Svans - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs and Practices. Svanetian religion is based on an indigenous system, similar in many respects to those of other Caucasian tribes, which has been influenced by long and intensive contact with Mazdaism (presumably through the Ossetians) and Orthodox Christianity. The chief Svan deities are Khosha Ghêrbet ("Great God"); Jgeræg (Saint George), the chief protector of humanity; and Tëringzel (archangel). Important female figures include Barbai (Saint Barbara), a fertility deity and healer of illnesses; Dæl, goddess of the hunt and protector of wildlife in the high mountains; and Lamæria (Saint Mary), protector of women. Christ (Krisde or Matskhwær, "savior") presides over the world of the dead. The Svanetian year is marked by a large number of major and minor feast days connected with the changing seasons, the harvest, etc. In addition, there are certain days within the week and month when people are expected to abstain from work and undergo periodic fasts. Among the principal feast days are those for the New Year ( sheshkhwæm and zomkha ); the festival of torches ( limp'ari ), at which protection from diseases is sought; and the Lord's feast ( uplisher ) in late spring. The gods are invoked and presented with sacrifices: slaughtered animals, various types of bread, and alcoholic beverages. It is important to note that because grapes cannot be cultivated in the upper Svaneti, vodka ( haræq' ) is the ritual drink, not wine as in lowland Georgia. Most ceremonies took place inside of churches or other holy places ( laqwæm ) , or in the home. Domestic rituals centered around the hearth, the cattle stalls, and, at least in certain localities, a large stone ( lamzer bæch ) , placed in the grain storage area. Women were not allowed to enter the churches or participate in certain rituals. On the other hand, there are feast days and observances specifically for women, which men are forbidden to attend. In particular, certain prayers directed to the hearth and to a type of domestic deity ( mezir, represented as a small gold or silver animal) are reserved for women.

Arts. The Georgian Classical Period (tenth to thirteenth centuries) was also a period of intense artistic activity in Svaneti. A large number of churches were constructed (over 100 in the upper Svaneti alone) and adorned with frescoes, icons, carved wooden doors, and items made of precious metals. Svan artisans were especially renowned for their skill at producing finely detailed gold and silver icons, crosses, and drinking vessels. It has been estimated that as much as one-fifth of the medieval Georgian metalwork that has been preserved to the present day is of Svan origin. There was also a distinctive local school of icon and fresco painting.

Svan folk literature comprises a variety of genres: epics, ritual and lyric poetry, tales, myths, and fables. Most of the themes represented in Svan literature are shared with other parts of Georgia, though elements of Ossetian and northern Caucasian origin (e.g., portions of the Nart sagas) also appear.

Among the folk arts, special mention should be made of Svanetian music. A tradition of polyphonic a-cappella singing has evolved in Svaneti, as in other parts of Georgia. One distinctive feature of the music of this province is its greater use of dissonant intervals and striking harmonic progressions. These choral songs accompany certain religious rites and festivals. Songs accompanied by the chæng (harp) or the ch ' unir (a three-string violin) are also frequently heard in Svaneti.

Medicine. Medical knowledge was a jealously guarded trade secret, handed down within certain families. The traditional Svan akim treated wounds and certain illnesses with preparations made from herbs and other natural ingredients. Many ailments, especially contagious diseases, were regarded as divinely sent, as punishment for some infraction of customary law. Sacrifices of livestock or, in serious cases, donations of land to the local shrine, were required of the party deemed to be responsible for offending a deity.

Death and Afterlife. The Svans believed that dying people could see several years into the future and would gather at the bedside of a dying relative to ask questions. When death occurred, the family and neighbors would break out into loud wailing and keening. After the burial the close relatives of the deceased would be in mourning for as much as three years. They would fast (abstain from animal products), wear mourning colors (traditionally red), and the men would shave their heads and faces and let their hair grow out until the end of the mourning period. If a person should die away from home, his or her soul was thought to remain at the spot where death occurred. A "soul-returner" ( kunem met'khe ) would be summoned to locate the soul (with the aid of a rooster, which was believed to see the soul) and escort it back home. Only then could the funeral observances begin. The souls of the deceased led a somewhat shadowy existence in a world similar to the one they left behind. Their well-being in the spirit world was related to their sinfulness before death and the zeal of their surviving kin in making prayers and sacrifices on their behalf. Once a year, at the festival of lipanæl (mid-January), the souls of the deceased were believed to return to their families. They remained in their former home for several days and were entertained with feasts and the recitation of folktales. Also during this time, the souls met and determined the fortune of their kin for the upcoming year. Because the Svans believe that the deceased retain the physical characteristics they had before death, a second lipanæl is held several days after the main one to accommodate the souls of handicapped people, who need more time to make the journey from the spirit world to the land of the living.


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