c’est la vie

when they first eager asked me
about my religious persuasion
i must admit i was quite
tempted to wholly confess

i am a devotedly impenitent christian
a heartily unmerciful muslim
a fiercely monotheist hindu
and a slothfully unobservant jew

i am the most impatient buddhist
you may ever encounter
an egregiously unimaginative shaman
a chaotically imbalanced animist

shamelessly i imbibe a fruity wine
and guzzle a heady dark beer
and don’t even get me started
on the joys of a good schnitzel

in polite company i smiling strive
to maintain a decency i lack
while counterfeiting a selfless demeanor
that i do truly abhor

when i with heartiest aspiration
your hand in mine do take
or a kiss to your cheek convey
beware of my roaming hands

cross me and i with callous calm
will curse the day of your birth
not unlike how frequently i have
found cause to curse my own

truth be told
when it comes to piety
i’m a bit crap
c’est la fecking vie



i know, it is not for me to say
save by the barest fault
of my conspicuous humanity
bowing before marble altars
embedded with fragile bone

these well disciplined affirmations
so bereft of honest intent
decree god’s hollow victory
more than divine declarations
and inflated parish rolls

in the aisles of kirks shuffling humbly
over carpeted mosques bowing modestly
yet sauntering through the streets
mulling over munificent gestures
mincing every well-advertised charity

while in tomb-like concealment
cementing these mortal bonds
degenerative organs frantically copulate
seething in copious want
moaning overzealous praise

the prophylactic vision of one
is surely as appalling
as the permissivity of the other—
together have you denuded passion
of its honest innocence

what answer can a man offer:
to hell with your fumbling chastisements
enough of your lascivious breath
bearing down on fearful hearts
stifling the harmony of flesh and soul

pressed against the well-worn tiles
within each house of god
the aching knees of submissive man
do bear far greater weight
than his heart ever has

Salt Lake City 03 Feb 2013

perched in pews

such solely syllabic utterances
queued perfect to a finite form
sacrificing meaning for intent

mouths agape saying naught
mimicking decrepit miters
who preach dismally of dust

hair woven tight as shrouds
fearful of allowing a breath
to escape the clotted confines

clever these woolly lambs
these happy flocks of flotsam
floating on a sea of tranquility

hairy ears impatient pricked
preening serenely their undoubted
salvation these bishop babes

breasts expanding engorged
on your all-hallowed humility
which admittedly you wear so well

how joyful it must be, my dears
to know that you are blessed
and ever so much appreciated

Çeşme, Turkey 23 July 2012

Alevilik: An Introduction to the Alevis of Turkey and Beyond

Arriving at a universally acceptable definition or description of Alevilik, even among the academic community who approach this issue with less bias than the average lay person, has proven virtually impossible due to the ethnic, linguistic, regional, and doctrinal differences between divergent communities living inside and outside of Turkey, all of whom identify themselves more or less as Alevis.  One of the more remarked upon aspects of Alevilik, which itself gives rise to this confusion of identity (or may be seen as an attempt to explain the apparent disparities in Alevilik), is its syncretic nature.  Alevilik has been variously defined as a synthesis of “Sunni and Shi‘i beliefs and Muslim and Christian practices” (Aringberg-Laanatza 152), or as a fusion of Central Asian paganism, Persian Shi‘ism, and Anatolian mysticism.  Çamuroĝlu defines Alevilik as a “syncretistic belief structure, which shows strong traces of gnosticism” (1998, 79), and remarks that large numbers of Alevis may be found outside of Turkey today.  In April 2000 a team from Gazi University’s Turkish Culture and Hacı Bektaş Veli Research Center produced a documentary film on diverse Alevi communities from no less than 13 different countries outside of Turkey: Iran, Türkmenistan, Özbekistan, Kazakistan, Azerbaycan, Bulgaria, Greece, Rumania, Hungary, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo (Aydın).

Another form of distinction remarked upon by scholars concerns which form or focus of Alevilik that Alevis choose to pursue today.  So, for instance, Çamuroĝlu (1998) has identified three major trends in her work among Alevis: 1) political Alevis, who are intent on seeing Alevilik as a secular political ideology, 2) traditionalist Alevis, who demand a return to the true (heterodox, syncretic) Alevilik, and 3) Islamist Alevis, who seek to redefine Alevilik in orthodox Islamic terms, pointing out that Ali, after all, followed the five pillars of Islam.  Bilici, in contrast, has identified four branches of Alevilik in Turkey today: 1) the largely nonreligious materialist or modernist branch, who are associated with the Alevi Kurds, the Kurdistan Alevi Union in Germany, the Kurdish Zülfikâr journal, leftist Alevis, the Kervan (formerly a Communist journal), and followers of the sixteenth century poet and martyr Pir Sultan Abdal; 2) the mystical branch, which emphasizes the importance of the individual’s relationship to God; 3) the heterodox or Caferi branch, who see themselves as a distinctly religious Muslim community, but one which deserves the same political considerations which Sunni Muslims in Turkey receive,[1] and 4) the Shi‘i-inclined branch, who argue that Alevilik is the way of ‘Ali, the true path of Islam before it became corrupted by association with Bektaşilik.  This association, these Shi‘i-inclined Alevis argue, was forced on the Alevis of Anatolia by the Ottoman state, which sought to use Bektaşilik as a means of controlling and converting the Alevi population.

Whether Alevis are closer to Sunnism or Shi‘ism is not only a theoretical problem, but one that divides Alevis today.  In many practical ways, Alevis seem quite distinct from both Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims.  There is much less stress in Alevi culture in general on obeying external practices associated with orthodox Sunni and Shi‘i Islam, such as the fast during Ramadan, the Hajj or ‘pilgrimage’ from Makkah, salat or ‘Muslim prayer,’ and paying the zakat or ‘regular charitable tax.’  In other ways they seem to favor Shi‘i traditions, or at least a modified version of them, while opposing a number of customs followed by Sunni Muslims.  They avoid prayer in mosques, for example, without outright forbidding it, because of the association of mosques with the assassination of ‘Ali, who was murdered in a mosque.  Some, although by no means most, Alevis perform a fast, but only for ten days, to commemorate the ten days of suffering Hüseyin endured at the hands of his captors after he and his followers were attacked by Yazid’s men at Kerbala.  This is a tradition they share with other Shi‘i Muslims.  Alevis oppose mezhepler or ‘Islamic schools of jurisprudence’ as well, seeing them as associated with “strife and persecution” (Naess 178).[2]  However, as I will demonstrate later, there has been a trend among some Alevis to seek an association with orthodoxy through closer ties to Sunni Islam, and some have even begun engaging in Sunni practices while still calling themselves Alevis.

The rediscovery of Alevi religious culture has not occurred in a vacuum, but during a period of Turkish history which has seen renewed interest on the part of a number of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups for their own culture, language, and professed homelands, including the Kurds, Laz, and Çerkes.  The existence of different ethnic and linguistic groups and diverse religious elements among Alevis has been at the heart of this difficulty in defining true Alevilik.  Linguistically, one might identify at least four, possibly five, different groups: Turkish, Zaza, Kurmancı, Azerbayjani, and Arabic, the largest of these being Turkish and the second a combination of Kurdish Zaza and Kurmancı speakers.  Because of the innate importance that language often possesses in establishing identity, it may prove to be a stumbling block to any form of Alevi cohesion, although other divisive ethnic and political issues already firmly separate these five groups.

