Zoomorphic Motifs in Karakalpak Ornamental Art

Issue #2 • 1348

Ak baskur

In Karakalpak decorative applied art one can identify several main groups of ornamental motifs, such as geometric (cosmogonical), zoomorphic, vegetable, object-based and anthropomorphic. Of these, zoomorphic ones are the most numerous. Usually they represent an animal based on the principle of “whole by part”.

Through centuries, nomads developed a special attitude toward animals, and there are numerous examples of treating them as sacred. Semi-nomadic peoples used different parts of bird body and bones of animals considered prophetic as talismans. These were believed to have magical power. For instance, wolf’s elbow bone could supposedly save a whole herd from wolves and thieves, so the nomads tied it to the horse saddle. Wolf’s patella protected from evil eye and bone diseases. The head of an eagle-owl, its feet and feathers guarded from evil spirits and were tied to a yurt or baby cradles.

Magical properties were also attributed to the tracks of some animals and birds, e.g. mice and dogs. For instance, because of a dog cult common among Karakalpak people, applied art decor, specifically embroideries, feature elements associated with this animal: it taban (dog’s tracks or paws). This motif decorates kyzyl kiymeshek ritual dresses, shai kalta canvas teabags, etc. Special connection exists in Karakalpak rituals related to a newborn child and a dog. These rituals had to do with a desire to give a baby a part of dog’s strength and stamina.

It taban (dog's tracks) motif

Belief in sacral power of animals resulted in the emergence of commonly occurring elements in Karakalpak ornament such as muyiz, the horns. Various beliefs of the semi-nomadic people were associated with domestic animals. Sometimes an animal was believed to be the guardian of the master of the house and to possess sacral powers and ability to bring good to the household. Among sacred animals were the horse, the dog, the cow, the ox, the ram, and the camel, while goat and sheep were rated as sacred animals of heavenly origin.

Ram’s horns feature in many items of Karakalpak decorative applied art: embroidery, wood-carving, carpets and felts. They also adorn facade of houses. It is commonly believed that the ram possesses a special grace – keramatly (1, p 11). Conventional presentation of ram’s horns also dominates in the art of wood-carving. Horn motifs are quite diverse: some are very specific, others, when transformed, adopted rather schematic, graphic forms. The technique of mirror positioning of shapes, aligned or positioned freely, makes Karakalpak designs distinct from other basic designs of the world’s nations.

Muyiz, one of the basic ornamental elements of the peoples of Central Asia, Caucasus and Siberia, is a universal and uniting protective symbol. It can be considered “nomadic” (or “traveling”) in the art of different nations. Karakalpak carpets, including karshin, were designed using zoomorphic elements called segiz muyiz (eight horns).

Ornamentation on the 11th-12th century residential buildings

Among the most popular variations of the muyiz motif is cross-piece with horn-like elements at the ends. A combination of horns and a cross creates one of the most ancient symbols in decorative applied art of many nations, bearing great symbolical charge and performing the function of double protection. In the items wrought by Karakalpak carpet-weavers this element becomes the centrepiece of medallions, karshin or yesik-kas, positioned throughout the field. Besides the central elements, horn-like motifs also decorate carpet sidelines (framing), or form linear compositions with kos muyiz elements on triangular base, or harmoniously fill the space between central gyol, creating an austere, tempered rhythm.

According to L. Kerimov, multi-step rhombs with twelve hooks (on yoki muyiz), are the tamga (tribal sign), and the twelve hooks positioned around it represent twelve years. “It is known that in the calendars of ancient Turkic nations chronology was based not only on days and months, but also on a twelve year cycle; and each year passed under the sign representing a constellation of a particular animal” (2, p. 229).

Ornitomorph motifs were very popular in the art of steppe people. As a bird, or on its wings, the human soul is believed to soar to the sky after death (way up the mountain), reflecting the ideals of nomadic and semi-nomadic lifestyle. Birds, presumably, not only take away the souls of the dead, but also bring to earth the souls of the newborn (way down the mountain). Hence the belief that children are delivered by a stork, and a direct link to the triad of the Tree of the Universe where the Underworld (the roots) is connected with the life of insects and reptiles, the “middle part” (the trunk) – with people and animals, and the “upper part” (the crown) – with the bird world. According to the beliefs, birds, apart from having protective powers, embodied a fertilizing and purifying power, symbolized different well-wishing and were the bearers of light. Ornamental motif karga tyrnak (the claws) was believed to have protective quality. The antiquity of the bird cult is evidenced by the fact that the Sarmats, the ancestors of Karakalpaks, had garga tyrnak ornament on bronze cauldrons.

