Hyperbolization of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin in the Context of Medieval Thought

Precedents of miracles as works of God abound in the medieval religious literature. The characters of hagiographic monuments achieve higher levels of spirituality. God grants them the ability to perform miracles. The hagiography is based on the principle of representation of truth and, therefore, in those times God’s miracles were perceived as real events (as is always the case when it comes to a true believer).

The Medieval religious literature provides a basis for the secular literature. The very issue has been thoroughly examined and fully substantiated by Korneli Kekelidze in his History of Old Georgian Literature (volume 2): “here, from the earliest times when the religious literature has been predominant, and in the profound depths of these writings, the elements of the secular literature have been generated and the traditions thereto have been developed” [Kekelidze, 1981: 8]. K. Kekelidze identifies four elements within the composition pattern of a hagiographic narrative and, by way of comparison, emphasizes / underlines a striking affinity between the secular literature (in particular, epic, chivalric romance) and hagiography:

a) being unique among the peers, a saint has a beautiful soul at a very young age. The same is true in the case of poems. For instance, Tariel speaks of himself, saying At age five, I looked like a rose in full bloom, a blossom to show. I could kill a lion as if it were weak, with a single blow [Kekelidze, 1981: 7].

b) as a saint grows, he or she develops into a true spiritual hero, overcoming the myriad of temptations, and working miracles, that manifest his spiritual strength. The scholar believes that the same is true for poems. Tariel says, I grew to be a lion, like the sun to look at, and was praised. The heroes [of Amiran-Darejaniani] are real “superhumans”, and their “heroic deeds” are incredible exactly the same way as the miracles performed by saints  [Kekelidze, 1981: 7].

c) The worldly life of a saint unfolds itself into indefatigable efforts, dedication and service to God. The scholar compares it to the love, commitment to loved ones and chivalrous service on the part of the heroes of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin and those of Amiran-Darejaniani [Kekelidze, 1981: 7].

d) A saint either suffers a martyr-like death or dies a natural death at the end of the long and ascetic life but “either way, she or he will let good be victorious over evil. The same goes for the poems: no matter how the heroes’ journey ends, they accomplish their goal, finally saying, “Evil is defeated by Good. Good will forever be our aid. [Kekelidze, 1981: 7].

R. Siradze indicates that the secular literature has borrowed a lot from hagiographic literature [Siradze, 1982: 161], therefore, specific elements or motifs that are typical to hagiography regularly occur in secular writings. Miraculous behavior of saints which is expressed through hyperbolization represents one of such elements.

Even though a miracle that is characteristic to hagiographic monuments in terms of its form and content rarely occurs in secular works, still there is an underlying medieval way of perceiving the supernatural as a reality in the way an unfathomable heroic act, and a hyperbolic behavior, depicted in the secular literature, is interpreted by an author and, therefore, embraced by readers. In other words, an entire structure of the medieval thought is manifested in the secular literature, namely, a distinctive transformation of the miracle model which is characteristic to hagiographic literature, and which is generally demonstrated through hyperbolization of heroic acts performed by characters of the secular works.

From this perspective, the proposed article will be dealing with Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin.

We would like to suggest that it is important to study and analyze any text specifically against the background of the period of its composition, since every literary work features the worldview and spiritual convictions of its times. Otherwise, we might not be able to perceive the truth and our conclusions might be irrelevant. In view of the above-discussed issue, here is a quote from M. Gigineishvili’s book stating that “… readers of different epochs can read a literary work in a new way, depending on literary tastes and creative principles of their times, however, for the study of a literary monument[1] composed in the Early Medieval period we should take into consideration the specificity of the Early Medieval literature, and the worldview of the Medieval era.” [Gigineishvili, 2003: 675]. Thus, when discussing the hyperbolization of heroic acts performed by characters of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin the Late Medieval view of the world is to be taken into account.

Rustaveli is the poet of the Late Middle Ages. The moment The Knight in the Panther’s Skin emerged within the Georgian Christian thought process marked the formation of the type of worldview that further led the humanity to the Renaissance era. Therefore, a proper understanding of Rustaveli’s position as well as his perception of the world is possible within the mentality of the transitional period from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It has been referred to as a harmony between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by E. Khintibidze [Khintibidze, 2009: 60, 659].

When describing the Middle Ages, Laura Grigolashvili suggests, “the Medieval culture is permeated with the notion that God is the true Creator and the sole author, while others, being merely interpreters, comment upon the divine creation. They express their attitude towards the Supreme God by means of ready-made religious formulae; the literary thought is based on such religious-dogmatic phraseology, paradigmatic images and expressions… Therefore, this would rule out any conflict between the author and readers of the time in terms of the worldview and esthetic appreciation.” [Grigolashvili, 2008: 129].

Certain events, depicted in the storyline of the poem, which create a distrust in today’s world full of pragmatism and which are merely understood by readers or scholars as hyperbolization, are illusory and mythic. They are natural for readers of the Rustaveli era in much the same manner as the miracles rendered in hagiographic literature because they are based on the characters’ deep faith towards God. Driven by such reasoning, the article will deal with several episodes of the poem where, from our point of view, superhuman behaviors occur.

As mentioned above, a typical hagiographic miracle hardly ever occurs in The Knight in the Panther’s Skin[2]. Hyperbolization has been first established by Amiran-Darejaniani[3], later followed by Rustaveli by continuing and taking it to another level of superb artistry in his poem. In the poem, the behavior of heroic characters is hyperbolized, thus allowing the author to depict their extraordinary heroism.

