The Turks had a massive impact on much of Europe. Because of their nomadic tribal lifestyle, the ancient Turks came into contact with a great many different cultures and beliefs.
Because they’re not originally from Europe, Turkish gods and mythological creatures are very distinct from the myths around them. Still, they’ve influenced and been influenced by the cultures around them.
We’ve put together all the most well-documented and fascinating ancient Turkic mythology, gods, and legends. Read on to learn more about this unique culture and the beliefs that helped shape it.
While modern Turkey’s neighbours, Greece, had complicated god-myths filled with drama and small details, Turkish gods are relatively simple and straightforward. As they were nomadic, the Turks also seldom built statues and temples to their gods, so many deities and stories have been lost to time and conquests.
The nomadic Turkish tribes adapted and changed myths according to their own beliefs and social structures, so it’s uncommon to find a single fixed god-myth. With that in mind, let’s delve into the ancient Turkish people’s most important gods!
Tengri, the great sky god, is the most important Turkish deity. While most of the Turkish peoples’ history is polytheistic, there have been whole centuries where Tengriism has stood as a monotheistic religion.
Tengri, Kök Tengri, or Gok Tengri, is the first primordial deity, and the creator god. We don’t know what he looks like, only that he is all-powerful and fair. In later ideas of the god, no doubt influenced by more modern ideologies, he is also considered the force of good, to Erlik’s evil.
The name is also synonymous with the sky, and can be used to refer to any gods nowadays.
Erlik, also called Yerlik and Erlik Han, is the god of evil and the underworld in the Turkic pantheon. He presides over death, and has been punished by Tengri or Ulgen (depending on where you are) for interfering with the creation of mankind.
Much like the Christian devil, Erlik convinced the first humans to eat the forbidden fruit, and was sent to reside over hell for it. He has nine daughters and nine sons, and sits on a silver throne.
Legends differ a lot with Kayra Han, but the god, neither male nor female, is undoubtedly one of the most important deities in Tengriism. In some myths, Kayra is the father of Tengri while in others he is his son.
Kayra Han resides on the 17th floor of the sky – the topmost story, or branch when it’s depicted as a tree. He is the ruler over the air, water and land, and flies over the earth as a pure white goose, observing his creation.
Ulgen is a deity often conflated with both Kayra Han and Gok Tengri. He is the protector of humanity, and can be seen as a kind of archangel figure. Ulgen gifted fire to humans, and protects us from his evil brother Erlik.
Ulgen lives in a golden palace and is depicted as strong and long-haired, with a white sun on either side of him. He can also throw lightning and presides over the weather. He is the patron god of shamans, and provides them with their knowledge. He symbolizes goodness and abundance.
The son of Ulgen (or Kayra), Mergen is the god of wisdom, reason and abundance. He is quick-witted and wise, as well as an excellent archer. Because of his wisdom, he is considered to be the god that banished evil from the world (although the question then stands, how did the evil get back in?)
The god of war, Kizagan was an important deity amongst the warlike Turkish tribes. He rides a red horse or camel, and is depicted as a strong young man in armour.
The only goddess on this list is the good-hearted Umay. She is the Turkish goddess of fertility and virginity, protecting women, children and mothers.
Umay is also the favourite wife of Gok Tengri, and together with him provides the life force and victories of the Turkish people. She is symbolised by the colour yellow, and is often associated with the sun, radiating divine power.
Popular Turkish legends
There are legends from all over Turkey which explain how things are created and begun, or epitomise human values and traits. These are just three of the most widespread and celebrated legends in Turkey.
The legend of Sarıkız
One of the most famous legends surrounding Turkey’s Mount Ida is the legend of the pure-hearted Sarıkız. This legend is celebrated every year with a pilgrimage to the peak of Sarıkız Hill and celebrations in the surrounding foothills.
As the legend goes, Sarıkız was a beautiful blonde-haired maiden who lived with her father, Cılbak Baba. She was so beautiful that men would fall instantly in love with her and beg her hand in marriage. But she wasn’t interested in being married, so she turned them all down.
One day, her father left on a long pilgrimage and entrusted her to his neighbour. While he was away, many more suitors came for his daughter, and all were rejected. The men became resentful, and started rumours about Sarıkız’s chastity.
When her father returned, he was told that his daughter had become a prostitute, and that he must kill her or be excommunicated from the village. With a heavy heart, he took her up to the mountains with a small flock of geese, and left her there.
Guilt ate away at him for years for having left his daughter to die. But one day, Cılbak Baba heard rumours of a blonde-haired woman helping travellers navigate the treacherous mountains. He went out in search of her, and eventually found his daughter in the mountains. Sarıkız was happy to see her father despite what he’d done to her.
She gave him water to wash with, but he told her it was salty, and realised that she had miraculously reached over to the ocean and filled it up there. She quickly apologised and rotated the bowl of water to the mountains, and it became clear and sweet. Cılbak Baba understood suddenly that his daughter had become a saint. But on realising this, a dark cloud appeared and she died, her secret discovered. Devastated and dazed, he roamed the mountains before dying on the neighbouring hill.
