Azheghafe

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An introductory essay paper transcribed by Beabars Appesh & Zaina El-Said on the origin, history and characteristics of the Circassian goat mask, known as the Azheghafe.

Cover Design by Eyad Osman

Azheghafe

 

“Our God, great God, Grant Us a Rich Harvest like a Goat’s Beard”

“Di T-ha T-haschxua, Ghave Bev Qidet, Schemizhir Azhe ZhakIe xuedeu Ufafeu”

A Circassian Prayer

 

 

Legend held, that long ago, there lived a nation…during a time, when there was no time, when glimpse of eternity froze under everlasting skies. On mountain tops they danced and amongst the gods they feasted. Their temple was the forest, and the sound of the river flow was their creed. Amongst those people, there lived an Azheghafe.

 

Note

This work is a humble contribution to the preservation and revival of one of the most historic components of our culture; the Azheghafe. I aspire that this work becomes a steppingstone towards further exploring and honoring our ancient ethos, in order to help create a mindset of self-actualization amongst youth and generations to come. I wish to immensely thank

  • - Unereqo Raiy
  • - Ghutch’e Zamudin
  • - Tsrim Ruslan
  • - Zhemix’ue Zeur
  • - X’eliyl Bulat
  • - Qarde Marina

For their support, inspiration, and continuous assistance in assembling this work. I dedicate this work to my people, to instill pride in their roots wherever they may be.

Beabars Appesh 2020

 

 

Introduction

The Circassians, self-designated as Adighe, are the indigenous people inhabiting the mid and western part of the North Caucasus region. The Circassians are more recently known for the long struggle against Czarist Russia. However, the Circassians are the bearers of an age-old culture, which still holds the essence of various prehistoric civilizations; belonging to Paleolithic-Neolithic ages and later followed by the Maykop culture, Koban culture, the Dolmen people and then the ancient Sinds and Meots (Jaimoukha [A], 2001, p.40-41).

It is also worthy to mention that the Circassian’s are alleged to have direct lingual and cultural connections with the proto-Hattites (Jaimoukha [A], 2001, p.41). The Circassian culture has evolved through the course of thousands of years, where it can be safely stated that they compose a vital element in the ancient world, distinguished by rich oral folk, music, and legendary heroism and hospitality. One of the interesting elements that has survived in the Circassian culture is the character known as the Azheghafe.

The Azheghafe or Achaqasch literally meaning "Goat’s Guise", or "Goat Dance", is a curious character that partook amongst Circassian festivities and celebrations, regarded as an integral part of the overall culture. An Azheghafe is a person wearing a decorated goat mask known to act in an atypical manner, within the realm of festivity. On the exterior, he played a silent role of a satirist, a trickster, and an entertainer in celebrations. It is notable to add that the Azheghafe character is a common feature amongst some nations in the Caucasus region, as well as amongst various ancient cultures. Although the Azheghafe was considered as a prominent folk icon, marking a dominant part in the overall temperament of the Circassian nation, little is known or is documented about him.

Over the centuries, and because of ideological transformation among the Circassians, the nucleus of his role has been overshadowed and altered. Thus, this article/essay attempts to revive and explore the origin, temperament, and most notably the philosophy behind the Azheghafe. Since there has not been sufficient documentation on the Azheghafe, it is challenging to present concrete material per se. Hence, extracting information from oral folk, referencing to anecdotes, and improvising from personal inquiry, were the chief methods used in assembling this modest work, in order to establish a relative clear picture.

HISTORY/ORIGIN

Some knew him as a jester or a showman, others as a trickster and a shaman, amongst numerous other designations. The Azheghafe was all of those according to the historical eras he existed in. Transforming his temperament from one epoch to another, this curious controversial character was once a fundamental part of the Circassian culture and its ancient past, and a crucial element in its festivals and folk processions. Although the appearance date of this character is to a certain extent unknown, it is alleged that it evolved prior to monotheism, and its origin seems to be connected to, and evolved out of, early pagan rituals.

It is presumed that the Azheghafe developed during the agrarian era; where his role was involved in festivities associated primarily with plant life fertility, gradually shifting to be associated with planting and harvesting seasons, including celebrations connected to season shifting; from winter to spring and from summer to fall (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.59). Further assumptions that relate the Azheghafe’s antiquity is detected through evident similarities between the Azheghafe and Greek God Diyonosus or (Bachus), who was also known as “the goat”. In Athens, and in the city of Hermigon, there was a “Diyonosus cult” called ‘wearing the skin of a black goat’ (Otto [W], 1995, p.20).

