The Republic of Georgia in Pagan Times and Today
It has been ascertained from archaeological evidence that in pagan times each tribe had its own patron deities, who were believed to possess supernatural power and who were responsible for establishing order in nature and society. Rites and ceremonies were organised in their honour, some of which have been preserved.
For instance, folk festivals and performances such as Berikaoba and Keenoba that are held in different parts of Georgia up to this day and the worship of icons. They represent transformed survivals of those ancient religious rites.
The oldest religious notions are preserved in old Georgian myths and tales. The heroes of Georgian fairy tales often go down into the nether world or go up to the sky where they meet and speak with the sun, the moon, and the stars. They look like human beings and have their features. The sun is a woman to them and the moon and the deity of the weather and clouds are men.
When the Georgian tribes began to unite, their religious notions also became closer and began to merge and certain order and hierarchy was established. The moon deity became the highest deity of the Georgians. He was pictured as a warrior. The bull was considered to be its sacred animal. Therefore, a bull was often sacrificed to him. The bull’s horns have the shape of a crescent moon, so we often come across the pictures of a bull’s horns in cult buildings and people’s dwelling places, or even bull’s heads. That the bull’s cult was so widely spread in Georgia was the result of the development of agriculture (Asatiani & Janelidze, 2009, p.32).
The Georgian astral pantheon was headed by a triad and the first king of Kartli, Parnavaz, declared Armazi to be the official religion of the country.
The supreme deity, who established order, was the male deity, the moon. The second one was the sun, or the sun woman, the deity of fertility and crops. The third one was Kviria who, according to the rules established by the supreme deity, ruled over the world. Separate branches of man’s activities and natural phenomena also had their patron deities (ibid. p.32).
As a result of syncretism, the moon deity of the ancient Georgians was given the features of other deities as well. Armazi, in the Hittite language, meant the moon deity, and both this name and many other cultural elements were brought to Kartli by the Meskh tribes from Asia Minor.
A statue of Armazi was erected on a high mountain opposite Mtskheta. It previously had been known as Kartli Mountain but after that, it was called Armazi Mountain. The idol of the deity Armazi was made of copper and was in the shape of a warrior with golden armour and helmet. It had precious stones foe eyes and held a sword in his hand. Nobody dared to approach it, for whoever touched the idol was doomed to death. People offered Armaz as sacrifice not only animals, especially bulls, but also human beings. Besides Armaz’s, statues of other deities were erected too, these were Gats and Gaim, made of gold and silver. They were male deities too, and were considered the servants and guards of Armaz (ibid. p.32).
On the opposite mountain, at the beginning of the Aragvi Gorge, the idol of the other main deity Zaden, whose name was also of Hittite origin, was erected.
Not only were the main deities given official names, state festivities were arranged in their honour too. For example, the day of the Moon deity Armaz was celebrated at the end of summer, when worshippers from different parts of the country, including the royal family, would get together in Mtskheta for a ritual march and to offer a sacrifice to the deity.
Despite the fact that most Georgians today would describe themselves as Orthodox Christians, folk customs with pagan origins, such as the use of songs in rituals for healing purposes that are chanted over sick children, are still practised alongside Christianity in the mountainous regions of the country.
The bat’onebi, for example, are spirits who are believed to live beyond the Black Sea and they are sent out by their superior in all directions, in order to test the loyalty of mankind. During the daytime, the bat’onebi move about on mules. In the evening, however, they return to the houses of the sick and reside in the bodies of the stricken. Bat’onebi are to be obeyed without question, as resistance only enrages them. Nonetheless, their hearts can be conquered with tenderness and caresses; thus, it is possible to protect oneself from calamity. They are said to enjoy gentle songs and the bright sound of instrumental music.
The blisters from chickenpox (qvavili, literally: flowers) and the redness from measles (ts’itela, literally: redness) are said to be signs of the arrival of the bat’onebi. In preparation for the ritual, the patient’s bed and room are decorated with colourful fabrics and flowers. Visitors wear red or white garments and walk around the sick person with presents for the bat’onebi in their hands. A table full of sweets and a kind of Christmas tree are prepared for them too. If the illness becomes worse, the family of the patient turn to the ritual of “asking-for-pardon” (sabodisho) and a mebodishe (a woman who has access to the bat’onebi and acts as a mediator) is invited to contact them to find out what they want and to win them over. Once the patient recovers, the bat’onebi have to be escorted on their way, back to where they came from.
A translation of the lyrics to one of the healing songs that are still sung is presented below. Laynany was collected in 1987 at Akhalsopeli (a district of Qvareli) by members of Ensemble Mzetamze, an ensemble of ethnomusicologists dedicated exclusively to the musical traditions of Georgian women and from whom the information on this folk custom was obtained, and the lyrics were translated by my partner Ketevan Kalandadze:
Iavnana, vardos Nana, Iavnanina,
Nana da Nana, vardo (my rose), Nana, Iavnanina.
We are seven sisters and brothers, Iavnanina.
We travelled through seven villages, Iavnanina.
We entered the villages so quietly, Iavnanina
that not even a single dog barked, Iavnanina.
We entered the yard so quietly, Iavnanina,
And got into the beds of the ill, Iavnanina,
So that the mother did not notice, Iavnanina,
Nobody noticed, Iavnaina.
I picked violets and made a bouquet of roses, Iavnanina.
I spread them over our ill ones, Iavnanina.
Iavnana, Vardos Nana, Iavnanina.
Asatiani, N., & Janelidze, O. (2009) History of Georgia: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, Tbilisi: Publishing House Petite.
About the Author
Michael Berman 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, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus for O-Books, and All God’s Creatures: Stories Old and New for Pendraig Publishing. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk