Hiking in Digoria

Alania National Park, Stur Digora, North Ossetia

Digoria is the western part of North Ossetia-Alania, where the archaic Digor dialect of Ossetian is spoken. Many consider it to be the most beautiful region of Ossetia, particularly the mountainous Irafsky district which is home to the spectacular Alania National Park. The area is heavily forested yet boasts seven major glaciers. The remote Urukh Valley was long used as a hideaway for bandits. Road access is still poor, but just beyond the village of Stur Digora there are a number of mountain resorts with modern facilities. This is an excellent place to use as a base camp for treks. 

Within the park there are peaks reaching over 4,600 metres, and Mt. Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain at 5,642m is just across the border in Kabardino-Balkaria. There are a number of breathtaking waterfalls, perhaps the most remarkable of which are the Tri Sestri (Three Sisters), which plunge side-by-side down the mountain face from the Karaugom Glacier above. Nearby is the Bairadi (“Happiness-bestowing”) waterfall, approached by a treacherous path with the help of a chain nailed into the rock. Bears, wolves, and possibly a leopard roam the thickly-forested mountainsides. There are also chamois goats, lynx, and the rare West Caucasian Tur, a large goat-antelope which is found nowhere else in the world. 

The next major valley to the east, fed by the Dargonkom River, has a more palpable human presence. The villages here have a history stretching back millennia, and there are many interesting stone towers and other archaeological remains. My wife’s paternal ancestors were from the village of Vakats, about halfway up the valley to Galiat where the road ends before reaching the continental divide marking the border with Georgia.

Just off the main road which serves the region from the more heavily populated agricultural plains further north, the village of Zadalesk houses a small museum dedicated to the memory of the medieval heroine known as Zadaleski Nana. The “mother of the Ossetes,” as she is sometimes called, is said to have saved the local Alan/Ossete nation from total annihilation during the ravages of Tamerlane in 1394-95 by hiding orphaned children in a cave. Her name has been forgotten, but her heroism is remembered in a well known folk song which is still sung today. The cave high on the cliffside above the village is difficult to find, but one may hire a guide by asking at the museum.

Zadaleski Nana saving Ossetian orphans

Was Stalin an Ossete?

Rock portrait, Tsey Valley, North Ossetia

Every killing is a treat, for the barrel-chested Ossete

— Osip Mandelstam, 1933

For a Westerner raised during the Cold War the figure of Joseph Stalin is most often associated with state terror under a brutal dictatorship. It can therefore be surprising to see his image today all over Ossetia, both North and South, and even more so to learn that many consider him to be an Ossetian national hero. Most impressive is a huge portrait painted on a boulder by the side of the road through North Ossetia’s Tsey Valley near a popular ski resort. The opposite side of the boulder bears a monumental image of Kosta Khetagurov (Oss. Khetagkaty Kosta), the father of modern Ossetian literature. Tamir Salbiev notes that we have here the ancient Indo-European pairing of the Poet and the Hero.

In South Ossetia, the main street in the capital Tskhinval is named for Stalin. His image can be seen all over the region, in the form of official statues as well as spray-painted onto walls and found on calendars, t-shirts and stickers on the rear windows of cars. On 27 April 2020 South Ossetian president Anatoly Bibilov signed a declaration reviving the name Stalinir, by which Tskhinval was known from 1934 to 1961, as an officially accepted “alternative name” for the South Ossetian capital.

Stalin monument with fresh flowers, Fiagdon, North Ossetia

Joseph Stalin (born Iosip Dhzugashvili in Gori, Georgia in 1878 when it was a part of the Russian Empire) is usually described as having been an ethnic Georgian, and he seems to have grown up in a Georgian-speaking household. I have not come across any evidence that he spoke Ossetian, although his native region had a mixed population in which Ossetes were present if not actually a majority so he certainly heard the language spoken and may have spoken it himself as well. DNA research has shown that he carried the G2a-Z6653 gene, which is considered to be distinctive to the Ossetes. But I have not seen anything to suggest that Stalin embraced an Ossetian identity on any level. Does the claim that he was an Ossete have any basis in fact? 

Identity is an elusive concept having many layers, and never more so that today when it is taken as a human right that one may construct one’s identity however one wishes. The same may be said for projecting identities onto the past. (In the US the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has made a practice of “baptizing” many historical figures including most of the American Founding Fathers, retroactively turning them into posthumous Mormons.) The resulting claims are often contested, and one finds no lack of Stalin supporters today in Georgia as well as across the former USSR as well. But perhaps nowhere, even in Georgia, are feelings for Stalin as pronounced or as generalized as they are in Ossetia. 

