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Traces of Tree Worship in the Decorative Patterns of Turkish Rugs
by Galina Serkina
(from 11th International Congress of Turkish Arts - Utrecht, the Netherlands, August 23-28, 1999)


I ran across this article while searching through the internet for information regarding the ethnography of the Baluch. It came up on a Google search for the word, "Oghuz". Quickly scanning it, I realized this was a fairly significant piece of writing, surpassing the stated topic of tree worship in the designs on Turkish rugs. In fact, the text includes the significance of this iconography throughout the Turkic world from the Kirghiz far to the east to the tribal weavings of Anatolia. At the urging of Robert Pinner, I have reproduced it here, increasing its visibility and hoping it will be of use to others who share an interest in these topics.

Rugs, like all other artifacts in traditional societies, perform not just utilitarian functions but store and transfer information on the world-outlook o f their creators. Rugs like other kinds o cultural texts (ritual, mythology, images, structures, etc.) retain archaic features which tie the culture of the Turks of Asia Minor with Turkish cultures [ethnic Turkic peoples] of other regions. These features testify to their common sources. Traces of ancient beliefs reflected in carpet patterns of the Turkish of Asia minor reveal their pre-Islamic, shamanistic origin. Turkish prayer rugs (namzliks) were usually intended to be a bridal dowry. Most of them are decorated with tree patterns.

The attention of human societies has always been attracted by the reproduction of life – the principal function of Nature. The cycles of natural cosmic processes was perceived as a constant process of rebirth.

It is known that the tree occupied a semantically important
position both in the world-outlook and in the ritual of the Turks. In the epics of Turkish speaking peoples the tree was the center of life which functioned as an orientation point in time and space: many epic themes concentrate around the tree, principal events and decisive encounters of epic heroes take place there.

The preservation of archaic cultural elements is most noticeable in those spheres of everyday life for which women are responsible, where mothers, the keepers of the hearth, transfer them to their daughters. The world of female artifacts is consequently more durable: these are objects playing a vital role in the rites of the cycle of life, their principal idea being fertility and rebirth (for example marriage rites). Similar sacred objects are immune to any changes in their shape or decorum. Female dress always preserves the pattern of ancient garments. Thus the bridal headdress of the Central Asia still preserves the shape of the ancient Sacae [Saka, Scythian] hats.

A photo of a tree in Anatolia, with pieces of cloth tied on to the branches, symbolizing talismans to ensure fertility in childless women.

Carpets with tree patterns are present in all regions inhabited by Turkic peoples. This testifies to the stability and durability of notions and associations connected with the tree symbol among Turkic peoples, even separated from each other in time and space. Islam, the dominating ideology among the majority of the Turkish speaking peoples, appears actually as their outer garment through which penetrate the substratum layers of their ancient pagan culture. The archaic layer in their culture is preserved due to the traditionalism of social consciousness. The traditionalism of consciousness is always ensured by the specific way of life and economy of the majority of peoples living in Central Asia and Asia Minor, which is nomadic or semi-nomadic. In Turkey, notions and tires where the tree holds a place of importance are especially evident in the eastern part of the country (Serebryskova, 1979, pp130-31). Childless Turkish women and girls of marriageable age make a pilgrimage to a tree growing in a lonely place somewhere near their village or close to a mazar – a sacred place connected with the name of a local saint. Models of cradles and dolls tied to the branches of trees materialized and the wishes of the childless pilgrims. Other such bloodless sacrifices were made in the form of pieces of cloth or fillets. Similar trees are scattered all over Asia (Araz, 1995, pp 230-231). Childless Kazakh women appealed to the spirit of the a tree standing alone on the steppes and offered him a sheep (Radlov, 1989, ppp 230-31). The roots of this selective attitude to trees lie in the East.

Turkish rug from the collection at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Yakut women believed that childless woman could conceive a child after spending a night under a larch-tree having an unusual crown. A personage from the Kyrgyz Manas epic, whose wife remained childless for many years, explained it by her “neither going to a sacred place, nor lying where an apple tree grows… Chorasmian Uzbeks used to bury a placenta umbilical cord or a fetus less than three months old under a fruit tree so that it could go to the place of its former being. In the shaman’s performances of the Uzbeks in Samarkand, the fruit tree served as the symbol of fertility among childless women (Doislrnskiye verovaniya I obryady v Sredny Azii, 1975, p 69). In Erzurum and in other parts of the Turkey, an apple branch was set in the room where a woman was giving birth to a child (Serebryakova 1979, pp 130-3`1). The Siberian Turks, who preserve most rudiments of ancient Turkish culture, believe in the ties between a man and a tree which they envision as a kind of umbilical cord. They believe, that when an old tree dies, it means that an old man had died somewhere, and when a young tree falls down, it indicated the death of a youth. After death, according their beliefs, the human spirit returns to the tree. Similar notions are current among the Kazaks and the Turkmen of Mangyshlak, who believe that there is a tree in heaven, every leaf of that tree belonging to someone on Earth. When a man dies, his leaf falls off (Karutz, s.a. page 134). It explains certain burial rites connected with trees. Small toothless babies were regarded as creatures completely belonging to Nature, therefore, Siberian Turks used to dispose of their dead bodies, wrapping them in birch bark, and hanging them on trees. Birch bark, the symbol of proximity to Nature, emphasizes that a baby has nothing to do with the culture of men, but instead belongs to wild nature. According to shamanistic beliefs, a six moth old baby still remembers the tree on which his spirit used to reset in the shape of a bird (Sovetskaya ethnograpfiya, 1974, No. 2, p 109). The placenta of a new born baby is buried below a tree. The tree was regarded as a place where reincarnated souls from the clan lived, growing in the shape of leaves, fruits or most often in the shape of birds. Each clan or tribe has its own kind of tree. Spirits of different animal species were also believed to be growing on their own special trees. The archaic cultures of hunter tribes of the Russian East present even more integral notions of incarnating spirits. According to their beliefs, a female demi-god named Omi, the mistress of all kinds of vital forces, lives in Heaven.

