Ossetian Genealogy: From Arya to Alan to Ir

Nart Heroes

National identity became something of a worldwide rage during the 20th century and nowhere more than in the former Soviet Union, particularly when the breakup of that multi-ethnic empire allowed for the resurgence among non-Russians of nationalist claims to territory and history. The Ossetes, numbering less than a million and living in one of the world’s most linguistically and culturally diverse regions where they had intermingled with other groups for centuries, found at once that they could assert a heritage going back to the ancient Scythians who dominated the vast Eurasian steppe for more than a millennium in ancient times, but also that others were making competing claims to that legacy as well.

Given centuries of shared existence it is only natural that the Ossetes would have much in common with Georgians, Circassians and Chechens, despite their very different origins. Trying to untangle their mutual connections is hardly a straightforward project, and it has led to much bitterness and even bloodshed. It is one thing to take pride in the glories of one’s ancestors, but too often this leads to exaggeration, exclusivism, and counter-productive hostilities. I will attempt here to briefly characterize the validity of prevalent Ossetian notions regarding their own past in relation to that of their neighbours.

The Ossetes speak an Iranic language which is directly descended from that of the Scythians, diverse tribes of often warlike pastoral nomads who occupied the steppes from eastern Europe all the way to Mongolia during the first century BCE. They were known to the Greeks, the Persian and the Chinese, who all feared their military might as mounted archers. They were also known for producing magnificent gold jewelry, which was especially prized by the Greeks with whom they traded in settlements around the Black Sea.

The Sarmatians were a Scythian group who interacted with the Romans, often fighting them but sometimes being coopted as cavalry into the Roman army. A Sarmatian contingent was settled by the Romans in Britain during the first century, and the Arthurian legends have been connected with them. A century later the Sarmatians come to be referred to in Latin sources as Alans, which is a phonetic transformation of the ethnonym “Aryan”, meaning “noble”, by which the diverse Iranic tribes referred to themselves. The Ossetes today call themselves “Ir” (adjectival form iron), and their country Iryston, but since the fall of the Soviet Union both North and South Ossetia have added the name “Alania” to their official designations. (“Ossetia” derives from the Georgian “Os-eti”, meaning “Land of the As”, the As being one of the Scythian tribes known from antiquity.)

Since the Ossetian language is indisputably Iranic and is descended from the Scythian/Sarmatian branch through medieval Alanic of which a number of written examples exist, claims by contemporary Ingush, Kabardians and others to be the “true” descendants of the Alans would seem to be entirely spurious. The fact that many clearly Iranic cultural elements are preserved in the heroic epic tradition of the Narts, which other Caucasian peoples also claim as their own, adds further weight to Ossetian claims vis-à-vis their non-Iranian (and hence non-Indo-European) neighbours. On the other hand, the Ossetes have not spent the past two thousand years in a vacuum, and they have absorbed many Caucasian influences as well, to say nothing of their DNA. The tradition of families building stone towers (Russ. bashnya) in which they would hole up when under siege by invaders may go back as much as three thousand years, well before steppe-dwelling Aryan horsemen began to settle in the mountainous Caucasus two millennia ago. And the Nart stories, which evolved organically over a long period through oral transmission until they finally began to be collected and written down by folklorists in the 19th century, contain many non-Indo-European layers, showing influences from all the other Caucasian peoples as well as Turks, Mongols, and Greeks. Racial and cultural purity are the chimeras of ignorant fanatics and should be dismissed out of hand by anyone genuinely seeking historical truth.

The Alans’ importance in history is generally underappreciated (except in the Caucasus, where everyone wants to claim them as their own unique ancestral heroes). In fact medieval Europe was greatly shaped by the equestrian culture of the Alans, who settled throughout Britain, France, Italy, Spain, and across North Africa as far as modern Tunisia. Scores of place names attest to their memory—Alainville, Alaincourt, Alençon, possibly even Catalonia (Goth-Alania)—as does the common proper name Alan (Fr. Alain). Ossetes today claim that Alans were everywhere: the Norse were actually Alans, I am frequently told, and there is a popular joke that evidence has recently been found of Alans on the moon. Such notions are not always purely romantic, however. I was astonished during a visit to South Korea in October 2019 when touring the monuments of the famous Silla kingdom (fl. 7th-8th c.) near Gyeongju to see royal burial mounds (kurgans) that exactly resembled those left by the Scythians from Bulgaria to Kazakhstan. The style of construction as well as of the burials themselves—kings laid out amidst their gold jewelry, accompanied by their favourite horse—seemed too close to that of the Scythians to be merely coincidental. On consulting with Korean historians I learned that they generally accept a Central Asian origin to this tradition.

In conclusion, both language and cultural traditions tie the Alans more closely to the Ossetes than to any of the other Caucasian peoples. The Ossetes can be considered as the direct descendants of the Alans, but in concession to the claims of the Kabardians and the Ingush I would note that tribal nomadic confederations are typically quite fluid and multi-ethnic, assembling periodically for reasons that are primarily opportunistic. The best-known example is that of the Mongol horde, in which ethnic Mongols were vastly outnumbered by Turks and others. The Alan armies were also most likely composed of different ethnicities speaking a variety of languages, but within such a mosaic clearly the Iranic element was dominant and it is the Ossetes alone who have preserved this.

Alans on the Moon

Published by Richard Foltz

Professor in the Department of Religions and Cultures, Concordia University, Montréal, Canada

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