Ossetian Popular Religion: Scythian Connections

Mountaintop shrine to Uastyrdzhi, North Ossetia

When one has spent years studying a topic and earned the status of a specialist through much time and effort, it can be deeply annoying when others who have not done so presume to voice opinions in the absence of familiarity with the facts. One can only imagine the frustration of climate scientists when political and business leaders continue to cast doubt on the reality of human-induced climate change, and their despair when they see how misrepresentations and outright lies are used in ways that cause massive harm. For a foreign historian living in the Caucasus, where baseless historical narratives are bandied about for purposes that are purely political, the feeling is familiar.

No one with even a basic knowledge of comparative mythology or historical linguistics would venture to cast doubt on the Ossetes’ cultural and linguistic descent from the Alans, the Sarmatians, and the Scythians (I am not talking about DNA—that is another story!), but many who lack such knowledge dare to do so. I was frankly shocked when delivering a paper on Alan religion at the prestigious Moscow State University last December when a respected professor of medieval Western European history who was asked to provide concluding comments on the various presentations at the end of the day, after admitting that he knew nothing of my topic, nevertheless dismissed my paper with a chuckle by referring to a Chechen publicist who denies the Ossetes’ claims to descend from the Alans. When a history professor accepts the diatribe of an ignorant non-academic as a basis for ridiculing a fellow historian outside of his own field, then perhaps we should not be surprised when climate science is overruled by petroleum executives.

In fact the linguistic and cultural evidence linking the Ossetes with the Alans is incontrovertible, and the historical trajectory of their migration and settlement patterns is not too difficult to reconstruct through Roman, Byzantine, Chinese, Persian, Georgian and Armenian written sources and material culture. The fact that they were linguistically and culturally Iranian can also be demonstrated with clear evidence. I am not a historical linguist, but I have read enough in that field to understand that this identity is not in doubt. The surviving traces of the Scythian, Sarmatian, and Alan languages—whether proper names, toponyms, or glossaries in other languages such as Greek or Hungarian—establish them as belonging to the northeastern Iranian linguistic classification, and the evidence for the Alan language, in particular, while not rich, is extensive enough to prove that it was the immediate predecessor to modern Ossetian. 

It was my background as a cultural historian specializing in ancient Iranian religion that first brought me to pursue research on Ossetia, since I detected many pre-Zoroastrian Iranic elements that have survived in Ossetian popular traditions up to the present day. Since many of these elements are no longer seen in any other society, Iranian or otherwise, I realized that studying Ossetian traditions offers an entirely unique window into the origins of Iranian-ness going back as much as four thousand years.

Many Ossetian rituals and celebrations seen today display features that are likely to be very old, in some cases pre-Christian and possibly going back even to Scythian times. For example, Scythians were known to be great drinkers, and Ossetian ceremonies typically involve the generous consumption of alcohol through repeated toasts. Indeed, the Ossetian word kwyvd (куывд) means both “toast” and “prayer”, reflecting the fact that during such ceremonies prayers to the gods are made in the form of toasts raised up to the sky. Another practice, which was historically central to Ossetian rituals is animal sacrifice, usually an ox or a ram. (A three-year-old bull is preferred: the bull sacrifice is reminiscent of Mithraism.) Ossetes do not sacrifice pigs, an avoidance that can be traced back to the Scythians, as noted by Herodotus (4.63). Many Ossetian rituals make use of a small, round, three-legged table, called a fyng (фынг), which is already attested in Scythian times. The ritual meal set upon this table is also called a fyng.

A type of divination technique using sticks was practiced among the Scythians (Herodotus (4.67) and later by the Alans (Ammianus Marcellinus 31.2.24). During the 1880s the Russian ethnographer S. V. Koviev observed the Ossetes practicing such a technique, which the French scholar of comparative mythology Georges Dumézil later considered likely to have been derived from that of the Scythians.

