Freeing Amirani: Development and the Caucasian Prometheus


  The one year mark of living in Azerbaijan is quickly approaching. During the last month, my wanderlust was satisfied by tromping about both Georgia and Azerbaijan, and entertaining two of my favorite people. My movement was confined while working as 'development worker.' It was a relief to really step out. "Contrast" shapes the Azerbaijan-experience for the foreigner, especially when comparing Baku with the rest of the country. And on the roads through Georgia, up to Stepantsminda and through Tbilisi and back to the Caspian coast: contrast continues to be a striking theme.

Soviet Art, Mural in Zaqatala Azerbaijan

In the landscapes of both countries, you catch the 'development' of the past peeking. Crumbling Soviet mosaics and effigies in disrepair dot the landscape, and tell a story of a much more colorful Soviet Union than my mind's eye had led me to believe. However, these historical intrigues (at least to the traveler) are becoming increasingly harder to uncover. Either left to entropy, or forcefully removed by the current government project, a communist past is being churned into a new vision of modernity. Through the wreckage, remnants of the influx of capitalist venture in the early nineties is also evident. Many such ventures ultimately failed, leaving behind empty resorts, factories and apartments - windows removed by the rocks of passing youth.

In Azerbaijan, the "free-market" is encouraged, but only with the current administration holding the reigns firmly. Baku is slowly flooding with tan, brushed-stone, multi-story buildings (which, I've discussed this construction before). Many of these new buildings remain dormant. Walking a short distance from the epicenter of Icheri Sheher, I feel as though I am walking through a Montana ghost-town, when the mines dried up. Tbilisi, by contrast, seems to be letting its hair down, giving up a bit of control and the construction seems less all-encompassing and more chaotic (or organic). While the two countries seem to maintain different perspectives on the politics and process of development, it feels, to the casual passerby, that their visions of shiny, brightly-lit modernity are similar.


Cover of "Amirani" The Georgian Mythological Epo (1975). The bottom text is a stylized version of  Amirani in the Georgian script "ამირანი." Thirty illustrations from the book can be found here:

Cover of "Amirani" The Georgian Mythological Epo (1975). The bottom text is a stylized version of  Amirani in the Georgian script "ამირანი." Thirty illustrations from the book can be found here:

Engulfed in this milieu the story of Prometheus tickles to be remembered. Well, that and my recent mountaineering trip to one of the the famed peaks upon which the titan is fabled to be chained. Before coming to the Caucasus, in the pages of many books that prepared me for my master's thesis research, the name Prometheus was a prominent installment. An ancient cultural trope that for some reason still packed a potent punch of germane imagery for our contemporary world. I re-encountered this Greek myth when I first read Mary Shelly's Frankenstein several years ago, as the subtitle reads "Or, the Modern Prometheus." Since then it has stuck with me as an intriguing lens through which to view the very notions of "progress" and "development." And, about the drama of change and hubris.

It's likely that the myth of Prometheus actually originated in the Caucasus mountains sometime between 3000-2000 BCE. Although theomachists - a fancy name for a hero that goes against god(s) - are a common mythical being. For instance, Matarisvari in the Vedic religions, Maui in Polynesia, Mheri in Armenia or the Azazyel and the 200 "Watchers" in the apocryphal Biblical "Book of Enoch." And, of course, Prometheus of the Greeks, the fire-stealing Titan chained to a mountain where an eagle daily dined on his liver, only to grow back. Stories of theomachists often embody the emotions of cultures in transition, either new religions, imperial conquests or technological transformation.

Azazyel taught men to make swords, knives, shields, breastplates, the fabrication of mirrors, and the workmanship of bracelets and ornaments, the use of paint, the beautifying of the eyebrows, the use of stones of every valuable and select kind, and all sorts of dyes, so that the world became altered.

Verse 1, Chapter 8. The Book of Enoch

In several places Georgia honors their native hero, for instance a modern statue of Amirani in the capitol of Tbilisi or an older statue located somewhere near Sighnaghi near the Azerbaijani border. (Interestingly, the former statue was dedicated to the Promothean project, a Poland initiative to support ethnic identity movements to weaken the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union.)

According to Legends of the Caucasus by David Hunt, over 44 different Prometheus stories have been identified in the Caucasus region, and according to an essay by Dodona Kiziria, a Georgian book called Amirani Enchained, by the Soviet scholar Mikhail Chikovani contains 68 versions recorded from 1848-1945. The first Georgian literary version of the legend dates to 12th century, whereas archaeological evidence suggests the story was present among Georgian tribes prior to the 8th century BCE. The myth is most prominent in northwestern Abhkazian, Chechen, and Ossetian lore. In the Georgian language this hero is known as Amirani (ამირანი). As the Greeks are known to interact with what is now the Republic of Georgia, via the shores of the Black Sea, many believe that several Greek myths are derived from the diversity of Caucasian cultures (including those fierce female warriors, the Amazons). The oldest source for the Greek story of Prometheus is in Hesiod's Theogony, composed in the 8th century BCE, which perhaps suggest that that both the Greek and Georgian myths have a common ancestor.

A statue of Amirani, the Georgian Prometheus

The story itself varies greatly from region to region. The kernel that ties these tales together are the motifs of societal change, opposition to authority (God), as well as technology (Fire) and hubris. Our hero goes up against a great power and, despite great accomplishment, is left to suffer. In each case the hero outwits some being of great strength or intelligence. In some stories he is tricked by his pride to suffer, and in other stories he willingly gives his life as a sacrifice, for the good of mankind. In current mythos, this great power - stripped bear of its divinity - is the great unknown. The future. Despite strong efforts to predict tomorrow, uncertainty remains. As a social scientist, I am aware that the sciences are much better at explaining what happened, but much less successful at explaining what will happen.

For better or worse, the world is far to complicated to control on any grand scale (but certainly, this is subject to (political) debate). Development does not always distribute the costs and benefits equally. 'Poverty amidst plenty' being an epitome. Some may argue that human progress should be a quest to reach into the future and pluck out the pain and suffering. Others long for days long past. Still others want things to just stay the same. Maybe they are simply content with the present, or perhaps they fear the consequences of trying to tame fate. But most, I would argue, wish to free Amirani.