Will you marry me?
21 June, 2014
Will you marry me?
If you approach a Georgian passer-by in the street and ask him or her about cornerstones of Georgian culture, Christianity will probably be on the top of the list you’ll receive. It is well known that Georgia was among the first countries to convert to Christianity – crosses on her flag are no random motif, and Christian traditions and morality run deep through the country.

However, not many people know about Georgian religion before the advent of Christianity, which is
extremely unfortunate, because Georgian Paganism and mythology are a cultural marvel on par with their Ancient Greek and Roman counterparts. For example, very few Georgians know that “ghmerti”, their word for “God”, was originally the name of Ghmerti, main deity of the Georgian pantheon. Many will only shrug at the names of Gatsi and Gaimi, twin manifestations of a deity that lorded over the cycle of life and death as well as all secrets that mortals hold. Worship of Ainina and Danina, goddesses of fertility, was also widespread in pre-Christian times; they are suspected to be of Sumerian origin by historians. Gruff, deerskin-clad and horn-bearing god Apsati protected and brought luck to hunters, and sacrificing part of the catch after a successful hunt was customary. However, those who wandered too deep into forests had to be careful of encountering Dali, the beautiful but mischievous wife of Apsati, who protected the woodlands and often turned those who harmed them into stone. A widespread Georgian female name Tamar originates from the goddess of the same name, clad in golden armor and mounted on a monstrous serpent. Considered to embody the sun, she was responsible for the change of seasons by restraining the fickle god of winter.

Some of Georgian deities and myths are very much alike those of other Pagan faiths. Many Georgian women of old used to be priestesses of Lamara, a grim but generous patroness of love, vengeance, femininity, jealousy and seductiveness, not dissimilar to Ancient Greek goddess Hecate. She was considered to manifest through cats and snakes; these animals were held sacred by her priestesses. Georgian deity named Pirkhusha, a hardy and hot-tempered blacksmith who forged weapons and armor for other gods, bears a stark resemblance to a Baltic god Perkunas (known as Perkele by the Finns) and Greek Hephaestus, both of them sharing the same disposition and profession. Mythical demigod Amirani is reminiscent of several legendary Greek entities simultaneously: he is a slayer of many dangerous monsters, just like Heracles; he got his power from bathing in a sacred spring, akin to Achilles; and he taught people metalworking, for which he was punished by getting chained to a cliff with an eagle devouring his liver for eternity, just like Prometheus.

Zoroastrianism also left its trace in the ancient Georgian religion, bringing in Armazi, a god of moon and lightning, who replaced Ghmerti on the throne of the Georgian pantheon. Numerous statues dedicated to him were erected, one of which is said to have been toppled by a lightning strike during conversion of the country to Christianity. Another Zoroastrian deity was Zaden, a somber god of rain and harvest, frequently prayed to by peasants. He replaced the god Kviria, who used to fulfill the same role.

Contrary to what most people believe, arrival of Nino the Cappadocian, the cross-bearing missionary, did not destroy the original faith of Georgians; it simply incorporated it into Christianity. Take candles, for example: even though they are now lit at the churches, they were originally used in Pagan rituals. Tales of Amirani’s deeds are still told to children; except now he does his deeds – fighting the evil devi and helping people - in God’s name, and his power stems from His blessing. Toddlers are put to sleep by singing iavnana to them: a song originally intended to ward off the malicious spirits who bring sickness. Various manifestations of evil, such as the yeti-like monster Ochokochi and spirits Ali and Alkali became the spawns of Satan and are now repulsed by the cross, but nobody ever denied them roaming the forests and ambushing the unwary.

This assimilation explains why the process of conversion of Georgia to Christianity was rather peaceful and saw little conflict. Things did not take such a course in other parts of the world, however; Scandinavia is a striking example of religious conflict, being the site of some of the bloodiest confrontations between Christian missionaries and local Pagans.

