Folk Religions of Kartvelian Mountain Peoples

Written by Dyami Millarson

Kartvelian is a language family spoken by various peoples in the Caucasus region. The Kartvelian languages are interesting, because there appears to have been contact between Proto-Kartvelian and Proto-Indo-European. For that reason, we should not be surprised to find parallels between the Kartvelian religious systems and the belief systems of ancient speakers of Germanic. Today we will be looking at the religions of traditionally isolated Kartvelian peoples who live high in the Georgian mountains. My article exhibits what I could gather on this relevant topic, but I will do more research in the future and hope to visit the region myself for further investigations.

The Khevsur people, which lives in Khevsureti, practises syncretic religion retaining ancient elements of their prior folk religion. The Khevsur people has its priests with whom they convene in sacred places where the priests perform ancient rituals. Defying the anti-religious sentiment that prevailed during Soviet times in the region, the Khevsur people continued having their religious meetings with ancient rituals being performed by priests. The Khevsur cultural heritage includes a rich oral tradition of folk stories, songs and poetry accompanied by traditional dance.

One Khevsur folk tale narrates how one of their deities was trapped in a lake, which made the Khevsurs depressed, because they were unable to help the deity, who had done so much good for them. After three years, a wizard came to advise the Khevsurs on the matter, and he said they should bring a blood sacrifice. The Khevsurs sacrificed an extraordinary ram, which had four ears and horns, and thus liberated the deity. The Khevsurs rejoiced as they learned sacrifice is a good method to assist their deity, who has also assisted them on many an occasion.

I cannot say much about the Pshavs, who live in Pshavi which is to the South of Khevsureti, except that they practise their own traditions at sacred shrines and profess a syncretic religion. The Tushs, who live in Tusheti which is to the West of Khevsureti, have a similar culture as the Khevsurs. The Tushs are traditionally shepherds, who may in some isolated mountain regions continue rearing cattle as a main source of income to this day. They are known particularly for rearing sheep, but they also rear oxen and horses traditionally. The Germanic peoples, whose ancestors are the Indo-European cattle breeders, are traditionally cattle breeders as well, which is a cultural tradition that remains strong among the Frisians in the Netherlands who managed to modernise their old traditions. The Tushs may be descendants of folk religionists who fled conversion and sought refuge in the mountains to continue their old ways.

The Svans, who live in Svaneti, have their own traditions and customs like the Khevsurs and Tushs. Their belief system consisting of folk elements is syncretic. The Svans believe that the Gods would inflict disease upon whoever breaks their law. While disease is seen by the Svans as the result of a legal transgression, they deem animal sacrifice to the deities necessary. A similar belief may have existed among the Germanic tribes and their Indo-European forebears. When a relative has died, the Svans will mourn the passing of their relative for 3 years, which is a holy number in ancient Germanic religion as well. The svans believe the souls of the deceased return to their family every year halfway January. During this time, the Svans will please their spiritual guests with traditional story-telling and delicious food. When a relative has died far away from home, a spiritually gifted person will be charged with searching for the lingering soul with the aid of a rooster, for the Svans are convinced that this particular animal is capable of seeing the souls of the dead.

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