Sunday, December 31, 2017

This Blog

is at an end of sorts. I have posted almost every photo & video that I took during my two weeks in Georgia with Teachers for Global Classrooms. Even more important, to me, are the ideas that I gleaned there--the ones worth photo albums and 1000-word essays.

What remains to write about are the things I will do here in Tennessee because of my experience in Georgia. I have a few more books to read over the summer that will help me answer questions about Georgian history and literature, and I will post book reviews and observations as I see fit.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

One Georgian Woman and the Judgment of Paris

I have always been fond of the tale of the Judgment of Paris: the ultimate tri-lemma full of promise and peril. Turns out there is a version from Georgia.

I'm just going to copy this from David Hunt's Legend of the Caucasus (Saqi Books, 2012). It's a collection of folk tales from all around the Caucasus. I have already featured several in my blog on "How to Kill a Georgian Hero."
"Battle of the Israelites against King Hadadezer". A battle scene from a Georgian manuscript. Psalter, Ms. A, 1665. National Center of Manuscripts, Tbilisi, Georgia. Source: Wikimedia Commons
     One day an infidel* army surrounded Georgia. There were very many of the infidels. But there were few Georgians. The Georgian king realized that all of his army would be killed in the battle, while at the same time Georgia would not escape destruction. What could the king do? He sent an ambassador to the Tatar* king. He wanted to make peace. The infidel king ordered the message to be conveyed to him: 'If you do not want a battle, then send me three picked warriors as a sign of submissiveness. I will execute them in front of my troops.'
   Such a humiliation insulted the king. Angry, he was already getting ready to give the signal for the start of the battle, when suddenly three soldiers stood before him, saying,      'O king, do not expose our soldiers to a massacre. Let us fall as a sacrifice for them.'
   For a long time the king refused: it was hard for him to send brave warriors to their slaughter, but what could he do? Force plows mountains! Peace was dear to the king, and he let the three heroes go to their deaths. The three chosen ones were standing before the Tatar king, waiting for death. Suddenly a Georgian woman threw herself at the feet of the shah*, and he said to her, 'I will not give you all three, but just one of them. Whichever one you want, take him.'
     The Georgian woman became paralyzed. Just which one should she take? One was her husband, the second was her son, and the third her brother. What should she do? Time was getting short: she had to save at least one, otherwise he would kill all three. All of a sudden she came to a decision: I will find a husband yet, thought she, and I will bear another son, but I will certainly never have another brother.
    She seized hold of the hem of his chokha and dragged him away by force, saving him from death.
    Such is the strength of the love of a sister. (301-2)

* Hunt presents the word "infidels" as it is written in his source, but the different iterations of infidels in the story illustrate the perilous position that Georgia has always held in geopolitics, wedged between huge mountains--and even larger empires.

When I was at Gelati Monastery near Kutaisi, looking over valleys that plunged southward toward passes that separated Georgia from Turkey, I was led to believe that "infidels"--Muslim Turks--would stream up the valleys on raids during the Middle Ages. The Seljuk & Ottoman empires were enemies of the Christian Georgians for many centuries.

The Tatar king mentioned in the middle of the first paragraph refers to nomadic peoples from the steppes to the north of the northern Caucasus range who were an endemic threat until they were wiped out by the Russians, who eventually became an even greater threat.

Finally, the "shah" refers to a ruler of Iran which also extended northward into many times in history. The country to the east of Georgia, Azerbaijan, has strong ethnic and cultural ties with Iran, and the odd invasion no doubt occurred from this end, too.

Monday, January 25, 2016

How to Kill a Georgian Hero: the Life and Death of Vakhtang Gorgasali

I just finished David Hunt's book, Legends of the Caucasus. It covers mythology from across the region, from Chechnya to Abkhazia (although Armenian mythology is strangely missing). Hunt's sources are mostly Soviet ethnographers and stories collected in the 1970s.

I will blog about a few of the things that I learned here. The first topic: how to kill a Georgian hero.

The statue of Vakhtang Gorgasali in Tbilisi.
One of the first Georgian heroes I encountered after my arrival in Tbilisi was Vakhtang Gorgasali, the 5th-century king and the founder of Tbilisi. His equestrian statue dominates the crossing of the Mtkvari River across from the old city.

How this king, born with a Persian name (meaning "wolf-bodied" as he was known to wear a wolf's head on his helmet), united the Georgians and ruled is a matter of both history and legend--which is where Hunt's book informs us.

