Turkish Folklore

Turkish folklore, folktales, jokes, legends, and the like—in the Turkish language is very rich, and is incorporated into everyday life and events.

Turkish folklore

Nasreddin Hoca

Main article: Nasreddin Hoca

Perhaps the most popular figure in the tradition is Nasreddin, (known as Nasreddin Hoca, or “teacher Nasreddin”, in Turkish), who is the central character of thousands of jokes. He generally appears as a person who, though seeming somewhat stupid to those who must deal with him, actually proves to have a special wisdom all his own:

One day, Nasreddin’s neighbor asked him, “Teacher, do you have any forty-year-old vinegar?”
—”Yes, I do,” answered Nasreddin.—”Can I have some?” asked the neighbor. “I need some to make an ointment with.”—”No, you can’t have any,” answered Nasreddin. “If I gave my forty-year-old vinegar to whoever wanted some, I wouldn’t have had it for forty years, would I?”

Similar to the Nasreddin jokes, and arising from a similar religious milieu, are the Bektashi jokes, in which the members of the Bektashi religious order—represented through a character simply named Bektaşi—are depicted as having an unusual and unorthodox wisdom, one that often challenges the values of Islam and of society.

Origin and legacy

Claims about his origin are made by many ethnic groups. Many sources give the birthplace of Nasreddin as Hortu Village in Sivrihisar, Eskişehir Province, present-day Turkey, in the 13th century, after which he settled in Akşehir, and later in Konya under the Seljuq rule, where he died in 1275/6 or 1285/6 CE. The alleged tomb of Nasreddin is in Akşehir and the “International Nasreddin Hodja Festival” is held annually in Akşehir between 5–10 July.

According to Prof. Mikail Bayram who made an extensive research on Nasreddin, his full name is Nasir ud-din Mahmood al-Khoyi, his title Ahi Evran (as being the leader of the ahi organization). According to him, Nasreddin was born in the city of Khoy in West Azerbaijan Province of Iran, had his education in Khorasan and became the pupil of famous Quran mufassir Fakhr al-Din al-Razi in Herat. He was sent to Anatolia by the Khalif in Baghdad to organize resistance and uprising against the Mongol invasion. He served as a kadı (an Islamic judge and ombudsman) in Kayseri. This explains why he addresses judicial problems in the jokes not only religious ones. During the turmoil of the Mongol invasion he became a political opponent of Persian Rumi. He was addressed in Masnavi by juha anecdotes for this reason. He became the vazir at the court of Kaykaus II. Having lived in numerous cities in vast area and being steadfastly against the Mongol invasion as well as having his witty character, he was embraced by various nations and cultures from Turkey to Arabia, from Persia to Afghanistan, and from Russia to China, most of which suffered from those invasions.

The Arabic version of the character, known as “juha” (Arabic: جحا‎), is the oldest attested version of the character and the most divergent, being mentioned in Al-Jahiz’s book “Saying on Mules”— القول في البغال—, according Al-Dhahabi’s book “ميزان الاعتدال في نقد الرجال“, his full name was “Abu al-Ghusn Dujayn al-Fizari”, he lived under the Umayyads in Kufa, his mother was said to be a servant to Anas ibn Malik, thus he was one of the Tabi’un in Sunni tradition.

As generations have gone by, new stories have been added to the Nasreddin corpus, others have been modified, and he and his tales have spread to many regions. The themes in the tales have become part of the folklore of a number of nations and express the national imaginations of a variety of cultures. Although most of them depict Nasreddin in an early small-village setting, the tales deal with concepts that have a certain timelessness. They purvey a pithy folk wisdom that triumphs over all trials and tribulations. The oldest manuscript of Nasreddin dates to 1571.

Today, Nasreddin stories are told in a wide variety of regions, especially across the Muslim world and have been translated into many languages. Some regions independently developed a character similar to Nasreddin, and the stories have become part of a larger whole. In many regions, Nasreddin is a major part of the culture, and is quoted or alluded to frequently in daily life. Since there are thousands of different Nasreddin stories, one can be found to fit almost any occasion. Nasreddin often appears as a whimsical character of a large Turkish, Persian, Albanian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Judeo-Spanish, Kurdish, Romanian, Serbian, Russian, and Urdu folk tradition of vignettes, not entirely different from zen koans.

