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Genesis: Historical research

Reflection of sacred symbols in folklore and dance culture of Chechens

Iliasov Lecha Makhmudovich

ORCID: 0000-0002-8824-4303

PhD in Philology

Independent researcher

117335, Russia, Moscow, ul. Trade Union, 42, office 4

Other publications by this author










Abstract: The article is devoted to the study of sacred symbols represented in the petroglyphs of Chechnya and widely used in the material culture of the local population of the ancient and late medieval era: in the decoration of metal products, the ornament of carpets and ceramics. The author believes that sacred symbolism is reflected in spiritual culture. The circle, the cross, the spiral and other sacred symbols have been embodied in a variety of forms in oral folk art, dance culture, ritual traditions, the Nart epic, thereby defining the stylistic features of the culture of the North Caucasus. Sacred meanings are imprinted not only in the images of dancing anthropomorphic figures on the walls of residential and combat towers, but also the pattern of their movements and gestures repeats the outlines of ancient symbols, thereby testifying to the ritual nature of the origin of folk dance and many genres of oral folk art.The methodological basis of the research is a set of general historical, ethnographic and archaeological research methods, the use of which is determined by the nature of the material being studied. Thus, the internal space and structure of the phenomena of spiritual culture correspond to the forms of the main sacred symbols that existed in the culture of the peoples of the region in ancient times, thereby creating a special style of North Caucasian culture, which is characterized by inner sacredness. The reflection of mythological plots and symbols in petroglyphs and bronze plastics of the Koban culture of late Bronze and early iron testifies to the deep antiquity of folk dance and many genres of oral folk art of the population of the North Caucasus and speaks about the close intertwining of the phenomena of material and spiritual culture in that period, about the sacredness of being in its representations. Ritualism penetrates into all spheres of life (labor, funeral rite, wedding ceremony), protecting the ancient man from all bad things.


North Caucasus, Koban archaeological culture, sacred symbols, totem, medieval folk architecture, petroglyphs of architectural structures, folklore, myth, ritual of making rain, dance culture

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Scientific interest in petroglyphs of medieval buildings in Chechnya appeared in the second half of the XIX century. and it is connected with the activities of the V.F. Miller archaeological expedition, the main purpose of which was to search for traces of Christianity in the North Caucasus. A researcher discovered two stone slabs with petroglyphs on a tower in the Chechen village of Khaybakh, in the vicinity of Lake Galanchozh. One of them was an arched stone of the entrance opening, in the center of which a cross was painted, and under it an ornament ending in spirals on both sides. The other showed three crosses: a large one in the center and two smaller ones on the sides. This slab, as the scientist suggested, "was taken from a Christian monument and used as a simple stone in the construction of the tower." He also attributed the veneration of the cross in various forms, which existed among the Vainakhs at the beginning of the XVIII century, to the traces of former Christianity [1].

In Soviet times, A.A. Islamov, I.D. Magomadov, V.P. Kobychev, V.I. Markovin studied petroglyphs of architectural structures in Chechnya [2; 3; 4; 5], whose works were devoted mainly to the study of their semantics and functional purpose.

However, sacred symbols were used not only in material culture (tools, weapons, jewelry, ceramics) as decoration and ornament, but also in mythological tales, legends, fairy tales, the Nart epic as schemes that create their external outlines, testifying to their original ritual significance and cult content. The agricultural calendar, various genres of folklore, and folk dance carry encoded information about the oldest religious cults that existed in the North Caucasus during the Late Bronze Age, echoes of which have reached our time, recorded by ancient "artists" in individual petroglyphs and their compositions.

In this regard, almost all medieval petroglyphs of Chechnya have parallels in the system of symbols of the Kobani culture, among which there are a labyrinth, double spirals, solar and astral symbols of various types, including a swastika with rounded and rectangular ends, a human palm, serpentine images, figures of people and animals. Moreover, the style of deer depiction in the rock paintings in the upper reaches of the Argun River is absolutely identical to the bronze sculptures of the Kobanians, which makes it possible to attribute these petroglyphs to the I millennium BC [6]. The researchers note the presence of a developed complex worldview system among the tribes of the Koban culture, which is associated with a structured subject symbolism with a meaning understandable to the population [7, p.70].

The ancient artist chose the most capacious, universal symbols from the pictorial baggage of rock art, capable of capturing sacred information very important for the collective on the small surface of a building stone, capable of protecting the building from all evil, or a prayer addressed to pagan deities for the well-being and prosperity of the people living in it, or a cosmogonic myth of cult significance. Therefore, we find sacred symbols on the walls of the towers, which belong to the basic archetypes and retain their sacred relevance for thousands of years.

