Michael Costello

Pagan Abkhazians

He was driving along the rutted village road in southern Abkhazia, somewhat merry and with a friend, when he hit a neighbour’s piglet. “What’s to be done?” they puzzled, and feeling sorry for the wounded animal, reversed over it to put it out of its misery.

Out came the neighbour, who was in mourning for a relative. She cursed the young men: “May you, also, be run over!” – words not to be taken lightly in Abkhazia, where curses are a serious business. The driver quickly slit the piglet’s throat but spilt blood onto the ground, another violation of taboo when a person is in mourning.

Smartly picking the carcass up and throwing it into the boot of the car, he drove to the village shop and borrowed the going price for a piglet, returned to the neighbour’s house and dropped the money on the kitchen table.

“What now to do with the piglet?” It was too much meat for two people, so he gathered friends from their houses, found a suitable place and singed and butchered the animal, then roasted it over a fire in a nearby piece of scrubland, well out of sight of where it had lived. It was joyously eaten and washed down with copious supplies of chacha, the home made grape brandy. There was wine and bread, cheese, tomatoes, water melon, pickled cucumbers, garlic and some cake – whatever the young men had foraged from their houses. He showed that he knew what he was about: “The piglet’s skin was well rubbed with ajika, [a sour sauce made to each family’s recipe, based on alycha wild plums and piquant spice] to let it seep into the meat and fat. It was well basted”. Toasts were pronounced, with the obligatory first one “to the Vsevyshny”, the only god recognised by all religious Abkhazians, who might be Antsva, of traditional Pagan belief, the Christians’ Lord or Islam’s Allah, for the Abkhazians tolerate all beliefs and celebrate all religions’ holidays together. “This went so well that some of the men had to be held back from bursting into song; something that would have been very bad: a display of joy within earshot of a family in mourning,” he added. It went well.

Shortly after he got home the husband of the woman who had owned the piglet came in carrying two large water melons. The woman who ran the village shop had told him all about it, including his wife’s curse. He angrily plonked the money on the table in front to our storyteller’s father and wished his own wife “A pip (a bird’s disease) to settle on her tongue, the carrion, bitch”, another curse. No one was to think his family as cheap as to take money from a neighbour’s son. So the father heard about the accident and “you can’t lie to an adult and a father”, so the whole story came out.. When his father summoned him (the narrator was well into his twenties) he cautiously sidled up, ready to run out of the door – “He could have given me a thrashing or killed me for violating custom but, in the event, he quickly let me off.” So it all ended.

The story was told in twenty-five minutes, with no interruptions to an audience of another man and me, in sunshine shaded by the leaves of a camphor tree and the heat made gentle by a light breeze coming from the sea, as we sat at a plastic table by a roadside café in Sukhum. Just a story? But note how it brings out the importance of custom, of ritual, religions and tolerance, of mourning, of curses, of paternal authority and power, of the sense of personal pride, of hierarchy within the family …of feasting in proper manner, of friendship, …and how these are all conducted and blended to circumstances… the absence of women at the men’s feast...

Abkhazians are generally convivial and the country is a joy to research.

Michael Costello
PhD candidate, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. Dissertation topic: “Can Law act as Adjunct to Custom? The relationship of custom and law in Abkhaz and Abkhazian state-building and ‘modernisation’”.

The Stalin-Beria Terror in Abkhazia, 1936-1953