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Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom

The trefoil of the Mouse-Hole

Lev Gumilev


sik04 4. Disintegration of the Mongol Ulus (1260-1300) (179 KB)

12. Two in One

The Harmfulness of Prejudice

Preconceived opinions which, once expressed as hypotheses, are then accepted as incontrovertible truths are one of the most fatal mistakes for academic thought. The force of their established nature paralyses criticism and the false opinion takes root, distorting the picture of the historical process. Among such opinions is the concept of Mongol religion of the twelfth to thirteenth centuries as primitive paganism. It is held that the Mongols esteemed all faiths equally, supposing that it was only important to pray for the khan, that they protected all clergy, since intolerance did not follow from their religion. The error in this opinion is that the particular is arbitrarily taken as the general and that the causes of the very relative Mongol tolerance are transferred from earth to heaven, i.e. the causes are sought in their outlook, not in the existing political situation.

Now, after critically investigating an authentic source, the Secret History of the Mongols, we shall make so bold as to assert that Mongol twelfth- to thirteenth-century religion was a completely conceived world view with a tradition going back to deep antiquity and was no less finely honed than Buddhism and Islam, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

Let us begin our inquiry with a polemic.


The "Black Faith'

The most detailed description of ancient Mongol religion has been given by the Buryat scholar Dordzhi Banzarov [+59] who expounded the views of the nineteenth-century Buryat pagans. He supplied his {262} work with a great number of brilliant historical digressions and concluded that: "the so called shamanist religion, at least among the Mongols, cannot have come from Buddhism or any other faith". [+60] In his opinion, the "Black Faith of the Mongols derived from the same source as many ancient religious systems; the external world is nature, the internal world is the spirit of man and the phenomena of both were the source of the Black Faith".

According to Banzarov's description, the Black Faith consisted of worshipping the heaven, earth, fire, the secondary gods - tengri, and the ongon, the souls of the dead. The part played by the shaman, according to Banzarov, is that he "is a priest, doctor and wizard or soothsayer". [+61] As a priest he makes sacrifices on festivals and for other reasons; as a doctor he summons the spirit of the tormented patient and accepts it into his own body; the part he plays as a soothsayer is clear. It may be assumed that the Buryat of Banzarov's day actually professed such a system. But was it so in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries?

Mongol thirteenth-century religion appears differently in N. Veselovskii's research work based on written sources. Despite his listing almost the entire literature on Mongol beliefs on his/ first page, Veselovskii insistently calls the Tatar religion shamanism, understanding by this an eclectic combination of all sorts of concepts.

In the first place Veselovskii sets fire worship, considering this phenomenon characteristic of all primitive religions (?!); in the second, he sets worship of the sun and the moon [+62] (Banzarov says nothing of this cult). There follows worship of the bush "the meaning of which we cannot now guess", [+63] and worship of idols which Veselovskii equates with the ongon - the ancestor spirits, although he also calls the ongon "the guardian of happiness and the herds, the protector of trapping" etc. [+64] Contradiction does not confuse our author.

The end of the work is devoted to the question of Tatar tolerance which allegedly flows from their religious concepts. Now, though, we must establish that Veselovskii gives a completely different picture than Banzarov, but at the same time makes the same mistake, {263} mixing into a single whole the cult of nature, magic, omens and ecstatic manipulation by the shaman mediums. Like Banzarov, he accepts a historically compounded syncretism for the dogma of a positive religion.

Let us return to Banzarov. A series of questions immediately arise when we read his book attentively. First, with which spirits do the shamans deal: the spirits of the dead, i.e. the ongon, or the spirits of nature, of the earth, the etugen, from which the female shamans take their name, idogan? Second, what is the relation between the shaman spirits and the chief god, the Heaven? Third, why do the shamans not worship the chief god, and even ignore him? Fourth, Banzarov writes that "Heaven" must not be considered identical with God, [+65] since the Mongols conceived Heaven as ruler of the world, eternal justice and the source of life; but what then is God? Fifth, why does Banzarov earnestly and tendentiously try to represent Heaven as an impersonal principle, although the facts he later adduces from thirteenth-century sources contradict this? Sixth, on what basis does Banzarov derive the fire cult from Zoro-astrian Persia, despite his primary assertion about the autochthonous nature of shamanism?

True to his preconceived opinion about the autochthonous nature of the "Black Faith", Banzarov mixes into one the religious concepts of third-century B.C. Hun, sixth-century Turks, thirteenth-century Mongols and nineteenth-century Buryat. Naturally, it is impossible to bind these different cults into a single system. [+66]

Thus, we can state that both works fail to satisfy us, mainly from the point of view of method. In reviewing religions historically it is not the psychological bases of their religiosity that is important, but the symbol of the faith or the answer to the question: "In what God do you believe?", i.e. the principle of historical and cultural classification.

The historian is interested not in understanding the consciousness of the ordinary believer, where usually many religions are interwoven in the most fantastic patterns, but in the principles of religions which have taken shape and developed, since studying them in their pure form and elements will allow us to establish actual cultural links and explain hitherto incomprehensible historical phenomena. So, studying religion is not an end in itself, but an {264} auxiliary historical discipline. Therefore, leaving aside questions of the origin of religion, the part it plays in consciousness and so on, we shall regard individual religions as facts of the historical process. We shall try to strip away the syncretic layers from the basic views characteristic of particular religions and shall attempt to find the guiding principles for the dogma of the thirteenth-century Mongols.


