The Uzunag Festival in Digoria

Uzunag shrine, Vakats, Digoria, North Ossetia

Every summer on the third Saturday in July Digorians—most of whom have migrated out of their native region to Vladikavkaz or other cities—return to their ancestral villages. On this occasion those with family connections to the village of Vakats (pop. 87) congregate in a clearing high in the mountains about 200 metres below a shrine to Ossetia’s most popular divine figure, Uastyrdzhi. Most arrive by car, navigating a steep and treacherous dirt track that zigzags up the slope from Vakats village far below. Families begin to arrive about midday, unloading food from the trunks of their cars and congregating in groups where they greet relatives and friends they may not have seen since the year before. The men gather in one area and the women and children in another. Some of the women work to set the long banquet tables with fresh fruits and vegetables while a few of them prepare traditional Ossetian pies (chiritæ in Ossetian) in a small covered kitchen area. Most of the men simply stand and chat, but those who have had some good fortune during the year—such as a marriage, a birth, or getting over an illness—sacrifice a bull or a ram. A sufficiently large individual is then entrusted with chopping the victims into rather large chunks which are thrown into large cauldrons to boil. The men go off a few at a time to make the short hike up to the shrine, which, like most traditional holy places in Ossetia, is forbidden to women.

The shrine itself, which is about two metres high with walls of stone and a flat tin roof, is said to have been constructed during the 19th century by a young shepherd named Uzunag after receiving a miraculous visitation from Uastyrdzhi at the site. Nestled within a wooded incline on mountainside, the small building is filled with the skulls of slaughtered animals. There is a table with offerings of beer, and an altar set into the wall where visitors place cash offerings (called nisainag in the Digorian dialect). 

The rest of the afternoon is given over to eating and drinking, the beverage of choice being traditional Ossetian beer called bægæny. The ongoing meal is punctuated by toasts in accordance with the kwyvd ritual which is the basis of all Ossetian social gatherings: The eldest male in each family (called the khishtær) stands, and all the men with him, while he offers a toast first to the supreme deity, Khwytsauty khwytsau, then to Uastyrdhzhi, then to the deceased ancestors, then to parents, children, friends, etc. Usually the drinking vessel is a horn, “so you can’t put it down until you’ve drained it”. This ritual most likely dates back to Scythian times, and is a prominent feature of the life described in the Nart epic. There is singing, dancing, and sport competitions among the youths. Similar gatherings take place all over Ossetia during the summer months.

Published by Richard Foltz

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

One thought on “The Uzunag Festival in Digoria

  1. Nice posts! It seems we had to wait for a Canadian moving to Ossetia to get such a vivid portray of Ossetian traditions in a Western language.


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