From this point of view, the episode describing the Avtandil’s encounter with the pirates is significant. Apart from the depiction of the superhuman physical strength of the heroic knight, the above-mentioned episode demonstrates his deep faith and trust in God, which allows him to miraculously defeat the pirate warriors. When thanked and praised by joyful merchants, Avtandil responds, saying:

He said: "To God the Creator, who makes all, we thankfully kneel.

God's heavenly power on high decides whether to hurt or heal.

It's He who does everything: some He will hide and some He'll reveal.

One should accept what happens; a wise man never resists the real.”

[Rustaveli, 1966: stanza 1050].


"God has deigned to spare your lives, so many of you with blood unshed.

What am I? Earth. By myself, what could I have done?”

[Rustaveli, 1966: stanza 1051].

Clearly, Avtandil does not ascribe the victory to himself since he is absolutely sure that without God’s assistance and His marvelous support in hero’s battle against pirates, mere physical strength would in no way help. The voice of the poem’s author in the following excerpt makes it even more obvious:

“Oh man! Do not brag as though drunk, nor boast of the strength you have got!

Might is of no avail if the power of the Lord aids you not!

The greatest tree can be burned down by a tiny spark on the spot.

God is guarding us. It is from Him the final arrow is shot.”

[Rustaveli, 1966: stanza 1046].

Even though Avtandil is a character of a secular poem, still he puts himself in God’s hands and wins the victory over the pirates because of his faith which, in fact, is a superhuman act; at the same time, however, Rustaveli consistently portrays a battling hero who defeats countless warriors entirely unsupported. This is not the victory overwhelmingly built on physical force; rather, Avtandil decides to defeat the pirates with his wits, devising a sound plan against them” [Chakunashvili, 2011: 51]. Interestingly, the episode involves a specific weapon which enables the poem’s character to win miraculously – with his iron mace he breaks the beam (upon which is a spear) of the pirate ship. The very episode is characterized by hyperbolization, however, the medieval view of the world serves as a basis for such hyperbolization.

The part portraying Tariel’s battle against the Khatavians is interesting.

Rustaveli depicts Tariel’s unprecedented heroism in the war against Khataeti, and his unparalleled strength which he employs to beat the innumerable Khatavian warriors. “In the course of his fight against the Khatavians, Tariel demonstrates miraculous heroism, cleaving the warriors in half and overthrowing the riders[Goltsev, 1944: 174]:

"I swooped like a falcon on partridges bunched in an open pen.

I threw man against man, piled up bodies in heaps, horses and men.

A man thrown down by me spins like a fly and won't get up again.

Thus did I entirely destroy their two front squadrons there and then.

[Rustaveli, 1966: stanza 450].

The above-mentioned excerpt, first of all, emphasizes Tariel’s superhuman physical force and his unparalleled bravery. Tariel’s behavior features miraculous signs. Besides, the text shows that the physical strength is not the only thing that Tariel relies on. Much like Avtandil, Tariel finds a smart way and develops a rational strategy well in advance, the one that he pursues in all his further actions. Both instances (Avtandil’s battle against pirates and Khataeti war) are characterized by hyperbolization, however, in addition to that, human intelligence, ratio is embraced which is typical to the Renaissance way of thinking[4]. Though, unlike Avtandil, Tariel does not ascribe his victory to God, it is still implied that it comes from God because, according to the mentality of the epoch, God is the creator of all things. God assists the knights in overcoming the obstacles; but at the same time, Rustaveli explains how certain superhuman acts unfolds, which strategies are employed by the hero that lead him to a miraculous victory on a battlefield.

Both episodes feature the integrated vision of Rustaveli, and the same structure and concept. Both cases are characterized by hyperbolization, however, this hyperbolized heroism is perceived by the Late Medieval readers as a real, undeniable fact.

The next episode of The Knight in the Panther’s Skin dealt with in the proposed article is the capture of the Kadjeti fortress by three hero-knights [Rustaveli, 1966: stanzas 1411-1426].

Let us recall that Tariel, Avtandil and Pridon, accompanied with three hundred soldiers, destroy massive forces of the Kadjis. This action undergoes hyperbolization insofar as we know the Kadjis are evildoers and skilled in sorcery. However, we believe that both this particular episode and the entire poem require in-depth consideration, taking into account the worldview of the epoch as well as the Areopagitic wisdom which, as a recurring leitmotif, binds the poem together. Evil is defeated by Good. Good will forever be our aid. [Rustaveli, 1966: stanza 1361,4.]; “God creates only good; He lets no evil in the world arise” [Rustaveli, 1966: stanza 1491,2]. The author deeply believes that evil is short-lived since it is non-existent, and not the God’s creation, therefore, the defeat of a seemingly unbeatable army of the Kadjis by engaging three hundred men becomes absolutely possible because these three self-sacrificing hero-knights full of bravery, good will, love and trust in God’s protection put up resistance to the Kadjis.

       At the same time, the episode clearly displays the Renaissance ideals: by employing the armor taken from the cave of the Devis that is particularly effective against the Kadjis, and using a sound and specifically devised plan, the hero-knights destroy their enemies. Their counsel is a direct representation of the Renaissance worldview. “Evil must be defeated which requires action. The reasoning power, logic, estimation and identification represent the only way towards accomplishing this philosophical idea of action. That is why the heroes try to determine a wiser plan in order to find way into the Kadjeti fortress”


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