Spoiler warning: This article does not contain any plot or location spoilers for Rise of the Tomb Raider. However, I leave it entirely up to the reader to decide whether they wish to continue scrolling down or not…
In her quest to find Kitezh in the frozen hinterlands of Siberia, Lara Croft stumbles upon the remains of the ancient armies and intrepid explorers who have tried (and failed) to conquer this once-glorious and remote city.
One of the artefacts Lara discovers throughout the course of the game is a battle-damaged Mongolian tug, a relic of a failed Mongol invasion in the 13th century according to both the in-game lore (caution: contains minor spoilers) and the Russian legend that inspired Ms Croft’s latest adventure. Sharp-eyed gamers will spot similar banners marking the paths through an ice cavern early on in the game.
But what exactly are tug banners and what do they tell us about Mongolian history and tradition?
The tug (туг), also known as a sulde (сүлд), is a military standard or banner that was used by various Turkic peoples throughout the Middle Ages but is most commonly associated with the Mongol Empire, whose troops conquered vast stretches of land in Asia, Russia (including parts of Siberia), Eastern Europe, and even the Middle East in the 13th and 14th centuries. It’s therefore unsurprising that similar banners could be found as far west as Ukraine or Poland. In fact, the Polish cavalry continued to use ceremonial tug banners (known as buńczuk in Polish) well into the early 20th century, a symbol of the country’s Tatar heritage.
Like the ones seen in the game, tug banners normally consisted of circular umbrella-like canopies made from numerous strands of horse hair and mounted on poles. The use of horse hair reflected the nomadic warriors’ dependence on horses for their survival, both as a means of transport and as a food supply. The tops of the banner poles were often adorned with metal tridents or spearheads, the former being a symbolic representation of fire or, in some cases, the Three Jewels of Buddhism.
Tug banners were available in just two (albeit effective) colour schemes. White banners were flown in times of peace while black ones were used when the Mongols were on the warpath. It’s hard to gauge what colour the ones in Rise of the Tomb Raider are but it’s safe to speculate that these are black war banners that have simply faded with age.
But the use of tug banners went beyond the aesthetic; these banners were a form of spiritual expression and tied to Mongolian shamanistic and animist beliefs. As nature worshippers, the Mongols viewed the wind as one of the five earthly elements and believed that the horsetail hairs hanging from the banners would trap the wind’s positive energy, thereby channelling it towards the warriors who carried them, strengthening and inspiring them as they rode into battle.
Furthermore, they believed that when a warrior died in battle, his banner would serve as the repository of his soul, allowing his spirit to survive beyond death and inspire future generations. A prime example of this would be the legendary black miltary banner of the great Mongol leader, Genghis (or Chinggis) Khan. This legendary banner was once housed at Shankh Monastery in central Mongolia but its current whereabouts are unknown. If the banner did really survive into the twentieth century, it’s possible that it may have been destroyed (or spririted away) during the Communist purges of the late 1930s, a period that saw the destruction of hundreds of Buddhist monasteries and temples across the country.
Following the democratic revolution of 1990, the Mongolian government revived the ancient tradition of the Nine White Banners, which were used by their ancestors during peacetime. These modern-day banners symbolize the country’s peaceful transition from a socialist state to a modern democracy and are housed in the Government Palace in Ulaanbaatar. Visitors can see these banners on display in the city’s National Sports Stadium during the country’s Nadaam festival in July or during various state ceremonies throughout the year.
Whether Genghis Khan’s black banner will ever be found is anyone’s guess. But it’s clear that the tug banner continues to be a symbol of Mongolian cultural identity (especially in the post-Communist era) and serves as a reminder of the nation’s glorious past, a time when their nomadic ancestors gave Alexander the Great a run for his money by establishing one of the largest empires in human history.
As for the fictional troops of Batu Khan in Rise of the Tomb Raider, I guess they can rest easy knowing that their spirits live on in the form of some swish game graphics, guiding a new generation of would-be invaders towards the lost city.
Sources & Further Reading:
- First Year Course on Genghis Khan: Horse (Macalester College)
- First Year Course on Genghis Khan: Wind (Macalester College)
- Genghis Khan – Man of the Millennium (HESO Magazine)
- Mongolian Culture (Mongolian Ways)
- National Naadam 2015: March of the Nine White Banners (Old Bones and New Adventures)
- The Nine White Banners of Mongolia (A Picture and Few Lines)
- The Search for History: Genghis Khan (RoosterGNN)
- The Spirit Banner of Genghis Khan (Mongolia Books)
- Tug Banner (Wikipedia)
- Tugh (Wikipedia)