[by Jenna Brightwell]
The Knight in the Panther’s Skin (Vepkhistqaosani), a 12th century epic poem by Shota Rustaveli about love, chivalry, and heroism, developed into a symbol of national pride as Georgian autonomy from the Russians declined. The poem, written during Georgia’s “Golden Age” beginning in the 11th century, became “the most enduring monument of Georgian medieval literature” (Suny, 39).
Keeping The Knight Alive
During the “Golden Age,” Mediterranean cultures, especially Persia and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Byzantine, heavily influenced Georgian art. Georgia’s most influential contribution was its epic poetry (Allen 292-294). The “Golden Age” started with David the Builder in 1089 and ended with the death of Queen Tamar in 1213 and allowed independent Georgia to flourish culturally and artistically for a brief period of renaissance before losing their independence to a series of invading empires (De Waal, 33). The Mongols took control of the region after Queen Tamar’s death, then the Timurid Empire, the Ottomans and the Safavids split the area after the fall of Byzantium. Finally Russia annexed it in 1801 (Lang, 23).
Because of the outside invaders, all the old manuscripts of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin were lost or destroyed (Lang, 23). Also, the church burned the work because it praised Chinese and Persian religious wisdom and ideology. However, the Georgian oral tradition kept the poem intact (Allen, 319). Georgian marriage custom required brides to learn parts of the story to retell their husbands during matrimony, a tradition still followed in contemporary Georgian culture (Nasmyth, 83). The first scholarly, monarchy-sponsored publication of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin occurred in 1712, during the “Silver Age”, another period of impressive Georgian poetry (Lang, 24). The
The Soviets, under the policies of Lenin, allowed the Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and the Georgians to promote their “folklore, literature, and history…stripped of any overt and political, and ideological content” and include “ancient Armenian history and the poetry of Rustaveli and Nizami…on the school curriculum, albeit in a form highly colored by Soviet ideology” (De Waal, 84). Soviets commemorated the anniversary of the original publication of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin in 1937, helping the Georgians celebrate their ancient roots, promotinged Georgian nationalism (Rayfield, 72). The Shota Rustaveli Institute of Georgia Literature is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the poem’s publication in 2012 (ailc-icla.org).
Shota Rustaveli, a Meskhetian born in Rusthavi in 1166, found inspiration to write The Knight in the Panther’s Skin from his travels and studies. He studied at the monastery of Tbeti, understood Greek poetry and philosophy, learned Persian and Arabic, and worked at the Royal Treasury under Queen Tamar. His writing reflected his knowledge of courtly duties, the behavior of the merchant class, and foreign cultures (Allen, 319). He clearly appreciated all religions; The Knight in the Panther’s Skin never directly mentions Christianity (though it does often reference God) and makes references to both Islam and Zoroastrianism (Rayfield, 77). The poem consists of 1666 stanzas, each with four lines of sixteen syllables and a rhyme sequence of a-a-a-a (Lang, 22). The story begins with King Rostevan transferring power to daughter Tinatin, an act he celebrates with a three-day hunt with his general, Avtandil. They happen upon a melancholy knight wearing a panther’s skin:
They saw a certain stranger knight; he sat weeping on the bank of the stream, he held his black horse by the rein, he looked like a lion and a hero…the rose (of his cheek) was frozen in tears that welled up from his woe-stricken heart. His form was clad in a long coat over which was thrown a panther’s skin, his head, too, was covered with a cap of panther’s skins (Rustaveli, lines 84-85).
When King Rostevan tries to seize him, the knight kills the king’s guards and flees. Tinatin, intrigued by the mysterious knight, promises her hand in marriage to Avtandil if he finds the knight and returns with him. Avtandil’s promise to Tinatin to find the knight exhibits his chivalry, Avtandil tells her, “‘I shall certainly obey thee like a slave in service’” and then “once more they made an oath together, they promised each other, they confirmed it and discoursed much” (Rustaveli, lines 133-135). After a long journey, Avtandil finds the knight, Tariel, and Tariel explains that he is in love with an Indian princess, Nestan-Darjan, who is betrothed to another and held captive in a tower by two sorcerers. An ardent brotherly love and bond of chivalry develops between Avtandil and Tariel:
[Avtandil:] ‘If thou promise me that thou wilt not go hence, I shall assure thee by an oath that for nought shall I forsake thee’ He [Tariel] answered: ‘How is it that thou, a stranger, so lovest me, a stranger?…If I lie to thee or cheat thee, may God judge me in wrath! Thy presence will charm away my sadness (and) dissolve it!’ (Rustaveli, lines 647-649).