1996–1997 was declared International Nasreddin Year by UNESCO.

Some people say that, whilst uttering what seemed madness, he was, in reality, divinely inspired, and that it was not madness but wisdom that he uttered.

— The Turkish Jester or The Pleasantries of Cogia Nasr Eddin Effendi
Grand Bazaar Istanbul Turkey Knick Knack Jewelry

Turkish cultural jewelry

Karagöz ve Hacivat

Main article: Karagoz and Hacivat

Another popular element of Turkish folklore is the shadow theater centered on the two characters of Karagöz and Hacivat, who both represent stock characters: Karagöz—who hails from a small village—is something of a country bumpkin, while Hacivat is a more sophisticated city-dweller. Popular legend has it that the two characters are actually based on two real persons who worked for Orhan I—the son of founder of the Ottoman dynasty—in the construction of a mosque at Bursa in the early 14th century CE. The two workers supposedly spent much of their time entertaining the other workers, and were so funny and popular that they interfered with work on the palace, and were subsequently put to death.

The central theme of the plays are the contrasting interaction between the two main characters. They are perfect foils of each other: in the Turkish version Karagöz represents the illiterate but straightforward public, whereas Hacivat belongs to the educated class, speaking Ottoman Turkish and using a poetical and literary language. Although Karagöz has definitely been intended to be the more popular character with the Turkish peasantry, Hacivat is always the one with a level head. Though Karagöz always outdoes Hacivat’s superior education with his “native wit,” he is also very impulsive and his never-ending deluge of get-rich-quick schemes always results in failure. In the Greek version Hacivat (Hatziavatis) is the more educated Turk who works for the Ottoman state, and often represents the Pasha, or simply law and order, whereas Karagöz (Karagiozis) is the poor peasant Greek, nowadays with Greek-specific attributes of the raya.

Hacivat continually attempts to “domesticate” Karagöz, but never makes progress. According to Turkish dramaturge Kırlı, Hacivat emphasizes the upper body with his refined manners and aloof disposition, while Karagöz is more representational of “the lower body with eating, cursing, defecation and the phallus.” Other characters in the plays are different ethnic characters living under Ottoman domain such as (in the Turkish version) Armenians, Albanians, Greeks, Franks, and Arabs, each with their unique, stereotypical traits. In the Greek version new characters have been introduced or altered: the Pasha, the daughter of the Vezir (both representing the state, the latter being very beautiful and courted unsuccessfully by Karagöz (Karagiozis), Barba-Giorgos (the enormous Roumeliot shepherd who acts as an uncle to Karagöz), the Morfonios (beautiful) with the enormous nose (adapted from a previous Ottoman character), Velingekas (the policeman who represents the Ottoman state but has his own macho honor code) as well as inventions such as Stavrakas (the Piraeot Rebet, macho character) and his Rebetiko band, Nionios from Zante, the Cretan, the Jew (adapted from the Ottoman character), Aglaia, wife of Karagöz, his ever hungry three boys Kollitiri, Skropios, and Birigigos, and others. Also, Hatziavatis nowadays is more often than not presented as being a conformist Ottoman Greek, rather than a Turk.

Karagöz–Hacivat plays are especially associated with the Ramadan in Turkey, whereas they are associated with the whole year in Greece. Until the rise of radio and film, it was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Turkey, whereas in Greece it continues to be popular and televised too.

Yunus Emre

Yunus Emre also known as Derviş Yunus (Yunus the Dervish) (1238–1328) was a Turkish folk poet and Sufi mystic who greatly influenced Turkish culture. His name, Yunus, is the equivalent to the English name Jonah. He wrote in Old Anatolian Turkish, an early stage of Turkish. The UNESCO General Conference unanimously passed a resolution declaring 1991, the 750th anniversary of the poet’s birth, International Yunus Emre Year.

