It is generally accepted that atalism is a custom of the Caucasus, according to which a child, after his birth, is sent to be raised by his “adoptive” father. Hence the name of this tradition, since “ata” means father, and “atalyk” means fatherhood. After reaching a certain age, the young man could return to his family. The custom was widespread among the Circassians, Kabardians, Balkars, Kumyks, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Mingrelians, Svans and other Caucasian peoples. They were not alien to atalism in the Crimean Khanate and in the Ottoman Empire. In addition, Grigory Filippovich Chursin, a Russian and later a Soviet ethnographer-Caucasian expert, argued that atalism is common even among the mountain peoples of the Hindu Kush in Central Asia.
Atalism as it is
In practice, atalism was implemented as follows. When parents decided to give their child to an atalyk, the age of the child did not really matter. Sometimes children were given to other people’s families after three or four months of age. At the same time, the one who adopted the child for upbringing acquired all the rights of consanguinity with the family of his pet. Such a relationship was called milk, but it had all the power of blood relationship.
Both boys and girls were given to atalism. Naturally, the length of stay with the new “father” for girls and boys was different. The length of stay in the atalik’s house was determined for a boy 6-13 years old (sometimes up to 18 years old), for a girl from 12 to 13 years old. The atalyk was obliged to teach the young man perfectly everything he knew himself, including the art of war. The boys learned horseback riding and mountain etiquette, shooting and agriculture. Of course, a lot of time was spent on physical training. The girl fell into the hands of the atalik’s wife. She taught her handicrafts, housekeeping, the ability to cook, weave, etc. Also, one of the main functions of atalism was the early and more complete socialization of children, especially from noble families.
Sometimes the pupils came to the atalyk not just from another clan, but also from another ethnic group. This happened most often among princes and aristocrats. In such circumstances, a young man or girl, among other things, learned a new language for them, which was worth a lot in the Caucasian multilingualism.
After the expiration of the period of upbringing, the atalik, according to tradition, gave his “son” or “daughter” in every possible way. At the same time, gifts were sometimes much more luxurious than the family presented to their own children. Of course, a simple peasant could not give much to the pupil, but more prosperous families could present the pupil with a horse, weapons and noble dress. The girl completed her studies with the same honors. In response, the pupil’s family arranged a large feast, and the atalik’s family was presented with gifts similar to those received by the pupil, and sometimes much larger. If the offspring grew up healthy and literate, then the atalyk could transfer into possession a whole land allotment, not counting cattle.
Unusually vividly, in accordance with his genius, atalism was described by Alexander Pushkin in the unfinished poem “Tazit”:
“Suddenly appeared from behind the mountain
The old man is gray-haired and the youth is slender.
Give way to a stranger –
And to the mournful old man father
So he said, important and calm:
“Thirteen years have passed,
How did you, a stranger come to aul,
Gave me a weak baby
To bring up from him
I made a brave Chechen.
Son of one today
You are burying prematurely.
Gasub, be submissive to fate.
I have brought another one to you.
There he is. You bow your head
To his mighty shoulder.
You will replace your loss –
You yourself will appreciate my works,
I don’t want to boast about them ”.
“Higher” and “lower” atalism
Of course, the above is the most generalized form of atalism. Many significant nuances arose depending on a particular people and social stratum.
The “grassroots” atalism, which existed among the peasants, was based on the exchange of knowledge and the strengthening of ties between clans, up to merging into one family. And sometimes the basis of atalism was only the safety of children. For example, a family oppressed by a local prince, aristocrat or Uzden, in order to give children a future, and help the family, sent boys and girls to be raised by a friendly atalik. As a rule, at the “grassroots” level, a more prosperous person, often living far from the place of birth of the pupil, acted as an atalik.
Of course, the situation with the atalism among the princes and nobility was completely different. For them, in the tradition of atalism, the issues of education and training of military personnel, foreign and domestic policy, loyalty of those close to them and the creation of future governors and advisers were laid down. Also, do not forget that people endowed with power are endowed with a load of problems and responsibility for thousands and thousands of lives. History has repeatedly proved that a strong leader is often too busy building a powerful state, rather than raising offspring, on which nature usually rested with the “greats”.
The princes traditionally gave their children to be raised in families of an estate lower than them. Thus, the ruling circles tied the faithful to themselves by almost blood ties. So, the Kumyk khans and shamkhals gave their children to be raised by the paramount bosses, that is, the close aristocrats. Circassian princes as atalyks chose their own works, that is, the same nobles. In turn, the nobles passed on their children to the estate of wealthy free peasants.