The Mongol God and His Character

One may find valuable information on the ancient religion of the Mongols in William of Rubruck, the Minorite monk who journeyed to Mongke-khan and was extremely concerned with religious questions. He undertook his journey that he might be convinced that Batu's son, Sartak, was really a Christian, as Black Sea merchants had told him. So it turned out, but it is curious that Sartak's secretary, Koiyak, after forbidding Rubruck to tell Batu that Sartak was a Christian, said: "He is not a Christian, but a Moal." [+67] Rubruck was troubled that the Tatars confused religions and nations, but we must suppose that Koiyak, himself a Nestorian, understood what he said. When Rubruck reached Mongke-khan, he managed to take part in a religious disputation in which Muslim and Christians united on a platform of monotheism in a polemic against the Buddhists. Then Mongke-khan, too, expressed his point of view. He said: "We, Mongols, believe in a Single God who is in heaven, we learn his will through prophets". [+68] This was the creed of the Mongol faith briefly noted by Rubruck. Evidently, this was what Koiyak had in mind, counterposing the Mongols to the Christians; and it is undoubted that this doctrine differs considerably from the polytheism described by Banzarov. But can we, nevertheless, consider it monotheism?

In a chapter on worship among the Tatars, Piano Carpini says: "They believe in One God whom they recognise as the creator of all that is visible and invisible, but they also recognise him as the creator both of blessings in this world, and also of torments, yet they do not honour him with prayers or praise, or any ritual." [+69] Apart from that, they piously worship the sun, moon and fire, as well as {265} water and earth, devoting to them the first of their food and drink, mainly in the morning, before they begin to eat or drink. [+70]

Piano Carpini, although not guilty of a conscious lie, demands some attention. During his mad journey on post-horses to Guyuk's headquarters and back, going short of food and not knowing the language, it would be difficult to make exhaustive observations. Therefore, he is not guilty because he understood the worship of the Heaven as adoration of the heavenly bodies and arbitrarily added the cult of water to that of the earth. For the rest, he agrees with Hetoum the Armenian in telling us that the Tatars "know one eternal God and call upon his name, but that is all. They do not pray and do not refrain from sin for fear of God". [+71]

Rashid ad-Din speaks no less defiantly about their monotheist worship. He adduces a series of Chinggiskhan's utterances on this question. In conversation with his sons he said "... by the strength of the Lord and with the help of heaven I have conquered a kingdom for you". [+72] Giving an instruction to Jebe and Sube'etei, Chinggis-khan said: "By the strength of the great God, until you seize him [Muhammed] do not return". [+73] Chinggiskhan said of himself that "his affairs grow from day to day like the new moon; god's help descends from Heaven by the strength of the all-highest lord, and prosperity has come on earth by his help". [+74] Finally, the text of Chinggiskhan's prayer, when he prayed on top of a hillock, hanging his belt on his neck, after undoing his cloak and falling on his knees, has been preserved: "O eternal lord, you know and are aware that Altan-khan began the enmity ... I am seeking for the blood of retribution and vengeance. If you know that this retribution is mine of right, send me down from above strength and triumph and command angels, people, peris and wonders to help me." [+75] These words might seem to be a traditional Muslim appeal to Allah, but Allah's {266} name is nowhere mentioned and the Persian word "huda", i.e. "God" occurs everywhere.

But we take the most valuable information on the Mongols having a cult of a single supreme god from the Concealed Tale. There this god is called the Eternal Heaven. The Mongols distinguished the material "blue" heaven from the spiritual "eternal" heaven. [+76] The "Eternal Heaven", according to Banzarov as we have seen, was not a personal god, but only the world order.

Chinggiskhan's words quoted above, however, convince us of the contrary. A series of Chinggiskhan's utterances could be added in which the Eternal Heaven stands forth as the bearer of help. Thus, turning to his sons, he says: "The Eternal Heaven will multiply your strength and might and will deliver Togtai's sons into your hands". [+77] And further: "When with the help of the Eternal Heaven we shall transform our state of all the peoples..." [+78]

According to Chinggiskhan's words, the Eternal Heaven demands not only prayers, but also activity: " ... you, Jurchedai, struck the enemy. You threw down all: the Jurkin, Tubegen, Dongqayit and the thousand select guards of Qori-Shiremun. When you moved forward to the main middle regiment, with your terrible arrow you wounded the ruddy Senggum in the cheek. That is why the Eternal heaven opened the doors and the way to us." [+79]

As we see, the Eternal Heaven is a god who not only gives help, but demands activity from his worshippers, i.e. is more active than the Calvinist God who saves by faith without deeds.

On the basis of what has been said, it seems we should recognise that the Mongols had a cult of a single, almighty and active god. But the matter is far from being as simple as that.


Two in One or Dualism?

The Concealed Tale tells us quite definitely that Tengri was not the only god of the Mongols. Earth - Etugen - is mentioned along with Heaven. For example: "Temujin said: we ... have increased in strength by the Heaven and the Earth, called the mighty Tenggeri, and have been supplied by mother Earth"; [+80] further: "In the Kerait {267} campaign we, accepting an increase in strength from the Heaven and the Earth, crushed and captured the Kerait people". [+81]

Here is a clear dualism, but we have to suppose that the Heaven was worshipped more than the Earth, since the Heaven is continually mentioned without the Earth, while the Earth is never mentioned without the Heaven.