Such ethnic differences among Alevis have added considerably to the confusion over defining Alevilik.  One such distinction resides in the split between Turkish Alevis and Arab Alawites, a distinction which has not always been observed even by researchers.  Until quite recently, for example, the Index Islamicus has included articles and publications on both Alevis and Alawites under a single heading – Alawite, despite the fact that in most cases the Turkish Alevis and Arab Alawites reject the notion of there being any bond between them.  Even though both may be seen as offshoots of a centuries old tradition of venerating ‘Ali and the House of the Prophet, they are today generally incongruous with one another.  However, the incorporation of the Hatay province into Turkey in 1939 left the Turkish Republic with a sizable minority Arab population, many of whom were and have remained Alawite, but with no where near the numbers of the Turkish-Kurdish Alevi population.[3]  Nonetheless, I have included Arabic above as a fifth Alevi language based on as yet unverified (yet logical) reports that the Alevi religious revival in Turkey, or at least the many years of contact between the two groups, has begun to attract Arab Alawites in the Hatay region to increasingly participate in Turkish Alevi practices, such as attendance at cem ceremonies.

The Kurdish-Turkish ethnic distinction has in recent decades become one of the most obvious and increasingly sensitive divisions among Alevis, who seem less and less able to overcome the ethno-political nature of the division in favor of a religio-cultural unity.  Although existing studies of urban Alevi migrants in Anatolia have shed little light on the evolution of Alevis in relation to this dichotomy, the extreme prominence of the Kurdish issue in Turkish politics today will certainly make it an unavoidable issue in urban Alevi studies in the years to come, which is why I include it here in our summary of Alevi ethnic diversity. 

Kurdish Alevis, who even today are sometimes distinguished from other Alevis by the out-dated term Kızılbaş, are predominantly Kurmancı and Zaza speakers.[4]  Despite the nationalist political conflict which besets them, these Kurdish Alevis persist in their usage of Turkish for Alevi ritual purposes, in particular for gülbanklar (“invocations”) and nefesler (“religious songs”).  This use of Turkish has continued even though some Kurdish Alevis argue that Turkish Alevis adopted Alevilik from the Kurds, who had previously learned it from the Persians, making the issue of a ritual language ambiguous at best.[5]  Turkish Alevis have been noted for playing a significant role in defense of the Kemalist struggle during the War of Independence, even against Kurds who happened to be fellow Alevis.[6]  Supporting the new state against Kurdish insurgents took priority over defending co-religionists.  Since then the Kurdish identity of the approximately one-third of Turkey’s total Alevi population has become a source of confusion and division among the Kurdish Alevis, who increasingly find themselves torn between identifying themselves as Kurds or as Alevis.[7]  Sizable Kurdish Alevi communities reside in the eastern and central regions of Dersim (renamed Tunceli), Erzincan, Kıĝı, Bingöl, Muş, Sivas, Malatya, Maraş, Antep, Adana, and as far north as Kars.  Prominent Alevi tribes within these regions are the Dersimi, fieyhhasanan, Hormek, Lolan, and Koçgiri Kurds, although many Alevi Kurds outside of Dersim seem to trace descent back to the Dersimi Kurds.

While the Kurdish Alevis of these regions share much in common with the Turkish Alevis of central and western Anatolia, they have been noted to practice or express belief in a number of distinct forms of religious worship not commonly associated with the Turkish Alevis.  Among these, recorded by ethnographers and travelers from the beginning of the twentieth century, is the belief in metempsychosis, according to which human souls may be reborn as animals, whether they be mammals, reptiles, or insects.[8]  As with the Ahl-i Haqq of Syria, belief in various degrees of divine incarnation has also been expressed among the Dersimi Alevis, the most obvious example of which is the manifestation of God in ‘Ali.[9]  Finally, similar to the ancient traditions of the Central Asian Turks, the Kurdish Alevis of eastern Anatolia have displayed a reverence for nature through worship of such celestial bodies as the sun, moon, and planets, and of natural phenomena and elements, such as rain, thunder, water, rocks, and trees (van Bruinessen 1997).  In all of this there is evidence of a highly syncretic religious culture, a characteristic of Alevilik which the Kurds share with the other ethnic groups among the Alevis.

A cornerstone of Alevi religious culture is the Shi‘i veneration for the Ahl al-Beyt or ‘House of the Prophet,’ and in particular for ‘Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet and the First of the Twelve İmams.[10]  Like other Shi‘is, Alevis reject the first three orthodox caliphs, condemning them for having wrested the succession, the leadership of the Muslim community, from the Prophet’s own hand-picked successor – ‘Ali.  They argue that the Prophet made this designation clear when he said, “‘I am the city of knowledge (ilmin şehri), Ali is the gate of knowledge (ilmin kapısı).  And how can you come to the city without finding the gate’” (Naess 177).  As the Alevis in Naess’ study argued, the Sunnis tried to circumvent the framework of authority and knowledge built by the Prophet.  In essence, as one villager put it, “‘The Sunnis are like people who run along the walls, in vain seeking the gate’” (177).

The second key figure in Alevi ritual and belief is Hacı Bektaş Veli.  Historians argue that Hacı Bektaş arrived in Anatolia around 1230 “coming from Khorassan.”[11]  Hacı Bektaş apparently remained in Anatolia in the town of Soluca Kara Öyük or Karayol, which today bears his name – Hacıbektaş – until 1270, when he died at the age of 63.[12] Depending for such early information on hagiographic descriptions, we cannot be absolutely certain of the details of Bektaş’s life.  However, it seems he was not a theologian or orthodox Muslim in his behavior, but a Sufi from the Turkmen tribes,[13] and it is very likely that his Muslim worship was influenced by the Central Asian customs and traditions from which he came.  “He was a mystic, born among the people and who remained near to the people.  Though he was a Muslim, he did not give up the ancient practices and customs of Central Asia” (Melikoff 2). 

According to the Vilayet-name or biography of Hacı Bektaş, he apparently favored open worship to praying in a mosque, which resembles the Alevi aversion to mosques.  The same source also describes how he brought his abdallar or ‘followers’ up the mountain Hırkadaĝı, where they performed the sema, a ritual dance still practiced by Alevis.  The continued importance that Alevis attach to Bektaşilik may be seen in their associations with Hacı Bektaş foundations and with the town of Hacıbektaş itself.  To travel there in order to visit his tomb is to go on a hajj or ‘pilgrimage.’  The efendiler living in the town, who are said to be descended directly from Hacı Bektaş himself, are approached (albeit rarely), as a sort of court of last appeal in cases of disputes.  All of these connections to Hacı Bektaş seem to provide Alevis, in Shankland’s assessment, with their most cohesive framework.  Hacı Bektaş is for Alevis a leader, a spiritual guide, and a revered saint, making him “at once a spiritual focus, and also an orienting figure through which Alevis build up a link and define their place in the wider world of Islam as a whole” (1998, 19).[14]

One of the most important elements of Bektaşilik found among Alevis today is the Alevi tradition of the Dört Kapılar or ‘Four Gates.’  Like Bektaşis, Alevis believe there are Four Gates of spiritual development through which one must pass before one can achieve direct experience of God: şeriat, tarikat, marifet, and hakikatŞeriat refers to the Law of God, and is achieved simply by submitting oneself to the will of God through right belief and behavior.  While establishing a legal system based on the Shari‘a has become an end goal for some Muslim communities today, living according to God’s Law is only a first step for Alevis.  Most Alevis, having submitted themselves to the will of God, are said to have arrived at the stage of tarikatTarikat, which is associated with ritual practices which culminate in the cem ceremonies, may be interpreted as the organization of individuals into ritualistic societies based on the recognition that there is more to right living than the simple adherence to rules of proper belief and behavior.  Marifet, an Ottoman term of Arabic origin, suggests the acquisition of a special skill or spiritual knowledge through intense discipline and guided training and study, which is beyond the capacity of most followers.  The Alevi leaders or dedeler are ideally at the final stage, that of hakikat or truth, the real world, when the physical properties of this world no longer block one’s path to God.  At this stage it may be said that the individual has achieved spiritual unity with God, something which most Alevis never achieve in life.  For most it is enough to follow the directions of the dedeler, which focus essentially on right practice and ritual.  This focus on correct practice over dogma has been linked to the Alevi injunction, referred to by Shankland (1998) as edep: “Eline, diline, beline sahip ol!” (“Master your hands, your tongue, and your loins.”  In other words, at its simplest level, “Do not steal, lie, or have sexual relations outside of your marriage.”)

