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Finding Light in the Midst of “Devil-worshippers”

Returning Sacred Texts to the Yezids

Finding Light in the Midst of “Devil-worshippers”

By Don Frew

As we’ve watched horrific reports of the “Islamic State” terrorist organization this year, most Americans have heard about a religious/ethnic group called the Yezidis1 for the first time. However, the stories of Yezidi refugee families being displaced and attacked by ISIS fighters leave out an important fact: across the Near East, Yezidis are known as “Devil-worshippers.” Perhaps editors assumed this would be too difficult to explain to American audiences.

I knew about the Yezidis for years before I first met them in 1998.

My wife Anna and I were traveling in southeastern Turkey, doing research on the origins of the modern Wicca movement. We were staying in Urfa, 38 miles northwest of Kobani, Syria, in the news of late. Back then, much of eastern Turkey had just been retaken by the Turkish Army from the PKK, a Kurdish revolutionary group.

We were the first non-Turks in the area. The brand new hotel we were staying in had been built for tourists and traveling business clients. Three of us were tourists – Anna, me, and our guide Attila. One ‘businessman’ turned out to be a government operative tracking our movements. (After all, why would tourists be here now?) We got used to being stopped by government patrols and held at gun-point while they searched us and our car. A tank turret trained on our little sedan seemed a bit much.

Yezidi men in Mardin, late 19th century Photo: Wikipedia

Yezidi men in Mardin, late 19th century Photo: Wikipedia

Our area of interest was an un-mapped collection of ruined Sabian temples in the nearby Tek Tek Mountains. This meant long drives each way. We had been warned not to be outside the city after dark. “If someone waves you down and you stop and it’s a PKK patrol, they’ll kill you. If you don’t stop and it’s an Army patrol, they’ll kill you.” It was early January, and the days were short.

On a trip to Mardin, the next big city to the east, our guide asked if we would like to visit a Yezidi village. “It’s on the way,” he said. I’d heard of Yezidi Devil-worshippers for years. The name suggests they worship the Devil. They wouldn’t wear blue, the Devil’s color. Draw a circle around a Yezidi, and he can’t cross it, because it represents the perfection of God. Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Rituals (1972) includes rites that supposedly come from the Yezidis. “Yes,” I told Attila, “we’d like to visit.”

Selim, the Yezidi village elder.

Selim, the Yezidi village elder.

Just east of Viranşehir, a small town on the way, we turned off the main two-lane highway and headed north on a dirt road. We passed a cemetery with each grave surrounded by a metal fence with spiked tops. We asked Attila, from Istanbul, about this. He asked our driver, a local man. Mahmud said the fences were to keep dogs from digging them up. Approaching a small collection of houses, our car was surrounded by large barking dogs with viciously spiked collars. Mahmud said the dogs were protection from wolves.

The whole village turned out to greet the unexpected visitors. Mahmud, a Muslim convert who had grown up Yezidi, stayed in the car. Attila introduced us to the villagers, who were very happy to entertain guests. We were taken to the village elder, seated on a plastic chairs, and served tea.

We said that we were very interested in learning more about their culture and religion, since there are so many misconceptions in the West. They laughed about the color blue, pointing at all their boys wearing blue jeans. They laughed about the circle, drawing one and jumping in and out of it. They had heard all this many times before. However, they did say that “if we knew the title of the book by Mr. Rushdie, we knew the name of their God,” referring to Shaitan in The Satanic Verses (1988), though they would not say the name themselves. They invited us to stay for dinner. We apologized, explaining that we were due in Mardin. We agreed, though, to stop on the way back to Urfa.

Don, with the men.

Don, with the men.

We set off to Mardin. After more adventures with soldiers and armored cars, we were back with the Yezidis as it was getting dark. Taken to the home of the village headman, Selim, we sat on the floor of the main room with all the men of the village. Attila said Anna should go with the women. I resisted this, knowing that Anna would want to hear the discussion and would be very unhappy about being segregated, but she complied with tradition.