Piano Carpini tells us that the Tatars question the god Itoga whom the Cuman (Turks) call Kam through enchanters. [+82] Itoga, according to Banzarov's absolutely correct guess, is undoubtedly the Mongol Etugen, and Kam is shaman. According to Piano Carpini, the Mongols feared this deity and made sacrifices to him. Obo (heaps of stones at crossings) were constructed for Etugen; moreover, in antiquity bloody sacrifices were made at obo. [+83]

Marco Polo speaks no less definitely of the Mongols" two gods: "They [?] say that there is a supreme heavenly God; they daily burn incense for him and beseech him for good understanding and health. They have a god, they call him Nagitai and say that that is the god of the earth, he guards their sons, their livestock and their grain." [+84] In another place the same Marco Polo tells us: "Each of them, high on the wall, has a tablet on which is inscribed the name signifying the All-Highest Heavenly God. They worship it, censing it with incense, raise up their hands and bow to the earth so that God should give them a right mind and good health, but they ask nothing else. Below, on the ground, stands an image which is called Natigai; the god of earthly things which are born throughout the earth. A wife and children are given to him and he is also worshipped. He is asked for good weather, the fruits of the earth, sons etc." [+85]

Thus, very reliable material contradicts what is equally reliable. How are we to reconcile the principle of monotheism proclaimed by Mongke-khan with that of dualism established in the Concealed Tale and Marco Polo? It seems that here is a tangle not to be sorted out. But if we again pose the basic question: "In what God do you believe?", we shall receive an unexpected answer: the Mongols believed in a god named Qormusda.

The coincidence in the names of the Mongol and Iranian gods has {268} already attracted the attention of historians and ethnographers. Schmidt acknowledges that this coincidence is not chance. [+86] Rattsel` also focuses his attention on it. [+87] The term Qormusda is widely known. Hue uses it in describing Chinggiskhan's coronation. [+88] It is found in the dictionaries of Golstunskii and Kovalevskii and is mentioned by Banzarov and Riochet. [+89]

Banzarov does not doubt that Qormusda and Heaven are one and the same. Chinggiskhan is sometimes called the Son of Heaven, sometimes the Son of Qormusda, sometimes in Chinese Tian-zi [i.e. Son of Heaven, or Emperor - trans.]. Buddhists translating Sanskrit and Tibetan books into Mongolian called Indra Qormusda, and this indicates that this term had taken root in Mongolia by the time Buddhist propaganda began there.

Had the term Qormusda been taken to Mongolia not from Persia, but from India along with Buddhism, this name would have corresponded to the Varuna of Indo-Iranian mythology. Here even Banzarov concedes the obvious and, despite his own declaration about the autochthonous nature of the Black Faith, notes: "On close acquaintance with Mongol shamanism one finds in it, perhaps, much in common with the teaching of Zoroaster." [+90] But if this is even partly so, then the interpretation of Tenggeri - the Eternal Heaven as an impersonal world order first of all falls away. Even before this it contradicted the facts, but now it can be totally discounted.

Then the cult of the sun and moon noted by archimandrite Palladius is explained. Temujin prayed with his face to the sun on mount Burqan. [+91] But Veselovskii, arguing against this, considers that here it was not a question of the sun, but of the south to which it seems the Mongols would turn in performing religious rituals. As proof he adduces the fact, taken from the Yuan-shi, for 1210: "Chinggis, learning of the accession of Yang-zi in China, said: "this weak-minded man cannot rule", and he spat to the south [i.e. {269} towards China]". [+92] I cannot see this as a religious act; and if this is so, the objection about worshipping towards the sun is lost. The fact is that the sun-cult hypothesis is unclear and does not tie in with anything unless we suppose that worshipping the sun was a detail of the cult, not a separate cult. The sun, ancient Mithras, was the person of the Eternal Heaven, Qormusda, and the apparent contradiction is resolved. As for the moon, it is not mentioned among the cult objects of the Mongols. I imagine that literate foreigners, not being very observant, included it in the Mongol pantheon simply to accompany the sun. But where is Ahriman here?


The Many Faces of The Devil

Before proceeding further, let us note two exceedingly important points:

(1) different things are considered evil in different religions, though there are also sometimes coincidences; for example, the devil in Christianity and Islam is the same; this however is not a rule, but an exception easily explained by the fact that Muhammed picked up ready made and generally accepted Christian ethics, which did not contradict the original features of his teaching, as a weapon;

(2) the identification of the concept of evil with particular unpleasantness is no more than a narrow-minded opinion, foreign to all developed metaphysical conceptions, including religions.

Ontological evil is never equated with subjective failures, because the formulation of this concept is based on a particular interpretation of the cosmos. Thus, in Zoroastrianism, Ahriman is the rival of Ormuzd, lord of the half-world, and sharing equal rights with him; in Manichaeism evil is matter in any form; in Buddhism evil is passion moving man to activity, and good is complete tranquillity and lack of passion; in early Christianity Satan is a person, "father of lies and killer of men", but later he became a rebellious angel, a mutineer, a criminal, i.e. as distinct from the dualist systems, the devil in Christianity is not primordial. Moreover, there are many systems where in general the concept of metaphysical evil is lacking, {270} both personal and cosmic. Here the concept "evil" coincides with "bad", which is understood as a deviation from the law or tribal custom. Such are many genotheistic cults, and shamanism in which a finely thought out nature philosophy replaces religion: the teaching of the "three worlds" and the shaman's "tree" which runs through them. The shaman climbs this so as to reach the upper and lower worlds in his ecstasy.

In every language - more precisely, in every system of semantic signals - there are conventional expressions, metaphors, which it is senseless to translate literally. For example, "square root" does not indicate a plant root as long as it is wide. That is exactly how the matter stands with the shaman's tree. This is not an object, but an image which, depending on context, might be translated into our philosophical language as a means of making the transcendental immanent, a sort of intuition. And the upper and lower worlds? They too appear in our nature philosophy under the names of macroworld and microworld, while we ourselves are found in the mesoworld, the middle world. Of course, it is impossible to equate shamanist philosophy and modern physics, but it is still less correct to equate shamanism with theist religions including the concept of a deity. Shamanism as a system for perceiving the world is mystical through and through, but it has no place for either god or devil.