The Satyrs, additionally, show similarity with the Azheghafe, leading to a recognition that this character is relatively historic and must have developed out of folk religion or pagan creed. The Azheghafe character was evidently an essential fragment of the overall culture. Despite the spiritual, social and cultural transformation, this character has somehow secured a presence throughout an extended course of history in a journey that started from the agrarian era into the medieval ages up until this very day.

Presently, the survived Azheghafe can be mostly seen in the homeland of the Circassians in the North Caucasus. Although much of the gist of his features have been reduced and shadowed, but as previously mentioned, he remains a folk requisite which accompanied the Circassian cultures throughout various timelines.

GOAT

Animal masks have been used since time immemorial in sacred and festivity processions. Austrian ethnologist Von Furer-Haimendorf explains that “The donning of the mask is believed to change a man’s identity and faculty, for the assumed appearance is held to affect the wearer’s inner nature and to assimilate it to that of the being represented by the mask (Von Fürer-Haimendorf, 1939, p.14). Why would a goat be chosen as a mask? Since the beginning of time, goats have been venerated worldwide and across various cultures. In the Fertile Crescent and amongst the Sumerians, goats were considered as holy and had tons of mythological references. The Norse also held these creatures in high position; serving as visual metaphors denoting a special relationship, where they were highly regarded in both realms: the spiritual and everyday life.

The goat is generally known for being "weird" - unlike other cattle- goats to an extent have their own mind; they are quirky, considered relatively smart, and tend to perform unexpected mischiefs. Goats, at times, even display an odd manner of strolling; they skip, climb, walk sideways, owning an independent character and enjoy a rebellious personality.

The Circassians, since the distant past, commonly enjoyed their deep bond with nature and animals. Their spiritual dogma has always been based on the idea that nature reflects the creation, the manifestation, and the living temple of God. This sacred intuitive relationship dictated viewing all species as equal and sacred. Be it a tree, rock or bird, the Circassians originally constructed an intellect which allows man to live harmoniously with nature. Such belief is based on, that the earth with all its species is borrowed and safeguarded for generations to come (Nogmow [S.B], 1866, p.113).

The goat was considered sacred amongst the Circassians and was related to fertility. Goat references are evident in expressions preserved in folklore, emphasizing the iconic character of the goat. For example, during a quarrel the following proverb is conveyed: “Uiy azhezchir f’ozmighezhizhim, t-har zghepts’aey!” (I will make you slaughter your (old) goat, I swear to God!) In some cases, the goat also acted as a sacrificial symbol, it forwent at funerals, celebrations and weddings. Another proverb that is still in use amongst the Circassians is: “Mel zixeve nex’re bzhen zixepch’e”, which means: What is the lamb broth (better than that) that the goat’s leg touches (literally: “where the goat will jump). Denoting that the goat is more valuable than a lamb. Again, although the significance of this proverb is lost, it portrays how the ancient Circassians regarded the goat as a principal sacrificial animal (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.65-66). Given these various deep-rooted instances –where the symbolic references to this animal is as old as time– it becomes clear on why such rich cultures would choose the principal of a goat disguise mask and regard it as a folk icon.

MASK/GUISE

Originally, the Azheghafe mask (MeI’ or Ne’urux’u) was habitually made from woolen felt and decorated with motifs, ornaments and symbols. Ultimately, and some of these masks had ear and lip piercings. Young girls had the responsibility of preparing and making the mask ahead of time of any celebration (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.60). The general appearance differed from mask to mask, some were plain, and others were decorated. This might have been a feature distinguishing one tribe from another. However, an interesting feature found on some of these masks was a symbol of a human placed on the forehead or the upper center part of the mask. Another feature was the sign of a crescent, full-moon and sun. Such a feature could have been remnants associated with sun and moon veneration eras, or pagan symbols related to the harvest season.

Besides the mask, the Azheghafe’s attire was not atypical. At times, a sheepskin would be wrapped around the body over plain chemise and trousers. Animal figures as well as birds hung on the Azheghafe, these figures were carved from soft wood, and some were molded from clay. This may be an association with pagan symbols and rituals (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.70-71). Particular attention should be paid to the fact that sheepskin robe and clothes were worn inside-out in the summer. This, in all likelihood, had a certain significance, it could have symbolized ideas related to fertility and agrarian rituals.

