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Pre-marital Relations among the Pshav, the Khevsur and the Svans

(Freely translated from Georges Charachidzé's Le Système Religieux de la Georgie Païenne, Paris: Maspero, 1968.)

1. The Pshav ts'ats'loba and the Khevsur sts'orproba

[Georgian: წაწლობა & სწორფრობა - A.B.]

It is among the Pshavs that this phenomenon was the most developed and enjoyed the most favour. This beautiful and tragic custom is one of the most moving of the Georgian mountains. The teenagers who indulge in it are indeed destined to love and to misfortune. In the village, a young man and a young woman fall in love with each other. They declare themselves to be "brother and sister by oath" and from then on consider themselves as "brother-husband" and "sister-wife". Their love affairs then take place during nocturnal encounters; every phase of this union is regulated by custom — which does not, however, exclude either sincere passion or frivolity.

Both the boy and the girl are able to take the initiative when it comes to organizing the first meeting. In Khevsureti, it is she who goes to the boy's house, and in Pshavi it is the other way round. In the beginning, they exchange gifts: the "sister" makes ornaments for her "brother", and the latter brings her small presents. Traditionally, the girl steals a bottle of vodka from her parents and drinks it with her companion. They meet in an out-of-the-way place, away from the house, more often than not in the stables. Lying next to each other under a shepherd's cape, they exchange kisses and caresses; here is a popular poem known to all in Khevsureti, describing the meeting of the ts'ats'al (sts'or-per in Khevsur):

Better the day, better the night? I ask myself, good people.
On earth the bright sun arrives with the break of day.
It dries up the morning dew, the quail greets the fields.
Cows and sheep spread out high up on the mountain, lower down over the fields.
But that the day may not have its night, may God spare us this!
When the darkness of the night settles, when the sun seeks shelter behind the mountains,
When the stars become more numerous, many a woman rejoices.
She is preparing to rejoin her "brother", difficult to stop her from doing so!
The boy deploys a multicoloured blanket, and shapes the straw into a nest.
The girl gently walks over to him, without disturbing the bed.
In her corset she hides a bottle stolen from her parents.
The boy is in bed, feigning sleep, tricking the girl.
She goes to him and wakes him up, without wasting time.
Come midnight, the conversation intensifies,
They drink the brandy from the bottle: "Let us change our mood."
Cheek touches cheek, chest pressed against chest.
The kisses multiply, the saliva is stolen from the lips.

But these innocent affections are suited to the first meetings; soon, the couple devote themselves to more audacious caresses. The decisive step seems to consist in the unbuttoning of the collar which closes the young girl's dress. In principle, the latter seeks to prevent this, and the "brother-husband" is supposed to force her. The theme recurs endlessly in the poetry of ts'ats'loba:

The girl tells me: "Cover me with your shepherd's cape."
— If you want my shepherd's cape, let us meet in the stables.
I suffered a lot that night, panting like a wolf!
The young girl insulted me: "O why did I lie down next to you?
Why did you tear off my collar adorned with pearls?
What will I tell my mother tomorrow, how could I stitch during the night?"
— "Do not be angry with me, I will give you needle and thread."

Here is another fragment of poetry inspired by the same event:

"For the first time, I lay down by my sister's side,
I undid her stitched collar, I removed the buttons of her collar.
How sweet it is to lie down by one's sister's side, to exchange laughing kisses.
To unbutton the collar, to undo the open collar..."

But the young girl soon protests:

"Why do you slide your hand downwards, is my chest not [up] here?
You deserve a blow from K'op'ala's club, how dare you commit such a sin?
Are you not ashamed, brave*, of having behaved so badly?"

[* "brave man", as in the notion of an American Indian "brave" - A.B.]