The pantheon of the ancient Scythians, like that of the best-known of the Iranian religions, Zoroastrianism, consisted of seven gods or divine figures, each of which was connected to some natural phenomenon. Herodotus (4.59) listed them as follows, reflecting in the first five cases a Greek pronunciation of the original Scythian names, which are not otherwise known to us:

  • Tabiti: the goddess of the hearth, equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess Hestia. The hearth is the focal point of religious rituals performed in Ossetian households today, presided over by the deity called Safa, while the goddess figure herself has been assimilated to the Virgin Mary, called Mady Maïram in Ossetian.
  • Papai: Equated by Herodotus with Zeus, both likely being reflections of the ancient Indo-European ‘Father Sky’.
  • Api: Equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia, but this is likely a misunderstanding on his part, since ‘Ap’ in Iranian means ‘water’ and the water goddess (Anahita in Zoroastrianism, for example) is known to have held a major position in the religions of other Iranian peoples.
  • (G)Oitosyros: Equated by Herodotus with Apollo. Herodotus states elsewhere that the Scythians worshipped the sun (as did other Iranian peoples), which may be why he makes the association with Apollo.
  • Argimpasa (or Artimpasa; Greek ‘Γ’ and ‘T’ being sometimes difficult to distinguish): Equated by Herodotus with Aphrodite Ourania, and thus possibly a fertility goddess.

And the last two, for whom he gives only Greek equivalents without providing the Scythian names:

  • ‘Herakles’: Function unspecified by Herodotus, though for the Greeks he was a symbol of masculinity. Under the Parthians, another Iranian tribe of steppe nomadic origin who ruled western Asia from 247 BCE to 224 CE, the cult of Herakles became widespread in Iran.
  • ‘Ares’: The god of war. For the Scythians, whose economy depended heavily on raiding, one would naturally assume that the cult of a martial deity was central. Herodotus confirms this, stating that ‘Ares’ was the only god to whom the Scythians constructed ‘altars’. In fact he is referring to the well-attested Scythian cult of the sword, which would be planted into a pile of stones (or brushwood, according to Herodotus’ account) and then offered the blood of sacrificed enemies–a structure perhaps reflected in the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone, which was likely brought to Britain by Alan regiments settled there by the Romans during the first century. The sword cult is attested among the Alans as late as the fourth century CE. The modern Uastyrdzhi, who is the most prominent deity for the Ossetians today, presumably descends from this war god, whose Scythian name is unknown to us (perhaps because it was subject to a taboo). An exclusively male figure who is the patron of soldiers and other travellers as well as the guardian of spoken contracts, Uastyrdzhi would seem to be the Ossetian parallel to the Zoroastrian god Mithra (whose name originally meant ‘spoken contract’ or ‘oath’), who was perhaps the principal deity of the pre-Zoroastrian Iranians. 

It is interesting to note in regard to this divine heptad that the city on the Black Sea coast known to the Greeks as Theodosia was called in Scythian Ardavda, which means ‘Seven Gods’. A modern reflection of the same notion is seen in the name of an important Ossetian temple in the Digor region of western Ossetia, Avd dzaury, which also means ‘Seven Gods’. Formerly in Ossetian the days of the week were named for seven deities, and in the Digor dialect Monday is still Avdisar, ‘Head of the Seven’, a title which refers to Uatsilla (the deity of thunderstorms) as the eldest of the gods.

To date it has not been possible to draw clear correspondences between the gods of the Scythian pantheon and those of the Ossetes, and they may not in all cases be equivalent. More likely, the Ossetian deities worshipped today evolved in connection with the socio-cultural realities of the Ossetes themselves (or their Alan forebears), while retaining the overall structure of a seven-figure pantheon as was also the case with Zoroastrianism. Herodotus states that the tribe known as the ‘Royal Scythians’ also worshipped a deity named Thagimasidas, whom he equates with Poseidon and which has a modern-day reflection in the Ossetian god of the waters, Donbettyr, but this eight-figure pantheon is an exception both among the Scythians and among Iranian peoples in general.

