Poems from the Turkish Epic
Classes Poems Home Place Personal

Back to the index.

Notes on the Altaic Epic

These notes are only partial. They will give you some background on my version of this material as well as a few notes on specific details.


My friend Gülten Yener translated this material for her Masterīs thesis at Emporia State University in 1965. GGülten worked from a scholarly compilation made by Mustafa N. Sepetcioglu. He combined several epics, mythological stories and other tales. Some of the later material is historical. My selections are from the mythical material.

Sepetciogluīs work is in prose, even when his sources are in verse. GGültenīs translation into English is also in prose, closely following the original. I work from a holograph of her manuscript, which has more vigorous language than the version finally accepted by her thesis committee. I have retained idioms that she translated into English. My version uses free verse lines intended to heighten and emphasize the rhythmic quality of Gltenīs prose translation. I have added section titles and subtitles.

The Creation

The divine Gander flies in Hindu as well as Altaic mythology. He probably flies out of central Asian shamanism. His credentials to be creator are well-established: "The gander is the animal mask of the creative principle, . . . " (48) Heinrich Zimmer says, speaking of Vishnu. Because of this association, I have used the Sanskrit "ham-sa" to represent the sound of the ganderīs wings in flight. There is some justification for this use in Eliadeīs Shamanism, where he points out the morphological similarities between Indo-European myth and Central and North Asian myth (10-11).

Back to the creation story.

God Need Not Fear

The ganderīs loneliness becomes an important motivation to create. Marie Louise Von Franz makes a number of provocative parallels between creation myths and the psychology of creation. She says that being alone allows the unconscious to emerge (119). In this story, the unconscious emerges in the person of Ak-Ana, a female figure who appears from the depths of the water ("Ak-Ana" translates as "White Mother," Yener 268).

Von Franz informs us that in the gnostic myth of Valentinus the feminine stimulates creativity (125-128)-as happens here. But before Ak-Ana appears to urge Kara-han to create, he experiences a disturbance of his calm. The water becomes turbulent and he reassures himself that he "need not fear." The only person who needs such assurance is the one who is afraid. Creation occurs in a context of loneliness, turmoil, and fear.

Historically, we could see here the remnants of a goddess mythology surfacing in this very patriarchal story. Psychologically, as indicated, Ak-Ana personifies the creative unconscious. No wonder Kara-han doesnīt know who she is!

Back to the creation story.

God Kara-han Gets Splashed

To our surprise, God creates, not a world, not stars and sun, not animals and humans, but another gander, his opposite, a double with definite trickster characteristics. Psychologically, Er-kii is Kara-hanīs shadow. Von Franz describes the shadow as motivating creativity from outside the creator (81-82). To continue the application of Jungian terms, if Er-kishi is Kara-hanīs shadow, then Ak-Ana is his anima. Von Franz says that the anima mediates creativity (81); in this myth, the animaīs mediation results in the creation of the shadow.

Thus, Er-kishi is a projection from within Kara-han, while Ak-Ana remains more internal, previous, and mysterious. Ak-Ana is a subjective factor within Kara-han, while Er-kishi is externalized an objective.

As gander, Kara-han is lord of the three realms of air, water and land (Campbell, Transformations 15). Thus far in the story, we have only water by direct reference and air by implication. Through Er-kishiīs intervention, land comes to be. Marie Louise Von Franz describes several Native American creation myths in which birds dive to bring up earth.

"Er-kishi" means "the male one." In Altaic myth, the first being God creates is called the "first man," and Er-kishi has this role in these poems. He also, as is typical, develops into the devil, named Erlik, as we see below (Yener 289, n. 10).

Back to the creation story.

Er-kishi Falls

Erkishiīs fall because of pride and ambition is familiar to readers of Christian mythology. The closeness of Kara-han and Er-kishi is notable. Both ganders have apparently divine abilities, but Kara-han is calm and noble where Er-kii is selfish and rude.

Back to the story of Er-kishi.

Er-kishi Dives

The bird that dives into the cosmic ocean and brings up earth is a common motif in Native American myths (Von Franz 31). This motif displays creation as a very tangible, hands-on act, similar to the second creation narrative in Genesis (which also involves mud, but implies a higher level of craft).

Basing his argument on Christian theology, J. R. R. Tolkien argued that humans are creative because we're made in God's image; Tolkien called humans "secondary creators" (See Tolkien's essay, "On Faery Stories," found in various collections.) Er-kishi turns out to be a secondary creator in a stronger sense than Tolkien meant! But, since Er-kishi is derivative, his creation is nasty. There is a loss of divine power when Kara-han projects his shadow in the creation of Er-kishei.

Back to the story of Er-kishi.

The Tree of Humanity

The nastiness of Er-Kishi's "creation" is redeemed through God's will to creation. Rotten hills rooted in spit become ground for a branching, bright tree.

The world tree, the cosmic axis, related to the cosmic mountain, is found widely in the world's mythology (Yener 291-292). The world tree plays an important role in central and north Asian shamanism. The shaman climbs the Tree to ascend through the heavens; he makes his drum from the wood of the Tree. The Tree stands as the navel of the creation and as the Tree flourishes, so does the creation (Eliade, Shamanism, 269 ff.).