It is noteworthy to mention that wearing clothes inside-out was observed during rain supplication procession (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.71). This is also an age-old ritual associated with the Circassian ancient rain deity Hentseiguasche, in which the Azheghafe took part in. It was believed that wearing clothes inside-out helped invoke rain. The tradition of wearing clothes inside-out has survived to this day amongst some tribes of the Circassian diaspora in Jordan during prayers for rain supplication (A.I, 2019). Another attire element was a belt, from which hung small forged male organs, and where a wooden forged male organ is also held. This habit of holding an organ was observed during harvest season and is connected to fertility conceptions (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.67). It seems that the male organ was viewed as a fertility symbol considering its procreant functions.

CHARACTERSTICS /ROLE

The Azheghafe was an integral part of most fiestas. The identity of the person behind the goat mask was concealed during celebration. No one was allowed to remove the mask off of the Azheghafe’s head, as it was considered a great shame to be removed by anyone, and in fact forbidden. The person who chose to become an Azheghafe had the ability to perform a full spectacle silently. That, not only required talent, but demanded very intelligent social and melodramatic skills and knowledge as well. The Azheghafe was a “one-man” show performance, enigmatic and irrational, yet gracefully calculated. Like the animal goat, he moved in exaggeration: jumping, squatting, and dancing, yet displaying elegance and charm. There was no limit to his movement, completely free and careless - enjoying being the master of sarcasm.

The Azheghafe was by no means a buffoon; but rather, he was admired and highly respected as an exquisite performer. The Azheghafe was the sarcastic pedantic, the joyful cynic, playing the role of opposites in an enchanting performance. A sophisticated satirist who was able to convey mores through an optical theatrical parade, and all of this, without uttering a single word, and unaffectedly sustaining an indifferent stance all along.

A silent mastermind artist. The Azheghafe was proficient in theatrical performance, he exposed the ilk of existence in an entertaining manner. The roles he played were similar to watching a live impulsive theatrical show. In reality, the Azheghafe was the theatre; a sphere exhibiting multi-dimensions, interchanging between mysticism, entertainment, advocacy and sarcasm. The Azheghafe mostly prevailed during the planting and harvest processions and the gist of his temperament was related to fertility. There were two major events that shaped the agricultural procession, Vak’we Dech’, meaning the entry to plowing, and Vak’we Iyhezh, the return from plowing. During the processions, the Azheghafe preformed the death and resurrection act, impersonating the process of plant life according to their respected seasons; dying in winter and resurrecting in spring and summer. This act was a visual ritualistic drama spectacle, improvising the idea of death and resurrection, performed with great talent and mastery to conduct this particular scene.

The proficiency in onomatopoeia was an astounding feature of the Azheghafe, his ability to mimic animal sounds and temperament was not only an entertainment attribute, it was a visual channel to unveil the human relationship with fellow species, this feature was exhibited in different festivities (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.60-65). The traveler and writer Robert Chensiner who had major interest and did some research on masks across the North Caucasus people, came across E.N Studenskaya’s Masks of the Peoples of the North Caucasus prompted:

Worldwide, amongst pagan cults, the rise of god of fertility was common amongst agrarian societies. The Circassians regarded the Azheghafe as an important figure in the procession of the First Furrow. His role was going around homes in the village, preforming his ‘death and resurrection’ for a reward or ransom paid by the owner of the house…The resurrection of the ram symbolized the growth of the grain from freshly seeded once abandoned soil (Jaimoukha [A], 2001, p.197).

The ritual of taking off clothes and rolling on soil in the nude during processions, is another interesting trait to the Azheghafe. This may signify two aspects: An act bestowing benediction to furrow land, and a portrayal of the animal-human interchanging roles (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.64-66). Both may be regarded as an echo of his shamanic origin. Moreover, if we assume the validity of his affiliation with fertility and resurrection, the Azheghafe also took part in healing the ill procession known as ‘Sch’epsche’ or ‘Ch’apsch’, where he performed therapeutic acts, mostly entertainment dance, upon the belief that it will instill recovery to the injured. (Nogmow [S.B], 1866, p.58)

Benediction to children was also considered an Azheghafe peculiarity. Children celebrated the presence of an Azheghafe and he was considered as their iconic companion during festivity. The only time an Azheghafe was not present, was during funeral feasts and taking oath rituals known as T-halhe’ (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.63).

The Azheghafe thrived in a culture dictated by two major concepts; firstly the concept known as Adigaghe: the Circassian Ethics or Circassianism – the quality of being Circassian. And secondly, Xabze an unwritten set of rules and code of conduct that dictates the life of a Circassian between the year of birth and final curtain. Adigaghe and Xabze are interrelated, Adigaghe’s main tenants are honor, nobleness, good breeding and hospitality. Whereas Xabze is the social order amongst the Circassians, a complex system which dictates their lives and social behavior.

