There is no doubt that, nowadays, Georgia is an overwhelmingly Christian country. With around 90% of the population affiliated with the Georgian Orthodox Church, it seems as if there is no room for folk tales or mythologies.
Nothing further from the truth. While Christianization in Georgia took place in the early 4th century, the story and history of the country start long before that.
Before Georgia became unified under this name, it was a plethora of smaller kingdoms with somewhat similar customs and shared roots. Diauehi, Iberia, and Colchis all had a set of pagan beliefs that preceded the arrival of Christianity.
Some of these tales were lost to history, while others evolved and merged with Christian beliefs to form a syncretic set of customs. Others, however, remain popular tales all across Georgia and the Caucasus.
Likewise, medieval legends about heroes, champions, and courageous acts of chivalry have joined these mystical stories, forming the bulk of Georgian mythology and legends.
Curious? Take a look at some of the most notorious Georgian myths and folk legends.
The world, according to Georgian mythology
Everyone wonders about the nature of the world we live in.
Trying to comprehend why the grass is green, why the stars are bright at night, or why it rains from above but not underneath are reasonable questions any of our ancestors would have had.
But before they had the resources to figure out the science behind it all, each culture and civilization developed their own mystic explanations to these natural events. Pagan Georgians from the pre-Christian era re not the exception.
According to Georgian mythology, the world is a sphere divided into three levels, each of them representing a realm or world of their own. These levels are named the skeneli, and they roughly correspond with the observable universe: sky, earth, and underground.
The first of the skeneli is named zeskneli. It’s the highest one, located above the ground and utterly unreachable from the earth. In this divine realm is where the gods dwell.
The second skeneli is the earth—realm where mortals dwell. It’s the utterly mundane land that humans inhabit, right in the middle of the other two skeneli. According to ancient Georgians, this realm possesses certain geographical qualities that condition the way humans behave and live.
For starters, it’s divided into two broad regions—tsinaskneli and ukanaskneli. These lands are separated by seven (sometimes nine) imposing mountains that are impossible to cross, except for heroes willing to go through the supernatural, shamanistic process of spiritual transformation known as gardatsvaleba.
Finally, the third skneli is known as kveskeneli, and is an underworld located beneath the middle realm. A dark and grim place, kveskneli is the home of demons, dragons, malignant spirits, and many other ill-meaning creatures.
These three skeneli are not entirely detached from one another. According to Georgian mythology, they were connected through a magical tree of life, similar to the Yggdrasil concept brought by the Norse. Despite this bond, humans cannot cross the tree of life through sheer willpower.
Beyond the three skneli, there is nothing but an empty void that extends forever—the gareskneli, or oblivion world.
Georgian mythology specifies, as well, that in the zeskneli and kveskeneli there are vast oceans of water and fire, a set of the two on each skneli. These, in turn, affect the lives of humans in the middle realm—the fire and water of the zeskneli being positive, and the ones in the kveskeneli carrying negative consequences.
The sun and moon, sister and brother, respectively, travel every day through all three of the skneli in an endless journey. Their journey takes them to the same path at the same speed, but they move in different directions, meeting only twice throughout the day.
Eventually, this conception of the world merged with Christianity and their perception of the realms. Subsequently, zeskneli became associated with heaven and kveskeneli with hell.
Divinities from Georgian Mythology
Georgian culture is as diverse as the people inhabiting the lands. Subsequently, Georgian mythology features gods, goddesses, divinities, and creatures that enjoyed popularity in the regions where they were worshipped, before the Christian era.
Nowadays, they only remain in books, some remote villages, and the collective memory of an era long gone. Take a look at some of the most iconic beings from Georgian mythology.
We know very little of pre-Christian Georgia. There were no written records of the era, so knowledge remains rather vague and ambiguous.
Luckily, thanks to Kartlis Tskhovreba—a collection of medieval texts—we know about Armazi.
According to the text, Armazi was the main deity of Iberia’s ancient pantheon, a moon divinity whose cult was, apparently, established by King Pharnavaz I. In Kartlis Tskhovreba, it’s said that the capital city of Iberia was named Armazi in his honor. It boasted of an imposing bronze statue that greeted visitors with its impressive structure.
Christian accounts affirm that, during a great feast celebrated in his honor, a baptizer working in the name of Saint Nino started praying against the pagan celebration, which in turn caused the statue to be burnt beyond recognition.
Current scholars believe Armazi is a syncretic manifestation of the head of the Zoroastrian pantheon Ahura Mazda, and the Hittite moon god Arma.
Adgilis Deda is a particular case, as it is both a deity and a whole category of them, depending on how you interpret Georgian mythology.
In the mountainous regions of Eastern Georgia, the population once thought each original location around them was protected and blessed by a mother. She was of exceptional beauty and wore the most exquisite clothing available. Her duty was to protect and bless the area she guarded. Adgilis Deda, then, means “location mother”.
Each hill, mountain, and lakes had its own Adgilis Deda, who blessed the land, provided for the plants, crops, and fields that grew there. Similarly, they watched over the livestock and the humans that crossed her area, locals and travelers alike.
Dali is an ancient Georgian goddess that enjoyed prominent popularity in the area of Svaneti with the Svan population within the country. A hunting deity, she blessed hunters who worshipped her and protected common prey such as deer.
