by Agnès Kefeli, Arizona State University

I always thought that the shurale, a forest spirit with its one-horned head, crooked arms, and long fingers, was no more than the comical remnant of a pre-modernist view of nature.  For me, once the famous Tatar poet Abdulla Tukay had composed Shurale in 1907, the shurale lost their power: they could no longer bedevil travelers stranded in the forest.  Demystified, they had passed into childlore and touristic folklore.  Who among Tatar children has not memorized parts of Tukay’s poem or drawn portraits of the shurale?  A tourist guide produced in 2017 introduces them as mythical creatures, found in Tatar and Bashkir tales.  The shurale, it says, could tickle people to death but since the foolish forest monsters were afraid of water, one could escape them by crossing any body of water.  Some Tatar youth even suggest dressing like the shurale to celebrate Halloween the “Tatar pagan” way.  The shurale, though, happen to be much more than “pagan” folkloric monsters, delighting children’s imagination in fairytales or amusing tourists. In fact, as shown in John Lindow’s work on trolls in Scandinavia, nature spirits do not simply belong to the olden times; they reflect the past, present, and future of a given community.  Along this line of argument, Eurasian nature spirits still reflect contemporary anxieties regarding the future of Tatar religious identity.

In 1909, Tukay published another poem that warned children not to be afraid of or believe in shurale, vampiric ghouls (ubïr), and jinn.  A few years later, a concerned mullah wrote to the journal Ad-Din wa-l-Adab, asking his editor, the famous Sufi Alimjan Barudi, who had promoted jadid literacy, whether it was suitable for children to memorize this poem that denied the jinn’s existence.  The journal agreed; this poem had no place in school curricula.  However, it also conceded that the poet’s intention was merely to protect children from a superstitious fear of jinn, as too many believed that the jinn could metamorphose into fire or dogs, which was pure fantasy.  In fact, as attested in the Qur’an, jinns were not visible to humans.  Similar discussions took place in Riza Fakhretdin’s journal Shura.  For the editor, indigenous spirits such as the shurale were part of folk culture and the tales attributed to them originated from people’s lack of scientific understanding. Those tales also served a pedagogical purpose for young children to warn them against possible dangers.  In other words, before attributing any anomaly to spirits, it was essential to find the scientific cause of any phenomenon; scientific reason prevailed over unchecked superstition.  Fakhretdin recommended that mothers ceased to frighten their children with the shurale: instead, they should choose edifying stories that built character and opened their mind.  Barudi and Fakhretdin’s reasoning, however, did not deny the existence of the jinn, but rather warned parents against superstition.  Such an approach was no different from that of the Tatar encyclopedist Abdul Kaium Nasyri who had classified indigenous water and land spirits as separate from the jinn of Persian and Qur’anic origin in his 1868 scholarly review of Tatar mythology.

After the revolution, Tukay’s poems on the shurale were widely published while his rhymed translations of Qur’anic verses and religious poems on the Ascension of the Prophet to Heaven or the Night of Power during which the Prophet Muhammad received his very first revelation were censored.  Folk spirits came to be understood as remnants of a Tatar “shamanistic” past. The Tatar historian Gaziz Gubaidullin, arrested and shot in 1937, called for the continuation of the work initiated by Nasyri in gathering folktales, claiming that those remnants would contribute to the international study of animism.

For Soviet poets and novelists, folk spirits constituted remnants of their childhood. The Stalin-prize winner and folklorist, Gumer Bashirov fondly recalled his mother’s belief that there was no such thing as an empty place—spirits inhabited their home, bathhouse, and every element of nature—and that his father, usually very strict, tickled him while playing shurale. Quoting Maksim Gorky’s keynote address at the First Congress of Soviet writers in 1934, the former civil-war Bolshevik combatant repeated that folk stories constituted a lens into the life, working conditions, and dreams of past generations and a form of prescientific knowledge.  Most important, beyond being a rich source of inspiration for writers as Gorky suggested, folk beliefs could potentially provide an invaluable reservoir of morality for his contemporaries.  While Bashirov blamed prerevolutionary mullahs for their fanaticism toward folk beliefs, he also recognized that Tatar tales were not remnants of a “shamanistic time.”  The story tellers he interviewed mixed elements of Soviet reality such as “respublika” with elements of Islamic cosmology—the Qaf mountain, the Simorgh, or the seven layers of heaven and hell—defying the idea that one could separate folk literature from Islamic cosmology and modernity.

Linguists also pondered over the origins of the shurale.  Rifkat Akhmetianov argued that the forest spirit was related to other Turkic and Finno-Ugric spirits, one of them being yarïmtïk (cut in half).  The term “shurale,” composed of the noun shura and the Turkic suffix -le in Old Chuvash meant “а person possessed by a half-demon.”  Later, Tatars forgot the meaning of “half” and the shurale, described as a one-eye and one-horn creature by the prerevolutionary Russian Orientalist Iakov Koblov, came to be exclusively understood as a forest spirit.  But in 1984, the Tatar writer, Sultan Shamsi criticized Akhmetianov for not capturing the uniqueness of the shurale, which in his view could be found only within the confine of the Great Bulghar kingdom that extended to the Black Sea and the Don River.  The Christian Tatars’ practice of sacrificing a white rooster to the shurale also indicated that the latter was originally more than a spirit but a god whose body, according to Shamsi, was reminiscent of Pan, the Greek god of fields and forests, son of Hermes.  The similarity between the tale of the shurale outwitted by a lumberjack who gave it a false name to escape, and the Odyssey, in which Ulysses used the same type of trick to escape the cyclops’s wrath, indicated that the cyclops in the Odyssey and Pan were early prototypes of the Tatar one-eyed forest spirit.  In short, because the Bulghars had close trade contacts with Pontic Hellenized cities and mixed with Iranian-speaking Sarmatians, the shurale was of Ancient Greek and Persian-Zoroastrian origin. In this new configuration, Chuvash, Maris, Mordvins and others simply borrowed the shurale from the Bulghar-Tatars.