In fact, things go much further, and - sooner or later - the couple ends up devoting itself to sexual union. But these relations are always practiced "without seed" — uteslot, as the mountaineers say — for under no circumstances may the young girl become pregnant. This is why the preferred meeting-place are the stables. Indeed, during her "impure periods", the woman is relegated to the stables in Pshavi, and to the isolation hut in Khevsureti. The exile generally lasts about four or five days. But the young girls prolong this exile as much as possible, sometimes up to ten days. For the "sister" uses this period of solitude and sterility to welcome her "brother": the couple enjoys absolute liberty, certain that their union will not be disturbed, and — especially — that it will have no consequences.

All young people practice ts'ats'loba, often from their childhood. The families, the village, the parents — in one word: society — tolerate and even protect these juvenile affairs perfectly. But if the "sister" is pregnant, if she gives birth to a child, the attitude of the social group changes radically. Horror immediately takes the place of indulgence; the fraternal couple, formerly innocent, is now considered as incestuous. The culprits are rejected by the clan and are dead to society. The same sanction applies to those ts'ats'al who seek to prolong their union by marriage — but this possibility remains purely theoretical, as it is absolutely unthinkable and was still prohibited in 1930.

Indeed, the "brother" and the "sister" belong to the same village and often to the same clan; their marriage is therefore strictly forbidden. That is why these love affairs are always tragic; from the very beginning of their union, the young people concerned know that this union is doomed, and at no time do they forget that each of them will leave with another partner. Whence the charm and the bitterness which attach themselves to this passion, whence the sadness which emanates from the poetry of ts'ats'loba; a ts'ats'al celebrates the "sister" which he will lose thus:

O you, my sister, — tower built of granite,
...You satiated me by living close to me; to live and to sleep by your side!
You are the source of immortality, you flow in golden waves.
May I turn myself into a bird, to nestle in your breast.
May I turn myself into a silver cup, so that I may fill myself with wine
And may my colour be red, you would drink me, I would enter in you.
Or if I were a silver thimble, I would slip myself onto your finger.
Or if I were the field of your sickle, I would scythe myself onto your shoulder.

Another laments thus a love gone for ever:

My hear aspires to your sight, I lie on the forest leaves.
It will come to pass, o beauty, that one will kill me, to earth I will fall.
The horde of wolves will attack me, will drag me along the water's edge,
Even then, it seems to me, my thoughts will be with you, for alive I only think of you.
May my souls become butterflies, I will come through distant spaces.
I will exhaust you by your constant swatting, I will fly up to your face,
Or instead I will turn myself into a dream of the night, I will come to you, in your sleep,
And I will gently reveal the white brilliance of your breast.

* * * * *

Charachidzé continues:

We do not cite these texts simply for the pleasure of displaying the talent of mountain singers, for the latter [poems] are not the best of the repertoire which ts'ats'loba has inspired. We have translated them literally, without seeking to render justice to their beauty. It would be an agreeable and profitable task to study ts'ats'loba in detail, in all its forms, to deduce the implications (social, religious, etc.) and to publish the body of poems which it has given rise to. Some of them are veritable works of anthology. But for the moment, our goal is quite different: the sincere and passionate sentiments which express themselves in these verses seem to us to perfectly illustrate the distance which separates the "fraternal" couple from the married couple. Instead of the severe interdictions which divide the latter, instead of the repugnance and hostility which reign between husband and wife, we see here the blossoming of a deep and tender feeling of love, which builds between the brother-husband and his "sister" an irreplaceable relationship which has no equal in mountain life.

One must insist upon the fact that the ts'ats'loba rigorously amounts to an "anti-marriage", from the point of view of both individual and social relations. Indeed, the union of the ts'ats'al is based upon reciprocity and liberty: they choose themselves according to their inclinations, they separate when they wish; their dealings with each other are imbued with familiarity and take place without any restraint. Also, they really form a couple, whose members consider themselves as equals. Unlike what happens in conjugal life, the initiative is more often than not that of the "sister"; she is the soul of the couple and also its regent. ts'ats'loba inspires chivalrous feelings: the "brother" surrounds his "sister" with delicate consideration, he is ready to die for her, and often risks his life solely to attempt to deserve her love; examples and texts relating to such deeds abound. Moreover, as we have seen, it is an endless source of poetry, sung by the "brother" or the "sister"; we will see to what extent this feature contrasts with the silence which reigns between husband and wife. The ts'ats'al sing their love to each other — the conjugal couple are destined to silence.

