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How the Sacred Oak of Lashari was finally cut down

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

The Symbolism of the Tree

St George of Lashari was known as the "Angel of the Oak". Among all the mountain khat'i, he is the only one to be referred to by this epithet; also, when one does not refer to him by name, only this expression is used. One can therefore distinguish in this expression the natural epithet ["l'épithète de nature"] which characterizes Lashari. Here are some examples of usage, taken not only from Pshav but also from Tush and Khevsur liturgical texts:

Pshavi: 'Glory to you, Giorgi, angel of the oak!'
(The informer added: "That is to say the khat'i Lashari".)

Tusheti: 'Victory to St George of Lashari, angel of the crown of the oak!'

Khevsureti: 'By this full cup, by these candles and this table, may God grant you glory and victory, Giorgi angel of the oak!'

In the village of Blo in Khevsureti, V. Bardavelidze recorded the following expression: 'Giorgi who stays ["séjourne"] in an old oak' (daarsebuli... literally "who has made an old oak his foundation").

This natural epithet, exclusively used to refer to Lashari, has sometimes given rise to exaggerated conclusions. The historian Djavakhishvili and others inevitably saw in this epithet evidence of tree-worship:

'Everywhere, in all the regions of Georgia, there are still traces of tree-worship. The cult of the oak tree was particularly developed. The Khevsur and the Pshav, for example, still believe in the existence of an "angel of the oak". The Pshav-Khevsur, when they sing a hymn or say a prayer, invoke the "angel of the oak": "glory to the angel of the oak", &c.' (Djavakhishvili.)

It is quite obvious that this is to confuse the symbol and the object it symbolizes, or—more simply—the signifier and the signified. The angel of the oak is not the tree personified, the term is only used to name a particular deity viz. the khat'i Lashari. [...]

The wise conclusions of Nell Parrot concerning the tree seem to not have—one dares say—bourne their fruits: 'There is no cult of the tree itself; behind this representation always lurks a spiritual entity.'

The quality of "angel of the oak" is based, in Lashari's case, on a body of coherent legends and hymns which clearly expose the nature of his relation with the tree. We already know that his sanctuary is significant due to the (rare, at this altitude) presence of oak trees growing within the bounds of the sacred enclosure. The Pshav would still until recently point to the place where, according to oral tradition, a gigantic oak tree used to grow—the very tree which provided the khat'i with a "home": 'The khevisberi point to the place within the sacred enclosure where a centuries-old oak tree used to stand, whose crown was attached to the sky by a golden chain.' (Vaja Pshavela.) According to another version: 'The crown of the great oak was attached to a golden chain which hung from the skies, along which the angels would come and go.' (Vaja Pshavela.)

The Tush sing a hymn to Lashari wherein the disappearance of the sacred oak is briefly explained:
'The djvar [i.e. the khat'i, the divinity itself—A.B.] of Lashari deigned to speak thus:
—I am linked to the sky by a golden chain,
At Khmel-gora ["Dry Mountain"—A.B.] (= Lashari, in Pshavi) I possessed a venerable oak,
Which I entered and left ["j'y circulais"] with a ladder.
Many heroes tried, none dared face me;
Only the prince profane like a dog ["impie comme un chien"]
Knocked it down, uprooted it.
May the princes be destroyed with their offspring.'

The reference here to a ladder is carelessly mentioned, maybe because its meaning was misinterpreted: the speaker is obviously referring to the golden cable which Lashari used to move between the tree and the sky. This image can also be found in other versions of the hymn. [...] The four last lines clearly say that to attack the god means to cut down the tree: 'None dared face me; Only the prince... uprooted it...' This idea is repeated in most of the other versions: to uproot the tree is to defeat the khat'i. The Pshav legend clearly establishes this relationship.

The story of the uprooted oak has become amalgamated with the story of an historical event, or presented as such, which refers to an authentic historical figure, the prince Zurab (Zurab Eristavi). The latter lived during the XVIIth century; he was the lord of the province of Aragvi, which encompassed the southern part of the Georgian mountains, except for Pshav-Khevsureti and Tusheti. He was a brave and valorous man, but bloodthirsty; he did not hesitate to put out the eyes of his own brother (Georgian Chronicles). Although he spent most of his time fighting the Turks, throughout his career he nonetheless sought to increase his domains at the expense of his neighbours—notably the free mountaineers. He thus attacked the Pshav and the Khevsur several times, but was never able to make them submit to his authority. He has left an indestructible memory of himself in all the Georgian mountains, and his name—even today—remains abhorred, notably in Khevsureti. [...]

In order to resist the invasions of prince Zurab, the Pshav, Khevsur and Tush tribes united their forces under the authority of the tavkhevisberi, the "Head Priest", and conferred at Lashari, where the [sacred—A.B.] flags of war were kept. (Mak'alatia, Pshavi.) It is therefore quite likely that the prince came to consider Lashari as the symbol of the mountaineers' resistance and that he sent his massed forces to destroy the sanctuary, veritable political and religious center of the Georgian mountains. But the Pshav did not submit to him. A Pshav proverb says: 'The slaves of Lashari could never be the slaves of another [man (or, presumably, deity)—A.B.].'