To be brutally honest, Christians who came to Scandinavian countries with the purpose of preaching did not exactly pay much heed to local religion, deeming it primitive and barbaric, which, along the fact that they were outsiders to the land, did not win them any support. One of the first acts of their missionary work was defilement of local Pagan shrines, which rightfully caused anger within the indigenous population and led to armed clashes. Drawing no lesson from this, the missionaries continued to destroy Pagan sites of worship, taking up the practice of building churches on top of them as a sign of victory. Scandinavians responded by raiding these churches, burning them down and killing the monks. Danes were especially famous in their vengefulness, with Danish warriors destroying churches and sinking ships that carried Christians wherever they could find them and with extreme prejudice.

Outraged by the resistance, the missionaries escalated the conflict by starting to abduct women and children from Scandinavian villages when the men were out fighting, trading or seafaring, and baptizing them against their will. This spurred Scandinavians into even greater fury, making the prayer “From the wrath of Northmen deliver us, O Lord” quite popular among Christians.

Seeing the direct approach fail, the missionaries resorted to more insidious ways, such as bribing and baptizing kings and chieftains who, in turn, baptized their subjects. Adding insult to injury, monks took up the practice of rewriting Scandinavian sagas and epics, in which they described the indigenous population as dim-witted barbarians and brutes. Local mythology also took numerous hits from these “historians”, having all creatures borne of superstition and hearsay labeled as spawns of Satan, regardless of whether they were benevolent or not.

In the end, although missionaries declared their work in Scandinavia complete, pockets of Paganism remain in Scandinavian countries even today. The only good thing that came from the bloody conflict between Scandinavian Pagans and Christians was a large amount of lore, stories and songs, some of which remain well-known and popular to this day. The most prominent of such songs is “Herr Mannelig”, which, in many ways, reflects the conflict between the religions. Composed in Sweden, it is a sad ballad about a female mountain troll who asks a Christian knight, Sir Mannelig, to marry her. The woman promises the knight a multitude of riches as dowry, among them a variety of magical items, fertile land, and horses. The knight, however, harshly rejects the troll, saying that although he would accept such gifts from anyone, he will not accept them from a troll, because she is not a Christian woman. The rejected woman leaves weeping, claiming that if the knight had accepted the sentence, she would have been freed from her life as a troll, revealing that she was actually a cursed human woman.

The ballad sheds a lot of light on the relationship between Pagans and Christians. Trolls were supernatural creatures in Scandinavian mythology, ugly and mischievous, but not necessarily evil. They rarely made contact with humans, and when they did, it was usually out of necessity. The troll woman in the ballad extends a proposal of marriage to a Christian, signifying that peace between the two religions was possible. The knight, who symbolizes Christianity in general, squanders that opportunity, turning the troll down despite the majestic gifts she promised – solely on the basis of her not being baptized. The troll being a human woman all along is most likely a reference to dehumanization of Pagans by the Christians. It is also noteworthy that in the original Swedish version of the ballad the troll woman makes her proposal of marriage in a very eloquent and poetic tone, while the knight uses very unrefined, uncouth and downright rude words in his refusal. These nuances are, unfortunately, lost in translation.

You can find the translated lyrics below, and a simple internet search will take you to numerous versions of the ballad in various languages.

Early one morning before the sun did rise
And the birds sang their sweet song
The mountain troll proposed to the fair squire
She had a false deceitful tongue

Sir Mannelig, Sir Mannelig won't you marry me
For all that I'll gladly give you
You may answer only yes or no
Will you do so or no

To you I will give the twelve great steeds
That graze in a shady grove
Never has a saddle been mounted on their backs
Nor had a bit in their mouths

To you I will give the twelve fine mills
That stand between Tillo and Terno
The mill stones are made of the reddest brass
And the wheels are silver-laden

To you I will give the gilded sword
That jingles from fifteen gold rings
And strike with it in battle as you will
On the battlefield you will conquer

To you I will give a brand new shirt
The lustrous best for to wear
It is not sewn with needle or thread
But crocheted of the whitest silk

Gifts such as these I would gladly receive
If you were a Christian woman
But I know you are the worst mountain troll
From the spawn of the Neck and the devil

The mountain troll ran out the door
She wailed and she shrieked so loudly
"Had I gotten that handsome squire
From my torment I would be free now"


By Zura Amiranashvili
Photo: ZhdaNN

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