All about the Khazars' multiple religions and history:
Click here to explore the book


by Kevin Alan Brook

      The article "The Religious Beliefs of the Khazars" by Richard A. E. Mason appeared in the Winter 1995 issue (Volume 51, Number 4) of The Ukrainian Quarterly, on pages 383-415. Throughout the article, Mason informs readers about the original religion of the Turkic Khazar people by drawing upon a wide array of informative sources. Although Mason asserts that Judaism was for the most part limited to the rulers, the information provided in his essay does not necessarily chronologically contradict with the notion that the Khazars' religion changed sometime in the 9th century. But Mason is correct to say "The apposition of peoples and cultures led, in the short-run, to a blossoming of both material and spiritual culture among the Khazars. It also formed the basis for the remarkable symbiosis of varying systems of religious belief and practise which held sway and formed so unique a characteristic of the Khazar state throughout its whole history, accompanying it right down to its tragic fall. The religious beliefs current amongst the inhabitants of the Khazar state were as many and varied as these peoples themselves." (page 387) Mason is careful to point out the existence of Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Paganism, and Shamanism in the Khazarian realm.

      Among the Turkic Khazars specifically, as opposed to the Rus, Goths, Alans, etc., the original religion was a blend of nomadic shamanism and the Tengri cult, and not strict monotheism. It was "like [that of] the Turks" according to Dimashqi (page 388). Deities in the old Turkic belief system, acting as protective entities (see page 389-390 footnote #17), included:
1. Tengri, or Tangri -- a ruler of the heavens. The Turks believed that the supernatural Tengri was responsible for the installation of their Kagans and the preservation of justice. Some rulers were called "tangritag" or "tangrikan" which means "like Tangri", in other words "heavenly". Tangri gave these rulers wisdom (bilig) and strength (küch). Tängri as a title actually could consist of two divine co-sovereigns, called Türk Tängri and Öd Tängri.
2. Ärklig -- a name meaning "strength", "authority", or "prowess in the field". Ärklig was believed to be connected with military affairs of Turkic tribes.
3. Yir-Sub, or Yir (Yär) and Sub -- divine twins who rule over the earth and water, who can speak in unison (some authors write of them as a singular, others as a plural).
4. Umay -- female goddess whose name means "placenta". Associated in some way with Yir-Sub, though as Mason indicates (page 394) her exact function is unclear.

      On page 396 Mason gives a comparative chart derived from Omeljan Pritsak's book The Origin of Rus', showing parallels between the Vedic Indian, Old Norse, and Old Turkic pantheons of gods and goddesses. He then states that it is possible (though not certain) that this is due to early interactions between Indo-Europeans and Turks.

      As for the shamanistic aspect of the old Turkic religion, it generally involves shamans who enter trance-like states to attempt to "enter into direct and immediate contact with beings in the spirit realm in order to effect various wishes." (page 397) One of the shamanistic practices of the Turks that the Khazars had adopted was the method of installing a new ruler. The ceremonial strangulation of a newly-elected ruler caused this ruler to enter "a state of unconsciousness short of death" so that "he might become a medium for the receipt and communication of oracles." (page 397) In the case of the Blue-Sky (Kök) Turks, the new kagan was elevated on a felt blanket and spun 9 times, in a manner related to the induction of new shamans. In the case of the Magyars, following the example of Khazar custom, a new ruler was elevated upon a shield.

      Next, Mason focuses in on the specific practices of the Khazars and North Caucasian Huns.

      Mason writes:

"For example, the Syriac chronicle of the so-called | Pseudo-Dionysius of Tell-Mahrê, the author reports under the year 1042, i.e., A.D. 730/731, that the Turkic Khazars are a race without a god, that they are, in fact, Magians, though the author here likely means «heathen,» rather than the Zoroastrian magoi of Persia, though a certain number of Zoroastrian proselytes were settled in Daghestan by Khûsro I. in the sixth century. Under the year 1043, i.e., A.D. 731/732, though likely to be dated prior to 730, the same author records that the Christian prince Maslama struck a treaty with the Turkic Khazars, in which the parties swore on the name of God that neither would engage in border violations of the other's territory, but «the Turks, who do not know God, who do not know God, who do not understand that they are His creatures, who do not agree that there is a God in Heaven, did not hold their promises.»" (pages 399-400)

