Thursday, January 21, 2010

Animal and Shaman

"... to the pioneering work on Turkic and Mongol religion of Frenchman and scholar, Jean-Paul Roux, who has laid the foundations for all future research in this field..." Animal and Shaman by Julian Baldick

In his current work, Animal and Shaman Ancient Religions of Central Asia, Julian Baldick writes of a fascinating, early world forgotten or unknown by Western scholars; yet the ancients knew first hand something of the history, and the religion which Baldick recounts. He writes the book to be a "comparative study of the indigenous religions of Central Asia." Baldick argues that there is a common thread among all these peoples in regards to their spirit lives and beliefs. Owing to anthropological evidence, he posits that of the people who migrated through what is now called Central Asia, some migrated out into what is now called Iran, Turkey, Hungary, Finland, among other places, while others remained in place, such as the Mongols, the Manchus, the Kazakhs, among others. Preferring the term "Inner Eurasia," Baldick gives a good overview of the people, including those of whom we may have customarily assumed to be "Europeans" such as the Huns.

While the geography occupied by these groups may be diverse, there is some commonality to their practice. Inner Eurasia describes a place in the world that has not been defined politically, rather it is a territory that gains cohesion in culture, the civilizations which surround it such as Middle East, India, China. Poverty, writes Baldick, defines this region like no other factor. It is a landscape characterized by harsh, unforgiving terrain. From mountains to deserts to the Siberian cold, the people and their populations were formed of those hungry, physically wanting nomads who historically eyed more hospitable territories; thus they were considered barbarians and military threats by their neighbors. They believed in the pressure of Heaven, says Baldick.

As far as their religion, to the ancient Mongols, for example, the soaring eagle was a symbol most important. Shamans of the Bronze age leave artifacts with many other animal symbols as well. Importance is also given to trees and fish. The historically 'first great people of Inner Eurasia' says Baldick are the Scythians. Accounts of them appear in ancient Greek chronicles. The Greek historian Herodotus, writes of them in the fifth century BCE. He gives an account of their invasion of modern day Iran in an area then called Scythia. Sythia may have centered in present day Iran, but the domain is thought to have extended to the modern day place of Siberia. Anthropologists trace their religious customs to a commonality with those of the Ossetians , Turks and Mongols.

Baldick goes on to give account of a people known in history as the Hsiung-nu who lived in geographic Mongolia from about the fourth century BCE to the second century CE. They are often associated with the Huns , who attacked the Roman Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries CE. One should not then suppose that Asia and Europe were so insulated from one another, or that western ideas were entirely absent from the east, or vice versa. Something was strong enough in the minds of those attacking to continue to do so--intermittently for at least a century.

The Husiung-nu believed in secrecy in the burial of their royal dead. They also, for example, held to a belief that an animal would lead them, acting as a guide on their migratory routes. They too share commonalities with others, like the Khazars, the Bulghars; also the Turks and Khitans who swore oaths upon the sacrifice of an animal, often a dog which was cut in half.

Lastly, the author, Baldick mentions the Khitans. The Khitans, "who conquered China in 907 and ruled it until 1125"; yet their history does not conclude until much later, about 1300 CE. Scholars disagree if the Khitans of the period were more, or less properly, Mongols. Their religious rituals called for the sacrifice of animals as well. Dogs, cattle, sheep and waterfowl were often used for this purpose. The coloration of the animal specified was to be white. They were known to worship trees as well as mountains, and the veneration of their ancestors, whom they thought to be animals in a human guise. The Turks are discussed at some length in conjunction with the Khitans. 

The earliest Turks are said to have originated from the Inner Eurasia region, and later were forced outward into their modern day 'homeland.' Of these earliest people, ancient Chinese historians give account: they are said to believe that they descend from the wolf; like other groups, their holy numeral was seven, and it was believed by their people that they possessed a 'holy stone' which could produce rain or snow. 

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