Some Historical Roots of Traditional Abkhazian Household Culture, by Shalva Inal-ipa
The text by Shalva Inal-ipa is taken from the book ‘Abkhazian Etiquette’.
© Oleg Shamba, 2010
Chapter One: Some Historical Roots of Traditional Abkhazian Household Culture
Various forms of household culture developed in Abkhazia under the influence of different social and economic conditions. Genetic roots of the traditional Abkhazian etiquette which has substantially existed up to now are connected partly with communal-patrimonial and partly with military-democratic and patriarchal-feudal conditions of life. As has happened with many other peoples (for example, the Japanese with their etiquette code ‘busido’), traditional Abkhazian etiquette, which includes features of chivalry in some respects, essentially developed within the environment of tribal dynasties and military aristocracy during the epoch of early feudalism. As a result of such influences the rules and principles of traditional public behaviour were formed.
The breakdown of communal-patrimonial relations led to the formation of a tribal dynasty, and then to a military-feudal nobility. Private property became a more and more important stimulus. At the same time, in conditions of a growing aspiration to enrichment, mutual tribal relations became more complicated. There were constant battles with the aims of cattle seizure, hostage capture, vengeance for insults, and the acquisition of pastures and other territories, as well as ‘living space’ for a growing population, etc.
So gradually war conditions developed methods of behaviour for the acquisition and maintenance of property. War and the organisation of people for conducting it became a regular feature of national life.
Peace was regularly shattered, dangerous traps were everywhere. ‘Wherever you go, you will come back!’(Wahitso waalent!) – a person who safely returned from a campaign or other dangerous enterprise was welcomed thus.
Since the earliest days a weapon was probably appreciated by Abkhazians above all else. It was a constant accessory of any man and a subject of special pride for him. It was considered inappropriate to disarm a person or to leave ones own weapon with an enemy, for according to old traditions, a man without a weapon was not a man any more.
The population was under eternal fear of attack and the stealing of people and animals, and attackers had to be beaten off in bloody armed fights. Even after the arrival of Russians the roads of Abkhazia remained unsafe for a long time, and along them predatory gangs and adventurers from different mountain societies still ransacked. It was difficult to be safe from them: they hid in woods, arranged ambushes; travellers were plundered, killed or stolen into captivity. Therefore Abkhazians never left home without weapons.
The life and consciousness of people was heightened by a military spirit. Preparation of brave and hardy soldiers was one of the first tasks in the education of the rising generation. All men from their childhood were able to skilfully ride a horse and to shoot.
Military concepts dominated ideas of heroism and honour. So it was considered unworthy for a man to go without a weapon, but also to disarm a person was equivalent to bringing huge insults and humiliations upon him. His fighting horse was considered untouchable too. The horseman took it as a personal blood insult if somebody struck his horse or even only touched its ear with a whip. Bravery and fearlessness were extolled above all.
As a result of all this, there was a cult of the man-hero (ahatsa, ahatsara). Accordingly, in Abkhazian national poetry ‘songs of courage’ glorifying heroism (ahatdarashare) and bravery in fights with enemies strongly prevail, whilst the love lyric is seldom found.
A magnificent monument to an epoch of a military-democratic system is the well-known epic about the Narts heroes, in which the cult of military campaigns ‘to obtain glory’ (h’izhratsara), heroism and valour reaches deification.
Arash is a mythical winged horse, Narts’ friend and adviser. Such horses are frequently endowed with reasoning and human speech.
‘Atarchei’ was a ceremony of commemoration of a lost soldier which included the participation of his horse; its death during horse races was considered as a good sign (Abkhazians had a tradition of sacrificing a fighting horse to its owner as a victim and burying it near the soldier).
Af’i was a deity of thunder, lightning and weaponry, and also the patron of soldiers; his name and striking force was called upon to defeat and punish the enemy - ‘Af’i will strike him!’ (Af’i asaait!). The utmost heroism (af’irhatsa) is the integral quality of this terrible deity. Spears with huge tips, which often had two prongs, were attributed to him (sometimes these ‘Af’i arrows’ are considered as belonging to Aerg (St. George). A set of these ‘arrows’ of different sizes and a huge bow were stored in Ilori church. Such ‘arrows’ were brought into the temple as a gift to Af’i, and only the smiths of selected families had the right to make them. ‘Af’i’s arrows’ quite often are found at excavation sites in some areas of Abkhazia.
‘Apkhyartsa’ is an important musical bowed instrument played by men (a traditional Abkhazian violin with two strings), probably connected with their military life. In particular, the etymology of the name refers to this: ‘forward the leader’, ‘forward calling’ (apkhya - ahead, rtsa - forcing to go), and the instrument possibly dates back to extreme antiquity.
‘Ahurashea’ is the wound song, a heroic song of soldiers, but additionally some kind of a medical song which friends sang together with a wounded man at the bed of the latter. ‘The wound song’ is usually sung with apkhyartsa accompaniment, and the lyrics, which are meant to inspire, are given below:
He is not a man
Who is not able
To hide his sufferings …
He is not a man
Who with a sigh or groan
Will reveal his torments...
Groans and sighs
Are women’s fate
They gain relief in them
Are sent to us as an ordeal
To test our endurance and will
If cowardice could save us
And bravery meant nothing
The hare would live the longest
Death likes a coward
The clever bullet can choose
And will not miss that fool
The above words leave no doubt that Abkhazians were not only farmers and cattlemen, but also soldiers. In their historical life, military activity was not only overland, because the sea also played a rather important role.
In national traditional festivals, militarised games and competitions prevailed, forcing men to show their speed and dexterity as well as their ability to use weapons and horses. Competitions in walking a long distance, running, long and high jumps, wrestling, throwing of heavy stones with no run-up, fighting on horseback, horseracing, shooting at targets from guns and pistols, and, in the not-so-remote past, archery, were regularly arranged, which testifies that the practical use of these activities ended only rather recently. Archery was still a favourite pastime of children and young people even in XIX-XX centuries.
The following evidence was given by F.Dubua in his ‘Travel round Caucasus’, written in 1937: ‘A young Abkhazian noble, fourteen years old, by the name of Gassan was invited to a spot-check on a vessel standing in the Sukhum bay. His attention was drawn to pistols and guns, hanging on the captain’s cabin wall, and it was possible to notice at once that our young Abkhazian was an expert in the matter’.
The Abkhazian artist A.K.Shervashidze (Chachba), a grandson of Keleshbei and a nephew of the last possessor of Abkhazia Michael Shervashidze (Chachba), spent almost all his childhood in the Abkhazian settlement of Lykhny.
Recollecting that childhood, he wrote: ‘I remember that my late father made bows and arrows for me when we lived near Moscow. The arrows were very smooth and straight, and had a thick end on which the bark was left. Then he taught me to shoot from a bow. I remember what great pleasure I received from these exercises.’