Among rather frequently found elements in Karakalpak ornamental art is vertebra (omyrtka), adorning compositions of kyzyl kiymeshek ritual dresses, jengse oversleeves, shai kalta canvas teabags, shanash bags for loose products, etc. Most probably, the Karakalpak people attributed magical powers not only to the animal vertebra, but also to fish spine (similarly to the beliefs of some “groups of Turkmen people who engaged in fishing, although in the past”) (3, p. 33). E. G. Tsaryova noted: “It was believed that if, during a meal, one puts fish bones on a felt, anyone who sleeps on that felt would sleep soundly. With the same purpose one could use an image or a symbol instead of a real animal. Hence the representation of a fish spine on felt rugs with onurga gyol – a motif shaped as a chain of connected triangles, onurga gyol element and some other compositions” (4, p. 33).

Photo of A.L. Melkov, 1920s. Kunstkamera collection

In Karakalpak decorative applied art one can also find elements that are geometric in shape but have zoomorphic names. Among them are tyshkan iz (mouse tracks), gaz moyin (goose neck), kumyrska bel (ant’s waist), qoi tisi (ram’s teeth), bori koz (wolf’s eye), kus tili (bird’s tongue), and balyk koz (fish eye). Elements of this group received their names by association with specific prototypes. Usually these are elements that play an auxiliary role in compositions. The balyk koz (fish eye) element in the shape of small squares is quite often found on embroidered collars of Karakalpak female dress, on carpets, small embroidered articles, etc.

A very commonly used motif in the ornamental art of peoples genetically akin to the Karakalpak (such as Kyrgyz, Kazakh, nomadic Uzbek, Ugor of Ob, Mordva, Chuvash, Bashkir…) is an S-shaped element. This element, like other simplest geometric shapes (a zigzag, a triangle, a cross, a spiral, etc.) appeared simultaneously in different ethnic environments. Being visually similar in the ornaments of many peoples, its has different semantics. For instance, the Chuvash believe it to be the symbol of luminaries, heavenly fire, firmament and mountains. The Ugors of Ob use this element when they portray stylized figures of birds. The Kazakh call it bota moyin (the neck of baby camel); the Kyrgyz – it kuiryksha (dog’s tail) or kuchkorok (a horn). The Karakalpak associate this symbol with the kumyrska bel (ant’s waist) and gaz moyin (goose neck) motifs.

At the same time, the semantics of the S-shaped element among the Karakalpak was linked to the symbol of water often used in wood-carving, carpets and embroidery. A. Allamuratov noted: “S-shaped curls are found in ancient Khorezm on copper coins dating 2nd century A.D. (5, p. 247), on a figured ossuary of the same date, and earlier – on metal-ware of Scythian tribes of Apasiak (6th-4th centuries B.C.) from Chirik-rabat, on jars dated 1st century A.D. from the mid-reaches of Syrdarya River, in 10th-12th century architectural ornamentation of Southern Turkmenistan” (6, p. 249). The S-shaped symbol is particularly clearly visible on a zoomorphic ossuary in the shape of a camel (1st c. B.C – 1st c. A.D.) discovered near Angka-Kaly in Turtkul district of Karakalpakstan (collection of the I. V. Savitskiy Art Museum of Karakalpakstan), which is yet another proof of its ancient origin. Perhaps, the stylized S-shaped motif was a totem of one of Karakalpak tribes.

Representations of animals in whole are fewer compared to their parts, which, apparently, is linked to the weakening of totemic notions. Themes with these motifs can be classified as representational folklore. Among animals portrayed in whole are the camel, the dog, and the frog. The camel (tuye) is rather an exception than rule.

Along with frequently found elements of dog’s tracks, there are examples of the whole animal being represented (aq baskur, private collection). These images, rather primitive and conventional in the way they are depicted, appear on articles of later dates (first half of the 20th century).

The frog motif (kurbaka) known to be part of the art of many nomadic peoples of steppe, while being totemic, represented this freshwater amphibian in fairly realistic fashion. At Sapallitepa monument dating to Bronze Age the archaeologists found the most ancient stone-carved frog on the territory of Uzbekistan. A bead shaped as a baby-frog was discovered in a 5th century shrine in the upper layers of Toprak-kala. Karakalpak tugma-baka pendants also reflect its image, indicating that this animal was one of the most respected since very ancient times. L. I. Rempel stressed that in the applied art of Central Asia the frog exists on every level of understanding as the embodiment of moisture and rain, as a protective element and the symbol of happiness and wellbeing (7, p. 37).

Thus, in the past, most of the zoomorphic elements in the ornament had symbolic meaning, and were connected with the totems of ancient tribes and their cult and religious notions. Although the meaning of many ornamental elements was lost already in early 20th century, some of them are still used as protective symbols having the magical power to guard.

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Irina Bogoslovskaya

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