Of solstices and shamans

Painting of a shaman by Edward S. Curtis, courtesy of Flickr user Jeloid (CC-usage).
Painting of a shaman by Edward S. Curtis, courtesy of Flickr user Jeloid (CC-usage).

It’s now 5:45 AM GMT — the winter solstice.  This was once a very important day for shamanistic societies around the world, including Central Asia.  To commemorate it, allow me me share some translations I’ve done of poems that show how shamanism and Islam intermingled with each other in our region.

As I wrote in my earlier post series, shamanism is the earliest known belief system here.  It is based on spirituality, courage, physical prowess, hospitality and generosity. It has two discernible basic branches: one of the earliest known monotheisms, the Tengri; and the dual diety Erlik and Dirlik (Sky and Underground gods, respectively).

Over time, Turkic shamanism came into contact with neighboring belief systems, such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Mithraism.  It exchanged tokens (images and lores) and significant eschalatological aspects with these traditions.  Again, this was in keeping with shamanism’s avowedly syncretistic worldview.

The entry of Islam into this shamanist territory created new traditions but also new tensions by eroding the basics of both belief systems. There are myriad poems and stories demonstrating the shamanist resistance to Islam, from all over Central Asia.

For example: a Turkmen rider encounters a dismounted kinsman. The latter had stuck a twig in the ground, in the vast expanses of the bozkir (semi desert, arid-lands) to create a semblance of private space, and is performing namaz (ritual prayer) behind it.  The rider chides the worshipper:

Anan, atan iþidür çarpmak, yýkmak, talamak Kim kodu sana çöpe tapmak, toprak yalamak?
It is the tradition of your forebearersto strike, to raid So, who induced youto worship the twig and lick the dirt?

In another instance, precepts of Islam were being explained to a gathering of Kazakhs.  The preacher, attempting to reinforce his message of dawa, asks the assemblage, “And how will the Kazakhs enter paradise?”  — to which one attendee responds, “On horseback.”

Shamanism had great reverence for ancestors, as evidenced in the following poem from the Islamic era:

Kök kümbezin kürüldetip,ürkütme bizni Biy Temir;
Qaraqaþ taþýn qýmýldatýp,Qorkutma bizni Biy Temir

Do not scare us Bey TemirBy making your blue dome thunder;
Do not frighten us Bey TemirBy moving your black stone

And many an ode was written to Islam as well as Christianity.  The following is a rare “fusionist” poem that combines shamanistic and Islamic doctrines:

Bir kapýdan Baba Ilyas çýktý
Ayak çýplak baþ açýk sine üryan
Erenler katýnda ulu kaçýktý
Yarý ýslâm idi yarý þaman

Baba Ilyas emerged from a door
Barefeet, open headed, bare chested
Among the saints, a grand ole holy fool
Half Shaman, the other half Islam

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