Key Characters and Concepts
In ancient Georgian cosmology, the universe is sphere-shaped and consists of three vertically superposed worlds or skneli: the highest world or zeskneli is above the earth and is populated by the gods; the lowest world or qveskneli is below the earth and is the netherworld populated by demons, evil spirits and dragons; in between these two worlds in the earthly world with humans, animals, plants, etc.
Each of these three worlds has its own color, white for the highest, red for the middle and black for the lowest. Beyond this universe is gareskneli or the world of oblivion, darkness and eternity. There are two bodies of water and fire, celestial and subterranean, which have unique properties and affect human lives differently. The sun makes its voyage between the two extreme worlds, the celestial and the subterranean. The moon makes the same journey as the sun but in the opposite direction and rhythm. The moon and the sun are, respectively, brother and sister. The earthly world has a center which divides it into two regions, anterior (tsina samkaro, tsinaskneli) and posterior (ukana samkaro or ukanaskneli). The three vertical worlds are separated by ether but they are connected by the Tree of Life that grows on the edge of the universe; in some versions, a tower, chain or pillar). The various lands of the earthly world are usually separated by seven or nine mountains or seas. To travel between these lands a hero must undergo a spiritual transformation (gardacvaleba) and seek help of magical animals, i.e. Rashi, Paskunji, etc. After the spread of Christianity, pagan cosmology amalgamated the Christian teachings. The zeskneli became heaven and abode of the Trinity while qveskneli turned into hell and abode of devil. The spiritual travel to these worlds became associated with death.
ADGILIS DEDA: A female pagan deity of various area or villages; it was usually considered a deity of fertility. It protected travelers and guests, and cared for harvest and cattle. After the spread of Christianity, Adgilis deda was morphed with the cult of Holy Mother Mary and acquired peculiar attributes. It still remains widespread in mountainous regions of eastern Georgia.
ALI: An evil soul that haunted travelers, pregnant women, infants, etc. Alis were both female (alkali) and male, had wicked appearance (except for females, who were beautiful and tempting) and lived in remote woods, caves or ruins.
AMIRANI: Georgian mythical hero, the son of goddess Dali and a mortal hunter. According to the Svan version, the hunter’s wife learned about her husband’s affair with Dali and killed her by cutting her hair while she was asleep. At Dali’s death, the hunter extracted from her womb a boy whom he called Amirani. The child had marks of his semi-divine origins with symbols of the Sun and the Moon on his shoulder-blades and a golden tooth.
The Georgian myths (click here to read the epic myth) describe the rise of the titan Amirani, who challenges the gods, kidnapps Kamar, a symbol of divine fire, and teaches metallurgy to humans. In punishment, the gods (in some versions, Jesus Christ) chain Amirani to a cliff (or an iron pole) in the Caucasus Mountains, where the titan continues to defy the gods and struggles to break the chains; an eagle ravages his liver every day, but it heals at night. Amirani’s loyal dog, meantime, licks the chain to thin it out, but every year, on Thursday or in some versions the day before Christmas, the gods send smiths to repair it. In some versions, every seven years the cave when Amirani is chain can be seen in the Caucasus. Scholars agree that folk epic about Amirani must have been formed in the third millennium BCE and later went through numerous transformation, the most important of them being morphing pagan and Christian elements after the spread of Christianity. The myth could have been assimilated by the Greek colonists or travelers and embodied in the corpus of the famous Greek mythos of Prometheus. In the Georgian literature and culture, Amirani is often used as a symbol of Georgian nation, its ordeals and struggle for survival.
ARMAZI: Supreme deity in ancient Kartli (Iberia). According to tradition, the cult of Armazi (deity of the moon) was introduced in the third century BCE by King Parnavaz, who erected a large bronze statue of a warrior of gilded copper, clad in a gold coat of mail with a gold helmet on his head; one eye was a ruby, the other an emerald. To the right of Armazi stood another smaller gold idol by the name of Gazi, and to the left, a silver idol called Gaim. The statue of Armazi existed until the spread of Christianity in the fourth century CE. Armazi is also the name of an ancient fortress near Mtskheta. Archeological digs uncovered monuments of antique architecture and a bilingual stele with Greek and Aramaic inscriptions from second century CE.
BARBALE: A female deity of fertility and harvest. Barbale, also known as Babari, Babale, or Barboli, was accordingly worshipped with festivals and other honors, and her association with cattle fertility also translated into a close relationship with human progeny and health.
BATONEBI: Evil souls that spread disease among humans. They were most often associated with mumps (tsitela batonebi), smallpox (didi batonebi), etc. When batonebi ‘visited’ a person, s/he became ill and the rest of family had to prepare special food and sweets, decorate tress with presents and do other arrangements to please batonebi. The term is still used in rural places for infectious diseases.
BAKBAK-DEVI: One of the foremost devi (see below), who is usually defeated by main characters of the Georgians myth. Bakbak-devi is often portrayed as multi-headed shrewd and human-eating ogre or evil spirit.
