work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

Tengri, Ti’en and the Geese of Creation

02.19.2015 · Posted in Uncategorized

This is a random association triggered by learning that the old Turkic word for “sky” and “god” Tengri (the origin of the Turkish term Tanrı – often preferred by Anatolian Sufis) and the Chinese ti’en, meaning the same, may share an etymology.

I found two snippets from either tradition involving geese – and they are both about creation and creativity. I don’t know what to make of them yet, but it strikes me that in combination they contain the main recurrent themes of mythical and religious reflections on creativity and creation: parenthood, tricksterism, mirroring, metaphor. I’m not religious and don’t believe in a divine source of creativity, but if I’m right in doing so then such stories must be read as reflections on human creativity. The two accounts stand in an interesting tension between creative intention and planned action on the one hand and non-intentionality, accidental occurrences, pure reflections of natural processes on the other. In the first, shamanistic, account of the creation of the world by sky-god Tengri we have a creative urge – but that then is interferred with by a trickster figure whom, crucially, Tengri himself created. In the second, poetic, account we have a reflection on a… reflection – an accidental occurrence which, and this I think is overlooked in the interpretation that comes with it, is reflected in an intentional creative act, namely the writing of a poem.

Here is the old Turkic creation myth:

‘The great white Goose Tengri (Tengri Ülgen) flew over the primordial waters (Time). At the urging of the White Mother below he began to create. First, in his loneliness, he created Er Kishi, a devil-like figure who supposedly would help the creator. Er Kishi undermined the creation, however, and Tengri Ülgen left to remain in Heaven, where from he sent sacred animals to guide the people had created. Shamans made their way to the fifth heaven to consult with the divine spirits’ (Leeming 2010: 267)

I find the way the motif of the trickster is introduced here intriguing: Tengri is lonely and needs a creative companion. This loneliness and yearning of the creator resonates with Sufi philosophy – as explained here with reference to Ibn Arabi by Henry Corbin – where all starts with

a Divine Being alone in His unconditioned essence, of which we know only one thing: precisely the sadness of the primordial solitude that makes Him yearn to be revealed in beings who manifest Him to Himself insofar as He manifests Himself to them (Corbin 1969: 184)

The creator here seeks to be reflected – with humans acting as his mirrors. Here is how Rumi renders the Hidden Treasure metaphor that commonly is used to illustrate this yearning:

حق گفتش اى مردِ  زمان گنجى بُدم من در نهان
جستم كه تا  پيدا شَوَد آن گنج  احسان و عطا
آىٔينه كردم عيان رويش دل و پشتش جهان

‘God said to him: O temporal man, I was a hidden treasure / I sought that that treasure of loving kindness and bounty should be revealed / I displayed a mirror – its face the heart, its back the world’ (Nicholson 1952: 15)

Which leads over to the reflection by Chang Chung-yan that, to come full circle, also involves geese, and the sky (ti’en):

‘The following Chinese verse from the eighth century may help us to gain some insight into the nature of reflection:

The wild geese fly across the long sky above.

Their image is reflected upon the chilly water below.

The geese do not mean to cast their image on the water;

Nor does the water mean to hold the image of the geese.

This little poem is a metaphor for the idea of reflection as creativity. When the geese fly above the water, they are free of any intention of casting their image upon it, even as the water has no intention of reflection their flight. But it is at this moment that their beauty is most purely reflected. In this instant of reflection time is space and space is time. They merge at one absolute point, the point from which all beauty, all that is created, arises. Our minds are simply God’s mirror, reflecting the “here-now” of creation. Such, according to the Taoist, is the process of creation. But this creative reflection can only be understood through private intuition.’ (Chung-yuan 1970: 57)

As I said – creative intention is non-thematic here. Things just happen and they happen to leave a trace. But the act of observing and recording then becomes a creative act. So while straightforward intention (in the first account) needs to be broken by interference to introduce an element of unintended outcomes, the non-intentional emergence of beauty needs to be infused with a minimum of intentionality…

Chung-yuan, Chang (1970): Creativity and Taoism: A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry, New York: Harper.

Corbin, Henry (1969) Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Leeming, David Adams (2010): Creation Myths of the World: An Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara, Cal.: ABC-CLIO.

Nicholson, R. A. (1952) Selected Poems from the Dīvāni Shamsi Tabrīz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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