Ancient Circassian Religion

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Mythology

As in other ancient creeds, the genesis of the indigenous Circassian system of beliefs is wrapped in uncertainty and intertwined with myth and mystery. The Circassians did not produce a native sacred book. Nevertheless, relics of those far away days have fortunately been preserved in mythology, giving us insights into the world of the prehistoric forebears of the Circassians. In addition, the accounts of native writers of the 19th century and foreign visitors throughout the ages provide snippets of ancient religious practices and ceremonies.

Animism was probably the first creed in ancient Circassia, anteseding and later mixing with polytheism. Items in nature were believed to be governed by spirits, which needed to be appeased if man was to wield control over the forces of nature. However, the will of the spirits had to be foretold, hence the need for and development of augury.

The principal features of the ancient religion were belief in life after death, polytheism, rendering of homage and honour unto the deities, performance of rites and ceremonies of supplication and prayer, and other beliefs and superstitions associated with the pantheon of traditional gods.

Fire worship goes back to the age when the ancestors of the Circassians discovered fire and made the first tentative efforts to master it. It may also have been an influence of Zoroastrians.

The Circassian Pantheon

Like all polytheistic creeds, classical Circassian religion divided the world into manageable segments, each of which was under the auspices of a deity. The presiding supreme god, Theshxwe (), headed a divine cast of three scores or so who controlled the world in a collective manner.

Like their Greek counterparts who had their abode in Mount Olympus, the Adiga gods and goddesses met for deliberations and held festivals on top of the sacred mountain, Tatartup. According to popular belief, this was located at the confluence of the Malka and Cherek. Its ancient name was Zhulat (; from Joritla Ant, Temple of the Ants, presumed ancestors of the Circassians Nogmov), but this changed (to Tatartup; ) when the Tatars temporarily occupied the environs in one of their forays into Circassia. It used to have temples for worship and supplication, and at which sacrifices were offered to the gods.

If two persons fell out with one another, Zhulat was the place to go, to heal the breach. Each party took a bow and arrow, which was held between them as they reiterated vows of friendship. Once the pledges had been made, the arrow was snapped in consummation of their renewed bond. This custom was called Going to Zhulat. The expression Tetertup be schesin, May I be many times in Tatartup, was sworn on the truth of an allegation.

Around each god and goddess, there arose a cult and special rites of worship and supplication. Every deity had his/her special attributes. Some of the gods had human forms, and a few were even mortal. The fleeing of Lhepsch from a dissatisfied customer is indicative of thisan attempted deicide, so to speak. It is believed that the god of the smiths started out as an ordinary human being, a mere apprentice. It was in appreciation of his metallic feats that he was elevated to the rank of the gods.

Some gods had control over natural phenomena. Schible () was the god of thunder and lightning, and Zchithe () master of the wind. Sozeresh (; also Soziresh, Sozeresch, Sozresch), god of fertility, family hearth, well-being and illness, had the winds and waters at his command. Other gods provided wisdom, guidance and indispensable services to the Narts, and patronized important crafts and professions. Lhepsch manufactured  metal implements and arms for the benefit of the Narts. In one story, his wife gave him the idea of making tongs when she saw a dead snake doubled on itself. In another, the shape of the crescent moon provided the blueprint for the sickle. Those dedicated to serving humans included Amisch (), Axin (), Mezithe (), and Theghelej (). Amisch, god of fauna, occupied his time with catching all kinds of forest animals, which he presented to the Narts to raise and multiply. Later he shared this profession with Axin, but eventually each specialized in a specific species of animals, Amisch becoming the god of sheep, Axin that of cattle. Theghelej, god of flora, found his calling in the search for wholesome crops for the Narts to grow.

