Svaneti – where the Living feed the Dead and the Dead feed the Living

Michael Berman

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In ‘The Cafeteria’, a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, one of the characters asks the question “How can we hope when everything ends in death?” The answer given is that “Hope in itself is a proof there is no death.”  The point being made is that as so few people can ever really accept they are dying, in a sense death does not exist for them.  And in another short tale by this master storyteller, ‘The Power of Darkness’, Singer offers a possible explanation as to why people die – “The living die so the dead may live”. The dead live on in our memories.

Situated on the southern slopes of the central Greater Caucasus, the province of Svaneti (Georgian: სვანეთი) is in the north western part of Georgia.  The landscape is dominated by mountains that are separated by deep gorges, and four of the 10 highest peaks of the Caucasus are located in the region. The highest mountain in Georgia, Mount Shkhara at 5,201 meters (17,059 feet), is also to be found in the province.

Mount Shkhara, Georgia

The Svans are usually identified with the Soanes mentioned by Greek geographer Strabo, who placed them more or less in the area still occupied by the modern-day Svans. The province had been a dependency of Colchis, and of its successor kingdom of Lazica (Egrisi) until AD 552, when the Svans took advantage of the Lazic War, repudiated this connexion and went over to the Persians. The Byzantines wanted the region, for if they secured its passes, they could prevent Persian raids on the border areas of Lazica. With the end of the war (562), Svaneti again became part of Lazica. Then, the province joined the Kingdom of Abkhazia to form a unified monarchy which was incorporated into the Kingdom of Georgia in the early 11th century. Svaneti became a duchy (saeristavo) within it, governed by a duke (eristavi). The province’s Orthodox culture flourished particularly during the Georgian “golden age” under Queen Tamar (r. 1184-1213), who was respected almost as goddess by the Svanetians. The legend has it that the duchy was annually visited by Tamar.

The Svans, the indigenous population of Svaneti, were Christianized in the 4th-6th centuries. However, some remnants of old paganism have also been maintained in the region. Saint George (known as Jgëræg to the locals), a patron saint of Georgia, is the most respected saint, and the Svans have retained many of their old traditions, including blood revenge.

Typically bilingual, they use both Georgian and their own, unwritten Svan language, which together with the Georgian, Mingrelian, and Laz languages constitute the South Caucasian or Kartvelian language family.

As for the rituals associated with death in Svaneti, a number of traditions have evolved to cope with it.

Men don’t shave for 14 days after a death, while widows wear black with a lapel badge bearing a photo of the deceased. In the home there is a shrine with more photos, and visitors will be given a drink, to pour a few drops on the floor, and toast the deceased with the rest. Forty days and three months after the death, family and friends go to the cemetery; a table is setup on the grave with food and drink (and perhaps other household items such as a radio). The women wail and cry, then the men line up, hats off, to say prayers and, of course, toast the deceased with chacha [a Georgian spirit, similar to vodka]; then the table is removed from the grave, and the food is eaten.

As in every Orthodox Church, tapers are lit by everyone who comes into a church; those at the front left are for prayers for women, those at the front right are for prayers for men, and those at the back are for the dead.

The dead are commemorated on Mariamoba (St Mariam’s Day, 28 August), and also in Khaishi on Jvedi Ham, the second Sunday in January, when the souls of dead relatives stay overnight with their families. (Burford, T. “Rituals of death in Svaneti” http://www.bradtguides.com/rituals-of-death-in-svaneti.html Retrieved 8/2/2012).

Lipanali, the main focus of this article, is celebrated in Svaneti one day before Epiphany, on January 18th each year. During this period souls of ancestors or “didebuli” (the majestic ones) are invited from the western entrance of a local church all the way to each family’s home, where they stay until the next morning. Every family carefully prepares for this ritual. The day the souls are invited, “adgom”, is spent cleaning and scrubbing the house. As they say in Svaneti, – “the spirits will not enter the house during adgom, unless all bits of fat are cleaned.” The Georgian Orthodox Church assigns its heaviest fasting to this day, while Svans developed a folk ritual around it. The head of the family puts several kveri (small, round breads with a filling, “lemzir” in Svanian) and zedashe (best quality wine used for religious rituals) on a wooden tray, goes to the western entrance of a local church and asks the Lord to let his ancestors out of heaven. After this, he returns back home, all the while praying and asking his ancestors to follow him. The rest of the family waits inside the house with a table full of special dishes ready for the “guests”. After midnight, during epiphany, an especially rich feast is organized by the family. The didebuli are entertained during the whole night. Family members tell fairy tales, sing and play on the Chuniri, a stringed instrument, and try to imagine those who have passed away. Spirits are said to love stories and whoever can tell stories, they all do during this week. A special table is laid out for the didebuli where no living person is allowed to sit. The chairs are pulled out, which makes it seem like there are actually souls sitting on them. On Saturday evening the didebuli leave for a Lalkhori (a gathering) where they discuss the fate of the family and what will happen to it over the next year. The souls are said to protect their descendants this way. On Sunday the souls return from the Lalkhori and the family greets them with hot porridge. Lipanali lasts until the following Monday. On Monday morning, “joodi” (long morning), the souls are seen off. Every member of the family needs to be up before sunrise. The family blesses their ancestor’s feast table, after which the head of the family takes milk with honey, pours it bit by bit on the ground and prays, – “m’jaarTuaarshukvarujaarkh “ – “may you have sunny roads”. In this way, the spirits of the dead are sent off, the necessary order re-established, and society is ready to restart its everyday life.

