If you tuned in with me last week, you may remember the peculiar story detailing the creation of the Lombard people which involved women in beards and the blessings of the god Odin. Odd as they may be, these stories of ethnogenesis served as the foundations for young kingdoms whose identities and legitimacy were still uncertain. The Merovingians of France, for example, were the first native dynasty to rule their territory after the fall of Rome. While aware of this classical inheritance, however, and devoutly Christian, the dynasty nonetheless traced its roots to the union between a woman and a sea-monster to enhance the mystique of their bloodline.
In fact, during this turbulent period at the birth of the Middle Ages, when Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Lombards, and still other peoples were emerging into the Roman awareness, contemporary authors struggled to explain how so many different groups could have arose in the land beyond the northern frontier. Their answer was Scandia (or Scandza), a legendary island in the frozen north from whence the barbarians came. Jordanes, who wrote a history of the Goths, described Scandza as “a hive of races or a womb of nations” capable of generating an endless tide of peoples, some of whom “live like wild animals in rocks hewn out like castles” while others were unnaturally tall or wealthy from the trade in furs.
While Jordanes’ Scandza is almost entirely legendary, its intense connection with the origin of peoples can be seen in a number of real sites around the world, including the Orkhon valley in what is now Mongolia.
A place of rich grasslands and gently sloping mountains, the Orkhon valley was the ideal landscape for the Central Asian nomads, who grazed their cattle here and used it as a seasonal meeting place.
These practical attractions, however, are only part of the allure. In a number of Turkic inscriptions found in the area, dating from the 7th-9th centuries CE, the area, including the surrounding Otukan mountains, is invoked as the sacred home of the Turkic peoples. One inscription, commemorating a Turkic prince named Kul Tegin, exclaims that “A land better than the Otuken mountains does not exist!” As the sacred centre of the realm, the mountains offered peace and dominion to those who ruled over them: “If you stay in the land of Otukan, and send caravans from there, you will have no trouble. If you stay at the Otukan mountains, you will live forever dominating the tribes!”
The power of the Orkhon, and the Otukan mountains which overlooked it, arose from the shamanist beliefs of the early Turks. These beliefs held that spirits invested the elements of the natural world, including the earth, the sky, and the mountains. Thus, the mountain spirit protected those who dwelled in Otukan and granted them the prestige and good fortune to subdue the other tribes. For this reason, controlling the Orkhon became a pre-requisite in creating large nomadic empires.
These empires–comprised of highly mobile nomadic cavalry in their thousands–have periodically swept their way through history, overwhelming the more settled empires in their path. Although the Mongol Empire of Ghengis Khan is by far the most famous, there have been a large number of empires that began in the Orkhon, many of whom looked to the sacred landscape to guarantee their fortunes.
The aspirations of universal rule which were held by the rulers of Otukan are best expressed by a Uighur (8th century) inscription, speaking in the voice of the khan El-etmish, which declares:
“Here I had my scripts and royal signs which would last one thousand years and ten thousand days…”
Although his empire survived for less than a century before being swept away, the reverence which the Uighurs and Turks held for the Orkhon valley remained. The successive generations of Central Asian Empires who sought their origins in the Orkhon mean that it, like Jordanes’ Scandza, oversaw the birth of nations.
An online translation of Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths is available here! The inscriptions can be found either in:
Tekin, Talat, A Grammar of Orkhon Turkic, (Bloomington, Indiana, 1968) or in
Tekin, Talat, ‘The Tariat (Terkhin) Inscription’, Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol.37, (1982), pp.43-68,
neither of which, unfortunately, is readily available.