There were also some goddesses, but these were lesser in number than their male colleagues. The most famous were Hentsiygwasche, goddess of the rain, and Mezgwasche (), goddess of forests and trees. A minor deity, Merise (), acted as the protectress of bees. The story goes that at the time of perdition of bees, Merise saved the last surviving bee, hiding it in her sleeve. The divinity took good care of the bee, which subsequently reintroduced the species. In appreciation of this feat, a festival was held in her honour in summer. Merise had three sisters: one was protectress of family life, another patroness of warriors, the last of peasants. It is thought that female deities lost some of their significance with the transition of Circassian society from a matriarchate to patriarchy.

The Narts also had their fair share of false gods. In our Greek analogy, if the Pantheon is to be considered cosmos, or order, these represent chaos, or disorder. In one of the Nart tales, Peqwe (), the demi-god who created the fields, punished the Narts by ordering the clouds to withhold their waters for Wezirmess () ingratitude and disobedience. The fearsome hero had been shocked and greatly disturbed by the obsequious behaviour of his people towards the pusillanimous godhead. He vowed to slay him and rid his people of his tyranny. His bluff having been called, Peqwe took refuge in a spider web that he wove deep in the heavens. Wezirmes chased him on his magic steed and used ruse to sever his holy head.

Hubris, although an indictable sin, was not always punished. Two episodes in the Nart Epos illustrate this point. In the legend of Tilale (), the arrogance of the protagonist was castigated by chaining him to the top of a mountain, as was Prometheus fettered on Mount Olympus. In another tale, Sosriqwe () got away with stealing a tun of wine from the very abode of the gods, which malfeasance was pardoned because the supreme god was well-disposed towards the indomitable, though oftentimes reckless, hero.

List of Circassian deities

Tenets of polytheism

The dichotomy of good and evil was an integral concept of Circassian religion. It is possible to cull proto-religious commandments that are scattered here and there in the Nart tales to make up a Circassian equivalent of the Hebrew/Christian Decalogue. Examples include: one must not hanker after other peoples possessions and One must ask before taking other peoples belongings.

The Circassians had their own version of the redemption of the world in the legend of Tilale. This chained hero was supposed to break out of the irons and come into the world after the people had been stricken with famine. He then cleansed the world with the waters of the seas, and restored life to the lost world. Probably this was a Christian version of an older myth.

Beliefs

Immortality of the soul was the basic belief of the Circassians. Upon death, the soul transmigrated to the world beyond, or hedrixe (). To make it to the eternal abode, the deceased was in need of an ample supply of provisions, concomitant wares, and his personal weapons to sustain and protect himself on the perilous trek. One rite in the elaborate burial ceremonies had the kin of the deceased inhume these requirements, which were commensurate with the status of the deceased. Archaeological finds of victuals fit for lavish feasts and impressive arsenals have confirmed this thesis. Ancestor worship was a direct consequence of this credo. It is not clear whether women of the upper classes enjoyed the same exquisite funereal treatment.

Circassians worshipped certain trees, believing that they were inhabited by invisible divinities. There were two deities associated with trees, one male Mezithe (; Forest-god), and another female, Mezgwasche (; Forest-lady). There were sacred groves and shrines in which ceremonies were conducted to propitiate local divinities, procure good weather for the harvest, good luck in expeditions and so on. Thunder and lightning were venerated; the patron of which was Schible (). Some rivers were also considered sacred.

Dancing was believed to have locked powers that might be invoked to ensure success of an undertaking. Disease and injury were considered as the works of evil, so that the sick were blown upon to exorcise the malevolent spirit. Toasts were first uttered as magic invocations and incantations to unlock hidden powers. The wind was thought to have some evil power, hence the adoration of Zchithe () and the rites of supplication associated with him.

Friends and relatives of a person with a bone fracture kept him company and kept him from sleeping by making loud clamour and chanting songs by his bedside. This curious custom, named schapsche (I), was a relic of animist times, when evil spirits were believed to be waiting for the patient to fall asleep to take possession of his body. A practical benefit of this practice was to ensure that the break did not get worse by the injured assuming a wrong position in his sleep.

Rites & ceremonies

Some social and festal ceremonies, like dance, song, toast making, trace their origins to pre-historic beliefs and are latter-day developments of ancient religious rituals.

