Religious Beliefs and Practices. Khevsur religion is an amalgam of several interwined traditions. Although they consider themselves Christian (Georgian Orthodox), their religious system comprises pagan, Old Testament, Christian, and Moslem elements. The chief authority in religious affairs is the dek'anosi (deacon) or qevisberi. A man can become a qevisberi only on the basis of a vision of God or one of the saints (who function as minor deities), supplemented by the recommendation of another priest. Only priests can ordain a man into the priesthood and assign him his duties. The qevisberi presides at the altar, offers sacrifices, supervises the brewing of ritual beer, heals illnesses, performs blessings, and intercedes with the patron saint of the shrine. Among the ritual functionaries subordinate to him are the khutsesi, dast'uri, mekhat'e, medroshe, and rnezare. The khutsesi presides at weddings, burials, and funerals, and performs certain blessings (e.g., after childbirth). The dast'uri serves for a one-year term, with the election taking place at the New Year. He is responsible for brewing the sacred beer, distilling vodka, baking bread, and cooking the meat of sacrificed animals. Those serving in this office are expected to live ascetic and abstemious lives. The mekhat'e bears the holy icon in processions, and the medroshe carries the flag. The mezare is the guardian of the treasure entrusted to the shrine. This consists of the silver bowls and chalices used in ritual ceremonies and the flag of the shrine ( drosha), which is regarded with great reverence by the people.
The function of communicating with the supernatural world is divided among several practitioners. The kadage is a shamanlike prophet; he pronounces his prophecies while in a trance, during which he might engage in self-flagellation. Women and girls can also perform this office, in which case their function is to establish the causes of illnesses, misfortune, and casualties in battle. The mesultane can see into the world of the dead and communicate with the souls of the departed. In return for gifts she will establish contact with departed souls and ask about their well-being, their needs, or if there is the threat of evil. The mkitkhave is another type of intermediary. She inquires about the causes of illnesses and the possibility of healing. For example, the afflicted person might have to be taken to a particular altar, where a sacrifice is to be offered. While performing certain rituals and prayers, the qevisberi slaughters a sheep and collects its blood in a bowl. He makes the sign of the cross upon the sick person and sprinkles him or her with the blood, after which the animal is prepared for eating. The qevisberi, possessed by the demon driven out by the blood of the sacrificed animal, must then heal himself. This ritual is performed at the women's festival grounds. Wounds and minor illnesses are treated with medicinal herbs and other natural means.
The Khevsur observe a cycle of feast days, which are accompanied by traditional rites. A Khevsur must undergo a ritual cleansing before approaching the shrine on the occasion of a festival. The summer festivals take place in June and July, with the date reckoned from Easter. Easter and Christmas are clearly Christian feast days, and both are preceded by periods of fasting. The high point is Holy Week, the week preceding Easter. The first of the summer festivals is the feast of Qaqmat'is-jvari, one of the most solemn in Khevsureti. The festival usually lasts four to five days and is celebrated at the most sacred altar in Khevsureti, consecrated to Saint George. Of particular significance to these ceremonies are the silver chalices and bowls, decorated with engravings and precious objects—each vessel has a particular function and is consecrated to a particular deity. Another important feast day is Atangena, celebrated between 13 and 27 July. There are also many festivals that are only observed in individual villages. Khevsur festivals, like those elsewhere in Georgia, are marked by music, dancing, and singing.
Certain animals have specific functions and attributes according to Khevsur belief. The cat is considered an unclean animal. Should a member of the community be convicted of thievery, a dead cat would be hung by his house as a sign of shame. In the event that the accused person did not admit to the crime, a dog would be killed in his name—an especially severe insult. Migratory birds were watched for because they were believed to bring diseases; when the birds arrived, specified practices were to be followed.
Death and Afterlife. Funerary rituals and the cult of the dead are an important part of Khevsur culture. As is the case elsewhere in the Caucasus, elaborate funeral rituals and banquets are held in commemoration of departed family members. Should a person be on the verge of dying, he or she is brought out of doors, since dead bodies render the house unclean. The body is prepared by narevebi (body washers) and dressed in the person's best holiday clothing. Since they have been polluted by contact with a corpse, the narevebi must remain secluded and undergo a weeklong series of purification rites. Most often young men assume this function. For three to four days the deceased lies in state before the house, and keening women lament in loud voices. Some women are engaged expressly for this purpose, for which they are compensated with food. Meanwhile the relatives are seated in the house with the khutsesi, who offers prayers for the deceased. On the day of burial the dead person is publicly mourned by all of the villagers, who punctuate their laments by beating on their breasts and knees. Before the introduction of interment at the beginning of the twentieth century, the dead were placed in mausoleums ( ak'ldama ), which are still to be seen in Anat'ori or Mutso. These are small houselike structures with stone benches inside, on which the dead were placed in a seated position. The survivors would provide them pouches containing provisions, a pipe, and tobacco. In the case of burial, the body is laid in a family grave lined with sheets of slate, in which all family members, including relatives who bear the same name, are buried. All adornments are removed from the body, and it is laid to rest on its back. The soul is sent on its long journey to the afterworld with provisions of bread, apples, nuts, a comb, a mirror, and weapons. A Khevsur horse must also be present during the burial. It is specially decked out with finery and led to the grave site. After the ceremony a horse race is conducted in honor of the deceased.
A commemorative feast is held forty days after interment. The principal commemoration takes place a year after death and lasts for three days. All relatives are invited, and it is considered dishonorable not to attend (the offense is punishable by expulsion from the community). Each guest must supply a portion of the food and beverage for the banquet. Eulogies are pronounced; a deceased man's courage, articulateness, and skill with weapons in battle and in hunting are recalled with praise. The Khevsur regard the soul as pure; in order for it to reach the land of the dead, it must cross a bridge made from a single hair. At the other end of the hair bridge is the judge of the dead, who pronounces sentence. Sinners are condemned to swim in a river of tar, liars are doused with hot water, and traitors must stand in hot water. After thus expiating their sins, the souls can enter paradise, which is conceived of as a many-storied white building. The more virtuous a soul is, the higher its place in the building; the purest souls, such as those of children, are assigned to the top story. Over the course of time a soul can ascend to higher floors. Hell, by contrast, is believed to be a dark four-cornered room.