The leadership of the dedeler, which has been challenged in the urban setting, is integral to traditional Alevi religious culture.  As one of the keys to Alevi society, “they are at once its focus, its teachers, temporal judges and links to their religious heritage” (Shankland, 1998, 19).  The dedeler are recognized by the community as rehberler or ‘guides’ who define their duty as being “the way, the light, the inspiration of the community” (Shankland, 1998, 19).  Their primary duty, apart from functioning as sources of spiritual and traditional knowledge, seems to be to mediate disputes between Alevis of the same lineage or between lineages.  They may also help in marriage negotiations or be asked to comment on matters of importance to a whole community.  Dedeler have been traditionally able to justify their leadership of the community by claiming descent from the Prophet through one of the Twelve İmams, and many ocaklar or ‘dede lineages’ claim descent as well from dervishes who attended the Hacı Bektaş tekke or ‘dervish lodge’ in Hacıbektaş.  They are called in to assist the village community by talip or ‘follower lineages,’ who are obliged to respect and heed the dede lineages.  Some villagers say that the dede-talip links were assigned by Hacı Bektaş himself, thereby giving them greater validity and emphasizing the enduring role which dedeler are expected to play in the leadership of the community.

How the dedeler convey their teachings to the community has also become an issue in the urban setting.  In traditional Alevi culture, religious culture has been transmitted orally from dede to talip or from master to disciple.  Written texts are not absent in Alevi tradition.  In fact, they have existed in Alevi culture since the 16th century in the form of the Buyruk or ‘Decree.’  The first and most honored of these is the Buyruk of the Sixth İmam Cafer Sadik, which is supposedly a list of questions posed by a Byzantine emperor along with answers supplied by the İmam.  Its significance among Alevis is attested by their characterization of the text as the “Aleviliĝin anayasası” or ‘Constitution of Alevism.’[15]  Despite the importance of such texts, however, they have not superseded the oral nature of transmitting esoteric knowledge, which has remained firmly in the hands of the dedeler, who guide the community in interpreting the Buyruk.  This tradition naturally places greater authority in the hands of the dedeler, without whom the religious traditions of Alevis presumably might not survive.  The dede takes on the character of the walid dini or ‘religious father,’ whose tie to the disciple is stronger even than that of the disciple’s own father.  He is in essence the father of the community, and so it may be argued that the oral transmission of culture is invariably linked to the ongoing authority of the dedeler at least, if not to the overall survival of Alevi cultural traditions.

Most Alevi rituals have come to be associated with the cemevleri or ‘community gathering centers.’  The cem ceremonies performed in these gatherings are necessary forms of community cohesion, binding each member of the group to one another and to the whole.  The cem töreni or ‘cem ceremony’ is attended by men and women together, which is distinct from the separate worship of men and women in Sunni and Shi‘i cultures.  There are different forms of the cem ceremony, but the basic ceremony of gathering, the Abdal Musa cem, includes rituals symbolizing the martyrdom of Hussein at Kerbala, interpretations by the dede of key Alevi themes, even music, something that one would never find within an orthodox Sunni congregation.  The following is an example of the kind of music produced by Alevi musicians, who rely heavily on the baĝlama.

The Alevis interviewed by Shankland (1998) contrasted their worship with Sunni worship by pointing out that no one can attend their cem ceremony who is not at peace.  All who are present must first make peace with one another, if any quarrels exist, before they can begin the ceremony.  Otherwise, those who are unable to make peace must leave the cemevi.  Alevis say that this necessity for peace among the community, as well as the injunction against strangers attending the ceremony, is why they do not pray in a mosque: “(T)he greatest problem about praying in a mosque is that it is possible to be next to a murderer without realising it” (Shankland, 1998, 20). 

Alevi worship and belief, they argue, is also distinct from Sunni belief in that Sunni belief in God is based on fear, while Alevi belief is based on love.  They relate creation in the following terms: God created the world and He gave creatures life, but then He saw that there was nothing truly in His creation which reflected the Creator.  Therefore, He gave all humans a part of Himself, which became man’s ruh or ‘soul.’  “Now, we pray together in the cem, we do so face-to-face, and through the collective worship, see into one anothers’ hearts and so become part of God” (Shankland, 1998, 20). 

Musahiplik is another traditional aspect of Alevilik which binds people together, and which has been challenged in the urban setting.  Musahiplik is a form of ritual kinship or brotherhood which links two men together, obliging them to unending support of one another in a variety of forms, including economic and moral support.[16]  This support is unending in that, once the tie between two men has been recognized by a dede, it is assumed to survive even into the next world, where the two men will recommend one another to God on the Day of Judgment.  However, this form of commitment and support is not open to all Alevis, but only to those especially initiated for it by the dede, who must first recognize the couples’ preparedness in terms of their spiritual growth.  As such, musahiplik should not be considered a necessary element for all Alevis, but it certainly must be acknowledged as an integral aspect of Alevi religious culture, as it is present in all known rural Alevi communities which are organized around an ocak or ‘Holy Family.’  One can be Alevi without it, but to achieve it is to attain a higher stage in the striving for spiritual perfection and thus to be honored by the community for this achievement.[17] 

How Alevis trace the history of musahiplik brings us closer to their Shi‘i origins.  As the basis for this brotherhood, Alevis offer a tradition attributed to the Prophet during his final days.  It is said that the Prophet, returning from his last pilgrimage to Makkah, instructed his followers each to choose a special companion, a musahip, whose support would never wane.  To take the lead in this process, Muhammad chose ‘Ali as his own musahip by opening his cloak and pulling his son-in-law to his breast.  In this way he indicated how he and ‘Ali were one, and he proclaimed to those present, “‘Ali and I, we both derive from the same light.  He is my brother in this world and in the hereafter.  His blood is my blood, his flesh is my flesh, his soul is my soul, his body is my body’” (Kehl-Bodrogi 123).

The cem ceremony and musahiplik may be interpreted as traditions of inclusion or social binding which strengthen the ties of the community.  However, there is another form of the cem ceremony, known as the görgü cem, which functions as a judicial institution, an institution that has proven extremely difficult to carry on in the urban setting where judicial matters are clearly in the hands of the state.  As with the inclusive Abdal Musa cem ceremony examined above, the görgü cem is prohibited to outsiders.  During the görgü, accused offenders are required to give an account of themselves before a görgü heyeti or ‘görgü committee,’ which includes the dede.  The members of this committee must come to an agreement regarding how to sanction the offender, the “sentence” being carried out immediately.  The intention is to bring peace and cohesion back to the community, but serious violations may incur more serious penalties, from verbal abuse and, in some reports, spitting on the offender, to the most extreme punishment – düşkünlük or ‘excommunication.’  For such an introverted, group-oriented community, permanent excommunication is tantamount to ostracism, and, not surprisingly, has been reported to have occurred rarely, if at all, in most traditional Alevi communities.  A more frequent sanction may be geçici düşkünlük or ‘momentary excommunication,’ which may be applied in cases of theft, for instance.[18]

Social traditions among rural Alevis, such as marriage, divorce, and funeral rites, are generally quite distinct from representative urban practices.  Marriage is considered a highly sacred bond which “should persist under all circumstances” (Bozkurt, 1998, 89).  Other than in extremely exceptional cases, separation or divorce are simply not acceptable resolutions to marital problems.  Nor is it acceptable that an outsider should pass judgment or practice authority on what is essentially an internal Alevi matter.  This goes for funerary services as well as for sanctions.  Dealing with death is an Alevi communal concern, and funerary rites are carried out by the community and the dede, with songs and the recitation of the funerary prayer, known as the Hatayi, performed in Turkish.  The ritual dance or sema may also be performed. 

