In the Turkic mythology, the so-called story of Ergenekon is an important myth which aims to explain the expansion of the Turkic tribes and their rise to power across the Central-Asian steppes. Being a founding myth, the story ans its legacy still play an important role in Turkish ethnic identity and folklore. The legend tells about a great crisis of the ancient Turks. Following a difficult period, the Turks took refuge in the Altai valley where they were trapped for four centuries. Finally, an expert blacksmith ended their plight by creating a passage after melting away the rocks that blocked their path, allowing the wolf Asena to lead them out and giving rise to the great Turkish empires, a story strongly linked with the ascent of the Göktürks.
Asena, a legendary grey wolf, is of significant importance within traditional Turkish mythology. This she-wolf is seen as the mother of all Turks. According to legend, she found a wounded young man, adopting him and nurturing him back to health. When the man regained his strength, he and Asena had intercourse. Pregnant and pursued by enemies, she flees to the region of the Tarim Basin in the modern-day Chinese province of Xinjiang. There, she gave birth to ten half-wolf, half-human boys. These were the first Turks, wolf and man being two inseparable and essential parts of this legendary synergy. One of them, Ashina, became their leader and established the Ashina-clan, which ruled over the historical Göktürk khaganates.
In this piece, I would like to focus on the significance of this legend within Pan-Turanist symbolism, that is to say the post-Ottoman nationalist political and cultural movement aiming at the unification of all Turkish-speaking peoples. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that such powerful founding myth and the human attraction to the primitive and intrinsic bond with the wolf became the source of a strong ethno-nationalist message. As the power of the Ottoman Empire waned and their Islamic hegemony disappeared, nationalist sentiments quickly rose to prominence within the former Ottoman realm, as it did all across Europe and the Middle-East. Contrary to secular Turkish nationalism, most Turkic pan-Turanists rely both on the grandeur of the Ottoman caliphate and other Turkic Muslim dynasties as well as on Turkish sjamanist societies and pre-Islamic symbols to create an overarching ethno-nationalist construct.
This modern construct draws a lot of its imagery from what Turanists claim to be shared Turkic legacy. As is the case with many pan-nationalist movements that are based on a historical and racial basis, we could conclude that the modern discourse of Pan-Turanism differs greatly from the meaning their ancestors gave to these same concepts and symbols. I therefore decided to write a separate piece on the wolf symbolism among Classical and Medieval Turkic peoples, as to avoid confusion with current political and social movements.
The Göktürks play a central role in Pan-Turanism, being considered as the founders of Turkic political power in the region and the first ones to have left us the first written record of any Turkic language in history. They were a nomadic confederation of Turkic peoples living in Central Asia. The Old Turkic name Türük () refers to these nomadic peoples, and is still widely used to show affection and affiliation with the Turkic realm. The Göktürks were effectively the main power in the region during the sixth and seventh century under the leadership of the Ashina clan. This ruling dynasty established the so-called Turkic Khaganate in Inner Asia. One of its famous members, Bilge Khagan (683-734) of the Second Turkic Khaganate, is still a revered figure and appears sporadically in Pan-Turanist imagery. A 1985 Turkey stamp depicts him next to the flag associated with the Göktürks, a wolf’s head on a blue background.
One of the most distinct Pan-Turanist organisations in Turkey is the Grey Wolves, or Bozkurtlar, a contemporary far-right nationalist organization of ultra-Turanists who use the ideology’s symbols as a token of identity and membership, a sign of belonging to a select “supreme” group. Besides demonstrations and actions within Turkey, many of its members are reported to have fought in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Chechen Wars and alongside Turkmen militias in the Syrian Civil War. Their banner features a howling grey wolf and a crescent, combining respectively Turkic and Islamic symbolism within one entity.
Their well-known salute is a hand gesture where the hand forms a wolf’s head by placing the middle and ring fingers on the thumb with the remaining two fingers sticking up like two ears. This salute is claimed to represent the grey wolf, Asena, and thus the essence of being a Turk. It should be noted that, although this sign is associated with the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves, it is used by a wide array of different people. There have been instances of Arab and Turkmen militants in northern Syria who performed the Grey Wolves salute but who weren’t necessarily members. Many adopted the salute to affirm their allegiance to the Turanist cause or the Turkish state, not effectively associating it with intolerance or racism.
In essence, however, the sign is a politically and socially controversial gesture, still presenting fuel for debate in Turkey about the role of such a militant ultranationalist movement within a secular democracy. Many Turkish minorities, be they Greeks, Kurds, Armenians or Alevis, have had bad experiences with the hostile Grey Wolves up to the point that the latter have been described by some scholars, journalists, and governments as a terrorist organization. Despite this, the Grey Wolves are supported by 3.6% of the Turkish electorate according to a 2014 estimate.
Another famous symbol of Pan-Turanism I’ll include in this piece, although not necessarily connected to either the Bozkurtlar or the legend of Asena, is the IYI sign. IYI (also written IVI) is mostly known as the so-called tamga of the nomadic Kayi tribal clan from the Oghuz Turks according to 11th century Medieval historian and linguist Maḥmūd al-Kāshgarī. A tamga was a clan identifier used between the many Turkic clans of the Eurasian steppes. IYI is as a matter of fact the Oghuz word for “good.” It’s popularity today is mainly the result of its connection to Ertugrul (d. 1280), a famous Kayi warlord in Seljuk Anatolia and the father of ʿUthmān I, father of the Ottoman dynasty. It’s popularly assumed that he flew the IYI flag, as seen in his tomb in Sogut, or in the popular series on his life, Diriliş: Ertuğrul. And yet, the IYI symbol exists outside the Kayi tribe’s realm, found as far as Bulgaria and the Teymareh mountainous area of central Iran, areas all influenced by Turkic history.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.