In this paper, I will endeavour to give an overview of a mythical creature, the concept of which is widespread among most Turkic peoples. This belief has a long history and can also be evidenced in the myths and beliefs of peoples neighbouring the Turks. No other Turkic mythical beast has such extensive literature devoted to it as the Albasty. Although most relevant literature deals with the possible etymologies of the term, there are plenty of ethnographic descriptions available as well. Unfortunately, few original texts exist in the case of the latter, but there are many summaries and interpretations.
Among Turkic peoples, the daemon Albasty can be found in four large areas: on the Eurasian steppe, among Turkic peoples in Siberia, in the region of the rivers Kama and Volga, and especially in the middle and northern regions of the Caucasus Mountains. However, this daemon is not familiar to the Oguz peoples (Turkish, Azerbaijani, Turkmenian), although a similar creature is designated by other names, such as al, or yarım adam.
The first part of the paper outlines the possible etymologies of the word albasty. Although it has no officially accepted etymology as of yet, the term is nevertheless ethnographically relevant.
Most Turkologists interpret albasty as a compound word, as its second part, bas-ty – ‘push-ed’ – can easily be understood in Turkic languages. The meaning of this word shows a clear semantic match with the push-daemon (incubus, succubus) function of the creature. As for the first part of the compound (al), five explanations have been proffered in print so far, several of which regard it as being of Turkic origin, while some scholars regard it as of Iranian origin. According to its Turkic etymology, al can mean ‘red’ (Räsenen 1969:14); a word with the same meaning already existed in Old Turkic (Clauson 1972:120‒121). This theory is reinforced by the fact that in Kyrgyz and Kazakh, there is also a kara-basty i.e.‘black-pushed’ version alongside the al-basty (1888:14; Abramzon 1949:95; Baialieva 1972:95; Toleubaev 1991:47‒48) – although it is only found in a few sources and may have a folk-etymological background. However, this supposition is weakened by the fact that in mythical texts referring to the albasty, the colours associated with this concept are yellow and black in almost all areas, e.g. the colour of the albasty’s hair or the distinction made among the Kirghiz and Kazakh between two kinds of albasty: the more dangerous black one and the less dangerous yellow albasty (Miropiev 1888:14; Kustanaev 1894:48). However, since the āl is also an Iranian mythical concept ‒ which can be found in several Iranian (and some Oguz-Turkic) languages (e.g. Hafner 1986:345; Johansen 1959:303) and is similar to the Turkic albasty in its function ‒ several scholars consider the prefix al- to be of Iranian origin (Andreev 1953:76‒79; Benveniste 1960; 1953:65‒74; Ahmet’ianov 1981:17). We can certainly discard the suggestion that the Turkic word el, meaning ‘hand’, is hidden in the prefix (Nasyrov 1880:251; Koblov 1910:436), as this poses serious phonological problems. Another approach takes as its starting point the Old Turkic word al, meaning ‘front’; thus, the name of the mythical creature would be a compound word meaning ‘pushed in the front’ (Ostroumov 1892:12‒13; Maksimov 1876:27; Nasyrov 1880:251; Koblov 1910:436). There is also the possibility of a form alp+basty (Ashmarin 1994:I:164), where the prefix had two different early meanings in Old Turkic: ‘brave/heroic’, referring to humans, and ‘heavy, hard, danger(ous)’, referring to inanimate objects (Clauson 1972:127‒128).
Some linguists of Iranic languages propose an entirely different starting point, the form almasty, which is not a compound word. Moreover, they regard the sound -m- in the second syllable as the starting point instead of the sound -b-. This form can indeed be found in some Turkic languages and dialects (for example in KarachayBalkar and Tuva), although far less frequently than the albasty version.1 They trace the form almasty all the way back to the ancient Babylonian form lamaštu, which would have entered Turkic languages through Iranic languages (Klimov ‒ Edel’man 1979:60‒63; Rastorgueva ‒ Edel’man 2000:309). Although this proposition does not deserve to be rejected immediately, the word initial a- sound of Turkic ‘data’ cannot be a Turkic development because an a- prosthesis would never have been prefixed to a first syllable la.
As for the ethnographic data regarding the albasty beast, this paper presents it from two distinct aspects. One is regional; that is to say, presented as a concept typical of specific areas on the basis of available data. In addition, the contamination of the concept by other mythical creatures will also be addressed.
