Once a year in the villages of Kakheti in eastern Georgia, men sew their own clothes. They cut lambskin leather and colorful ribbons; they make huge masks studded with pumpkin seeds to imitate horns and teeth.
Far away on the other side of Georgia in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, men put on women’s clothes and dresses, braid their hair, and apply makeup. They then walk into the center of the village to celebrate and improvise a play.
This tradition has gone on in Georgia for centuries and is called Berikaoba. The word comes from “Berika,” the name for an ancient Georgian deity of fertility represented by a goat, and “-oba,” meaning “festival.”
Berikaoba is traditionally celebrated before lent, and is permitted by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Around the world, similar traditions have been observed for hundreds of years, such as Maslenitsa in Russia or Carnival in many Catholic countries. Like them, Berikaoba makes a strong impression with its colorful costumes; particularly masks.
Berikaoba is a men’s festival; the actors in Berikaoba’s impromptu street theater are always men, even though they may play female roles. The stories they re-enact are not only tied to religion, but also to important historical events for Georgia’s various regions. In Samtskhe-Javakheti, Berikaoba is also a celebration of the defeat of a Turkish Pasha and the end of Ottoman rule over the region, which lasted for three centuries.
In Kakheti the celebration is connected with the legend of Maia Tskneteli, a famous Georgian folk hero. As legend (and a popular Soviet-era film) have it, the beautiful Maia killed a local landlord when trying to resist his advances. To escape punishment, she cut off her braids and disguised herself as a man, leading a band of outlaws which freed slaves and stole from the rich to give to the poor.
In both cases the celebration is connected to a centuries old pre-Christian tradition of celebrating the end of winter and beginning of spring (some locals believe that how well they celebrate Berikaoba has an effect on their harvests in autumn.) But that is where the similarities end; local customs and rites for celebrating the festival differ widely from region to region.
In Berikaoba, the pagan and the Orthodox Christian, the social and the political, and the complex nature of masculine identities flow into one another, uniting as one in a colorful and unique celebration.
Masculinities, April/May 2019