The Pagan Religious Practices of the Chechens and the Ingush
by Michael Berman
Before considering the religious practices of the Chechens and Ingush, it might be best to start with some background information on the region.
The Chechens live in a small territory called Chechnya bordered by Daghestan to the east and northeast; Ingushetia and North Ossetia to the west; Russia‘s Stravrapol Province and Cossack region to the north; and Georgia to the south and southwest. The Caucasus Mountains, which stretch along a line 1,100 kilometres long between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, protect the people not only from enemies but from outside influences in general. The Chechens therefore have retained many traditional customs and practices. As for Ingushetia, it was created in June 1992 as a result of the secession of the Ingush from Checheno-Ingushetia, where the Ingush had been very much in the minority. The decision to break away followed the declaration of independence by the Chechens in 1991 (see Matveena, 1999, pp.91 & 92).
The Chechens and Ingush have lived where they are now since prehistoric times, and while the Mesopotamians, Persians, Turks, Mongols, Slavs and others have greatly influenced the region with their wars, conquests and trade, being fiercely proud and protective of their roots and background, the inhabitants of Chechnya have remained ethnically the same for thousands of years.
As for the languages spoken by the peoples, both Chechen and Ingush belong to the Nakh branch of the Nakh-Daghestanian, or Northeast Caucasian, language family and they can both understand each other.
Although the current generation of Chechens and Ingush are Moslems and what they practise is a localized Sufi tradition, they still preserve remnants of their pagan past in both their traditions and their folktales.
Like many other tribal peoples, the Ingush and the Chechens believed in existence beyond the grave and this was reflected in their burial practices. The belief was based on the evidence of eye-witnesses, of people who have visited the other world – very typical of many other peoples of the world. The other world is similar to this one; it is constructed with the imagination of the Ingush and Chechens by analogy with their native land, the mountain region. The ‘other world’ is under the ground.
It is ruled by the underground God, Eshtr or Eter. A man dies only when that God wishes to take him. The other world is called in Ingush, Deli-Ailli, while this present world is Deli-Malkhli. The Ingush say, Deli-Malkhli was built in three years, Deli-Ailli was built in seven years (Dalgat, 2004, p.25)
This no doubt partly explains why the numbers three and seven feature so prominently in the folktales from the region. The fact that traditionally an Ingush or Chechen man is expected to know the names and birthplaces or origins of his paternal ancestors going back seven generations is yet another indication of the importance attached to this number.
Death for these peoples was not considered to be about going to one’s eternal rest, though, as the deceased in the other world were believed to do “all their work just exactly as in this world, and moreover simultaneously with the latter: when haymaking or harvesting finishes in this world, the work ceases simultaneously in the other world. The only difference is that the dead people work at nights, when the sun leaves the world of the living for the land of the dead” (Dalgat, 2004, p.26).
According to folk belief, at the moment of death, on the boundary between this world and the other one, when the divine Eshtr has already taken half of a man’s soul for himself, the dying man sees the other world with all those who have died before him. Those around him pose him questions like: “How is such and such a dead person living?” If the deceased had not been buried in the proper manner – in a burial vault that was regarded as the necessary dwelling for a dead person, then the dying man would usually reply that the dead man was troubled without a roof. If a memorial feast had not been made for the deceased, then the dying man would say that the deceased had no food and was living on charity. The dying man would be given various errands to perform in the other world too (Dalgat, 2004, p.27).
As for the burial of a dead person, he was buried along with everything it was thought he might need on the road to, and in, the other world. And at one time in the distant past, this would have included both his horse and his wife (see Dalgat, 2004, p.32).
The Chechens and Ingush concept of the soul had much in common with that of other tribal peoples too, as we can see from the following tale.
One day lame Temir, whose son had been lost, called into a smithy. At that time the blacksmith was sleeping, and Temir, not wanting to interrupt his sleep, sat down next to him and began waiting for him to wake up. He noticed that a fly came out of the blacksmith’s nose, crawled along the tongs across a basin to the anvil. Beyond the anvil there was a huge fissure; the fly descended into this fissure and stopped there quite a long time. Then it crawled back out and, after passing the anvil, crossed the basin by the same tongs, but while crossing it fell into the water. For a long time it was struggling in the water, with difficulty it crawled out on to the tongs, and went back into the nose of the blacksmith. “It seems I have been asleep for a long time!” “Yes, and I was sitting here all the time you were asleep”. Temir replied. Temir said to the blacksmith, “Amuse me. I have lost my son, and I am in great grief. Tell me something”. “But what can I tell you. After all, we cannot reach what I have just seen in my dream”. Temir started asking him to relate his dream. The blacksmith began, “In my dream I crossed a big river and an iron mountain and went down into a large cave, where there was treasure of gold and silver; for a long time I stood there, not having the strength to tear my eyes away from the brilliance and the splendour. But being conscious that I had to return, I climbed out of the cave. On the return journey when I was crossing the river, I fell off the bridge and almost drowned”. Temir realised that the soul of the blacksmith had come out in the form of a fly. And guessing that there had to be a treasure in the smithy, he persuaded the blacksmith to give the place up to him. Then after digging up the place where the soul of the blacksmith had crawled, Temir exposed untold wealth, with which he collected an army and subjugated the whole world (Dalgat, 2004, p.39-40).
