The Wolf in Turkic Mythology

The Wolf in Turkic Mythology

The wolf, known as “börü” in Old Turkic, assumes a central and captivating role in Turkic mythology. Embedded deeply within the collective consciousness of the Turkic peoples, the wolf stands as an emblem of both fear and admiration, embodying a complex duality that intertwines its ferocity with its revered qualities. As a symbol of indomitable spirit, the wolf serves as a nexus for understanding the deep-rooted reverence for nature and the transcendental connection between humans and the wild in Turkic mythos.

The Geographical and Cultural Context of Turkic Mythology

The Turkic peoples, whose historical origins can be traced to the heart of the Eurasian steppe, have cultivated a multifaceted cultural landscape that encompasses a synthesis of animistic, shamanistic, and mythological elements. The emergence and development of these belief systems have been profoundly influenced by the geographical context in which they spread.

Spanning a vast region from the steppes of East Europe to the majestic Altai Mountains, the Turkic peoples’ nomadic and transhumant way of life was inextricably intertwined with the natural world. The geographical diversity of their surroundings, characterized by the endless expanses of grassy plains, rugged mountain ranges, tundra, and dense forests, profoundly influenced their spiritual connection with the animal kingdom. As they traversed these vast landscapes, their encounters with various fauna and flora undoubtedly left an indelible mark on their mythological and cosmological perceptions.

The vastness of their territories and the nomadic lifestyle necessitated a profound appreciation and reverence for nature, which, in turn, found expression in their myths and legends. In Turkic belief systems, the boundaries between the human and animal realms blur, leading to anthropomorphic depictions of animals, including the wolf, as embodying human-like qualities and engaging in complex interactions with humans. The merging of human and animal characteristics symbolizes the interconnectedness of all living beings within the natural order and serves to forge a deeper connection between the Turkic people and the animals that inhabit their world.

Börü: The Wolf in Turkic Mythology
In Old Turkic, the word “börü” meant “wolf.” The Turkic people held both admiration and profound fear for wolves. As a result, when referring to wolves to avoid calling them, they chose different words instead of using their real names, a linguistic phenomenon known as euphemism. The Oghuz Turks, in particular, opted for the word “kurt”, which was the name for a fruit worm, instead of “börü”. Over time, the word “kurt” gradually replaced “börü” in their vocabulary.1

As these beliefs and customs were transmitted across successive generations through the oral tradition, Turkic mythology underwent a gradual process of accretion, resulting in the acquisition of layers of depth and complexity. Over the course of time, a confluence of historical, cultural, and linguistic influences have significantly contributed to the dynamic evolution and diversification of Turkic mythology across distinct regions, giving rise to a rich mosaic of local variations and nuanced interpretations.

The Turkic peoples’ proximity to other prominent civilizations, such as the Persians, Chinese, Slavs, Mongols, and Finno-Ugric peoples, facilitated a dynamic interchange of cultural and religious ideas. Consequently, elements from neighboring belief systems found their way into Turkic mythology, further enriching its narrative.

Despite the absorption of external influences, the Turkic peoples have adeptly preserved their unique cultural identity and core mythological themes.

The Wolf in Turkic Belief Systems: Symbolism and Significance

Throughout Turkic mythology, nature assumes a venerated and personified status, where animals and celestial bodies emerge as potent symbols representing natural forces and cosmic elements. The wolf, in particular, occupies a central role as an apex predator and a supreme exemplar of survival in the formidable landscapes of Eurasia. Within the mythological framework, the wolf embodies a myriad of symbolic meanings that intricately reflect the multifaceted relationship between the Turkic people and their environment. This symbolic portrayal of the wolf underscores its significance as an emblematic creature that resonates deeply within the cosmological and spiritual dimensions of Turkic culture.

As an apex predator, the wolf embodies a confluence of characteristics, encapsulating strength, cunning, and adaptability, thus evoking both fear and admiration among the Turkic communities. Turkic mythology, with its proclivity for anthropomorphism, often portrays the wolf as a manifestation of a unique amalgamation of human and animal traits, bestowing upon it the persona of an indomitable symbol of primal instincts and natural forces.

Börü: The Wolf in Turkic Mythology
The wolf’s unparalleled ability to endure the challenges of the Eurasian terrains bestows upon it a significant symbolic role in Turkic mythology, representing strength and perseverance.

It is noteworthy that the portrayal of the wolf in Turkic mythology remains conspicuously devoid of subjective adjectives, eschewing any inclination to assign inherent moral values of goodness or evil to this revered creature. Rather, the wolf emerges as a symbol of raw power and untamed wilderness, embodying the intricate balance of the natural world as perceived through the pragmatic lens of the Turkic peoples. In this worldview, the harmonious coexistence of predators and prey assumes paramount significance, as both play indispensable roles in maintaining the ecological equilibrium upon which the very foundation of existence hinges.

The neutrality and objectivity embedded within the characterization of the wolf in Turkic mythology are reflective of the profound connection between the Turkic people and their environment, transcending simplistic human-centric dichotomies. The wolf emerges as an enigmatic and awe-inspiring entity, embodying the primordial essence of nature’s dynamics. This integral representation of the wolf resonates as a powerful reminder of the entwined destinies that interlace humans with the vast natural world, a cosmic interplay that has shaped the collective consciousness of the Turkic communities through generations. In this portrayal, the wolf’s image, devoid of subjective judgments, finds its place as a symbol of the interplay of life’s cycles and the inextricable linkages between humans and the natural order.