Attila and I sat with Selim. They were as curious about Attila as about me, never having met someone from Istanbul before, much less from another country. Their first question was if Anna and I were Christians. Attila explained that we were Sabians, since we had explained to him that we were researching Sabian origins of Wicca. Everyone had heard of Sabians, since they are mentioned positively in the Qur’an, but didn’t know who they are. They wanted to know about us. As I talked about our Nature-based spirituality, they opened up about their spirituality.

Yezidi Spirituality

As Selim explained their faith to me. I would describe their tradition as a mix of an indigenous spirituality and Gnosticism. Yezidis believe that humans are beings of light that come from a spiritual realm above ruled by God. However, the evil spirit Shaitan imprisoned these spirits of light in the material realm, this world. The ultimate goal is to escape this world and return to the realm of light. But while we are here on Earth, Shaitan is the landlord, and you should pay the rent – in the form of ceremonies – and not draw his attention by speaking his name. This complex relationship with Shaitan earned the Yezidis the title “Devil-worshippers” in the communities around them. Since they are mostly known to the West by what Muslims have said about them, the title and the reputation spread.

Anna, with the women and children.

Anna, with the women and children.

 Anna, with the women and children. Yezidis discern seven angels below God, one of which, Melek Ta`us, is specially charged with aiding and watching over the Yezidi people. “Ta`us” sounds like the Arabic word “Tawoos” meaning peacock. Dwelling for centuries in a broader Arabic context, the Arabic meaning filtered back into the Yezidi religion, so Melek Ta`us is now known as the Peacock Angel. The “people of the Peacock Angel” is another common name for Yezidis.2

In addition to ceremonies directed at the Earth’s landlord, many elements of Yezidi religious practice seem indigenous. They have ceremonies to the Sun, Moon, and Planets. They observe the Solstices and Equinoxes. Listening, I compared their practices with Wiccan practices, finding a lot of similarity. The whole conversation was along the lines of one of us saying, “Do you observe the cycles of the Moon?” and the other responding, “Why, yes we do. What does that mean in your tradition?” Back and forth. When Selim mentioned that they have both priests and priestesses, I took the opportunity to explain that Anna is a priestess, trying to bring her into the conversation. The attempt failed, but as it turned out, she was having a great time with the women and children – some of whom were learning English in school – and had avoided the chain-smoking men.

Returning The Black Book

Eventually, we discussed sacred texts. They once had a sacred text, they explained – The Black Book – but their community had been forced to uproot itself, moving so many times on such short notice that the text had been lost four generations earlier. “Well, I have a copy,” I said, “and I would be happy to send you a copy!” They were stunned!

A religious scholar named Isya Joseph traveled the Near East in 1904 collecting religious texts, including the texts of the Yezidis. When he got home, he had published a book in 1919 – unfortunately titled Devil Worship – that collected the Yezidi material, including The Black Book. I had a copy in my library. (Today the whole book is online, though its scholarship is very out-of-date.) We exchanged mailing addresses as the evening ended. They were ecstatically hopeful about the recovery of their sacred text.

The nerve-wracking drive back to Urfa in the dark was uneventful. Returning home, we sent a copy of The Black Book to our Yezidi friends. They wrote back expressing great thanks and saying that if we ever returned to that part of Turkey they would gather the elders of the surrounding villages to have a feast in our honor.

A year later, at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, remembering our visit with the Yezidis, I thought, “How often have Western academics entered marginal cultures, collected their songs, stories, and traditions, returned home, written their dissertations, and left the collected data on a library shelf somewhere? And how often has the collected traditional material subsequently died out or been lost to the community from which it was collected?” Answering those questions led to the Lost & Endangered Religions Project (LERP), sponsored by the Interfaith Center at the Presidio. LERP continues to exist with ongoing activities in several countries. We focus on information which can be copied, rather than artifacts which can be fought over, promoting a collaborative relationship between academia and marginal communities.

So a chance interfaith meeting in a small village in rural Turkey led to an ongoing global interfaith service project and to the restoration of sacred texts to Yezidis in Turkey. Truly, you can never predict the long-term effects of an interfaith encounter.

1 In recent press reports, the spelling often is Yazidi, but Yezidi is the way the name was given to me at the time. Both spellings are acceptable transliterations from the Kurdish.

2 The original Kurdish “Tawuse” may be derived from the name “Thammuz,” a Mesopatian God of Agriculture.