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Amjad Jaimoukha
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The photographs of a Kabardian aristocratic septet on the hunt [Photos 1], donning fearsome masks, have been demoted by one commentator to a mere depiction of rustic buffoons astride donkeys and mules, by invoking “careful inspection” of the photographs.

So what is the real story behind the pictures?: Masked Kabardian aristocrats in dilapidated uniforms astride their steeds on the hunt, or masked Kabardian jesters on ragtag mounts playing charades?

We present the material in our possession to support the former description:

Photographs (1) are deposited in the Russian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg (formerly: Leningrad Ethnographic Museum), and have been studied by the famous Russian ethnographer E. N. Studenetskaya [“Maski narodov Severnogo Kavkaza”, Leningrad, 1980]. Studenetskaya describes the photos as depicting a Kabardian hunting society hiding the identity of its members through the use of masks. The photos were seen by the ethnographer and writer Robert Chenciner [“Daghestan: Tradition& Survival”, London: Curzon, 1997] [photos 2 and 3]. Chenciner confirms that the photo is of “North Caucasian mounted masked hunting society” [page 183; Photo 2], and then on page 185 states: “A photograph of a posse of seven masked Kabardian horsemen – brandishing Mauser pistols” [Photo 3]. Amjad M. Jaimoukha also studied the photographs [“The Circassians: A Handbook”, London and New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 196-197; Photo 4], and according to him they are photos of "Kabardian aristocratic septet on the hunt, donning fearsome masks".

It is hardly credible that peasant clowns would go fully armed with sabres and daggers and Mauser pistols riding on fancy saddles to enact their roles in festivals [details below]. It should be mentioned that during secretive hunting expeditions, the prince and his nobles used makeshift horses for the purpose, as opposed to their original horses, which were stamped with the family emblems (дамыгъэ; damighe) that would immediately give away their identities. The source of confusion could be that the Circassian jesters, Azheghafe (Ажэгъафэ), also went masked across the village during certain festivals. Photo 5 shows a true Circassian clown.

Azheghafe (Ажэгъафэ): The Jester in Circassian Folklore

[Amjad M. Jaimoukha, "Circassian Culture and Folklore", London: Bennett and Bloom, pp. 209-210]

In many festivities, the clown or jester, azheghafe (literally: "donning a billy-goat skin"), took part and played his games to inject a dose of good cheer. He also played the principal role in a game of charades during the festival of the End of the Ploughing Campaign that required the collection of substantial victuals and animals for slaughter. Being well versed with the circumstances of all the villagers, he would visit each household to importune them for supplies by "dropping dead" at their threshold with his entourage "sobbing" over his prostrate body. The head of the household would go along with the act and enquire on how his household could help to ‘resurrect’ the deceased. On hearing that they expected a contribution, the head of the household would start the bidding by offering a lamb from his fold. If the clown thought that that was too little, he would remain "dead". The head of the household would then up his bid to a sheep. Again, if no signs of reanimation were detected from the jester, the bid was taken to the ultimate level: a young cow. Upon hearing the magic words, the mummer would wag his tail for joy, open his eyes, and make a snorting sound as he darted towards the head of the household, dancing around him and fawning upon him with gratitude, making as if to kiss him. 

According to E. N. Studenetskaya (1980), the "resurrection" of azheghafe symbolized the growth of cereals from the seeds strewn in the earth, and the cult of the death and resurrection of the god of fertility was prevalent among all agrarian peoples. In the case under consideration, the "fool" was allowed to act the god. The deity in question in the Circassian Pantheon is Theghelej (Тхьэгъэлэдж), the God of Flora. 

According to another analysis of the origin of the word "ажэгъафэ": ажэ къэгъэфэн = to cause the billy-goat to dance.

** E. N. Studenetskaya (compiler), “Maski narodov Severnogo Kavkaza” [“Masks of the Peoples of the North Caucasus”], Leningrad: State Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR, 1980.
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2014-11-06
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Very touching piece on Chechnya and the Chechens.

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