It is quite probable that at one time the Circassians had a separate priestly caste that officiated religious services and rites. However, there are no indications that arcane sects nor a power wielding priestly class jealously guarding hidden mysteries inaccessible to the common folk, as was the case in ancient Egypt, ever existed. The oldest partaker, who passed on the knowledge to his lay disciples, performed religious rites.

It was believed that performance of special rites of worship in which supplicants encircle a venerated object, like a holy tree, or a spot stricken by lightning, invoked the resident spirits and unlocked their latent powers. Some accounts tell of solemn processions round a tree with the supplicants carrying torches. These formed a significant part of a complex system of prayers. The most sacred class of dances was called wij (xwrey) ( []), which was performed by dancers forming a circle round a venerated object. It later turned into a dance performed by couples with music, losing all religious significance. A special dance consecrated to the supreme god, Theshxwe wij ( ), was executed with the bodies of the participants in compact formation. It was revived recently, but merely as a dance form.

Religious rites were sometimes accompanied by chanting. Songs were intoned during feasts in honour of thunder, during sacrifices and other pagan festivals. When lightning struck a place or an object, a special kind of wij was performed round the stricken spot accompanied by Schible Wered, ( )Song of Lightning.

Another class of rites of supplication was concerned with prevention of disease. In a curious wedding of superstition and practical nous, small pox was first treated by inoculation, a technique discovered and developed by ancient Circassians in their efforts to spare their beautiful women. Then, so as not to leave any room for chance, the stricken person was placed in a swing and rocked to the accompaniment of a special chant Ziywis-hen, () Your Lordship, which invoked the mercy of the deity of the disease. In the Mesopotamian civilizations that existed about 3,000 BC, swings were thought to have magical and religious properties, suggesting contacts with ancient Circassian cultures.

It is worthwhile to mention that pagan songs, now completely out of use, give us clues as to the concept the ancient Circassians had of the creation and the world. These same songs were adapted twice, in the Christian and Muslim eras, and used to praise the new deities.

A person smitten with lightning was thought to have been ordained by an angel for benediction and a solemn ceremony was conducted in his honour, the parents overjoyed with the new-found status. The crowds would go outside listening to the clamour created by the aerial angel, and if no thunder was heard for some time, prayers would have been said for its return. This is apparently a melange of the ancient ceremony of adoration of Schible () with a later Christian influx.

Holidays and red-letter days, on which religious ceremonies were held, were usually fixed in the Circassian calendar. Each deity had a day, sometimes more, consecrated to his/her worship. Schible was an exception in that it was not possible to predict lightning strikes, augury and astrology notwithstanding. Sozeresh, for example, was adored on the first three days of spring.

Rites of devotion to specific deities

Adorable deities were represented mainly by effigies made from trees. In times of droughts, a procession carrying an effigy of the goddess of rain, Hentsiygwasche () or Hentsegwasche (), marched through the stricken village with supplications for rain:


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. , !

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Song to Hentsegwasche, the Goddess of Rain:

We are escorting Hentsegwasche! [1]

We are escorting Hentsegwasche!

Chorus: Our Lord, let it pour down from above!

We are escorting Hentsegwasche!

Chorus: Our Lord, let it rain in plenty upon us!

The households along the route poured water on the idol, also exclaiming, Our Lord, let it rain in plenty upon us! They donated (uncooked) victuals, such as husked millet, eggs, dried meat, etc, to the procession, which then headed to the river-valley, where the foodstuffs were cooked and consumed whilst prayers were being said. The partakers also performed psixelhafe (), the rite of bathing fully-clothed to call forth the rains. According to Kabardian tradition, the idol was later taken to the village centre, where it was fixed to the ground and the supplicants then performed the dance wij xwrey ( ) round it. On that day, it was considered a great sin to appropriate other peoples possessions, and it was strictly forbidden to engage in wineyidzihe (wine-yidzihe; ) or kwese [I], the age-old custom according to which a suitor, with a group of trusted friends, abducted his beloved (with her own assent) from her parents house on a set date and time. [2]


The ceremony of worship of Lhepsch consisted of libations over a plough and an axe, symbols of plenty and might, respectively.


