Circassian Customs & Traditions адыгэ хабзэ circassian Customs & Traditions


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Customs & Traditions


Customs & Traditions
A Brief Introduction

Amjad Jaimoukha
Жэмыхъуэ Амджэд (Амыщ)

In English and Circassian (supplementary)

International Centre for Circassian Studies, 2009

Circassian Culture & Folklore

First published 2009

by The International Centre for Circassian Studies
© 2009 Amjad Jaimoukha
Typeset in
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All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
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Introduction 4

  1. Birth 9

  1. Christening 12

  1. Upbringing 14

  1. Courtship and Marriage 22

  1. Divorce and Bigamy 54

  1. ‘In sickness and in health’ 55

  1. Death and Obsequies 63

  1. Greetings and Salutes 69

  1. The Circassian Code of Chivalry 73

  • Respect for Women and Elders 74

  • Blood-revenge 76

  • Hospitality and Feasts 78


  1. Proverbs and Sayings on

Circassian Customs and Traditions 103

  1. Proverbs and Sayings

Associated with Hospitality Traditions 130

References and Bibliography 151


CUSTOMS and social norms were enshrined in an orally transmitted rigid and complex code of theAdige Xabze’—‘Circassian Etiquette’ («адыгэ хабзэ»). This system of morals had evolved to ensure that strict militaristic discipline was maintained at all times to defend the country against the many invaders who coveted Circassian lands. In addition, social niceties and graces greased the wheels of social interaction, and a person’s good conduct ensured his survival and prosperity.

The Xabze served as the law for ad hoc courts and councils set up to resolve contentious cases and other moot issues, and pronounce binding judgements. Administration of justice in this way was indispensable in the absence of independent full-time judiciary. Blood-revenge, the Caucasian version of ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,’ had a bearing on keeping the peace and made sure that human life was respected, some say revered. However, at times things went out of control and feuds led to internecine wars.

Traditionally, the roots of the Etiquette are referred to the golden age of the Narts, when its core rules were prescribed. The mores and mannerisms of the Narts, as depicted in the rich oral tradition, were paragons that Circassians through the ages worked diligently to emulate. The collective and individual attributes of these legendary heroes have shaped the code of behaviour of Circassian society since time immemorial and moulded the knightly characters of its nobility. These qualities included love of the fatherland and its defense to the last, idolization of honour, bravery and concomitant abhorrence of cowardice, observance of the code of chivalry, loathing for oppression, loyalty to clan and kin, fealty to bonds of camaraderie, care of and fidelity to one’s horse.

This code did not remain static throughout the ages. It was reformed and developed at some points in Circassian history, when two factors obtained: preponderance of outdated practices and the appearance of a charismatic personage to effect the transformation. The first instance of this kind in recorded history was in the 16th century, when Prince Beslan (Beislhen) Zhanx’wetoqwe, nicknamed ‘Pts’apts’e’ (ПцIапцIэ; The Obese), modified the structure of the peerage system and updated the Xabze.1

Two centuries later, the legendary Zhebaghi Qezenoqwe (1684-1750) played a pivotal role in modernizing the code and removing outdated customs and practices, though he is sometimes erroneously accredited with originating it.2 He was an accomplished statesman by the standards of the time, being responsible for formulating Kabardian policies with respect to the Crimean Khans and their overlords, the Ottomans. One of his notable achievements was his counsel to Prince Aslenbek Qeitiqwe and manoeuvres to avert a war with the Crimean Khan Saadat-Girey IV (Saadat Giray; ruled the Crimea in the period 1717-1724), who attacked Kabarda in 1720 to avenge the destruction of the Tatar army in 1708 at Qenzhalischhe.3

Stories of Zhebaghi’s wisdom and sagacity are still very much alive in national memory. In one anecdote, he was asked about the difference between truth and falsehood. He enigmatically replied that only four fingers separated them. He lifted up his hand and placed four fingers between his eye and ear, and said, ‘Everything your eye sees is true, and all that you hear is false, for no one tells the truth the way he sees it.’ The most recent reform was made in 1807, when a group of Circassian judges and scholars, with the blessing of the nobility, amended and updated some articles of the law.

