Turkoman Embroidery and Women's Magic


Turkoman Embroidery and Women's Magic

Originally presented at TSA Conference – September 2000, Santa Fe, NM

Text ©copyright by Kate Fitz Gibbon

There is insufficient time – in just a fifteen minute lecture – to sketch even the barest outlines of Turkoman material culture as a preliminary to discussing their embroidery. The Turkoman are, after all, the acknowledged master weavers of Central Asia. This lecture will look at only a single element of their embroidery tradition, the protective and magical functions of embroidery in birth, childhood and marriage.

An essential characteristic of all Turkoman culture, whether we are discussing textile art or metal-smithing or epic poetry, is their independence and self imposed differentiation from the Uzbek and Tadjik settled societies that surround them.

The Turkoman remained for centuries a nomadic people, physically and psychologically distant from the comfortable life of cities, from assimilation into anybody else's world. I believe that this absolute sense of identity, achieved at whatever cost, provides the foundation for their art.

In this presentation, I'll be speaking about the Turkoman responses to threats from the spirit world in a way that is fragmented, focusing on individual folk beliefs, on superstition. But I would ask you to bear in mind that the real reason for making these objects, for making everything they own a work of art, is to renew their tribal identity, to strengthen tradition, to reinforce the Turkoman-ness of everything they do.

The lands of the Central Asian Turkoman tribes have been various - the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea, the borders of the Kopet Dagh range from Ashkabad to Merv, and both banks of the Amu Darya at different points along its great length, particularly as it flows from the Pamir Mountains of northern Afghanistan, and at its end, in the delta region of the Aral Sea. These border areas of settled lands had handy escape routes into the deserts and were admirably suited to the economic organization of Turkoman life - which until the 20th century was based largely on animal husbandry, mercenary activities for nearby Uzbek rulers, slave trading and general pillage. Because these activities did not make them sought out as neighbors, and because of the fluid nature of political alliance in the region, completely different Turkoman tribes lived in these different areas over time. Descriptions of great Turkoman "cities" from that period are really of enormous encampments, with thousands of tents gathered temporarily at a defensible location. The historical record shows a gradual and long-term process of settlement, intensified at the last during the Soviet period of forced collectivization. Virtually all Turkoman families are now permanently resident in one location, although younger men may travel with the family flocks during part of the year.

In the last 130 years or so, Turkoman women have become major economic contributors to the family through carpet weaving. The commercialization of weaving took place with the disruption of traditional sources of income, notably the slave trade. While the skill of its weavers is an important measure of family pride, carpet patterns and styles have been radically affected by commercial pressures. Carpets made for the market no longer express a unique tribal or family identity.

In contrast, embroidery has not become a commercial activity. It has remained an internal pursuit, a luxury production in which beautiful work enhances the status of the maker. But it also acts to preserve and reinforce a sort of general Turkoman identity. A comparison of materials collected in Afghanistan with others from museums in neighboring Turkmenistan reveals close parallels in pattern and composition, as well as the inclusion of specifically magical elements within the designs. In purely visual terms Turkoman embroidery is by no means repetitive or static. Although many border and field patterns are widely distributed among the Turkoman, the costume elements on which they appear vary greatly among different tribes, and individual embroideries take unique and creative forms.

Embroidered objects play important roles in rites of passage, and in the most challenging periods of life. Children and women of child-bearing age are very vulnerable to evil influences from human and spirit contacts. The most dangerous of these are the evil eye, which causes sickness and death to small children, and the albasty, an evil female spirit who appears sometimes as a goat but most often as a woman with hair to her heels and an open wound on her back, through which her entrails are always spilling.

Such things are fearful, and must be counteracted. Particularly in Afghanistan, older women act as midwives and traditional healers. But all women make embroidered items that are specifically protective or that promote family health and well-being.

