THERE WAS A TIME WHEN TREES SPOKE...
Around sacred trees indigenous Circassians gathered on specific occasions, and performed numerous sacraments, coupled with prayers T-helhe’, chanting, animal sacrifice Tih, musical ceremonies, toasting X’uex’u and dancing according to the rightful event. Trees acted as shrines parallel to temples, and as mentioned previously, the native Circassians believed that prayers and holy events must be conducted in nature where no human trace of building or human planting or agriculture was found (Leryschle, habza.info). Many of those trees were adorned with pieces of fabric and steel, attached by people who wish to have their requests fulfilled.
One of the most significant rituals, which also confirms the profound connection the native Circassians had with trees, is the ritual of burying the dead in forests. This ritual seemed to have fortified the relationship between the Circassians and trees, as they were viewed as an extension of their ancestors and departed family members. Testimonies of travelers to the Circassian territory such German Johann Schiltberger, Frenchman Ferran and the Turkish Evliya Chelebi, have all indicated that, the Circassians buried the dead in wooden coffins, which they hung on tall trees for a period of time before transferring the corpse into the ground, and further planting a tree over the mound. It was believed that this ritual established a connection between the souls of the deceased with the trees. An ancestor laying under a shade of a sacred tree became a ‘holy being’. The living would seek and pray to their sanctified spirit to heal ailments and grant protection, thus the relationship with trees was evidently further fortified due to an ancestral link reverence. Up until the recent past, many graves in cemeteries were covered with fruit trees, a probable remaining ancient habit, which was conducted upon the belief that when the soul departs the body it roams in agony until it picks the fruit from the tree, then, the soul would become at ease and thank the one who planted the tree. The following prayer was conducted when planting a fruit tree upon burial: “O God, May the one who planted this tree gain many virtues”. Furthermore, the ancient custom of planting trees and bushes on grave mound goes back to the belief that the soul rises from the grave similar to a green plant, and that the soul passes through a living tree and transitions into a plant or a tree (Shorten, A. 1988, p.54-55).
“O God, May the one who planted this tree gain many virtues.”
Infertile women were taken to those sacred trees upon the belief they bestowed fertility, and when a woman is about to deliver a child, she is also taken to a sacred tree since it helped facilitate the birth process (Mizhaev, M. Pashti, M. 2012, p.25/26).
A new born was welcomed into the world by planting a tree for him/her in their honor by their family. An apple tree was planted for a male child and a pear tree was planted for a female new born (Xuzheva, L.K. 2016, p.21). Midwives and healers known as ’Aza, used to seek the sacred trees to perform healing rituals for the ill (Mizhaev, M. Pashti, M. 2012, p.116).
It is also been said that parents of a newly born child used to go to the forest and select a tree to make a cradle for the new born, and because they believed that each tree had a specific character, they would select a tree according to the traits they wish their child to develop.
Harvest processions were preceded by rituals conducted in sacred groves. One of the most important harvest rituals was T-heschxweguhezh (lit. union with god or return to the heart of god), this ritual was conducted on the first Thursday after the autumnal equinox, and it is associated with the end of harvest. A ‘T’ symbol rod was erected during the ceremony, where food is brought and animal sacrifices were performed. Prayers Thelhe’ and chants were conducted, and the ceremony ends with an ancient group round dance known as Theschxue Wdzh (Dance of supreme God), where men and women hold hands to form a circle and move in spherical motion, chanting to compliment the ceremony (habbza.info).
Meetings of the elderly council Xasa, pledges and oaths, conflict resolution and Circassian New Year celebrated on March 22nd were customarily conducted around sacred trees (Circassian voices, 2014). Fire torches were lit around the trees and animal sacrifice of lambs, goats and bulls were offered during different occasion (Shorten, A. 1988, p.43).
A person who committed misconduct and took refuge under the sacred tree cannot be harmed, it was strictly forbidden to detriment anyone who took asylum under a tree shade. The offender who reaches the sacred tree, and manages to wrap one of the fabrics hung on the tree around their neck, becomes immune and saved by the sanctified tree (Shorten, A, 1988, p. 46).
