The Tree Of Life In Turkic Mythology

The Tree Of Life In Turkic Mythology

There are many mythological trees that connect the sky and the earth. These trees, also called the tree of life, the world tree or the cosmic tree, often have similar meanings. The Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade argued that all the symbols that provide communication between the earth and the sky are variants of the cosmic tree.1

The Tree Of Life In Turkic Myths

The tree of life, which dates back to prehistoric times, is a global motif. It clarifies concepts such as life, creation, death or immortality. That’s why the tree of life is one of the most important symbols in Turkic mythology.

The tree of life, known as Ulukayın, Paykaygın, Bayterek and Aal Luuk Mas in Turkic communities, is usually depicted in the form of beech with nine branches, and sometimes in the form of pine or poplar with seven or eight branches. Therefore, beech trees are considered sacred in almost all Turkic communities.

A giant eagle known as Bürküt, Merküt and Öksökö is believed to live on top of the tree of life.

Researches show that the tree cult in the Turks evolved from nature worship and forest worship, which were a part of animism in earlier times.2

The Tree That Connects The Realms

In Turkic communities, the universe consists of three parts: underground, earth and sky. The most important function of the tree of life is to connect these three parts together like a gigantic column. The tree of life, which grasps the underground with its roots, holds the sky with its branches and provides communication between these parts with its trunk.

Similarly, the most important function of the trees of life in the myths of European societies and shaman communities is usually to connect different realms.

Yggdrasil And The Nine Realms In Norse Mythology

The tree that connects the realms is an important symbol for shamanic rituals. Many shaman tents contain materials that symbolize the tree of life. The most common motif in shaman drums is the tree of life. The shaman who goes into a trance during the ritual can ascend to the sky through this tree.3

Tree Of Spirits

According to a myth in some Turkic and Tungusic communities in northeastern Siberia, people’s spirits wait on the branches of the tree of life before they are born. These spirits are directed to the body they belong to through shamans when their owners are born.

Spirits, that wait like a bird on the branches of the tree of life before birth, fly like a bird to Uçmag* after death. In this respect, the myth is compatible with Turkic mythology and Tengrism, but its origin is uncertain.

Uçmag: In Turkic mythology, heaven is called Uçmag, Uçmağ or Uçmak. It is derived from the word “uç” which means to fly.

Uno Harva wrote that some Turks in the Ottoman Empire had a similar tree of life belief.

According to Harva, there is a leaf for each person on the tree, which is also called the tree of destiny. Everyone’s destiny is written on the leaf that belongs to them. The leaf falls only with the death of the person.4

The Tree Of Life As The Origin Of Humanity

Ulukayın, which was planted by the creator god Kayra Han in Turkic mythology, is usually depicted with nine branches, as mentioned above. According to the myths, the nine races or nine Turkic tribes on earth were created through the branches of the tree of life. These communities mixed with each other over time and formed today’s societies.

However, Turkic communities in Northeast Siberia explained the creation differently.

According to the Epic of Er Sogotoh, the first human was born from Kübey Hatun, who lives in the tree of life.5

Kübey Hatun is a mythological being who lives in the tree of life in Turkic mythology. Some researchers have also described her as a kind of birth goddess. She is usually depicted as a woman who is a tree from the waist down. She is the mother of the first human, Er Sogotoh.

Er Sogotoh, whose father is God, is the ancestor of all people on earth according to epics. He later learned that his mother was Kübey Hatun.

The World Tree In Modern Folklore

The tree of life is one of the popular motifs in Turkic culture and decoration art since ancient times. So much so that even in communities that gave up Tengrism, the symbolism of the tree of life can be found. For example, there are many tree of life motifs in the frescoes of the Uyghur Turks, who converted to Manichaeism in the 8th century.6 

Uyghur Turks under the tree of life.
Bezeklik Caves (between 9th and 11th centuries)

The trees of life of the Uyghurs are often synthesized with the Manichaean tradition. The first detailed tree of life frescoes of the Turks were found in the Uyghurs. Because Uyghurs are the first Turkic society to settle down.

Tree of life motifs also continued to be popular in Turkic communities that converted to Islam. The motifs of Gök Medrese in Sivas, Çifte Minareli Medrese in Erzurum and İshak Paşa Palace in Ağrı are the most important examples.

Geometric Motifs

Flag of Chuvashia

The coat of arms and flag of Chuvashia, which is a federal republic of the Russian Federation and mostly inhabited by Christian Chuvash Turks, consists of a red tree of life on a yellow background. In Turkic mythology, yellow symbolizes gold and wealth, and red symbolizes fire, courage, love, blood and power. Huns and Uyghurs also used yellow flags.

A motif very similar to the tree on the flag of Chuvashia is also found on the coat of arms of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Turkey.

5 Kuruş Coin

The tree of life motif on the front of the 5 kuruş coin used in Turkey is designed in a narrower and longer form, unlike other examples.

Similar geometric tree motifs are also found in carpets and rugs. These motifs are very popular in both Turkic and Persian carpets.

Baiterek Tower

Baiterek Tower, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

The famous Baiterek Tower in Nur-Sultan, the capital of Kazakhstan, is a modern interpretation of the world tree. The building, whose architect is Akmirza Rüstembekov, is located in the city center and is used as an observation tower. The building was designed with inspiration from the story of a mythical bird named Semrük.

  1. “Le Chamanisme” Mircea ELIADE, Éditions Payot, ISBN: 9755332588^
  2. “Türk Mitolojisinin Anahatları”, Yaşar ÇORUHLU, Kabalcı Yayınevi, ISBN: 9786051559926^
  3. “Aus Sibirien”, Wilhelm RADLOFF, ISBN: 9783846024003^
  4. “Die Religiösen Vorstellungen Der Altaischen Völker”, Uno HARVA, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, ISBN: 9514107004^
  5. “Türk Mitolojisi, Cilt 1, Bahaeddin ÖGEL, Türk Tarih Kurumu, ISBN: 9789751601155^
  6. Maniheist, Budist Ve Hristiyan Türklerde Su İle İlgili İnançlar”, Ebru ZEREN, 2015^