Compositions with images of magical rites were also applied to the stones of architectural structures, "since magic is limited by strict conditions of its effectiveness: accurate reproduction of the witchcraft formula, impeccable perfection of the ritual, strict observance of taboos and ceremonies of the rite" [8, pp.91-95].

In addition, it can be assumed that petroglyphs were also used to preserve and transmit important sacred or social information to community members using special symbols (code), which had ancient traditions in this geographical and cultural zone [9, pp.37-46].

The myth "About how the sun, moon and stars originated" is imprinted on a stone of a cyclopean building in the town of Kolkhad, south of the village of Veduchi [10, p.295]. The huge stone (1m x 0.7 m) depicts the symbols of the moon and the sun, next to them anthropomorphic figures, one of which is slightly smaller, apparently, is the image of a girl [11, p. 71]. In addition, the stone bears signs associated with the agricultural calendar, which indicates the practical use of the composition by ancient farmers.

The petroglyphs of Chechnya also contain other stories reflecting myths about the origin of the planets of the Solar system and constellations, calendar cycles and appeals to God with a prayer for grace. The theme of grace runs through many fairy tales, myths and tales of Chechens. The myth "About the origin of earthly grace" connects its origin with a huge white bird [12]. A reflection of this myth can be considered a composition on a stone in the village of Kharkaroy, in which a waterfowl is depicted as a creature representing the Upper, Divine World.The image of a cereal is also of interest in this composition, which here is both the personification of the plant world as part of the universe, and a symbol of heavenly grace.

The myth of the abduction of fire by the hero for people, which was very popular in the Caucasus, is widely represented in the petroglyphs of Chechnya, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. In the Chechen version, nart Pharmat stole fire from the deity of thunder and lightning Sela and gave it to people. In this feat, he is assisted by a horse that carries its owner away from the wrath of an enraged deity and helps him to get fire, but does not save him from cruel punishment. Images of a horseman next to solar symbols on the stones of medieval towers may be associated with the ancient story of the abduction of fire.

In Chechnya back in the XVIII century. They celebrated a holiday associated with an eleven-year calendar cycle, which may be an echo of the myth of the golden fleece.During the celebration, the skin of a white ram was stretched on an oak frame made in the form of a cross, and this product, which retained its sacred power for eleven years, was called "dasho ertal golden fleece" [13].

Echoes of ancient beliefs have been preserved in the works of oral folk art, including in fairy tales, the characters of which have magical abilities and use magical objects that help them defeat monsters and travel in the universe.In the village of Gamkhi, a composition has been preserved on the stone of the battle tower, in the center of which there is an object resembling an aircraft, inside of which there is a handprint, on the wings there is an oblique cross and a small anthropomorphic figure. The device is surrounded by circles and squares, inside of which groups of dots are drawn, resembling the constellations of the Zodiac.

Bronze statuettes of the Koban culture of late Bronze and Early Iron, which depict various elements of folk dance, were found in various regions of the North Caucasus, which testifies to its antiquity [14]. This is confirmed by the drawings on the stone towers, which recorded dancing anthropomorphic figures.

Various movements and figures have been preserved in Chechen dance culture, which testify to the ritual, totemic origin of folk dance and its connection with animals sacred to the peoples of the Caucasus: bear, ram, deer, which were probably totemic in ancient times. The ram in the representations of Chechens was the personification of firmness, courage and perseverance, the bear physical strength combined with human wisdom, the deer nobility and speed.

The pattern of collective and paired dances of Chechens testifies to their connection with the cult of the sun, as they have analogies in such solar symbols as a circle, a double spiral and a swastika. The solar symbolism on the belt buckles of the Kobani archaeological culture of the VI century BC is a reflection of the myth of the sun, which leaves the world of the living in the evening and plunges into the sea, and in the morning returns again and, having reached its apogee, goes back to the world of the dead. This myth is widespread in many regions of the world, including the Scandinavian peoples [15, pp.127-138]. In the petroglyphs of Chechnya, this myth is often reproduced in the plots of the "space hunt".

The dance of a man and a woman embodies the myth of the eternal pursuit of the sun by the moon, and their movements form a pattern in the form of a double spiral. A pair dance is depicted on a stone of a residential building in the village of Makazhoy, while the gender of two anthropomorphic figures is indicated using special symbols (female a triangle, male an elongated rectangle), which also sheds light on their possible semantics associated with the cult of fertility.

The magic of the circle, which is one of the most common solar symbols in petroglyphs and ornaments of the North Caucasus, is represented in the collective circular military dance "Chagaran Khelkhar", which was supposed to inspire soldiers with confidence in battle, give them the opportunity to feel cohesion and unity.

