Ancient Religion of Abkhazia

Introduction


The ancient Abkhaz religion once flourished across Abkhazia before the times of Christianity and Islam. Although many authors continue to consider this traditional religion as pagan, the Abkhazians are well aware of the negative and degrading nature of this term, thus the vast majority of Abkhazians refuse to label themselves as pagans. It is instead listed as the national monotheistic religion of Abkhazia, or faith of Abkhazia. Today, only approximately 5-7% of Abkhazians list themselves as followers of this religion, but nevertheless, the religion still has strong cultural influences on the modern Abkhaz people and state.


Gods and Higher Powers


In the ancient Abkhaz religion, the Abkhazians have one supreme God named Antsua - the creator of life and the creator of the world. “Antsua” is the plural of the Abkhaz word “mother.” There are hundreds of Gods who are much lower than Antsua, who represent and control many different things, however some are more important than others. The most important of the other Gods include Afy, who rules the thunder and the weather, and Ayerg and Azhvepshaa, who are the spirits of the forest, wild animals, and hunting. Anana Gunda is the Goddess of bees and marriages, Aytar is the patron of cattle and all domestic animals. Dzhadzha - the Goddess of fertility; Erysh - the Goddess of weaving; Dzyzlan - Goddess of water, lakes and reservoirs; Dziwou - the Goddess of rain.


The Abkhaz Gods each have "Apaimbari" - angels, observers, servants and representatives of God on earth that keep track of everything that is done amongst the people, while reporting everything back to the Gods. Each Apaimbari have their own duties, for example; watching the house, fireplace, cattle, the mountains and the sea. In the Abkhaz religion, people create and define their destiny by "Ashachscha" - the Gods of fate (literally - "those who distribute, share"). When a person is born, the Ashachscha divide things such as: who will be happy, and who will live for many years. Some people believe that from time to time, the Ashachscha arrive at the house in the form of three doves, which would then warn the family about a change in fate. The Ashachscha, like the Apaimbari, report everything to God.


Holy Places


Abkhazia has 7 ancient, holy temples, which together are called “Byzhnyha.” To date, 6 of the 7 sanctuaries have been recovered. “Dydrypsh-nykha,” “Lashkendar-nykha,” “Ldzaa-nykha,” “Lykh-nykha” and “Ulyr-nykha.” The sixth sanctuary “Inal-Kuba” is located in a mountain valley of Pskhu, which is now populated by Russians. As for the name and location of the seventh temple, this is disputed amongst Abkhazians. Some believe that the seventh sanctuary is Pskhu-nykha, however most believe that Inal-Kuba and Pskhu-nykha are the same. Other beliefs about the names of the seventh sanctuary are Lapyr-nykha, Napra-nykha, Gech-nykha and Kapba-nykha. Nykha means holy place.


Only people of certain priestly Abkhazian surnames should serve as priests of the seven holy temples: Gocha (Ldzaa-nykha,) Harchlaa (Lashkendar-nykha,) Chichba (Dydrypsh-nykha,) Shakra (Lykh-nykha,) and Shinkuba (Ulyr-nykha). Moreover, the priests must have the highest moral character, since, according to the traditional religion of Abkhazians, moral purity and sincerity are absolutely mandatory when dealing with the higher powers.


The most worshiped sanctuary in the Abkhazian religion is Dydrypsh-nykha. This sanctuary is located at the foot of the eponymous mountains near Achandara, in the Gudauta district. It is considered to be the home of the angels.


Traditions and Beliefs


According to the beliefs of the Abkhazians, life is the carrier of the soul. The literal translation of the Abkhazian word life is "contains the soul." Before death, the soul begins to depart from the body, and when the soul finally leaves, death will arrive. The soul needs the body everywhere, including in the other world after death. The soul can’t wander far away from the body, and can not long be separated from the body. So, if a person is killed in the mountains or drowns in a river, and if his dead body is moved to be buried in the family cemetery, it is necessary to reunite the soul that has departed from the body. To do this, Abkhazians have a unique ritual called "catching souls." They place a wineskin on the spot of death of the deceased and transfer it to the grave. Then, the soul is reunited with the body and can move on to the next world. It is also very important that all Abkhazians be buried in Abkhazia.


It is believed that when God was handing out land on earth to all people, the Abkhazians were late to attend the ceremony because they were entertaining guests. All that God had left was a pile of rocks, which formed Abkhazia. Because God wanted to reward the Abkhazians for being so hospitable, God made the land of Abkhazia the most beautiful land on earth.


Fire, wood and stone have important symbolic value in the traditional religion of Abkhazians. Candles are often placed on the roots of a tree, alongside a small pile of stones that lean against the tree trunk, during ceremonies and festivals.


In the Abkhaz religion, the custom of animal sacrifices is widespread. Sacrificial animals, as a rule, are white goats or goatlings, sheep, and less often, bulls. The are a few important rules regarding the sacrifice. The animal should be male, flawless, well-fed, and healthy.

In addition to the seven holy sanctuaries, every village has their own sacred place where ceremonies are held annually with the relevant animal sacrifices and prayers. Prayers with sacrifices take place in groves, around individual trees that stand out from the others, such as trees that are largest in height or width. Certain mountains and passes have also long been considered sacred to the Abkhazians.


Traditional Abkhazian prayer involves a sacrifice and a common ritual feast, to further attach themselves to God. It consists of several special "clean" ritual dishes, including boiled meat, abysta, salt, adjika and wine. During the feast, the Abkhazians appeal to God to take their troubles, illnesses and other misfortunes from themselves and their relatives, so that they can continue to multiply and flourish for God. After each family member takes it in turn to repeat this prayer, they taste a piece of the liver and heart of the sacrificed animal, and drink a glass of holy wine.


One tradition of the ancient religion still continues to be one of the characteristic features of Abkhaz law. If the suspect in a crime protests his innocence, he must then repeat the oath to God: "If I am guilty, let me and my family die." The oath is sacred, it is not allowed to be broken under any circumstances. Such violation is considered the greatest sin. Abkhazians believe that after swearing a false oath, the person could die on the spot or the punishment could fall on his family. Thus, if the guilty person did not plead guilty, he causes the gradual death of his entire family and family name, and only then dies himself.

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