Positive attitudes towards Stalin among today’s Ossetes are not universal, however. In the words of a former member of the South Ossetian parliament, Roland Kelekhsaev, “Stalin is Ossetian, we consider him Ossetian, but he did nothing useful for Ossetia. We have witnessed the fact that South Ossetia was given to Georgia, and North Ossetia to Russia. The best representatives of the Ossetian intelligentsia were repressed. Ossetia was divided into northern and southern parts.”

The Dzhugashvili family almost certainly had an Ossetian component, and it is sometimes said that “Stalin’s paternal grandfather was an ethnic Ossete.” Intermarriage among the many diverse communities of the Caucasus has always existed, despite the region’s notorious tribalism, so the degree of importance one gives to any given ancestral element is to some extent at least a subjective affair. Perhaps in the end the matter of whether Stalin can be considered an Ossete or not is less a historical question than one of contemporary sociology and politics.

Stalin in the sky, North Ossetia

The Narts: Ossetia’s National Epic

The Nart hero Soslan

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.

Satana, the Mother of the Narts, holding the Uatsamongæ or cup of honour

Visiting South Ossetia

“Æz uarzyn Tskhinval”

The best means by which South Ossetia can hope to establish its viability as a country is, in my view, to make itself more open to foreign visitors. Visas are not currently required, but one must obtain permission to visit from the South Ossetian office in Vladikavkaz and this requires an invitation from someone in South Ossetia. Such a requirement is pointless, unnecessary, and entirely counter-productive to South Ossetia’s interests. Foreign tourists pose no threat to South Ossetia’s security; on the contrary, they are the country’s greatest untapped public relations resource. South Ossetia’s unrelentingly negative portrayal in the Western media—which is largely the result of Georgia’s endless efforts to cultivate good relations with the West—is exacerbated by an almost complete lack of information about the realities of life in South Ossetia: who its people are, what they have experienced, and what they hope for in the future. The best remedy for this pervasive ignorance would be to open up the gates and welcome anyone and everyone to come and see for themselves. South Ossetia has nothing to lose and everything to gain by adopting such an open-door policy.

South Ossetia has much to entice the interested traveler. The main attraction is, of course, its spectacular nature, which offers unsurpassed opportunities for hiking, trekking, camping, horseback riding, etc. Georgia has profited immensely from marketing its natural treasures, and South Ossetia has exactly the same to offer. Georgia has also successfully promoted its excellent wines, which are similar to those produced in South Ossetia, generally at home by individual families. Why not South Ossetian wine tours? South Ossetia also has much in the way of little-known historical monuments. The 18th-century church of the Holy Virgin in the capital, Tskhinval (Oss. Chreba), receives occasional mention, but there are also some interesting buildings in Leningor (Alkhagori to the Georgians) in the southeast including an impressive medieval fortress and a beautiful former mansion which now serves as an art museum. The National Museum in Tskhinval, which features artworks as well as archeological relics and natural history within its collection, is also well worth a visit. There are several decent hotels in Tskhinval, including the recently-opened Uyut (Oktyabrskaya ulitsa 135), and construction on the new four-star Hotel Iryston off the main square is nearly complete.

About 10km short of Leningor off on the south side of the main road there is a path leading up into the mountains to an abandoned monastery complex known as Aramaz, which includes a massive 9th century church completely hidden in the undergrowth. It is unusual in many ways and may have formerly been a Zoroastrian temple (Aramaz < Ahura Mazda? A nearby village is called Morbedan, perhaps related the name for Zoroastrian priests, mobedān). To my knowledge the history of this fascinating complex has never properly been studied. (The Department of Antiquities calls it an “Alan church,” but evidence of Alans in the south prior to the Mongol conquest is thin. In any case the building bears little structural resemblance to the known Alan churches at Nizhny Arkhyz in Karachay-Cherkessia.) I suspect that there are many such undiscovered treasures lying hidden amidst South Ossetia’s rugged landscape, if only scholars and travelers would give them the attention they deserve.

Aramaz church, near Leningor

As described in a previous post, Ossetian popular religion tends to centre on ceremonies performed at mountaintop sanctuaries. In South Ossetia one of the most important is the Usanet shrine near Leningor; another is Dzher in the central part of the country, where the infant Joseph Dzhughashvili was taken by his grateful father who, in middle age, had come to despair of ever having children. (Some may question whether this gratitude was misplaced, but in Ossetia Stalin is considered a national hero.) As one would expect, both of these holy sites are stunningly beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Shrine to Uastyrdzhi (St. George) at Dzher

It is to be hoped that the South Ossetian authorities will become more open and welcoming to foreign tourists (and not just to Russians). The result would be a win-win situation for South Ossetia and world travelers alike.