The woman had to express her emotions in the dance through the movements of her arms, head, shoulders, and the man had to be as restrained as possible and could give vent to his feelings only in the middle of the dance, which corresponded to the position of the sun at the zenith. This episode of the dance action was called by the Chechens "buh bogIar", and completing it, the dancer stood on his toes. This movement is recorded in a composition on an arched stone in the village of Oshni, which captures the rite of hunting magic. In this context, it could mean expressing gratitude to a pagan deity for good luck in hunting.

The relics of totemic views are reflected in fairy tales, in which the main characters are a bear, a wolf, a deer, a hare, a wild goat. A fairly common motif in folklore is the origin of the main character from a bear. Many superstitions of the Vainakhs are associated with this mighty beast. G.F. Chursin writes: "Parts of the bear's body claws, teeth, wool - are often used by the peoples of the Caucasus as amulets, they are nailed to the jamb of the house so that evil spirits cannot enter the house." The peoples of Dagestan hung a bear's paw in the premises where livestock were housed to increase the offspring, and also used a bear's claw to protect against the evil eye. Ossetians hung claws and teeth on the cradle to protect the baby from evil spirits and the evil eye [16, pp.203-210].

According to Chechen beliefs, if you count up to a thousand stars, you can turn into a bear [17, pp.120-121]. A bronze pendant in the form of a bear's head was discovered in a Koban burial near the village of Verkhny Kurkuzhin in Kabardino-Balkaria, which testifies to the antiquity of the veneration of the bear among the North Caucasian peoples [18, p.228].

The wolf, which was considered a beast with supernatural power, enjoyed great honor and respect among Chechens and Ingush. Chechens have a legend according to which, before the end of the world, such a strong wind will blow that the mountains will level and the earth will be smooth as a chicken egg shell. Even animals and people buried deep in the ground will be thrown out of their shelters and scattered over the smooth surface of the earth. And only a wolf, turned towards the wind, will not move from his place, although the terrible force of the earth will tear off his skin like a sheepskin coat. It is only at this moment that the wolf learns about his strength [19, p.189].

In a folk song about the origin of Chechens, it is sung: "We were born on the night when the wolf was born, we were given names under the roar of a leopard in the early morning," thereby emphasizing the relationship of Chechens with a wolf and a leopard. In the 1st millennium BC, the image of a wolf was a favorite motif in Kobani art: on belt buckles, handles of combat knives, scabbards of swords, blades of battle axes [20, p.52]. The wolf is painted on the square stone of the facade directly above the vault of the crypt near the village of Vaserkel. The petroglyph indicates that representatives of the family, which originates from the wolf, are buried in this crypt. Numerous folk superstitions are associated with the wolf, which still live among the peoples of the Caucasus. According to the beliefs of Georgians, those who wear a wolf's tooth do not have to be afraid of a pack of wolves, and if you hang it on a horse, it will start galloping much faster. Abkhazians sewed a wolf's tooth into the skin and wore it as a talisman. The Avars also used different parts of the wolf as a talisman: the wolf skin was hung in apiaries; the alchik from the wolf's leg was hung to the sheep so that it would not suffer from rheumatism. They also believed that if you carry a wolf's eye with you, it helps you stay awake and wake up quickly from sleep [16, pp.209-210].

Chechens believed in the magical properties of wolfskin, tail, veins. To catch a thief, according to beliefs, it was necessary to burn a wolf vein, after which the person who committed the theft had to wither his limbs. This ritual was publicly announced in advance in the hope that the thief himself would confess to the theft, fearing its consequences. A wolf's tail was considered a means of love spell: in order to arouse a woman's sympathy, it was necessary to touch her with a wolf's tail.

The deer is one of the most revered animals in the world, the embodiment of the sun. In Chechen mythology, the deer represented the world of the ancestors, which is confirmed by the compositions of petroglyphs in the villages of Talkali and Kharkaroy. Among the Vainakhs, it was believed that a house with a deer skull with horns nailed on the gate would never suffer misfortune it would always be filled with happiness and luck [19]. In the national ecological consciousness of Chechens and Ingush, the deer occupied a special place if the hunter did not observe a sense of proportion in hunting, he was in for a terrible punishment. Pagan deities often took the form of a deer when meeting people. The image of a deer in the petroglyph of Chechnya is the most common it is presented both in simple compositions and multi-component ones, including those where the rituals of hunting magic are depicted.

The goat was perceived by Chechens and Ingush as a sacred animal, most preferred by them for sacrifice during various religious holidays, especially those associated with funeral rites and commemorations. In many areas of the North Caucasus, a black goat was cut over the grave of a man killed by lightning, and its skin was hung on a fork-shaped pole, which, according to beliefs, should have caused rain [4, p.155]. These traditions may be associated with a petroglyph in the form of an upside-down goat on a combat tower in the village of Dere, which in this case may represent both an imitation of sacrifice and a magical rite that should contribute to precipitation.