According to the Ubykhs, only those who planted at least 50 trees could expect to gain honor peace after death. Contemporary Circassian artist Ruslan Mazlo recalls that in his village, Altud, in the early 2000’s, the villagers would gather and go up a hill singing, and once they reached a certain spot they would cook food and continue to celebrate (Int. 2020).
A special ceremony was made for the departed warriors, where they would collect their daggers, sabers, belts and clothing and these items were carried off and hung on trees. Over time, these forests were once filled with all kinds of weapons and clothing’s, and no one dared to take any of them, it was considered a great shame to do such (Shorten, A. 1988, p.53).
One of the curious aspects of ancient Circassians is the engraving of the letter ‘T’ T-hepsch in sacred groves. This antique symbol has lost its true meaning in time, and has no concrete translation or reference. Hypothesis can lend a relative explanation, which concludes that the ancient ‘T’ is a symbol but not an object of worship, and that upper horizontal line symbolizes the high divine level, which is everywhere and above everything, and the vertical line symbolizes the world (habza.info). The letter ‘T’ was mostly found engraved on specific trees where ceremonies where conducted.
European and other travelers to the Circassian territories have documented the witnessing of this symbol. The ‘T’ was described as an unusual cross that was dissimilar and much more ancient than the Christian crosses. Jean-Babtiste Tavernier described some of the religious rites amongst the Circassians in the 17th century and stated that the T symbol is similar to a ‘hammer shaped cross’, he also added that “once a year a hammer shaped cross is made in every house” (Tavernier J.-B. 78). 19th century traveler George Longworth, author of ‘A Year among the Circassians’ described that the T symbol was installed during sacred grove rituals.
The ancient ‘T’ is a symbol but not an object of worship, and that upper horizontal line symbolizes the high divine level, which is everywhere and above everything, and the vertical line symbolizes the world.
The Italian catholic monk Minai Medici noted “…in different places near trees, wooden poles are erected that are similar to rustic wands, which are called Tapshi. It is impossible that any passer would not stop and recite a prayer when passing by a Tapshi”. Medici also related that prayer for success and accomplishments was highly essential amongst the Circassians, and the following prayer was documented “If you do not give us our happiness, no man can give us happiness.” (AM Melikset-Bekov, 1950, p. 163-175)
English traveler Edmund Spencer wrote in his book ‘Travels to Circassia’ in 1839: “I saw an emblem as I passed their (the Circassians) sacred groves in Adler Valley, it was more like a T than a cross; it was said it was extremely ancient” (Spencer, E. 1837 p. 109).
In the 1840’s Leonty Lulier noted: "The only symbol of the object of their worship is a wooden cross of a special shape, in the form of the letter T, leaning against a tree.” (Lyulie L. Ya. p. 122).
It worthy to mention that there was a tree, which stood in the center of the city of Damascus in Syria, known as the Large Plane Tree. This tree is said to have been planted by the Circassian Mamluks, during their rule to the area. And this tree is engraved with the same T symbol. It is reasonable to assume that this tree and engraved symbol, is perhaps a remnant of the ancient belief inherited by the Circassian Mumluks and passed on to them.
Deeb Qat, a Circassian from Syria relates that in 1954 in southern Syria, between the Circassian inhabited villages of Breqa and Jweize, there was a big Hawthorne tree known as Hemschk’unt’e. That tree had a beautiful smell, and people used to sit under it and rest. The passers used to also hang pieces of colorful cloth on it. Although, the spiritual significance may have been lost, but it seems that the Circassian immigrants carried in their memory the significance of the oak tree, but lost the true meaning and relation to it (Int. 2020).
Zaina’s collage art focuses on assembling many worlds into one, usually led by a protagonist; she focuses on mixing world cultures, architecture, motifs, archaeology, arts and nature into a single portrait.
Tree veneration is the essence of the Circassian way of life and Circassiansm, and it was the turning point which transformed the primitive human, into one with understanding and appreciation towards nature and his relation to it.
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