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13 Apr 2010

Review: Georgia Through its Folktales (Michael Berman)

Georgia Through Its Folktales by Michael Berman, with translations by Ketevan Kalandadze and illustrations by Miranda Gray
2010, O Books, 153 pages

This book is unlike most compendiums of folktales for two reasons: firstly, the relative obscurity (in the English language at any rate) of the subject matter; and secondly, the unique and fascinating reflective threads with which the stories on offer are bound together.

Georgia Through Its Folktales is part travelogue, part folk tale anthology, part cultural history lesson, and part spiritual exploration. It is neither fiction, nor is it not fiction; it is neither non-fiction nor is it not non-fiction. Berman and his collaborators have created something odd-ball and unique and characterful in this exploration of Georgian folk traditions.

Georgia is an Eastern European region which hosts a range of related cultures, many of which to this day maintain pagan customs and beliefs in one form or another. Berman waxes lyrical about the rich traditions that persist in this land, the complex and subtle ways in which its people have woven incredibly disparate influences from east and west into a truly unique whole.

In order to enable his (presumably) Western reader to appreciate the stories, Berman goes to great lengths to explain the history and character of the region. Whether the subject is diet, agriculture, or the whimsy of children, Berman approaches his subject matter with warmth and gusto, and it is hard not to be swayed by his obvious love for the Georgian peoples and their traditions.

Yet this book is much more than a kind of travelogue. Berman contends that stories are doors into trance, both in the telling and in the content of the tales themselves. With a background in shamanism, it is no wonder that he turns his attention to the traces of shamanic influence that course through the stories recounted in this book. Characteristic Georgian folk tale conventions – such as vagueness about time and even whether the events recounted are real or not, as well as recurring numerological and symbolic patterns – are analysed by Berman as markers of shamanic experience, suggesting that these stories are rooted in deep spiritual experience and not merely in flights of fancy.

By Juxtaposing such reflections against the folktales presented in the book Berman draws our attention to the complex relationships between spiritual experience, cultural forms, and history. Berman sees folktales and mythology as being more than just the glue or rationale for a culture – he sees them as doors into the divine, and as such as the means for a people to deepen their connection to the beauty and numinosity of the world around them. This aspect of the role of myth is all too often overlooked by more or less atheistic modern commentators.

Without being seduced by simplistic romanticism, Berman skilfully elucidates the relationship between culture and personal spiritual experience in traditional / pre-modern culture. As such this book educates us not only about Georgian culture and myth, but also equips us to explore a fresh appreciation for almost any cultural or spiritual tradition.

One of the motifs of this book is the necessarily hybrid nature of Georgian culture, located as it is near so many other strong cultural groups. Somehow, rather than become a monocultural mishmash, the Georgians have woven a unique and very special identity from the array of influences to which they were and are exposed. I think there is an important point to be made here, namely that the integrity of a culture depends not on isolationism (though of course some separation of identity is necessary) but rather on the creativity and spirit (or otherwise) of its people.

I think this point is very important in this modern age where on the one hand we have those who fear exposure to any kind of difference for fear of losing themselves…and on the other hand those who fear any kind of specificity of identity for fear that they will lose their sense of (perhaps illusory) self-creation. Bubbling through this book is a deeper perspective, perhaps one held by many polytheistic and animistic folk traditions – namely that culture arises not through our narcissism (be it isolationist or dissolute), but through our attempt to find our place in the world in all its animistic glory. It is our means of making ourselves at home in a universe of infinite mystery, and we require all of our creative powers if we are to make it serve that purpose well.

This thought reverberates throughout the widespread continuation of pagan practices and beliefs in Georgia, which often persist in hybrid form together with Christian practices. The Georgian peoples as presented by Berman have found a happy accommodation between polytheism and monotheism, not unlike the followers of Voudoun in South America. While some of us will prefer to have little or nothing to do with Christianity, one cannot deny the spiritual fertility attested to in Georgian folktales and customs, a fertility that appears to have aggressively thrived through fusion of pre-Christian and Christian influences.

It would seem, then, that the Georgian peoples enjoy some unique combinations of cultural and spiritual influences, and indeed draw their particularities of character precisely from these combinations. This may in fact be true of all cultures in some fashion or other, but judging from Berman’s account Georgia is a paragon of such richness.

In case these reflections are misleading, I should also point out that this book never gets lost in the abstract indulgence that mainstream academia often stumbles into. Berman writes with subtlety and draws the recurring motifs of the book together with care and lightness. Rather than spew heavy handed injunctions, he invites one to reflect, think, and drawn one’s own conclusions.

If there are any limitations to this book they lie in peripheral issues – namely, that the proof reading and editing is somewhat lax, and at times this makes the book less readable and enjoyable than it could be. I hope that on subsequent printings the publisher will see fit to correct the various errors that cloud the text so that this gem may shine more fully.

The playful spirit that suffuses this book – both the stories and Berman’s discussions thereof – is its greatest strength. It is a sincere and joyous celebration of tradition, spiritual exploration, culture, history, and story telling. The translated stories are marvellous, and the artwork, which peppers the text freely, is resplendent. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in history, culture, folk traditions, shamanism, and especially, in the peoples and customs of Eastern Europe and the Near East.

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