      History of the Caucasian Albanians by Movses Dasxuranc'i is a useful source of information on the religion of the North Caucasian Huns (who paid tribute to the Khazars and whose kaghan Alp had been given the title el-teber from a Khazar ruler), and we may assume as Mason does that "at the point in time in question, the usages of the Khazars must have closely approximated those of the Huns." Movses names the Hunnic deity T'angri Xan as a "wild, gigantic monster" and also refers to a deity called K'uar. The Huns sacrificed animals (including those struck by lightning) to K'uar. K'uar therefore is often considered to be the "heat" or "thunder" god. Trees were worshipped for the reason that they were believed to be connectors between earth and heaven. Climbing a tree meant ascending nearer to heaven. As part of funeral rites, the Huns would scar their faces and limbs, sword-fight, wrestle, gallop on horseback, and engage in similarly reckless activities.

      Movses' account describes the successful attempt of the Albanian Christian bishop Israyel in the 680s to reform the Huns by destroying their previous belief system. After winning support for Christianity among top Hunnic rulers, Israyel destroyed altars to Tängri and cut down a large oak tree which had been venerated by all the Huns and used it to construct a Christian cross, and the Hunnic kaghan Alp required the Tangri priests to give up their "magic cubes", i.e. amulets that represented supernatural power. On page 413 Mason points out that these "magic cubes" might be rain-stones, believed to induce rainfall. Tabarî wrote a legend wherein the Khazars learned the magic of rain-making in Khwarizm (page 415). Additionally, Mason notes the following: "Another report of Tabarî, which has been taken up by other authors, states that the Khazars, having recovered the mortal remains of the Arab commander 'Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabî'a al-Bâhilî or of his brother, Salmân, from the field after the Battle of Balanghar in A.D. 653, laid it in a coffin, by which they were able to invoke rain and other succour in time of need «to this day.» Another author, Balâdurî, who quotes Tabarî, also excerpts verses of a certain Ğumâna al-Bâhilî, who sang that there was, in his day, a grave extant near Balanghar, which, when certain prayers were recited before it, «caused the corn-ears to be watered.»" (page 415)

      Mason adds: "That the Khazars, too, venerated the same «pantheon,» is amply apparent from other sources. The Persian author Amîn Ahmad Râzî, in his Haft iqlîm ("The Seven Climates"), composed at the end of the sixteenth century, says that the religion of the Khazars holds «the day and the night, the wind and the rain, the earth and the heavens [to be] objects of devotion, but the god of the heavens is greater than the others.» Amîn used the works of Ibn Fadlân as a source and in the works of the latter, a similar passage is to be found regarding the Baškirs, a tribe still resident on the Ufa, east of the territory of the Bulgars of the Volga and Kama." (page 404) The passage from Ibn Fadlan is quoted on page 405.

      As archaeology has shown, in Khazaria the Turkic inhabitants created many amulets which could be interpreted as shamanistic. Mason says: "In sites attributed to the so-called Saltovo or Mayaki cultural complex, many amulets of bone or of dogs' or wolves' teeth have been unearthed. The most common motif is the solar body, though, particularly in the territory covered by the Khazar Qaghanate, amulets representing various animal forms are quite common." (page 405)