Researchers working among Alevis often emphasize the respect and tolerance which Alevis display towards non-Alevis.  Shankland, for example, argues that among Alevis, “outsiders are able to be accommodated within the villages,” and that “individual believers can take up different individual positions within the Alevi faith” (1998, 22).  While this is true, it is important to note that many of the characteristics of Alevi religious tradition promote a sense of inclusivity among the members of the community while enforcing exclusivity of non-members (i.e.,  non-Alevis).[19]  Musahiplik, for instance, is not only reserved solely for Alevis, but is further limited to Alevis deemed deserving by the religious leaders.  In addition, the hereditary aspect of dede leadership has made it traditionally impossible for either non-Alevis or even Alevis of talip lineages to rise to positions of leadership.  Moreover, marriage, while theoretically open to mixed Alevi and non-Alevi couples, has traditionally been an endogamous practice.  As for the cem ceremonies, Shankland himself has noted how long it took for him to receive reluctant permission to attend a cem ceremony, despite the fact that he had lived among Alevis on and off for over a year.  It is not at all surprising that such a long history of isolation and persecution would promote exclusivity among a religious minority, but, as I will show, modernization and urbanization have challenged even this long-standing practice.

This exclusivity may be interpreted as one aspect of a larger cohesion that binds Alevis – or at least Alevis of the same village – together, even when great distances set them apart.  In a study of an Anatolian Alevi village hidden under the name of Dereköy (presumably in the vicinity of İzmir), Naess found that Alevi emigrants from the village retained a strong connection with their village, even though their migrations carried them as far away as Norway (150 migrants) and Germany (50 migrants).  Those who remained behind, reckoned at 514 by the 1985 census, nonetheless counted themselves at more like 1200, continuing to include those who had migrated either to the local town, to İzmir, or to Europe.  In other words, these rural Alevis identified themselves in terms of the larger group of current village inhabitants along with the permanent and temporary Alevi migrants who had left the village.  After all, these emigrants remained in contact with the village, sent remittances back to it, visited it, and even returned to the village to find Alevi spouses. 

[1] According to these Alevis, the gates of ijtihad are still open and “every aspect of the life of the individual or community should be based on judgments made on the basis of a combination of faith, reason, and life, and that action should be taken in accordance with decisions based on free will.  Thus, in this theology, contrary to Shari‘a, all human problems are related to the actual world, and relevant judgments arise from life itself” (Bilici 54).

[2] The Alevis hold that the schools were organized by Harun ar-Rashid, who first ordered the most knowledgeable men of his time to codify Islamic law into separate schools.  When these men refused, Alevis say, declaring instead their continued allegiance to ‘Ali, Harun ar-Rashid had them executed.

[3] On the other hand, the incorporation of Hatay into Turkey led to the emigration of some 50,000 Arabs, including 10,000 Alawites, from Hatay into Syria.  (See Aringberg-Laanatza for more details on the similarities and differences between Alevis and Alawites.)

[4] Estimates concerning how many Alevis are Kurds run anywhere from 10-30% in the literature.  This is not the place to explore the issue of ethnicity among Turks and Kurds, but a commonly accepted explanation among scholars for the large numbers of Kurdish Alevis in Anatolia today is not that they are all descended from early Kurdish settlers, but that most of them are descended from Kurdicized Turcoman tribes, Kızılbaş supporters of the Safavids who had adopted Kurdish languages, in this case mainly Zaza, through contact with Kurdish Alevis in Anatolia.  Van Bruinessen disagrees with this view, proposing instead that today’s Kurdish Alevis in Turkey are descended from Kurmancı or Zaza speaking Anatolian Kurds who adopted Alevi practices along with their earlier syncretic beliefs.  (See van Bruinessen, 1997 for further discussion on this point.)

[5] I could unfortunately find no figures regarding these divisions among the Kurdish Alevis.

[6] Kurdish resistance to the Kemalist struggle, most notably represented by the Sheikh Sa’id rebellion, was opposed not only by Turkish but also by Kurdish Alevis, particularly the Hormek and Lolan Kurds around Bingöl, Muş, and Varto.  (See van Bruinessen, 1997 and Olson.)

[7] This is not to suggest that the Alevi-Kurdish distinction is the only one which divides Turkey’s Kurdish population.  Regional, linguistic, religious, and tribal divisions also play a significant role.

[8] See Andranig, Tersim.  Tiflis: 1900.

[9] A less distinguished divine presence within the seyyidler or ‘descendants of the House of the Prophet’ has also been noted.

[10] After İmam ‘Ali, the Alevis venerate or honor an intriguingly heterodox collection of individuals, including the sixth İmam Cafer Sadiq, Hacı Bektaş Veli, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, and most recently Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Naess 179).

[11] This is a phrase generally understood to mean “migrating from Central Asia.” He possibly did so in the company of Kharezmians, escaping the Mongols in the 13th century.

[12] The order which bears his name today was possibly founded by Kadıncık Ana, a woman of the Oĝuz Çepni town, who is variously described as his adoptive daughter or his spiritual wife.

[13] Melikoff suggests that the relationship between the Ottomans and the Bektaşis was strengthened by the fact that they came from the same social backgrounds.  In fact, Elvan Çelebi, in his hagiographic text on Baba İlyas, states that Hacı Bektaş was closely connected with Edebali, who became the father-in-law of Osman Gazi, founder of the Ottoman state.  Further, a number of Bektaşi dervishes were apparently companions of Osman’s son, Orhan Gazi, including Abdal Musa, follower of Hacı Bektaş and founder of the Bektaşi Order of Dervishes, who contributed to Ottoman expansion by actually assisting the Ottoman armies in their conquests.  The dervishes had thereby become gazis, Muslim warriors, who founded orders and colonies in conquered lands, orders which became centers of Muslim teaching.

[14] See Birge, still considered by many to be the definitive work on Bektaşilik in English, as well as Eröz and Türkdoĝan for more on Alevi-Bektaşi customs and beliefs.

[15] For more on the scripturalization of Alevi religious traditions see Olsson.

[16] A man is responsible for “the moral and social integrity” of his musahip (Kehl-Bodrogi 123).

[17] The absence of musahiplik among the non-Alevi Bektaşi marks it as a critical distinction between the two otherwise quite similar cultures.

[18] For examples of such görgü conflict resolution see Shankland, 1993.

[19] Bozkurt goes so far as to argue that, within Alevi belief, “Strict control forms the essence of this belief, which aims at keeping the community going without appealing to the state security forces and without state support.  All their ceremonies and sanctions are aimed at achieving this end” (1998, 85).


Aringberg-Laanatza, Marianne. “Alevis in Turkey – Alawites in Syria: Similarities and Differences.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 151-165.

Bilici, Faruk. “The Function of Alevi-Bektashi Theology in Modern Turkey.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 51-62.

Birge, John Kingsley. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. Hartford: Hartford Seminary Press, 1937.

Bozkurt, Fuat. “State-Community Relations in the Restructuring of Alevilik,” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 85-96.

