The Mongol culture is one of the most unique and impressive in the world. Their people survive on the harsh frigid Eurasian Steppe and maintain many of their traditions and practices – some of which have been around since 3000 BC. Their falconry and horse-riding nomadism, their unique instruments, throat singing and traditional folk songs, their art, vertical script, and traditional garb, make Mongolian culture very well worth preserving.
Storytelling and religion form two very important parts of this peoples’ intricate cultural history. Even today, epic songs and stories are a regular part of the nomadic tribes’ lives, and apprentices study for years to learn the instruments, throat singing, and the tales themselves.
I’ve put together some information on the most important of the Mongolian gods, as well as some of the legends and folktales that have been carried through centuries, even millennia, through oral storytelling!
Because of their common ancestry on the steppes of Central Asia, you’ll find that Mongolian and Turkish mythology share many of the same gods and beliefs. But of course, every community adapts their god-figures to better accommodate their needs, and the Mongols were no different. So, let’s dive into what we know of the Mongol people’s gods!
Tengri is the greatest god in the Mongolian pantheon. Even today, Tengrism remains a regularly practiced religion, involving shamanism and ancestor worship, along with the worship of Tengri as the Heavenly Father.
Tengri created all things and is father to all. He is the leader of the gods, the blue sky above, the bringer of death, totally unknowable and infinite.
Mongolian rulers, at least between the 6th and 8th centuries, believed themselves to be sons of Tengri, capable of ruling because his grace shon upon them. Genghis Khan is known to have followed Tengrism, and attributed his successes to his god.
One of Tengri’s forms is Daichi Tengri, the red god of war. During campaigns, soldiers would offer sacrifices to Daichi in order to have his favour in battle.
Erlik, or Erlik Khan, is the god of death and the underworld. Sometimes he is represented by a totemic bear, while other times he is described as having a human body, but the grotesque face of a pig.
Erlik is much like the Christian devil – he participated in the creation of mankind, but his pride led to his downfall, and he was banished to preside over the underworld. He judges the dead, but he also resents being ignored. So when sickness appears in a village, it’s best to sacrifice to him humbly. Particularly because he is often the cause of that sickness, sending out his evil creatures and his nine children to sew havoc.
Bai-Ülgen or Ülgen
Ülgen is a creator god who is sometimes seen as the same being as Tengri and sometimes not. He symbolizes goodness and abundance, standing in direct opposition to Erlik. He is also the patron of the shamans, who are very important figures in the Mongolian religion.
He is the protector of humanity, and the creator of all living beings, as well as the land and the rainbow. In some areas, he is interchangeable with Gok Tengri. In others, he replaces him, or presides right below him.
Atugan / Etugen / Ötüken
The virgin earth goddess, Atugan is considered the source of all life. She is beyond comprehension but will bestow her kindness on those she favours.
According to ancient Mongolian belief, Atugan’s mood could be seen in the condition of the trees. If they were healthy and bore fruit, Atugan was content with humans and would not punish them. If they were failing, her wrath could be expected. This is very well suited to the reality, as weak, failing trees indicate issues with the soil and other conditions, and could easily be an indicator of a poor crop season, and therefore starvation.
Known as Od Iyesi or Od Ana, she is the Mongolian and Turkic goddess of fire. Referred to as the queen of fire or the fire mother, she was born at the creation of the world, when the sky was separated from the earth.
Od Khan or Od Ata is the male form of the same god, known as the king of fire or the fire father. He is depicted as a red-coloured man riding a goat.
Lesser-known Mongol gods
Tung-ak: the patron god of Mongolian tribal chiefs, Tung-ak is well known, but that’s about all we know.
Manzasiri Kalmyk: a primaeval god whose body formed either the Mongolian people, or the Mongol lands.
Indra: Indra is the god of sun and light, and is therefore associated with the east.
There are many tales in Mongolian folklore! The culture is a storytelling one, and the legends below have survived for centuries as oral traditions, passed on down the years. There are many more besides, but these are three of the most well known and widespread legends among the Mongolian people.
Namjil and the Morin Khuur
A traditionally dressed man playing the Morin Khuur – Mongolia’s national instrument – photo by Mizu basyo
This is the tale behind one of Mongolia’s most beautiful and well-loved musical instruments, the Morin Khuur.
The legend follows a young horse herder who went into the Mongolian army. There, they found that he sang so beautifully that they named him Namjil the Cuckoo, and ensured that his only duty was to make music to soothe their spirits.
But after a while, Namjil missed the horses he’d grown up with, and asked his commander if he could take care of the troops’ horses. He was permitted to, and Namjil joyously roamed the nearby Steppe with the horses in his care.
One day, a beautiful young woman appeared suddenly before him and asked him to play for her and her family. He quickly agreed, enchanted by her, and went to play for them. The pair fell in love and spent happy days together making music and roaming the steppes. But eventually, Namjil had to return to his home (and his wife).
His love gifted him with a flying horse so that he could return to her every night. All he needed to do, she said, was to always stop a little before his village and walk the horse the rest of the way, so that it had time to tuck back its wings.
So for a long time, this arrangement worked – but his wife grew jealous and confused, because her husband kept disappearing every night. Then one day, Namjil was in a hurry, and flew his horse right into the village, rushing into his yurt. His young wife saw what happened, and in a jealous rage ran out and cut the wings off the horse. It bled out and died that same day.