It’s a sad story, but one the locals are drawn to. Both hills are named after the pair that died on them, and form an important part of local custom and culture.
The legend of Ergenekon is told a number of ways in different parts of Turkey. This is perhaps the most popular version of the founding myth.
Long ago, the Gokturks were defeated in battle and had to flee their lands. They fled into the mountains, and sought refuge in the fruitful and beautiful Ergenekon valley, surrounded by mountains. There they flourished, growing in numbers and strength. Eventually, they found they were trapped within the mountains, and remained there for four centuries.
After this time, the valley had grown overpopulated and they knew they had to leave. A Gokturk blacksmith freed them by melting the iron in the rocks – according to some stories, setting fire to 70 separate spots. This opened a gate in the mountains so that they could leave, but after so many generations, they could no longer remember their way through the mountain passes.
A grey wolf appeared to the men and led them out of the mountains, symbolising the support of the gods. The Gokturks went on to win many battles, and regain their importance as a local power. They split up into many tribes, but always remembered their communal origins.
Leyla and Mecnun
The story of Leyla and Mecnun is a tragic, ancient and widespread one. According to the legend, Leyla and Qays were school friends who fell in love with each other. Leyla’s parents did not approve of the match, and forbade their daughter from marrying Quays despite seeing their true love.
The young man withdrew into the wilderness, wretched with loss. He would recite poetry of his love for Leyla to the animals and plants, and walk through the deserts. Eventually, he was given the name Mecnun, which means ‘possessed with madness’. His parents, concerned for him but resigned to their son’s decision, would leave food for him at the edge of the wilderness. There he roamed for years, driven mad by love.
Eventually, Leyla was married to another man. But she could not love him, and the marriage only served to deepen her sadness at the loss of her love. Soon she died of a broken heart.
When news of her death reached Mecnun, he travelled to where she was buried, moving determinedly for the first time in years. When he found her he wept, surrendering to his unimaginable grief. He took his life, and died at the graveside of his love.
Turkish mythological creatures and monsters
Turkish monsters and creatures are varied and dark, often interacting with humans and causing tragedy and loss. You’ll also see some interesting similarities to mythical figures from Portugal’s past.
Bichura is a house spirit, traditionally believed to live in every house, and shapeshift between the form of a cat or dog and a human. When in human form, it wears red dresses. But you’re not likely to see it! Bichuras warn their household’s members of danger by pulling on hair or making a noise – but if you spot it, this forewarns of death.
If the creature grows discontent, it plays tricks on its household, and you have to figure out what’s gone wrong and fix it for things to return to normal.
Basty and Al Basty
Not a very pleasant mythical creature, Basty is the spirit of nightmares. It sits on peoples’ chests, giving them bad dreams.
This creature is a little different to Al Basty, a succubus-like figure who personifies guilt. In some communities, she’s also known as the ‘red mother’. A connection spied between mothers and guilt, perhaps?
This unusual creature is a malicious swamp demon. She’s blood-thirsty and violent, and lives near the kinds of bodies of water you’d tell your children not to stray near without a guardian.
Archura is a shapeshifting woodland spirit. He protects the forests and the animals, and usually appears as a peasant man. But he can change his size from that of a blade of grass to a tall tree. His hair and beard are living grass, and he has no shadow.
As wonderful as the Archura sounds, they are seldom friends of man. They’re defensive of their forests, and mischievous beings. So while they’re not evil, they’re not great neighbours either.
A devilish and fascinating Turkish myth is the Karakoncolos. This hairy, malevolent goblin appears at the coldest time of year.
They stand on murky corners, and set riddles or ask random questions of passers-by. These people have to answer any question using the Turkish word for ‘black’, otherwise they are struck dead. No doubt there was some reasoning behind this once, but that’s lost now.
The Karakoncolos would also imitate the voices of loved ones, luring people out into the cold and snow.
The king of snakes, Erbüke is a wise and kindly man with the lower body of a serpent. His (and sometimes her) name is a combination of the words for human and dragon. According to legend, he ruled what was once a kingdom of intelligent and peaceful snakes.
Other Turkic mythological creatures
Of course, there are many other mythical figures from the ancient and pre-Christian Turks. We simply don’t know enough about them, as folk beliefs so often stay oral traditions, without ever being transcribed.
A few interesting beings without much information are the Ardow, drowned spirits of human souls who suck others into swamps to drown them too; Peri, gorgeous fairy-like creatures who can be like angels or demons; Chak, who corrupts peasants; and Shurala, who lures his victims into the forest and then tickles them to death. What fascinating and unusual myths the Turkic peoples had!
Last thoughts on Turkish myths
These mythical creatures, folk tales, and Turkic gods are just the tip of the iceberg! If you know any other stories, feel free to comment and we’ll try to find and add them. There’s so much to learn about every culture.
Interested in more mytholgy content? Read about Croatian folklore and Hungarian legends.