South Ossetia is a Country

In the medical profession there is a term for one who refuses to accept reality and tries to behave as if things were otherwise: it is called “denial”, and it is considered a pathological condition. Geopolitics, unfortunately, is rife with it. To cite but one of many possible examples, South Ossetia (official name: Republic of South Ossetia-State of Alania) has functioned as an independent country since 1991, and no amount of pretending can change the fact that during this time it has never been a part of Georgia in any meaningful or operative sense. Nor has it become a de facto part of Russia, as is sometimes claimed, and whatever arguments one might muster to the contrary could equally be applied to any number of other countries which, unlike South Ossetia, enjoy the benefits of international recognition.

South Ossetians will never accept to be a part of Georgia, for reasons that are clear and easy to understand: over the past one hundred years they have been the subject of explicitly genocidal campaigns by Georgians on no less than three separate occasions, and in each instance they were saved from extermination only through the intervention of the Russians. The first was from 1918-20 during the brief period of Georgian independence after the fall of the Russian Empire until the country’s absorption into the USSR in 1921. Ossetians living on the southern slopes of the Caucasus were mainly peasants living under the yoke of Georgian landlords; they tended to support Bolshevism, whereas the fledgling Georgian government were Mensheviks who saw the Ossetians as fifth columnists and called for their expulsion. Many Ossetians were killed or died while trying to cross over the mountains into Soviet-controlled North Ossetia. The Georgian campaign to eliminate Ossetians from the southern Caucasus was halted only by the Soviet invasion, after which the Ossetes were granted an autonomous district (oblast) within the newly-created Georgian SSR.

The second attempt to wipe out the southern Ossetes was instigated by Georgian politician Zviad Gamsakhurdia beginning in 1989 as Soviet power was on its last legs. Gamsakhurdia publicly referred to Ossetes as “scum” and called for their extermination. In response, in November 1989 the South Ossetian government took the decision to upgrade the district to the status of Autonomous Republic. Georgian gangs then began to attack Ossetes, hoping to drive them from the region. After months of tensions, on 20 September 1990 the South Ossetian government declared an independent republic within the USSR, separate from the Georgian SSR. Gamsakhurdia’s party won the Georgian elections the following month, and began to draw up plans to attack South Ossetia. Just prior to the invasion which took place on the eve of the Orthodox Christmas on 5 January 1991, Georgian civilians were bussed out of Ossetian-majority areas to safety. Yesterday we spoke to a survivor who told of twelve Ossetians, including a young boy whom they tied up to the legs of his grandfather, who were forced to dig their own graves and then buried alive. You could see the ground moving afterwards where the soil had been piled upon their heads, our informant told us. She also related that a gang of Georgian youths took an Ossetian man and shoved him into the oven at a restaurant, where he was cooked alive. The Russian army, apparently on orders from Moscow, withdrew and left the Ossetes to their fate, at which point the Georgian-Ossetian conflict degenerated into all-out war. When the USSR collapsed the following year, South Ossetia, along with fifteen other former Soviet republics, declared itself an independent country. Intercommunal violence continued until a fragile peace was imposed through a Russian-brokered ceasefire in 1992. Georgian gangs and paramilitary forces had continued to commit atrocities throughout this period, including the murder of an unarmed 18-year-old man by the name of Grigori Sanakoyev who, after admitting his Ossetian identity to an armoured personnel carrier full of Georgians, was crushed to death against a wall—his memory is preserved by a street named after him in Tskhinval and a school in Dzau. During the course of the two-year conflict more than 100,000 Ossetian refugees fled to North Ossetia, whereas an estimated 23,000 Georgians left South Ossetia for Georgia.

Following the 1992 ceasefire South Ossetia functioned as an independent, albeit unrecognized country until 7 August 2008, when Georgia’s then-president Mikhail Saakashvili, with the tacit support of Western powers, organized yet another surprise invasion. (Witnesses report seeing Americans amongst the invading forces.) Georgian gangs renewed their atrocities, including the massacre of thirty civilian refugees attempting to flee by car—families, including women and children—who were shelled by Georgians and burned alive in their vehicles. This event is commemorated by a gruesome monument outside of Tskhinval called “The Museum of Burnt Souls”. The Ossetians held off the Georgian attack for several days until finally the Russian army intervened to put an end to the fighting. Russia formally recognized South Ossetian independence, and since that time the Russian army has guarded South Ossetia’s long border with Georgia. Hence, Russia is not seen by Ossetians as an “occupying power,” as is inaccurately repeated in the Western media, but rather as welcome protectors, much like the US forces in South Korea. Apart from Russia, the only UN-member states to recognize South Ossetia are Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Nauru.