As to whether the Svans truly believe in souls of their ancestors visiting them, the convincing stories they tell about their existence would seem to indicate that they do.

Of course, events and rituals representing efforts to communicate with the dead can be found in many different cultures, with the Mexican Day of the Dead (Spanish: Día de Muertos) perhaps being the most well-known example. The celebration takes place on November 1–2, in connection with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1) and All Souls’ Day (November 2), and focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. Traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honouring the deceased using sugar skulls, marigolds, and the favourite foods and beverages of the departed and visiting graves with these as gifts.

Scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl. The holiday has since spread throughout the world: In Brazil, Dia de Finados is a public holiday that many Brazilians celebrate by visiting cemeteries and churches. In Spain, there are festivals and parades, and, at the end of the day, people gather at cemeteries and pray for their dead loved ones. Similar observances occur elsewhere in Europe, and similarly themed celebrations appear in many Asian and African cultures too. The intent in each case is to encourage visits by the souls, so that the souls will hear the prayers and the comments of the living directed to them.

The Svanetian ritual is not simply an attempt to maintain an on-going relationship with the dead though. The spirits of the dead, the ancestral souls of the family, also helped to ensure the family’s welfare. The immediate ancestral spirits were treated in a special way, and specific animals were sacrificed to them. The souls of the sacrificial animals were believed to be chased away (or urged on) by the ancestral spirits to the pastures of the netherworld. By means of these sacrifices, the souls were pleased, satisfied and calmed, and in return they provided the living with the guarantees in life they were looking for. In this way, life was completely reconstituted, everything began afresh and the community was ready to start a new year with new hopes and goals. As the sun “shifts” or “turns” towards the spring and light begins to increase, Lipanali is about regeneration and new beginnings, and thus helps to provide a “kick start” to the New Year.

At the time of the winter solstice, the thresholds of the inner and outer worlds are believed to become open for the various undesirable and desirable powers and forces which can penetrate through these passages. Special precautions therefore need to be taken and Lipanali forms part of this.

Visitations from the land of the deceased to the world of the living, or from the outer to the inner world, respectively, are well known among many peoples and are associated with the cosmological symbolism of outer/inner and nature/culture, respectively. The ‘centre’, consecrated through rituals, chants and prayers, was the place from where communication with the supernatural beings (powers) was believed to be possible, and the protective centre of the cultivated area, the house, provides the setting in which the winter solstice rituals, which date back to pagan times, took place, and still take place in Georgia.

Apart from special days set aside for the purpose, other means of communicating with the dead practised in various parts of the world include making use of Ouija boards, pendulums, channelling, and conducting séances, though these methods are often practised as a form of entertainment rather than with any more serious intent.

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Bibliography

Abakelia, N. “The Spaciotemporal Patterns of Georgian Winter Solstice Festivals” http://www.folklore.mee/folklore/vol40/abakelia.pdf Retrieved Retrieved 7/2/2012

Burford, T. “Rituals of death in Svaneti” http://www.bradtguides.com/rituals-of-death-in-svaneti.html  Retrieved 8/2/2012

Chikovani, M. (ed.) (1974) Georgian Folk Dictionary Volume 1, Tbilisi: Publishing House ‘Metsniereba’

Singer, I.B. (1982) Collected Stories, London: Penguin Books

Videos Posted by UNION LIDBASHI | Facebook www.facebook.com/video/?id=289936404363891 Retrieved 7/2/2012

Michael Berman’s published work includes The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus and Shamanic Journeys, Shamanic Stories for O-Books, Journeys outside Time for Pendraig Publishing, and Tales of Power for Lear Books. A Bridge to the Other Side: Death in the Folk Tradition and Georgia through Earth, Fire, Air and Water are both due to be published by Moon Books in 2012. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk

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