Circassians - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. With the exception of the Natukhay and Shapsegh tribes, all Circassians were organized into four castes: princes ( pshi ), nobles ( warq ), freemen ( tlfaquat'l; tlkhwaquat'l in Kabardian), and slaves or vassals ( pshit'l ). Within these rigid strata, various families had rankings. The princes organized the overall wealth (storing and distributing surplus) and external relations of their village. They conducted raids and warfare, drawing upon the fighting skills of the nobles. The freemen practiced agriculture, animal husbandry, and small industry. The slaves, usually prisoners of war, served the princes and nobles as servants and workers. Today this old system survives merely as a tradition of origin for families. Its dissolution was precipitated by the emigration of most of the freemen and slaves in 1864, with the princes and nobles primarily staying in the Caucasus. There is a tradition that this emigration followed a bout of internecine warfare between the social castes after the defeat by the Russians. The most important form of social organization among the present-day Circassians of the Russian Federation consists of the Circassian Council (Adyghe-khaasa). This is composed of elders from all the various Circassian groups, and its cultural and social authority transcends the boundaries of the three political regions to encompass all Circassians living in or near the Caucasus. In 1989 it was influential in dissuading many Circassian youth from going south to help their Abkhaz kinsmen in the fighting between the latter and the Georgians. Furthermore, in 1990, to bolster the council's cultural role and perhaps to reward it for its prudence, Moscow granted the council a sum of several million rubles to encourage the growth of Circassian cultural institutions and activities throughout the Caucasus.

Political Organization. The prince presided over a village and promoted village cohesion with feasts, bestowing honor among individuals by assigning to them the position of t'hamata, master of ceremonies. Outside the village the highest level of organization was the tribe. The tribes were the Ubykh, the Natukhay, the Shapsegh, the Hakuchi, the Abadzekh, the Bzhedukh, the Hatukay, the Yegerukhay, the Chemgwi (earlier Kemirgoy), the Mamkhet, the Makhochey, the Besleney, and the Kabardians. The Bzhedukh consisted of two subtribes, the Khamych and the Chercheney. These tribes themselves had rankings, with the Kabardians being ranked high because of their cultural and political influence and the Ubykhs being ranked high because of old religious status, whereas the Shapseghs and Natukhays were looked down upon because of their lack of a caste system and their involvement in trade. Tribes had councils of princes, and grand councils could be called involving more than one tribe. Tribes were based on fictive kinship, such as Besleney, "Those of (Prince) Beslen," or regional identity, such as Abadzekh, "Those in the region of the Abaza." Others may reflect ancient cases of assimilation, as with the Natukhay, "White-Eyed [light-eyed] Ones," perhaps Circassianized Crimean Goths, or the Shapsegh, "Pointed Head or Hat Ones," perhaps an old Alanic tribe.

Social Control. A body of oral, traditional law tightly governed conduct. Furthermore, rules of etiquette were extremely important: these usually consisted of hospitality coupled with a conversational discretion that bordered on taciturnity. The wrong words could ruin social face and engender bloody conflict. The princes and nobles practiced fosterage with their slaves or vassals. It was a great honor for a vassal to rear a child of his prince or noble. The child was returned to his biological home at maturity. The greatest honor for a vassal was for such a mature child to choose to stay in the house of the slave, to become a qan, "one who remained." Such fosterage formed a fictive blood link between slave and master.

Conflict. A Circassian was never without his dagger, and few things were more important to him than his weapons. This reflected the prevalence of the blood feud. Indeed, the word "vengeance" ( tlish'ezhen, "to make blood again") must take the marker of inalienable possession in West Circassian. The blood feud, in turn, sprang from the khabza (custom, law) that any death inflicted upon a member of another clan, regardless of whether it was intentional or accidental, had to be avenged by a corresponding death. The obligation of blood feud extended to the protection of one's guests as well as to one's "milk brother," a fictive-kinship bond. Indeed, blood feud obligations could be abrogated by a man of one clan putting his lips to the breast of a woman of the other, thereby forming a fictive-kin link of milk brotherhood between the two warring groups. Blood feud obligations were temporarily suspended during times of war, so that armies could be assembled. Women tended to be outside the blood feud. Injuries were recompensed by money, the amount being determined by a council of elders or by the prince. Theft of livestock within the clan was intolerable; material goods could be stolen by stealth, but it was a disgrace to be caught. This reflected the relative contempt for material possessions. In fact, if a fellow clan member asked for some item, one was obligated to give it. In this way, material goods tended to circulate among the Community. In matters of dispute, the council of elders, headed by the prince, interpreted khabza to reach a settlement. Such decisions were usually obeyed since the dreaded blood feud was the most frequent alternative. A husband could mete out punishment for violations within the sphere of the family. Women enjoyed great respect and status in that they could halt the bloodiest fights merely by dropping their kerchief between the combatants. A maiden could also bestow her kerchief upon a favored youth, in classic feudal manner, so that he could act as her champion in acts of valor and adventure.


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