FROM the cradle to the grave, the Circassian native creed (фIэщхъуныгъэ), intertwined with the code of conduct, Adige Xabze (адыгэ хабзэ), dictated the way an individual behaved, formed his system of values, and certainly influenced the way he conceived the world. Religion and customs and traditions were the dual formers of the Circassian outlook on life and they meshed perfectly together. Rejecting one of these intimately associated components would have entailed forsaking the other, and ultimately compromising the essence of Circassianness (адыгагъэ). Nevertheless, religion and customs and traditions were two different entities. Considering the Adige Xabze as the traditional religion of the Circassians is a common mistake made even by the Circassians themselves. Whereas ancient religion regulated the spiritual and ritual domains, the Xabze regulated the day-to-day aspects of a Circassian’s life.
Religious beliefs had until the early part of the 19th century been centred round a backbone of polytheism, paganism and animism with some Christian and Muslim influences. It may be that the nature of their country and the set ways of the Circassians played a significant part in ingraining the native beliefs and marginalizing religious imports. Monotheistic religions have had little bearing on the Circassian way of life in the
Caucasus and this explains the eclectic nature of the Circassian system of beliefs emphasised by outsiders. In the latter part of the Middle Ages the Circassians were caught in the middle of a power struggle between Orthodox Russia and Muslim Turkey. They switched their religious allegiance very readily, converting from Islam to Christianity and vice versa, as the circumstances demanded and for convenience. According to Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, ‘The co-existence in the same [Kabardian] family of Orthodox Christians and Muslims was practically a unique phenomenon in the history of Islam.’ (1992, p27). Shi’i Islam never penetrated into Circassian lands. Nevertheless, the Circassian slaves in Persia were converted to Shi’ism.
There was some resemblance between ancient Circassian priests and Celtic Druids. Both castes venerated trees, had sacred groves, and practised some form of human sacrifice. In addition, the Circassian Elders and Druids were the arbiters and judges in their respective societies.
The most substantive source of information on the Circassian beliefs and ritual ceremonies is the Nart Epos. Many aspects of the ancient religious life of the Circassians are embedded in the Nart tales. Sulht’an Khan-Girey’s works (1836, 1989) provide good references on native Circassian religion and beliefs. The Circassian pioneering scholar enjoyed the vantage-point of living at an age in which ancient religious rites were still practised, and thus he was able to preserve for posterity some of the native rituals and ceremonies. The first work was republished in Nalchik by the Elbrus Book Press in 1978. The section on religion can be found on pages 96-102. Shora Nogmov’s Istoriya adikheiskogo [adigeiskogo] naroda [History of the Circassian Nation] (1861) has interesting bits about ancient Circassian religious beliefs and practices.
This short thesis attempts to provide a skeletal account of the ancient native Circassian creeds and the later influences of Judeo-Christianity and Islam on the beliefs and ethos of the Circassians. The account is fleshed out with still extant prayers, chants, toasts, and other ancient manifestations of the archaic belief systems in Circassia. Pieces for which audio recordings are available are indicated by asterisks.
Time-line of Faith
Time-line of Faith
In order to appreciate the chronological dimension of the manifestations of religious beliefs and practices amongst the Circassians, a basic time-line of the progression of religious systems in Circassia is presented.
Animism is probably the most ancient religion of the Circassians, and it was prevalent among all peoples of the
North Caucasus. Its origin probably dates back to the Palaeolithic Age, or the Old Stone Age, more than 10,000 years ago. The basic tenet of animism was the belief that a soul resided in every object, animate or inanimate, functioning as the motive force and guardian. In animistic thought nature was all alive. In a future state the spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal. Ghosts, demons, and deities inhabited almost all objects, rendering them subject to worship.
The Circassians, like most
North Caucasians, used to worship trees and considered them as totems, believing that they housed invisible deities. Many ritual services were developed associated with particular trees and sacred groves were visited by supplicants in processions. Animals were sacrificed at the foot of trees and feasts held in celebration.
Totemism, defined as the intimate relation supposed to exist between an individual or a group of individuals and a class of natural objects, i. e. the totem, is at the root of primitive religion and is intimately related with animism.
