Letters home from Georgia

Winter 2006

Letter III, 23 February 2006

Subject: How your tax dollars are spent, Pt III: The 2006 Winter Games in Upper Svaneti

Dear friends and family,

I just returned from what was supposed to be a six-day return trip to the Svanetian village of Latal (where I attended the Feast of the Souls last month). But as luck -- and the Orthodox calendar -- would have it, two parallel sets of festivals coincided: The first group is a series of events involving torches and bonfires, linked to the Christian feast of Candlemas (2 Feb in the church calendar = 15 Feb in the civil calendar). The second series occurs during the two weeks preceding Meat-fare Saturday (Xorcielis shabati, in Georgian), which takes place the day after tomorrow this year. (For non-Orthodox readers, "Meat-fare" and "Cheese-fare" weeks are part of the lead-up into Lent, which begins 6 March). So my friend and guide Nino C'erediani convinced me to double the length of my stay in order to attend major events from both cycles. Here are some of the highlights (these are still images framegrabbed from my video-camera, and the quality is not the highest). WARNING: Some images may be disturbing to viewers with low tolerance for strong alcohol and congealed animal fat!

This next week or so I plan to stay close to my home base in Tbilisi. The next expedition is probably not likely to take place before early March, during the days preceding the beginning of Lent. Enjoy the pictures, and send comments if you have time.

Peace to all,


PS. On the geopolitical front, Putin, Zhirinovsky et al have been filling the airwaves with anti-Georgian rhetoric, the Russian embassy in Tbilisi has stopped issuing visas, and a Russian military helicopter intruded into Georgian airspace yesterday. Meanwhile, Saakashvili has been playing his cards with remarkable shrewdness and scoring points with the EU and the US, just as he had done after the pipeline explosion. So as the third period begins, Georgia is leading 2-0, and Russia is on the power play ...

1. The central hamlet of Latal, seen from the village of Lahil across the river.

2. Monday 13 Feb. Nino's mother Valia is shown holding up three lemzirs (breadloaves prepared as offerings) before the eastern window of their home. The window facing east, whether it be in a church, private home, or even livestock stable, serves as the "offering window" (laemzyr laqwra) for rituals of this kind.

3. I loaded up the loaves and vodka offered by Valia into my backsack, and headed off to the hamlet of Lahil on the opposite bank of the river Engur, accompanied by Nino and her sister Maiko. At the home of the family hosting the Limxeer shrine festival there, people were warming themselves around the stove. As is typical in Svaneti, the womenfolk were on one side of the room and the men on the other. The Latali villagers tend to have blue eyes and brownish or black hair, but the girl in the center of the picture had copper-red hair of a color rarely seen outside of Ireland.

4. After presenting their offerings at the door of the shrine (Archangel church at Lahil), the men sang and performed a round-dance around the church, despite the hip-high snow.

5. One of the highlights of this festival period is a brutal double-fisted toast called Sarwaesh-saq'aen, drunk in honor of a legendary hero named Kaxan, who slew a dragon that was threatening the village. Kaxan's dying wish was that the people of Latal drink a toast in his memory every year at this time. The rules for the Sarwaesh-saq'aen are very precise. The toasters pair off, each one taking up two cups of "zedaesh", this being vodka made from apples or wild pears passed twice through the still (roughly 80-90 proof). They link arms, and each one pronounces the following words: "Glory to God, mercy for Kaxan, and peace to all who remember him". The text has be said in Svan, and any mistake in saying the words, or performing the toast, is penalized. The penalty, as you might have guessed, is that you have to drink it over again.

6. Here is a herd of goats who looked to be in fair better shape than I was as I stumbled back to the C'erediani's home across the river.

7. It snowed during most of my first week in Latal, requiring Dato to shovel off the roof.

8. Tuesday 14 Feb. The Latal torch-festival takes place on three consecutive days, dedicated to the souls of the dead (14th), the deities (15th), and the weather-spirits of the sky (16th). After sundown on the 14th, men bring lit torches to the churchyards where their ancestors are buried.

9. As he had done at Lipanal last month, Dato drank a commemorative toast at the grave of his father.

10. Weds 15 Feb. The men of the Girgwlian clan circulated through their neighborhood bearing lit torches.

11. At each home, they were met with food and drink. The leader of the torch-bearer s made an offering in honor of the household to the Girgwliani's clan shrine, the Church of the Savior (Macxvarish).

12. And guess what? After doing their rounds, which took about five hours, the torch-bearers and their guest sat down for more drinks (note that jerry-can of highly-combustible liquid on the table -- and no, it isn't gasoline)

13. Sunday 19 Feb. In preparation for the festival of Liqdush, women bake over 300 loaves of offering-bread. Fortunately, any given household hosts this festival only once in 20-25 years, so the work is spread around. For this occsion a distinctive kind of bread is baked, with a filling containing only "white" meat. In Svan usage, however, this does not mean pork rather than beef; it means the white-colored parts of the innards of a pig, that is to say, the fat lining the stomach cavity. In other words, a lard sandwich.

14. A group of four men presented all of the bread and vodka prepared for Liqdushi in front of the east-facing window of the house. A total of 112 shrines were commemorated, one by one, during the offering litany. The banquet afterwards nearly put me over the edge -- lard sandwiches washed down with moonshine. Fortunately I was able to make a graceful exit before any serious gastric catastrophe occurred.

15. Monday 20 Feb. On the last full day of my visit, Nino, Maiko and I brought offerings of bread, candles and vodka to a chapel called Tangri Taringzel "Archangel of the mountain-pass". It took about an hour and a half of serious hiking to reach the site of this unusual oblong-shaped church, which is unique not only in Svaneti, but in all of Georgia. Until recently, men prayed here for safety when hunting in the mountains, and left offerings of arrowheads, bullets and ibex horns. Here is Maiko lighting beeswax candles which she made herself for this occasion.

16. After each family has presenting its offerings in the shrine, a chorus of men sang a polyphonic hymn in honor of the Archangel at the church entrance. This was followed by round-dancing, more singing, and you can imagine the rest. Atm about 4 pm, I drank a final toast in honor of Kaxan the dragon-slayer, and half-walked, half-slid down the steep icy paths back to the village.



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