The Western media, when they mention South Ossetia at all, characterize Russia’s intervention in 2008 as a land grab, a symptom of Russian expansionism. In fact Russia does not want to formally incorporate South Ossetia into Russia, and has not done so. Russian banks do not operate there (it is a cash economy), and Ossetian merchants complain endlessly of the duties imposed on them when bringing goods across the Russian border. Among the Ossetes themselves, attitudes towards integration with Russia appear to be split down the middle. Contrary to the images of soldiers, barbed wire and bombed-out buildings which are the only visual representations to be found in the Western media, the South Ossetian capital Tskhinval is actually a very peaceful, modern city with good restaurants, well-groomed parks, and high-quality cultural events, where people go about their daily lives just as anywhere else. But the economic situation makes life difficult for most southern Ossetes; there are few jobs, and almost no foreign investors apart from Russians. There is an excellent, well-equipped university but little future for its graduates. International recognition would certainly improve South Ossetia’s economic prospects, and would in fact be the best bulwark against the very “Russian expansionism” that, perversely, is the usual pretext for denying it. So looking into the future it is either/or: either the international community finally lets go of its delusions about “re-integrating” South Ossetia into a country (Georgia) that has done nothing but attempt to eliminate its people and accords it the recognition it deserves, or the world will force South Ossetia further into the arms of Russia, to all evidence the only nation of any consequence that has shown itself willing to ensure its survival.

Stalin street, Tskhinval

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

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

Vladikavkaz: Gateway to Ossetia

Prospekt Mira, Vladikavkaz

Pretty much anyone coming to Ossetia will arrive first in Vladikavkaz (Oss. Dzæudzhyqæu), the capital of North Ossetia-Alania. The easiest way is by plane; the airport at Beslan, 14 kilometres north of Vladikavkaz, is served by four or five flights a day from Moscow and a couple of times a week from St. Petersburg. They are cheap, between $40 and $80 one-way. Vladikavkaz is also served by rail from Rostov, Moscow and Sochi but it is long, as are the roads. For my first visit I arrived by private taxi from Grozny in Chechnya, about an hour-and-a-half away, and continued on afterwards to Tbilisi in Georgia, also by taxi, which took about four hours including the border crossing through the stunning Daryal (from the Persian Dar-e Alan, “Alan Gate”) Pass. Note that there is only one way in or out of South Ossetia, by road through the Ruk tunnel, the border with Georgia being closed since 2008.

Vladikavkaz is a very pleasant mid-sized city of about 312,000, large enough to boast many cultural activities—especially classical music, traditional Ossetian dance, and Ossetian-language theatre in both the Iron and Digor dialects—as well as a good range of restaurants. Those who like clubbing, on the other hand, won’t find much here to entertain them. (Better to stay in Moscow.) What I love most about Vladikavkaz is two things: first, look up from anywhere in the city and your gaze will be greeted by the sight of some of the most spectacular snow-capped mountains you will ever see, and second, it is a fabulous place for taking a relaxing stroll! The main boulevard, Prospekt Mira (usually called simply “Prospekt”), is a lovely pedestrian mall that stretches for more than a kilometre through the heart of the city. In summer the restaurants and cafés all have outdoor terraces which serve excellent food at very reasonable prices and are great for people-watching. Prospekt is also lined with some of the city’s most beautiful neo-classical buildings, dating back to the early 20th century when Vladikavkaz must have been one of the most gorgeous places in the entire Russian Empire. At the lower end near the entrance to the central park is a new national museum which is well worth a visit. Aside from Prospekt there are long riverfront promenades along both banks of the Terek where one can amble at a relaxed pace, taking in the fresh air and scenery without the plague of traffic. It would be a great place for cycling, though one sees very few cyclists. Personally, I plan to buy a bike in time for summer.

