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First Year Course on Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan)






















Illustration of Word

The Great Blue Sky over Mongolia. Photo courtesy of

English form: Heaven

Mongolian forms:
      tenger, ogtargui

Literary Analysis

The word ‘heaven’ is used frequently—more than forty times—in The Secret History of the Mongols. Most of these uses are in dialogue with a character stating something to the extent of “May Eternal Heaven grant me protection as I …” Heaven is an important force in the life stories of many important Mongol characters, as evidenced by many examples from The Secret History of the Mongols.

An example from paragraph 113 is how Temujin speaks of Jamuqa and himself as having their power increased by Heaven and Earth as a result of their righteous brotherhood. In paragraph 224 the elected Khan credits the “virtue and strength of Eternal Heaven” with having made possible his unification of the whole nation.

While hiding in a thicket of woods as a fugitive in a scene from scene 80, Temujin considered coming out, but was twice deterred by what he interpreted to be signs from Heaven. The first sign was that his horse’s saddle strap had worked loose and the second a large rock that had blocked his exit. Both times he decided to go back into the thicket to hide for an additional three days, but hunger eventually drove him out and he was then promptly captured. The signs from heaven likely spared young Temujin’s life from his captors.

Temujin’s split with his blood brother Jamuqa is another instance in which heaven is involved. A shaman, Teb Tengeri, interpreted a dream involving a bull to mean that he should split from Jamuqa. The dream was seen as a sign from heaven, directing the young leader what to do.

These are just some of many examples that demonstrate heaven’s role in ancient Mongolian culture. The overwhelming pattern of usage of heaven in The Secret History of the Mongols shows a power that greatly aids chosen people in their endeavors.. This text builds on the cultural notion of heaven and destiny as requiring an international presence and culminates in the history of the Mongol Empire as it stretched to encompass nearly all of Asia.


Cultural Significance

To Genghis Khan and the people he ruled, heaven had given him a mandate to conquer and to spread a new way of living. This cultural imperative shaped the tie between the sky god Monkh Khokh Tenger, ( literally ‘Eternal Blue Heaven’) and the destiny of the Mongol people.

The opening lines of The Secret History of the Mongols are “Genghis Khan was born with his destiny ordained by Heaven above.” This combination of destiny and heaven is vital to the unlikely story of Temujin’s rise to power from a poor boy under enslavement to the greatness he later achieved.

A Taoist monk received a letter written by Genghis Khan in which the Khan stated that he wanted to rule in a style different than the Muslim and Chinese leaders of the day. This letter a strong indication of a shift in governance strategy on the part of Genghis Khan from plundering riches to building states with his precepts at their core. Switching to the installation of governments in conquered territories shows that a new emphasis was placed on vastly changing the world and not just living his own life as best he could



Historical Significance

The historical significance of heaven rests in mandate believed to be given to Genghis Khan to conquer, but also in the sky itself. The understanding demonstrated by the Mongol leader of the differences between dark and lit skies plays a great role in how he organized his army once elected Khan, a key to the empire’s later success. Aside from the decimal system, Genghis Khan applied an understanding of his own weakness derived from cloaked knowledge that he saw as night.

Much of what is outlined in the text is just procedural necessity, but the mere fact that such effort is expended on the night guards (those responsible for the Khan’s personal security) indicates a difference in the mindset of Genghis Khan towards night and day. While simply stationing ten thousand troops outside of his ger would certainly be enough to protect him from outside attackers, Genghis Khan is aware also of the internal danger present. Thusly he goes to great lengths to insure that his sentries are always loyal to him by enforcing strict discipline. He chose generals’ sons to guard him. Instead of keeping them as hostages to hold his generals in order, Genghis Khan instead trained the sons (his night guards) with the skills they would need to replace their fathers in a moments notice. Thus, the generals in the field knew that if they disobeyed their leader, they would face the unenviable position of opposing their own son.

Inherent in the logic of this plan is that Genghis Khan is more vulnerable at night than at day. His ability to control events is lessened because of the dark’s cloaking effect and because of his need to rest and sleep. Genghis Khan, however, does not let this become a tragic personal flaw weak to attack by others. By picking the sons of the generals and then training them in his sentry contingent to replace the generals if needed, Genghis Khan turns a great weakness (potentially being overthrown) into his greatest strength. His unprotected ‘night’ aspect becomes a strength. The long term stability created from his treatment of the troops played greatly into the success of the Mongol empire, and into Genghis Khan taking control of his destiny in a way that made him the greatest conqueror of all time.



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