But can we consider shamanism a religion? Yes, and no, depending on how we define the term. The straightforward meaning of the word "religion" is a link (with a deity, understood), from the Latin verb religo, I bind, tie. Consequently, if there is no deity in the conception, then there cannot be any link and such systems must not be called religions. On the other hand, the variety of atheist conceptions are just as great as the theist ones. Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Jainism, like shamanism, possess all the qualities of religious doctrines, except for recognising the existence of God. And they all differ more from the atheism of the materialists than from the religious systems. What are we to call them?

And the theist systems themselves? The clan cults in the ancient East and in Hellas have very little in common with the world religions: Christianity, Islam, and theistic lamaism. From the point of view of medieval theologians, paganism was not a religion, but a collection of superstitions. Indeed, the attitude of the pagans to the idol, now fed with sacrifices, now beaten with whips, is quite unlike faith in Allah or in Adi-Buddha (the Primordial Buddha, creator of {271} the world). If we use the term religion everywhere, we involuntarily unite under this concept a multiplicity of dissimilar things of different types.

Therefore, exclusively for convenience in using the term, I shall call only theistic systems religions in this work, but for the whole totality of conceptions and views of the world I shall use a broad term, "faiths", since it is so widespread and understandable without additional explanation.

This lengthy and boring excursus was necessary only to delimit the ancient Mongol religion from shamanism. They were neighbours, co-existed and interacted, but in the ancient Mongol religion there was what there could not be in shamanism: a cosmic evil principle.

Banzarov supposes that the Ahriman of the Mongol pantheon was Erlig-qan, god of the underworld. [+93] I cannot agree with such a comparison, although in fact in modern Buryat mythology Erlig-qan is the antithesis of Qormusda. The point is that Erlig is an evil deity of the Altai shamanists from whom, we must suppose, he reached the Buryat at a later period. The sources give us another name: this is Piano Carpini's Itoga, the Concealed Tale's Etugen or the Earth, Marco Polo's Natigai. Although this at first sounds paradoxical, detailed study of the question shows that this is really so, although this, too, is not Ahriman.

First of all we have to remember that in the Concealed Tale the Earth is sometimes mentioned along with the Heaven, or is left out, but it never appears independently. Second, according to Piano Carpini's words the Mongols feared the god Itoga, i.e. Etugen, and made sacrifices to him, even including blood sacrifices. The "spirits of the earth and the waters" were the cause of Ogedei-khan's illness. Natigai is beseeched for earthly blessings which itself counterposes him to the heavenly God. Among these blessings children occupy the first place. This place answers to the conceptions of modern Buryat according to which Qormusda is chief of fifty-five western (good) tengri, and Erlig-qan is head of forty-four eastern (evil) ones, also called dzayan (jayagan), spirits of the earth who summon fertility.

It is curious that the mountain Tadjiks` and Yagnobs` Albast is {272} not only an evil spirit, but is also the spirit without whose presence birth cannot take place. One more not-fortuitous analogy.

The religious beliefs of the Buryat described by Banzarov are undoubtedly a transformation of a more ancient religion. Erlig-qan came to them from an Altai cult where he was head of the underworld, not an enemy of the good god Ulgen, but his brother and helper. When people fail to make sacrifices to Ulgen, out of his goodness he cannot punish them and he complains to Erlig. He quickly sends a plague or some other trouble on the people, and then they have to sacrifice to both deities, for they are at one. Erlig-qan has no similarity to Ahriman.

Perhaps, here we are much closer not to an Iranian, but to an ancient Turkish popular religion where Earth and Heaven are taken as two sides of a single principle, not fighting, but complementing one another. This conception goes back to deep antiquity, to the start of our period, i.e. to the Xianbi cultural element. [+94] However, in the course of a thousand years an inevitable transformation and absorption of foreign ideas took place. Evidently, the Iranian influence which penetrated Mongolia through the Manichaes in the eighth to ninth centuries had no influence on the essence of the views held by the Mongols` ancestors, though they did take over the Iranian terminology. They understood the evil principle not as half of the world order - Ahriman - but as its unnatural violation, a lie, a betrayal. This does not, of course, mean that the Mongols were always truthful. Who is without sin? But as an ethical category the condemnation of betrayal is a moral imperative.

The author of the Secret History condemns even Chinggiskhan for the treacherous murder of his step-brother Bekter and the hero Buri-boko, and praises him for executing Jamuqa's nokors, but the bloody executions of the conquered Tatars and Merkit leave him unmoved. This point of view is entirely logical. Death in wartime is only a law of nature, but the murder of someone who trusts you is an insult to nature and consequently to the deity. People participating in betrayal should not live and produce descendants, for the Mongols recognised collective responsibility and the existence of inherited features (we would say of a gene stock). Therefore, the Tatars suffered for handing over to his death at the hands of the {273} Jurchen the Kerait khan and for poisoning Yisugei-ba'atur. This was right according to Mongol logic.