Çamuroğlu, Reha. “Alevi Revivalism in Turkey.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 79-84.

Kehl-Bodrogi, Krisztina. “On the Significance of musahiplik among the Alevis of Turkey: The Case of the Tahtacı.” Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East. Ed. Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, et.al. New York: Brill, 1997, pp. 119-138.

Mélikoff, Irène. “Bektashi / Kızılbaş: Historical Bipartition and Its Consequences.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 1-7.

Naess, Ragnar. “Being an Alevi Muslim in South-western Anatolia and in Norway: The Impact of Migration on a Heterodox Turkish Community.” The New Islamic Presence in Western Europe. Ed. Tomas Gerholm and Yngve Georg Lithman. New York: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1988, pp. 174-195.

Olsson, Tord. “Epiloque: Scripturalization of Ali-oriented Religions,” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 199-206.

Shankland, David. “Alevi and Sunni in Rural Anatolia: Diverse Paths of Change.” Culture and Economy: Changes in Turkish Villages. Ed. Paul Stirling. Cambridgeshire: The Eothen Press, 1993, pp. 46-64.

Shankland, David. “Anthropology and Ethnicity: The Place of Ethnography in the New Alevi Movement.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 15-22.

van Bruinessen, Martin. “Kurds, Turks and the Alevi Revival in Turkey.” Online. Internet. 16 Feb. 1999. Available http: http://www.arches.uga.edu/ ~godlas/alevivanb.html.

Akhen-Aten, Ancient Egypt’s Monotheistic King

While Egyptians worshipped multiple gods for some 3,000 years, there was a brief moment in this vast span of history when at least some Egyptians converted to a monotheistic faith thanks to a rather unique pharaoh named Akhen-Aten. 

Upon the death of his father, Amun-hotep III, Amun-hotep IV ascended the throne as the next pharaoh of Egypt.  Physically, he may have seemed an unlikely choice, having an elongated body with abnormally long neck, limbs, and fingers, and somewhat rounded hips and prominent belly.  This was certainly not the stereotypical image of physical perfection that we have come to associate with Egyptian kings.  Certainly, we do not assume that Egyptian kings were really as perfect as their statues and images portray them to be, but nonetheless, there was clearly something odd about the appearance of this young king.  Modern researchers have in fact suggested that Amun-hotep IV may have suffered from a genetic abnormality known as Marfan’s Syndrome which lengthens the limbs and fingers in just this manner. It was once thought that Abraham Lincoln also suffered from this abnormality, although he has since been rediagnosed with multiple endocrine neoplasia. Likewise, the diagnosis of Marfan’s has been dropped from discussions of Akhen-Aten as of this year, 2010, when genetic testing proved that Tut-ankh-Amun was indeed Akhen-Aten’s son and that Tut lacked any genetic traces of Marfan’s.

However Akhen-Aten’s odd appearance may eventually be explained, it is true that Amun-hotep IV was different in other ways as well.  Even as a child and youth, he seemed less inclined to engage in physical activities and sport as other youth did, preferring a more contemplative life one filled with spiritual considerations, extensive periods of prayer and contemplation.  Still, upon his ascension to the throne, he showed no inclination towards any spiritual practices or beliefs outside of the traditional beliefs of the polytheistic Egyptians.  For his first few years as king, he honored the gods of his fathers and provided endowments to the priests of Amun at Karnak, where statues were erected in his honor portraying him in the physical perfection we have come to expect from Egypt’s divine kings. 

Despite the apparent adherence to tradition displayed by the new king, Egypt was clearly at a point in her history when a new god was just coming into prominence.  Durign the reign of Amun-hotep III there seems to have been a greater interest in another of the several sun gods – the Aten.  Egyptian polytheism, being a syncretic evolution of animistic gods derived from the natural world, tended to displayed its gods in human form with perhaps some remnant of their pre-human animal selves still present, for example, images of Horus as a man and Horus as a falcon, or Thoth [Djehuti] as a man with an Ibis head, and Thoth simply as an ibis.  But the Aten was different.  The Aten was the only significant deity to be portrayed purely as the natural element it was believed to be, in this case, the sun disk.  The Aten had no human or semi-human form.  All images of Aten display him as the sun itself, often with rays of light extending outwards with little hands at the end of each ray with which the loving god could carress and comfort its people as well as hold the traditional symbols of life and power. 

Down to his fifth year as king, Amun-hotep continued to use the name given him by his parents, a name which signified a special reverence for the ancient sun god, Amun.  However, in that year he began to refer to himself as well as “the first prophet of Ra-Harakhti Rejoicing in the Horizon in his name the sunlight which is Aten.”  At the palace, the new king began to replace traditional images with images of the sun disk.  This change of religious symbolism slowly extended outside the palace as well.  In the tomb at Thebes of the royal vizier, Ra-mose, who died during the early years of Amun-hotep IV’s reign, we see images of the new king in the traditional style, and of Ra-mose making offerings to the god Amun.  But then on the opposite wall are images in a new style of Amun-hotep IV and his wife, Nefertiti, bathing in the glow of the light of Aten.   

While records of the actual events transpiring at this very significant time in Egyptian history are missing, most likely deliberately destroyed by later Egyptians seeking to wipe away any evidence of what occurred, the archaeological record leads to the following conclusions.  In the sixth year of his reign, Amun-hotep IV decided to leave the old capital of his father and ordered the construction of a new capital city on the west bank of the Nile half-way between modern day Cairo and ancient Luxor.  This site is known today as El-Amarna, a name derived from the tribe of Banu Amran who inhabit the area, but the name given the new city by its founder was Akhet-Aten, meaning the Horizon of Aten.  The city, built in great haste and now completely destroyed, nonetheless reveals much concerning its founder and the revolution he sought to pursue.  It is also the site of one of the finest archives found in Egypt, now referred to as the Amarna letters, letters inscribed in cuneiform, among which is the earliest recorded reference to the Canaanite city of Jerusalem. 

In keeping with his new faith, Amun-hotep IV adopted a new name and a new image.  His new name was Akhen-Aten, which means “It is well with Aten.”  As for his new image, it was so very distinct from traditional images of Egyptian kings as to offer some of the most memorable images out of Egypt’s entire 3000 years of history.  Akhen-Aten has himself portrayed realistically, with every physical flaw intact.  Physical perfection is gone.  On the contrary, Akhen-Aten seems to revel in his realism.  Not only is he shown as he really was, but he is shown doing what he most likely really did in life.  No more stiff, inhuman poses for this king.  We see Akhen-Aten at dinner with his family or playing with his children, something no other pharaoh would ever be shown doing, whether or not he actually did so in real life. 