Wolves in Turkic Legends and Folklore

Turkic folklore is replete with tales that feature wolves as central characters, showcasing their pervasive presence in the collective imagination of the Turkic peoples. These stories often depict wolves as both formidable adversaries and loyal allies, reflecting the duality of their symbolism.

One prevalent theme in Turkic folklore is the portrayal of wolves as wise and cunning creatures. Legends abound of wolves outsmarting humans or other animals to achieve their objectives. These stories serve as cautionary tales, reminding the listeners of the perils of underestimating nature’s intelligence.

Conversely, wolves are also depicted as protectors and guides in Turkic folklore. In some myths, they assist lost or benevolent individuals, leading them to safety or revealing hidden truths. This portrayal highlights the respect the Turkic people held for these creatures, acknowledging their essential role in the natural order.

The Myth of Asena: The Maternal Wolf in Turkic Mythology

Asena is the name of a she-wolf in Turkic mythology. According to legends, one day Asena finds a child who survived a battle and nurtures him. As the child grows up, he impregnates the she-wolf, and she gives birth to 10 male children.

The tribe known as “Aşina” in Turkish, which founded the First Turkic Khaganate, traces their ancestry back to these 10 children born from Asena.2

Asena is referred to as Bozkurt (Greywolf) in some tales.

The Legend of Oğuz Kağan

Oğuz Kağan, also known as Oghuz Khagan or Oguz Khan, is the name of a semi-legendary emperor in Turkic literature and mythology.

According to the legend, one day, while Oğuz Kağan was sleeping, his tent was filled with a bright light. From within the light emerged a blue wolf, which approached him and guided him on a path. Guided by the blue wolf, also known as “gök börü”, Oğuz Kağan and his army achieved a significant victory over their enemy, Urum Khan, and annexed his lands into their own territories. Subsequently, Oğuz Kağan continued to experience triumphs by following the guidance of the blue wolf throughout his life, ultimately leading his people to prosperity.3

The Epic of Ergenekon

According to the legendary narrative, the ancient Turkic populace found themselves ensnared in the valley of Ergenekon, encircled by towering mountains following their escape from adversarial forces. Subsequently, for a period of nearly four centuries, the Turks remained confined within this valley until their deliverance was realized through the intervention of a skilled blacksmith who melted the mountain. Commemorating this significant event, annually on March 21st, the populace kindled fires and forged red-hot irons, concurrently marking this date as the onset of the new year.

Some historical accounts also assert that the Turks received guidance post-melting from a she-wolf named Börteçine.

The Creation Myth of the Uighurs: The Paternal Wolf in Turkic Mythology

In antiquity, there was a ruler whose daughters’ ethereal beauty captured the imagination of all who beheld them. It was firmly ingrained in the beliefs of the kingdom that these enchanting maidens were destined to be united with God, signifying a divine connection that transcended mortal boundaries. To ensure their sacred destiny, the ruler resorted to an extraordinary measure, confining his daughters within a lofty tower nestled in the desolate reaches of the northern lands.

Undeterred by the passage of time, the ruler persisted with unwavering devotion, ardently beseeching God to bestow his blessings upon his daughters, allowing them to embrace their celestial unions. Then, as if in response to his sincere prayers, a divine intervention took shape, as God materialized in the form of a magnificent wolf. The mystical union of God and one, or perhaps all, of the ruler’s daughters came to fruition, and they bore numerous offspring, becoming the heralded progenitors of the Uighur lineage.4

The Role of the Wolf in Turkic Shamanism

Shamanism holds a fundamental position in Turkic spirituality, serving as an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. Within this belief system, wolves assume a prominent role, being perceived as potent spiritual entities capable of both assisting and challenging shamans in their mystical pursuits.

Turkic shamanistic practices often associate wolves with transformation and shape-shifting. During rituals, shamans may endeavor to embody the wolf’s characteristics, seeking to attain insights, strength, or guidance. The wolf’s ability to traverse various realms becomes emblematic of the shaman’s profound connection with the spirit world and the wisdom they can glean from such interactions.

Moreover, wolves are sometimes regarded as spirit guides, aiding shamans during their visionary journeys. The wolf’s inherent attributes of resilience and adaptability are perceived as invaluable qualities for shamans navigating the complexities of the spiritual realms.

Deer Totem and Spirit Animal in Shamanism

  1. “Makaleler ve İncelemeler – Cilt I-II”, Abdülkadir İNAN, Türk Tarih Kurumu, Ankara, ISBN : 978-975-16-0333-3^
  2. “The Turks in World History”, Carter Vaughn FINDLEY, Oxford University Press, 2004, ISBN-13: 978-0195177268, ASIN: 0195177266^
  3. Oğuz Kağan Destanı (Turkish)”, Wikisource, tr.wikisource.org^
  4. “Manas Destanı (W. Radloff) ve Kırgız kültürü ile ilgili tespit ve tahliller”, Naciye YILDIZ, Türk Dil Kurumu, 1995^
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