We must note that this point of view was unusual for the majority of peoples in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries. The Chinese, Muslim Turks and even the Europeans murdered emissaries and envoys. According to Mongol teaching, in doing this they committed the gravest sin; that was why the Mongols dealt so harshly with Song China, with the Khwarizmshah Muhammed, with the Russian princes on the Kalka and the Hungarians on the Shayava. But the Chinese, Iranians, Russians and Hungarians who survived the slaughter were long unable to understand the link between the killing of the Mongol emissaries and the subsequent extermination of their fellow-countrymen. It seemed to them one thing when they were killing, but another when they were the victims. Therefore, they considered the Mongols monsters, forgetting that every consequence has a cause. Only the most intelligent Europeans, for example, Piano Carpini and Aleksandr Nevskii understood this. Piano Carpini tried not to have emissaries sent with him to Europe, since he feared the Germans would kill them, but "the Tatars have the custom of never concluding peace with those people who kill their emissaries". [+95] In 1259 Alexsandr Nevskii, knowing this custom, did not allow the people of Novgorod to slaughter the Tatar emissaries and set an armed guard on the house where they stayed. In this way he saved both the Tatars and Novgorod. And how unlike this is to the indifference of these Novgorod people to someone else's death! When Yaroslav slaughtered their envoys and, thereupon, learning of the death of his father, Vladimir the Bright sun, and of the murder of his brothers Boris and Gleb by Svyatopolk the Accursed, wanted to flee to Sweden, the men of Novgorod, sensing gains, said to him: "We cannot raise the dead" and, forgetting about betrayal, set off to put him on the throne of Kiev.


Search for a Source of Faith

So, the Mongols` evil principle is unlike the Zoroastrians" Ahriman and the Manichaes` spirit of darkness, and it differs from the Christian conception of Satan by being impersonal. As we have noted undoubted reminders of Iranian culture, let us turn to a third {274} Iranian conception - Mithraism - which held on in Iran until the Arab conquest. This cult underwent a long evolution, but we shall only describe the basic trend of its historical fate.

Mithraism, arising among nomad tribes in the valleys of Central Asia, was accepted by such tribes occupying Shanshun, a land in north-west Tibet. Sedentary Tibetans inhabiting the valley of the Brahmaputra, called the Tsan-pu in Tibet, took this faith from the Shanshun people. Here it became the official religion with a cult, clergy, creed and an influence in state affairs. [+96] The Tibetan name of this religion is Bon. From Tibet Bon spread into east Central Asia and, after withstanding a fierce struggle with the Buddhists, preserved its position in Tibet till the twentieth century. We have established the identity of Mithraism and Bon in a specialised work, [+97] and we shall try to illustrate the coincidence of these with the religion of the ancient Mongols by a few examples.

Among many hymns to Mithras in the Avesta there is an important text. Ahura Mazdah turned to Spitama-Zarathustra saying: "In truth, when I created Mithras, lord of the wide pastures, O Spitama, I created him as worthy of sacrifice and prayers as I, Ahura Mazdah, am myself. The Evil One who will lie to Mithras [or will break the contract] will bring death to the whole land, will cause the world as much evil as a hundred sinners. O Spitama, do not break the contract, either with the believers, or with the unbelievers, since Mithras is for the faithful and for the infidel." [+98]

Ancient Mithras, the genius of heavenly light, was honoured equally with Ahura Mazdah, and Darius Hystaspes allocated equally honoured positions to the emblems of Ormuzd and Mithras on the walls of his burial vault [+99] (486 B.C.). Sometimes Mithras is considered a deity combining male and female. Symbols of a god and a goddess are found on certain Mithraic monuments. On many bas-reliefs Mithras is shown stabbing a bull or sheep, which indicates the cult's link with sacrifice, but the main activities of the cult were performed in secret. By a special decree Xerxes forbad the honouring of the devas in his empire, but Mithras and Anaitis were excluded from the number of the persecuted gods and {275} are mentioned in an inscription of Artaxerxes as allies of Ahura Mazdah.

The cult of Mithras in Iran, however, was displaced by worship of the Amesha spenta, and later Mithras appears as an independent deity in between Ormuzd and Ahriman. [+100] The significance of the Mithras cult in Iran had noticeably declined, and its divergences from Zoroastrianism had increased. On the other hand, the Mithras cult flourished in Asia Minor. Mithridates Eupator was a worshipper and the Cilician pirates from whom Roman soldiers and then the soldier emperors [+101] - for example, Aurelian, Diocletian, Julian the Apostate - borrowed the cult of Mithras, while in Iran it was Bahram Chubin, the "rebel who worships Mithra` as a seventh-century Christian author called him. [+102]

Western Mithraism, worship of the "Unconquerable Sun", did not withstand competition with Christianity and Islam and disappeared without trace. But in the East it survived among the Heptalites where the king Mihirakul was its champion against Buddhism. [+103] The kingdom of the Heptalites included Dardistan and Western Tibet in the early sixth century. [+104] Thus, cultural interchange between the Heptalites and the land of Shanshun was easy and even unavoidable.

According to the basic thesis of Mithraism, Heaven with its spouse the Earth rules all the other gods begotten by this basic two-in-one deity. Is this not the cult we find among the Tibetans and Mongols until their acceptance of Buddhism? Further: the Earth-producer, terra Mater, fertilised by water, has an important place in both rituals and teaching. [+105]

The similarity of the teachings of Mithraism and Bon, though, is not merely or particularly a matter of cult details. Eastern Mithraism kept its archaic features and did not become, like the western form, a religion of victory or military success, but remained a teaching of the struggle for truth and loyalty. It did not turn into the "Unconquerable Sun", but retained its cosmic nature, where the sun was merely {276} the "eye of Mithras" and Mithras himself a deity-prophet, the Light of Day. The lie, deceit and treachery, understood as abuse of trust, [+106] were the enemy of the eastern Mithras as of the Bon "Light of Day". It is this dogma and its simultaneously psychological feature that relates Mithraism with the religion of Bon and its branches among the ancient Mongols.

