Wednesday, 24 May 2023

Panther Skins and Golden Fleeces

I have, in the past, showed some interest in the Caucuses. I recently finished reading a copy of The Knight in Panther Skin, the Medieval Georgian epic. Here's some assorted thoughts.

Vepkhist'q'aosani ('The Knight in Panther Skin') was written by Shota Rustaveli in the twelfth century, during Georgia's Golden Age under Queen Thamar. I read the 1977 translation by Katharine Vivian published by the Folio Society (as pictured below); the Marjory Wardrop translation from 1912 is available online. Vivian attempts a freer, prose translation than Wardrop; neither is in the rhymed quatrains of Rustaveli. The name of the text is given variously as The Knight in the Panther's Skin, The Man in the Panther's Skin, The Knight in Panther Skin (these differences are not unique to English: 1889 saw Der Mann im Tigerfelle and 1975 Der Ritter im Pantherfell).

What's it about? Rostevan, King of Arabia has no sons, but one daughter, Tinatin. Avtandil is the son of his commander-in-chief and dear to him; Avtandil wishes to marry - and must go about this carefully. When out hunting with Avtandil, Rostevan witnesses a knight in a panther's skin crying by a river - who refuses human contact and attacks those sent to greet him. Rostevan sends searchers after the Knight - eventually including Avtandil. 

That's enough summary to work with for the time being. Why is this an interesting work? What's distinctive about it? Well, without dipping into the Boosterism one sees on the Wikipedia entry or the introduction to the 1977 text, it's neatly structured, with the stories of Avtandil and the Knight (eventually revealed to go by the name Tariel) mirroring each other neatly. There's a great deal of tension between social bonds - the bond of Knightly comradeship, the bond of lovers, the bond of King and Subject, the bond of parent and child, the bond of servant and master. The careful resolving of the plot without breaking these bonds is interesting to watch. 

Beyond that, this is clearly a book from a well-connected society. That the protagonist is an Arab rather than a Georgian is telling; Tariel, it is discovered, is an Indian prince. Characters from 'Khateati' - that is, Cathay - that is, China - appear. There is reference to Egyptians, Greeks, Franks, Russians, Persians - as well as African slaves and sorcerers. Rustaveli's own prologue indicates that this is a 'Persian tale I found in the Georgian tongue' that he has set in verse. One gets a sense of travel and the exotic: it would be reductive but not precisely wrong to refer to it as a mix of Chivalric Romance and the Thousand and One Nights.

It should be noted that Rustaveli's Arabia and India are not depictions of his own time. No particular depiction of the desert appears in his Arabia. India apparently has mullahs who recite the Koran, but who are unmentioned in Arabia. Likewise, the coronation of Princess Tinatin with crown, sceptre and mantle by her father is clearly European. The Epilogue calls these 'strange stories of kings of a far-off ancient time' - so don't obsess overmuch over such details. 

Vivian's introduction paints the poem as Universal in spirit: it does not sit in one tradition or overarching culture. The characters are not explicitly Christian - even if King David and the Apostles are mentioned, there are no prayers to Christ or the Blessed Virgin (apparently the poem was later attacked by the Georgian clergy). Neither are they heathens: a spirit of general monotheism suffuses things, with the sun as a symbol of the one God. Avtandil finds himself praying to the seven stars of the medieval heavens. Twelfth-century Georgia (which had been Christian before there even formally was a Georgia) had expanded under David IV (Great-grandfather of Thamar) to stretch from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea at Baku - capturing much land that had previously been Islamic, including the present-day capital, Tbilisi. It is not a stretch to associate Rustaveli with knowledge of a variety of religious traditions.

Speaking of Thamar, there are a number of redoubtable princesses in The Knight with the Panther Skin. More than in any work of courtly love? Perhaps not, but Tinatin's aforementioned coronation is a clear  reference to female royal power and position (however devoted she may be to her father). Together with passages in the prologue and epilogue, the shadow of Thamar lies heavy on this work.

Enough of that. A few things I wish to glean from all this.

Shota Rustaveli, apparently.


I've been interested before in historical or alternate names for the planets which can be used for a bit of quick worldbuilding when you can't really be asked to make up an entire new solar system. As I said above, Avtandil finds himself invoking the seven heavens of medieval cosmology (the planets as far as Saturn, plus the moon and sun).

Anyway these are named below, together with a brief extract from Vivian's text. The same section from the Wardrop translation is here.

Zual, whose nature is calamity - Saturn
Mushtar, supreme judge and arbitrator between heart and heart - Jupiter
Marikh the warrior and avenger - Mars
Aspiroz the fair - Venus (Hesperus)
Otarid - Mercury


The Terrae Vertebrae setting from which Punth was spawned had as a premise that each state in Vertebraea would be based on some medieval epic. I think I've said before that I wouldn't mind introducing some sort of mountain kingdom along with the rest of Punth's neighbours. Well, here's an obvious opportunity.

Marikylo, the Kingdom of the Eight Vales

In the mountains of the Spine of the World, there are the dwarfholds, the great peaks and plateaus only occupied by that stubborn, hardy and independent folk. But in the densest region of the mountain range, there are a string of valleys that have been the home of an ancient folk, who migrated there centuries before the Nirvanite empire ever rose. Marikylo.