How extensive this new faith in the Aten was is impossible to tell, although it is safe to assume that the great majority of Egyptians had nothing to do with it.  Nonetheless, for Akhen-Aten faith in the Aten meant everything.  An inscription from the tomb of Ay, Akhen-Aten’s advisor and successor, has been attributed to Akhen-Aten himself, and expresses well his deep devotion to the one god: 

You arise beauteous in the horizon of heaven, O living Aten, beginner of life when You did shine forth in the eastern horizon, and did fill every land with Your beauty. You are comely, great, sparkling, and high above every land, and Your rays enfold the lands to the limits of all that You have made, You being the sun, and You reach their limits and subject them to your beloved son. Being afar off, yet Your rays are upon the earth.  You are in men’s faces, yet Your movements are unseen.  When You set in the western horizon, the earth is in darkness after the manner of death.  The night is passed in the bedchamber, heads covered, no eye can see its fellow.  Their belongings are stolen, even though they be under their heads, and they perceive it not.  Every lion is come forth from its lair and all snakes bite.  Darkness is the sole illumination while the earth is in silence, their maker resting in his horizon. (Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaohs, 225) 

Initially, all that Akhen-Aten strove to accomplish with his personal faith in the Aten seems to have been fairly restricted to his immediate environment, particularly his new capital.  Indeed, he may have built his new capital with its strictly delimited boundaries in part to separate his faith from the old faith, while leaving the old faith intact.  However, at some point he clearly decided to eradicate the old polytheism of Egypt rather than leave it to spread its corrupting influence over the people.  He therefore sent workmen across the land to destroy images of the gods and to remove the names of the old gods from the temples.  In these efforts, they largely failed to do little but anger the priests and those people who directly benefitted from the old faith.  In the homes of the Egyptians, worship of the old gods probably continued as usual.  In the village constructed for the workmen employed on building Akhen-Aten’s new capital, even, shrines to the old gods have been found.  Far from leading a successful religious revolution, then, all Akhen-Aten really succeeded in doing was turning many people against him.  One important reason for this failure may have been the lack of a concerted effort to bring the new faith to the people.  Apart from closing the old temples and removing the names of the old gods, the new faith seems only to have been upheld in a couple of new temples, which could not possibly have reached the entire population with their monotheistic message. 

Involved as he was in the everyday affairs of his new faith, Akhen-Aten had neither the time nor the inclination to involve himself in foreign affairs.  Consequently, as uncovered in letters written to the capital by Egyptian outposts, hostile neighbors began to threaten the borders of Egypt, in particular the Hittites in Anatolia, who were just now coming into their own politically and militarily and seeking to expand southward into Palestine.  Letters from the Egyptian governor in Palestine attest to this fact, and paint a picture of a man desperate for assistance from Egypt against the growing threat, but receiving no answer from a king who had no interest in such earthly political matters. 

Towards the end of his reign, Akhen-Aten accepted his son-in-law Smenkh-ka-Ra, husband to the king’s eldest daughter, as his co-regent and heir to the throne of Egypt.  That he had no sons of his own compelled him to this end in acquiring an heir.  However, while Smenkh-ka-Ra may have been eager to become the next king of Egypt, he seems to have had no commitment to the new faith of his father-in-law.  This is indicated by evidence that he quickly left Akhet-Aten to take up residence in the ancient capital of Thebes.  Jilted by his son-in-law, Akhen-Aten was left without an heir.  There is even a suggestion that he may have been abandoned by his wife, Nefer-titi, in the end.  However it happened, we may assume that the monotheistic king of Egypy died an isolated and hated man.  His mummy has never been found, and indeed he may never have been mummified.  His very enemies, in keeping with Egyptian tradition, probably destroyed his body even as they destroyed his city after his death.  His tomb has been found, and his sarcophagus within the tomb, but the sarcophagus stands empty and evidence suggests that it never held a body. 

The curse of Akhen-Aten then descended on his only remaining male heir, husband to his last daughter, Ankhes-en-Amun.  This was the famous King Tut, well known in contemporary society for his remarkable tomb, but most significant in history because it was the boy king Tut who, seeing which way the wind was blowing, rejected the monotheistic revolution of his father Akhen-Aten.  Tut ordered the temples to the ancient gods reopened and generously gave to the priests, no doubt hoping thereby to win their support.  But it was too late for Tut.  Before he had even reached his 20th birthday, Tut died.  A popular theory, based on an early forensic examination of an injury to his skull, was that he had been murdered, most likely by his own chief advisor Ay, who coveted the throne for himself.  We know that Ay did indeed become pharaoh after Tut’s death, but only after he had apparently compelled  Tut’s widow, Ankhes-en-Amun, to marry him.  Thereby, Ay gained legitimacy for his own claim to the throne, although his death put an end to this most amazing dynasty and gave rise to one of the most renowned dynasty in all of Egyptian history – that of Ramesses the Great.  More recent examinations of Tut’s body, however, suggest that he more likely died from malaria or from an infection that had spread through his body following a severe injury to his leg, the kind of injury that might have been caused in battle or even from falling off his horse.

The Gods of Ancient Egypt

If you recall what we said earlier about the decipherment of hieroglyphics, it was thanks to the works of Budge and other prominent Egyptologists that the history of ancient Egypt at last came alive.  Rather than trying to guess how the pyramids were built or why Egyptians mummified their dead, we could now simply read the sometimes lengthy explanations left by the Egyptians themselves to understand these phenomena, including their polytheistic beliefs.

Amongst the hundreds if not thousands of gods worshipped by the ancient Egyptians was the pharaoh.  The term pharaoh is derived from the name given to the palace of the king of Egypt – the Per-o, meaning the “Great House.”  Egyptian kings or pharaohs were autocrats wielding absolute power.  In the reign of secure, confident, powerful kings, that power was unchallenged.  The power of the pharaohs of Egypt depended upon three things:

  • The people believed pharaoh to be a god, thus strengthening their loyalty to him.
  • Pharaoh was the ultimate possessor of all things on earth, including the people.
  • Pharaoh’s word was law. 

If these were the sources of pharaoh’s power, they could also be his undoing.  He could lose power if any one of these three sources was challenged, which happened a number of times in Egyptian history:

  • if the people stopped believing in pharaoh’s divinity, which could happen if the priests turned against pharaoh
  • if the all important fertile lands belonged to someone else, which happened whenever pharaoh rewarded loyal servants and generals with gifts of land
  • if the laws were written down, thereby giving the law a life of its own, a validity outside of pharaoh’s dictates

Among the many other gods, certainly one of the most significant was Ra, the Creator, maker of men, father of the gods, who was typically worshipped as the state god of Egypt.  Not surprisingly, he was associated with the the all-powerful sun, which would be recognized as the greatest of gods in a place like Egypt.  In the form of the sun, Ra rose over the earth every morning, sailing across the heavens in two boats (the first from sunrise until noon, and the second from noon until sunset).  As creator, recall, he first brought forth Shu, god of light, and Tefnut, goddess of moisture.

The children of Shu and Tefnut rose from the watery abyss together to become the earth (Geb) and the sky (Nut).  According to one Egyptian myth, they embrace one another during the night, only to be separated every morning by their father Shu, son of the creator.  In this image you see the father Shu holding his daughter Nut high up and away from Geb, the earth.  In the end, their nightly embraces lead to children of their own, who grow up to form the core of Egypt’s most important myths.  As the parents of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys, Nut and Geb were also known as the Father and Mother of the Gods.

Osiris was the son of Nut and Geb.  He ruled over the earth until he was treacherously slain by his brother, Seth, after which he was resurrected to become King of the Afterlife and Judge of the Dead.  His wife and sister, known as the “Lady of Enchantments,” was Isis.  She was often depicted as the “Divine Mother,” suckling her baby Horus.  Hers was one of the most popular Egyptian cults, and survived the foreign occupations of Egypt to become a favorite popular cult in Greek and Roman cultures as well, with shrines at Delos and Pompeii.  In Greece she became associated with the Greek goddess Demeter, while in Rome she was known as Stella Maris – the Star of the Sea.  Because of the prevalence of statues and images of Isis seated with the baby Horus on her knee, she was later compared with the Virgin Mary, holding the baby Jesus, and it is common to think of her in Egypt as a mother goddess figure.

The sister and companion of Isis was Nephthys, and like Isis, she was a goddess of Magic who helped the dead to overcome the finality of death and the grave.  Her husband and the god of all that was Evil in the world, including the desert, darkness, night time, sickness, storms, and foreigners, was Seth.  Seth killed his brother Osiris to become king, and then waged war on the vengeful Horus even as the night battled the day for dominion over the earth.

