Mongolian Folklore and Myth in Fantasy

Edit: I have made some adjustments to this article after some feedback from a Mongolian friend.

Something that I have been doing research on for my own work is Mongolian culture and folklore. Mongolian culture, particularly during the times of Genghis Khan, is fascinating and had a profound impact on the modern world. From the unification of much of Asia under the Khans, to the complete destruction of the Khwarezmid Empire, and Genghis Khan’s son knocking on the doors of Central Europe, there is so much to dig into.

Image Credit

For this essay I’ve utilized these resources:

Mongolian Theology

The 3 Layered World and the Creation of Evil

When ancient Mongols laid down at night and looked up at the stars, they did not see constellations, like the Greeks or other western cultures. They saw the fires of hunters in the upper world high above them. Similar to Norse Mythology, according to Mongol folklore, humans inhabit the middle world, while other entities inhabit the lower and the upper worlds. The upper world contained 99 gods (Tngri) that are divided across the sky into Western and Eastern halves. The western Tngri were associated with ‘good’ Tngri while the eastern were viewed as malevolent. One neutral Tngri, Segen is fought over by the other 99 gods and this conflict is the root of evil in humanity. When Segen failed to join the 44 malevolent gods they poisoned his daughter causing him to side with the Western Gods. The ruler of the malevolent Tngri was then cut apart and his parts were sent down to the middle world, where those parts became all things bad.

The lower realm did not play a significant roll in Mongolian folklore until it was fused with the Buddhist idea of hell. Interestingly, the concept of hell in Buriad culture has the same organization as Russian Tsarist bureaucracy, indicating a modern inspiration for these concepts.

While there is a three layered world in Mongolian theology, most of the religious implications of this theology is centered in the middle and upper worlds.

Mongolian Pantheon

In the Mongolian Pantheon, the most prominent gods are the Tngri. They are divided into different groupings, including:

  • Gods of the Four Corners
  • Five Wind Gods
  • Five Gods of the Entrance
  • Five of the Door
  • Five of the Horizontal

Gods of the Mongolian Pantheon

  • Koke Mongke Tengri – dwells in the sky as the Eternal Blue Heaven, highest of all heavenly beings
  • Sulde Tngri – Equestrian God of war. Protects soldiers from mortal enemies. Closely associated with Genghis Khan as the embodiment of Sulde Tngri.
  • Dayisun Tngri: A war god, depicted as a mounted warrior. Sometimes captives were sacrificed to Dayisun Tngri.
  • Qormusta Tngri: King of the 99 Tngri, sometimes associated with Ahura Mazda of Manichaeism or said to be influenced by Brahma or Indra.
  • Segen (Segeen Sebdeg): God of Winter, married to Ugan Sesen and father the Goddess of Spring Season Sesegen Nogoon.
  • Etugen Eke – the Earth Mother and sometimes viewed as a separate dualistic nature of the 99 Tngri (sometimes 77 Tngri). While Tngri determined the fate of people and nations, natural forces yield to Etugen.

Mongolian Folklore

In order to enrich the cultures I write, I think it’s important to know the structure of folk tales from around the world. I’ll share a few stories I enjoyed reading.

The Fox

As I have been doing research, my internet searches have continually brought me back to gutenberg.org for more established documents like the Secret History of the Mongols. These are public domain resources that are so valuable, but what about the less famous, less well known works? Academia.edu has been a revelation for me. In my quest for a deeper understanding of Mongolian folklore, I stumbled upon a Hungarian scholar, Agnes Birtalan from Eötvös Loránd University who has been publishing articles on the topic. One discussed the fox, and how there are many omens associated with the fox in Mongolian Folklore.

The Fox has a great deal of importance in Mongolian Folklore. Foxes are closely connected to misfortune and bad things, especially when it comes to hunting. It should never be the first thing killed on a hunt. One should keep their eyes closed killing a fox, so that the hunter remains anonymous to the fox. Seeing a running fox is heavily connected to misfortune as well. There are even significant rituals in how to deal with body of a fox killed, to ensure that the fox does not have a rebirth.

