Georgia debates its ancient ritual of animal sacrifice

Covered in mud and sweat, Vazha climbs up a slippery path. Tough, his face flushed with tension, he struggles to keep up with the other pilgrims as they make their way to the hilltop shrine of Lomisi, an eagle’s nest carved into the rock where Christian and pagan traditions meet.

It’s Lomisoba’s annual festival and Vazha, like other pilgrims, has something to ask St. George of Lomisi once he reaches the top. He will put a heavy steel chain around his neck, make three circles inside the ninth-century church, and ask for a child, preferably a boy. When he comes back down from the mountain, he will seal the deal by sacrificing a ram to St. George, one of dozens of animals that will be slaughtered in the event.

“I know it’s very selfish to ask for something for your family only, when people are dying in Ukraine,” he said, emptying a bottle of water and throwing it on the ground. “I really should ask for peace, but hey…”

Behind and in front of him are endless lines of pilgrims – mostly Georgian highlanders belonging to groups like the Tush, Khevsurs and Pshavs. They meander along the path, marching almost in rhythm, as if to the sound of an imaginary gong. It’s a Sisyphean climb through mud and intermittent drizzle, with the snow-capped peaks of the Caucasus frowning from above.

With locks of black hair protruding from under their headscarves, two women in their twenties brought panduris, the traditional three-stringed instrument, to the festival and played them before beginning their climb. What were they going to ask Saint-Georges? “Husbands! they replied, and burst out laughing. They are far behind, coats tied around their waists, stopping frequently to lean on their knees. Their aging father can no longer bear such rigors, so he stayed in the valley with the lamb he brought to the sacrifice.

As he reached the final and most difficult stretch, Vazha slipped in the mud and stumbled forward. He landed on his stomach and slid a little, sending a barrage of stones jumping angrily down the rocky slope behind. “Watch where you step, man,” said his nervous, stern-faced wife, nimblely catching up with him without any particular show of concern.

“God, help us,” Vazha said as he stood up, panting and looking up with his hand cupped over his eyes. The church didn’t seem to be getting closer.

bloody sacrifice

Lomisoba, which has its roots in Georgia’s ancient and pre-Christian history, has become a subject of controversy in recent years due to the mass animal sacrifices attached to it.

The sacrifice begins after the devotees have descended back into the valley. Herds of cattle are loaded onto the back of freight trucks and transported up a hill at the foot of the Lomisi mountain. Some men throw sheep around their shoulders and walk to the site, which is soaked in centuries of sacrificial blood.

It takes place seven weeks after Easter – June 15 this year – and the knives have been working tirelessly all evening. Sheep, lambs and calves fell silent one after another as blood ran through the grasslands and severed animal heads rolled on the ground. The men ritually burned the sheep’s wool with candles on their foreheads and behind their horns before stabbing them with a knife.

The revelers then progressed to a massive feast, with picnics spread out in the middle of the mass grave.

For many Georgians, it is a tradition that needs to be updated.

“It’s an annual bloodbath, with senseless ritual killings of animals that don’t belong in the 21st century,” Nini Turiashvili, a vegan activist with the group No to Animal Sacrifice, told Eurasianet.

The movement has held annual protests for seven years before the holidays. This year, they staged a mock lamb slaughter performance in central Tbilisi on June 12 to draw attention to the tradition.

Even many omnivorous and religious Georgians oppose the massacre, It is believed to be a remnant of ancient times when various fearsome deities ruled the mountains of Georgia, such as the giant-fighting Yakhsari and the club-wielding Kopala. Some historians believe that one of these gods, Lomisa the moon god, transformed into St. George following the reluctant acceptance of Christianity by the highlands.

Now, religious practice in the mountains is a syncretic mix of pagan and Christian. Here in the Mtiuleti Highlands of northeastern Georgia, community elders known as khevisberis still perform religious rituals that put them at odds with Orthodox Christian clerics.

Pioneering historian Ivane Javakhishvili has speculated that the practice of donning the massive chain inside the Lomisi Church is rooted in the ancient ritual of offering a human sacrifice to the moon god. Local legend claims the tradition was started by a medieval princess who carried the chain to the shrine to atone for her sins.

After finally reaching the top, Vazha joined a row of four people who wore the huge chain around their necks together and walked diligently in circles, single file. Running on the fumes, he then emerged from the crowded sanctuary to breathe. It was hot. Overcast skies hung over the top of the hill, and mists snaked through the ravines below.

Tensions with the church

Many Orthodox priests also oppose Lomisoba’s animal sacrifice. A priest from the region told in a 2021 Facebook video his experience of witnessing it for the first time at the age of 11. “My father forced me to go there and I found a horrible sight,” recalls the priest, Father Saba Chikaidze.

Amid pools of blood and the overwhelming excitement of the crowd, he saw a black calf that an old woman had brought as a sacrifice on behalf of her dead son. “The calf looked me straight in the eye. Soon after, they cut off her head and threw her away. […] For a split second, the calf stood up, headless, with blood gushing in all directions. When he got up, I fainted,” the priest recalls.

Left with nightmares all his life, Chikaidze has not been to Lomisoba since and said he struggled to get the butcher out of what he says is meant to be a Christian festival of humility and atonement. “No blood sacrifice is justified by Christianity,” he said. “The last blood sacrifice was Jesus, the incarnation of God on earth.”

The church, however, is not entirely opposed to the slaughter of animals on religious holidays. Patriarch Ilia II, the supreme pontiff of the Georgian Orthodox Church, has decreed the slaughter of a young bull, seven ewes and seven rams during every Easter celebration at Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the city of Mtskheta, where he performs the Easter service. Believers argued the order was meant to help feed worshipers who flock to the cathedral from all over Georgia on Easter, but animal rights activists argued the practice ritualizes the slaughter of animals.

Turiashvili during the June 12 protest outside the Georgian parliament.

During the June 12 rally in Tbilisi, members of No to Animal Sacrifice played a recording of the Patriarch’s words on the slaughter of animals on Easter and attempted to march to his residence, but were prevented by the police. The officers, who were visibly upset and complained to each other about what they perceived as a disrespect to the widely revered church leader, arrested two activists and charged them with disobeying orders from the police.

“Our two friends were just crossing the road when they stopped them,” Turiashvili said. “Police have clearly let their religious beliefs get in the way of their real policing work.”

Lomisoba devotees don’t like too many questions about animal sacrifice either. Vazha’s friendly demeanor dissipated the moment he sensed a hint of judgment in a question about the ritual.

“If you don’t like what you see, you shouldn’t come here and pretend you respect our traditions,” Vazha said moodily as he retrieved his ram’s carcass from the open-air makeshift butcher shop. air. “Go back to Tbilisi and stuff your face in restaurants. Remember where your meat comes from.

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