Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/February 1889/The Yezidees, or Devil-Worshipers



THE Yezidees, sometimes called "Devil-worshipers" are one of the half-dozen curious and interesting sects outside of Islam who live in Mesopotamia. But little is known of their inner life except to the initiated, for they resist all attempts to question them; and, when driven into a corner, will put off the inquirer with a fiction. The acceptation of these stories as true has been the origin of mistaken conceptions concerning them. Complete reservation of their religious precepts from strangers is one of their most binding obligations. To make secrecy more effective, the founder of the sect. Sheik Adi, decreed that only a single person at a time should be initiated into the mysteries, and designated as the person to whom the secret should be confided, the eldest heir of the tribe of Hassan el Bassri. Previous to his initiation this person is to be instructed in written Arabic, knowledge of which is forbidden to all others of the race, under penalty of death and loss of eternal salvation. The instruction takes place in a room from which all other persons are excluded. The text-book is the Koran, the only book obtainable in the country; but as this book contains many unflattering mentions of the devil, whose name no Yezidee must hear or pronounce or read, a friendly Christian is employed to procure the copy to be used and carefully cover all places where the devil is named with wax. If now by any accident the devil's name should be seen on the page during the studies, the book is shut at once, with an invocation, and thrown into the fire, and another one is procured. When the course of instruction is completed, the Koran is burned at once, because it is a wicked, blasphemous book, which should not be tolerated in the house of a Yezidee except under the sternest necessity. Instead of being devil-worshipers, as they are commonly called, the Yezidee religion is so fortunate as to have no devil.

By a most extraordinary accident the author obtained the sacred book of the Yezidees, whose place of concealment is known only to the single initiated, and was able to keep it long enough to copy it. Previous to entering upon the analysis of its contents, it will be proper to give a short account of the Yezidee people. They belong to the Kurdish race, and claim a population of three million souls. They are distributed in villages, residence in cities being forbidden, a few living in the provinces of Damascus, Aleppo, and Diarbekir, a greater number in the province of Mosul and the Russian district of Erivan. They are all subject, body and soul, to a chief who must be of the family of Sheik Adi, and who resides at Baadri, in the district of Shechan. He receives a considerable tribute from his people, and has in turn to keep Tip the temple and grave of Sheik Adi. The present chief is Myrza Bey, a son of Hussein Bey, who a few years ago died of drunkenness. He was the third of eight brothers, and had no right to the succession, but he formed a party and advanced claims. In the contest which followed, his elder brothers fell by his hand, and he thus made himself master of the situation. He then managed to make his peace with the Turkish Government, and was recognized by it. The Myr, as the chief is called, has supreme control of all the possessions of the Yezidees. To deny a wish expressed by him is to incur very unpleasant results in this world, and also to bring upon one's self the consequences of having offended the bodily descendant and representative on the earth of the great prophet Sheik Adi. All contests are settled at his tribunal, not by any fixed law, but according to his will and passing mood. Bloodshedding is atoned for by pecuniary indemnity; adulterous women are executed by their husbands without further proceedings. The Turkish Government is satisfied to receive its tribute, and lets the internal affairs of the people alone. It deals with the Myr, to a certain extent, as a state within a state. The Yezidees will not serve in the Turkish army, because their religion forbids them to mingle with the hated Mussulmans, but escape by paying a good round commutation fee yearly. The people are at the lowest stage of civilization, with no hope of rising so long as Sheik Adi's rules are in force. Under the influence of these conditions and of the prejudices of their neighbors against them, they have become a sinister, malicious, treacherous people. The rite of hospitality, so sacred among the Bedouins, is unknown to them. No one can feel safe among them. They attach no value to human life. To these ordinary dangers are added those arising from the embarrassing etiquette of conversational intercourse with them; for if any one inadvertently lets escape the word devil, Satan, or anything sounding like it, he commits a mortal offense; and to cut off his head is a God-pleasing act, and a sacred duty of the Yezidee, the fulfillment of which will insure him a place in paradise. Several letters are in like manner wholly banished from the language, chiefly those which contain the sound of a "shun"; also the Arabic word nallet, "Thou art damned," which was spoken by God to the fallen angel when he pitched him into hell. Therefore all words containing similar sounds are set aside, and other combinations not belonging to any language are used in their stead.

The Yezidees in the level regions of Shechan are quiet farmers and stock-raisers, paying their tribute to the Turkish Government without remonstrance; but on the Jebel Sindiia they are wild and indomitable, addicted to highway robbery, in constant antagonism with the Government, and often compelling the officers to use force in the collection of the taxes.