      In the following section, Mason cites from Byzantine sources that apparently refer to a Khazarian "dogh" or "yogh"; that is, a feast or celebration held at a funeral: "Theophanes, who based his work on a now lost sources [sic] dating to the year 713, reports that, upon the death of the Khazar tudun, an officer of lower rank, of Kherson human sacrifices were carried out. The tudun seems to have been held as an hostage in Constantinople and, apparently as a gesture of good will, had been set free by the Emperor Justinian II. in 711 and sent back to Kherson. As a further mark of honour, the Emperor provided an escort of 300 Byzantine soldiers. Upon their arrival in Kherson, however, both the tudun and his escort seem to have been taken prisoner by the citizens of Kherson and bound over to the Khazar Qaghan. When, on their way to the Qaghan's court the tudun unexpectedly died, the Khazars put the entire 300-man escort to death at the time of the tudun's doğa.... The practise of uman sacrifice at funerals was not a specifically Turkic phenomenon, but was a feature of the funeral rites of many steppe peoples, being known from the days of the Scyths, as Herodotus testifies. Nevertheless, the Altaic peoples differ from the Indoeuropeans in the spiritual background of such acts. Whereas, the reported acts of human sacrifice among the Khazars represent the slaughter of enemy prisoners, those among the Slavs and other Aryan races tend to include elements of voluntary participation on the part of the victim in the sacrificial rite." (page 407) Mason indicates that the victims in the year 711 likely "came to be looked upon not merely as messengers to the spirit world but rather as a corps of retainers for the deceased, who should accompany and serve him in the world beyond. The horses would serve as the stock, whence a new herd would arise." (page 409)

      Mason also includes a section on the familiar story told in Ibn Fadlan's account of how the Khazarian khagans were buried in one of 20 houses (i.e. funeral huts) and how those that buried the khagans were beheaded "so that no one might know in which house the Qaghan was buried." (page 409)

      There follows some other references to various forms of burial among the Rus, Scythians, and Turks. One of the useful references is the following sentence: "According to the anonymous Persian «Mughmal at-tawârîh», composed around 1126, in the section on the history of the Japhetides (to which group the Khazars are assigned), the Khazars also practised cremation, though, at an earlier period, they are said to have disposed of their dead by casting the corpses into the rivers. In an empire of such extent and ethnic diversity, it is none unlikely that several modes of burial may have long subsisted side by side." (page 410)

      According to the Vita S. Constantini, the Khazars circa the year 860 "know of only one god [Tangri], who rules over all, and we bow to him, turning toward the East." (page 411)

      On page 412, Mason writes that "Ibn Rusta, Istaḥrî, Ibn Hauqâl and other Islamic authors, for example, speak of pagans among the Khazars well into the tenth century." but quotes from Al-Masudi: "When it comes to the pagans in this land [i.e., the Khazar empire], they belong to several races, among them the Saqâliba and the Rus." Then Mason writes: "Istaḥrî, or his source, assert that the class (ahlâq) of the pagans was, in fact, the largest, mentioning that, after the custom of the heathen, the people would cast themselves on the ground before eachother. It is possible, however, that Istaḥrî, as Mas'ûdi before him, is including the Rûs and the Saqâliba in the numbers of the heathen. These pagans are also said to have been the members of the Khazar society who sold their children into slavery, belonging, so it would seem to the poorer classes." Thus I would say that it is clear that Mason's statements reflect the fact that the pagans were not necessarily Turkic Khazars, but mainly Slavs and Rus and other groups. Thus, such statements, as I have said previously (in the first edition of The Jews of Khazaria on page 139), do not contradict the notion that the Khazars converted in large numbers to Judaism by the 10th century.

      Mason's article is an example of superb scholarship and clarity in writing. It illuminates obscure aspects of the old Khazar way of life (rain-making, human sacrifices, cremation, etc.) that are not adequately covered in other works. Furthermore, it puts well-known facts (such as the chambers of the dead kagan, and the customs surrounding the installation of a new kagan) into a proper context.

  • The Gods of the Turks
  • The Traditional Religious Beliefs and Practices of Ancient Turks

  • Animal and Shaman: Ancient Religions of Central Asia by Julian Baldick
  • The Shaman's Coat: A Native History of Siberia by Anna Reid
  • Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade
  • Practical Shamanism, A Guide for Walking in Both Worlds by Katie Weatherup
  • Shamanism As a Spiritual Practice for Daily Life by Thomas Dale Cowan
  • The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition by Roger Walsh
  • An Introduction to the History of Khazaria
  • Medieval Quotes About Khazar Judaism
  • The Kuzari's References to the Khazar Conversion to Judaism
  • Some Khazars Professed Christianity
  • Bibliography of Khazar Studies, 1901-Present - Section 6: Religious Practices and Influences in Khazaria

  • Homepage