For Sozeresh, a pear
or hawthorn ( II) sapling was cut down in the forest and cleared of all but seven branches (seven was a particularly significant number in ancient Circassian folklore). Almost all households had such an image. On the day of his festival the effigy was brought inside the house in a grand ceremony (presided over by the newest daughter-in-law) with accompanying music and to cheers from all the members of the family, who complimented him on his arrival after spending the whole year on the surface of the sea. Little candles were stuck to the branches and a piece of cheese was attached to the top. The participants then indulged in revelry in which makhsima () was had and songs sung. Afterwards, the idol was taken to the yard (and Sozeresh returned to the sea) where it stayed without any mark of reverence until the next holiday.

The rites of worship of the god of crops, Theghelej, had people of both sexes gather in the early hours of the day and start on a procession to the local sacred grove. They took with them an ample supply of victuals and a number of sacrificial animals. Festivities started when they entered the ancient wood. An effigy of the deity in the shape of a cross was placed near one of the most venerated trees in the wood. Prayer chants were intoned in single voice and chorus. The men and women formed a circle round the idol and the sacred dance, wij, was performed solemnly in much the same way it is done today. Couples moved round the icon holding hands, with music and chant in the background. When the effigy had been circumambulated a few times, a new formation was assumed in which all partakers in the dance faced the icon holding hands and lifting them periodically in supplication.

The festival of Zchegwpathe (; Jegwpath [], in Adigean), patron of the domestic hearth, was celebrated on the first day of January. [3] This was a strictly familial affair, and the special viands were specifically called Xamewemixwe (I; Missing Strangers). The role of Zchegwpathe was assumed by the most senior (male) family member. To him was consecrated the most prestigious part of the sacrificial animal the side (; dzazhe), smoke-dried in the hearth flue. To Zchegwpathe was devoted the whole established complex of cults connected with initiation of the new bride into her father-in-laws hearth, the inauguration and upkeep of the hearth-fire, and funeral feasts, and other rites and ceremonies. These cultic rituals are representations of the conception of the Circassians of the soul of their primeval ancestor, Dade. The cult of Dade is still alive, though mainly symbolically, in the Circassian ethos.

Prayers were then taken up by the priest, usually the eldest person in the group, who delivered a sermon that included a homily and thanksgiving for blessings rendered by the god. Next the rite of thelhew (I) took place. The idol was presented with many culinary offerings, including makhsima [], the national beverage. Animals, such as bulls, rams, lambs, ewes, and goats, were then sacrificed in front of the idol for the purpose of propitiation and propagation of bliss. The priest then distributed the flesh among the worshippers, not forgetting the ill and the poor who were unable to attend. The slaughtered animals were then cooked and feasted upon. The occasion merged solemnity with merry-making in a natural and healthy manner.

Ancestor worship

Ancient Circassians venerated their ancestors, believing in the immortality of the soul. They buried the dead with full panoply of arms and other accoutrements near their sacred groves. Feasts were held annually at certain times in honour of the dead, who were presented with fares in the belief that they maintained their bodily functions and were capable of feeling.

Stemming from ancestor worship was the cult of the hero. Like in Greek religion, some humans of extraordinary abilities were elevated to the rank of gods. Many of the gods associated with the Nart Epos probably started out as human beings. For example, the metallic exploits of Lhepsch engendered universal veneration. Some characters seem to have been stuck between humanity and godliness, having unusual faculties but not really admitted into the Pantheon. In this category may be included Satanay and Sosriqwe. Human and animal bones found in ancient burial grounds provide evidence that the ancestors of the Circassians practised sacrifice, which might have held a special position in ancient proto-religious rites. According to legend, association of human immolation with crop growing, hence bliss, followed the mysterious slaying by Theghelej () of a man who attacked him and the subsequent sprouting of three corn plants on his grave.