This system was introduced since as long as they existed and prevailed during feudalism amongst the Circassians (Nogmow [S.B], 1866, p.36-39). Both concepts incorporate all aspects of life, the spiritual, the domestic, the social, arts and warfare, all combined into a harmonious comprehensive philosophy which is called life. Thus, the Azheghafe is essentially an artefact of these concepts, and his role was to exult this understanding and demonstrate it with utmost spontaneity during festivity and procession. One may imagine the theatrical effort conducted by the Azheghafe, however, the virtuosity of such an effort is the brilliance of spontaneity. Which in fact, comes as a default result of recognizing and possessing the real meaning of freedom.

The fascinating aspect of the Azheghafe is the complete liberty his character enjoyed. People from the highest rank, including princes, nobles, and lords, could not escape his sardonic acts. On the contrary, the more they appreciated and endured his mockery, the more they proved to be confident to their subjects. An anecdote tells that one Azheghafe was a serf on a territory of a feudal lord, and despite the rank difference, the Azheghafe smacked his lord three times with a stick on his shoulder as a jest (Shorten [A.T], 1988, p.73).

Moreover, his freedom of expression was acceptable to go overboard at times, to the extent of displaying physical nudity. An account which occurred in the early 20th century, relates that an Azheghafe named Nuridin Keref was called upon to participate in a big celebration. Upon receiving the invitation, Keref declined, claiming that he had no proper trousers to attend. However, he was persuaded to attend without wearing any trousers, and instead, wore only a coat. During the festivity, Keref was called to join dance, but he declined to the same reason that he had no trousers. Some attendees dared him to dance without it! The Azheghafe accepted the challenge, and to their astonishment, he took it further and took off his coat and danced in the nude! (A. I, 1996). Another account relates that an influential 20th century leader attended one ceremony in one of the Circassian republics. Amid the bustle, the Azheghafe startled the leader by nudging him on the shoulder with his organ. This is a relatively “recent-past” demonstration of the Azheghafe’s fearless and flowing character, signifying that this character possessed boundless autonomy without being questioned or condemned.

Why did the Azheghafe enjoy such autonomy and esteem? Not only did he enclose relics of sacredness, but it can be also said that the Azheghafe was a symbol of wisdom and balance within the structure of life: The ability to perform freely matches the notion that the game of life is a creation of the human mind. Like a show, all glittering, and while the Azheghafe leads this show, he grasps the delusion and yet celebrates it.

Additionally, the use of the mask may denote another handle: the word ‘personality’ is a morphed word from Latin ‘persona’, which literally translates to a ‘mask’. Hence, the use of the Azheghafe mask entwined with his uncommon behavior, may perhaps be conveying a message that humans have forged a masked “personality” within the mind domain.

The Azheghafe’s objective may have simply been to expose this illusive construct of society within the festivity realm. Setting an example that all people wear a mask by assuming a certain role. His actions denote that he sees that aspect and celebrates it. Beyond the masquerade, the joke and the theatrical show, the Azheghafe is essentially an ancient philosophy. Not only representing himself, rather, the collective spirit of the Circassian race. In essence, this character is an emblem of a historic culture.

Although the Azheghafe character did survive as a folk entity, nonetheless, much of his significance has diminished. There are many factors that lead to this; the Russo-Circassian war that lasted over a century was one of the primary causes to the demolition of the Circassian identity, as well as the desolation of social and cultural infrastructure. The great exodus in the 1860’s, which led to the expulsion of more than half of the Circassian people into the Ottoman Empire, had a catastrophic outcome on the national and cultural identity. What was left of the populace in the homeland further endured challenges under czarist rule and later communist regime. As for the diaspora, it was agonizingly all about survival against severe circumstances. It is somehow a natural result to circumstances that hindered the natural evolution of any nation. There is also the religious factor which diminished much of the cultural reserve. What was once a sacred ritual conducted by the Azheghafe, turned either into an entertaining feature or was completely prohibited. Much of the prominence became adulterated with mixed dogmas.

Islam for example, had a major role in diminishing much of the Circassian culture including the Azheghafe principle, it replaced many of the deep-rooted traditions and beliefs with remote ideologies alien to the original nature of the Circassian culture. Most of what comprised as the emblem of the Azheghafe has lost meaning and significance under the label of “fallacy”. Until gradually losing his cult function, turning him into an entertainment carnival character. The Azheghafe, as a fragment of the whole Circassian cultural and folk mosaic, became diluted like many other aspects. Although his semi-survival nowadays can be viewed as an advantage considering the given circumstances–the vitality and dynamics of his role have been sadly deformed.