Celebrations and festivals, which occupied central stage in Circassian social life, had uncanny similarities regardless of the occasion. Nuptial festivals, burials, memorials, religious rites, homecomings of foster-children, Circassian New Year, harvest fests, all had points of commonality: dancing, singing, feasting, games. These activities blended with particular rites associated with each affair. In the section on marriage, a complete celebration is portrayed, which may be considered as generic.

During the Soviet period, central authorities understood early on that the tenacity with which the Circassians clung to their customs and traditions had to be loosened, if their ideal of the ‘Soviet Man’ was to be realized. Propaganda campaigns concentrated more on discrediting these practices, which incorporated some old religious rites, than on extirpating loosely adhered to monotheistic beliefs. Thus, religious persecution in the NW Caucasus was not as severe as it was in the Northeast Caucasus, or in other Muslim regions of the Soviet Union.

Collectivization and the propaganda onslaught on the age-old heritage undermined some traditional social structures and aspects of the Etiquette. Despite the disintegration at the edges, the core system of morals managed to survive the period. Since the beginning of the 1990s, there has been an increased interest in recording the oral traditions and customs. Several seminal works have been published, unadulterated by communist creed.

Another important concept that is closely associated, and often overlapping with Xabze, is Adigaghe (адыгагъэ), which is roughly rendered as Adiga ethics, or Circassianness—the quality of being Circassian. The main tenets of this code of ethics were nobleness, good breeding and hospitality. To this day, if someone is deemed to have committed a shameful or pitiless act, he is scolded thus: ‘Aren’t you Adiga?!’ [«Уадыгэкъэ уэ?!»].

Adet (адэт), from Arabic meaning custom or habit, has come to signify customary law as it prevailed in the Caucasus. Its main tenets were hospitality, respect for elders and blood-revenge—the North Caucasian code of chivalry. It is sometimes used for, and confused with Xabze. In general, Adet referred to the law that regulated relations between the different peoples of the North Caucasus, whereas Xabze was a specifically Circassian affair.

1 Birth

Pregnant women took minor precautions as time of delivery approached. To prevent pre-mature births, they were spared arduous chores like lifting up heavy objects. In addition, all efforts were made not to cause them to be startled at thunderstorms and lightning. It was strictly forbidden to unsheathe daggers or sabres in their presence, as it was considered an evil omen. Women gave birth lying on a bedding of stalks and straw, the first bed of the first creature.

If delivery was preceded by a dangerous illness, a ceremony was held consisting of libation over a sabre that was once used to spill blood. The blade was then placed under the head of the bed, and the sanctified potation given to the woman. Other rites were also performed to ease the suffering of child-birth and hasten delivery. Under no circumstances were men allowed to enter the delivery room (S. Khan-Girey, 1978, pp 274-5).

Muslimized Circassians followed Mohammedan traditions. During a difficult birth, a mullah was summoned who pronounced prayers over the woman, blew on her face, and gave her a drink of water in which an invocation manuscript was immersed. After safe delivery, he offered thanksgiving to Allah, the creator of the universe and life-giver.

Upon delivery, the baby was taken immediately to the river, whence it was bathed, even in freezing weather.4 It was believed that cold water tempered the body. There were also some instances of cleaning infants in snow. A martial society could not afford an inordinate number of weaklings in its midst, and, as such, if the apparently cruel treatment led to death, this was considered as a sacrifice for the common good.

In accordance with a curious custom, the Circassians tugged at the ears of young relatives of a new-born baby, but this was not obligatory and was done more in jest. The Circassians were in the habit of wrapping their babies in restrictive swaddling clothes, x’idanzherume (хъыданжэрумэ; literally: ‘rag-sausage’), which word was also used to refer to the infant thus muffled.

The Circassians solemnly celebrated the birth of children, particularly male offspring, as they were considered a continuation of the lineage. These festivals were usually arranged by the (paternal) grandparents or (paternal) uncles and aunts. All relatives were informed of the date of the ceremony, once it had been set, and the household started in good time to prepare for the occasion, stocking on and preparing the foodstuffs and beverages associated with it, in this case makhsima (махъсымэ; national beverage), lakum (лэкъум=puffs, buns), chicken and meat, and heliwe (хьэлыуэ=national sweetmeat).
There was no definite date for performing the ceremonies, for it could be set in the few days after the birth, or the ceremonies could be conjoined with those celebrating the strapping of the infant to the cradle (gwscheqw
[гущэкъу], or x’iriyne xwsch’esch’en (хъыринэ хущIэщIэн) = strapping of a son to his cradle; literally: to harness to the cradle). Soft straps (gwscheps; гущэпс) were used to prevent the infant from falling off the cradle (gwsche x’iriyne, gwschex’iriyne [гущэ хъыринэ, гущэхъыринэ] =suspended cradle; literally: cradle-swing).