The great national sanctuary of the Yezidees is "Sheik Adi," the supposed burial-place of the founder and prophet of the religion. It was formerly a Chaldaic cloister, called Lalish, but was captured by the adherents of Sheik Adi, about the middle of the tenth century. It is in a beautiful valley, shaded with a rich vegetation, through which flows the sacred brook Semsen, coming down underground from Jerusalem, and here leaping from terrace to terrace. Every Yezidee is baptized and has his winding-sheet dipped into its holy waters, in order that he may be more sure of entering the paradise which Sheik Adi has promised him. Here resides the great sheik, who is next to the Myr, and whose blessing is good for the healing of diseases and for the assurance of a large posterity. The next place in the hierarchy is held by Mullah Haidar, a descendant of the learned Hassan el Bassri, and keeper of the book with the seven seals.

In one of the apartments of the temple are preserved the six sacred brazen images. They are roughly cast figures, in the shape of plumply developed cocks, one of which weighs more than seven hundred pounds, while the others are smaller. They are a gift from the dying prophet. There were originally seven of them, but one has been unaccountably lost. The holy book was also concealed for a time in Sheik Adi. This book was probably written in fairly good Arabic, at about the end of the tenth century, by Hassan el Bassri, Sheik Adi's disciple. It has existed since then in only a single copy, and is divided into two parts, of which the first contains the history of the creation, in occasional agreement with the Biblical narrative; and some account of the origin of the Yezidees and their subsequent fortunes, not always accurate, and containing many anachronisms. The second part—which is evidently to a considerable extent of later origin, for it shows various handwritings—explains the doctrines, precepts, and rites. The occurrence of Chaldaic words indicates that some Christian or ex-Christian priest or monk had something to do with its construction. According to this curious book, darkness prevailed before God created the heavens and the earth. He became tired of hovering over the water, and made a parrot, with which he amused himself for forty years. Then he became angry with the bird, and trampled it to death. The mountains and valleys arose out of its plumage, and the sky from its breath. God then went up, made the dry sky, and hung it to a hair of his head. In the same way hell was made. God then created six other gods out of his own essence, in the same way that a fire divides itself into several flames. These six gods are the sun, the moon, morning and evening twilight, the morning star, the other stars, and the seven planets. Each of them made himself a mare, with which to travel over the sky. The gods talk with one another in Kurdish, the speech of paradise, the language of languages. The seven gods together created the angels. It came to pass that the angel created by the first god rose against his lord, and was cast into hell for it. He at once set up a great lamentation, with confessions of his faults, and wept continually for seven thousand years, filling seven great earthen jars with his tears, till at last the all-good and merciful God had pity on him, and took him again into paradise. This angel afterward so excelled the others in doing good that God loved him more than all of them. The other angels once in a quarrel taunted him with his single sin and punishment. God overhearing this became very angry and said: "Whoever of you offends this little one with another word shall be accursed; whom God hath pardoned, the creature shall not make ashamed." He raised this angel to be first and master of all, called him Melek-Taus, and united him with his own person and existence, as two flames become one. The seven jars filled with the tears which he wept in hell are to be preserved till Sheik Adi shall return after having completed his mission on the earth, to be used in extinguishing the fires of hell.

The seventh god created the various species of animals, gradually, one out of the other, and finally Adam and Eve. But their posterity could not maintain themselves. After ten thousand years the earth destroyed them all, and then remained desolate for ten thousand years longer. Only the genii survived. The same thing happened five times again, each god creating a human pair in his turn. Finally the first god, with Melek-Taus, created the last first pair. Eve a considerable time after Adam, and not till after he had been expelled from paradise. Adam lived in paradise, and was allowed to eat of all the fruits growing there except of wheat.

In the course of time Melek-Taus said to God: "You have created Adam to people the earth; but he still lives in paradise, while the earth is uninhabited." God said: "You are right; take counsel about it." Melek-Taus went to Adam and moved him to eat of the forbidden fruit, upon which his expulsion from paradise followed as a punishment. God then determined to give Adam, who was still alone, a companion, and made Eve from his ribs, who bore him seventy-two pairs of twins. The Yezidees are not, however, descended from this race, but from a son miraculously given by God to Adam, named Shehid-ibn-Giarr, and a houri from paradise. Their posterity, the Yezidees, do not mingle with the children of Adam and Eve.

Shehid's eldest son was Yezdani, from whom, through his son Noah, also called Melek Salim, the blessing passed to his grandson Marge Meran, the father of the Yezidee race. The Mussulmans are descended from Ham, who, having detected his mother in an intrigue, mocked her to his father. The children of Eve and of Ham hate the children of Yezdani, because they are the chosen people of Melek-Taus, who induced their father to eat the forbidden fruit, thereby forfeiting paradise.

The children of Eve laughed at Noah while he was building the ark in anticipation of the flood. When the ark struck on Mount Sindiar, it sprung a leak. The snake swelled itself up and stopped the hole with its tail; but after the flood, the snakes increased so fast as to do much harm to men. Noah was so vexed at this that he seized one of them and threw it into the fire. From its ashes arose fleas.