Eight high but sunny valleys are joined by passes worn by centuries of use. At each of the handful of passes, a fortress lies: the High Keeps. These are in the gift of the King of Marikylo. Most of the nobility hold a position in their own right, as head of a clan or possessors of valuable estates - but the rank of Castellan indicates a greater trust, to say nothing of greater powers and privileges. Of course, not all High Keeps are alike. Some connection regions in the vales so long settled and so long loyal that the Castellan has very little in the way of active duties: these are regarded as a next to a sinecure. 

Others abut restive regions or passes to the outside world or are the sites of contact with the High Mountain Dwarves - these require a surer hand. The principal division among the elites, then,  is between those families that rely on Royal patronage and the profession of arms - the Panthers - and the stockrearers and farmers - the Rams. Naturally, ancient history and memory of autonomy as a petty kingdom animate a number of other interesting feuds.

How do the Mariklyne live? From the mountain herds of sheep - known for producing a very fine cloth - they take wool, milk and meat. In the sheltered, warm valleys they have citrus groves and vineyards. The Dwarves are glad to have an agricultural trade partner on hand and produce ironware for Marikylo. There is trade and carriage of items across the mountains - and here the Mariklyne prosper.

Marikylo lies between Nirvanite and Talliz and Punth: it has connections to Kapelleron lords and Ka-Punth tribes, to Fahflund merchant houses, to Talliz Boyar families. If you need to get something across the mountains in a hurry, you will be dealing with Marikylo. The necessity of trade and the security of their surroundings has produced a welcoming culture - so long as the High Keeps stand. It is said that Marikylo produces three things in abundance - Mountaineers, Middlemen and Masters (that is, scholars).

Of course, other things can be found in the mountains than Dwarves. Witches - Dragons - the bleached skeletons of ancient armies that still clutch antique swords. There are places where even the hardiest shepherd will not take his flocks. 


  1. Are you familiar with the book Black Sea by Neal Ascherton? Taught me a lot about this area. I was particularly wowed by the strange perigrinations of the Pontic Greeks, which I summarised here:

    Also, even more off-topic, but the cookbook Kaukasis has some banging plof (Georgian pilaf/pilau) recipes!

    1. Can't say I know the book in question, but if we're talking about Pontic Greeks I have to mention Rose Macaulay's Towers of Trebizond.

      There's an interesting recipe for Georgian Pheasant in Jane Grigson's Good Things. Not that I've ever tried it.

    2. I read Towers of Trebizond last year ­čśŐ

  2. This is somewhat of a revelation ...

    1. Blackout mentioned it on the last Faufreluches post! At this rate I'm going to have to get a copy.

      The Knight in Panther Skin feels more south-facing, if that makes sense - looking toward the Near and Middle East rather than the Volga and the steppe. That might be Geographic - Georgia vs Dagestan - rather than historic; there's a difference between having as a neighbour a growing Seljuk Turkish power and a straightforwardly expansionist Imperial Russia.

  3. I think that the south-facing orientation makes sense, considering the deep and abiding connections between Persianate literature and Georgian literature. It's even (especially?) true here at the heart; many folks have argued that Rustaveli was likely reading the work of Nizami Ganjavi (a contemporary Caucasian genius!) not only bc of his apparent familiarity with Layla and Majnun - by this time, aristocratic familiarity with Persianate literary production seems common from what I can find - but because the two masterworks share a more than coincidental amount of thematic and structural elements. It's two-way, Nizami's Khosrow and Shirin betrays a more than passing familiarity with Georgia. Gurgani's Vis and Ramin was another hit with Georgian audiences, the Georgian version Visramiani was likely written in Tamar's reign as well. Saw a bit on Wikipedia about the Georgian language text being used to reconstruct missing parts of the Persian original. Wild, right? Khaqani, wayward court poet and master of the prison poem (a genre we should revive) was fond of Tbilisi, close to his home in Shirvan; Tbilisi was fond of him as well, judging by the amount of times his lines appear in period Georgian poetry. Another weird/cool side note I learned while poking around - the Georgian king who hosted Khaqani, George III, was not only Tamar the Great's dad but the cousin of Shirvanshah Akhsitan I (mom was a different Tamar) who commissioned Nizami's Layla and Majnun. "Here is the gate of the Abkhazians open/There is the Greek sanctuary ready to receive me" had guts for sure. Fellow Shirvan poet Falaki (who, according to Taqi al-Din Kashi, learned the astronomy that gave him his pen name while hopelessly in love with an astronomer's son) married a Georgian merchant's daughter.

    I think there's def something lost in the tendency to reduce the Caucasus to war war war, stuff like this most of all. It's not easily reduced to a story of conveniently modern cultural exchange either, ofc, but there's a more complex history of blending and reflecting frequently missed in the wake of nationalism which comes out in The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Worth remembering that it was another royal Tamar - Sultan Kaykhuraw II's "Georgian Lady" - who became Rumi's great friend and patron. Fitting that the master of Persian mystical verse rests in a tomb built for him by a Georgian.

    1. I don't know if you had all that ready to go or you threw it together after reading my post, but that's all pretty interesting - and a reminder to me that I need to read some Persian literature.