Unsolved:Pagan religions of Azerbaijan

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Very little is known about pre-Christian and pre-Islamic mythology in Eastern Transcaucasia; sources are mostly Hellenic historians like Strabo and based on archaeological evidence.



Barhail was one of two major gods.[1] He keeps sun on his right hand and moon on left hand. His right hand shows East and left hand shows West. If he drops his right hand for a while, world will fall under darkness forever. He decides if days should be longer or shorter.


Sabail was one of two major gods. He was protector of sea and wind. He stands perpendicular to Barhail. His left hand keeps ocean apart from continents, prevents floods. His right hand keeps weather calm, if he droppes that hand, typhoons and storms can occur.

Sun, moon and sky

Strabo names the gods of the sun, the sky, and above of all, the moon, and equates them to the Greek gods Helios, Zeus, and Selene respectively:[2]

As for gods, they honour Helius, Zeus, and Selene, but especially Selene; her temple is near Iberia. The office of priest is held by the man who, after the king, is held in highest honour; he has charge of the sacred land, which is extensive and well-populated, and also of the temple slaves, many of whom are subject to religious frenzy and utter prophecies


According to Strabo, human sacrifice was widely used in pre-Christian Albania:

And any one of those who, becoming violently possessed, wanders alone in the forests, is by the priest arrested, bound with sacred fetters, and sumptuously maintained during that year, and then led forth to the sacrifice that is performed in honour of the goddess, and, being anointed, is sacrificed along with other victims. The sacrifice is performed as follows: Some person holding a sacred lance, with which it is the custom to sacrifice human victims, comes forward out of the crowd and strikes the victim through the side into the heart, he being not without experience in such a task; and when the victim falls, they draw auguries from his fall and declare them before the public; and when the body is carried to a certain place, they all trample upon it, thus using it as a means of purification.

Ancestor worship

Unlike many pagan nations, Caucasian Albanians did not practice worship of ancestors. As Strabo states:

The Albanians are surpassingly respectful to old age, not merely to their parents, but to all other old people. And when people die it is impious to be concerned about them or even to mention them. Indeed, they bury their money with them, and therefore live in poverty, having no patrimony.

Sacred islands

In East Albania, sacred lands existed in islands of Caspian Sea. Pomponius Mela wrote:

Talge [Cheleken], on the Caspian Sea, is fertile without being cultivated and is abundant in every root crop and fruit, but the local peoples consider it an abomination and a sacrilege to touch what grows there. They think that these things have been prepared by the gods and must be saved for the gods. Alongside those coasts that we have called deserted lie a number of equally deserted islands, which, being without names of their own, are called the Scythian Islands [3]

Sacred mountains

Like Greek, Chinese and Tengrist practices, local inhabitants considered several mountains as sacred. List of sacred mountains according to local legends:[4]

  • Babadağ is the fourth highest peak in the Caucasus in Azerbaijan at 3,629 meters. It is located north of İsmayıllı. At the top is a pir dedicated to Hasrat Baba—a person revered as a holy man—who is believed to have lived during the period when the area was known as Caucasian Albania. Babadağ means "Grandfather Mountain".
  • Mount Avey is one of the peaks and a whitish-gray ridge in the Small Caucasus Mountains located between Georgia and the Gazakh district. It is 12 km away from the village of Dash Salahli. Avey means "House of the Moon".
  • Mount Goyazan is a mountain in northwestern Qazakh Rayon of Azerbaijan. Goyazan means "Skycrusher". According to ancient local beliefs, it was named because of its loneliness and being directed to the sky.
  • Khinalug is a mountain where Khinalug people live. Before Islam they were pagan, worshiping "their own fire god".[5]


Almost every pagan temple was replaced by churches. Notable temples:

  • Kilsedagh church - was a temple dedicated to Mithra, paintings of Mithra can still be seen inside
  • Anahit church - was a temple dedicated to Armenian goddess Anahit.
  • Chaparly church - archeologic excavations proved that there were pagan temple. In burial site, a human skeleton discovered which buried with his/her own customs, which is unusual to Christian practice.
  • Kurmuk church - Church built on old pagan temple during Russian invasion of İlisu.
  • Lakit church - Church built on old pagan temple.[6]
  • Mamrukh church - Church built on temples belong to Moon and Sun.[7]
  • Mingachevir Church Complex - Church complex built on Fire temple. Mostly ruined, but still have pagan symbols. One of them is World tree between two peafowl gravings.

