Abkhazians - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Abkhazians subscribe to one of two world religions: about half are Orthodox Christians and about half are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi rite. Muslims are mostly distinguished by not eating pork. In fact, these religions are a surface layer for the old paganisms, which vary between regions and families. In the Abkhazian conception, God is one, but he is of infinitely numerous parts. Each manifestation of nature and each clan, family, or individual has its own part of God. The word for "God" in Abkhazian is Ants w a, which has been etymologized as the plural of "mother." The main local spirits who receive respect from adherents of all religions are Afa, who rules the thunder and other aspects of the weather; Shasta, protector of blacksmiths and all artisans; Azhveipshaa, the spirit of the forest, wild animals, and hunting; and Aitar, the protector of domestic animals.

Certain trees, groves, and mountains are sacred to clans and villages and are centers of religious gatherings. They embody the strength of a patrilineal line, its connection to a certain place and to God above. Other observances center more on the home and the role of the mother; many holidays feature special loaves of bread or cheeses, which are cut and distributed. Folk medicine is widely practiced, most often by older women, given the inadequacies of Soviet health care. Traditionally Abkhazians believed that the rainbow god was responsible for illnesses. Cures typically involved taking the patient to the riverside and offering prayers and food. Animal sacrifices may be performed to ensure the recovery of a family member who is ill or as part of rain-making ceremonies. Stones with naturally worn holes are suspended outside the home to ward off the evil eye. In general, certain days of the week are regarded as propitious or ill-omened for certain activities. Irrespective of orthodox adherence, the most important holiday is the New Year. Many Abkhazians, especially the younger ones, are essentially atheistic.

Arts. Abkhazians share with other northern Caucasian peoples the cycle of epic-sagas about the legendary figures known as the Narts. The Narts were giants, ninety-nine brothers (in one version) who lived together with their revered mother, decrepit father, and beloved sister. The poems tell of their military exploits, of their conflicts with their mother's illegitimate son, Sasreq w 'a, and of the wonderful arms made for them by Ainar, the blacksmith. Abkhazians also have a body of tales about Abrsk′'il, a Prometheus-like figure with analogues across the Caucasus. Unlike the case in Circassia, in Abkhazia Abrsk′'il is the people's special benefactor and protector, but he refuses to bow his head before God, and God finally has him imprisoned. In various stories, Abkhazians meet him in the mountains and he asks them how the country has been since his captivity; the answer is always a sad one. In general, Abkhazians have a rich tradition of folklore, kept alive by groups who sing, dance, and play traditional instruments, such as the two-stringed, bowed apkh'artsa. There is a tradition of using music for comfort and healing and to pacify spirits of the dead. The writings of Fazil Iskander, who is considered one of the leading modern-day writers in Russian, are replete with Abkhazian life and culture.

Death and Afterlife. Many elaborate rites are associated with the cult of the dead. The corpse lies in state for at least a week at home, constantly attended by a group of wailing females dressed in black. A line of male relatives waits to receive all who come to pay condolences, and neighbors help to sit with the corpse and to prepare food for the visitors. Further respects have to be paid on the day of the funeral, when guests gather throughout the day for the funeral in late afternoon. After this a feast is held. Further ceremonies at the grave and feasts are held at forty days and at twelve months after death. Depending on their closeness to the deceased relative, mourners (especially females) will wear black until the fortieth day, the first anniversary, or even longer; men will perhaps not shave for forty days. A set of the deceased's clothing is laid at home for a year, and graves are becoming even more ornate. It is very important that a person be buried in his or her family graveyard and that the relatives care for the grave. The soul is believed to remain with the body at death. In northern Abkhazia corpses are buried within two or three days of death and with less ceremony that in the south, where there has been much Mingrelian influence; a child under one year of age will be buried on the day of its death. There is classical evidence for the suspension of male corpses in trees, and this custom was noted among the Abkhazians as late as the seventeenth century.

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