Mountain Altai rituals

What ribbons and stones hide.
How rites and communication with spirits are performed.
There are special places where you can close your eyes and in every detail – branches and grass rattle, water chirping – you seem to hear whispering in an unknown language. By a thermal, by a mountain trail, by the lake and river bank, in the steppe and at the edge of the glacier. Always would you find nearby a tree with tons of hanging ribbons or a tower of rocks or a pillar growing from the pile of stones.
History and culture


Petr Dikarev

Publication date:
February 19, 2021
Spirits of the Altai Mountains
Altai nations separated the world into the upper, the middle and the bottom worlds since ancient times. They also thought everything has its spirit. They look like animals or humans and they have mind, will and powers. In Altai myths the middle world lives under the protection of upper world gods while the middle world also has its own spirits: of the mountain (Tuu eezi), of rivers (Suu eezi), lakes (
Kyol eezi), passes (Azhu eezi), canyons (Yer eezi), thermals (Arzhan eezi) and the spirits of the sacred mountains, most respected (Yiyic Tuu eezi).
How the rites are performed
To seek for the mercy of the spirits Altaians do rituals. To pass a mountain pass the sacred spirit of it is given a sacrifice:
  • tying ribbons (j'alama) on specific trees;
  • building small pyramids from rocks or branches (oboo);
  • spray milk or altai vodka (araky) on the rocks.

Then they say a little prayer named alkyshi to ask for something. The text is always different but similar in structure:
  • The introduction is referring to the spirits and their appraisal.
  • The main part is the question or proposal.
  • The ending has sacred words.

Alkyshi is always expressive and has many repetitions, which are typical for ancient tales.

The same algorithm is for every spirit – mountain, river, lake, canyon or healing spring called arzhan. For example arzhan is usually visited in the morning during the new moon in a small group with a group leader familiar with the ritual. He himself addresses the spirit, introduces everyone by their names and kinships and tells their appeal:

"From the mother earth
The sacred spring came to us
As a blessing of Altai
The blessing brought the sacred spring
Take my diseases,
Cure my body!
I appeal to the sacred spring!"

Some arzhans have specific area they cure: eyes diseases and digestion problem, joint pain and heart diseases, skin problems and sterility. There are arzhans that generally boost immune system or cure from several diseases.

In Altai legends water and sacred springs spirits are depicted as young women or elder men. Sometimes a spirit of a river will only have name and no further details, while arzhan spirits have their own legends and tales based on real stories from the past or images from the myths. In those tales we may find how to protect a sacred spring, keep it clean and efficient, otherwise a punishment will take place.

There's a belief that arzhan-eezi give hints if the visit was good or not. So if after visiting a thermal you meet a snake, hare, maral or a roe, it means benevolence. But if you tell anyone about the animal visitor, your talkativeness will be punished.

And now back to the offerings to the patron spirits.
Towers of stones
Small stone towers called oboo tash are usually constructed in the beginning of summer and autumn on a sunny hill by the bottom of a sacred mountain. According to traditions the main place is the process of appraising Altai – Altaydy kodurgeni which means 'raising up'. The summer ritual is called Djajyl bur meaning spring leaves, and the autumn ritual is Sary bur meaning yellow leaves. It is a process of giving respects to the lands as the most sacred object and begging for wealth and more cattle

In a sacred place that has oboo-tash you can't litter, make noise and pick up stones from the pyramid. This tradition is widely spread – from Altai to Tibet, also altars with the names reminding oboo word were familiar to Turks of 506 century AD. The scientists found runic scriptures with the word 'opa'. The oldest oboo-tash are in the Kosh-Agach region on the tops of the mountains in the Onguday and Ust-Koksa regions.

The ritual ribbons jalama can't be silk – only cotton of white, yellow, blue or green colour, 70-90 centimeter long and 3-4 cm wide only.

  • You can't make them from the edge of the piece – you cut it off and burn down.
  • You can't cut the ribbons with scissors, only rip.
  • Then you need to smoke them with archyn – juniper of high altitude. It is gathered with songs of mercy to the spirits.
  • The ribbons blessed that way can't be knotted on the branches of evergreen tree – you can put them on birch trees, larch, osier-bed. Only in the Ulagan region you can knot a ribbon jalama on cedar.
  • The tree should not grow on a steep slope, should have no spikes.
  • There's a manner of knotting – kazyk buulash – you tie two ribbons, leaving two ends on the top and two hanging down. That is how Altaians praise the spirits of the upper and middle world. In some areas you may knot 3 ribbons for all the three worlds.
  • You can't tie them after the sunset, during waning moon and a year after death of any family member (Telengits can't do it for 40 days).
  • During the rituals you must not laugh, a man has to take off his hat. You need to pronounce your name, kinship, place of arrival and his objective.
  • After tying the ribbon, the asker steps back a little and tell alkysh. Here is the prayer for hunters asking for big prey:

I'm going to hunt animals and birds
If you get my bullet don't get angry
If you get my bullet don't get furious
I came with the wish of prey
Me and my kids need to make living
We need your meat
the spirits of nature and river
The spirits of mountain, hold no evil.
Give me your prey

If the asker doesn't have the necessary fabric, he can knot two horse hairs. The word 'j'alama' – the name of the ribbon – comes from the ancient Turk word 'shal' meaning 'the mane'. In ancient times, that ritual replaced sacrificing a horse. The biggest amount of ribbons can be found in Ulagan, Ust-kan, Ust-koksa, Shebalino and Onguday regions. In Kosh-agach there are very few trees and the ribbons are knotted at the wooden poles stuck in a pile of stones.

The ritual objects have special meaning for Altaians. Imagine how sad they are seeing the piles ruined by tourists, torn ribbons and rubbish on sacred trees.

Look at how the ribbons tremble in the wind. How the sun warms the stones in pyramids. Listen carefully – it seems as if the wind is whispering something in a new language. Maybe its someone's pray for his child health or wealth, or peace. The things that are close to everyone in the world.

Safe trip and new discoveries to you

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