadden om te bouwen, werden geplunderd en vernietigd. Voordat de kalief werd vermoord, werden de slachting van zijn volk en de plundering van zijn stad bekeken. Toen werd de kalief in vilt gewikkeld en door paarden vertrapt. Al zijn zonen behalve één zoon werden gedood.

    Aan de andere kant voerden de Mongolen grote plunderingen en slachtingen uit met hun mensen alleen in de steden waar ze weerstand ondervonden. Als de stad zonder slag of stoot werd ingenomen, bleven de mensen gespaard.
    De wreedheid van de plundering van Bagdad was de meest wrede gebeurtenis in de Mongoolse geschiedenis. Sommige Chinese steden zouden hetzelfde lot hebben ondergaan als Bagdad, maar deze zijn niet gedocumenteerd. Eeuwen later kon Bagdad het verlaten, verwoeste stadsbeeld niet meer kwijt.

    Na de verovering van Bagdad verklaarden de kleine steden in de regio hun loyaliteit aan Hulagu Khan.

    Het Mongoolse leger marcheerde op de Ayyubiden in Syrië. Troepen werden tot aan de Middellandse Zeekust gestuurd. Egypte leek het volgende doelwit te zijn. De dood van Mengü Han dwong Hulagü Han en het grootste deel van zijn leger echter om deze expedities op te geven.

    De daaropvolgende troongevechten resulteerden erin dat één broer werd opgesloten en de andere tot Grote Khan werd gekozen. Na de dood van Mengü Khan werd de Mongoolse unie ontbonden en werd het rijk in vier delen verdeeld.

    Ilkhanid State opgericht door Hulagu Khan is een van hen. Het Mongoolse leger, dat in het Midden-Oosten bleef en zijn campagne voortzette, werd verslagen door de Mamelukken bestaande uit Turkse soldaten in de Slag bij Ayn Calut. In 1262 keerde hij terug naar de regio onder de controle van Hulagu, maar hij had niet de kans om de nederlagen in zijn afwezigheid te wreken. Terwijl Hulagü Han zijn leger verzamelde en op weg ging om de nederlaag van Ayn Calut te wreken, stuurde Berke Han zijn leger onder bevel van Nogay Han tegen de Ilkhanate. Daarop gaf Hülagü de expeditie op en keerde naar het noorden.

    Pogingen om het gebied ten noorden van de Kaukasus in te nemen mislukten en werden verslagen door Nogai Khan. Dit was de eerste slag tussen Mongoolse legers en was een duidelijke indicatie van de verslechtering van de keizerlijke eenheid.

    Hulagu Khan stierf in 1265. Later werden zijn paard en bijvrouwen geofferd en naast hem begraven. Hij is de laatste heerser wiens begrafenis volgens sjamanistische tradities werd gehouden. Zijn graf bevindt zich op een eiland in het Urmia-meer. Hij volgde zijn oudste zoon, Abaka Khan, op en zette het beleid van zijn vader voort.

    Gökkurt tekrar dirilmedikçe
    Tanrı dağlarında gezmedikçe
    Kanlı İtil ırmağından su içmedikçe
    Bozkurt Ulusuna tekrar yol göstermedikçe
    Dokuz tuğ’lu Türk Başbuğ’u,Hakan’ı
    Ötüken Ormanında tekrar oturmadıkça
    Akdoğanların yurdu Köğmen dağları aşılmadıkça
    Uluğ Altaylardaki Demir dağ delinmedikçe
    Türk oğlu Türk kızı öleceksin
    Yabgu Tungahan
    Unless Gökkurt is resurrected
    Unless you walk in the mountains of God
    Unless you drink water from the bloody İtil river
    Unless you guide the Bozkurt Nation again
    Turkish Chief with nine tugs, Hakan
    Unless you sit in the Ötüken Forest again
    As long as the Köğmen Mountains, the homeland of the Akdoğan, are not exceeded.
    Unless the Iron Mountain in Uluğ Altai is pierced
    Turkish son Turkish girl you will die
    Yabgu Tungahan

    Noch Hodja, noch Priester, noch Rabbi.
    geen van hen kan Tengri vertegenwoordigen.
    Tengri heeft geen bediende, hij is bij ons.

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