The Acaaju of Abkhazia

In the western Caucasus, the Abkhazians call women who act as oracles, medicine women and ritual leaders acaaju, “questioner.” Their origin story says that they were preceded by male seers who became mediators between humans and gods. The first of these was the brave warrior Achi Zoschan. He chose a young relative Azartl to succeed him, but that candidate made a deal to give up the post if his sick female relative was cured. She then became the new mediator, and quickly proved her mettle during a severe cattle plague.

My reconstruction of what an acaaju might have looked like, in cross-gendered regalia.
My reconstruction of what an acaaju might have looked like, in cross-gendered regalia.

 

“The herds were saved, and since this time, the prophetesses, acaaju, have been active. They were given to living in mutual enmity, since some of them were subject to Afy, others on the contrary to Zoschan.” [One a thunder god, the other a deified hero.]

The acaaju determined which deity had caused an illness and what remedies should be used. “Sometimes she obtained ecstatic inspiration and cried out the name and the demands of the angered divinity. At other times she went lightly across the room or even sat on a high seat and acted as though she was carrying on a conversation with the divinity, to whom she directed questions and from whom she received answers. After a while, she made known the result.” The forge god might be angry over a false oath made in the smithy, a cult place. Blacksmiths worked closely with the acaaju.

In cases of false oath, she divined: “she spread out beans in front of her, and on the basis of the arrangment of these found out the name of the transgressor.” She also used astrology. Once she’d made her determination, the acaaju told people what kind of animals were to be offered. “She often carried out the sacrifice herself. Beyond that, she also performed various actions of a magical sort. Thus, for example, she led some domestic animal three times around the sick person, after which it was driven away toward the forest, supposedly carrying the sickness away with it.” People paid her in skins and meat of sacrificed animals, or in sizeable amounts of money.

The acaaju did not always lead the ceremony, but “selected other women for them, who acted on the instruction of this—as one may say with reason—authoritative medicine woman and carried out her secret lore.”

A major Abhazian deity was Dzidlan, the Water Mother or Mistress of Waters. She was especially important for women in childbirth, who offered her prayers and sacrifices after a successful birth. Some illnesses such as long fevers were ‘caused by the water’ and could be cured with the help of this goddess. Her ceremonies  were carried out at a sanctuary “usually at a pure sweet water lake or a stream.” It was common for a “blameless old woman” and a prayer woman to lead the afflicted to the waterside. The first secretly took something belonging to the sick person and went to the water. “There on the bank she drew herself up and spoke: ‘Water Mother, Mistress, if the invalid is bound by you, release him.’ Thereupon she touched the water three times with the article taken along and, using alder leaves, took a few drops of the water which she had carried home and put over the hearth. Then she ran out of the house with the words, ‘Just so, may your sickness also run away!’”

If this gave relief, then the prayer woman was invited to continue the ceremonies, with a hen, cock, filled loaf of unleavened bread and three candles. One candle went to Water Mother, one to her husband, and one to her Maidservant or Benefactress, who acts as an intercessor. The patient went to the water with the prayer woman and knelt while she successively lit the candles  and placed them on the shore, praying to the three divinities. “At the conclusion, the prayer woman rubbed her hand over the back of the patient and with this gesture she liberated him from the illness.”

Another ceremony aimed to cure a serious illness caused by the Rainbow. It too was carried out with offerings at the stream, but this time the women “threw a twisted yarn bridge from one bank to the other.” They covered the person with a piece of cotton; then “the prayer woman walked around him with a previously prepared doll in her hands and turned, with prayers, to the Water Mother and the Water Father. Little pieces of each sort of food were consecrated and thrown into the water. The doll was set into a gourd decorated with a lit candle which the prayer woman put into the river saying, ‘Instead of the patient, be satisfied with this.’ Finally, the old woman passed her hand over the back of the sick person, lifted him up, and told him to go home, however with a sharp warning not to look back.”

Johanssens notes that “the acaaju was called by a masculine name during the prophecy, and that one generally spoke to her as though she were a man.” Explained as her representing the legendary Zoschan. He adds that this was “a ritual change of sex” typical of shamanism; “her change of sex was fictive and temporary, that is to say, limited to the execution of the prophecy…”

“The social position of the acaaju was very strong, and her opinion was counted on in all public affaris, for example, even in the hearing of witnesses in criminal procedures. There were some among them who had succeeded to fame among all the Abkhazians and to whom people from distant regions came in order to get advice.” People wanted to be related to the acaaju, and sometimes sought be be adopted into her family.

The acaaju “exhibits elements, such as ecstasy, communication with supernatural beings, an exceedingly powerful social position, and last but not least, the change of sex…” which he sees as linked to shamanism.

He notes the influence of ”ancient Anatolia with its ecstatic religious practices,” as well later conquests by the Mongols who dominated the Caucasus during the 13th and 14th centuries. Doubtless there were other influences in between.

© 2012 Max Dashu

SOURCE:: Andrejs Johansons, “The Shamaness of the Abkhazians,” History of Religions. Vol. 11. No. 3 (Feb. 1972) pp 251-56
Image © copyleft Max Dashu (may be used with attribution only without alteration)