What this traditional folktale illustrates is the ancient Ingush belief in the reality of dreams and how the soul for them was something material rather than an abstract spiritual concept. In fact, what it reflects is an understanding of the soul that is remarkably similar to that of the Siberian Buryats. There is even a parallel Buryat tale in which the soul takes the form of a bee when it crawls out of someone’s nose for an out-of-body experience (see Dalgat, 2004, p.40).
What the people practised can be described as a form of polytheism. Among the Chechens there were two systems of gods – a cult of ancestors and folk heroes and the worship of the deified powers of nature. “The High or Supreme God, the King of all creation and the Father of all other gods is called Dela, Dyala or Deyla. ‘The relation of Dyala to the other gods is like that of a father to his children: everything of course depends on Dyala; what He wants, that has to happen; but the other gods also act independently, each in his own sphere” (Dalgat, 2004, p.98). For mediation between the gods and people the Chechens developed a special type of priest or shaman known as a tsaynsag. In order to become a tsaynsag, besides intelligence and good conduct and the respect of the population, the man also required the ability to interpret his dreams and to tell fortunes – qualities required from the Roman augurs, Siberian shamans and Indian priests. These qualities make the priest a real mediator between God and the people. The priest learns the cause of bad fortune and the will of the gods by means of divination, and several methods of divination exist among the Chechens.
In former times there were very many sorcerers and sorceresses throughout Chechnya; everybody treated them with respect and resorted to their mediation in every difficult situation such as illnesses or general misfortunes, asking them to find out the cause of the misfortune and advise them how to be saved from it. “They were the mentors of the people and, like the gods, faithfully gave interpretation of dreams and explained illnesses”, said Ganzyh; they were called dzyry’(Dalgat, 2004, pp.84, 85).
Various forms of divination were practised, including the measuring of a shawl with the elbow, winding cotton wool round a spoon, making use of stones, mirrors, sheep’s bones and also by consulting Arab books (see Dalgat, 2004, p.86).
Of all the Chechens’ gods, the most mighty and honoured was Seli the Thunderer. In the Caucasus Mountains, the land of thunderstorms, this god found suitable soil for himself. In the mountains the most terrible phenomenon is the thunderstorm with thunder and lightning from them the Chechen has to suffer many problems of all kinds; every minute both his field and his very life suffer dangers from them. It is not surprising that Seli is held in such honour by the Chechens. He is the most terrible and most capricious god for them, and he has to be propitiated more then the others. But at the same time he is just, and punishes only those who deserve it. All the Chechens honour him equally, and one could say that even all of the inhabitants of the Caucasus Mountains (of course under various names) he is a god, not of one community or tribe, but of them all. “One can judge he strength of the cult of Seli by the fact that they consider a man killed by lightning (Seli’s firebrand) as blessed, and he is buried quite separately from other dead people” (Dalgat, 2004, pp.94, 95).
In view of the fact that the peoples clearly believed in the existence of at least one other reality, that it was possible for adepts to undertake soul journeys, and in the efficacy of divination, to regard what was practised by the priests as a form of shamanism would surely be a reasonable assumption to make, even though the term itself would of course have been totally alien to them. As to whether the priests actually entered trance states in the course of their work, though, remains unclear. However, given the popularity of the mystic dance among followers of the Sufi tariqat or religious path, it would seem that people in the region have a natural propensity for doing so, which would suggest that even though we lack concrete evidence, it was very likely to have been the case.
Dalgat, B.K. (2004) The Aboriginal Religions of the Chechens and Ingush, Moscow: NAUKA. (Translated from the Russian by David Hunt October 2009, and kept in the British Library. The book was first published in an abridged form in 1893).
Jaimoukha, A.M. (2005). The Chechens: A Handbook. New York; London: Routledge Curzon.
Matveena, A. (1999). The North Caucasus: Russia’s Fragile Borderland. London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Smith, S. (2006). Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya. London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks.
About the Author
Michael Berman PhD works as a teacher and a writer. Publications include The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books. Georgia through its Folktales will be published in March 2010.
Michael originally trained as a Core Shamanic Counsellor with the Scandinavian Centre for Shamanic Studies, but these days his focus is more on the academic side of shamanism, with a particular interest in the folktales with shamanic themes told by and collected from the peoples of the Caucasus.
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