Politics often became the basis of atalism. Given the fragmentation of ethnic groups, sub-ethnic groups and societies of the Caucasus, the rulers of the principalities or the rulers of individual valleys, in order to conclude a stronger alliance with some neighbors (traditionally against other neighbors), gave up their children and also adopted other people’s sons and daughters for upbringing. For example, the pro-Turkish-minded Circassian princes gladly became atalyks for the children of the Crimean khans. The princes acquired a powerful ally, and the khans thus intended to enroll the princes as vassals. After the fall of the Crimean Khanate, many representatives of its nobility found shelter among the former atalyks.
It is also worth noting separately that with the increase in extortions from ordinary peasants throughout the Caucasus, due to the incessant war, atalism began to acquire a purely class character. Ordinary people increasingly lost the benefits of giving the child an atalik. At the same time, the aristocracy thus desperately sewed again and again breaking alliances between entire principalities, societies and khanates.
National factor in atalism
Of course, the national factor had a strong influence on the tradition. The peoples scattered throughout the Caucasus, with its extremely colorful and variegated relief, made their own amendments to the custom.
Sultan Khan-Girey was one of the brightest and original researchers of the Caucasus who mentioned atalism. He was familiar with Circassian atalism firsthand. After all, Khan-Girey was at the same time a descendant of the Crimean khans and Circassian aristocrats, as well as a colonel of the Russian army. This is what this historian and ethnographer wrote about atalism:
“The princes have long looked for all kinds of means to increase their strength to bind the nobles to themselves, and these, in order to always protect and help themselves, in all cases, wished to get closer to the princes. For such mutual rapprochement, we found the surest means of raising children, which, by linking two families by kinship, brought mutual benefits. “
Fyodor Fedorovich Tornau, Lieutenant General, writer and one of the first scouts who made their way to the territory of Circassia and Kabarda, also wrote about this custom. Tornau pointed out the peculiarities of atalism among the Abkhaz:
“Poor noblemen, peasants and slaves in Abkhazia found a good way to protect themselves from oppression by the powerful by the custom that exists among princes and rich nobles, to bring up their children away from their parental home. Taking on this responsibility, they enter into kinship with the parents of the children they bring up and enjoy their patronage. “
The little-known ethnographer Valdemar Borisovich Pfaf, a Caucasian scholar and teacher, who left significant but not fully appreciated works on the study of Ossetia, also pointed out some features of atalism among the Ossetians:
“Having received a name, the child is given up to be raised in the house of a stranger and does not see his mother until the age of 6 … Therefore, an Ossetian child loves his nanny more than his mother, and is afraid of his father, but does not love at all, the teacher (atalyk) is much closer his heart. At the end of the 6-year term, the teacher returns the child to his parents’ home. On this day, a holiday is celebrated in the family, and the teacher and the nanny receive their present from the father of the pupil of several hundred rubles. For this reason, at the present time, this ancient custom has been preserved only in the rich and sufficient layers of the population. The upbringing of a child in the atalik’s house in many respects resembles the upbringing of children among the Lacedaemonians: it is directed exclusively to the physical side … “
In Avaria, atalism began, so to speak, from the cradle. For example, Khunzakh khans preferred to give their children to feed the wives of free and wealthy peasants or nobles. Later, the child was usually brought up in the family in which his foster brothers grew up.
Effectiveness of Atalism as a Political Tool
It is generally accepted that atalism was an effective tool for uniting the Caucasus, resolving military conflicts and mutual enrichment with knowledge and languages, of which there are a lot in the Caucasus. But alas, history itself has shown that the atalism could not be opposed to the disunity of the peoples of the region, long-standing mutual reproaches and the monstrous force of the expansion of both states and religious and political movements.
Murids, full of religious fanaticism, the tradition of atalism was alien, like almost all other customs. For example, Gamzat-bek, the imam and predecessor of Shamil, was brought up for a long time in the Khunzakh khan house of the Avar khans and was considered almost the foster brother of the young khans of Avaria. But this did not prevent him from massacring all Khunzakh rulers at the root.
As a form of education, training and socialization, atalism, of course, played a significant role. However, this tradition could not resist cruel political processes in principle. During the struggle for the throne of the Abkhazian principality, Sefer-bey and Aslan-bey met in a life-and-death battle, and they were not even dairy brothers, but brothers to each other.