Devastated at losing both his wonderful horse and his distant beloved, Namjil made the first Morin Khuur from the horse’s hairs, skin and bone, and carved its regal face into the headpiece. And with it he played many mournful tunes, lamenting the loss of love.
The Central Asian Epic of King Gesar
Gesar Khan – 1941 painting by Nicholas Roerich
The epic of King Gesar is the longest epic in the world! Dating back at least to the 12th century, one version of the oral epic is over a million verses and 80 hours long. And rather than being a Mongolian epic, it’s a central Asian one, with similar tales among the Tibetan, Buryat, Yugu and Tu ethnicities.
The reciting of this epic is even tied into its mythos – it is said that the oral performers are not trained or apprenticed to older masters. Rather, they wake up one day after a strange dream and the newfound ability to recite incredible portions of the epic. As if King Gesar himself were providing divine inspiration, that his story may continue to be told.
A brief summary of the epic
The tale starts before the birth of the hero, when the world is created and the violent spirits that are born with it are bound by oath. But eventually, the evils in the world run rampant, and the gods above get together and decide that a divine hero must be sent to save the earth. The god-child is chosen.
The child is then born into the world to a human couple, but his superhuman strength and fearsome behaviour soon has him and his mother kicked out of their kingdom and they live in the wilderness for years.
But one day, when our hero is still a boy, a horse race is held to determine who will marry the princess and ascend the throne. And of course, our hero wins! So he assumes the title ‘Gesar’, ascends the golden throne, and takes the young princess as his wife.
Gesar’s first campaign is against a demon king, whose wife puts him under a spell after he kills her husband. This spell makes him lose his memory for six years! When he finally returns home, his young wife has fallen in love with the enemy who took Gesar’s empty throne during his absence.
The rest of the epic takes Gesar across many lands, fighting enemies on each of the four corners of the earth. He even descends to hell, before finally considering his mission complete at the age of 80, and returning to the heavenly realm.
The Epic of Jangar
The tale of Jangar is a Mongolian oral epic, and can be told in up to one hundred chapters! Most tellings, however, have about twenty-five chapters, which are recited by traditional Jangarchi.
This epic is about another hero child, named Jangar. The tale starts with his great great grandfather, who establishes the city of Bomba and works hard as his peoples’ khan till the land is a paradise. Fast forward to Jangar’s father, who is another in a long line of mighty khans. This man marries a young woman from a nearby tribe, and for two years they try to have a baby, but it doesn’t work.
Eventually, they visit a herder with nineteen kids, and ask him his secret. The herder tells them that what he and his wife do, is they watch the horses rut, and then they go make love. A strange trick, but the khan is desperate for a son, and so they try it. The trick works, and his wife is soon pregnant with their child.
But when the baby is born, it is just a grotesque red sack. Horrified, the khan orders it destroyed. But just before they do, he hears a wail insisting they let him out. Their baby is trapped and suffocating in the sack! So they cut it open – only once they’ve located a special jade sword, as ordinary swords weren’t working – and their burly little baby topples out.
Ujung Aldar becomes totally preoccupied with his precious son, who shows so much strength and bravery from birth. The new father gives him all his attention, and an enemy soon takes advantage of the lapse in defences.
A devil invades Bomba
Guljin, a devil, attacks Bomba with 10 000 troops riding black horses, and they quickly defeat Ujung Aldar’s soldiers. Desperate to save his son, Ujung Aldar puts a stone of white jade in the infant’s mouth and sends him off with his servant to hide in the forests.
Ujung Aldar and his wife are cut down, and Guljin takes the throne. The servant, after leaving the baby in a mountain cave, returns to his master, sees the devastation, and tries to avenge them. He is quickly killed, and the baby is left all alone.
Jangar in the forest
After days sucking on the white jade to calm his hunger and his fears, little Jangar begins to cry and wail. A nearby hunter hears him, and when he finds the teary infant, he decides to take him home and names him Jangar.
The child immediately approves of this new name, and declares that he will become master of the world. This frightens the hunter, and he changes his mind about adopting the boy, instead simply bringing him some food and water and leaving him to his fate.
But nothing is bringing Jangar down! The child crawls to the entrance of his cave and roars. The forest animals hear him and, curious, go to see what all the noise is. They become enamoured with the little baby, and soon Jangar is learning to run with the antelopes and roar with the tigers and seek out fruit with the deer.
For two years Jangar lives in the wild until one day an old man sees him sitting under a tree. The man tells him what happened to his parents and trains him in magic and martial arts! But then the boy wakes up under the tree and it was all a dream. Still, he finds that he can suddenly uproot trees and smash giant rocks…
Jangar returns to Bomba
At the ripe old age of three, Jangar decides it is time to return to Bomba and reclaim the throne. So he fights his way back to the palace, and when he finds the devil he plunges his spear into his heart. He then climbs onto the roof of the palace, and calls his people back. They return from where they fled during the invasion, and quickly rebuild a flourishing nation.
Jangar’s myth continues from here with many enemy defeats and the expansive growth of his territory. And all still as a child!
Last thoughts on Mongol mythology
Mongolian culture and traditions are incredibly complex and interesting – these are just a few of the stories that surround them. There are so many tales and gods and myths besides!
Unfortunately, because it is an oral culture, with few tales written down, not very much has survived the millennia. And even these will have changed with the cultural and religious influences that shape people. Still, it’s amazing to have access to such a fantastic mythic culture and such exciting legends!
Do you know any Mongolian legends or myths that I’ve missed? I would love to add them!