Detail of a Thracian kilim with tree design. Private Collection, Salzburg

A female deity of a similar name, May, which is common to all Turkic peoples and which performs similar functions – patronage of childhood, childbearing, endowing ikhakans with charisma, luck in battle, etc. – probably represents the same personage. In Heaven animal species are ripening on their own tree which belongs to goddess the Omi. Anthropogenic myths about trees, the ancestors of human being, are popular among the peoples of this region. The forefather of the Nanay people was born by a tree. He was also the first human named Hado or Hodai (Sistemniya issledovaniya vzaimosvyazi drevnih kultur Sibriri I Severnoi Ameriki, 1995, p. 114) In Turkish this theonym sounds like Khudai. Other myths tell about the creation of the shaman tree by a demi-god, who is at the same time a shaman himself, and a married couple, who are a brother and a sister born by a tree. Stories of a married couple, the forefathers of mankind, are widespread in Eurasia. In the legendary genealogy of the Oghuz people, the Oghuz name, two trees, the golden one and the silver one, are mentioned. Among Siberian peoples these two colors are the metaphor for the Sun and the Moon. The two heavenly bodies in the mythology of these peoples present a married couple, the creators of all life on Earth (Radlov, 1989, p. 359, Potapov, 1991, pp227, 293), In the Shah name by Firdowsi, founded, as is well known, upon folklore and mythology, there is a story about a husband tree and a wife tree endowed with the power of speech. The reflection of similar ideas could probably explain the meaning of the Ancient Roman monument Sororium tigillum. Its pillars were representing the male deity, Janus and the female one, Soror. The last name is translated as “sister”. The semantics of the rites performed before it are almost similar to the “birth”rites widespread among the nomads o f Central Asia. Kidan emperors performed special rites in front of two trees symbolizing a gate (E Lun-Liu, 1979, p. 527). The consecration of the emperor was also performed in front of trees. It imitated the process of childbirth. Each time the emperor passed below the tree branches, one of those who took part in the ceremony exclaimed, “A boy is born!” (ibid. p.525). Trees were also used in the consecration rites of Siberian and Central Asian shamans which imitated childbirth (pp. 51-52, Snesarev, 1969) A newly consecrated Buryat shaman had to run around a tree (Potapov, 1991, 123). Moreover shamans used a tree during their mysteries (Radlov, 1989, p371). Each shaman was a keeper and protector of his clan or tribe. Shamans had their own tree upon which they placed the souls of all the people they protected (potapov., 1991, p423). Such trees were guarded by spirits-protectors assisting shamans. The Yakuts regarded their shamans as trees. His limbs were called “branches”, not arms or legs (Xenofontov, 1992, p. 77)

Note the animal skull hanging in this tree in Anatolia as an amulet or talisman to ensure fertility.

The reason why the image of a shaman and the tree of souls make one who lies probably in the main function of a shaman: he is responsible for the continuity of generations. If something, like barrenness, threatens the reproduction of life, it is the shaman who binds together the broken thread of life, who brings down a soul from the upper world.

Tree patterns decorated garments of women reaching the age of fecundity. Chinese court ladies of the Tang period wore head dresses with tree decoration introduced by the empresses of the Uyghur origin. The process of cultural integration between China and Central Asia is not limited to the historical period, its roots go back to remote antiquity. In this connection it is worthwhile to mention the subject of one Chinese embroidery (ill. 74, Rudenko, 1968) from the Pazyryk barrow (southern Siberia); phoenixes and pheasants sitting on or flying around the otung tree.

The Chinese poet of the Tang period, Li Bo states that the nature of the phoenixes allows them to live only on the “otung” tree.
As we can see, this statement indicates the presence of some vague ties between trees and birds. Another Chinese author (Li Shih, Chen who lived in the 12th century, was not quite aware of the meaning of the term ”otung”. For some reason, not explaining why, he tied it with the word for ”coffin”, referring to the 3rd century BC lexicon “Er-ya”. The earliest known case of the word “otung” appearing in Chinese sources is dated to the 2nd century AD. In ancient times, the word “otung” was disyllabic and was written in two characters. This means that it was most probably borrowed from some other language [This is the opinion of Prof. Leo Menshikov, a Russian sinologist.] I believe there was some reason for the untraceable association between the words “otung” and”coffin” reflected by ancient authors. We know that Central Asian nomad used to bury their dead below trees and to leave the corpses of children and shamans on trees (Viktorova, 1980, p. 1250). It is possible to suggest therefore that the embroidery from Pazyryk presents “the tree of souls”, its image re-worked beyond recognition by the creative fantasy of the Chinese people.

