Circassians - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Circassians have been Sunni Muslims for the past three or four hundred years, though as late as the first half of the nineteenth century some of the woodland Abadzekh seem to have retained a form of Christianity. The Circassianized Armenians of Armavir (Yermedls) are Christian, and there were some Jewish Circassians in the bodyguard of Chaim Weizmann, the founder of Zionism. Nevertheless, many pagan relics are to be found in their oral traditions, particularly the heroic Nart sagas or Nart epics, which are myths of great antiquity with many striking parallels to the mythologies of ancient India, Greece, and Scandinavia. Herein are a host of pagan gods, each dedicated to one simple function, such as the god of cattle, the god of forests, the god of the forge, a female fertility figure, etc. The gods held Olympian banquets, led by their own t'hamata, at which they drank a sacred brew, sana (wine). They conducted war and intrigues. The gods themselves had gods, but these were nameless. Also evident from the folklore is a belief that the universe was self-creating, that the world had no boundary and is made up of nine layers. In the myths are numerous monsters, cyclopean giants, lizard men, demons, giant eagles, and dragons. Heroes are defined by slaying these monsters, by thrusting their weapons into all nine layers of the earth and then by being the only ones capable of extricating them again, and by their prodigious appetites and thirsts. Certain groves and large trees were held to be sacred.

Various individuals were thought to be warlocks or witches, with the power of the evil eye and control over the weather and the well-being of livestock. A woman could not cross a man's path if she was carrying an empty pail without running the risk of being labeled a witch. There was a belief in ghosts as well, demonic forms that lurked in cemeteries. Eclipses of the sun were thought to be caused by a devil.

Religious Practitioners. Old engravings show that the prince conducted religious ceremonies among the Christian Abadzekh. Today the community elects an imam.

Ceremonies. Some Circassians would shoot arrows at nearby lightning bolts and then look for blood to see if they had made a hit. The Abadzekhs conducted a dance around a tree to the god of thunder, offering sana "(the Peaceful One)". Abadzekh princes would also sacrifice cattle before the cross. Other rites seem to have been conducted in sacred groves or before a sacred tree. Funerals were accompanied by wailing among the women. The deceased's clothes were displayed, and, if a man, his weapons were also laid out. Much effort was expended to retrieve for burial in tribal soil the bodies of those killed on raids. Today the usual Muslim holidays and rituals are observed.

Arts. Oral lore is of paramount importance among the Circassians. They view it as the chief monument of their civilization. Their folklore is extremely rich and varied. There are tales of battles with the Goths, the Huns, the Khazars, and the early Russians. Both men and women can be bards. This folklore has served in the twentieth century as a base for a modern literature both of poetry and prose. It has been collected in seven volumes, Nartkher (The Narts) by A. M. Hadaghat'la (Gadagatl). Some writing exists from the nineteenth century, but most is a product of this century. Some material has been produced in Jordan, most notably by the late Kube Shaban, and this has now been published in Maikop. Most Circassian literature, however, is a Soviet product. Some of it is extremely good and deserving of translation, especially such works as A. Shogentsuk(ov)'s (1900-1941) Kambot and Liatsa (1934-1936, in Kabardian); A. Shortan(ov)'s (born 1916) Bgheriskher (The Mountaineers) (1954, in Kabardian), or Yu. Tliusten's (born 1913) Wozbaanuquokher (The Ozbanokovs) (1962, in Chemgwi). The collected works of major writers are still appearing, such as those of T. Ch'arasha (1987-1989, in Chemgwi). Bards are still active and their output recorded, such as Ts. Teuchezh's The Uprising of the Bzhedugs (1939, in Bzhedukh). Active playwrights include I. Tsey (1890-1936), Dzh. Dzhagup(ov), and M. M. Shkhagapso(ev), among many others. For an ethnic group of its size, the Circassians' literary output has been prodigious.

Circassian song had a lead singer accompanied by a chorus, either on the same melodic line or in a counterpoint. Syncopation and triplets were abundantly used. Today in Jordan and the Circassian republics there are Circassian composers writing in variants of Western polyphonic styles, such as N. S. Osman (ov), D. K. Khaupa, and U. Tkhabisim(ov), to mention just a few, as well as Circassian musicians and conductors, such as K. Kheishkho and Iu. Kh. Temirkhan(ov).

Pictorial arts are based upon folk motifs, which are pleasing scrollwork designs of floral and cuneiform patterns on open backgrounds. It might be added here that the elegant folk costumes of the men's cherkeska, a caftan-like tight coat with cartridges across the chest, worn with a sheepskin hat, and the women's flowing gown with long, oblate false sleeves have spread throughout the Caucasus and have even been adopted by the neighboring Turkic and Slavic Cossack peoples as festive dress.

Finally, wood, usually a tree stump, is sculpted to produce a bust or totem-polelike representation of a god or heroic figure. For example, outside Maikop, in a children's playground on the edge of a wooded area there are several such figures—knight in armor, mushroom with a distorted face on its stem, and a totem-polelike representation of the god of the hunt, She-Batinuquo, with a wolf or dog sprouting from his right shoulder and an eagle soaring atop his head.


Science. The Circassians have produced a notable number of outstanding linguists, such as Z. I. Kerash(eva), G. V. Rogava, A. A. Hatan(ov), M. A. Kumakh(ov), and Z. Iu. Kumakh(ova), among others, who have helped establish literary norms Sfor their dialects by producing dictionaries and grammars while at the same time writing a wide range of theoretical articles. Prominent among native folklorists is A. M. Hadaghat'la, who has also written plays. Native archaeologists are making interesting finds on a steady basis, one of the latest ones being rich in gold and golden armor, along with fragments of what seem to have been an ancient Circassian script.


Medicine. Traditional medicine was the provenance of the women, who were highly esteemed for their skills and knowledge. Healing and medicinal springs were also prized; They were associated with a warrior princess, Amazan, "the Forest Mother" (the source of the Amazon myth), who was skilled in medicine and from whose blood the first healing spring arose.


Death and the Afterlife. After a life spent largely outdoors, Circassians viewed paradise as a comfortable, well-stocked room. The more virtuous the life led, the bigger and more sumptuous the room of eternity. It was said that the afterlife room of an evil man would be so small that he would not be able to turn over in it. From the Nart sagas, the realm of the dead appears to have been under the grave mound. The souls of the dead were guarded from supernatural depredations by a little old man and woman. Links with the dead were maintained by setting a place for them at the table for one full year after death. Feasts were held in their memory and toasts were offered to them by the t'hamata. A particularly illustrious warrior could serve as the head of a t'lawuzhe ("the successors to a man") and thereby be remembered by name even if his lineage did not achieve the status of a clan.


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Michael Evans
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Jul 12, 2018 @ 6:06 am
One of my good friends is a Syrian national, but foremost a very proud member of the Adaghre tribe, so I'm very interested in any history or latest archaeological discoveries that would help me understand my friends rich & diverse displaced culture.

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