The Man Who Used to Swear by the Prince of the Dead: Structural analysis of an Abkhaz folk-tale
As a certain person was proceeding along the road, he came across someone else. Half of the person he met was silver, his other half was gold. The one who was half-silver, half-gold (зыбжa рaӡныз зыбжa хьыз [zәbӡә radznәz zәbӡә xyәz]) spoke up and said: “You are not to be afraid of me!”
“Why should I be scared of you?” said the other.
“By what do you swear?” asked the one whose half was silver and whose other half was gold.
“I swear by the Prince of the Dead (Аҧсцәаҳа [aphstshwaha]),” said the other.
“Why?” asked the one who is half-silver.
“Because God created me and set me upon the earth, but the Prince of the Dead is the one in whose hands my soul lies; when he desires it, he’ll carry me off. That’s why I swear by the Prince of the Dead,” said the other.
“If that’s so, just plant your walking-stick here,” said the one who was half-silver. The other one stuck his stick in the ground.
“When the shadow of this stick of yours reaches this far tomorrow, come here, and I too shall come,” said the one who was half-silver.
The next day both of them came to the spot. “Wherever you see me, you’ll recognize me without mistaking me for another, won’t you?” asked the one who was half-silver.
“Of course I’m going to recognize you; even if you’re in amongst a lot of others, I won’t mistake you,” said the other.
“Here, take this!” he said and handed him a mirror, it too half-silver, half-gold. “Put this in your armpit and keep it there; shew it to no-one. I go wherever there is a sick person, but apart from you no-one will see me—you too make it your habit to go there. When I arrive, if I’m taking my seat towards the sick person’s feet, that person is not going to die; if I’m taking my seat towards his head, he is going to die. You give yourself the title of ‘Healer of the Sick.’ Tell those by whose feet I’m taking my seat—after all, such a one is not going to die—that you’ll heal him; at the place of one towards whose head I’m taking my seat tell them that you can do nothing for this illness; in that way you’ll make a good profit. I am the Prince of the Dead by whom you swear. You are to last 100 years!” he said and left.
This chap, as the prince of the dead told him, would pay a visit every time that someone was ill. Whenever he looked in his mirror, he could see where the Prince of the Dead was taking his seat. If he sat down by the sick person’s feet, he would start pretending to make some medicines for him, saying: “I’ll cure this one”; and of course, he wouldn’t die; when anyone got better, he would take quite a lot from them. In that way he became very rich.
Continuing in that way, he fell ill when he became 100. When he fell ill, the Prince of the Dead came and promptly sat down at his head. The ill man promptly lifted up his pillow, turned round the other way and lay down pointing his feet in the direction of the Prince of the Dead.
“What are you doing?—I sat down at your head, and you pointed your feet in my direction!” said the Prince of the Dead.
“The reason why I’m doing this, Prince of the dead, in all honesty, is that I don’t want to die yet; I beseech you—give me a further 100 years! I’m a poor thing, after all aren’t I?!” said the sick person.
“Fine, have a further 100 years, since you have been swearing by me. But when your age is 200, you’re to become such as no man has ever seen!” was the curse he laid upon him. What he meant was: “When he becomes 200 years old, let him become a frog!”
And thus did it happen with him. When he became 200, he turned into a frog and with floppy step moved over the land (Hewitt, 2005: 142-150).
For this project, I have attempted to do a structural analysis of a folktale, based on the principles presented by Claude Levi-Strauss. I have chosen this Abkhazian folktale for two reasons: first, because it originated in the Caucasus, which is the geographical focus of my dissertation; second, because it is a highly unusual story and contains a number of elements (mirrors, chthonic beings) which interest me.
As Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jacobson have suggested, binary oppositions are a central feature of language, and are perhaps even fundamental to the human thought process (A. Berger, 1999: 41). The most striking feature of this story is its use of binary oppositions, which I have listed and placed in two columns, as follows:
point A point B [the road]
“a certain person” “someone else”
“half of the person” “his other half” [dividing line]
“half silver” “half gold” [dividing line]
(left half) (right half) [dividing line]
“God” “the Prince of the Dead”
“set me upon the earth” (birth) “he’ll carry me off” (death)
top of walking-stick (above earth) bottom of walking-stick (below the earth)
sunlight shadow [the walking stick]
“this stick” “shadow of this stick”
“come here” “I too shall come” [the walking-stick]
(first day) “the next day” [night]
(objects) (reflections) [mirror]
(silver half of mirror) (gold half of mirror) [dividing line]
(silver/gold man) (silver/gold mirror)
armpit (darkness) out of armpit (light)
(what others see) (what appears in the mirror)
(see) (not see)
(lying down) (sitting)
“towards the sick person’s feet” “towards his head”
“going to die” “not going to die”
(pronouncing the case hopeless) “pretending to make some medicines”
“100 years” “a further 100 years” [illness, return of the = “200 years” Prince of the Dead]
reward curse [act of trickery]
mortal life eternal life as a frog [100-year extension]
(what is commonly seen) “such as no man has ever seen”
death transformation into a frog
In those cases where a “mediating third” can be identified, I have entered that in a third column. These include some striking parallels: the mirror mediates between objects and their reflections, while at the same time objects mediate between their visible appearance and their shadows. The whole story is replete with these bipartite, mirror-image structures—even the 200 years are divided into two periods of 100 years by the return of the Prince of the Dead.
Now a few other observations: notice how all the action of this story takes place in liminal zones (the road, the sickroom). Also, notice that the story does not specify how the “half silver” and “half gold” are distributed. Based on such details as the planting of the walking-stick in the ground and the profound contrast drawn between the head and the feet of the sick person, it would be logical to assume that the man was divided in half at the waist. However, Abkhaz people always go about fully clad (high boots, leggings, long coats), so no part of the body below the waist would normally be visible. For this reason, we must assume that the man is divided into two halves laterally. This creates a new binary opposition between left and right. From the context it is not possible to determine whether the silver half is on the left and the gold half on the right, or vice versa. However, silver is always mentioned first, followed by gold—and three times the stranger is described in an abbreviated form as “the one who was half silver” (зыбжa рaӡныз [zәbӡә radznәz]) It is tempting to associate the two precious metals with the Moon and Sun, respectively. If this is done, we may surmise the reason: traditional Abkhaz culture was matriarchal; women went to war alongside men, and the Moon was esteemed as a female entity. In fact, the “Amazons” of Greek legend very likely take their name from the Northwest Caucasian root –MZ-, meaning “Moon” (vocalized in Abkhaz as amza) (this is an original observation, but it has also been noted by John Colorusso, 2002). I do not know, however, what significance right and left hold for the Abkhaz, or how silver and gold would be associated with them.
The man’s stratagem of re-orienting himself with respect to the head and foot of the bed is clearly related to the motifs of mirror-images, and left and right.
Who is this mysterious person, this “someone else”? The Prince of the Dead is presented as a counterpart to God, and he is clearly a chthonic being—the dead are buried in the ground, and the walking-stick is also planted in the ground. Moreover, he is strongly associated with precious metals (silver and gold), and is able to confer wealth on those who honor him. The mirror, too, is half silver, half gold (presumably its left and right halves, like the Prince of the Dead), and so it may be said to represent him in microcosm. He is associated with darkness and the unseen (the shadow, the armpit, “no one will see me”), as well as with sickness and death.
Notice how the Prince of the Dead specifies the time of their second meeting: “when the shadow of this stick of yours reaches this far tomorrow.” The comings and goings of this mysterious being are synchronized with the motions of the heavens. Because of the daily advance of the Sun along the ecliptic and seasonal shift of the ecliptic in relation to the earth’s axis, the return of a shadow to its position of the previous day will occur somewhat earlier or later; in the Caucasus, this shift for one day varies between 9.15 seconds around the summer solstice to 30.04 seconds around the winter solstice. This corresponds to an idea which is pervasive in astrology—that spirits associated with specific subdivisions of the ecliptic circle (especially those associated with the decanates [10º segments of the ecliptic]) will manifest themselves only at specific times, which are astrologically determined.