A clan generation tree of the Namay people from Eastern Siberia.

The "vak-vak" tree

Turkic peoples are also aware of an ethno genetic myth about mankind (Radlov, 1989, p 357) or as a shaman ancestor generating from a tree. The name of the forefather is Odun. In modern Turkish languages, this word means “firewood, log, timber”. In the connection it is tempting to draw a parallel between this name and the name of ”(W)odin, the head of the Scandinavian pantheon. The shamanistic character of this deity is beyond doubt. He is not only closely connected with a tree (he gets the runes after hanging on a tree as a sacrificial offer), he brings back to life the tree prototypes of the first human beings. Rashid al-Din (vol1, part 1, 1952, p. 139) mentions the old legend of a sovereign born of a tree, also that the Kyrgyz people numbered the larch tree among their ancestors, and that one of their tribes was called “modon tree”: (Potomin, vol. 2, 1881, p. 161). The name of one of the rulers of the Huns-Mode is definitely associated with the word “modon tree”. The legend of a sovereign born out of a tree is possibly a vague recollection of the Hunnish ruler, in whose name ethno genetic myths, the tree cult and a real historical personage are merged.

Qashqai rug, 19th century, HALI, Vol. 5, No. 4

Now, let us turn to the “talking trees”. In the past, the peoples of Tuva and Altai ascribed to trees certain human abilities (Traditsionnoye mirovozzreniye tyurkov yutshnoi Sibiri, 1990, pp. 68, 79) Trees, according to their beliefs, were conscious of pain, they slept at night, and they could die as humans. The Turks of the Near East called them “talking trees” (danisan agac). In western scholarly works, they are also mentioned under the name “vak-vak”.. The theme of the vak-vak trees is founded upon the notions of the hunter tribes of Siberia that human souls grown on trees. As for the word, vak, it has originated from the Indo-European “bhag”, meaning “tree, ok”. It is known that the ancient Indo )Aryans worshiped oaks. (the Russian word “Bog” (God) also derives from the same stem.( The Yakut “bagah” is evidently related tot the Inod0Euriopean “bhag and “bak”. “Bagah in the Yakut language has two meanings, “tether and pole, pillar”. A similar word “bakan/bagana” of the Turkish languages has almost the same meaning “pole of the tent” (Potamin, vol IV 1883, p. 14). Both these objects played an important part in the rites of birth and fertility. The tether and the pole are the ritual substitutions of the mythical Tree. Turkish speaking peoples making a sacrifice to their gods used to stretch an animal skin on a tree (pole).

Detail of a Turkmen tent band

The existence of a similar custom among the Tyugo people is testified by Chinese sources. According to Moses Kagankatwatsi, the Huns of the Northern Caucasus sacrificed horses to the Sacred oak. In Asia Minor, this ancient Turkish custom gradually transformed from ritual sacrifice into an amulet. The “vak-vak” tree became a popular decorative pattern in the Near and Middle Eastern art of the Middle Ages; its traces are present even in Ancient Russia. Vak-vak appears on carpets, stones, in jewellery, and crypts. The earliest known case dates to the 11th century, it is a stone mortar from southern Kazakhstan and a silver bracelet from the steppes of south Russia (near Chernigov). Other representations of trees with fruits shaped as human, animal or birds heads appear increasingly from the 12th century, onwards. There is an earthenware hearth from Afrasiab (ancient Samarkand); the vak vak tree on it is very similar to the tree of souls on a shaman’s vestment, on a marble slab from Ghazni. The Bailov stone (Azerbaijan) (Hali, 1983, Vol VI, No. 1, page 3) dates to the thirteenth century. The same subject appears in manuscripts starting from the 14th century in Timurid Iran. The vak vak motif appears on Seljuk toreutics from pre 13th century Khorassan. On carpet, it appears considerably later, approximately in the 16th century. The first known examples come from the court of the Great Moguls.

Detail of a Baluch balisht depticting tree iconography

The spread of this motif is most probably directly connected with the expansion of the Oghuz Turkmen tribes in Central Asia in the 10th century. They brought the notion of the sacred tree to Asia Minor. The tree, as a decorative pattern, appears in all regions settled by Turkic speaking peoples. A characteristic feature of this decoration is that the tree pattern decorated objects are used in marriage rites, including namazliks (prayer rugs, and a part of the bride’s dowry, and that it was embroidered on garments of fecund women (Kocheshkov, 1997, p 79)

Fertility was the principal essence of life of any traditional society. The tree embodies it in the most concentrated form. For that reason the tree functioned as a sacred center not only in mythology but in rituals as well (the prototype of an altar).