The Azheghafe is not an entertainer for the sake of entertainment, he is the echo of an age-old civilization, and a philosophy embodying profound notions, primarily: Freedom, rebirth and spontaneity. Attempting to revive the principle of the Azheghafe is not necessarily a call to recreate a society similar to the one where the Azheghafe thrived in, but a call to recognize that there once was a culture that evolved around and stemmed from understanding what freedom is, unadulterated by religious and materialistic concepts. It is also a call to recognize that an Azheghafe may reside in each and every one of us - and his story will continue.

 

APPENDIX

The Azheghafe character is a symbolic component which can sustain multiple analysis. The liberal nature of his attributes gives an opportunity to further investigate different angles and reveal possible hidden facets which can allow extended research on the subject matter. Given the different descriptions and roles the Azheghafe employed, provides rise not only to interesting inquiries to his character, but rather to the environment in which he thrived in. Through reflecting on his temperament and environment, there are several facets into which I would like to offer a modest insight.

  • Was the exception the norm?

The Circassian culture is known for its intricate social system coupled with a warrior/highlander way of life. Clearly, the Azheghafe was the exception within the rule, the boundlessness of his character exhibits that he was celebrated within a multi-dimensional society, where acceptance and openness were the norm and part of the overall culture’s temperament.

  • Were unrestricted actions towards all ranks of society an accepted quality amongst Circassians?

The tolerance regarded by all sects of the society, including high-ranked individuals, towards the Azheghafe limitless playful acts, is a sign pointing to a progressive civilization where accepting the peculiar was genuine. A profound quality indicating a well-developed social tolerance that existed in ancient times.

Was nudity accepted amongst the ancient Circassians?

The issue of physical nudity is not discussed here as an erotic component, rather it is an attempt to explore the nature it was viewed as. A pointer recognizing the original form of human nature, this, in itself, is a profound notion, mainly because it displays a social attitude that existed prior to the rise of any taboo system. It seems that the Azheghafe acted as an aide-mémoire within the realm of society, to unveil the human natural state and its relation to the surrounding environment. The image of a human on some of the mask’s forehead may as well be relative to the context of physical nudity; where a raw visual representation of the primal form of human stood as a chief symbol on the mask. Hence, it is reasonable to suggest that nudity was accepted in some other aspects as well.

  • Was body piercings accepted amongst the ancient Circassians?

The mask is a manifestation of the psyche and belief system of the people. The Azheghafe mask displayed several interesting symbols that are worth exploring. The lip and ear piercings further endorse the idea of freedom of expression, this also could have included other facets of appearance acceptance such as fashion statements, amongst the Circassians.

Freedom

At the very core of the Azheghafe lays the true meaning of liberty; he may have remained as an echo of the ultimate freedom and a bygone era, prior to the formation of social laws. The talent in breaking rules is not referred here as an image of anarchy, rather, it points to the simple recognition of the glory of instinctual spontaneity, which I think, lends the ability to view ourselves and the world with a neutral eye, devoid of duality, judgment and prejudice, and in that resides true freedom. Recognizing this aspect shows the atavistic nature of intellectual evolution, to identify a culture that was based on acceptance devoid of proscriptions. A culture that was borderless in thought. The Azheghafe acted as a channel to transfer the concept of acceptance into reality and make it part of the culture’s gist. He was authenticity the symbol for all exceptions.

B.Appesh

 

Works Cited

  • Nogmow, Sh. B., Istoriya adigeiskogo naroda (History of the Adigey People), Tiblisi: Kavkaskey kalender, 1861; republished: Nalchik 1947.
  • Jaimouka, A., The Circassians – A Handbook, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001; England.
  • Shortenov, A. T., Adigskiy Kulti (Adigey Cults) Nalchik: Elbruz Press, 1988; KBR.
  • Von Fürer-Haimendorf, C., The Naked Nagas, London: Methuen & co. ltd., 1939; England.
  • Otto, W. F., Dionysus: Myth & Cult, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995; U.S.A.
  • Audio Interview accessed April 20, 2020; Nalchik; KBR.
  • Audio Interview ‘Nart Shoumen’ 2018; Amman; Jordan.


Submitted: July 16, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Zaina El-Said. All rights reserved.

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