Tushetian philosophy and mythology

Tusheti religion and philosophy

Prior to defining some of the principles of the Tusheti society that might concern visitors, it is important to understand their cause. The Tusheti system of traditions and various social customs arises from an elaborated system of creeds and mythology of Tusheti and mountain nations of the Caucasus in general.

Although Tushs are Orthodox Christians, namely practitioners of the Georgian Orthodox Church, their creed is largely syncretic with merging Christian and pre-Christian elements and marginally Islam under the influence of the neighbouring Muslim communities (similar creeds were professed by the neighbouring Khevsurs, Pshavs, and, until the 19th century, even by highlanders from Ingushetia, Chechnya, and previously certain areas in Dagestan). Based on the key denomination of a shrine or deity (jvari, literally "cross", the Czech Caucasologist Václav A. Černý promoted a term jvarism for such religion.

Christianity as such formally spread in the region in the 8th-9th century. Until then the people in the region worshipped various deities that had descended on earth in certain places where we can usually find shrines, churches or places with strong energy. Following the Mongolian raids in the 13th century, the mountainous areas were secluded from lowlands and the people partly reassumed their pre-Christian customs, which, however, already incorporated Christian saints and monarchs (above all Queen Tamar).

The term jvari as such (besides its Georgian meaning as a "cross") frequently denotes energy, light or deity which symbolize victory or fulfilled prayers. Jvari has its own God's children (ghtishvili in singular form) who have human features. The ghtishvili fights evil demon (devi) in order to hand the gained earth over to people (Kiknadze, 1996). In this system people are servants of God (saq'mo) and only the chosen ones (kadagi in singular form) can speak for jvari. Simultaneously, the ghtishvilis keep order and defend against Chaos(Kohoutková 2008, p. 29). These God's sons involve pre-Christian heroes of Tusheti mythology, such as Karate, Kopala, or Iakhsar, Jesus Christ named hero Kviria, Virgin Mary, and other Christian saints, mainly Saint George, Saint Nino, and saint kings and queens, above all Queen Tamar and her son Lasha Giorgi. Still, the Christian origin of the names is mixed with pre-Christian substance. All the deities have their dedicated shrines (khati) all over Tusheti, often located in areas of previously worshipped pre-Christian deities. The shrine of Lashari, named after Queen Tamar's son Lasha Giorgi, located in the vicinity of Chigho, is the most significant shrine of all Tusheti. Khati represents a dwelling place of jvari. That is why the shrines are only accessible for the chosen ones and the ghtishvilis only appear in the presence of the selected guards of the shrine (khelosani) since the world of God and the world of humans may not easily be interconnected. Without help people can neither find the place of dwelling of jvari (i.e. the place where a shrine - khati - is to be erected). The ghtishvilis never appear in front of the people directly in their real form but they act indirectly through various types of manifestations (fiery balls and similar). The place of khati may be indicated by a bird, or a chosen or possessed person (mkadri or kadagi respectively).

The Tusheti religion and mythology are strongly influenced by dualism with emphasis on harmony of two opposite principles. There is Order on one side, being kept through harmony between the rational and spiritual world. Any violation of this harmony may result in Chaos. This implies the traditional rigorous division of the roles of men and women in the Tushetian society (apparent also in other Northern Caucasus mountainous nations). This explains why, for example, women (or "impure" women, i.e. in their period from their youth to menopause) have no access to shrines (jvari) in order not to defile the sacred land. Such defilation could disrupt the connection between khati that protects the community and the heaven. Shrines for women (khati) are also frequently dedicated to pre-Christian deities, e.g. Tursiekhi or Samdzimari. The latter is a typical representative of religious syncretism in Tusheti (and generally in mountainous) mythology. Legend holds that this was a daughter of the king of evil spirits (kaji in singular form) whom Saint George took to wife and installed her among gods. For this reason, Samdzimari is being associated with both pagan and Christian traditions. Among women she is worshipped as an enchantress (sometimes good, sometimes demonized) and a foreteller, while the results of prayers to her may turn out to be largely uncertain.