The history is continued, with a mixture of distorted incidents from the Old and New Testament accounts, the life and sufferings of Christ, stories of the Koran, and secular history. Christ, after suffering, but not actually dying, upon the cross, was taken by Melek-Taus into heaven, where, with him and God, he forms the Trinity.

Yezid, who made war upon his father, the Caliph Moanzeh, although he lived in reality a Mussulman, but unorthodox, is fabled in these books to have been a great champion of the religion of Sheik Adi, and to have possessed miraculous powers. He is said to have ordered all the books of Islam to be brought together and cast into the sea, and to have pronounced a curse of body and soul against every one, except those to whom special license might be given, who should thereafter read or write a letter of the Arabic language. Having overcome Hussim and Hassan, the sons of Ali, Yezid lived three hundred years at Damascus and then ascended to heaven. The Mohammedans obtaining possession of Damascus again, and beginning to oppress the faithful, Yezid was sent down to earth to protect them. This time he took the name of Sheik Adi. He again performed many wonderful works and effected some marvelous conversions, receiving the adhesion, among others, of the Caliph and of Hassan el Bassri, and drove the Christian monks from Lalish, where he established the seat of his religion. Jews, Christians, and Mohammedans, says the book of Sheik Adi, "curse and blaspheme in the way that they are led by their books. They are blind and hardened, and do not know that God comes down from heaven every thousand years and punishes blasphemers. They habitually speak of Satan, meaning thereby our holy Melek-Taus, who is one with God. This wicked name was invented by infamous and accursed people to shame our august protector. It is no less sinful to let words of similar meaning or like sound pass over the lips, such as kaītan (a sting). shat (the Tigris), shed (to bind), nál (horseshoe), and lál (a ruby). Whoever speaks one of these words is guilty of the most heinous blasphemy and deserves to die, and his soul shall be embodied in a mangy dog or a beast of burden. Therefore God forbids the reading of books, because such words are contained in them. Neither the Bible nor the Koran originally had these blasphemous passages, but they were added by evil-doers. It is also a great sin to eat salad, because its name (in Arabic) sounds like one of the titles of our saints."

The priestly order is hereditary, in the lines ordained by God, and includes, after the Myr, or high-priest, the Apiars, who reside at Sheik Adi, and dispose of their blessings for good money; the Meshaich, who, without having any particular ecclesiastical functions, pray for the healing of diseases and break the bread at marriage ceremonies; the Kovechek, who dance at the festivals and on other occasions; the Kavalin, who constitute the guard of honor to the seven holy images, make music, and attend to the collections; and the Fakirs, who are organized as begging-monks, and live wholly on alms. All these priests wear their beard and hair uncut, and can marry only within their class.

The Sanjak, or Holy Standard of the Yezidees, is asserted to have come down from King Solomon, having passed from him to the kings of their nation, and having been committed by Yezid to the Kavalin to care for. As among them, it is consigned to the one who will bid highest for the privileges and blessings attendant upon having it in possession. On stated occasions the Sanjak is carried around and exhibited to the people. The priest dips the standard into the holy water, and, taking some of the consecrated earth of Sheik Adi, makes of it pills as large as a hazel-nut, which he keeps as blessed gifts for the faithful. Whoever swallows one of these pills will be kept by the grace of Melek-Taus sound in mind and body for a whole year. The standard, preceded by a herald to announce its coming, is taken to the villages as they are designated by the Myr. The privilege of entertaining it having been sold at auction, the successful bidder makes a feast in its honor, which is attended by the priests in their order, and by the people, and, finally, the women and children. Offerings are brought and laid down, and at sunset all the faithful march seven times around the standard in honor of the seven gods, beating their breasts and asking pardon for their sins. When all the villages in the circuit have been visited, the standard and the collected offerings are brought to the temple.

Sheik Adi is the true Jerusalem, or center of the faith. At the beginning of the autumn the Myr and the Meshaich meet there in a cave and inquire of Melek, who appears to them, whether a festival will be agreeable to him. If the answer is favorable, the report is sent out, and in the course of twenty-three days thousands of Yezidees, with their wives and children, will have collected at Sheik Adi, bringing with them provision of a peculiar cake, for no kind of food must be prepared there during the pilgrimage. On the twenty-third day, the great Sheik comes out from the cave, takes his seat upon a stone, and salutes the people. Every person, thirty years of age and over, must bring an offering from his live-stock, according to his means. The Meshaich now come out of the cave and join the Emir on a high tribune, where, with the priests of the other orders, they form the Council of the Forty. An ox is stewed in a big kettle from morning till sundown, when at the call of the Emir a number of young men come up, and, plunging their bared arms into the hot mess, accompanied by ceremonial music, pull out the pieces of meat and distribute them among the Emir and the Council. The skin and flesh of the young men's arms may peel off to the bone, but those of them who die are at once enrolled among the saints; and in their honor the hunters of Sindiar and Chartie climb to the top of the mountain and loudly clash their shields together, or, more recently, fire volleys of musketry. This ceremony is called kabaah. Every one of the attendant faithful receives a share of the broth, making an offering equivalent to about a sixpence in return. After three days of the festival, the faithful are all baptized in the waters of the holy Semsen—a stream which issues from a cave into a broad, stone-lined basin—and after them the women and girls receive a dip. The water for drinking is taken from a pond into which the water flows from out of this basin. None can be drawn from the upper part of the source. Three of the holy images are ceremonially dipped in the brook, carefully dressed, and arranged around the Sanjak; each of the faithful takes a little of the sacred earth and presents his offering, and the festival is ended.

The religious ceremony of marriage consists in the couple going before the Sheik and eating a piece of bread which he has broken in two. A feast is given afterward, at which the attendants contribute toward a gift to the Myr, in commutation of his sovereign rights. Weddings are not celebrated in April, or on Wednesdays and Fridays. The relatives of a widow have a right to give her in marriage, whether she be willing or not, to the sixth time, after which she is at liberty; but, if she will pay the relatives as much as the new suitor offers, she discharges the account, and they have no further control over her. The marriage bond is dissoluble by death, by removal, by putting the wife away on account of transgression, and, without cause, after eighty years of it.

The priests claim the power to heal diseases through the interposition of the saints, and by the water of the brook Semsen and the earth of Sheik Adi. They say that Rejel-el-Senne occasionally sends his plague-soldiers to vex men; when they repent of their sins and confess them, the saints intervene to vanquish the pest-soldiers and drive them away.

The souls of deceased believers are supposed to go into paradise to dwell with the seven gods, Melek-Taus, and the saints. Sheik Adi is the door-keeper there. The souls of unbelievers and of sinful Yezidees go into the bodies of asses, mules, and dogs.

Upon the death of a Yezidee, his mouth is at once filled with the holy earth of Sheik Adi. The body is buried under the direction of a sheik and the kavalin. The body having been laid in the grave, facing the east, some sheep's dung is scattered over it, and the grave is filled up with earth. The women mourn, sing dirges, beat their breasts, and tear their hair for three days; and, if a traveler comes along, he is entertained for the salvation of the soul of the deceased. The mourners and their friends afterward meet in the house of the deceased, where the Kovechek dance and sing to Melek-Taus till they look him in the face, when they are seized with convulsions, and fall senseless to the ground. This is a sign that the soul of the deceased has entered paradise. The whole winds up with a funeral feast.

If a man has an evil-disposed son, he secretly buries his wealth, so that it shall not be wasted after his death, and marks the spot with some sign. When he is born again, to lead a new life, as his religion teaches him is to be the case, he will go and recover his treasure.

New-year's-day is a great festival, and is always observed on the first Wednesday after the vernal equinox. On this day, God collects in paradise all the saints and their relatives, and sells the world's coming year at auction. The highest bidder is made Rejel-el-Senne, the ruler of the year, and has the direction of men's fates according to his will, and the distribution of plenty and happiness, want and disease. On the morning of the previous day the Kochek calls from his house, imploring from Melek-Taus blessing upon all who are within hearing of his voice. The young people then go to the mountains and woods to gather red shkek flowers with which to adorn the doors of their houses; for no house not thus ornamented can be secure from the afflictions of the year.

The legend of Sheik Adi's call to be a prophet relates that, as the holy man was riding over the fields one moonlight night, in his twentieth year, there suddenly appeared rising from the ground, in front of the tomb of Abu Rish, a vision of two camels having legs four cubits in length, with heads like those of buffaloes, hair long and bristly like a thorn-bush, large round eyes glistening with a greenish luster, jet-black skins, and other features like those of men. The tomb had become immensely large, and had taken the shape of a minaret towering into the clouds. It then began to shake, and Sheik Adi in his fright overturned a water-jar that was standing by his side; and the apparition, which had turned into the shape of a handsome boy with a peacock's tail, exhorted him: "Do not be afraid; the minaret, indeed, will fall and destroy the earth, but you and those who hear your word shall not be harmed, and shall rule over the ruins. I am Melek-Taus, and have chosen you to publish the religion of the truth over the earth." This said, he took Sheik Adi's spirit with him into heaven, where it stayed for seven years, receiving instruction in all truths, while the body of the saint remained asleep by the tomb of Abu Rish. When his soul returned to it from the sky, the water had not yet run out of the overturned jar.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from Das Ausland.