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CREATURES OF IMAGINATION
2002 / MARCH

In the human quest to penetrate the mysteries of the world around them, the unreal has played possibly as important a role as physical reality. Optical illusions, dreams and inexplicable phenomena have inspired human thought and art over the millenia, and the plane of the unreal fires our imagination as powerfully as ever today, in such modern manifestations as science fiction and virtual reality. Wish fulfilment in the form of imaginary worlds takes concrete form in art, where we find depicted a host of mythical creatures which have taken shape in legends re-told from generation to generation, and in time have acquired a sacred character. Phoenixes, dragons, devils, giants, genies, fairies, angels, unicorns, griffons, goblins, mermaids, sphinxes, mythical kings and queens, and innumerable others are the stuff of such legends. Turkish culture encompasses not only those originating in our own ancient legends, but many others deriving from China, India, Persia and the Islamic world, ancient Anatolia and the Byzantine Empire. The places where these imaginary beings live are sometimes themselves

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CREATURES OF IMAGINATION
2002 / MARCH

imaginary, such as Mount Kaf, the mythical mountain thought to surround the world, or Irem, the mythical gardens of paradise, and sometimes real, as in the case of Mount Ararat, the Turkish Agri Dagi. Dragons and mythical birds called simurgs appear as motifs in traditional Turkish textiles. According to writers such as Kazvini in his Book of Strange Creatures and Ferideddin-i Attar in his Logic of Birds, the simurgs were thirty birds which perpetually sought one another. They lived on Mount Kaf and never landed on the ground, ate but once a year and lived for a hundred years. They were so large that they could pick up an elephant in one claw, and their eggs were as large as mountains. The simurg was regarded as the source of knowledge. Other mythical birds such as the phoenix, hüma, and hüthüt are mentioned in the Koran, the Book of Prophets and Þehname. One of the many fables told about the simurg is as follows: 'One day when the simurg was in the land of China, a feather fell from its wing. Everyone saw a different pattern or picture in the feather, and everyone who saw one of those patterns

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CREATURES OF IMAGINATION
2002 / MARCH
applied them to his craft and produced works of beauty. All works of art were inspired by that one gleaming feather, which is now in Chinese Nigaristan.' The phoenix, known as the anka in Turkish and Islamic mythology, is described as having a body as large as a camel, and a human face, breasts, and hands. The dragon, one of the most widely known of all mythical creatures, derives from the snake, and features in many cultures and religions. Its Turkish name is evren, Arabic tanin, Chinese lung, Mongol moghur, and Persian ejderha. In the pre-Islamic shamanist faith of the Turkish people, the dragon was depicted as having lio'sg claws, eaglste wings, a scaly body with the tail of a snake or lizard, and as breathing fire. These characteristics represented the four elements of earth, air, water and fire. In the Tales of Dede Korkut the dragon is a monster with four legs, seven heads, wings, and a long thick tail. Anatolian legends feature a similar snake-like creature known as þahmeran, which can read human thoughts, and kills those who approach in order to seize their treasure but rewards those who
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CREATURES OF IMAGINATION
2002 / MARCH

come with innocent intentions or for assistance. In Greek mythology we find a snake called Ophinon fertilising the egg from which the universe is born. In Central Asian culture the snake or dragon symbolises a beautiful princess set to guard the treasury. The snake takes the sins of Adam and Eve upon itself, a role deriving from the fact that it changes its skin every year, which was seen as a symbol of renewal and rebirth. It was the sacred creature of Aesculapius, and in the tales of Gilgamesh seized the plant of immortality from the hands of Lokman. The snake has been widely used in Turkish weaving, embroidery and other handcrafts. Nomadic culture naturally focuses on the natural environment, the cycle of birth, life and death, and the desire for health and to avoid hunger. These and the four elements are frequently symbolised in nomadic art. Trees such as beech and oak also appear in Turkish folklore. With their branches reaching into the sky and roots extending deep into the earth, trees were seen as a link between earth and heaven.

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CREATURES OF IMAGINATION
2002 / MARCH

Although their origins are sometimes so ancient as to be lost in the mists of time, imaginary beings continue to fascinate human beings today. The realm of fantasy figures in a wide range of media, from novels to computer games.

* Professor Dr Aydin Ugurlu is a lecturer at Mimar Sinan University Faculty of Fine Arts.


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