It was in the late 80’s, a few years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I lived in Moscow where I studied Archaeology.
I had a roommate from Tbilisi in Georgia (the country – which refers to itself as Kartvelia – , not the US State). Every couple weeks he would fly home and return with suitcases full of oranges, watermelon, peaches and other fruit that grew in the south and was hard to come by in Moscow. He used to trade them for cigarettes, vodka, batteries and other neccessities. I kind of envied him, coming from a small township in Central Russia, where mushrooms and cucumbers were considered the pinnacle of cuisine.
After summer break we organized a small gathering with my roommate and our friends and colleagues. As always he had brought fruit with him, most of which he had traded away but he left enough to treat us. So we had set up a table with aforementioned fruit, with cheese, bread, pelmeni, and vodka, or Armenian cognac for the ladies.
After a while he sorted through some books he had brought with him and amongst them was the journal of his great-grandfather who had recently passed away.
He used to be a priest and a scholar. After the revolution he had to go into hiding and then worked odd jobs as farmhand or factory worker. He married a girl from a well-off family with ties to the local party and they had a family.
In the beginning of the 60’s he was free to pick up his old profession again. He completed his studies of theology and became a pastor in a church in a small town somewhere in Abkhazia, which used to belong to Georgia. Besides his work he took great interest in local culture and myths about which he wrote extensively in his journal.
Apparently most of the population in Abkhazia at the time were Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians and Armenians, with the titular nation, the Abkhazians, being in the minority. Most of the people were followers of Eastern Orthodoxy or Islam, albeit officially most claimed to be atheist. A small minority of natives however followed an ancient pagan belief. Its origins was shared with many other Caucasian peoples like Circassians or Chechens, and some could even be tracked to ancient Greece. This religion is centered around seven shrines that are scattered around the Abkhazian Caucasus.
Each shrine is dedicated to one of the religions core values: honour, valour, hospitality, generosity, truthfulness, compassion, and respect for the elders, and at the same time to one of its holy elements: water, fire, plants, forests, rocks, wind, lightning, and also to one of the Narts – mythical heroes or deities – : Batraz the leader of the Narts, Sosruko the hero, Satanaya the Nart mother, Tlepsh the fire deity, Syrdon the trickster, Pkharmat the blacksmith who stole fire from the gods to give it to the mortals (notice a semblance to Prometheus here?), and Dzerasse the daughter of the sea god.
The journal described in great detail the Nart sagas and his own conjectures about their possible origins from even more ancient myths and legends of several Indo-European ethnicites.
Now, on one of his visits in a monasteries library he stumbled upon a medieval book written by an Armenian monk about Caucasian legends where an eighth shrine was mentioned but no details. This spiked the great grandfathers curiosity. He consulted some tribal pagan elders to ask them about it, and was met with severe reluctance: some acted very disturbed and ended the conversation, others feigned ignorance, a few even cast him away most aggressively, thereby violating their own oath to hospitality.
Word spread around that a priest is asking questions he shouldn’t be asking, and one day he was “invited” to the office of a high ranking member of the local Communist Party. Also present was the Patriarch, the priests supervisor. He was reprimanded for “instigating hostilities against religious and ethnic minorities, disturbing the peace and spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda” and was ordered to immediately cease his investigations and never publish or even talk about his findings under threat of imprisonment. Of course he had little other choice but to comply. Later that day, the Patriarch had a stern talk with him, but offered him to get him in contact with someone who knew about this issue but he had to take an oath to never talk about it again to anybody, not even in private, amongst other priests and colleagues, not even to his family.
This “informant” was a hermit that lived in an abandoned monastery in the mountains. He was a convert, used to be a pagan monk and later converted to Christianity. He was old, near blind, one was wondering how he could survive the harsh winter conditions, what with the water drawing and firewood fetching and the rain and wind coming through the patchy roof.