“There is also a story in which Suleimankul tells of how he became a kuuču:
One night, on my way home from a visit, I stopped behind a big poplar tree. From there I saw a great fire burning in the distance. Two albastys were playing around the fire. I went closer and they did not notice me. I grabbed one of them and started to beat it hard. It yelled in a human voice:
‘I am dancing around, Suleiman Ake,
I am not going to the place
You are going!
Let me go!’
I did not let it go and carried on beating it. Then it gave me one of its hairs. Then I let it go. That was the time I became a kuuču.” (Baialieva 1972:96)
According to another belief that is prevalent on the steppes, the albasty is a push-daemon, so-called because it pushes people at night while they sleep, appearing in the form of a man or woman or, in certain cases, even an animal. In the sources, it is typically a smallsized human (about three feet tall), often with long, tangled hair (Snesarev 1969:32; Baialieva 1972:98‒100). There are several beliefs concerning the albasty’s hair. One of them claims that whoever obtains a strand of its hair will have power over it, as happens in the story above. Another version is that by possessing one of its hairs, the albasty can be forced to perform household chores, which it will do until its hair is returned (Kereitov 1980:122). This concept of the albasty working around the house is not dissimilar to its third form, which has integrated some characteristics of house or stable-daemons. According to these ideas, the alpasty rides the horses at night until they foam at the mouth, and at other times plaits their manes (Snesarev 1969:32). Among steppe-dwelling Turkic peoples, there are relatively fewer data on the latter. It is typical, however, that such an albasty cannot be defeated by beating, nor by getting hold of a strand of its hair. Instead, one must take and hide the book the albasty carries under its arm so that it cannot find it. In these stories, the book taken from the albasty brings wealth to the host (e.g. Taizhanov – Ismailov 1986:117).
Among Turkic people in Siberia, where the practice of shamanism continued until the first third of the 20th century, there are in essence two related concepts about the albasty. On one hand, it is an evil spirit bringing diseases to people, mainly psychiatric diseases and insanity (Anohin 1924:6), and on the other, its role is related to the shaman’s activity. For shamans, the albasty plays a part in diseases during their initiation, and its name also occurs among the shaman’s helping spirits during their activity (Vitashevskii 1918:166; Basilov 1994:59). Yakut shamans are sometimes divided into two groups, one of which is the ayï (‘good, holy’), and the other is the albaasï, ‘the shaman of evil spirits and devils’ (Ksenofontov 1930:113). These characteristics sometimes also occur in the steppe areas, where certain forms of shamanism (mainly the baksys, who had a healing function) were still extant at the beginning of the 20th century. An example of this was recorded in Horezm, which is interesting both from a linguistic and a religioethnological aspect: a professional reciter of the Koran, who was also recognised as a healer, provided information of a shaman song, the invocational part of which mentions the names of some 108 angels, spirits and saints, with the name alpasty among them (Murodov 1975:100‒118). The linguistic interest of the text itself is that one part of it is in Uzbek and the other part in Tajik. These two languages are not even related to one another, Uzbek being a Turkic and Tajik an Iranic language.
In the mythology of some Siberian Turkic areas, the alpasty appears as a kind of female forest spirit who enters into a sexual relationship with men logging or hunting in the forest (Dyrenkova 2012:233‒234).
The Turkic peoples of the Volga-area can be divided into two large, linguistic groupings. Tartar and Bashkir belong to the Kipchak languages (just as Kazakh and Kyrgyz, already mentioned), whereas Chuvash constitutes a separate branch among Turkic languages, with numerous special characteristics.
“Whence thou came from,
There thou should go
Go thou to rich breasts
Go thou to a light feather bed Go thou to a stormy flood Go thou and perish!
There is no place here for thee,
Whence thou came from,
There thou should go!” (Hisametdinova 2011‒2012:I:60)
Among the ‘sending-away’ type of Bashkir incantations known to us, there is no other instance of ‘sending to breasts’.
Unsurprisingly, stories regarding the albasty are common among Bashkirs. For example, a text recorded in 1906 describes the old woman living next door as an albasty, who appears to the little boy home alone in the form of a little girl, and who is eaten by the family dog a few days later (Hisametdinova 2011‒2012:I:59).
