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Kyrgyzstan travel » Mythology

Mythology, Kyrgyzstan

Mythology of nomads

In the imagery of the sedentary cultures of high civilizations - the ones of yesterday as well as the ones of today - the world of the nomadic peoples often runs the risk of being considered a «different» world, even a primitive world. Then, when we reflect on its artistic production that, besides its originality, must be considered at a high level, one feels the desire to understand and deepen the material and spiritual roots which contributed to its development.

Many studies have been carried out since the time when the first gold objects reached the court of Peter the Great from Siberia. At first they were studies for the purpose of classification, and then they reached higher levels as data came in from field research, that is, from the past and present excavations carried on by archaeologists in the immense territory of the Eurasian steppes and mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Given the fact that nomadic societies never actually left written records, archeology was the only way to derive information that could confirm or complete news handed down from the sources of those civilizations that had come in contact with them: Greece, Iran, and China.  Herodotus recounts what he saw or heard say about them be­fore and beyond the Ponto region, while visiting the Greek colonies near the Black Sea. He did not hide his astonishment at the news he heard, nor his difficulty in believing it. In the Achemenid inscriptions of Behistun and Persepolis, the Saka were mentioned among the subjugated peoples, in order to render glory to the sovereign. The Chinese An­nals refer to the dangerous «barbaric peoples» living close lo their borders, and the description of their customs shows surprising similarities with Herodotus pages. All these sources, however, speak about a foreign world, describing it with their own standards.

It could be useful, then, to attempt a different approach to the problem: to make use of data fur-n shed by archeology, and at the same time try to interpret them from the viewpoint of semiotics.

Therefore, in recent times, a new awareness has been reached of the possible symbolic value of these finds and the need to go beyond an attitude that excluded the possibility that these peoples had reached an evolved system of thought, their own vision of the world, and the capacity and will to depict it. And we also now know that we have to reconsider the idea we had of the relationship between the nomads and the sedentary in Kyrgyzstan, because it is now clear, and recent archeological discoveries proved it that their contacts were numerous and could also be peaceable.

For such an analysis it seems useful to examine-considering their good preservation their good preservation - the kurgan found in the Siberian region, even if many comparisons can be done with the western area.

Tombs for dead people

Archeologists analyzed a kind of tomb prepared for the de­ceased large wooden cages built by laying tree logs one on top of the other and covering them with mounds of earth and stones The cage and the hole containing it wore usually square, while the mound was round and lowering toward the sky In many cultures, the square and the circle symbolize heaven and earth respectively, and the mound el­evation could symbolize the mountain, that is a place closer to heavenly spheres.

Even more significant is the study of the bod­ies of the deceased which, thanks to the ice, are often very well preserved and make it possible to determine not only their gender, age illnesses and cause of death, but also their social place in the group, as well as the burial rite used.  We have to remember that the body was embalmed, removing the soft parts and substituting them with aromatic herbs and earth. Sometimes the skull was trepanned and the face covered with wax, then the whole body was dressed-at least the ones of the most distinguished members of the group with sumptuous clothes. Mindful of Herodotus accounts (IV.71.1), some scholars thought that such a preparation served lo preserve the body, espe­cially that of the tribal leader, which was then ought to be honored by the different clans of the tribe   However, since not only «princely» tombs contained mummies, we can also assume that the use of this process was for cult purposes, that is the desire for the deceased to remain intact for their journey towards the afterlife.


The presence of horses in Kyrgyzstan that were sacrificed during the burial ceremony and placed along the north side of the burial place testifies to those populations' belief in the hereafter. They are fully harnessed steeds, with saddlecloth decorated with im­agery of animal fights with saddles and masks with long branched horns in wood or leather, camouflaging the horses as deer, Elk, or reindeer. These horses too were prepared for a long and important journey a jour­ney that thanks to the disguise would make it easier for them when traveling across the steppes, tundra and the snow-covered northern regions from which some of the first nomadic groups descended.


Ancient coffins

Interesting is the study of the coffins the bodies were buried in a tree trunk formed the sar­cophagus, at times with the exterior decorated with splendid engravings of animals (Basadar). The tree is the symbol of life, as well as the sym­bol of rebirth. In Altaic populations, a tree trunk could be used as a burial place, especially for children and shamans (Polos'mak 1994 and Roux 1963) The branches of trees such as cedar larch and birch were imagined as reaching high into the sky, while the trunks, carved in the shape of a boat, as transporting the deceased into the world of the dead. This metaphor was present both in the western and eastern mythology, well illustrat­ed by the boat of Carontis transporting souls to the other side of the River Styx Ethnographers observed that several populations m Siberia-the Ossiates, the Kets and the Selkups-still today practice the custom of burying their dead inside the trunks of larch trees, a tree associated with the Sun and the Heavens.


Burial furniture

Even the burial furniture was arranged accord­ing to a precise idea of space, with a marked divi­sion between the areas reserved for men and for women, just as it was in the dwelling places of the living. The tomb was, therefore, like a yurt, a mi­crocosm reflecting the macrocosm Vases, dishes, small wood tables and bronze cauldron contained food (pieces of meal) and drinks (fermented horse milk or stirring liquids) that can be interpreted as the leftovers of a burial banquet or as the nourish­ment for the future life of the dead, or as offerings lo the gods. Each of the three hypotheses can be accepted since we know that the type of food they offered could vary. Normally it was mutton in Kyrgyzstan, but evidence of beef (Kok Tepe) or dog has been found. This leads us to think of a ritual and/or symbolic offering. The recipients made of clay, wood, or bones could symbolize the hearth, the vegetable world and the animal world. In some cases, the buried body shows tattoos. There, the shoulders, arms and legs of a (30-year-old man and of a 25-year-old young wom­an are entirely covered with tattoos. They depict figures of animals represented in the purest «animal style» deer, tigers, leopards, lions, horses and composite animals portrayed in a typical «contortionist" posture-with legs and backs turned up-giving to the whole composition an effect of great dynamism and movement.


