The Nart cycle of heroic legends is considered as the national epic tradition of the Ossetes, and as such it is key to understanding and appreciating their rich and ancient culture. And though less well-known to modern Westerners than the Greek, Roman, Germanic or Celtic literatures to which they are closely related, the Nart sagas have an important place in filling out our understanding of Indo-European cultures and their attendant mythologies.
The Greek, Indian, Persian and Icelandic examples given above are part of a larger group of oral literature that, reflecting their genetic relationship in terms of both language and content, is referred to as “Indo-European”. In other words, just as the Greek, Sanskrit, Persian and Norse languages are descended from a common linguistic ancestor—the so-called “Proto-Indo-European” tongue assumed to have been spoken by pastoral nomadic tribes who occupied the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea some five thousand years ago—the myths and legends preserved in those languages right up to the present day can be shown to have evolved from an ancestral body of oral literature common to all of them. The Nart legends of the Caucasus belong to this shared Indo-European literary tradition.
What is a “national epic tradition?” Oral—that is, preliterate—societies tend to preserve their cultural knowledge over the generations through the telling of tales, which are usually memorized in verse and related to the broader community through song by professional storytellers. In modern times most such traditions have been reduced to written form, which has the effect of fossilizing them since the process of writing down necessarily privileges one version among many and destroys the dynamic improvisation of spoken re-telling. Homer played this role when selecting stories for inclusion into the Iliad and the Odyssey, as did Valmiki with the Sanskrit Ramayana, Ferdowsi with the Persian Book of Kings, and Snorri Sturluson with the Norse sagas. There remain a few rare contexts around the world today where one can still experience traditional storytelling in something resembling its ancient form, but these are few and far between and in danger of dying out.
The Nart tales are known all across the Caucasus region and are held by many of its peoples—most of whom, such as the Circassians and Chechens, are not Indo-European— as their own. However, a comparison of the Nart cycle with other epics clearly demonstrates that it belongs within the Indo-European tradition. Centuries of cohabitation among the diverse peoples of the Caucasus have added many later elements borrowed from the Adyghes, Vainakhs, Turks and others, but it is the version preserved by the Ossetes, whose northern Iranian language and culture can be traced back to the ancient Scythians, that can be considered to contain the original core of the tales of the Narts.
As noted by the Harvard-based comparative mythologist Calvert Watkins, the pastoral-nomadic world that gave birth to the Indo-European epics was one in which the bold exploits of the “hero”—whose principal achievement was to steal cattle from enemy tribes—were celebrated and memorialized by the “poet”, who, recompensed in his turn by gifts of that same livestock, was “the highest-paid professional in his society.” The Nart stories preserve this value system more directly and obviously than any other Indo-European epic tradition: the most heroic thing a man can do is to rustle cattle to bring back home to his community, and he does so in the hope that this will earn him “everlasting fame” (an outcome which depends upon the skill of the poet). My Ossetian colleague Tamir Salbiev sees an ongoing reflection of this symbiotic paradigm in a pair of images which can be seen today painted large upon two faces of a massive boulder beside the road leading into the Tsey Valley: on one side, a portrait of the Ossetian national poet, Kosta Khetagurov, and on the other, that imposing Ossetian national hero, Joseph Stalin. (Never mind that Khetagurov died too soon to celebrate the dictator’s exploits in his works, or that Stalin never acknowledged his Ossetian ancestry. We are speaking here of myth.)
The behaviour, the values, and lifestyle details of the literary Narts (Oss. Nartæ, a plural form derived from the Iranian “nar”, meaning “to be strong, virile”) all correspond so comfortably to descriptions of the ancestors of today’s Ossetes—the Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans—which are found in historical sources, that the tales can be taken as accurate portrayals of how these peoples saw themselves, at least in an idealized form. In the Nart stories we can perceive not only the general ethos of the Scythians as the Greeks and others portrayed them, but also many details mentioned in those same sources—for example, wearing the scalps of vanquished enemies, the “cup of honour” (Uatsamongæ) from which only the genuine hero may drink, or the shame attached to growing old rather than dying in battle. Some of these elements, most notably the alcohol-fueled ritual feast known as kwyvd, are still central to Ossetian culture today. Like mythical Indo-Europeans everywhere the Narts are highly patriarchal and women exist mainly to serve their masters (especially by preparing lavish feasts). And yet, just as one finds a goddess at the head of Herodotus’ Scythian pantheon, perhaps the most remarkable character in the Ossetian epic is the “mother of the Narts,” Satana, a shape-shifting sorceress who is the very embodiment of generosity, and whose stature in Nart society no man can rival.
The great Ossetian scholar V.I. Abaev has shown how the Narts’ ultimate fate, including the tragic deaths of their greatest heroes Soslan and Batraz, mythologically reflects the vanquishing of their pagan world in the face of Byzantine Christianity by the 10th century. Characteristically, the remaining Narts, told to choose between an eternal but mundane existence and death with eternal fame, opt for the latter. A more poignant expression of Indo-European heroic values could scarcely be imagined.