The memory of these historical circumstances has added itself to the original legend [of the oak tree—A.B.], which can be summed up thus:

As Zurab, despite his repeated efforts, was unable to take the sanctuary of Lashari, he sought to find out the reasons of this invincibility, and learnt that the sanctuary was indeed impregnable and that it would remain so for as long as the centuries old oak inhabited by the khat'i would stand. Zurab took and occupied the sacred territory by force of arms, and ordered his vassals to cut down the oak with axes. But after every blow of the axe, the chips of wood returned to their place in the notch. The prince and his vassals tried everything, in vain: the tree remained immovable. Zurab had warriors from all the Pshav clans brought before him, and asked them one by one to tell him how to defeat the tree. They all refused to tell him, and, in punishment, he forced every one of them to consume the flesh of an impure animal [for example: the flesh of a goat, of a dog, &c.—A.B.]. According to a version of this story recounted by Vaja Pshavela:

'Finally, there was a Pshav from a remote corner of the region ["un Pchave de l'arrière-pays"] who accepted to betray his sanctuary: he sprinkled the oak with the blood of a cat, and the angel immediately abandoned the sanctuary, angered to see that a Pshav could be capable of treason; the axe was then able to cut the wood, the oak crashed to the ground, and the golden chain withdrew up into the skies.' Vaja Pshavela then quotes a popular poem:

'The djvar of Lashari then lamented, with his own lips, at God's door:
—On the Dry Mountain stood my venerable oak, fastened with a cable of gold; the prince with the soul of a dog uprooted it from top to bottom ["me l'a déraciné de fond en comble"].'

A. Shanidze recorded the same story in 1908; it is less detailed than the preceding version, but contains certain precisions which are lacking in Vaja Pshavela's text (1888):

'On the Dry Mountain, the Cross of Lashari possessed an old oak, whose top was fastened to a cable of gold, leading to the sky like a ladder. A prince, with his warriors, tries to cut down the oak in order to seize the cable of gold. A traitor who went by the name of Aptsiauri teaches the prince-with-the-soul-of-a-dog how to cut down the tree: "bring a cat, sacrifice it with the hand upside down ["immolez-le la main à l'envers"], sprinkle the oak with its blood and then you will be able to cut it down". But the tree, as it fell, does not take the golden chain with it in its fall; the latter, on the contrary, rises to the sky with a buzzing sound ["en bourdonnant"].'

This variant gives the exact value of the sprinkling of the oak with the blood of a cat. According to the explanation provided by Vaja Pshavela, the khat'i abandons its sanctuary out of bitterness, having seen itself betrayed. This psychological motive is unlikely: nothing had until then been able to break the link between the god and his territory; only the compelling force of the impure sacrifice determins—mechanically, so to speak—their separation. It is impossible for Lashari to remain ontologically united to a tree soiled by the blood of a diabolical animal, sacrificed according to a special method belonging to sorcery: "with the hand upside down". Once accomplished, and according to a process of objective causality, this act inevitably leads to the god's flight, as materially demonstrated by the disappearance of the golden chain.

To offer a cat as a victim to a spiritual entity, divinity or to the soul of the deceased consitutes the supreme insult, for such an act equates the recipient with a demon. This is why the oath "by the cat" (or the dog) is held to be the most terrible; thus, among the Khevsur:

"If a man (or a woman) was the object of slander, he climbed up onto the roof-terrace [in traditional mountain architecture, roofs are often flat, and serve as terraces, threshing-floors, &c.—A.B.] of any house, holding a cat or a dog in his hand, and loudly proclaimed:

'For he who accuses me of stealing (or of any other crime), I proclaim to him and to the village: if I am guilty in this matter and if I lie, then may this cat be destined to my dead ["mes morts" i.e. "my ancestors"—A.B.], may this cat's blood be poured over the graves of my dead, and otherwise, and if he has falsely accused me, then may this cat be destined to his dead, may its blood be poured over the graves of his dead!'

'If the victim of slander held a dog, he beat it three times with a stick, and when the animal yelped, he added these words: "May this dog yelp in this manner over the grave of my slanderer's dead!"; if it was a cat, he threw it to the ground three times and said: "May the slanderer's dead receive this cat as a victim for the untying of the mouth!"'

'It often happened that the accused, to justify himself, killed the animal—dog or cat—with a gun, and in doing so shouted: "May the souls of the slanderer's dead receive the blood of this animal and use it to purify themselves!"'

'If an object was lost and could not be found, one killed a cat and one hung it from a tree close to a busy path. The cat was killed and sacrificed to the thief's dead.'

The text is very clear: the sacrificed cat (or dog) are victims sacrificed to the dead of the person one wishes to punish. Thus, when the Khevsur "untie the mouth", they slaughter a sheep, a lamb or a calf, whose flesh is eaten and in doing so offered to the deceased; the goat and the billy-goat are strictly forbidden, for they are reserved for demons. So the dead to whom a cat is sacrificed for the "untying of the mouth" are condemned to become assimilated with demons which, as we have seen, is the greatest threat to souls in the afterlife. This practice amounts to inflicting an unbearable torture upon the recipient.