Demons of Mongolian Folklore

There are many different mythological creatures in Turkic and Mongolian folklore. Spirits that inhabit the realm of humans are one of, if not the most important phenomena in the Mongolian belief system. Most of these creatures are benevolent until a person stops giving offerings. Many of these creatures descending from the upper realm into the realm of humans, where they wander the earth.

A few examples of spirits and demons of Mongolian folklore:

  • Lus – A group of water gods. Generally viewed as beniegn, though can cause illness or death. OFten appear in the form a good dragon and change to a dragon-headed human, or a full human. Lus will be angry if anyone urinates or defecates in bodies of water, which has a strong scientific explanation to prevent infectious disease from spreading via water.
Luus as pictured in the scholarly article Systematization of the Concept of Demonic and Evil in Mongolian Folk Religion, Agnes Birtalan
  • sabdag and nibdag – Mountain Spirits and/or ‘Lord of the Territory’. Usually depicted as zoomorphic and carrying Buddhist iconography
  • Muu shuwuu – ‘harmful bird’ – another zoomorphic demon that’s very dangerous to men and hunters, defined by their bird-like bill.
  • Ada – one eyed spirit that causes sickness and death in women and children
  • mangyus -the embodiment of the enemy, a demon in human form. Sometimes depicted with several heads
Manhyus as pictured in the scholarly article Systematization of the Concept of Demonic and Evil in Mongolian Folk Religion, Agnes Birtalan

Mongolian Influence in the Fantasy Genre

A Song of Ice and Fire – George R.R. Martin

The Khals and Khalasar’s of a Song of Ice and Fire are the most prominent example of a Mongol-like culture in mainstream media. In fact, one of the Mongolian language, Khalkha is abbreviated Khal, and while it’s possible that this is a coincidence, it would seem likely that this was in fact the inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s title. Khals and Khaleesi’s rule a Khalasar of riders on the grass sea. They are horse masters, formidable warriors, and a nomadic people that emulate much of what people of the Eurasian steppes embodied.

Drogo’s Enormous Khalasar – by Tomasz Jedruszek. © Fantasy Flight Games

We Ride the Storm – Devin Madson

The Levanti culture of the plains in We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson is another seemingly Mongolian inspired culture, but after asking the author what resources she leaned on in the creation of this culture, I was surprised to find out that she didn’t. While the Levanti seem to be created in the image of a Mongolian culture, the similarities seem more tangential than anything. I’m very much looking forward to the second book in her Reborn Empire series and hope to see this culture broadened and deepened.

Warrior of the Altaii – Robert Jordan

Before Robert Jordan wrote the fourteen book epic The Wheel of Time, he started out with a much more modest story, Warrior of the Altaii. It was never traditionally published until 2019, 12 years after Robert Jordan’s death. The book follows a barbarian warrior named Wulfgar. This book is written in the vein of Conan the Barbarian. The paralell to Mongolian culture is that the Altaii people are nomadic horsemen. The Altai Mountains (Altay), a mountainous region in western Mongolia, which seems a logical inspiration for Robert Jordan to name this nomadic culture.

The Poppy War – R.F Kuang

In R.F Kuang’s ‘The Poppy War’, the main character Rin meets someone from the ‘Hinterlands’ that not only has a Mongolian inspired name (Qara) but also has special powers that allows her to talk to birds. While I haven’t finished the book yet, the Hinterlanders seem to emulate Mongolian culture quite a bit. To see a Mongolian inspired character with a falcon, or other type of bird very much aligns with my expectation for that character.

How this relates to my writing:

I am currently working on a book called Into the West that includes a plains people that I want to model off of pre-Genghis Khan Mongolian culture as well as plains native American culture. The Kayee people live in camps similar to plains Native Americans, though much of their cultural practices are a derived blend of Mongolian and Native American culture.

I will be following this post with an examination of Native American folklore and religion, particularly plains Native American Peoples like the Lakota and Oglala Sioux, Comanche as well as the Cherokee.

Thanks to Caodu Buren for the corrections to the original post.

Published by writerlarkin

Neuroscience and Research Project Manager background; deep passion for all things fantasy and writing and mythology!

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