The only thing we can never experience until we die is death itself. Although some of us consider it a simple transformation, death means pain and sadness for many people. So much so that both literature and art are full of myths of immortality and eternal life. On the other hand, myths are also full of characters associated with death.
Death in Turkic Mythology
As far as is known, death has never been seen as an absolute end in Turkic communities. Both archaic oral tradition and death rites in Turkic communities confirm this explanation.
Most of the objects that prove that the ancient Turks believed in the other life are obtained from the graves.
Ancient Turks interpreted death as the soul leaving the physical body and passing to another realm. For this reason, they buried the materials that could be useful to the deceased in the other world, together with the dead. If the deceased was a warrior, they erected a rough stone statue called balbal around his grave for every enemy he killed. They believed that the enemies killed by the warrior would become his slaves in the other world.
However, even if the deceased was a warrior who had guaranteed heaven, death meant a period of strict mourning for the Tengrist Turks. Laments written for the dead give important clues about this period.
During funeral ceremonies, the most common rites were for men to shave their hair, cut their faces or certain parts of their bodies to shed some blood. Some Turkic communities also sacrificed animals. Among these, the only tradition that has survived to the present day is sacrificing.
In some Muslim Turkic communities both in Anatolia and Central Asia, the tradition of sacrificing after the deceased was Islamized and kept alive until today. In the Islamic version of the tradition, the aim is to offer the meat of the sacrificed animal to the neighbors and ask for prayers for the deceased.
Types of Burial and Mummification in Turks
The most common type of burial in ancient Turks is inhumation. In some graves, it was seen that the dead were buried in the hocker position.
It is known that burial types with shamanistic elements and cremation are also practiced besides inhumation. Cremation seems to be related to the cleansing power of fire.
The fact that the excavation of the kurgan and large graves sometimes took months and the unfavorable seasonal conditions led to the development of mummification techniques. Therefore, many mummified corpses were found in the Scythian, Hun and Göktürk tombs.
The mummification tradition was also practiced in later years. It is known that some statesmen were embalmed in the Seljuks and in the early periods of the Ottoman Empire.1
Aldacı Han and His Helpers
Aldacı (Old Turkish: 𐰀𐰡𐰀𐰲𐰃) is the name of a mythological entity associated with death in Turkic mythology. The troops under his command are known as “Helper Aldacı”. In this case, the main aldacı is called “Aldacı Han”.
Aldacı Han can be briefly defined as the entity that corresponds to the angel of death in Turkic and Altaic myths. However, it should be noted that this definition is somewhat lacking, since Tengrist Turks do not have the concept of angels in today’s sense.
The mission of Aldacı Han, who is believed to have been sent by Erlik, the god of the underworld, is to take the souls of those whose time of death has come.
Aldacı Han is depicted as an anthropomorphic male figure, wearing long black clothes, inspiring fear wherever he goes, ruthless and strong, riding a black horse, unlike today’s angel of death and Azrael characters.
According to Turkic belief, death occurs in two ways. In the first type of death, Erlik receives the soul of the person through the Aldacı Han, which he sends to the earth. This form of death is called untimely death. Aldacı Han’s helpers are the ancestors of the person whose soul was taken.
The only way to prevent untimely death was to sacrifice an animal and win Erlik’s heart.
The second type of death is timely death. In this type of death, the person has lived long enough and now it is time to move on to the other realm. Depending on how one’s soul lives in this world, it will either ascend to Uçmag (Heaven) or descend to Tamu (Hell) and enter the service of Erlik and Aldacı Han.
While the mourning process continued in the house where Aldacı Han entered, the people of the house used to try to protect themselves from the spirits. For this, some changes were made at home and purification rituals were applied in the past.
According to Turkic mythology, Aldacı Han’s helpers would continue to wander in and around the house of the dead for a while. This period was generally accepted as 40 days for adult deaths and 7 days for child deaths. During this time, no belongings were taken out of the house.2
In some regions, at the end of this period, the house used to be incensed with juniper branches, accompanied by a shaman, to drive away evil spirits from the house.3
At the same time, the shaman used to pray and play drums for evil spirits to leave the house. If it was determined that the soul of the deceased did not want to leave the house, the shaman used to suggest and guide the soul.
Jean-Paul Roux stated that in Turkic communities that fire is considered sacred, relatives of the dead were purified by passing between two fires in the past.4
After the spirits were expelled from the house, the relatives of the dead would offer food and drink to the neighbor. That day was called Spirits Day, and everyone used to pray well for the deceased.
- “İslamiyetten Önce Türklerde Ölüm Anlayışı ve Defin Yöntemleri”, İbrahim ONAY, Gümüşhane Üniversitesi, Sosyal Bilimler Elektronik Dergisi, Ocak 2013
- “Türk Söylence Sözlüğü“, Deniz KARAKURT
- “Eski Türk Dini Tarihi”, Abdülkadir İNAN, ISBN: 978-6056600975
- “La Mort Chez Les Peuples Altaïques Anciens Et Médiévaux”, Jean-Paul ROUX, ISBN: 978-2720002274