At the societal level, this opposition is even more vigorous. Whereas matrimonial unions imply the respect of a rigorous exogamy, that of the ts'ats'al is situated at the border of incest. For these choose themselves precisely there where marriage is forbidden: in the village or in the clan. The ts'ats'al couple can unite the closest blood relations (excluding brothers and sisters proper), belonging to neighbouring houses. It seems that this limitation constitutes a rule, for there is no example of ts'ats'al from non-related clans.

Moreover, it is remarkable that the "fraternal" couple is considered incestuous as soon as it tends to assimilate itself with a conjugal couple: that is, when the ts'ats'al want to be married or when their union bears its fruits — which is equivalent to a marriage, whose purpose is to prolong a family lineage. ts'ats'loba is therefore well and truly an anti-marriage: it involves single [unmarried - A.B.] individuals, and ends as soon as marital life begins.

This anti-matrimonial characteristic of ts'ats'loba plays a great role in society and — as we shall later see — in religion. Besides, the opposition is not only theoretical — it is lived and greatly felt by those concerned. Tedoradze noted this correctly:

"According to the rule, the young bride, from the day she is married and for a long period of time, must seem to be overcome by grief and sadness; this attitude is generally considered to be artificial. But in reality the young Khevsur bride is sincerely sad, and to her marriage is equivalent to burial [mise au tombeau]."

This despair of the ts'ats'al not only translates into attitudes and elegies: the number of suicides among their ranks is considerable. The fiancées in particular take their lives, and they generally choose the most "shameful" of demises: they die in the menstrual huts, during their "impure" period. Their inhumation in the clannish cemetery is consequently forbidden; they are buried without the "socialized" territory, their soul will never reach the land of the dead. Their last act is equivalent to a refusal of the relationships commanded by society, for every suicide of this kind leads to a gap in the system of relations between dead and living clans, just as the refusal of marriage implies the suppression of an alliance between foreign lineages.

This antagonism between the ts'ats'al and the conjugal couple is therefore well and truly felt and experienced by the Pshav-Khevsur mountaineers; they all experience it, without exception, for every individual is a ts'ats'al until his wedding. [...]

At first glance, the differences [between Pshav ts'ats'loba and Khevsur sts'orproba - A.B.] do not seem considerable. The main difference resides in the fact that, among the Khevsur, it is the young girl who goes towards her brother-husband, whereas among the Pshav it is the "brother" who goes to see his "sister". The other differences are mere details, but this is not the essential point: that which allows us to separate — if not to oppose — the Pshav custom and its Khevsur equivalent is the attitude of the social group.

As we have seen, the custom of ts'ats'loba is approved by Pshav society in its entirety. If for some reason a young girl has never had a brother-husband, it is almost impossible for her to marry, as one will assume that this abstention can only be accounted for by some secret infirmity. On the contrary, young girls boasted of having engaged in ts'ats'loba, which indreased their matrimonial value. Moreover, the ts'ats'al couple came together not only at home and during work in the fields, as in Khevsureti, but also during religious solemnities. It was a rule that ts'ats'loba be practised within the bounds of the sanctuary. When one celebrated the cult of the goddess Tamar and the god Lashari, it was forbidden for ts'ats'al to spend the night within the sacred enclosure without engaging in their usual frolics. Besides, tradition says that the former priestesses of the goddess Tamar were themselves "sister-wives". This custom is therefore considered to be a religious phenomenon, and one attributes its origins to the tribal divinities of the Pshav — Lashari and Tamar.