Horus was the son of Osiris and Isis.  He became King of the World by defeating his uncle Seth in battle.  He was also the Guardian of the Pharaoh, and every pharaoh had a “Horus” name to indicate his special relationship to Horus.  His symbol was the falcon or hawk, which was often depicted in paintings and statuary guarding over the pharaoh.

The illegitimate child of Osiris and Nephthys (or the son of Ra), Anubis was a guardian of the afterlife who assisted in the preparation of the dead and guided the spirit of the deceased to Osiris, even as he assisted in the mummification of Osiris by embalming the dead king’s body.  The priests who labored over the preparation of mummies were known as the Priests of Anubis.  The apparent origin of Anubis as protector of the dead seems to stem from actual events in prehistoric Egypt.  Before the development of mummification, it is clear that the Egyptians would simply bury their dead in the Western Desert.  With the shifting sands of the desert, however, this meant that a dead body could fairly easily be uncovered and exposed to the jackals – the scavenging wild dogs of the desert.  According to belief, the first jackal to come upon such a body would guard over the body, snarling at other would be scavengers to scare them off, thus allowing him to eventually sit and enjoy his rather dry, tough meal by himself.  From this arose the belief that the jackal – Anubis – was the protector of the dead.  Because of the use of the west as a necropolis for the dead, Anubis came to be known as “the one of the West, lord of the sacred land.”

One of the most important of Egyptian myths concerns the central gods of Egyptian belief: Osiris, Isis, Seth, Nephthys, and Horus.  Osiris was the king of the world.  He was a great king and a powerful god, and he ruled over the earth as a just king.  Unfortunately, Osiris had a brother, Seth, and Seth was very envious of his brother’s power.  Whatever it took, Seth was going to become king. 

Now ancient Egyptians were fascinated with death, so don’t be too surprised to hear that one day Seth brought a coffin with him to a celebration at the king’s palace.  But not just any coffin.  This was a beautiful, fantastic piece of work, and Seth had secretly had this coffin built exactly to fit his brother, Osiris.  So in walks Seth with the coffin, and he announces that it would belong to whichever god best fit into the coffin.  They all tried, but only Osiris could slip into the coffin nice and comfy.  And the moment he was inside the coffin, Seth had the lid of the coffin slammed down on top and nailed shut so that his brother could not escape.  Then he had the coffin thrown out the palace window and into the river Nile, where the coffin floated away and Osiris drowned to death. So now, with his brother out of the way, Seth was king.  But there was still Osiris’s widow, Isis.  You see, when she learned her husband had disappeared, Isis was so distraught that she vowed to find him.  She searched all over Egypt, and eventually she did find the coffin and managed to bring it back with her, but she couldn’t let Seth get ahold of it.  She had to protect her husband’s body, so that his soul could live forever, so she and her sister Nephtys took turns watching over the hidden coffin.  But Seth still managed to find the coffin, and this time he had his brother’s body chopped up into little bits, fourteen pieces in all, and he threw the pieces into the Nile River.  Now he could be king, knowing he was safe and his brother’s soul would die along with his body. 

Now Isis really had her work cut out for her this time.  But she didn’t give up, and once again she was successful.  She found the pieces of her husband’s body, well, not all of them, thirteen of them, and she brought these thirteen pieces back, and using her sister’s magic, she was able to put the pieces back together.  Now, working together, Isis and Nephthys prepared the body, cleaning it and wrapping it in linen, properly preserving it. 

And in this way, Osiris, the first mummy in Egyptian history, was resurrected from the dead to live and rule in the afterlife as King of the Dead, which was a pretty powerful position to hold, as you’ll see.

Now, Seth was still king, but he was not the only one to claim the right to the throne.  Osiris was now king of the dead, but he had a son – Horus.  If Seth wanted to be king, he had to get rid of his challenger.  While Horus was still a baby, Seth sent a serpent, which bit Horus and poisoned him.  While Horus was dying, his mother Isis pleaded with the chief god – Ra – to help her son.  Ra looked down on the baby and agreed, in a sense adopting him, so that when he saved Horus’ life, he was in essence agreeing to watch over all new kings. 

But Horus did not win the crown so easily.  Seth was determined to remain king, and when Horus grew up and claimed the throne for himself, a war began that lasted for years.  Neither side was able to defeat the other.  When Horus cuts off his uncle’s head, it simply grew back.  When he destroyed his uncle’s army, a new army replaced it.  And when it seemed the war would simply drag on forever, Seth asked for arbitration to end their dispute.  So Ra organized a council of the gods to listen to both sides and choose who would be king.  Both sides gave good arguments, and after about 80 years of this trial, most members of the council believed that Horus should be king since he was the son of the old king.  But Ra favored Seth, who was son of Nut.  Seth, he argued, was older and more experienced than Horus.  So even this council could not agree on who should be king. 

Seth and Horus therefore resumed their fighting.  Seth may have been the god of war, but he realized he could not defeat his nephew in battle.  So he tried a different tactic.  One night he went to bed with his nephew and the next morning, Horus was pregnant.  It’s a bizarre, yet worthy tactic, because if Horus was pregnant, then he could not have been a real man, and only a man could be king in Egypt.  But Horus wasn’t pregnant just anywhere; he was pregnant in his hand.  And his mother, Isis, wasn’t about to let Seth become king just because her son was pregnant.  So, she chopped off her son’s hand and threw it into the Nile River.  Now Isis tried the same trick with Seth, but Seth protected himself and so they were back to square one. 

By now of course everyone was sick to death of all this sickness and death.  The chief of the gods, Ra, could not seem to stop this, favoring Seth as he did.  And so they turned to Osiris, who was now, remember, king of the dead and the afterlife.  Naturally, Osiris said his son, Horus, should be king.  Ra disagreed.  He still wanted Seth.  But Osiris reminded Ra who held the power of life and death within his hands, who could send an army of the dead to steal anyone’s life from them, who controled the entrance to the afterlife – Osiris, of course.  And this was enough to convince Ra.  After all, nobody wants to be kept out of heaven, right?  So they all agreed, and Horus became King in the land of the living, while his father, Osiris, ruled in the land of the dead.  Good had triumphed over evil.

