Abkhazians - Kinship

Abkhazian culture, as is typical of the Caucasus, is centered on the family and family relations. Specifically, there is a pattern of patrilocal residence, patrilineal descent (and descent groups), and a strong patriarchal authority, particularly public male dominance. Within the home, older women also command respect from their daughters and daughters-in-law, and mothers may be the family anchor, depending on personality. All carriers of the same patrilineally inherited name are regarded automatically as relatives and may be loosely styled "brother" and "sister." These people together are an azhavala, a group which is then divided into abipara ("descendants of one father") who usually all know each other, though they may be scattered over the country. Abkhazians consider all the people who eat from the same pot to be an extended family, though they may live in separate structures. It is considered unfortunate when such extended families have to break up, but this practice is becoming increasingly common.

A bride, on marriage, moves into her husband's father's home, or into a new house nearby. She becomes part of that network of relatives, but she also maintains strong ties to her own parents' siblings and relatives by descent, ties that her children later maintain. She is still part of her descent group of birth and remains under the protection of its members. These extended, nonlocalized ties have become, if anything, stronger today in light of the characteristically small size of the nuclear family (two children). A man is particularly close to older men in his mother's patrilineal groups, that is, to men who are classified as his "mother's brothers." (The kinship term that literally means "mother blood" may be applied to any man descended from the mother's brother.)

Apart from adoption, which is still widespread today, two forms of ritual kinship also existed prior to the Revolution and the abolishment of blood feuds in the area. First, a child often was brought up by another family—typically a noble child by a nonaristocratic family—with the aim of establishing kin ties between the two. Second, the ritual tie of milk brotherhood would be established between adults to cement a friendship: the mother of one would make a symbolic offer of her nipple and the man being inducted into the family would make a corresponding gesture of sucking it. Such kinship was felt to be even stronger or more inviolable than natural kinship. Ties of blood and marriage are labeled with terms that have clearly recognizable constituents: a "granddaughter," for example, is called "the-son-his-daughter" ( a-pa-y-pha ) or "the-daughter-her-daughter" ( a-pha-l-pha ), even primary terms such as the one for "sons" may be broken down into such constituents. An element indicating reciprocal status ( ay- ) is obligatory for some kinship terms unless a definite possessor is indicated; thus ay-asha, "brother" (with the reciprocal marker), contrasts with s-asha, "my brother." The interconnectedness between terms—achieved through the workings of reciprocity and through deriving one term from others—creates a special lexical web of kinship among the Abkhazians.

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