Creation Myths from Central Asia to Anatolia

Images from the Creation Myths of the Turks

This text is from the catalogue published by Yapı Kredi Art Galleries for Can Göknil exhibitions in Istanbul, Izmir and Adana in 1997.

The questions of how the universe, the world, or people came into being have been asked over and over again everywhere. People need to know where they have come from in order to establish or protect a way of life or to give meaning to birth and to death. The result has been the appearance of a variety of beliefs concerning creation. These beliefs, transformed into tales, have led to the development of creation mythologies. Some primitive peoples believed that they originated from eggs, from animals, from endless water, or from the four elements. In many cases, a deity created humans to serve it, shaping them from mud, drying them in the sun, and instilling them with life. In this way the deity was spared its divine loneliness and also acquired someone to help it perform mundane deeds. Eventually the people enrage the gods and in their anger, the gods create a flood to wipe them out. A man by the name of Ziusudra in Sumerian mythology or Uta-napishtim in the Babylonian (who is better known to us as Noah) gathers the living creatures aboard ships during the flood and thus people managed to save themselves from this disaster. In an Altai legend, seven divine brothers wishing to rescue themselves from the flood build a ship. After the storm, Kara Han shapes human beings from mud that has collected amongst the rocks and then ascends to the heavens to acquire souls for them. In his absence, his evil brother Erlik Han spits upon the human beings that Kara Han fashioned and besmirches them. Because of this, people are both good and evil. The dichotomy of good versus evil is something that has always existed in human beliefs.

In primitive societies, wisdom yields to imagination. Natural events are interpreted and explained with a childlike innocence. Beliefs are multi-colored. These are the reasons that I chose “Creation” as the subject of my exhibition. The creation mythoi concerning the Turks that I came across as I researched this subject in libraries I have interpreted for this exhibition in wood and lead, in acrylics on canvas, and in monochrome or hand-colored engravings. To prepare the eighty or so works that were displayed at the Yapı Kredi Kazım Taşkent Art Gallery in İstanbul in January 1997, I spent three years of intensive but entertaining research.

According to these early beliefs, Creation usually takes place in three stages. In the first, there is nothing but a void. In the second, a universe is brought into being. The third is a time of struggle. The conflict between good and evil takes place on three levels: Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld.

In ancient Turkish beliefs, Tangri (God) Kara Han is a pure, white goose that flies constantly over an endless expanse of water (time). From beneath the water Ak Ana (“White Mother”) calls out to him saying “Create”. To overcome his loneliness, Kara Han creates Er Kishi, who is not as pure or as white as he is. Together they set up the world. Er Kishi becomes the lord of the Underworld and strives to mislead people and draw them into its darkness. Kara Han assumes the name Tangri Ulgen and withdraws into Heaven from which he tries to provide people with guidance through envoys and sacred creatures that he sends among them. The Ak Tangris occupy the fifth level of Heaven. Shaman priests who want to reach Tangri Ulgen never get further than this level, where they convey their wishes to the divine envoys. Returns to earth or to the human level take place in a goose-shaped vessel.

Lesser divinities called Yer-Su dwell in the land, mountains, and riverbanks. They have undertaken the duty of protecting people against Erlik Han, however their power is limited to the river or mountain where they live.

Shamanism is a system of belief common to the Turks of Central Asia. Both men and women could be shaman priests and among old Turkish groups they were called “Kam”. Kams dressed in elaborate garments to display their supernatural powers. Accompanied by the beating of drums in their rituals, they believed they could fly with the aid of their own guardian animal. During such flights they reached various levels of Heaven or the Underworld. Upon returning to this world, they used the information they had learned during their journey for the benefit of their followers.

Molybdomancy, a form of spell-casting in which molten lead is dropped into water, is a holdover of these shamanistic beliefs. This is why I have used lead as a material in my works dealing with shamanistic themes.

The Tree of Life is one of the loveliest motifs to come from Central Asian beliefs. According to the Altai Turks, human beings are descended from trees. The Gokturks believe that we are descended from wolves. The Uigurs combine the two themes in their belief. According to the Yakuts of northern Siberia, Ak Ana sits at the base of the Tree of Life, whose branches reach to the heavens where it is occupied by various creatures that have come to life there. According to the Mamluks, human beings were created from the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. God shaped people from mud and dried them in the sun. The first man was named Ay-Atam and the first woman Ay-va Hatun. In the course of time, the pair had forty children. Tangri Ulgen’s helpers are a female owl and a tail-less dog. Because Tangri Ulgen baked the first people in the sun, I painted Ay-Atam and his family on wooden baker’s paddles.

Ancient peoples also had many ideas about the world and its condition. In one belief, the world is carried in the arms of a guardian angel. According to some, the angel is riding on an ox that has forty legs and a multitude of horns. The ox in turn stands on a brilliantly-glowing green stone which is on the back of a fish named Lusiya. In some frequently-encountered versions, the world rests directly on the back of the ox.

In depicting creation myths, I have tried to combine my motifs with the archaeological finds of the locality and period. My journey of investigating the beliefs of our ancestors took me from Central Asia to Anatolia. And as I pursued it I discovered a joy and exuberance of creation that I have interpreted in a contemporary and original way and offered to the public through the medium and convenience of the visual arts in the form of this exhibition with the hope of strengthening our cultural identity a little bit more.