Avtandil promises to help Tariel save the princess and with the help of a third knight, Pridon, they free Nestan from the hands of the sorcerers. Terial and Nestan inherit the Indian throne, and Avtandil returns to Tinatin. The story ends with their egalitarian rule and peace between their realms.
Those three sovereigns loved one another, they visited one another, their desires were fulfilled, they that disputed their rule were put to the sword, they enlarged their kingdoms, they were sovereign, they increased their might. They poured down mercy like snow on all alike, they enriched orphans and widows and the poor did not beg, they terrified evil-doers; the ewes could not suckle the lambs, within their territories the goat and the wolf fed together (Rustaveli, lines 1570-1572).
This idealistic conclusion establishes “a harmony that transcends nationality and race” (Rayfield, 79).
The Knight in the Panther’s Skin embodies the “true spirit of Georgia” (Nasmyth, 82) at the peak of Georgian chivalry, which still plays a significant role in Georgian society. The story sets Georgia apart from the West because as exemplified by the multi-ethnic and multi-religious aspects of the poem, “as Christian sword sought Muslim throat in the Holy Land, in Tbilisi, Georgians, Armenians, Jews and Muslims lived side by side in relative harmony” (Nasmyth, 82). The importance of bonding friendships and true love also still appeal to Georgian culture: “Certainly he [Rustaveli] espoused the doctrine of perfect love or the cult of friendship, still prominent in modern Georgian culture – and indisputably linked with the convention of hospitality” (Nasmyth, 82). The words and verses of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin have become entrenched in the Georgian culture, and “Georgian folklore and literature both quote KPS [The Knight in the Panther’s Skin] in the same way that Shakespeare is quoted by speakers of English who have never read him” (Rayfield, 83).
Rustaveli’s use of the Georgian language in The Knight in the Panther’s Skin drove its development, and writers praise Rustaveli as the “creator, almost of the Georgian language” (Allen, 308) and for making Georgian into “a great literary language” (De Waal, 34). The Georgian language, kartuli, is intimately linked with Georgian nationalism. When the Soviets allowed Georgia to keep their language in the constitution of 1978, the process of independence from the Soviet Union began. The Georgians celebrate that day, April 14, as Georgian Language Day (De Waal, 35).
Rustaveli and The Knight in the Panther’s Skin influenced the development of Georgian national symbols throughout the 20th century. When Georgia gained independence briefly between 1918 and 1921, the state renamed the main avenue in Tbilisi, Rustaveli Avenue, and the main theater and cultural center in Tbilis, Rustaveli Theater. Rustaveli Avenue became the site of national demonstrations and protests: in 1956, Georgians protested Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, supporting Stalin for his Georgian heritage; Georgians protested and then celebrated the new constitution developed by the Soviets in 1978; and in 2003, the Rose Revolution occurred on the Avenue (De Waal, 46). Shota Rustaveli still embodies Georgian literature and represents Georgian national culture. Rustaveli Theater was in poor repair during the Soviet period, but underwent renovations between 2002-2005 and is still used today (rustavelitheater.ge). The contemporary Georgian Rustaveli Institute researches “Georgia Literature and problems associated with the study of literature” (litinstituti.ge).
- W.E.D. Allen, A History of the Georgian People, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971).
- “Institute of Georgian Literature,” Institute of Georgian Literature, http://www.litinstituti.ge/english/indexengl.htm (accessed March 16, 2012).
- “Institute of Georgian Literature: International Symposium,” International Comparative Literature Associationm www.ailc-icla.org/site/?p=1145:// (accessed March 16, 2012).
- David Marshall Lang, “Landmarks in Georgian Literature,” University of Iowa, works.bepress.com/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1035&context=r_gould (accessed March 16, 2012).
- Peter Nasmyth, Georgia in the Mountains of Poetry, 3rd, rev. ed, (London: Routledge, 2006).
- Donald Rayfield, The Literature of Georgia: A History, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).
- Shota Rustaveli, “The Man in the Panther’s Skin,” Internet Sacred Text Archive Home, Translated by Marjory Scott Wardrop, http://www.sacred-texts.com/asia/mps/index.htm (accessed April 11, 2012).
- Ronald Grigor Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., 1988).
- “Theatre History,” Rustaveli Theatre, http://rustavelitheatre.ge/english/index_eng.html (accessed March 16, 2012).
- Thomas de Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).