I was born in Ankara and raised in Istanbul, which are considered to be the biggest cities in Turkey. Nature always felt like something “outside”, something far away from me. After coming to Japan, I was amazed how nature was “accessible” to everyone. If it is a cherry blossom season people would go “hanami” (viewing flowers). This was a concept that was not familiar to me. I was asked by Wendy to write about stories on trees or forest in Turkey. Nothing came to my mind really. I knew Turkic people used to be Shamanist, so there has to be something. After searching, I found this whole culture on trees and forests for Turkic people. It was a learning experience for me so I hope the readers will be learning new things that they did not know as well.
Going back to Turkish folklore and stories surrounding nature, it is hard to deny the impact of Turkish shamanist culture. Although it is not very well known or talked about, Turks used to practice a Shaman religion called Tengrism, worship of Tengri the Sky God. Among the worship of the sky, other aspects of nature were also worshiped, such as the trees. Some called it “Tree Worshipping”, which is not only special to Tengrism (mind that Tengrism is a religion not only practiced by Old Turks but also Mongols) but worshipping trees is widely practiced in the world. The fact that worshipping trees is not specific to Old Turks or Mongols but a typical practice for many cultures tells a lot about how nature was perceived by the people.
As we find more about Turkish mythology, the “tree” plays a significant role as an explanation of the creation of the world and the human, embodiment of the god, and motifs for important folk stories such as Dede Korkut. Though the tree is said to be an essential part of Turkish mythology the lack of literature written on it makes it really contradictory. Tree of Life (Yaşam Ağacı) and The Cult of the Tree (Ağaç Kültü) are two concepts that often come with Turkish mythology, so in the next paragraphs I will focus on them.
The Cult of the Tree (Ağaç Kültü)
In Turkish mythology, the people were created by the tree and the holy tree is the way to find God. The holy tree according to Turkish mythology is also the description of the sky god Tengri. The holy trees should be “one”, does not shed leaves, is long, wide and old, is not a fruit tree, and has dark shadows. The Cult of the Tree can be traced in stories such as Uyghur’s story of Toquz Oghuz’s creation, Old Turk’s Epic of Oghuz Khagan, and Turkish folktales of Dede Korkut.
For Shamanist Turks, especially the beech tree was considered to be holy. These shamans would do their ceremonies under the beech tree and they would want their relatives to be near to the beech tree. There is also the belief that birth and trees are closely related. For example, when a new child is born, a tree will be planted. Since trees and forests are an important part of the Old Turks’ beliefs it is important to talk about the Tree of Life.
Tree of Life (Yaşam Ağacı)
Tree of Life is a figure that existed in many cultures not only in Turkish culture. Hittite and Assyrian cultures along with Christianity, Judaism, and Islam also describe the Tree of Life in their teachings.
In Turkish mythology, the tree of life is thought to bring three universes (heaven, hell, and earth) together. The tree was given the role to regulate people’s lives and create relationships with society. Tree of Life is singular and it is a tree separated by the other trees. Some stories suggest that Turks were born from this tree and since the tree is reaching out through the sky, Turks believed that the God of the Sky, Tengri, existed at the top of that tree.
For Eurasians, the Tree of Life had connections with women. It is said that “the upper part of the tree is female and the bottom is a tree”. Referring to other mythological characters such as the ancient goddess Cibele in Anatolia, for Turkish culture these figures have an implication to abundance, fertility, and infinity. Therefore, it is thought that the Tree of Life in this sense signifies women’s infinity and continuity of life.
Even today, there are many references to the Tree of Life in Turkey. For example the phrase: “ kuş gibi uçup gitti aramızdan” (They flew like a bird) suggested that someone passed away which is still a common expression in some areas in Turkey. In Shaman culture bird symbolizes as an aid for people to the afterlife and it is usually visualized on the top of the Tree of Life. Also Turkish Republic Ministry of Culture and Tourism and 5 cent on Turkish Lira embodies the Tree of Life as their symbol.
For Old Turks, trees were used to explain the creation of the people and they were considered to be holy. In Turkey, it is required for us to read folk stories from around that period, but I don’t really remember us reading and talking about the importance of trees for the Turkish culture. The fact that planting a tree when someone is born or rituals such as wishing abundance by tying our wishes to a tree when Spring comes are of course not unfamiliar. It can be seen that after the adoption of Islam as the main religion, the rituals did not die out but altered in a way. A sign these rituals are deeply rooted, like a tree.
Ağaç, Saliha, and Menekşe Sakarya. 2005. “Hayat Ağacı Sembolizmi.” International Journal of Cultural and Social Studies 1-14.
Arslan, Seher. 2014. “Türklerde Ağaç Kültü ve Hayat Ağacı.” International Journal of Social and Educational Sciences 59-71.
Ergun, M . (2004). Türk Ağaç Kültü İnancının Dede Korkut Hikayelerindeki Yansımaları . Türk Dili Araştırmaları Yıllığı – Belleten , 46 (1998/1) , 71-80 . Retrieved from https://dergipark.org.tr/en/pub/belleten/issue/45034/561477
ÖZARSLAN, Metin. 2003. “TÜRK KÜLTÜRÜNDE AĞAÇ VE ORMAN KÜLTÜ.” Türkbilig 94-103.
Korkmaz, Z . (2006). Eski Türklerdeki Ağaç Kültünün İslami Devirlerdeki Devamı . Türk Dili Araştırmaları Yıllığı – Belleten , 51 (2003/1) , 99-110 . Retrieved from https://dergipark.org.tr/en/pub/belleten/issue/45321/566584