Regarding this issue, Vaja Pshavela wrote in 1886:

"The Pshav hold ts'ats'loba to be a sacred and religious activity; they say: — ts'ats'loba is compulsory for the slaves [followers, those devoted to the religious cult - A.B.] of Lashari. According to the oral tradition, this custom was introduced in Pshavi by the king Lasha Giorgi."

The Pshav identify the king Lasha Giorgi with the deity which they revere under the name of Lashari. Here is a saying which expresses the compulsory and religious nature of the Pshav ts'ats'loba well: "The ts'ats'al says to the [other - A.B.] ts'ats'al: Let us go to St. Shio.
May your ts'ats'al die, if he lets you fast during the night." [jeûner en couchage, i.e. if he or she does not engage the other in the customary sexual intercourse - A.B.]

The attitude of the Khevsur is opposed to that of the Pshav. The practice (known here as sts'orproba) is tolerated and few abstain from practising it, but the social group formally disapproves of it and only unwillingly admits its existence. Vaja Pshavela — himself a Pshav and an admirer of ts'ats'loba — deplored this fact in the nineteenth century:

"But is it very regrettable that ts'ats'loba is not favoured in Khevsureti; whereas their compatriots and neighbours the Pshav were and still are admirers of ts'ats'loba, the Khevsur instead consider this tradition to be lustful and see no good in it. This opinion is expressed in these Khevsur lines:
The ts'ats'al sleeps with the ts'ats'al, if time goes on,
He softens like honey and butter."

Unlike the Pshav, the Khevsur absolutely proscribe this practice within the bounds of the sanctuary. It is forbidden for the couple to meet during religious ceremonies. Moreover, the custom is considered to be a bad habit introduced to Khevsureti by the Pshav, who are held to be the specialists of this kind of union. Tedoradze reports the terms used by Khevsur informers: "The Khevsur borrowed their own sts'orproba from the Pshav."

The divergence between Pshav and Khevsur conceptions is clearly revealed if one envisages the origin that each people attributes to the custom of the "brother-husband". As we know, according to the Pshav ts'ats'loba is of supernatural origin, a gift of the heavens. The gods practised it before men did, and the ts'ats'al couple has its model in the Pshav pantheon. The Khevsur, on the other hand, believe that the birth of this phenomenon has quite different origins, and explain it by practical considerations; their theory springs not from religion, but from rationalism. Here is, according to them, how the Pshav — having been placed under pressure by circumstance — ended up partaking in ts'ats'loba, and why this practice is widespread in Khevsureti:

"In those days, Pshav-Khevsureti — a border region — found itself in a difficult situation; the inhabitants were incessantly being attacked by Lek' and Kist' pillards (i.e. people from Chechnya and Daghestan, G. Ch.). The men were forced to always walk around armed to the teeth. Such circumstances led the women to bed down under the same shepherd's cape (i.e. when they were caring for the herd, G. Ch.) for mutual protection, this habit being widespread across the entire Pshav-Khevsur territory. As the risk of attack was ever-present, such conduct became a habit, and ended up becoming a custom."

The Khevsur, far from considering ts'ats'loba as a gift from the gods, instead think of it as the result of a recent historical evolution of foreign provenance. They consider this custom as being foreign to their society, and believe it to be an obstacle to the normal functioning of society. The Pshav, on the other hand, see this custom as a fundamental institution necessary to society.

2. lintural in Svaneti

[Svan: ლინთურალ - A.B.]

One may legitimately ask oneself whether ts'ats'loba is not a recent phenomenon which first appeared among the Pshav — as the Khevsur themselves believe. This question has greater implications than one might think. Indeed, the custom is involved in several areas of the Pshav-Khevsur religion, intervenes in the structure of the pagan pantheon, and is at the forefront of most of the foundation myths which seek to explain or justify the origin of the main cults of the Georgian mountain regions. If ts'ats'loba is a recent practice, the religious phenomena to which it is closely linked could easily be seen as representing not vestiges of an archaic state of affairs, but facts resulting from local innovation.