Turkoman women embroider a broad range of items - women's robes, dresses, trousers and headdresses, bags for tools, mirrors and ceremonial breads, children's garments and a wide variety of caps. All these are prestige items, all are decorative - they make the wearer more handsome or add to the beauty of the home - and all carry patterns that are drawn from the same reservoir of traditional designs. Certain specific embroidered items carry a disproportionately greater talismanic weight than others.

For this lecture I have chosen just three examples from among the many forms of life, health and happiness-enhancing embroidered objects made by the Turkoman. There are doga - talismans pure and simple. There is special children's clothing that guards them from evil influences and help them to grow strong. And there are ceremonial robes worn by young married women that not only look attractive and show off her skill as an embroiderer, but are said to encourage fertility.

We can start with the ubiquitous doga. Doga are found throughout Central Asia, widely distributed among people of different ethnic and linguistic groups. They are worn by people of all ages, attached to horse's harness, tied to cradles, or hung in houses or yurts. The doga is shaped from rough cloth into a triangular form, and often, though not always, contains something; a scrap of paper on which verses from the Koran have been written, a bit of salt or coal (which enhances the ability of the doga to drive off the evil eye), a rag from the clothing of a powerful person, a stick of dagdan (a wood with a particularly sacral character), or a bit dried herbs.

Not all doga function as containers; some are empty and others are simply triangular cloth sections decorated with embroidery. It happens often in Central Asia that the container for talismanic materials becomes itself a talismanic form. The doga's triangular shape is found in stone pendants going back to the Bronze Age in Central Asia, long before any ancestors of the Turkomans arrived on the western steppe. This triangular form is also found in a great many items of silver jewelry worn by Turkoman children and young women.

Aside from embroidery, the surface of the doga may be decorated in other ways. A few blue or other dark colored glass beads may be attached at random intervals to its surface or many beads woven together to form a fringe. Cowrie shells, called "snakes heads" or "snakes jaws" by the Turkoman, also increase the potency of the amulet.

In the late1940s and early '50s the Soviet political/academic hierarchy encouraged research into folk traditions and beliefs in Central Asia. They needed to teach atheism, and it was useful to establish that Central Asian Islam was an "exceptionally syncretic phenomenon saturated with ancient local elements". Whatever the motive, the result was extensive academic work related to rituals involving birth and early childhood.

From these studies we know that avoidance and purification rituals involved seclusion of young mothers and their babies and ritual immersions in special baths during chile, the first forty days after birth. Tiny children were swaddled and wrapped with specially decorated appliquéd and embroidered baby bands in their cradles. Slightly older Turkoman children were dressed in tiny versions of adult clothing and embroidered caps with triangular doga, owl feathers and other amuletic devices. Between the ages of about 1 1/2 and 5 years, when children were first getting up and about on their own, they also wore an especially protective garment called elek, aga elek, kyurte, olfak or gyrama among the various Turkoman tribes. These garments are of two types. One, the size of a large bib, has a lozenge shape. Particularly beautifully embroidered examples of these are found among the Turkoman living along the Amu Darya in and near Afghanistan. The other was shaped more like a poncho, open at the sides and with triangular pieces of cloth attached at the shoulders. These had appliqué work with a more limited embroidered decoration on the breast, shoulder and upper back, where lots of little coins and bits of jewelry were sewn on. This second form was unfinished at the bottom ends. Sometimes both the bib and the poncho forms of this special children's garment were worn at the same time.

The elek was a magical garment. Part of its function was to protect the child from the evil eye, which could be cast quite unwillingly and unwittingly by anyone outside of the family. But sayings collected from Turkoman about the garment infer that it developed emotional and intellectual qualities in the child who wore it. "A person who doesn't wear the elek, thinks too much of himself," and "Without an elek, the head is full of wind, everyone knows that."