The path moved from animism and the associated totemism to paganism, the belief in the possession of some objects of nature of supernatural powers, and a primitive conception of deities and patrons. Perhaps paganism found origin in the Neolithic Age, more than seven millennia ago.
It is thought that some time after the fifth millennium BC, the Circassians started on the path of transition to polytheism. The transition to polytheism pre-supposes a civilizational stage of social development. Polytheism segmented the universe into manageable units, with each unit generally governed by an individual deity. As a rule, every natural phenomenon or heavenly body had its own god. The collective of deities, gods, and patrons, who were part of the natural world and controlled all its aspects in a collective manner, formed a Pantheon with a presiding god (Тхьэшхуэ (Theshxwe)=Supreme God). Special rites and ceremonies came to be associated with each deity for appeasement and supplication. Depending on the nature of the wish, offerings were made to this or that god, be it the god of sun, rain, war, love, or fertility.
Christianity came to
Western Circassia from during the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century (AD). Many priests were dispatched to Byzantium Circassia and churches were built on some mountainous locations, from which the native population was proselytized. The Georgian Bagratids subjected Eastern Circassians and converted them to Greek Orthodox Christianity in the 13th century. Churches were built, which were destroyed at the end of Georgian rule in the 15th century. Other sources state that in the 11th and 12th centuries the Russian princes of Tmutarakan and the kings of carried out the conversion. From the 13th to 15th centuries, Catholicism made some inroads in the Western parts of Georgia Circassia due to the influence of the Genoese, who constructed trading posts on the coastal regions. Some churches were erected in the area.
Islam started to make inroads in
Circassia in the 18th and 19th centuries. Islam had little impact on the folklore and literary traditions of the Circassians. The only appreciable influence of the Muslim faith was the introduction of a new literary genre, ‘Mevlid’, associated with the celebration of the birth of Prophet Mohammad.
List of Circassian Deities
Амыщ, Амыш, Емыш
(Amisch, Amish, Yemish)
Initially god of fauna, then god of sheep.
Аушыджэр, Аущджэрджий, Даущджэрджий (Awishijer, Awischjerjiy, Dawischjerjiy)
God of courage and bravery. Circassian version of St. George. Later identified with Jesus Christ.
God of lightning.
God of (large) cattle.
Goddess, protectress, patroness.
Cosmological deity of righteousness and light.
God of rivers and seas (literally: ‘hen’s beak’).
Prophet (St.) Elijah. Shared the godhead of lightning with Schible in the Christian era.
Demi-god. Had a day consecrated to his worship.
Goddess of trees.
God of family hearth.
God of wind.
God of campaigns (roads), later, also of horsemanship. He was not set into any particular form by popular tradition.
Protectress of the Yisps (a race of pygmies mentioned in the Nart tales).
God of sea, in form of fish (literally: ‘living in a depression’).
Patron of smiths, iron, weapons and fire.
Patron of fortunetellers, specifically of scapula readers.
Мэзгуащэ, Мэз гуащэ
(Mezgwasche, Mez Gwasche)
Goddess of forests and trees.
God of forests, trees, the hunt and beasts. He disposed of the fate of beasts.
Mother of Mighty God (Mary, Mother of Jesus Christ).
Protectress of bees; later associated with Mary, Mother of Christ. Her three sisters: patronesses of family life, warriors and peasants.
'False' demi-god - creator of the fields - debunked by Wezirmes.
God of the soul or life. Also denotes icon of Christian Circassians (in Mozdok).
God of water.
Goddess of water. Popular tradition had her portrayed as a beautiful maid.
Псыхъуэгуащэ, Псыхъуэ гуащэ
(Psix’wegwasche, Psix’we Gwasche)
Goddess of rivers (river valleys).
Созэрэш, Созырэш, Созэрэщ, Созрэщ
(Sozeresh, Sozeresch, Sozresch)
God of fertility, family hearth, well-being and illness. He was a great voyager and controlled the winds and waters.
God of gaiety and holidays.
God of war and bloodshed. Equivalent to Grecian Ares and to Roman Mars.
Тхьэгуащэ, Тхьэ гуащэ
(Thegwasche, The Gwasche)
Protectress of women (literally: ‘Matron of the gods’).