In one rite, called ‘mezhaje ch’erisch’e’ («мэжаджэ кIэрыщIэ»), or ‘hel’ame ch’erisch’e’ («хьэлIамэ кIэрыщIэ»), special corn cakes were prepared (by the grandmother) and hanged up (by the grandfather) in honour of the new-born child (‘Nane hel’amasch’esch, dade ch’erisch’ensch’; «Нанэ хьэлIамащIэщ, дадэ кIэрыщIэнщ). The relatives brought baskets of lakum, live rams, and live and slaughtered chickens. In the ritual of sacrifice, the person entrusted with slaughtering the ram or bull also pronounced a supplication entreating the gods to bestow strength and longevity upon the child. Young teens played the game of climbing the pole, in which contestants tried to climb long thin spars dug in the yard and daubed with animal fat. A prize awaited the winner.

A (Cherkess) song from the repertoire chanted in honour of first-born (male) child is presented (V. H. Bereghwn and Z. P’. Qardenghwsch’, 1980, p163):

Уэ, нажджэн, нажджэн!
Уэ, нажджэн, нажджэн!

Ежьу. (Уора, уарирэра,) дэнэ унэра!

(Нажджэн,) лъэгупс!

Ежьу. (Уора, уо уэрирэра,) дэнэ унэра!

ЩIакIуэ Iупс дыжьын!

Ежьу. (Уора, уо уэрира,) дэнэ унэра!

Дыжьынышхуэр къегъаджэ!

Ежьу. (Уора, уо уэрира,) дэнэ унэра!

Уэркъ щауэр зоджэж!

Ежьу. (Уора, уо уэрира,) дэнэ унэра!

Щхьэнтэ бгъурыбгъуищ!

Ежьу. (Уора, уо уэрира,) дэнэ унэра!

Уэншоку щэрыкIуэгъуэ!5

Ежьу. (Уора, уо уэрира,) дэнэ унэра!

Song in honour of first-born child:

Oh, nazhjen, nazhjen!’6

Oh, nazhjen, nazhjen!

Chorus: (Wora, wariyrera,) which home and hearth!

(Nazhjen,) braids!

Chorus: (Wora, wo weriyrera,) which home and hearth!

Silverine felt-cloak laces!

Chorus: (Wora, wo weriyra,) which home and hearth!

Summon the silver bridle!

Chorus: (Wora, wo weriyra,) which home and hearth!

The young noblemen are calling one another!

Chorus: (Wora, wo weriyra,) which home and hearth!

May thou have pillows thrice in nines!

Chorus: (Wora, wo weriyra,) which home and hearth!

May thou have three changes of mattress!

Chorus: (Wora, wo weriyra,) which home and hearth!

2 Christening

Baptism was performed either shortly after birth, or, more commonly, at early youth. The ceremony had an old woman measuring off 40 cups of pure water, and then giving it to the adolescent who poured it over himself. She was then treated to a sparing meal. The youngster thus baptized thereafter referred to this woman as ‘mother.’ This rite was performed only now and then, and not by all people. It was a relic of the Christian era.

According to custom, a new-born child was named in an arbitrary manner, more often by strangers, seldom by the parents. In some instances, the infant was given the name of the first stranger who entered the house after the birth. Among the upper classes, the person who gave the infant his name was presented with an arrow, preferably with white feathers. Sometimes the infant was given the name of a kindred personage of high standing. Among the lower classes, the namer was given a shirt cloth, or baptismal shirt, ts’ef’eschjane [цIэфIэщджанэ].