Dualism is also manifested in the view on life of man or in the creation, existence or end of the world. All is concisely depicted in one of the petroglyphs in Pharsma, interpreted by Tusheti ethnologist Nugzar Idoidze. There are two heads on the left of the image symbolizing multiple levels. The upper head may refer to the male principle, the good, or heaven (the upper world), angel, rationality, mountain areas, or consciousness. The lower head refers to the female principle, the evil, the hell (the lower world), the devil/dragon, emotionality, lowlands, or subconsciousness. As the heads are of approximately the same size, they represent harmony of the otherwise opposite principles. The locals perceive it as efforts to reach balance between a man and a woman and equally clear distinction between their roles. Men, for example, traditionally did not look after livestock while women did not graze sheep.

Despite the above mentioned, both principles interacted as shown in the first intersection of both symbols. In farming, males and females traditionally used to meet during field work carried out jointly. In Tushetian games men used to "fight" women and such interaction gave rise to new life fundamentals and new worlds. In one of the games, women were allowed to kidnap a man from another village and request ransom. This event was concluded with a common feast of both villages at the cost of the kidnapped. During festive events men and women would also run around and even fight, which also typically ended with affirming the mutual friendship at a common feast. It may have resulted in a rite of establishing brotherhood during feasts and on festive occasions. Similarly, men and women interacted during dance events. Although they danced without touching each other, there was a symbolic blend of the sexes.

As the two opposed principles clash (good-bad, man-woman, rationality-emotionality, heaven-hell, etc.) they generate energy that, among others, gave rise to our world (symbolized by the target). Finally, life also comes into existence by interaction between the worlds of men and women. This energy may give life while its disappearance, on the contrary, may lead to Chaos and the end of life or the world. Life (i.e. interpreted as Order) ends with the appearance of the forces of Chaos (in the image the forces are characterized by a symbol located out of the lines and beyond framework of our world). The harmony between the physical and spiritual parts of man is disrupted. The world may see its end in an equal manner when penetrated by the forces of Chaos. The end of the world is symbolized when the two lines intersect for the second time and come into disorder.

Despite being part of the world and influenced by its duality, man can actively distort it. In a small ethnographic museum in one of the towers of Keselo upon Upper Omalo, you may find a quotation by a local from 1934, when the first plane flew over Tusheti. The statement of the humble shepherd implies that rationality may prevail in man, which may lead to disturbance of the harmony in a strongly dualistic world. There is a prediction of potential abuse of technical inventions or significant predominance of the reason over the spiritual or emotional side of life. This can further lead to Chaos and even a disaster, which people are capable of causing to the world and themselves.

Individual parts of the dual world are not entirely separated but there are a number of connections between them. For example, Tushetian philosophy mentions a cult of ekhi, which materializes the connection between the lower and our world. This connection is portrayed as grass growing from soil in spring. Its roots still stay underneath the ground (i.e. in the lower world) while the stalks grow above ground. The cult of ekhi also relates to the annual cycle of driving sheep to the mountains (our world) in spring and back to the lowlands (symbol of the lower world) in autumn. Among other reasons, this is why the mountain areas of Tusheti have always been considered sacred, representing an ideal world. Ekhi may be both good (giving life) and bad (evil spirits of the lower world). In practice, the evil spirits may obstruct finding a lost thing in our world. To symbolically discontinue the link between the two worlds when looking for the lost thing, we may bundle a turf of grass and weight it with a stone (symbol of imperviousness). The lost thing should appear somewhere in a while.

The sun is also one of the pre-Christian symbols with its important place in Tusheti philosophy and, in the practice of cult, also in the year cycle. The God, represented by the sun, dies every year and is brought to life again each winter solstice in order to come to the earth surface again in form of grass in March (around the spring solstice, which corresponds Persian influence). Summer festive events of atnigenoba thus symbolize seeing off the God of the Sun on his death way towards the end of the cycle. In spring, on the day of the spring equinox (i.e. return of the sun), women bake sun-shaped pancakes and put them behind the window to absorb the energy of the new sun.