Meanings of tattoos

Tattooing was widely practiced in ancient times from east to west, but different meanings were attached to it the Greeks thought it was a mark of infamy for Thracians, «to be tattooed is a sign of noble birth» (Herodotus V.6) According to Pliny Sarmatians and Daci used tattooing, and Virgin describes the worshippers of Hyperboreus Apollon as pict Agatyrsi. But it was also a mark distinguishing shamans and priests in Kyrgyzstan and others countries. If, according to Parlato's hypothesis (Parlato 1994) the tattoo is «a form of writing system used in the steppe world, we have to suppose that nomadic peoples, through their tattoos, were delivering a message, codified in a universally understandable figurative language. And that their function could be magic or apothropaic or, as Polos'mak suggests, would represent a cosmogonic myth.



Another important object found in kurgans is a bronze cauldron containing stones among which were partially burnt seeds of wild hemp. Seeds of hemp were also preserved in a nearby container, along with a fragment of leather decorated with gryphons snapping at elks. This object has been identified as a cape meant to cover the head and face during inhalations. While being burnt, in fact, hemp gives off fumes with hallucinogen effects. This recalls to mind, obviously, that passage of Herodotus (73,2) where he mentions how the Scythians were accustomed to using fumigations at burials for purification. The Greek historian could not explain this unusual practice linked to burial cults in any other way. Today, however, we interpret it as more of a shaman ritual that was widely used in Kyrgyzstan. It is known that shamans made use of intoxicating substances to enter into a trance which would enable them to reach the world of the dead and come in contact with them.


Symbol­ic meanings

We already mentioned about shamanism in Kyrgyzstan - given the necessary restrictions - referring to the above-mentioned tomb of Ak-Alakh 3: a single tomb con­taining the body of a woman, elegantly dressed with a yellow silk tunic and adorned with a tall headdress. Her shaved head is covered with a wig torn which stands a piece of petal-shaped wood, covered in black felt and surrounded by fifteen small wooden birds coated in gold leaves. At the base, a deer supports a cone ending with a sphere upon which lies another deer.

Each of these objects obviously has a symbol­ic meaning: the petal with the birds could be interpreted as the tree of life, the deer as animals linked to the god of heaven. The peculiarity of this tomb is even more evident when considering oth­er objects: the back of a mirror, decorated once again with the figure of a deer, the wooden neck­lace with figures of leopards in apotropaic function, a wooden recipient with its handle in the shape of two facing leopards, and containing a «whisk» for whipping milk. Rightly Polos'mak re­calls the Indian cosmological myth where Indra, wan a long peg, makes earth emerge from the primordial ocean, and the Visnuite myth of the whipping of the milk sea to produce amrita,, the drink of immortality. All these elements make us think of «signs» indicating the presence of a shaman, or of a priestess dead at young age, and buried with the honors due to her status.



Beside shamanism, the nomadic peoples prac­ticed other cults in Kyrgyzstan, among which the one of the sun and the stars, of the fire, of the mother goddess, of the ancestors, and totemism

In regards to the cult of the sun, it seems proved in different ways. The kurgan-temple of Ulug-Chorum (Sagly culture), in the Tuva region, excavated by A. D. Grac (Grac 1980). was identi­fied by him as a temple of the sun. In fact, the monument comprises a circular wall, inside of which the space was subdivided, into 32 segments arranged as if in a wheel. The circle and the wheel are undisputed symbols of the sun. The structure of the kurgan, therefore, must have had a precise meaning, confirmed with all probability by images of horses, goats and deer engraved in the interior boundary wall. The image of the sun is also depict­ed on bronze discs placed in tombs (for example in Tagar) or in some petroglyphs. Sometimes asso­ciated with human figures (as in Tamgaly, Kaza­khstan). Lastly, as we will see, a solar significance can be attributed to certain animals, such as hors­es and deers, often present in Siberian art.


Animals in nomad's life

In reality, animals are the preferred subjects in all forms of art of the populations inhabiting the steppes, from the Pontus region to Kyrgyzstan and China. Aside from the obvious esthetical values reached by these objects, one wonders what the reason could be for such a choice as we said before, the rep­resentation of animals was mainly due lo the life­style of the nomadic peoples and their environ­ment. It.-was therefore the logical consequence of a vision of a world with boundless space, but with its essential nucleus lying in the human-animal relationship. In daily life, animals were of great value to the nomads: they symbolized a) food (hunt­ing and animal husbandry wore the principal pro­ductive activities); they symbolized b) the opportuni­ty to move on great distances; c) they symbolized the adversary against which lo measure and prove one's ability.

Someone attempted lo create hypothesis of a «magic» or «totemic» value of this imagery, employ­ing arguments that were partly acceptable. In fact, one can suppose that, by depicting an animal, peo­ple could think of a magic transposition of its strength, ferocity and speed onto the persons who look possession of it, by tattooing it on their skin or by adorning their clothes with that image. Another interpretation is given by considering that a certain animal could be a totem of a particular tribe, thus becoming the sign of belonging lo a group or to a certain social class. Not only lo the ancient nomads. It's well known, for instance, that the wolf was the totemic animal of the Turns, and Gingiz Khan was said to be the descendant of a wolf and a deer.

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