Oaths & vows

Oaths invoking a deity, theriwe (I), were performed in accordance with special rites. Oftentimes these were taken at some wine-drinking festivals, since pledges made facing wine tuns were considered most binding. Contravention of an oath brought everlasting damnation, contempt, and shame, not to say retribution and punishment. In the language of Longworth, if customary law was tyrant, then the oath was the sole monarch to whom all peoples of the Caucasus submitted. His seal it is that confers validity on every compact, social or political. He is the mighty arbiter in all differences..., he concluded. In fact, he hinted that the sacredness with which the Circassians held their pledges contributed to some extent towards their downfall at the hands of the more worldly Russians.

Entreaties & toasts

Offerings to deities in form of festive meals, thelhew (I; entreaty of god), were made to beg for favours, like rain, recovery of the sick, plentifulness, etc. Supplications were incorporated in religious ceremonies.

Snippets of the old beliefs are also to be found in the toasts that are uttered at certain ceremonies and occasions. Toasts were initially invoked to appease the gods and as supplications, among other purposes. Before an important undertaking, toasts were pronounced that invoked the supreme god, Theshxwe:

Our God,

The Greatest One!

Destine it to be in a trice,

Pronounce it to be profitable,

Let it be started with the right hand,

Let it be finished with the left.

Let us reap its fruit with a whole skin,

And let us have it with your blessing!

Superstitions, jinxes, omens & black cats

The world of the ancient Circassians was replete with monsters, dragons, behemoths with several heads and eyes, one-eyed colossi, giant-killers, wood elves, creatures with canine heads and bodies of oxen, weird crews of witches and warlocks, old women with iron teeth and breasts thrown over the shoulders. The fiendish cast was tempered with knights in shining armour, fairies and belles capable of changing their shapes, plus magic flutes and magical trees. The black arts were thought to have been wielded by demonic creatures and a terrifying assortment of witches and warlocks. Lhepsch, god of the smiths, used to lock his smithy whilst at work, to keep people out, but one day, someone peeped into his workshop, and the magic was gone.

It was believed that evil spirits, cherischen (II), attached themselves to certain people, who, on this account, could master dark powers to harm unwary victims. One class of witches, wid (), were thought to have such contacts and had the uncanny ability to change their human form to that of wolves, dogs and cats, and even go invisible. They had avail of this power only at night. To these creatures were attributed childrens illnesses and headaches, and murrain that smote cattle. They were also suspected of killing their own children. These fiends were supposed to effect these calamities by casting the evil eye on hapless creatures, though there were more elaborate methods.

There was a popular belief among some tribes that on spring nights these witches flew together astride an assortment of domestic and wild animals to the top of Mount Sibir-Washh within the limits of Shapsughia. There they revelled all night long. Before dawn, they swept down the mountain and flitted about the houses strewing diseases from their bags. Thus, all spring illnesses were attributed to these sirens.

Those suspected of witchcraft were subjected to cruel harassment and persecution, oftentimes on mere suspicion and hearsay. One particularly horrible method of torture had a witch placed in ropes between two fires and thrashed with prickly birch-rods. The ordeal went on until she swore to forsake her devilish pursuits.

A sorceress, almesti (), having the form of a naked woman with vertical eyes and flowing hair, was also said to have associations with powers of darkness. Her magic resided in her hair, hence the saying, To seize the almestis hair, meaning the achieving of a longed-for object. Marie-Jeanne Koffmann, a cryptozoologist, believes in the existence of almesti, but only as the local wild man. She claims to have recorded hundreds of sightings in Kabarda.