Finally, a question: why was Mithraism so unable to get on with Buddhism, although it quite quietly allowed Christianity and Islam to swallow it up? Common to Buddhism and Bon (Mithraism) is an injunction to the believers to engage in good deeds and aspire to self-improvement; but in the two cases the understanding of the good and the perfection for which one should strive are diametrically opposed. The Buddhists consider the good either "non-action", or the propaganda of their teaching, which, in the last analysis, amounts to the same "non-action", the aim being complete disappearance from the round of rebirths. The Mithraists, on the contrary, prescribe a struggle for truth and justice, i.e. military deeds, and wartime hermits are regarded as deserters. From the point of view of a Buddhist the world is an abode of torment from which one must flee; ceasing to restore life, i.e. not marrying, is a necessary condition of salvation. In Mithraism, Mithra is the "lord of wide fields" which he makes fertile. He increases the number of the herds; he also gives those who are honest health, abundance and wealth. He is the one who distributes not only material blessings, but also spiritual ones. [+107]

In brief, Mithraism is a life-asserting system. But if this is so, the creed of a struggle with life, the assertion that the beautiful world around us is maya (illusion), that complete inactivity is the most appropriate pursuit for a talented man and that the best means for good to triumph is non-resistance to evil, is to the Mithraist and adherent of Bon a monstrous lie, and one has to struggle against the lie. The law prescribes it. That is why Buddhism encountered such bitter resistance in Tibet and Mongolia; and it conquered, and that incompletely, only when internal wars had carried the most active section of the people into the abyss and those remaining had neither strength nor desire to oppose the new teaching which promised {277} peace and called on them to leave this hard world of suffering. It was then that the Yellow Faith triumphed in Asia.



At the present time Bon is professed in Sikkim, to some extent in Bhutan, in the south-west provinces of China (Sichuan and Yunnan) by the south Chinese minorities, the Miao, Lolo, Lisu and others, and also in Western Tibet. Materials on the Bon religion are extremely scanty. There are the notes of the Moravian missionary Francke [+108] and the diplomatic agent Bell [+109] and, finally, a genuine Bon manuscript obtained by Sarat Chandra Das and partly translated into German by Laufer. [+110] The most complete modern research on Bon is contained in the works by Hoffman [+111] and Stein. [+112] Information given on Bon in European works is contradictory and confused. As for descriptions of Bon in Tibetan sources compiled by Buddhists, there one has to consider the possibility of deliberate falsification.

The deity worshipped by the Bon has the name Kuntu Zanpo (kun tu bzang po), literally the "All-Good". But since nothing can, according to the Bon, appear on this earth without a mother and father, along with this deity there exists a goddess who appears now as the tender "Great Mother of Mercy and Love", now as the angry "Glorious Queen of the Three Worlds" who rules all the world, including China, Tibet, Shanshun and Li (Khotan). [+113] This goddess is honoured even more than her husband, since her power is linked with the earth, as a consequence of which she is called in Western Tibet the Earth-Mother. [+114]

According to Bon cosmology, the world is made up of three spheres: the heavenly region of the gods is of white light, the earthly region of people is of red light and the lower world of water spirits is of blue light. The mystic world tree grows through all three universes and is the means by which the worlds communicate with one {278} another. According to one of the Bon versions, a wonderful man between being and non-being, who came to be called the "Created, lord of what is", appeared in the world which then had neither form nor reality. In the world at that time there were no seasons, forests grew of themselves, but there were no animals. Then white light and black light arose, and then a black man appeared, the personification of evil, creator of discord and war. But a white man also appears, surrounded by light, who is called "He who loves all that is". He gives warmth to the sun, orders the stars, issues laws and so on. [+115]

The Tibetans know many kinds of demons differing greatly from one another. These were the lha, celestial beings, good spirits of white colour, mostly men. They are life-giving, though Da-lha {Dgra-lha) the god of war is savage and strong like the greatest devil. Petty spirits of this sort are used as defenders of lamaism. Evil spirits, the tsan (btsan), men of red colour inhabit the earth. Usually this type of being is the vengeful spirit of a prophet dissatisfied with his death. They dwell predominantly around temples. The main enemies of mankind are the dud (bdud, mara) demons, mostly men of black colour and very malicious. The most evil of these are the de (Jdre) or lhade (lha'dre), men and women. The other spirits are considerably less important in strength and scope than those described. Demons of the stars, the don (gdon), many-coloured, which cause illness, man-eating demons, the sinpo (srin po) and many others are listed.

An analogous system of demonology, though not so developed, is noted throughout the whole of northern Eurasia. This system relates the world views of the different Asiatic nomads to one another, despite the fact that they profess a variety of religions: demons, after all, are not an object of worship; all you can do is to defend yourself against them. Since many ethnographers have failed to take account of this and have equated beliefs with religion, the idea that Bon is a Tibetan form of shamanism was tacitly accepted. Here, again, a confusion of two concepts occurred: shamanism is the practice of ecstasy with a nature-philosophy base, but Bon is a religion. These concepts are mutually incommensurable.


A Faith, but not a Religion

Apart from the beliefs we have expounded, which we may boldly class as religious conceptions, there were many others in the consciousness of the thirteenth-century Mongols that had no connection with dogma and theodicy. Among these are belief in wizardry, divination and omens.

These phenomena are often put in the sphere of religion, but I see no reason for that. Religion sets as its aim communication with god and an explanation of the relations of man to god. Wizardry, i.e. magic, is based on the principles: (1) everything in the world is interrelated and (2) like gives rise to like. [+116] The presence of god is not obligatory for the wizard, nor are spirit forces.

Equally, when a man engaged in divination it does not matter whether he uses the shoulder blade of a sheep, beans or the cards; he does not summon any supernatural power.