Yunus Emre has exercised immense influence on Turkish literature from his own day until the present, because Yunus Emre is, after Ahmed Yesevi and Sultan Walad, one of the first known poets to have composed works in the spoken Turkish of his own age and region rather than in Persian or Arabic. His diction remains very close to the popular speech of the people in Central and Western Anatolia. This is also the language of a number of anonymous folk-poets, folk-songs, fairy tales, riddles (tekerlemeler), and proverbs. Yunus Emre was a Sunni Muslim.

Like the Oghuz Book of Dede Korkut, an older and anonymous Central Asian epic, the Turkish folklore that inspired Yunus Emre in his occasional use of tekerlemeler as a poetic device had been handed down orally to him and his contemporaries. This strictly oral tradition continued for a long while. Following the Mongolian invasion of Anatolia facilitated by the Sultanate of Rûm’s defeat at the 1243 Battle of Köse Dağ, Islamic mystic literature thrived in Anatolia, and Yunus Emre became one of its most distinguished poets. Poems of Sultan Yunus Emre — despite being fairly simple on the surface — evidence his skill in describing quite abstruse mystical concepts in a clear way. He remains a popular figure in a number of countries, stretching from Azerbaijan to the Balkans, with seven different and widely dispersed localities disputing the privilege of having his tomb within their boundaries. Yunus Emre’s most important book is Risaletu’n Nushiyye.


Köroglu is a semi-mystical hero and bard among the Turkic people who is thought to have lived in 16th century. The name of “Koroghlu” means “the son of the blind”, “the son of ember” or “the son of the clay” (the clay refers the death) in Turkic languages. His real name was Rövşən in Azerbaijani, Ruşen Ali in Turkish or Röwşen Aly in Turkmen, which was a loanword from Persian رُوشن Rowšan meaning light or bright.

The Epic of Koroghlu (Azerbaijani: Koroğlu dastanı, Turkish: Köroğlu destanı; Turkmen: Görogly dessany) is a heroic legend prominent in the oral traditions of the Turkic peoples, mainly the Oghuz Turks. The legend typically describes a hero who seeks to avenge a wrong. It was often put to music and played at sporting events as an inspiration to the competing athletes. Koroghlu is the main hero of epic with the same name in Azerbaijani, Turkmen and Turkish as well as some other Turkic languages. The epic tells about the life and heroic deeds of Koroghlu as a hero of the people who struggled against unjust rulers. The epic combines the occasional romance with Robin Hood-like chivalry.

Due to the migration in the Middle Ages of large groups of Oghuz Turks within Central Asia, South Caucasus and Asia Minor, and their subsequent assimilation with other ethnic groups, Epic of Koroghlu spread widely in these geographical regions leading to emergence of its Turkmen, Kazakh, Uzbek, Tajik, Azerbaijani, Turkish, Crimean Tatar, Georgian and Kurdish versions. The story has been told for many generations by the “bagshy” narrators of Turkmenistan, fighter Ashik bards of Azerbaijan and Turkey, and has been written down mostly in the 18th century.

Folklore from the Black Sea Region


In Çarşıbaşi town, near Trabzon, there is a way of testing whether a marriage is propitious: when the new bride enters the house, she is asked to break a vine into three pieces, which are then planted in the ground. If they sprout, this means the marriage will be successful.

Cutting the shoelace

In the Eastern Black Sea region (Giresun, Trabzon, Rize, Artvin), it is believed that there is an invisible lace between the feet of those children who have trouble walking when they’re young. A lace is tied (usually of cotton) between the feet of the child and the lace is cut by the elder child of family. It is believed that once the invisible lace has been cut, the child will walk.

Passing beneath a Blackberry Tree

In Turkish folklore, (Trabzon region, Akçaabat town), childless women, cows that don’t get pregnant, and children wetting their beds are supposedly cured by passing under a blackberry bush known as “Avat” (West Trabzon). “Avat is believed to be a charm herb of paradise.”