Foreboding circumstances surrounding the birth influenced the naming process. For example, if a tempest had been raging during delivery, the infant was given the name ‘Tempest’ or ‘Blizzard’. If the father or a close relative of the new-born had been killed without his blood being avenged, then the infant was often christened ‘Avenger,’ a gainsay, in the hope of his redressing the tort (S. Khan-Girey, 1978, p276).7

The oldest instances of Circassian names go back to the ‘Age of Narts.’ Other sources include the ancient traditional tales. Names from the Middle Ages have been preserved in some sources.8 These included Ezgbold, Anzarouk, Kaitouk, Sountchelei, Klytch. Though the Circassians were nominally Christian at the time, they rarely used Christian names, instead preserving their ancient appellations. After the betrothal of Ivan the Terrible to Princess Maria of Kabarda, many of her kin were lured to the tsarist court, in which they served with distinction, but not before converting to Christianity and assuming Russian names, like Mikhail (Михаил) and Aleksandr (Александр).9

3 Upbringing

According to a peculiar custom, the ataliqate, children of princes and nobles were entrusted at an early age to vassals to be raised and trained in a military fashion. This institution played a major role in strengthening relationships between the princes and their nobles and among nobles themselves. The separation also served to lessen emotional attachment between parents and their children. This Spartan upbringing was necessary, as death in battle was only a heartbeat away. In ancient times, this institution was more strictly adhered to and it was not confined to any particular caste. Later it came to be associated only with the upper classes.

When it was time to entrust the charge, which was between the ages 6-10, a boy was mounted on a horse, a girl in a carriage, and taken to the foster-home, together with ample supplies of fabrics and produce.

The foster-father, ataliq (атэлыкъ), was expected to teach his ward, qan (къан) or p’ur (пIур), many social and martial skills. Horsemanship, not very easy to master, was high on the agenda. The cadet had to go through rigorous training schedules and endless trials of his fortitude and character. These culminated in a rite of passage in which the aspirant had to undertake an arduous journey. This baptism of fire earned the successful cadet the title knight-rider and, of course, catapulted him into manhood. The training regimen was also intended to keep the apprentices from bad habits by investing their unbound energy in useful pursuits.

During the long stay, the parents of foster-children were not supposed to visit them, or even inquire about their health. Anecdotes abound of mothers having to be restrained when overwhelmed with motherly emotions. In contrast, fathers were more adept at suffering the separation. The following anecdote, recounted by M. O. Kosven (1961), has become a classic, some would say hackneyed, example of emotional petrifaction:

An old Nartkhuaj never saw his child. Upon his orders, an expedition was mounted to fight another clan. His son, a handsome specimen, fell in battle on the side of the foe. Afterwards, as the bodies were being laid near a tree under which the old man was resting, he noticed the cadaver of the lad. ‘He is your son,’ came the answer to his inquiry about his identity. The old man ordered that the corpse be taken to another place, far away from him. ‘I have never suffered his closeness to me,’ he said.10

The bond that developed between cadet and mentor became almost as strong as, and most certainly more intimate than that between parent and child, and it lasted forever. Children of foster-parents and their charges were considered foster-siblings; therefore, they could not intermarry. In the code of blood-revenge, if a prince killed a person of a lower caste, the kin of the deceased did not wreak their vengeance on the prince himself, but on his lower-ranked foster-father. Fostering was not devoid of baleful risks.

Rigorous though the formative years were, they were not totally lacking in endearing moments. According to the 19th century Circassian writer Shora Nogmov (1861), a guardian had interest riding on gaining his foster-son’s good favour, and he sometimes indulged him in spoiling sprees, as when he sang him lullabies:

Lai, lai, lai11

Pupil of my eye!

Today helpless thou lie,

But on the morrow,

As valour earns thou rich spoil,

Forget not thy decrepit guardian!

The Circassians had a broad repertoire of lullabies. Although the majority were sung by the mother, a number of songs were composed by the foster-parents (ataliq) to be addressed to their wards (qan, p’ur; къан, пIур).

The following is an elaborate (Kabardian) berceuse representative of this song genre (V. H. Bereghwn and Z. P’. Qardenghwsch’, 1980, p168-9):

Гущэ уэрэд:

Лэлэу ещIри си ХьэмытIэ...12
ТIэлей, тIэлей, тIэлей, тIэу,

Лэлэу ещIри си ХьэмытIэ,

Лэлэу ещIри сэ си тIалэ.

