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Strange Air Battle in the Caucasus June 20, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

flying tree

In volume 7 of the Seyahatname the Turkish traveler Evliya Celebi describes his travels in Austria, the Crimea and the Caucasus in 1664. 28 April of that year he had a remarkable experience in Circassia. As there is no English translation of EC we have to rely here on Carlo Ginzburg’s paraphrase of a translation by Peter Brown.

[EC] left his encampment with eighty people. Suddenly, he had seen the sorcerers of the Abkhaz appear: they crossed the sky astride uprooted trees, terracotta vases, axes, mats, cart wheels, oven shovels and so on. From the opposite side, hundreds of Circassian sorcerers had immediately risen in flight, with disheveled hair and gnashing teeth, emitting fiery rays from their eyes, nose ears and mouth. They rode on fishing boats, horse or oxen; they brandished serpents, dragons, the heads of bears, horses and camels.

So who would you support, the Abkhaz or the Circassians, the tree fliers or the fishing boaters? The correct answer is, of course, the Circassians who were protecting their homes from the evil of Abkhaz.

The battle had lasted six hours. At a certain stage pieces of their mounts had begun to rain down from the sky, frightening the horses. Seven Circassians and seven Abkhaz witches had plunged to the ground, fighting and trying to suck each other’s blood. The village’s inhabitants had come to the aid of their champions, setting fire to their opponents. At cock crow the contenders had dissolved becoming invisible. The ground was strewn with corpses, objects and the carcasses of animals.

Ginzburg tries to fit this account into his pattern of witch fighting from the Alps to northern Asia: he might be right. But not the least interesting thing is the eye-witnesses claim.

In the past Evliya had not believed such stories. Now he was obliged to change his mind: the battle had really taken place, as the thousands of soldiers who had witnessed the scene could confirm. The Circassians swore that they had seen nothing of the kind for forty or fifty years. Usually the combatants were five or ten in number: after engaging each on the ground, they took flight.

There are other parts of EC’s work where the great Turkish traveller mixed fact and fantasy, this is presumably the explanation here. But it is very likely that he is recording folk-lore beliefs, in a ‘vivid’ style. As to the origin of those beliefs perhaps a mighty storm: uprooting trees and killing animals… drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


21 June 2013: Cory writes in: Strange beliefs about the Circassians persisted at least into the 20th century.  My husband has posted at his webiste an account he drew from his own father’s memoirs, compressed and retold in more dramatic form but not altered in any of the details.  My father-in-law was born in Voronezh, Russia in 1901, so this description goes back about a century:  But what my father enjoyed most at Mihailovka were the nights he spent riding guard around the boundary of the estate with Ahmed. Ahmed was a Moslem — a Cherkess from a village in the northern part of the Caucasus.  He was a tall wiry catlike man who’d spent a life in the saddle.  He wore a karakul cap on his head and a silver-ornamented dagger in his belt.  Across the breast of his tunic there were loops for rifle shells, and he carried a short-handled whip called a nagaika. Local people looked on him with suspicion.  He was an infidel, a dangerous and unpredictable man.  Some thought that he had supernatural powers and could cast evil spells.  There was even talk that he’d been seen in the act of changing into the form of some strange wild beast. Old peasant women would cross themselves when they laid eyes on Ahmed and hurry away.  But there were also said to be girls in the adjacent villages with babies that didn’t look Russian. The Count meanwhile writes: That’s an interesting and little-known sorcerous skirmish you’ve just documented. However, skipping backward exactly a century, we find that slightly less colorful and more abstract but otherwise quite similar stories of equal or greater veracity were circulating in Europe. Here are the two best-known examples: Nuremberg and Basel. There seems to have been something in the air, so to speak! Thanks Cory and Count!