Non-local paganism

Huns migrated to Caucasus in 6th century AD. They established a polity here. Bishop Israel wrote about the customs of the Huns and their deities:

  • Kuara - god of thunder.
  • Aspandiat - old Hun hero, which was deified.
  • Fire, Water, an unnamed goddess of roads.

Cruxification of St. Bartholomeus

According to a legend, Bartholomeus came to a place which is on the shore of Caspian Sea which is likely to be Baku, cured the daughter of the local king, Polymius, of her madness, and was subsequently granted by the king the right to preach freely in his territory. The Apostolic Acts of Abdias tell that locals worshipped a goddess by the name of Astaroth. In a competition with the local priesthood, Bartholomew assembled a large crowd in front of an image of the goddess and challenged the deity to show itself. Instead, the statue shattered and an angel appeared. The angel revealed the exorcised demon-deity to the crowd. The goddess, totally black, "sharp faced", and breathing fire and brimstone, was bound in chains by the angel and sent away. The king, amazed at what he had just seen, was immediately baptised along with many of his subjects. The king's brother, Astyages, heard of the baptisms and declared war on the Christian community. Bartolomew was beaten with clubs, skinned alive and then finally beheaded in front of Maiden Tower.

Persecution of pagans

Christian persecution of pagans

According to Movses Kaghanvatsi, Vachagan III the Pious of Albania persecuted pagan priests, tortured and forcibly converted them to Christianism. He established a Church School in a city called Rustak and raised children of pagan couples as Christian.

Islamic treatment of pagans

Not much information exists about pagans living during Islamization process of Azerbaijan, because they were converted or executed before arrival of Islam. According to Azerbaijani historian Sara Ashurbeyli several Shahs of Shirvan fought against infidels and even killed by infidels. But it's likely to be country of Sarir.[8] Estakhri states that pagans still existed during the 10th century.[9] Andalusian traveller Abu Hamid al-Qarnati states that pagans were living in mountainous villages near city of Derbent in the 12th century.

Mongol invasion

The Mongol invasion can be considered a second wave of paganism in Azerbaijan, but after Ghazan's adoption of Islam as state religion, paganism and shamanism dissolved quickly.

Archeological evidences

Enormous idols found in archeological sites of Khinisly (near village of Böyük Xınıslı), Chiraghly, Daghkolany. Idols made with local stones. Most of them have no heads or hands. They are mostly tall as height of human. They belong to last centuries of BC. Idol-making technique is not advanced in comparison to Greco-Roman idols.[10]


Paganism mostly influenced folklore. Supernatural beings (giants, div, fairies, dwarves) in fairy tales, religious rituals, sacred shrines (pir) plays important role nowadays in Azerbaijan. Azeri metal bands like Vozmezdie and Üör usually refer to paganism in their works.


  1. "Munisnameh", Abu Bakr ibn Khusraw al-Ustad
  2. Strabo. Geography. (translated into Russian by G.Stratanovsky). St. Petersburg: 1964. Vol. XI. 4,7
  3. Mela, Pomponius. Chorographia Article: 3.6.58
  4. Nadir Mammadov. "Settlement names of Azerbaijan" (oronimics). Baku, "Azernəshr", 1993
  5. Легкобытов В. Кубинская провинция. – Обозрение..., ч. IV, стр. 108-109.
  6. Архитектура Азербайджана, эпоха Низами,М-Б 1947
  7. Караахмедова А.А. Христианские памятники Кавказской Албании (Алазаньская долина). Баку: 1986
  8. S. Ashurbeyli – Shirvanshahs, Baku, 2007
  9. Estakhri. Al-masaalik al-mamaalik
  10. Khalilov C.A. About. – MKA, VI, Baku, 1965.

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