Afterlife for the Trobriand Islanders

Trobriand Islanders. 
Mortuary rituals
When one nears death among the Trobriand Islanders, his family gather about him, bringing with them a variety of vaygu’a or valuables, such as the kula shells and necklaces that are regularly traded with neighboring islands.  The intention is not to bury him with these valuables, but only to comfort him with them in his final moments.  Once he dies, each individual who brought such valuables will take them back again, although his own valuables will be buried with him.  In the meantime, the visitors cover the dying man with these valuables, and will even spend hours hovering over him, rubbing the shells and necklaces over his body, holding them up to his nose in an apparent attempt to comfort him in his final days before he must pass over to the netherworld, since such objects were of the greatest value in life and the finest impression he can take with him into the afterlife.  It is believed that, once he dies, he may use the spirit of his valuables to pay the fair to Topileta, the supernatural guardian to the realm of the dead.
Spirits of the dead
Death, as with other cultures, was perceived to be the gateway to another life, a spirit existence.  It was believed that after death the spirit of the deceased might for a brief time, perhaps a few days, haunt the areas of the island where he had spent much of his time in life, such as his garden, the beach, or a waterhole.  The spirit that haunts the island is known as a kosi, although he does not haunt in the sense that many westerners might imagine.  There is no fear of a kosi, as kosis do no harm to anyone.  It is almost as if, for a time following death, the kosi is not yet aware that it has passed on, and therefore it seeks to go about its normal life, attending to its garden, visiting its family, and so on.
Tuma and Topileta
Eventually, however, the spirit, now known as a baloma, will sail his spiritual canoe to the island of Tuma, some 10 miles northwest of the main island, Boyowa.  Some spirits will make the journey immediately after death, rather than haunting the village.  There the spirit steps ashore and sits down on a stone to bewail his fate, mourning his separation from his friends and family.  Other spirits on the island hear him and join him in his mourning as their own losses are brought back to home to them by the newcomer.  After a time, the baloma rises and washes his eyes from a special well called Gilala, which will make him invisible to the living. 
He then encounters Topileta, who inquires as to how the man died.  The manner of his death will determine which of the three paths he will take to the village of the dead.  Women face the same choices, although they are questioned by Topileta’s wife.  Before the baloma’s journey can continue, however, he must pay Topileta with the spirit valuables he has brought with him.  Should Topileta be unsatisfied with these valuables, he could banish the deceased to the sea, where it would take on the form of a stingray with the head and tail of a shark, but the villagers interviewed by Malinowski were not aware of such a thing happening in their lifetimes.
The netherworld
Once the baloma reaches the village of Tuma, his life begins again.  Although he still feels sad, the other villagers seek to incorporate him into his new community by making acquaintances and building him a new home.  And to ensure that he is comfortable, one or more of the female baloma will seek to engage his interest (at least, this is what the Trobriand men believe).  If he proves stubborn in his mourning, they will turn to magic and charm him to make him theirs.  In other words, the same forms of magic that exist in this world also exist in the next, just as one lives out the same kind of life in the netherworld that he lived here – farming, eating, celebrating, loving, aging, and finally dying, at which time the spirit of the spirit goes on to the next world.
Despite the physical separation of the baloma from his native island, encounters with baloma can continue for quite some time.  After all, Tuma is also an inhabited island with a village of living natives, which means that the living from other islands will also visit there for purposes of trade.  Many natives described to Malinowski their encounters with baloma on the island of Tuma, although as with the kosi, the islanders have no need to fear the baloma.  There were also fairly rare individuals who claimed they could travel to the actual underworld of the dead and converse with them and bring back messages to the living.  Sometimes baloma were believed to go themselves, just after death, to deliver messages to the living, such as a mother whose spirit after her death traveled across the water to her son working in New Guinea to tell him that she had died.
Spirits during milamala
The most significant and indeed ritual contact between the living and the baloma takes place during the milamala.  Once a year the spirits return as a group to their native villages during the milamala harvest festival.  They are welcomed there by the living and special platforms are built to accommodate the spirits that they may view the celebrations and especially to ensure that the spirits of chiefs remain higher than all others.  The actual milamala ceremony opens with a feast for the baloma, in which cooked food is laid out on a special platform.  Naturally, the spirits do not consume the physical food itself, but the spirits of the food within.  After an appropriate amount of time has passed, those offering the food to the baloma will now offer the physical food to others to eat. 
The presence of the invisible spirits is made known in a variety of ways.  Malinowski himself noted that during the milamala more coconuts fell from the trees than normally, supposedly an indication that the baloma were plucking them.  If the spirits are not satisfied with the offerings made them, they could also make their presence felt by causing great storms to arise during the ceremony.  Sometimes the spirits actually make themselves visible to the living, which is never treated as something fearful by the living.  After all, the living do not believe generally that the spirits of the dead interfere in their affairs.  That is what sorcerers and witches do.  Sometimes the baloma appear in dreams to the living during the milamala
Just as the milamala opened with an offering to the spirits, it closes with a special entourage of musicians banging drums as they walk from one end of the village to the other.  The beat they are playing is uniquely intended to do one thing – drive the spirits out of the village back to their netherworld.  It is played in two parts, the first meant to drive away the spirits of men, the second to drive away the spirits of women, children, and the infirm.

Ancient Egypt: Religion

The religion of pharaonic Egypt, while monotheistic for a short unsuccessful period (led by the heretic king Amun-hotep IV during the New Kingdom), was otherwise polytheistic, including many, many gods, both male and female. The land was divided into nomes, administered by nomarchs, and each nome had its own local deity. The power of these gods could rise and fall depending on the political climate, but a certain number of them were always important in Egypt, independent of political events. And no matter how many gods were worshipped, the state religion focused on the state deity, usually known as Amun-Ra.

The state deity was always male, never a goddess. Worship of this particular divinity was, of course, beneficial to the solar priests of Heliopolis, birthplace of Ra, whose power grew with that of their god. Local priesthoods were quite protective of the position of their god in the Egyptian pantheon, as this position also influenced the power and wealth of the priesthood. That this solar mythology was always important in Egypt, despite politics, is understandable in light of the importance of the sun in Egypt as giver of life and bringer of death. The sun and the Nile river were the life giving forces of the Egyptians.

Egyptian religion was synchretic, bringing together elements from Egyptian beliefs and foreign religions. Contact with Syro-Palestine, for example, brought the Egyptians into contact with the god Baal. Rather than add him to their pantheon or reject their own gods in favor of Baal, the Egyptians simply saw Baal as another form of Seth, a cruel god.

The syncretism of Egyptian religious beliefs also included combining two or more deities into a single god. This characteristic stemmed from the great number of local deities who were always incorporated into the Egyptian pantheon of gods. Even when certain gods had been elevated to positions of superiority, lesser gods were never eliminated, but somehow assimilated into the state religion. But this incorporation led to a religion with too many gods to remember and stories which were constantly changing to fit the influx of new gods. It also meant greater expense, as the more gods there were, the more temples needed to be built to worship them. Therefore, you could say for the sake of simplicity and lower costs, two or more gods, such as Amun and Ra, were combined together to make a single god: Amun-Ra. As many as four or five gods could be put together in this way, with one temple for all five.

Different ritual ceremonies were associated with the worship of particular deities. Worship centered around the temple (according to official records). Many temples were built in each city to the many different gods, but the focus was on the state deity. The temple was not only the center of religious worship, but the center of life as well; temple complexes included schools, workshops, and dwellings. The most important dwelling place of the complex was the temple itself, believed to be the dwelling place of the god/s to which the temple was dedicated. It was thus a divine dwelling with a divine double of the deity residing within in the form of a statue.

It was known that statues were man-made. Nonetheless, they were considered divine as visible representations of the holy gods. However, the common people were not allowed to view these statues. Only the pharaoh was considered worthy, as a living divinity himself, to see another god, so he could go inside the temple to the dwelling place of the statue. During certain times of the year, the statue was brought forth out of the temple for the public to worship, but at these times the public was warned not to look at the god/statue, which was veiled for protection from unworthy eyes. Offerings were regularly made to these statues, and these offerings were no doubt what sustained the priests.

Another way of incorporating inferior or subject gods into the pantheon was by relating them to other established gods through the creation of triads or family groups of three: father, mother, son. This could reflect political changes in Egypt, alliances between different regions reflected in alliances between the gods. For example, Ptah, the mild and artful god of Memphis, was wedded to Sakhmet, the local god of a neighboring region, who was herself a savage, lioness-headed deity. Another region allied to these two, that of the near-by Delta marshes, produced the local god Nefer-tem, who was incorporated into this triad as the son of Ptah and Sakhmet. The best known of these triads was that of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. We see very clearly here the tradition of the Holy Trinity which would be incorporated into Christian theology, which probably began as father, mother, son, but was changed to father, holy ghost, son.

Egyptian deities were represented in human form, animal form, or associated with plants, or in a combination of all three. However, the tendency of the religion was towards anthropomorphization: giving human attributes to those elements which were not human to begin with. Some deities might have begun as objects of nature, abstract ideas, animals or plants, but they developed into male or female forms associated with objects, abstract ideas, animals or plants. And finally these non-human powers became attributes or images of anthropomorphic deities.