According to Georgian mythology, she is a woman of exceptional beauty, with long flowing blond hair and pale skin. Her hair is golden like the sun, and is both radiant and impossibly strong—she can use it to kill those who offend her. The strength of her hair is often a source of avarice, as the strings are said to make perfect hunting bows.
Adding to the exceptional beauty, myths say Dali hunts naked and clad only in jewelry. However, she also possessed mighty shapeshifting powers, which she used to hide away in the mountains.
She protects animals and guarantees humans do not kill more than necessary. Dali was a generous goddess and sometimes allowed hunters to pick prey from her flock, as long as they never hunted more than essential and fulfilled certain rituals of purity to appease her.
Dali also sought human lovers often. Her breathtaking beauty would make it easy for men to fall in love with her, but she demanded complete fidelity perpetually. If the hunters crossed her, she would unleash her vindictive revenge upon them until her spirit was appeased.
In Georgian mythology, she is the mother of one of Georgia’s most celebrated folk heroes—Amirani.
Heroes from Georgian Mythology
Every culture has its heroes.
Most of them are historical, but when countries exist as long as Georgia has, some of those figures become shrouded in legend. It’s doubtful these mighty heroes even fulfilled the same fantastic deeds those stories describe. Still, they remain staple champions that represent the best traits of those who believed in them.
While Georgian mythology is full of legendary heroes, it’s worth mentioning we keep records of very few of them. Take a look at the quintessential figures of Georgian epics and myths.
Few heroes have the importance that Amirani boasts. The quintessential folk hero in Georgia, he is the protagonist of an ancient epic that dates to over 5000 years ago. He bears a close resemblance to Prometheus, with many experts assuming the tale of Aminari inspired the Greek hero.
In all versions of the legend, he is the prematurely-born son of the goddess Dali with a human hunter. Still, the details of his origins vary in each region.
According to the Svan population, a jealous wife discovered the affair of her husband with the goddess. Through cleverness and skill, she managed to kill Dali after cutting her hair. The huntsman, however, managed to save the baby from Dali’s womb and raised the demigod.
Other versions of the story have the hunter come across Dali as she gives birth prematurely. By her insistence, he raises him as his own with his wife. Amirani grew up alongside his adoptive brothers, and the three embarked on notorious journeys and adventures until the mortal siblings were killed.
Amirani is a demigod, born of a deity and a mortal, and his deeds are as famed in Georgia as those of Heracles in Greece. Many of his tales feature him fighting against the gods to benefit humanity in some way, the most popular one is the legend of how he taught metallurgy to humans after taking the knowledge from the divinities.
In punishment, they chained Amirani to a cliff where eagles eat his liver every day, only for it to be healed overnight. This cycle repeats endlessly, but Amirani never stops fighting to free himself. By his side, his loyal dog Q’ursha licks his chains every day to weaken them and aid in his escape.
All of Amirani’s adventures, as well as his eternal punishment and significant to Georgian mythology, can be found in the eponymous epic available here.
The fathers of Georgians: Kartlos, Heros, and Egros
Unlike the previous stories, this one has deep roots in Christianity and came to be after the religion settled in the country.
According to local tradition, Kartlos and some of his brothers became the founding fathers of Georgia, as their descendants began some of the Georgian ethnic subgroups.
These brothers are all the sons of Togarmah, known in Georgia as Targamos. In Christianity, Targamos is a direct descendant of Noah, and considered the ancestor of the people from Anatolia and the Caucasus.
Kartlis Tskhovreba, the Georgian Chronicles, specifies the many sons of Targamos, amongst which the Caucasus region was divided into equal terms.
Kartlos, the second-born son, settled in the region northeast of Mount Ararat, founding what would later be known as Kartli or Iberia. His brother Heros founded the Kingdom of Hereti, composing most of the current Kakheti region in Georgia, as well as some areas in Russia and Azerbaijan. In turn, Egros became the forefather of Egrisi, better known as the kingdom of Colchis.
According, once again, to Kartlis Tskhovreba, Kartlos’ sons founded multiple regions of medieval and modern Georgia, whose names reflect theirs— Mtskheta, Gardabani, Kakheti, Gachiani, Uplistsikhe, Odzrkhe, and Javakheti.
Tetri Giorgi translates, quite literally, to White George. As it turns out, it’s the local name of the famed Saint George, an icon in Christianity and the patron saint of the country.
While the figure of Saint George is not mythological, many of his deeds and tales are some of the most famous legends and folk stories. In fact, the image of Tetri Giorgi is so recognized that it is a well-known heraldic symbol, popular and widespread across the country.
Much like the famed legend of St. George slaying a dragon, certain regions have their own legends associated with the hero, including the defeat of giants (called devi in Georgia) to save a town from destruction.
But there is more
While I briefly described some of the most iconic elements of Georgian mythology, as well as a few of the most important deities and heroes, this is nothing more than a small sample.
Folk tales in Georgia are extensive and as varied as the regional interpretations each of them has. Oral tradition has created multiple variations of the same story, and it’s nearly impossible to keep track of them all.
Stay tuned for the second part of this entry, where I’ll talk about some of the most famous legends and stories surrounding the country of Georgia.