Among Tartars, the albastï is notorious as a push-daemon who shoves people at night, either in their sleep or while they are awake. During this process, the person being pushed cannot move and feels heavy pressure around their heart and a choking tightness in their throat (Nasyrov 1880:269; Szentkatolnai Bálint 1875:149; Koblov 1910:437‒438). A victim can escape the assault by moving his or her little finger (Nasyrov 1880:269). According to material recorded among Christian Tartars, the albastïs mainly attack at Christmas, when they knock into people from the front and push them to the ground, putting their full weight on them, thus rendering them totally immobile (Maksimov 1876:27). Some Tartar sources mention that the albastïs not only push people but also suck their blood (Nasyrov 1880:251), and one or two sources also say that the albasty is a creature who drives horses and generates wind (Maksimov 1876:29). There are also several different sources regarding the physical appearance of the albasty. Here, the long-haired, large-breasted woman so typical elsewhere is not so prevalent. Some sources describe it as a human-looking figure (Koblov 1910:437), but there are other descriptions likening it to a large haystack (Maksimov 1876:27‒29).
“Wind alpastă /alpasti3
returns to the meeting
dead man’s văpăr
returns to the meeting
between Pitěr and Moscow
there is a twelve-year-old girl,
go thou there!
Do not debate!
Do not contradict!” (Ashmarin 1994:1:166)
Of the other evil spirits in the incantation, the usal and the sexmet indicate ‘bad, disease, difficulty, trouble’, and vupăr is fundamentally a nocturnal push-daemon as well as the name of the witch in fairy-tales.
Because of the traditions above, it may also be worth noting that in present-day spoken Chuvash language, the word alpastă denotes somebody that has unkempt hair or a generally untidy appearance (Skvortsov 1982:31).
As a conclusion to this paper, it is important to note that some mythical creatures have either been mixed up with the albasty or show great similarities to it.
One of these sources mentions a creature not yet discussed here, typical in Turkish language areas, the yarım adam, which denotes ‘half-human’. In Turkish, this is a puerperal daemon and also one that brings diseases to children, displaying a great likeness to the figures Lamaštu-Lilith-Gello, which are of Babylonian origin but are also recognised in South-Eastern Europe and in European Jewish beliefs. According to the story, Suleiman (Solomon) wanted to cast a yarım adam, which brought diseases to young children, into the fire. Responding to its cries for mercy, Suleiman settled for the following agreement: in the houses where Suleiman’s prayer and the names of the 12 and a half yarım adam are written, the yarım adams will harm neither the host, nor his wealth, nor the cradle (Mészáros 1906:26).
This parallel is especially interesting because the Bashkirs also recognise a halfhuman mythical creature called yarïmtïg, who is basically a forest spirit. In an early twentieth-century source, however, the yarïmtïq is described as a hairy creature with the ability of seeing into the future and a love for riding horses; not just riding them, in fact, but mercilessly so until they foamed at the mouth. According to several scholars, in the Bashkir language the name yarïmtïq is only widespread in certain areas and is identical to the forest daemon called šürale in other places. The name of the Bashkir šürale also exists in the Kazakh language (sorel) and, according to some sources, this forest daemon is the albasty’s husband (Valikhanov 1904:277). The name “half-human”, on the other hand, can be related to the creatures that only appear to be human from the front, but which in fact seem only half-human as they have no backs, rendering their innards visible.
When studying both steppe Turks and Bashkirs, several scholars have identified the mythical creature called “yellow (or blond) girl” (sarï qïz) with the albasty. The reason for this identification could be that the albasty is a yellow-haired or blond-haired creature. However, this identification is not satisfying, even though the two creatures do indeed have similar features. The sari qïz primarily appears in shamanic songs in the texts of steppe Turkic peoples as one of the spirits assisting the shaman (e.g. Divaev 1899:314; Verbitskii 1893:55) but is not widespread either as a pusher or a puerperal daemon.
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The word alpasti may be the third person singular, genitive form of alpastă, but in the present-day spoken Chuvash language, the word form alpasti also occurs (so it can also be a nominative case). Both possibilities are acceptable, as alpasti also occurs where it is certainly not a genitive case, for example: vutlă alpasti (fiery or fire alpasti), whereas below in parallel structures, certainly genitive case forms of văpăr occur (văpri).