Omens are the clearest example that not every belief is of a religious nature. All know the evil omen: to be the third to light up from one match - death or great trouble. It made sense during the Boer war, when Boer snipers unfailingly fired at the flare of a match if it was held even for an instant. But this omen is extremely widespread throughout Europe, though it is in no way linked with either a materialist or a Christian view of the world. But, then, you cannot call this belief pagan. Here there is no poetic myth, no fantastic demonology, no heartfelt, though mistaken, interpretation of the forces of the cosmos and chaos. Here is simply a badly understood pattern based on post hoc, ergo propter hoc, which from any point of view must be called a superstition. And superstition is a feature of all periods.

Mongols were forbidden on pain of death to bathe or wash their clothes in summer. Veselovskii tried to interpret this unhygienic measure as a manifestation of shamanist water worship (?!). [+117] But I think we are here dealing with an omen. Rashid ad-Din explains this prohibition as due to the Mongol belief that bathing causes thunderstorms. [+118] A storm in the steppe is a great misfortune, since lightning strikes vertical objects, i.e. men and livestock. Two or three {280} coincidences could create an omen which afterwards long persisted. But this prohibition could have no direct relation to religion.

We may say the same of the "cult of the threshold". The first travellers to Mongolia noted that touching the threshold of the khan's yurt was punished by death. They therefore supposed that the Mongols honoured the "spirit of the threshold" and counted touching the threshold as sacrilege. It seems to me, however, that it was not quite like that. A monk who accompanied Rubruck touched the threshold of Mongke-khan's yurt and was immediately arrested and sent to the highest court. But in the inquiry it became clear that the monk had no idea of this custom and he was released and only forbidden to go in to the khan. [+119] Had there been a question of sacrilege here, ignorance would not have saved the monk. Most likely we are not dealing with a cult, but with an omen according to which touching the threshold brings misfortune to the master of the house. Therefore, to stand on someone else's threshold means to wish him ill, to touch it means to show him lack of consideration, and lack of consideration for a khan is an insult to his rank. As the monk, in touching the threshold, simply showed his ignorance of others" customs he was not subject to punishment. One should never confuse omens with a cult.


Not Shamanism

I believe N. Veselovskii made a serious mistake in considering the beliefs he had described as manifestations of shamanism, allegedly the Mongols" state religion. [+120]

Our reason is very inclined to fall into one logical mistake: to accept words as terms. Thus, under the concept of shamanism we put a large number of extremely varied beliefs. Therefore, before speaking of shamanism we should make this concept more precise. The shaman is a man chosen by a spirit, not a world spirit, but a personal, female one, as a husband and for this reason he enjoys its protection. [+121] Thanks to the spirit's protection the shaman can both divine and cure, i.e. drive off other spirits and accompany the soul of the dead to the place of rest. The presence of such shamans {281} among the Mongols of later times is not in doubt, but the image of Kokochu-Teb-Tenggeri is not that at all. Teb-Tenggeri does not engage in wizardry, he prophesies the will of heaven.

What is there in common between this priest and a frenzied medium at a spiritualist seance (which is what a shaman's performance is, in essence), apart from the name we have arbitrarily given it? Moreover, in the Concealed Tale there is a description of genuine shamanist activity this was the curing of Ogedei by redeeming his life with that of a relative. [+122] But it turns out that Chinese, i.e. Kara-Khitan shamans were summoned for the cure.

Piano Carpini and Rubruck also tell us of shamanism, but they call the shaman kam. This is an Altai Turkish word, and in the thirteenth century shamanism had been considerably developed in the Altai where it existed along with Nestorianism. For example, Rashid ad-Din says that at one time the Naiman khan had such power over the jinn that he used to milk them and make kumis from their milk. As regards the Mongols proper, however, we are obliged to abandon the traditional viewpoint and agree with Mongke-khan who told Rubruck that the Mongols learn the will of the One God through prophets (but not wizards - L.G.).

If this is so, then the thought strikes us that shamanism in the restricted and direct meaning of the word developed as an ideological system in direct proximity to Mongolia and, it seems, at the same period. As we have found it among the Kara-Khitan and the Naiman, it is natural to seek its origin in the homeland of these peoples, i.e. Manchuria. In fact, we find the conceptions, rituals and terminology sought for there in the Jurchen Qin empire. Certain researchers consider the word "shaman" itself a Jurchen one, [+123] and the Jurchen the originators of shamanism. [+124] The Jurchen considered people with outstanding abilities shamans, [+125] just as we call them geniuses, from the Latin word "genius", the protective spirit of the clan.

The Khitan even had a shaman hierarchy the ordinary shaman cured and engaged in wizardry, but the secret rituals took place under the guidance of a supreme shaman who had a high position in {282} the Liao Empire. This genuine shamanism was recorded in 1714 when the Manchurian ritual was unified. The deities of the Manchurians were defined as spirits with whom links were established through male and female shamans. [+126] In brief, shamanism also was a state world-view, though not among the Mongols, but among their eastern neighbours. Both ideological systems, the theistic and the spiritualist, were neighbours for many centuries, co-existed and interacted, but did not fuse, for their dogma and origins were different. Shamanism turned out to be more long lasting and beat the highly developed religions - Bon and Nestorianism - which disappeared in Mongolia, and this confused the nineteenth-century scholars who tried to lump together all the faiths of ancient times; but to contemporaries of those events the distinction of Mongol religion from other Asian cults was obvious. All knowledgeable observers considered the Mongol faith as monotheism, but neither Muslims nor Christians noted any similarity between the Mongol faith and their own.