Shown to the Moon

In Trabzon and Rize region folklore (Pontic coast of Anatolia). Desperate patients with incurable diseases are said to have been shown to the moon on a wooden shovel “If that continues I will put you on a shovel and show you to the moon”(İkizdere town. In Çarşıbaşı district of Trabzon province, weak and scrawny babies have been shown to the moon on a shovel and said: “moon! moon! Take him!, or cure him”. In this tradition, which is a sequel to the paganist beliefs before the monotheist religions, moon cures the patient or takes his/her life. Moon worship is very common among the Caucasian Abkhaz, Svans and Mingrelians ABS 18.

Tying someone

Girl in traditional folk costume

Girl in traditional folk costume

In Black Sea coast of Turkey’s folklore (Trabzon, Rize, Giresun, Ordu, Artvin, Samsun)

1. v. To ensure a bridegroom is bewitched and impotent so as to be unable to have sexual intercourse with bride. There are several ways of being tied: A person who wants to impede this marriage, blows into a knot, knots it and puts it on the bride or uses other sorceries. However, it is also deemed a way of being tied if the bride nails, knots or locks a door with a key before the marriage. “While going to the house of the bridegroom, way is always changed and the unlooked-for ways are followed to be saved from tie sorceries that could have been buried in the way” 2. n. To tie the animals such as wolves and bears that harm the flock and named monster, and swine that damages the crop. Generally, an amulet is prepared by a hodja and buried in the places where the flock grazes or in the corner of sown field. 3. n. To increase the amount and quality of meadow before the hay-making time, water is brought to the meadows in the plateaus in thin directions from rivers by the arcs. This process is called as to connect water.

Tree Worship

In Trabzon folklore, the swinging of tree branches and leaves symbolized worship. It is believed that oak trees do not worship God because their leaves do not swing as much as those of other trees.

Şakir Şevket says that Akçaabat society believed in an idol and worshipped a tree called platana, and that is how the city was given this name. Although the platana (Platanus orientalis in Latin) was a plane tree he had confused this tree with the poplar.

The words of Lermioglu “today peasants love trees as their children. There were several events which people kill someone for a tree” and a story from 19th century show us that this love comes from very old days. A hunter from Mersin village cut a tree called kragen which was idol of Akcaabat society (Since 1940). Then the peasants called the police and said that the hunter cut the Evliya Turkish and Arabic Evliya “Saint”). This event can only be explained with the “paganist” beliefs comes from “Caucasia”. At first the police understood that the hunter killed a man called Evliya (Saint) but later they saw that the “saint” was a tree so they let the hunter go. It was an example of Colchis culture that can be seen today which was mixed with Islam in Trabzon under the name of saint and common before one God religions that people used to believe in nature.

It is possible to see same things in Hemsheen region of Rize “the branches are praying three days before and during bairam, so we do not cut live branches during bairam, the branches are praying”.

End of Winter Cemre

Cemre are three fireballs that come from the heavens to warm earth at the end of each winter. Each cemre warms one aspect of the nature. The first cemre falls to air between February 19–20. The second cemre falls to water between February 26–27. The third cemre falls to ground between 5–6 March.

Important Figures in Black Sea Folklore

  • Ahi Evren
  • Ahriyan
  • Alaturbi
  • Ancomah
  • Cazi
  • Germakoçi
  • Kolot

Beings and Creatures in Turkish folklore

  • Al Basti
  • Bardi – a female jackal which can change shape and presages death by wailing
  • Bird of Sorrow
  • Dew (also called div)
  • Dragons
  • Dunganga
  • Giant ‘Arab’ or ‘Dervish’
  • Imp
  • Kamer-taj, the Moon-horse
  • Karakoncolos
  • Karakura – a male night demon
  • Keloglan
  • Laughing Apple and Weeping Apple
  • Peris
  • Seven-headed Dragon
  • Storm Fiend
  • Tavara
  • Shahmaran, the legendary Snake King who was killed in an ambush in the baths.
  • Taram Baba, the night demon or nightmare which is believed to kidnap children, in some Balkanic Turks’ tradition.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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