The Ossetian Pantheon and Religious Rituals

Many of the most prominent Ossetian deities bear names that are derived from those of Christian saints, and do not directly preserve their original Iranian appellations. Thus, the name of the most widely-worshipped divine figure, Uastyrdzhi, stems from an Ossetian pronunciation of ‘St. George’, attaching the prefix ‘Ua(t)-‘, meaning ‘holy’ to ‘Giergi’, even though he appears to be largely a manifestation of the ancient Iranian god of contracts and warriors known elsewhere as Mithra. Similarly, the widely-attested Indo-European god of thunder, lightning and rain is called Uatsilla by the Ossetians, his name being a form of ‘St. Elijah’ (Ua(t)- + Ilyas). The name of Tutyr, the god of wolves (a perpetual concern for the pastoral Ossetians), derives from (St.) ‘Theodore’, and that of his sometime opponent Fælværa, the protector of livestock, may reflect a conflation of the Christian saint names Florus and Laurus. 

On the other hand, this is not the case for all Ossetian deities. The title of the supreme creator god, Khuytsauty Khuytsau (‘God of all gods’), is entirely Iranian. Kurdalægon, the heavenly blacksmith (forging being a vital activity for the premodern Ossetes and their combative Alan ancestors), is also an easily recognizable Iranian figure. His name means ‘the Aryan Blacksmith, Wærgon (Wolf)’, and his analog Kaveh/Kawa is well-known in the Persian and Kurdish mythological traditions. 

Other Ossetian divine names are constructed of combinations. For example, that of Donbettyr, the lord of the waters, is comprised of the Ossetian word for water, don (an ancient Iranian term preserved in the names of many east European rivers including the Don, the Danube, the Dnieper and the Dniester), and bettyr, a corruption of (St.) Peter. The Christian archangels Michael and Gabriel are conflated in the Ossetian tradition into a single character, Mikaelgabyrta, a figure associated with fertility and also with the underworld. For Æfsati, the god of the hunt, the etymology is unclear; his name may derive from the Abkhazian word a-psaåf, meaning ‘bird’, or it may be a corruption of (St.) Eustace, with whom he is associated.

The Ossetian annual calendar is filled with popular rituals and celebrations, some of which are carried out within the home among the immediate family, and others in sacred outdoor spaces by the larger community. Household rituals are typically centered on the hearth chain (safa), by which a cauldron hangs from the ceiling over a fire (recall the fire is one of the sacred elements in Indo-Iranian tradition and is hypostasized as a deity in Hinduism and Zoroastrianism). Communal ceremonies, on the other hand, tend to be held in sacred groves or on exposed mountaintops where there is usually a shrine, generally constructed of wood but sometimes of stone. The ancient Persians also performed their devotions on mountaintops, as noted by Herodotus. 

Ossetian rituals consist in the first instance of holding a feast (fyng or kuvyn) in honour of a particular deity. The ceremony is led by a man designated to lead the occasion, called a Dzuary Læg or ‘holy man’, there being no traditional priesthood. His role is to invoke the deity through the offering of the toast/prayer (kuyvd). In other words, for Ossetes, the essential form of prayer is that of raising a skyward toast to the deity, which was apparently also the case with the ancient Scythians. Beer is the usual drink offered, though it may be substituted by various kinds of strong liquor. Toasts to various deities continue to be made throughout the ensuing feast, in which three ceremonial cheese pies (ualibakh) are consumed along with meat from an animal sacrificed for the occasion. A major annual mountaintop ceremony held at the Usanet dzuar shrine in South Ossetia commemorates a tradition claiming that in former times once a year a deer would come to that place to offer itself as a sacrifice, but as people came to disregard the necessary rituals the deer stopped coming. Nowadays every spring thousands of people make the pilgrimage up to the exposed summit where one finds the ruined foundations of a stone shrine—most likely originally a Christian church in medieval times—and leave offerings of beer to Æfsati, the god of the hunt.

Beer offerings to Æfsati, god of the hunt, Usanet dzuar, South Ossetia

Published by Richard Foltz

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

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