ТIалэ дахэри Iэпхъуамбэ пIащэ,

Шэ пIащэрыуэри, зэуэмэ щремыуэхъу!

Зытехуэри иремыхъуж!

Дунейм хуэижьурэ, жьы дыдж къемыпщэу,

Жьыхэр къыщепщэкIэ щIопщхэр хуэжанурэ,

Си ХьэмытIэмэ и лIыщIыгъуэхэр кърехъу!
Уэлэлэу, уэлэлэу, уэлэлэу, лэу, лэу,

Уэлэлэу, лейри, уэлэлэу лэй.

Лэлэй ищIурэ си ХьэмытIэ,

Си ХьэмытIэурэ си щIалэри согъэжейри.

А биижьхэри уи лъэныкъуэ егъэз,

А биижьхэри уи лъэрыщIыкIти!

Уи лъэр дахэурэ иреув.

КъоувалIэмкIэ жэуапыншэу уремыхъу!

Iуэхуу хъуахэри уэ тхьэм къыуит!
ФIыгъуэ уэ къыуитынурэ

Си тхьэм сэ солъэIури!

Уэлэлэу, уэлэлэу, уэлэлэу, лэу, лэу,

Уэлэлэу, лэури изогъэщI,

Си ХьэмытIэри согъэжей!

Cradle Song:

Hush-a-bye, my Hemit’e is falling asleep…’

Little one, little one, little one, little baby,

Lullaby, my Hemit’e is going to sleep,

Lullaby, my little one is falling asleep.

My sweet baby with big fingers,

Shoots large arrows; may they find their mark!

Whome’er are smitten, may they not survive!

That his life may be successful, free of bitter winds,

When evil winds blow, let his lash prove biting.

May my Hemit’e have such good fortune through the ages!

Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, hush, hush,

Hush-a-bye, lullaby, hush-a-bye shush.

Rock-a-bye, my Hemit’e is going to sleep,

I am lulling my Hemit’e, my child, to sleep.

Vanquish those sworn enemies,

Overthrow thy foes!

Be firm and resolute in the course of thy life.

Do not be indifferent to those who appeal to thee!

May God pronounce success upon all thy undertakings!
That blessings be bestowed upon thee

I pray my Lord!

Hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, hush-a-bye, hush, hush,

Hush-a-bye, I am lullabying my baby,

I am singing my Hemit’e to sleep!

‘Charming’ cradle numbers were called upon when the baby displayed resistance to the usual repertoire. In the following (Mozdok Kabardian) cradle song the impatient ‘luller’ imputes the child’s contrarious character to the Cossacks, the mortal enemies of the Circassians (V. H. Bereghwn and Z. P’. Qardenghwsch’, 1980, p170):

Гущэ уэрэд:

Ужейркъэ, къэзакъым и щIалэ!
Болилейхэ, болилей,

Лылейхэр хызогъэжае.

Ужейркъэ, къэзакъым и щIалэ!

Ужейркъэ, къэзакъым и щIалэ!

Болилейхэ, болилей,

Лылейхэр хызогъэжае.

Мы цIыкIур Iэпхъуамбэ пIащэщ,

Мы цIыкIур шэ пIащэрыуэщ,

Зэуэмэ щремыуэхъухэ,

Зытехуэр иремыхъужхэ!

Болилейхэ, болилей,

Си щIалэр хызогъэжае.


Won’t you go to sleep, progeny of a Cossack!’

Hush-a-bye, rock-a-bye,

I am lulling my sweetie to sleep.

Won’t you go to sleep, progeny of a Cossack!

Won’t you fall asleep, Cossack child!

Hush-a-bye, rock-a-bye,

I am lulling my sweetie to sleep.

This little one has big fingers,

The little one shoots large arrows,

May the shot arrows never miss their mark,

Whome’er are smitten, let them not survive!

Hush-a-bye, rock-a-bye,

I am lulling my child to sleep.

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Дунейм хуэижьурэ, жьы дыдж къемыпщэу,

Жьыхэр къыщепщэкIэ щIопщхэр хуэжанурэ,

<p>Си ХьэмытIэмэ и лIыщIыгъуэхэр кърехъу!

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