It's funny. The legends show power in Georgia to be a series of deceits and outright power grabs. They also show the best way to kill a hero.

The story begins with a bad guy named Bogatar, who had kidnapped Vahktang's sister during an earlier raid in Iberia (as Georgia was then known). Determined to get her back--the protection of women, particularly one's own sisters is a central theme of many legends--Vakhtang rode out against Bogatar, meeting at the Mtkvari River close to where his statue now stands.*

On the other side of the river, glowering down on him, Bogatar, surrounded by Ossetian soldiers, proved to be a huge giant of a man. Vakhtang had no hope--all he had was strategy.

He had surreptitiously contacted his sister during her confinement with Bogatar. She had tried to warn him not to take on the evil man. She warned Vakhtang that her kidnapper's only weakness was below the arm pit, with the rest of him covered with armor.

Vakhtang offered a man-to-man battle. Considering the odds, this seemed like a good deal for Bogatar who agreed on one condition: that the challenger swear to hold his fire until he had crossed the river to the chosen site of battle. Vakhtang swore a sacred oath.

Bogatar rode his horse into the swirling waters of the Mtkvari--at the site of the battle, large bluffs rise above the river, and the current speeds up to this day. Struggling with the current, the horse turned and Bogatar twisted to control the horse and keep it on course. His arm pit was exposed--I imagine that he lifted his arm, but it may have been a turn of his shoulder.

Either way, Vakhtang pulled out a hidden bow, fired a dart and struck Bogatar in the arm pit. His enemy sank into the waters and bled to death. Without their hero, the Ossetians were confused. Vakhtang's forces crossed the river and routed them. Vakhtang drove them all the way over the northern mountains into Ossetia, where he found his sister and freed her.

As penance for his duplicity, Vakhtang built five churches around Georgia, including one that stands just above his statue on the banks of the Mktvari River to this day (74).

The name of the church? Metekhi. And in the Georgian language, when one says, "Me vtekhe," means, "I lied" or "I violated (the oath)."

Vakhtang would go on to win another battle with trickery. Facing another opponent, he addressed him: "It is not honorable for a hero to come out to battle with such a huge train of followers" (71).

The doomed man, his honor questioned, turned around to see what Vakhtang was talking about.

Of course that was when Gorgasali whipped out his bow and shot his opponent in the neck.

In the end, Vakhtang was a victim, too. He was shot below the armpit as he crossed a river to take on a foe. His wife was at fault. She had fed his horse salt the night before, and it dipped its head to drink the water as it crossed. Vakhtang raised the reins to get the horse back up. It reared, and he was shot in every hero's weak spot.

And that, my Georgian-loving friends, is how you kill a Georgian hero!
Hunt, David. Legends of the Caucasus. London: Saqi Books, 2012.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Georgian Christmas and the Chichilaki

As Christmas approached this year, I had another excuse to learn more about Georgia.

A Georgian Christmas pie
Facebook has kept me in touch with several friends I made in Lanchkhuti--and with my teaching partner, Anya, and other members of our fellowship. When I had some time to reflect at the holidays, I wondered about my friends there. As Christmas presents piled up around my sister's non-traditional Christmas tree, I wondered what presents were being given in Georgia.

My friend, Nino, proved to be an excellent resource--and how cool is it, that I now have a friend named Nino (or two or four)?

Georgians, like most Orthodox Christians, acknowledge December 25 as Jesus' birthday, but that is only the beginning of the festival. At midnight, at the end of the 6th of January, Georgians celebrate Christmas day. Nino told me that in Guria, where Lanchkhuti lies, they put a pie filled with cheese and eggs on the windowsill, topped with a candle.

Note the unique way the video above demonstrates the Georgian focus of Christmas. The window is open at the beginning, and there are lit candles everywhere. A Chichilaki stands on the table next to the window (more on that later). And in the pageant, there are no shepherds (a far more common site in western nativities) but there are wise men.

I should point out here that a journey from Persia to Georgia would have been quite a few days shorter than the twelve-day journey of the Magi that is traditionally celebrated.

A Chichilaki decorated with sweets & ornaments
The Chichilaki is one of the most singular elements of a Georgian Christmas. I have heard several accounts of this--and perhaps commenters will share more with me after I post this. It is a simply made tree made from sticks of hazelwood, which grows wild in western Georgia. Craftsmen peel dozens of strips toward the top and finish the "tree" by making a cross at the top and nailing a base to the bottom. Georgians decorate the tree sometimes with western-style ornaments, but they are more often likely to include sweets and fruit as wishes for good luck--in the same way that American kids leave out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.