God of good news (literally: ‘rider who brings joy to the gods’).
God of fertility and plants.
Protector of people. Intermediary between gods and people.
Protector of horsemen.
The Supreme God.
One of the supreme cosmic deities; god of the skies (literally: ‘blue sky’).
Protectress of the domestic/family hearth.
God of rain and snow (Black Sea Shapsugh).
Goddess of gardens.
Goddess of the seas.
Protector of the dead.
God of the hereafter (Abzakh).
Patron of horsemanship.
Protector of oxen (Shapsugh).
Goddess of rain.
God of seas and demi-gods.
God of cosmic bodies.
God of wild animals.
God of sky, thunder(storms) and lightning; also of war and justice. Equivalent to Thor in Scandinavian mythology.
The Circassians in the
Caucasus are nominally Sunni Muslims of the , except for a small Orthodox Christian Kabardian community in Mozdok in Hanafi School North Ossetia. Special boards and councils supervise religious matters in the three NW Caucasian republics. The Spiritual Board of Muslims (established in 1989 and headed at the time of writing by Sheikh Shafiyh) and Council of Imams of Kabardino-Balkaria played a role in diffusing tensions arising following the declaration by the leaders of the Balkar nationalist movement of a separate Balkar republic in 1994. The Spiritual Board of the Muslims of the was set up in 1990 and is headed by Ismail Berdiev, a Karachai. A separate board at odds with the local authorities was established by the Karachais in 1991, under the guidance of Ahmed Bidji-ulu. There is no religious board in Adigea and there are few religious leaders. All North Caucasian republics have religious newspapers and other periodical publications. Karachai-Cherkess Republic
Northwest Caucasians are not known for their religious fervour, nor do they display fundamentalist tendencies. Islam in the
has thus far not been politicized. Most religious instructors who were drawn to the Circassian Republics North Caucasus from the Middle East starting from the early 1990s found the Eastern North Caucasus a more fertile ground for their teachings. Wahhabiism, the dominant sect in has not gained any ground in the NW Caucasian republics. Even in Saudi Arabia and Daghestan there is conflict between the new sect and traditional religious institutions. Chechnya
In this respect, it is essential to emphasize the difference between the religious beliefs and practices of the Northeast and
Northwest Caucasians. Islam forms an integral part of the social and spiritual life of the former. There has developed a synthesis of Islam and the old beliefs culminating in Sufism and the Tarikat. These ideas have never gained ground among the Circassians who see in them a threat to their traditions and ancient way of life.
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, and other folk sources, to make up a Circassian equivalent of the Hebrew/Christian Decalogue. Examples include: ‘one must not hanker after other people’s possessions’ and ‘One must ask before taking other people’s 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.
Beliefs & Cults
Dancing was believed to have locked powers that might be invoked to ensure success of an undertaking. Dance was initially a religious rite, a kind of spirited prayer. Later it turned into a form of festive celebration, keeping some of its ritual significance. 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 (Жьытхьэ) 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 sch’apsche (щIапщэ), 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.
Imortality of the soul
Immortality of the soul was one of the basic beliefs of the Circassians. Upon death, the soul transmigrated to the world beyond, or hedrixe (хьэдрыхэ). 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.
Death & life after life
Central to the cult of death was the belief in hedrixe (хьэдрыхэ) or the afterlife, and in the immortality of the soul. The Circassians venerated their ancestors, and took good care of the ancient burial grounds and sepulchres, q’ezch (кхъэжь). Elaborate ceremonies of death were developed, which sometimes touched on the bizarre.
A wife mourned her husband in a wild manner, scratching her face and body until they were bloodied. A husband struck his face with a whip until it turned black and blue. The corpse underwent ceremonious washing, hedegheps-ch’ (хьэдэгъэпскI), on a special slab, hedegheps-ch’–px’ebghw (хьэдэгъэпскI-пхъэбгъу).
Dirges were chanted by the corpse of the deceased, and special prayers were said. The collective of laments over the dead was called ‘bzhe’ («бжэ»; literally: ‘door’). A couple of examples are presented (V. H. Bereghwn and Z. P’. Qardenghwsch’, 1980, p201; p202).