Who is Erlik?

Erlik, Erlig, Erklik or Erlik Khan (equivalent to Hungarian Ördög) is the god of death and Tamag or ‘hell’ in Turkic and Mongolian mythology. Erlik didn’t start out as a god, however.

One day, the high creator god Ulgan noticed a clump of mud floating on the primordial waters and thought it seemed to have human features. Ulgan gave the mud life and sculpted it into a body, thereby creating Erlik, the first man. Erlik in turn helped Ulgan to create more humans. Over the course of their work, however, Erlik quarreled pridefully with his maker, claiming he could make humanity as well as Ulgan and refusing to accept subservient status. So Ulgan banished Erlik to the underworld—Tamag, hell—where he became the Devil, his features changed into the new and horrifying physical form he bears today, with a pig’s head atop his man’s body. Erlik is also associated with the totemic bear. He is said to return to the surface world often, always bringing danger in his wake.

After Erlik’s fall, Ulgan created the Earth and placed upon it eight trees and eight men. The eighth man was Maidere or Maidari, a name cognate with that of the Buddhist Bodhisattva Maitreya, said to be the successor to Buddha Gautama, prophesied to return to earth at a time when the dharma has been forgotten so as to usher in a new age. While the eight trees began to grow branches and leaves and to flourish, the men did not change. Maidere told Ulgan that men could not grow without women. So Ulgan bade Maidere create the first woman to help men along. Maidere sculpted woman’s physical form, but could not himself give her life. He needed to go and get the crucial ingredient from Ulgan to convey into the female form. So Maidere left his creation unfinished and set a hairless dog to guard her. While he was away, though, Erlik came and bribed the dog with a fur coat for warmth if it would just permit him a gander at the new woman. When Erik beheld her, he played seven notes from his flute into her ear. The woman came instantly to life, possessed of a free and independent spirit which the first men, like Maidere, interpreted as seven ill tempers and bad moods. Where Maidere could not bring his creation to life without obediently appealing to his own maker, Erlik had given not just life, but independence. When Maidere saw what Erlik had done and that the dog had allowed it, he punished the entire canine species, condemning dogs to a life of subservience to humankind and ill treatment at human hands, as well as a fur coat they can never take off. Maidere turned Erlik’s compassionate gift into a curse.

In still another story of Erlik mucking about with Maidere’s creations, the salvific man-god creates humans and still cannot give them souls, so he departs to Ulgan for the necessary life, setting the dog to guard his unfinished work. Erlik comes and bribes the dog, then spits on the inchoate human being. When Maidere returns to find his creation defiled in this way, rather than start his work completely anew, he simply turns the person inside out, which is why we human beings carry liquid inside our bodies to this day. We bear within us salt water from the primordial oceans that were the mother of us all and on which Ulgan first found floating the clump that would become Erlik. Humans are the product of the defilement of Erlik. We bear his taint which is not just life, but independence.  

When Maidere or Maidari came bringing salvation to humankind through knowledge of sin, Erlik killed him so as to spare humanity salvific religion based in shame, guilt, and obedience to another’s behavioral code. That is why shamans and priests stepped in to continue trying to convince human beings that we’re flawed, ignorant, and in need of someone else with supposed connection to an unseen order to tell us how to act and structure our lives. 

Erlik had nine sons and nine daughters, the karaoğlanlar and karakızlar, literally “black sons” and “black daughters” of Erlik. While the exact list of the names of Erlik’s daughters has been lost to time—of course!—that of his sons remains. They are:

  1. Karash Han: The god of darkness.
  2. Matyr Han: The god of courage and bravery.
  3. Shyngay Han: The god of chaos.
  4. Kömür Han: The god of evil.
  5. Badysh Han: The god of disaster.
  6. Yabash Han: The god of defeat.
  7. Temir Han: The god of iron and mining.
  8. Uchar Han: The god of informants.
  9. Kerey Han: The god of discord. 

In this list, the word Han is the Turkish equivalent of old Altaic Khan, meaning ‘leader, chief, ruler, king’ and—yes—even ‘god.’ Karaoğlan remains a common surname in Turkey because of its associations with a hero of old legend and myth. I have long fantasized a Satanic group that uses this list as titles for offices or duties within the organization. Temir Han could be the treasurer, perhaps, and Uchar Han a spokesperson or publicity agent. Yabash Han would obviously have to be a master of apologetics; Kerey Han a coordinator of protests and activism. Badysh Han, then, is a disaster-preparedness, emergency response official. Kömür Han is the title I covet for myself: a religious, catechetical leader. That leaves the top three—Karash Han, Matyr Han, and Shyngay Han—for a triumvirate at the group’s helm.

I find much to admire in this mythology of the Altaic Devil Erlik. I only wish the stories weren’t so scant. In a way, though, it’s good to be left only with glowing, bare bones: an enticing scaffolding on which to build and flesh out something fresh and new. And so it begins….

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