BEDIS MTSERLEBI: One or several deities that recorded and decided human fate; similar to Greek moiras or Roman parcae/fatae. They lived in suleti or the world of dead souls, and constantly consulted the Book of Fates (bedis tsigni). They supervised every human life and notified the god of the dead (suletis ghmerti) when a person’s lifetime was over. Special heralds (mgrebrebi) then were sent to take human’s soul and bring it to the underworld.
BERI-BERA: A deity of harvest, fertility and animals. The cult of Beri-Bera was popular in the mountains of eastern Georgia, where special festivals were organized on the new year’s eve.
DALI: A female goddess of nature, animals and hunting. The cult of Dali (Dæl) was particularly widespread in mountainous regions of Georgia. She was believed to be of extraordinary beauty, with long, golden-colored hair and radiant white skin. She dwells high up in the mountains, usually out of the reach of humans, where she watches over the herds of wild animals under her protection. She sometimes shared animals from her flock with hunters, as long as certain conditions and taboos were respected. Hunters were not to kill more than they can carry back to the village nor could they take aim at specially marked animals believed to be a transformation of the goddess. In some myths, Dali entered in intimate relations with a hunter but the latter was bound not to reveal the liaison at risk of being punished with death. Some myths describe an encounter between Dali and a mortal hunter that produced Amirani. In Mingrelia, Dali was known as Tkashi-Mapa.
DEVI: An evil giant, comparable to ogres in Western European mythos. With horns and wicked appearance, the devis often had multiple heads that regenerated if severed. Devis lived in underworld or remote mountains, where they hoarded treasures and kept captives. Georgian mythos usually depicted a family of devis, with nine brothers being an average numbers. Bakbak-Devi was most often the strongest and most powerful of the devis. Heroes, generally, had to deceive them with various tricks or games.
DOBILNI: Minor evil spirits that usually took appearance of women, children or even animals to harm humans and spread diseases. The dobilni towers (dobilt k’oshk’i) are found within the complexes of most Khevsurian shrines. However, there are instances when dobilni had positive attributes, i.e. Giorgi’s sisters, Samdzimari/Tamar in Khevsureti and Pshavi. Local folk epics describes how Giorgi led a raiding party of khvtis-shvilni to Kajeti (Kajaveti), the realm of evil kajis. After defeating the kajis, Giorgi seized their wealth and their women, including Princess Samdzimari who swore brother-sisterhood with Giorgi. Women pray at the shrine to Samdzimari for the birth of healthy children, an easy childbirth and for women’s health in general. The shrines to kind dobilni were also invoked for the productivity and well-being of dairy cattle and the protection of travelers.
GHMERTI: The supreme divinity, head of the pantheon of gods, chief architect and lord of the universe. According to the mythos, Ghmerti is all-powerful and created the universe. He lives on the ninth sky, where he resides on a golden throne. His daughter, the Sun, and son, the Moon, illuminate the earth while his other offspring, khvtis-shvilni, wander the earth, protecting humans and fighting the evil forces. Ghmerti controls the nature and animals and he determines the length and events of every human’s life. Ghmerti often was called Morige Ghmerti (“God the Director”) or Dambadebeli (“the Creator”). Following the spread of Christianity, the cult of Ghmerti quickly merged with the identity of God the Father and the word “ghmerti” is still used in the Christian tradition.
KAJI (QAJI): Evil spirits, often portrayed as a race of magic-wielding, demonic metalworkers. They lived in Kajeti (Kajaveti) and had magic powers that they used against humans. Folk tales distinguished between land kajis, who lived in the remote woods and harassed humans, and river kajis, who dwelt in rivers, streams or lakes and were more benevolent to humans. Female kajis were very beautiful, easily tempted men and helped heroes on their quests. Kajis figure prominently in Shota Rustaveli’s Vepkhistkaosani, which describes the kajis kidnapping one of the main characters and fighting heroes at the Kajeti fortress.
KAMAR: Daughter of the gods. The Amirani epic describes her as the daughter of the god of nature and sky. She was famous for her beautiful appearance, which enchanted Amirani, causing him to kidnap her from her heavenly abode. Elements of the myth about Kamar resemble in some parts the famous Greek mythos about the titan Prometheus and the heavenly fire.
KHVTIS-SHVILNI: A group of heroes, who were born to gods and had semi-divine nature. They protected humans, assured good crops and milk-yields, fought against devis and kudiani and performed various quests. While there are dozens of these deities, the most popular of them were Kopala, Iakhsari, Giorgi and Amirani. Folk epics describe how, led by Kopala and Iakhsari, the khvtis-shvilni declared a war of conquest on the ogres (devis), and drove them from the land. Another raiding party led by Giorgi destroyed the hitherto impregnable fortress of the Kajis, and carried off their treasures, cattle and women.