Thus, the ancient Mongol religion appears before us as a view of the world that had been carefully worked out, with an ontology (a teaching of a two-in-one deity, creator and provider), a cosmology (the conception of the three worlds with possible inter-communication), ethics (condemnation of the lie), mythology (the legend of an origin from the "sun man') and a demonology (distinguishing the ancestor spirits from the spirits of nature). It was so different from Buddhism, Islam and Christianity that contacts between the representatives of these religions could only be political. Moreover, the ancient Mongol culture was so specific that any borrowing from it, or simply a veiled reference to it, is easily recognised. We shall now deal with this, taking as an example the situation most familiar to us, Ancient Rus" in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries.


[+59] D. Banzarov, Chernaya vera.

[+60] Ibid., 5.

[+61] 3 Ibid., 37 etc.

[+62] N. Veselovskii, "O religii tatar", 92.

[+63] Ibid., 94.

[+64] Ibid.,96.

[+65] D. Banzarov, Chernaya vera, 7, 8, 16.

[+66] Ibid , 45-6.

[+67] Puteshestvie v vostochnye strany Plano Karpini i Rubruka, 114.

[+68] Ibid., 173.

[+69] Ibid , 28.

[+70] Ibid , 29.

[+71] P. Bergeron, Voyages fait principalement en Asie dans les XII, XIII, XIV et XV siecles par Benjamin de Tudele, Jean du Plan Carpin, N. Ascelin, Guillaume de Rubruquis, Marc Paul Venitien, Hayton, Jean de Mandeville et Ambroise Contarini accompagnies de sarasins et des tartars, et precedez d`une introduction concernant les voyages et les nouvelles decouvertes des principaux voyageurs, par Pierre Bergeron, vols 1, 2, La Haye, J. Neaulme, 1735, 72.

[+72] Rashid ad-Din, Sbornik letopisei, I, 2, 232.

[+73] Ibid., I, 2, 209.

[+74] Ibid., 259.

[+75] Ibid., 263.

[+76] D. Banzarov, Chernaya vera, 6.

[+77] Ibid., ╖ 203.

[+78] Ibid., ╖ 208.

[+79] Sokrovennoe skazanie, ╖ 199.

[+80] Ibid., ╖ 113.

[+81] Ibid., ╖ 208.

[+82] Puteshestvie v vostochnye strany Piano Karpini i Rubruka, 31.

[+83] D. Banzarov, Chernaya vera, 16, 18, 19.

[+84] Kniga Marko Polo, 90.

[+85] Ibid., 126.

[+86] I.J. Schmidt, Forschungen im Gebiete.

[+87] F. Rattsel`, Narodovedenie, 758.

[+88] E.R. Hue, Le Christianisme en Chine, en Tatarie et en Tibet, 139.

[+89] D. Banzarov, Chernaya vera, 11, E. Blochet, "Etudes sur l'histoire religieuse de l'Iran", 41.

[+90] D. Banzarov, Chernaya vera, 25.

[+91] Palladii [Kafarov], "Starinnoe mongol'skoe skazanie o Chingiskhane", 183.

[+92] N. Veselovskii, "O religii tatar", 92-3; [Bichurin] Iakinf, istoriya pervykh chetyrekh khanov, 43.

[+93] D. Banzarov, Chernaya vera, 25.

[+94] L.N. Gumilev, Drevnie tyurki, 82.

[+95] Puteshestvie v vostochnye strany Piano Karpini i Rubruka, 80.

[+96] L.N. Gumilev, "Velichie i padenie drevnego Tibeta", 156, 157.

[+97] L.N. Gumilev, B.I. Kuznetsov, "Bon".

[+98] Bettani, Duglas, Velikie religii Vostoka, 279.

[+99] Ibid , 293.

[+100] F. Cumont, Les mysteres de Mithra, 4-6, 8-9.

[+101] Yu. Nikolaev, V poiskakh za bozhestvom, 47.

[+102] Sebeos, Istoriya imperatora Irakliya, 39.

[+103] R.M. Ghirshman, Les Chionites-Hephthalites, 120-3; A.N. Zelinskii, "Akademik Fedor Ippolitovich Shcherbatskoi", 252-3.

[+104] L.N. Gumilev, "Eftality i ikh sosedi v IV v.", 137.

[+105] F. Cumont, Les mysteres de Mithra, 110-17.

[+106] L.N. Gumilev, B.I. Kuznetsov, "Bon".

[+107] F. Cumont, Les mysteres de Mithra, 4.

[+108] A.H. Francke, A History of Western Tibet.

[+109] C. Bell, The Religion of Tibet.

[+110] B. Laufer, "Ueber ein tibetisches Geschichtwerk der Bonpo".

[+111] H. Hoffman, Quellen zur Geschichte der tibetiscken Bon-Religion.

[+112] R.A. Stein, La civilisation tibetaine.

[+113] G. Bell, The Religion of Tibet, 15.

[+114] A.H. Francke, A History of Western Tibet, 53.

[+115] R.A. Stein, La civilisation tibetaine, 209.

[+116] D. Frezer, Fol'klor v Vetkhom zavete.

[+117] N. Veselovskii, "O religii tatar", 92.

[+118] See D'Ohsson, Histoire de mongols, 2, 92-3.

[+119] Puteshestvie v vostochnye strany Piano Karpini i Rubruka, 30, note 1,149-51.

[+120] N. Veselovskii, "O religii tatar", 81-2.

[+121] L.Ya. Shternberg, Pervobytnaya religiya.

[+122] Sokrovennoe skazanie, ╖ 272.

[+123] M.V. Vorob`ev "O proiskhozhdenii" 47.

[+124] S.M. Shirokogoroff, Social Organisation, 86.

[+125] M.V. Vorob`ev, "O proiskhozhdenii".

[+126] K.A. Wittfogel and Feng Chia-Sheng, History, 14.



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