There was a plethora of old wives tales. Households complaining of paucity of children abstained from doing the laundry on Friday (Day of Mary). The shape of a pregnant womans abdomen told the gender of the fetus; a bulging belly predicted a male child, a flat appearance a baby girl. An expectant mother who cast eyes on fish gave birth to an infant with protruding eyes. A sneeze during a conversation was a confirmation of the truth of what was being said. If the sternutation occurred while talking about a dead person, someone had to pat the sneezer on the shoulder to prevent his joining the subject of the conversation. Fingernails had to be clipped in the morning, toe-nails in the evening. Seeing eggs in sleep predicted snowfall. Seeing oneself in sleep standing on a height presaged well.

A cat stretching in front of a hearth presaged the illness of a member of the household. A cock making his dawn call before the usual time omened the death of the family elder. A hen emulating cocks morning call foretold a calamity. Lovers who looked simultaneously in the same mirror separated soon after. Lunar eclipses presaged spread of contagion. Other presages of evil included keeping the dead at home at night, rocking an empty cradle, breaking a mirror, antagonizing ones neighbours, and talking about the dead while travelling at night.

Augury & astrology

Augury was perhaps the oldest method of divining the wishes of the gods and determining the course of future events. Like pre-Christian Circassians, the Narts used to have soothsayers and fortunetellers, thegwrimaghwe (), who used many devices to pronounce their prophecies.

A special sub-class of priests called mamisch () told fortunes by reading the shoulder blades of animals, blathe (). According to Longworth, the scapula was held up to the light, and the marks read, the patterns auguring ill or well for the course of impending campaigns, predicting famine and harvest, severe cold and snow and so on. He commented sneeringly on the strength of belief in them. Those infallible sources of information, the mutton bones, were referred to every day, and fleets in full sail were seen approaching the coast in the scapula or shoulder-blades so convinced indeed were the authors of these prognostications that they would be realised, that they demanded, as a matter of course, the backshish, or gratification, it is customary to make to the bearers of good news [gwfapsche; II] (Longworth 1840, vol. 2, pp 79-80).

Haricot beans were thrown to tell somebodys fortune, mainly by old women. In later times, divination by coffee-grounds, apparently a Turkish influence, became fashionable. Perhaps the closest thing the Circassians had to the Greek Delphi was Zhulat, the holiest sanctuary. Unfortunately, there are no records of oracular rites or of an officiating priestly caste.

Beyond the primitiveness of looking into animal entrails, star-gazing offered a model of the universe and a more ordered view of how it worked. Since time immemorial, Circassians took guidance from the stars literally and in their spiritual and mundane life. Astrology was named vaghwaplhe [], literally star-gazing. There is some evidence that the cromlechs found in Circassia and Abkhazia served as observation posts of celestial bodies, and were used to predict natural phenomena, including the weather.

At any rate, the Circassians were aware of most of the well-known heavenly bodies and some celestial phenomena. A comet was called vaghwe abrej ( ), literally star-horseman, Mars Axshem Vaghwe ( ), Evening Star, Ursa Major Vaghwezeshiybl (), and the Milky Way Shixw Lhaghwe ( ),literally path of horse-driver, and so on.

Besides the scientific endeavours, there was inevitably a corpus of superstitions attached to heavenly bodies. According to the Circassian scholar Askerbi T. Shortanov (Shorten):

Every person had his own star it was considered as a reflection of his/her soul It was prohibited to recount stars, for it was said that doing so would cause a rash, or warts to erupt all over the body, with number of warts equal to number of stars counted. The Circassians believed that if an ill person rubbed his eyes with his fingers and saw stars, he was destined to live, otherwise he would meet his doom within 24 hours.


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[1] This is the Kabardian version of the chant, which addresses the native Circassian deity, The. The Christian rendition of the self-same chant channels the imploration to Awisch-Yeliy (St. Elijah, or Elias), or Yele. The Cherkess version of the supplication, i.e. the one used by the Circassians in the Karachai-Cherkess Republic, invokes the Muslim God Allah (Alih), but which otherwise preserves the prayer to a letter.

[2] This custom, which still exists to this day, corresponded to the old Western custom of elopement.

[3] Zchegwpathe and Sozeresh, as a collective, correspond to the Lares and Penates in Roman mythology.

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