Svans are an ethnic group that live in Svaneti, a 4,200-square-kilometer area that embraces the two river valleys in the highest part of the Caucasus along the Russian border. They speak Georgian and consider themselves Georgian. There are round 35,000 Svans. Most live in Svaneti, which is surrounded by the highest mountains in the Caucasus and in Europe. This area has traditionally been very remote and hard to get to and until recently with improved roads, was effectively cut off from Georgia during the long winter. Some Svans also live in Abkhazian Autonomous Republic. Few non-Svans live in Svaneti.
Svans are classified as a Northwest Caucasian ethnic group. Their language is a member of the Kartvelian Language Group along with Georgian, Mingrelian and Laz. Most Svans speak Georgian and the number of Svan speakers is decreasing. The Svan have no written language. It has traditionally been written in Georgian.
The Svans have a long history. The Greek geographer Strabo described them in the 1st century B.C. as a fierce, warlike, mountain people, ruled by a king and a council of 300 elders, capable of fielding an army of 200,000 (Strabo was known for his exaggerations).
Svaneti has generally been regarded as under the political and cultural sphere or Georgia. The Svans converted to Georgian Orthodox Christianity. Direct control was often in hand of Svan feudal leaders. When the Georgian Empire fractured, Svan fell under the control of smaller kingdoms.
Because its remote location Svaneti was largely spared the destruction caused by the waves of horsemen invasions and battles between Ottoman Turks and Persians. For this reason some of the finest Georgian churches, icons and works of art are found in Svaneti. The Svans also protected them from themselves. The punishment for the theft of a piece of art was death.
The Svans also have a history of fighting with, raiding and being raided by other Caucasus groups such as the Ossetians. These groups have also traded extensively and provided labor for one another. The main impact of Soviet rule was bringing schools, health care, electricity and roads to Svaneti and reducing the Svan’s isolation.
Svaneti has a reputation for being a refuge for gangsters even today. Some towns still have watchtowers which were used to guard against invaders.
Svan religion combines Georgian Orthodox Christianity with traditional folk beliefs. Important deities and saints include Saint George, Saint Barbara, Dael, the goddess of the hut, and Saint Mary. The Svan calendar contains a number of feast days and other day in which fasting and other kinds of rituals are observed. The gods have traditionally been honored with animal sacrifices and offerings of bread and homemade vodka.
The dead were believed to have the ability to foresee the future and the dying were asked a lot of questions. After death occurred family members would break out into loud wailing and keening. The mourning period sometimes lasted three years. During that time people wore red, the color of mourning, and men shaved their heads and faces and let their hair and beards grow until the mourning period was over. If a person died away from home it was thought their soul remained at the place of death. A soul returner was summoned to bring the soul back.
Svan Life and Customs
Most Svans have traditionally lived in tightly clustered mountain villages. Their traditional houses in rual areas was a fortress-like three story structure with an a adjoining defense tower. In the old days houses were divided into four areas: with one area for men, one for guests, and two for women and children. Menstruating women and women expecting to give birth had to reside outside the home in special huts.
The Svan traditionally subsisted on winter wheat, rye, barley and oats and cheese and meat from sheep, goats and cows and hunted ibex and bears. They traditionally produced most tools and furniture they needed for themselves.
Svan society has traditionally been patriarchal, with the most important kinship group being the root clan, whose members lived together in a community and shared work responsibilities Each clan has is own shrine, burial ground and feast days. Marriages tended to between root clan members.
Arranged marriages were common and sometimes occurred even before the children were born: two pregnant mother would make a pact that if they gave to children of opposite sexes they would be married. These days love marriages are becoming increasingly more common.The Svan also practiced a form of adoption in which a man sprinkled salt on a woman’s breast then touched his teeth to her nipple three times and said, “You are the mother, I the son.”
In the old days blood feuds were common. They began when a member of a clan was killed or seriously hurt—even accidently—or in some way was humiliated by a member of an another clan. Any male member of the clan could seek revenge, upon any adult male in the offending clan. Blood prices to end such feuds were often very high, in the case of murder, six parcels of land and 36 bulls.
Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2016