Myths from Central Asia to Anatolia
Images from the Creation Myths of the Turks
This text is from the catalogue published by Yapı Kredi Art Galleries
for Can Göknil exhibitions in Istanbul, Izmir and Adana in 1997.
The questions of how the universe, the world, or people came into being
have been asked over and over again everywhere. People need to know where
they have come from in order to establish or protect a way of life or
to give meaning to birth and to death. The result has been the appearance
of a variety of beliefs concerning creation. These beliefs, transformed
into tales, have led to the development of creation mythologies. Some
primitive peoples believed that they originated from eggs, from animals,
from endless water, or from the four elements. In many cases, a deity
created humans to serve it, shaping them from mud, drying them in the
sun, and instilling them with life. In this way the deity was spared its
divine loneliness and also acquired someone to help it perform mundane
deeds. Eventually the people enrage the gods and in their anger, the gods
create a flood to wipe them out. A man by the name of Ziusudra in Sumerian
mythology or Uta-napishtim in the Babylonian (who is better known to us
as Noah) gathers the living creatures aboard ships during the flood and
thus people managed to save themselves from this disaster. In an Altai
legend, seven divine brothers wishing to rescue themselves from the flood
build a ship. After the storm, Kara Han shapes human beings from mud that
has collected amongst the rocks and then ascends to the heavens to acquire
souls for them. In his absence, his evil brother Erlik Han spits upon
the human beings that Kara Han fashioned and besmirches them. Because
of this, people are both good and evil. The dichotomy of good versus evil
is something that has always existed in human beliefs.
In primitive societies, wisdom yields to imagination. Natural events are
interpreted and explained with a childlike innocence. Beliefs are multi-colored.
These are the reasons that I chose "Creation" as the subject of my exhibition.
The creation mythoi concerning the Turks that I came across as I researched
this subject in libraries I have interpreted for this exhibition in wood
and lead, in acrylics on canvas, and in monochrome or hand-colored engravings.
To prepare the eighty or so works that were displayed at the Yapı Kredi
Kazım Taşkent Art Gallery in İstanbul in January 1997, I spent three years
of intensive but entertaining research.
According to these early beliefs, Creation usually takes place in three
stages. In the first, there is nothing but a void. In the second, a universe
is brought into being. The third is a time of struggle. The conflict between
good and evil takes place on three levels: Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld.
In ancient Turkish beliefs, Tangri (God) Kara Han is a pure, white goose
that flies constantly over an endless expanse of water (time). From beneath
the water Ak Ana ("White Mother") calls out to him saying "Create". To
overcome his loneliness, Kara Han creates Er Kishi, who is not as pure
or as white as he is. Together they set up the world. Er Kishi becomes
the lord of the Underworld and strives to mislead people and draw them
into its darkness. Kara Han assumes the name Tangri Ulgen and withdraws
into Heaven from which he tries to provide people with guidance through
envoys and sacred creatures that he sends among them. The Ak Tangris occupy
the fifth level of Heaven. Shaman priests who want to reach Tangri Ulgen
never get further than this level, where they convey their wishes to the
divine envoys. Returns to earth or to the human level take place in a
Lesser divinities called Yer-Su dwell in the land, mountains, and riverbanks.
They have undertaken the duty of protecting people against Erlik Han,
however their power is limited to the river or mountain where they live.
Shamanism is a system of belief common to the Turks of Central Asia. Both
men and women could be shaman priests and among old Turkish groups they
were called "Kam". Kams dressed in elaborate garments to display their
supernatural powers. Accompanied by the beating of drums in their rituals,
they believed they could fly with the aid of their own guardian animal.
During such flights they reached various levels of Heaven or the Underworld.
Upon returning to this world, they used the information they had learned
during their journey for the benefit of their followers.
Molybdomancy, a form of spell-casting in which molten lead is dropped
into water, is a holdover of these shamanistic beliefs. This is why I
have used lead as a material in my works dealing with shamanistic themes.
The Tree of Life is one of the loveliest motifs to come from Central Asian
beliefs. According to the Altai Turks, human beings are descended from
trees. The Gokturks believe that we are descended from wolves. The Uigurs
combine the two themes in their belief. According to the Yakuts of northern
Siberia, Ak Ana sits at the base of the Tree of Life, whose branches reach
to the heavens where it is occupied by various creatures that have come
to life there. According to the Mamluks, human beings were created from
the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. God shaped people from
mud and dried them in the sun. The first man was named Ay-Atam and the
first woman Ay-va Hatun. In the course of time, the pair had forty children.
Tangri Ulgen's helpers are a female owl and a tail-less dog. Because Tangri
Ulgen baked the first people in the sun, I painted Ay-Atam and his family
on wooden baker's paddles.
Ancient peoples also had many ideas about the world and its condition.
In one belief, the world is carried in the arms of a guardian angel. According
to some, the angel is riding on an ox that has forty legs and a multitude
of horns. The ox in turn stands on a brilliantly-glowing green stone which
is on the back of a fish named Lusiya. In some frequently-encountered
versions, the world rests directly on the back of the ox.
In depicting creation myths, I have tried to combine my motifs with the
archaeological finds of the locality and period. My journey of investigating
the beliefs of our ancestors took me from Central Asia to Anatolia. And
as I pursued it I discovered a joy and exuberance of creation that I have
interpreted in a contemporary and original way and offered to the public
through the medium and convenience of the visual arts in the form of this
exhibition with the hope of strengthening our cultural identity a little