Eliade mentions a mythical tree with seven branches; this poem goes further with its nine branches. Why nine?

In base ten, nine is one short of finishing a sequence; it suggests multiplicity that is not quite complete. In the case of this Tree, the number clearly correlates with the multiple places and peoples of the earth. Rather than one primal couple, as in Genesis, this story has nine primal people—five men and four women. There is, thus, an imbalance in gender. The three eastern men match the three western women. The southern man and the northern balance each other as contrasts. The last woman must choose her direction and therefore her mate. After some dithering, she chooses the souther man. The directional symbolism is clear here: North is evil, south is good.

Back to the story of the fall.

Er-Kishi's Envy

As in Milton's Paradise Lost and much other Christian literature, God's enemy envies God's creatures and wants them. God makes clear that he is in a different category than any of those he created: "we have no brothers; . . . . Out of our voice came all worlds."

Er-kishi asks for half of the people; an impossible request, since there are an odd number of people.

Back to the story of the fall.


In an extended dialogue between Er-kishi and the woman, Ece, we see again her character as chooser. Just as she choose the man of the south branch, so she chooses to believe Er-kishi's deceit, half-truths, and flattery. At this point, she makes only the mistake of telling Er-kishi her and her spouse's names.

"Ece" means "beautiful, bright, and lovely"; "Doganay" refers to the beauty of the new moon (Yener 293). It's probably not too far-fetched to see the Muslim star and crescent prefigured in these two people, especially Doganay as the crescent moon.

Back to the story of the fall.

Double and Dark

After the guardians have driven Er-kishi away from the Tree, we hear a dialogue between Ece and Doganay. He strives to remain faithful while she finds herself unable to resist her appetite for the forbidden fruit.

As in the traditional interpretation of Genesis 3, the Enemy enters the snake, who is there to guard the Tree. God seems to have withdrawn from the seen, and Ece succumbs to temptation.

Back to the story of the fall.

Eating the Fruit

Chaos follows Ece's disobedience. The other people are affected by her crime. Humanity is unitary, or was, until Ece's act brings pain and shame and labor on them. In Genesis, humans aren't scattered until the Tower of Babel; here, they are scattered immediately on disobedience.

Back to the story of the fall.

The Origins of the Turkish People

The epic provides us with a strongly nationalistic account of the origins of the Turkish people. The figure of the bozkurt continues to be an influential symbol in Turkish culture. The epic is geographically specific in naming the mountains Altay and Hulin.

Back to the origin story.

Two People Stand Apart

The deity has a different name here, as does his opponent. God bears several names in this epic. "Kara-han" connotes such meanings as "merciful Khan" and "Black Khan" (Yener 286, n. 2). Eliade characterizes God Ulgen as more involved with humans than Kara-han was; Kara-han fades away, as typical of the first generation of celestial gods (198-199). "Ulgen" means "great one" (Yener 294, n. 41) Erlik, according to Eliade, is the lord of the Underworld. However, as depicted in this narrative and the preceding account of the fall of humanity, Erlik is much more an opponent of God Ulgen, a devil figure (Yener 289, n. 10 and 294, n. 42).

Back to the origin story.

The Parents

"Ay-Atom" means Moon-father; the root "ata" implies a great man or an ancestor, and Ay-Atom becomes the ancestor of the Turks. "Ay-Va" also contains the word for moon. The reference to the moon in both names may reflect the ancient Altaic peoplesī worship of the moon (Yener 295, nn. 50, 51).

The word "hey" is an "exclamation expressing regret, reproach, or admiration" (Yener 290, n. 16).

Sacred Mountains

Altay and Hulin are mountains sacred to the Altaic peoples from whom the Turks descended.

Back to the origin story

The Wolf with the Feathery Mane

Bozkurt is the Turkish national beast—a huge grey wolf with an immense, feathery mane. He originates in the sky and therefore symbolizes purity and force. Unfortunately, in contemporary Turkey, nationalist youth gangs have adopted the bozkurt as their emblem.

Back to the Origin story.

Painting on a baker's paddle, used by permisson of and copyright by Can Göknil.

Painting on a baker's paddle, used by permisson of and copyright by Can Göknil.


  • Campbell, Joseph. The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. Chicago: Henry Regnery Gateway Editions, 1972.

  • _______________. Transformations of Myth through Time. New York: Harper & Row Perennial Library, 1990.

  • Eliade, Mircea. Shamanism: Ancient Techniques of Ecstacy. Princetion University Press, Bollingen Series LXXVI, 1964.

  • Von Franz, Marie-Louise. Creation Myths: Patterns of Creativity Mirrored in Creation Myths. Zurich: Spring Publications, 1972.

  • Yener, Gülten. The Creation and the Procreation: The Turkish Epic in English Translation with an Introduction and Commentary. Unpublished MA theses. Emporia, KS: Emporia State University, 1965.

  • Zimmer, Heinrich. Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Ed. Joseph Campbell. New York and Evanston: Harper Torchbooks, 1962.

Back to the Altaic Epic page

Back to the Poems page.