So he paid the hermit a visit. When talk came to the eight shrine, the hermit stalled and ordered the great grandfather to help him with some chores, then he would invite him to dinner and even offered him self made wine. In the end he relented and told the story:
Apparently there is an eight shrine, dedicated to evil, to the “element” of void, and to an entity the old man could not, or would not, name. Now, the purpose of the shrine is not to worship evil, but to keep it sealed.
The location is a well guarded secret which the old man told he would not even reveal under torture.
There lives a band of monks. Only the most stalwart and mentally stable may join. They have to dedicate themselves to years or even decades of psychological torment and a harsh discipline and regimen. If one shows even the slightest sign of corruption he is to be send away immediately. And even those who finish their assignment will probably be too mentally scarred to live amongst a society and have no other choice but to spend the rest of their lives in another monastery (it was hinted that this might have been what happened to the hermit and one of the reasons he converted).
Exactly three monks at a time were allowed to enter the shrine, no more, no less. Under no circumstances was it allowed to enter alone. Three times a day they had to conduct a ritual where they meditated at the shrine or it’s central object – the hermit would not specificate – for an hour.
(As a side note, the great grandfather mentioned that the word shrine was his own translation and that in the Akhazian language used by the hermit another word was used that he found difficult to translate, it could mean shrine, central object, maybe relic or idol? or something else).
No longer was permitted because too long of exposure would corrupt the souls of even the most resilient monks.
Outside a guard was posted that watched an hourglass and would ring a gong – the signal to leave the shrine.
The following story the hermit told convinced the great grandfather to abandon the issue for good and return back to his workings and his family:
There once was a monk who came from Georgia, from outside Abkhazia, which was outrageous enough, but he also was Christian. He has studied theology at an Orthodox seminary in Tbilisi. The reason how he could have ended up here was this: at one time he, in the company of an Abkhazian tribesman, encountered something disturbing, what it was was not specified, but it lead him and the tribesman to abandon everything, his studies, family, to forego all worldly possessions and desires and and dedicate the rest of his life to fight evil.
The tribesman, also a student at the seminar, knew which elders he had to talk to, and they relegated them to the monastery at the eighth shrine. On their way, their heads where covered with black cloth so they could not remember the way, only a few elders did. He convinced the shrine monks to let him join disregarding his different origin and belief, since they knew about whatever he had seen. In his own words:”All humans of all creeds must band together to fight this evil we have just witnessed, or we will perish”.
He showed great promise too. He was said to be of strong faith and great virtue and resilience.
He was always respectful and helpful to the other monks, he learned the arcana and was diligent and hardworking.
Then one day – was it careless curiosity that drove him or was he already corrupted, it is not known – he snuck into the central shrine. Nobody knows how he could get past the guards unseen. It was hours later, near the early hours, when everyone woke up from terrible nightmares simultaneously and knew something was wrong.
They found him, sitting calmly at the shrine. They dragged him away. After he was taken outside, he came to and began thrashing and kicking around and screaming profanities ad his brethren monks. He had to be held until half an hour later he had exhausted and passed out and was brought to the infirmary. When he woke up days later, he was not the same anymore. He had changed. When questioned why he had broken the rules and entered alone and exposed himself for such a long time, he was dismissive, he belittled the others for “their lack of ambition and effectiveness” and how they would never succeed in keeping evil at bay and how he alone was worthy to stand before the “shrine”. Of course he was instantly pulled off shrine duty and confined to his quarters which where then guarded, and a few days later banished. He left the monastery the same way he came – escorted and with black cloth over his head.
What became later of him was well known: He became rambunctious, got into fights, joined a gang (that would later become a communist rebel group) that engaged in protection rackets, kidnapping, robberies – they robbed post stations and banks, raided police stations and even military arsenals – and terror attacks. Although his and his gangs actions where despised by most of the other communists, he made it big after the Revolution in 1917.
His name was Joseph Bessarionovich Dzhugashvili.
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