Svaneti in the Snow: A Horse for a Spirit

My friend once told me a story: a friend of his Rafael, a naturalist artist from Spain, being in Georgia in 1990s decided to go to Svaneti. This Georgian region was a crime’s nest at that time. People, even locals, were frequently armed-robbed on roads, not saying anything about foreign tourists. Rafael decided to go anyways, but well prepared, nevertheless. He rented a car, and bought a sawn-off gun that he put under the driver’s seat. Nobody knows if the gun would helped him, but luckily for him he never needed it. Amazingly (if you’ve been to anywhere near Svaneti in 1990s you’d say this is the right word), he escaped being held at gunpoint and all the threat he experienced was being overdrunk, since he was stopped almost in every village for an overnight feast.

Margo Qaldani is opening the door lock from inside in Adishi.Adishi, Svaneti, 2010

So, Rafael tells a story: being drunk already in one of the Svan villages, at around 2 am, he went out to search for a bathroom in the yard. It was pitch-dark outside so he soon got lost and walked into some neighbor’s house instead. What he saw there blew his wasted mind, by his own word: in the dark room (electricity lines were cut almost everywhere in Svaneti then) lightened only  by candle-light, sat an old woman and a girl with strange light-colored eyes, similar to ones of a blind. And this girl was playing with a little stuffed bird, just like with a toy.

Understandingly enough, it sounds rather eerie: night, candle, blind’s eyes, stuffed dead bird. It’s especially ghostly for a drunken mind. But this little horror story illustrates yet another aspect of Georgian mountain people’s culture: their attitude to the dead and the other world.

In Georgian mountains the afterlife is almost as real as this world.

IMG_9273
Svaneti, 2010

Virtually all Georgian mountain regions had rituals of preparing the deceased people for the afterlife. Highlanders believed that in the other world the dead lead the same lifestyle as here, and thus they need the same things there: food, horse, weapons etc. All this was usually buried along with the body, so that they would “copy” themselves into the other world, just as the dead person did. In Easter Georgian mountains, especially in Tusheti, where the horse-holding was especially developed, there existed, and nominally still does, the special ritual of immolation of a horse at the funerals of a deceased person (usually a man), since he needed to ride it “there.”

Also, the food was brought to the cemetery and left there during the funerals and the following days when the deceased person was remembered, because spirit also needed to eat. The survival of this pagan tradition is left in Georgia’s modern culture, when food and wine is also left at the graves on the Easter day.

Villager propose toasts at Adishi's cemetery to commemorate spirits of the dead.Lipanali, the remembrance of the dead. Svaneti, 2010.

Another such survival of paganism is a tradition of funeral mourners (especially in Western Georgia) and funeral songs (Svaneti). Seemingly artificial high-pitch groaning of women, who enter a parlor where the coffin with a body is situated, is often mocked, but in fact it’s also a remnant of old pagan ritual: before the funeral began, a woman, usually chosen for her ability to get excited easily, was appeal to the dead several times, sometimes in a manner of an unrhymed verse. After some point she would fall into a kind of trance and after that she was believed to start speaking on behalf of the spirit of deceased person. At high-pitched voice she would claim she needs a horse, food, weapon, and some other women around would exclaim moaning after each of her phrase. In some other parts of Georgia the send-off of the dead was preceded (or followed) by special ritual songs.

But the connection with the dead should not be lost even after they were buried. Ancient Georgians believed that souls of the dead had supernatural powers, and they could help the living in the real world.

IMG_2956
Svaneti, 2010

One of the most common traditions in mountain Georgia is the holiday of the commemoration of the dead. Depending on the region it may last from one to several days. It usually starts in the second half of the winter/the beginning of the spring, marking the beginning of the next year. The idea behind this holiday, is that during it the dead are not only remembered, but also “pleased,” so that they would help the living with their worldly concerns, such as getting a good harvest for a year, asking for luck, health and longer life etc.

People believed that it was all in the hands of the dead.

adishi_093
Svaneti, 2010

In Svaneti, the holiday of the remembrance of the dead called Lipanali starts annually on January 18 (on the eve of the Epiphany day. Possibly the date was set under the influence of Christianity). In the evening of the day the spirits of the dead are invited to houses to live there side by side with living. Svan village of Adishi is reportedly the only place where villagers go to the local cemetery to ask their long-deceased relatives to follow them to the house.

On the second day pigs are sacrificed in every house and special meat pies are baked for the holiday table. Not doing so is a sin, villagers say. Possibly, this is also connects to the belief that spirits need the food.

On the second day every family should slaughter a pag for a feast table.
Svaneti, 2010

During the feast table special toasts for the spirits are proposed, where they are asked to bring the prosperity to the family and long life to its members. Instead, spirits are promised to be remembered. People’s belief in spirits’ ability to help, or not to, the living, was a stimulus for the latter not to lose a contact with them.

Seems that the clan system common for all closed mountain communities worked well in the afterlife as well.

Adishi villagers boil water in a big pan to prepare pig-meat for the holiday feast
Preparation for the holiday feast. Svaneti, 2010

During the Week of the Dead, usually on Saturday, spirits from all families would gather in some secluded place in order to decide the fate of each villager for the next year. Seems that even the life of each person was in spirits’ hands.

Therefore people were trying to be nice to the spirits. Besides feeding and raising glasses for them, villagers avoided speaking loudly or producing any loud noise during the week. Given that, the week-long amount of firewood was split before the beginning of the Week.

Also each day a special wooden pole called “kvari” was put one end into a stove. Spirits were believed to warm themselves around kvari.

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Kvari is the way for spirits to warm themselves. Svaneti, 2010

On the last day of the Week, the last shot of the drink was raised to remember the spirits and then villagers would “escort” the spirits to the doors, from where they would return to the cemetery.

The cult of the dead in Georgian mountains is an excellent material to understand the cosmogony of ancient peoples living in this region. On the other hand the official Georgian Orthodox Church tries to eliminate pagan culture. In some villages priests have asked congregation not to celebrate ancient holidays, such as Lamproba. At the same time ethnographic studies of the Georgian mountain traditions have stagnated during the last 20 years or so. In very villages less and less people are left, who understand the origins and purposes of such rituals.

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Remembrance of the dead. Svaneti, 2010

Lacking background these rituals might look as weird as a girl playing with a dead bird in the midnight, while in fact they contribute to developing nation’s unique cultural identity.

More related stories:

  • Tako Natenadze’s multimedia about Svan funeral.
  • The story about the Remembrance of the Dead holiday in Svan village of Adishi on EurasiaNet.org.
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5 thoughts on “Svaneti in the Snow: A Horse for a Spirit

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