What is the attitude towards ts'ats'loba of the other eastern Georgian mountaineers, the Tush, the Mokhev, and the Mtiul? These tribes — although they belong to the same culture as that of the Pshav-Khevsur — ignore the custom, and only consider it with repugnance and sometimes even with horror. It is the latter's existence which renders matrimonial relations impossible between, on the one hand, the Pshav-Khevsur, and on the other the Tush, Mokhev, and Mtiul. The latter avoid contracting marriages with the former. Here is the reason the Mokhev give:

"The Mokhev form marital alliances with their Pshav and Khevsur neighbours only in rare circumstances. They attribute this abstention to the following reason: the existence in Pshav-Khevsureti of ts'atsloba-sts'orproba, an unacceptable practice in Khevi."

The custom of the brother-husband is therefore a phenomenon exclusive to Pshav-Khevsureti. One must nonetheless admit that this is an archaic characteristic which the other tribes have lost, and not an innovation. Svan accounts of this custom dispel all doubts in this respect.

We saw earlier the important role which Svaneti plays in terms of comparison every time that one seeks to establish the antiquity of a phenomenon. The Svan split from the Georgians-Mingrelians-Laz during the second millenium B.C., no later than 1,000 B.C. Consequently, any element which exists in both the Georgian and the Svan regions is guaranteed to be of high antiquity. This is the case with ts'ats'loba, a form of which survives in Svaneti under the name lintural.

The term itself literally means "relation, the establishment of a relation". B. Nizharadze observed this custom during the [nineteenth] century and described it in a short but highly-valuable article published in 1889:

"lintural more often than not unites a young woman and a young man. What does the ceremony consist of? Let us suppose that a young man wishes to become the close relation of a young woman (or even of a married woman) with whom he shares no blood relationship. He announces — himself, or through the mediation of a go-between — to the interested party that he wishes to "enter into a relationship" [entrer en relation] with her. The decision depends solely upon the willingness or wishes of the young woman, who is free to accept or refuse (refusals are, however, rare). She informs her parents — or her husband, if she is married — [of the young man's request - A.B.] and communicates her decision to the young man. If the latter sees his demand accepted, he obtains one to three jugs of vodka, and asks a relation of his or of the young woman to accompany him to the lintural. Taking the vodka with him, he goes to the home of the young woman before the evening meal. Her family was informed of his visit, and has laid a table, prepared vodka, and sacrificed a victim.

"The young man and his friend are welcomed at the door by the members of the [young woman's - A.B.] family, who profer words of friendship and seat them at the place of honour. The meal is ready. The head of the family places the two visitors next to himself, and the men of the family take their seats in turn. The dishes comprise bread, cheese, and meat. The jugs of vodka are brought out (both the young man's and those of the family). Two men consecrate the vodka to God, and ask Him to make the lintural between the two young people successful. The vodka is then poured into cups. Every person holds one in his hand; no-one begins to eat.

"The young man rises, goes towards the young woman, kneels on one knee before her, and says "Which one of us will touch the other's breast with his teeth?" This is to say: may you become my mother or I your father. Let us suppose that the young woman wishes to become his mother (the most frequent case). She unbuttons her dress and uncovers her right breast. The young man sprinkles it with salt then comes closer and puts his teeth to her breast ["nibbles her breast"? - A.B.] three times: "You the mother, I the son" (in Svan: si di, mi gezal). After this, the boy and the girl embrace each other; the assistance prays. Everyone regains his or her seat. The meal can begin.

"From this day onwards, the boy and the girl consider themselves [and are considered by others - A.B.] as blood relations. Not only do they spend long periods of time together, but they also sleep together very often. Nobody thinks that these young people united by lintural could bring shame upon this relationship. Thus it was until now, and what will happen in the future, God knows.

"The following day, the young man returns home; the young woman must present the boy's family with a sheep or a cow."