Specifically male ornaments might be placed on the center of the back of a young boy's elek when he was between two and seven years of age; a miniature sword or dagger, or the aq ai, a stylized bow and arrow of silver which encouraged him to grow brave and sturdy. This bow and arrow ornament was sometimes attached to a girl-child's cap, in hopes that the next child would be a boy. For a child of either sex, the mother might add a wriggling, multicolored snake to the elek in appliqué or embroidery raised slightly above the embroidered background. Smaller twisting embroidery patterns fill large areas of the elek from the Amu Darya region. Soviet researchers have written often that stylized snake and frog patterns are used especially on these garments, and that both snake and frog are endowed with powerful sacral qualities. According to Soviet sources, the pattern called "scorpion's maw" occurs often with the "snake's head" pattern, but both are highly abstracted, sometimes appearing as simple lines set at right angles to one another. Several flower motifs are described as having significant protective power to breastfeeding mothers. The gul-i-badam or almond-flower, a familiar border pattern in carpets, is a common motif in the children's bibs. Other talismanic elements are much easier to identify. A lock of hair from the child's first haircut might be sewn to the garment, or a tuft of camel's fur.

The third embroidered object for today's discussion is the chyrpy, a robe specific to the Tekke Turkoman, but which functioned in the same way as other ceremonial robes worn by newlywed women in all Turkoman groups. These wearing of these robes marked the period in which the newly wedded girl was considered a kelin, a bride. Until the birth of her first child her movements were circumscribed and her manners subdued. But she wore an elaborate costume and much jewelry. All of these ceremonial robes were worn on the head and had either false sleeves or sleeves joined together at the back. Many of the ceremonial robes worn by Turkoman groups were decorated with embroidery only at collar, cuffs and hem, often with some of the many patterns based on ram's horns, gochak. The ram is present in many local legends as a helpmeet. These non-Tekke robes often relied on silver plaques and pendants for ornamentation. This kind of ornamentation may reflect the costume of a positive female spirit who protected young babies and women in childbirth.

The chyrpy was not decorated with silver, but relied instead on virtuoso embroidery-work to carry both its artistic and its protective messages. (In any case, the Tekke Turkoman bride already wore very large and massive silver ornaments) The main embroidery pattern on chyrpy was always one of the four or five basic ways of rendering a tulip, pit-da. These could be arranged in tightly packed rows or in a variety of branching patterns. Chyrpy always had other pattern elements; variants on the rhombus usually decorated the collar, and many small pattern elements with possible amuletic meaning were used as bordering elements - like the pishme pattern, named after the little square cakes fried in butter and eaten at the celebration which marked the successful conclusion to the forty days of seclusion after birth. A few extraordinary chyrpy, like this one, contain very recognizable celebratory and protective images. A horse with a fancy saddle blanket and a hookah decorate the back, and two large and detailed renderings of tumar, talismanic jewelry elements, are hidden beneath the false sleeves. But the main field patterns were always tulips, flowers glowing with life and fertility and the joys of springtime. Every year on the steppe - right at the solstice - the green pastures turn suddenly a brilliant red, as millions of small species tulips burst into bloom. They are the perfect image for the marriage robe.

So we have a number of anthropomorphic protective or talismanic images; the snake, the frog, and the horns of the ram. The ram's horn is already a familiar pattern in carpets, kilims and feltwork, and the dominating motif in Turkoman silver jewelry. The snake appears to be a very powerful protective image in Central Asia, with as lengthy a history as the triangular talisman form, and Soviet scholars have made much of its totemic associations and its ties to the underground world of shamanic belief. There are designs tied to the women's economy: a "carding comb" pattern and one called "spinning wheel". There are many patterns named after domestic animals, "camel's neck", "cow's track", "chicken's beak" and "dog' tail". There are plant images - the tulip and the almond flower - that evoke happiness, spring, and fecundity. These are just a few among the dozens of embroidery patterns used by the Turkoman, and the garments and talismans described here represent only a few of the beautiful, and often magical objects embroidered by the Turkoman.

Copyright © Kate Fitz Gibbon