Another name for chichikali is St. Basil's Beard, and the chichilaki does look an awful lot like the busy beard worn by many of the orthodox priests I saw. The Wikipedia article noted that chichilaki are burned on January 19, just before the celebration of Epiphany, but the chichilaki below was still in the home of my host, Veriko, when I visited last March (Veriko's daughter is pictured below).

Veriko explained to me that the chichilaki often end up in a tree outside the house--the better to entangle any bad luck that might seek to enter the household. I'm sure there are other uses for it. As I was leaving Veriko's house last spring, she gave me this chichilaki. It somehow made it home in my luggage, and I have it in my bedroom still today.

One week after celebrating the Orthodox Christmas, Georgians celebrate the new year on the 14th of January, part of the continuation of the Julian Calendar that dated back to the time of the apostles and was superseded by the Gregorian Calendar in western Christianity during the Renaissance.

It's interesting that the one-week span between Christmas remains the same in the West and in Orthodox lands, despite the two-week difference. Nino emphasized that they marked the western holidays (25 December and 1 January) too, but they probably still seem as foreign as 7 and 14 January might seem to us.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Jason and the Argonauts: Georgia in Myth and Imagination

What is the first thing Georgians think of when they describe themselves? What is the first thing in memory I mean.

There is the joke about the creation of the world, when God had doled out the finer parts of earth to Armenians, Medes, Turks and Circassians, among others, while Georgians had partied away, drunk on wine. When Georgians made it to the surveyor's table, God only had one piece of property left: a verdant, fertile wedge of land sheltered by snow-capped mountains to the south and north. He had been saving it for Himself, but he gave it all to Georgians.

There is the tale of St. Nino, pilgrim from Cappadocia, who placed two grapevines in the shape of a cross, tied them in place with a lock of her own hair, and proclaimed the risen Christ to the Georgians in the 4th Century.

The first event in memory that I found when I visited Georgia was the tale of Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece. Georgians recognize it for what it is: Georgia's entré onto the world stage, which precedes that of Troy by almost a century.

Like most Americans, I learned about Jason and Medea through Edith Hamilton's Mythology. The book gives short shrift to the tale compared to other myths like The Odyssey and The Iliad, and Jason's clever theft of the Golden Fleece is quickly overwhelmed by what followed: treachery, betrayal and epic vengeance by Medea the Witch.

I found a much different picture when I arrived in Georgia.

Medea embodies Georgian intelligence and womanhood. Her name, I learned, is the root for the English word, "medicine." I saw her image in both of the big cities I visited. In Tbilisi she emerged out of the facade of an orthodox seminary, riding on a ram (whose fleece must no doubt be golden in one's imagination).

Monday, July 6, 2015

Book Review: A Man Was Going Down the Road by Otar Chiladze

I spent the first two and a half months of 2015 voraciously reading every book about Georgia I could get my hands on. When I learned about A Man Was Going Down The Road, I thought: THIS will be the pièce de résistance of my reading!

The book was written by Otar Chiladze (1933-2009), one of Georgia's great 20th-century writers, after all. It was supposed to be about Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece, It was set in the Colchian city of Vani--a city that is today an archaeological treasure chest just 30 km or so from Lanchkhuti, the town where I spent a week during my stay in that country.

Instead it became something more--far more--one of the most challenging and rewarding books on any subject that I have read in recent years. Unraveling the book became for me a task akin to unspooling strings of Georgian letters or twisting my tongue into the shape of six-syllable Georgian words.

I got a little ways into the book before I left the USA for Georgia, planning to finish it on the trip. Two things came up. First, other books pushed their way into my life during my time there. Second, five pages were enough to tire my eyes and put me into dreamland. Eventually I got to where I could read fifty pages before moving on to other reading for a time, This never proved to be a page-turner. It remained a challenge.

This is what I learned while reading the book.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Making News in Lanchkhuti

The Monday after we had arrived in Lanchkhuti, Anya and I were featured in the local newspaper.

I'll embed the page below so readers can get a sense of both how cool and how confusing it can be to have people writing about you in a language that isn't your own!

In the top picture, Anya and I are standing with Veriko, our host teacher.

The lower picture is of fist-graders who had performed at a talent show the school had thrown in our honor on our first day at School #2. The boy in the wheelchair was a really confident, really talented kid, who clearly fit in well to the school's program.