A composition of petroglyphs depicting the rite of causing rain was discovered on the outskirts of the village of Balansu, on the southern side of the rock massif: felted boots with long tops, leather boots with toes up, a human hand with fingers curled in a spiral, stylized anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures, four kumgans and two bowls with rounded bottoms. According to legend, the drawings were made in the XVIII century. in order to cause rain during severe drought [5, pp.102-123].

If the connections of sacred symbols with ornamental and decorative elements of applied art and the cult foundations of mythology are quite clear, then the attitude of the Nart epic to petroglyphs is determined by the presence in it of compositions reflecting key events of religious and mythological content (visiting the world of the dead, the disappearance of grace, the death of the narts).

Thus, sacred symbols, which form the basis of petroglyphs of medieval architectural structures, have become widespread not only in the material culture of Chechens (tools, weapons, jewelry, ceramics) as decoration and ornament, but also in folklore, dance culture, performing the functions of structural forms that organize their internal space, and thereby giving their content a sacred character.

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Since the second half of the XVI century, a gradual process of transformation of the mono-ethnic Moscow state into a multi-ethnic Russian state begins, in which peoples living together in the vast Eurasian spaces differ in language, culture, religious affiliation and temperament. As President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin notes, "our ancestors have worked for the benefit of their common Homeland from generation to generation." Indeed, various external challenges only unite the peoples of Russia. In this regard, it is important to study various aspects of the spiritual culture of the ethnic groups inhabiting our country. These circumstances determine the relevance of the article submitted for review, the subject of which is sacred symbolism in folklore and dance culture of Chechens. The author sets out to review research on the topic of petroglyphs in Chechnya, to show the main subjects in the petroglyphs of the region, as well as to reveal the connections of sacred symbols with ornamental and decorative elements of applied art and the cult foundations of mythology. The work is based on the principles of analysis and synthesis, reliability, objectivity, the methodological basis of the research is a systematic approach, which is based on the consideration of the object as an integral complex of interrelated elements. The scientific novelty of the article lies in the very formulation of the topic: the author seeks to characterize the reflection of sacred symbols in the folklore and dance culture of the Chechens. Considering the bibliographic list of the article as a positive point, its scale and versatility should be noted: in total, the list of references includes 20 different sources and studies. From the sources used by the author, we will point to the fairy tales and myths of the Chechens, as well as to V.F. Miller's classic work on the archaeology of the Caucasus. Among the studies used, we note the works of A.A. Islamova, G.R. Smirnova, V.I. Markovin, which focus on various aspects of the study of petroglyphs of Chechen-Ingushetia. Note that the bibliography is important both from a scientific and educational point of view: after reading the text of the article, readers can turn to other materials on its topic. In general, in our opinion, the integrated use of various sources and research contributed to the solution of the tasks facing the author. The style of writing the article can be attributed to a scientific one, at the same time understandable not only for specialists, but also for a wide readership, for everyone who is interested in both the culture of the peoples of Russia in general and the culture of the Chechen people in particular. The appeal to the opponents is presented at the level of the collected information received by the author during the work on the topic of the article. The structure of the work is characterized by a certain logic and consistency, it can be distinguished by an introduction, the main part, and conclusion. At the beginning, the author defines the relevance of the topic, shows that "interest in petroglyphs of medieval buildings in Chechnya appeared in the second half of the XIX century. and is associated with the activities of the archaeological expedition of V.F. Miller, whose main purpose was to search for traces of Christianity in the North Caucasus." The author notes that "petroglyphs were also used to preserve and transmit important sacred or social information to members of the community using special symbols (code), which had ancient traditions in this geographical and cultural area." The author draws attention to the fact that the petroglyphs of Chechnya contain plots "reflecting myths about the origin of the planets of the Solar system and constellations, calendar cycles and appeals to God with a prayer for grace." It is noteworthy that, as the author notes, "if the connections of sacred symbols with ornamental and decorative elements of applied art and the cult foundations of mythology are quite clear, then the attitude of the Nart epic to petroglyphs is determined by the presence in it of compositions reflecting key events of religious and mythological content (visiting the world of the dead, the disappearance of grace, death)." The main conclusion of the article is that "sacred symbols, which form the basis of petroglyphs of medieval architectural structures, have become widespread not only in the material culture of Chechens (tools, weapons, jewelry, ceramics) as decoration and ornament, but also in folklore, dance culture, performing the functions of structural forms that organize their internal space, and thereby giving their content a sacred character." The article submitted for review is devoted to an urgent topic, will arouse readers' interest, and its materials can be used both in lecture courses on the history of Russia and in various special courses. In general, in our opinion, the article can be recommended for publication in the journal Genesis: Historical Research.