Alongside the Terek

The functional language in Vladikavkaz is Russian and many Ossetians who grew up here speak little or no Ossetian—for that you have to visit villages or South Ossetia. Of 67 public schools in Vladikavkaz only three are Ossetian-language medium. Still, there is Ossetian television, radio, and print media. The capital is also a hotbed of Ossetian nationalism, and I always find it ironic to hear Ossete intellectuals and nationalists holding forth in Russian about the great Ossetian culture. I wish more would be done to promote and preserve the Ossetian language, the only surviving relic of the Scythian tongue which dominated the entire Eurasian steppe from the Balkans to Mongolia throughout the entire first millennium BCE. Ossetian is thus hugely important for filling out the field of Iranian Studies and world history in general, and deserves far more scholarly attention than it receives. It is sad that even amongst proud Ossetes there is a notion that Ossetian cannot be used as a means for holding high-level discussions. When I spoke at the South Ossetian State University in Tskhinval last summer I agreed with Soslan Dzhusoity, economic advisor to the President who was serving as my interpreter, that all events connected with my visit would be held entirely in Ossetian, and Soslan frequently had to intervene to remind people not to speak Russian. He concluded the question-and-answer session following my lecture by telling the audience, “You see? We have now conducted an entire academic event entirely in Ossetian. So we have proven that it can be done!”

Is Ossetia Safe to Visit?

I was always interested in the northern Caucasus but my impression was that it was a no-go region, plagued by war and terrorism. The government websites of Canada, the US and the UK all warn against travelling there, and the Canadian site says “If you are there, you should leave.” When several years ago I first consulted with a colleague who has spent time in the region, he said it is okay if you have some local contacts who will look out for you, so once I acquired some I decided to risk it and go.

With the collapse of the USSR in 1991 many areas fell into violent conflict, particularly in the Caucasus. North Ossetians fought with the neighbouring Ingush who claimed the eastern part of Ossetia for themselves, and attacks by Ingush terrorists continued for years, including the infamous takeover of a school in Beslan in 2004 which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent children and the bombing of Vladikavkaz’s central bazaar in 2010. In the South, the 1991 declaration of independence led to almost two years of war with Georgia; a fragile peace was disrupted when Georgia invaded again in 2008 but after five days of fighting the Russian army moved in and have guaranteed South Ossetia’s borders since that time.

In recent years Ossetia has suffered no major outbreaks of violence, and ever since my first visit two years ago I have felt completely safe here. I often wonder why people who are put the off by occasional reports of shootouts between police and terrorists in faraway lands think nothing of visiting places like Chicago or New Orleans where their chances of falling victim to violence are much higher. Ossetia hasn’t seen any terrorist acts in a decade, in contrast to places like England, France and Germany which nevertheless continue to receive tourists in droves.

I cannot speak for neighbouring republics such as Ingushetia, Chechnya, or Daghestan (although I felt safe during my brief visits to those places as well), but in my opinion both North and South Ossetia today are much safer than many of the world’s popular tourist destinations, and the alarmist warnings of our Western governments are now completely obsolete. I strongly encourage anyone who is interested to visit Ossetia!

Introducing Ossetia

Ossetia is a region of the central Caucasus that is divided between two political entities: North Ossetia-Alania, which is a republic within the Russian Federation, and the Republic of South Ossetia-State of Alania, which is a de facto independent state that declared its independence from Georgia in 1991 and — due to geopolitical factors which will no doubt be discussed during the course of this blogging exercise — is currently recognized by only five UN member states. North Ossetia has an area of 8,000km2 and a population of about 700,000, some 65 per cent of whom are ethnic Ossetes. South Ossetia covers around 3,900km2, with a population of about 53,000, 90 per cent of whom are Ossetes.

The Ossetes are the direct linguistic and cultural descendants of the medieval Alans, who settled throughout Europe during the first millennium CE and contributed much to European culture (most notably in the equestrian realm), and through them the ancient Sarmatians who were a branch of Scythians. The Ossetian language belongs to the northeastern Iranian linguistic family and is distantly related to Persian. The Ossetes were relatively isolated following the destruction of their vast kingdom by the Mongols during the 13th century up until the colonization of the Caucasus by imperial Russia beginning at the end of the 18th, and as a result they have been able to preserve much of their ancient mythology and cultural traditions, some of which can be traced as far back as the Scythians, right up to the present day. While about 80 per cent of Ossetes are nominally Orthodox Christian and the remaining 20 per cent nominally Sunni Muslim, in fact these religions sit lightly on most Ossetes, who see no conflict in maintaining many ancient beliefs and practices. This of course, is considered problematic by some of the religious authorities…

I first travelled to Ossetia two years ago, in February 2018, at the invitation of my Ossetian colleague Tamir Salbiev, an expert on the Nart epic and many other aspects of Ossetian culture. I instantly fell in love with the place and returned for a more extended stay in June 2019. Still that was not enough, and this past November I took a leave of absence from my university to come and live in Ossetia for a year. The past two months have been an adventure, and I expect there is much more to come. I hope that my reports and observations about life in this extraordinary part of the world will be a start towards filling in the gaps of information that exist regarding what has become one of my all-time favourite places.