The fall of the Soviet Union was marked by an increased interest in the supernatural and the esoteric.  Tatar imams, however, had to contend with a new reality: Tatars remained suspicious of organized religion, and some experimented with other spiritual paths: Hinduism, Buddhism, and various forms of New Age spirituality such as neopaganism, ESP, ufology, and channeling.  Tatar mythology became even more attractive partly because the founders of the esoteric path Helena Blavatsky and the Silver-Age painter Nicholas Roerich used fairytales, myths, and legends as evidence of an ancient wisdom that contained the secret of all religions.  Shamsi, enthralled by English-language channeling literature, publicized Tatar folklore as a major source of wisdom that Western esotericists, because of their subconscious bias, had long neglected.  For him, Tatar folktale creatures were related to the mysteries of Ancient Greece.  As for Tatar neopagans, they mixed esoteric concepts and folklore, but they integrated them into a practice that Blavatsky and Roerich would not have recognized.  Firdus Devbash, a PhD philosophy graduate from Kazan State University, who recommended New-Age positive thinking and the repetition of the Hindu and Buddhist mantra Om in meditation, advised Tatars to invoke their native spirits by holding their slightly curved palms, chest-level, toward the sky.  Similarly, worshipers of Tatar spirits should conclude their prayers by pronouncing “Amen” while wiping their faces with their palms, as Muslims do when they pray to Allah.  For Devbash, Nasyri’s account of the shurale proved that Tatars always believed in their reality.  In short, the shurale have always lived in the hearts of both Muslim and Christian Tatars (Kriashens), who, like the Japanese, have always practiced religious pluralism.  

Neo-paganism, however, made some uneasy.  A bizarre incident was reported in the Russian press that neopagans had spread chicken or sheep blood over the mouth of the shurale statue near Kamal Theater after trying to recruit adepts at the Kriashen Tikhvin church in Kazan, which caused a stir among the Tatar Christian community.  Contrary to the claims of Tatar nationalists, the Kriashens did not view themselves as superficially Christianized “pagans” and they had no intention to “return” to animism.

The Kriashens were not the only ones disturbed by the neopagans’ antics.  Imams as well were critical of Tengrism.  The first deputy of the Muslim Religious Board of Tatarstan Valiulla Iakupov objected to the neopagans’ characterization of Tatar jinn and other spirits as pre-Islamic and pre-Christian powers associated with Tengri. Another imam Jaghfar Mubarak went further.  All Tatar spirits belonged to the Qur’anic jinn realm, reversing the process of folklorization initiated by Tukay.  Taking visible delight in describing the shurale’s mischievous acts and external appearance, Mubarak humorously delved into the many cunning ways one could protect oneself from the shurale.  Besides reading the Qur’an, reciting prayers, or saying Bismillah (in the name of God), one could, for instance, insert a stick into the hole of their armpit.  Most revealing, Mubarak avoided reminding Tatars that according to the Islamic exegesis, jinn were invisible.  In fact, he doubled down, not without humor again: when the shurale lost a finger, another grew in its place.  Still, the shurale could be a reminder of proper religious practice.  Islamic prayers were the most powerful protection against their mischief.

In conclusion, the shurale is more than a comical creature of fable.  A sociological survey conducted in post-Soviet times indicated that still 69% of Tatars living in the countryside believed in the existence of forest and water spirits. The survey, however, implied that the belief in the existence of nature spirits could only be a rural phenomenon. The post-Soviet evolution of the shurale has proven otherwise.  “Modern” urban neopagans accorded reality to spirits on the basis of their relationship to nature, and others, like imam Mubarak, did it on the basis of scriptural authority.  In doing so, Mubarak, who also resorted to the occult to prove the jinn’s existence, responded to New-Agers’ fascination for the supernatural and their animistic perception of nature.  For public school teachers, as well, nature spirits taught children to be ecologically responsible, and made Tatar Islam unique, as Tatars sought to make sense of new global interpretations of Islam.  In short, it would be hasty to assume that Soviet atheism had successfully demythologized the supernatural, or that post-Soviet folklore had been successfully reduced to a market-driven entertainment commodity.  In fact, folklore is a communicative tool that constantly changes itself depending on the historical context.  While collections of folklore rarely provide a context, the post-Soviet reworking of myths and its pre-history can provide some visible clues of how and why stories take new meanings over time.  To repeat John Lindow’s main argument: folk spirits have always been part of people’s empirical experience and still play a role in the process of identity formation.  The shurale are no exception.


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