KOPALA: Deity of lightning, a mighty hero and demon killer. His cult still remains popular in the mountains of Georgia, especially in Khevsureti. It is Kopala, who aided by Iakhsar, drove away from the surface the demons who were persecuting humanity. Kopala is armed with a mace to which he is bound in close solidarity and an iron bow made especially for him by the blacksmith god Pirkusha. He alone has the power to defeat the most powerful and stubborn demons, who often seize a human soul. Kopala, thus, can cure various forms of madness, which was believed to “the disease of the soul.”
KVIRIA: Hero and son of gods who served as mediator between the supreme god (ghmerti) and humans. K’viria was invoked as protector of human society and instrument of divine justice. In some regions, he was also believed to be a deity of fertility and harvest while, in the mountains of western Georgia, Kviria was worshiped as the supreme deity. Special festivals, kveritskhovloba, were organized to honor him.
KUDIANI: A witch with wicked appearance, large teeth, tails and hunchbacked. Living in remote caves, kudiani could adopt any appearance and bewitch humans. The leader of kudiani, Rokapi, often summoned them to a special mountain where the witches celebrated in festivals reminiscent of Western European Walpurgis-night.
MAMBERI: The lord of wolves who was worshiped in Svaneti and other mountainous regions.
MATSILI: Evil spirits from the underworld that haunted travelers and hunters. Folk tales often describe Kopala’s quests against matsilis.
MINDORT-BATONI: Deity of valleys, fields and wild flowers. Humans had to ask for his permission to explore or cultivate these fields. He had a beautiful daughter, mindort brdzanebeli, also a deity of flowers, that fluttered above plants and lived off their pollen.
MICHPA: Deity protecting cattle and other domestic animals. It was popular in the mountains of Svaneti.
NATSILIANI: Humans who received magic gifts or had divine signs (natsili) from the gods. The signs were usually made on shoulder-blades and glowed with magic light, empowering their possessor. However, humans had to cover and keep them in secret since revealing them meant losing their power.
OCHOKOCHI: A forest deity which combined human and animal features. Ochokochi was believed to have a thick fur, large claws and spiky horns on its chest. Living in remote corners of the forest, Ochokochi wandered in the woods, scaring the hunters or shepherds they encountered with their appearance. Ochokochi was believed to be enthralled by Tkasi-Mapa, whom he constantly chased in order to copulate. However, mortal hunters protected Tkashi-Mapa from his advances.
OCHOPINTRE (OCHOPINTE): A deity of wild animals. Ochopintre has attributes similar to Pan of the Greek mythos. Born with the legs and horns of a goat, he helps the goddess of hunting Dali in herding the animals. Hunters usually made sacrifice in his name since no one could hunt the animals without his help. The fate of a person entering the forest was believed to be fully in his hands.
PASKUNJI: A phoenix-like animal that helped and protected heroes and humans. Living in underworld, Paskunji often warred with gveleshapis (dragons) and was summoned by burning one of his feathers. It could transport heroes to other places and heal wounds and illnesses. In some myths, paskunjis were also hostile to humans and persecuted them.
RASHI: A magical winged horse. Rashis can be of different kind. Those of land were well disposed to humans and heroes and could perceive future. Rashis of the seas were more hostile to humans but could take heroes to the depth of the sea while their milk was believed to cure many illnesses. Heavenly rashis were winged and fire-breathing animals, very difficult to subdue but loyal to their riders.
ROKAPI: An evil spirit and leader of the kudiani. He was punished by the ghmerti and dwelt chained to a column in the depth of the earth, where he devoured the hearts of humans brought to him by the kudianis. Every year, Rokapi tries to free himself of chains but fails.
TEVDORE: A pagan deity of agriculture and horses. The cult of Tevdore or Tedore later merged with the Christian saint Tevdore but retained some of its ancient elements. In feudal Georgia, a special festival, Tedoroba, was organized to honor him and ensure a bountiful harvest.
TKASHI-MAPA: In Mingrelian myths, a goddess of forest and animals. With golden hair, she was believed to be of unsurpassed beauty and often tempted hunters entering her domain. However, the hunter could not reveal the secret of his liaison with Tkasi-mapa and those, who failed to keep their word, were turned into stone together with their hounds. Ochokochi was believed to be enthralled by Tkasi-Mapa, whom he constantly chased in order to copulate. However, mortal hunters protected Tkashi-Mapa from his advances. Tkashi-mapa is often associated with the cult of Dali that was widespread in other regions of Georgia.
TSKARISHDIDA: In Mingrelian myths, a half-fish and half-women deity of rivers and the fish, similar to mermaids of European folklore. Popular in the Mingrelian folklore, Tskarishdida dwelt in streams and lakes and had magic powers which she often used against the humans.
ZADEN: One of the major deities in pagan Kartli, believed to be as powerful as Armazi. It was introduced as a deity of fertility by King Parnajom in the second century BCE and a statue was erected near Mtskheta. The cult disappeared after the spread of Christianity.