It is only on their second meeting that the Prince of the Dead makes his dramatic self-disclosure, and in the same moment rewards his devotee with 100 years of life.
Mirrors are associated with the spirit-world in many cultures, including our own (it was formerly customary, when someone died in a house, to cover the mirrors; and then there is the story of how, shortly after his death in 1969, Brian Jones appeared to Marianne Faithfull in a mirror).
In this story, the left-right division of the mirror into gold and silver halves is suggestive of two mirrors; such an arrangement will result in a divided image.
This mirror is especially interesting in that it has two contrasting halves, and because it must be kept in darkness. The Zohar makes several references to “the mirror that does not reflect” (cf. Bereshis A 2:17, “the fourth is the chamber of prophecy of the shining mirror (aspaqlarya de-nahara); the fifth is the chamber of prophecy of the opaque mirror (aspaqlarya de-la nahara)”; Pekudei 26:4, “We learned that the mirror which does not shine showed him within it all the wheels and shapes made below, like a mirror reflecting within itself every image”; Pinchas 44:31, “this is the mirror that does not shine, being made up of 365 lights, corresponding to the numerical value of yeshenah [sleep]”) (Kabbalah Centre International, Inc., 2004). In western occultism, “black mirrors” are commonly used for scrying (C. Puzuzu, 2005), and the practice has attained some degree of respectability through the work of Dr. Raymond Moody, whose “psychomanteum” (a darkened chamber containing a mirror) is used as a therapeutic device by bereaved persons to contact the dead (Paranormal Insider, 2008). While there is little likelihood of direct influence one way or the other, it seems probable that the Jewish and western European use of the dark mirror and that described in this Abkhaz folktale are comparable manifestations of some very ancient beliefs and practices.
There may be some parallel between this half-silver, half-gold mirror and the illustrations found on pages of Saet’lo Xiromant’ia (discussed in my larger paper), where figures representing Venus and Saturn are portrayed on facing pages, each holding a mirror in the left hand—an arrangement suggestive of the shining and opaque mirrors just mentioned, especially in light of the planetary associations involved.
There is quite a bit of evidence connecting the Northwest Caucasian peoples to the Neolithic remains discovered at Çatalhöyük (ca.7500 B.C.), including obsidian mirrors (ApilSin 2003). If this association is valid, it demonstrates the great importance these people attached to mirrors, even at a very early date. It will be remembered, too, that Dr. John Dee received many of his angelic visitations through the agency of an obsidian scrying-mirror.
The association of the Prince of the Dead with the sickbed may also have its origin in the Çatalhöyük culture, since “they buried their dead under the beds. The remains of women and children interred under the woman's bed and the remains of men under the man's” (ApilSin 2003:¶11).
Thus, the Prince of the Dead ((Аҧсцәаҳа) remains a complex and puzzling entity—a being who comes through the looking-glass, who slips in between the moments traced by the sundial, or comes up from under the bed.
The strange conclusion of the story may reflect a folk-belief among the Northwest Caucasians that frogs were actually aged men. Thus, it appears that the power of the Prince of the Dead was limited—he could confer years of life, but only at the price of becoming “such as no man has ever seen.” It is hard to say whether it would be better to pay the debt of nature or to live on as a frog!
This part of the story may be an allusion to the fabled longevity of people in the Caucasus. The phrase “such as no man has ever seen” may be seen as a mediating third in relation to several similar expressions which appear earlier in the story: “wherever you see me”; “apart from you no-one will see me.” Indeed, a very common Abkhaz greeting is “good to see you” (Бзиара убааит [bzyara wbaayt]).
Much more could be said, no doubt. The folklore of the North Caucasus is of great interest to Historical Anthropology because although the Abkhaz and related peoples have lived in proximity to the Kartvelian and Indo-European peoples for many millennia, they are completely different in origin, and their culture is built upon an entirely different foundation.
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