Ossetian People and Their Culture

When we talk about Ossetians it is important to understand that there are two regions that they belong to. One is Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, subject of Russia and South Ossetia is Autonomous Republic of Georgia. South Ossetia declared independence in 1990, but it only gained very limited recognition.

It is believed that Ossetians are descendants of Iranian nomadic group called Sarmatians or more accurately Alans subgroup who ruled in its own medieval kingdom of Alania, which was roughly located where North Ossetia-Alania is today.

After the Mongolian invasion in 12th century, Alans were unable to reestablish their kingdom and people eventually divided into two different ethnic groups – the Iron and the Digor. They were divided by dialect differences, territory and also religion.

map-of-alania-kingdom

In the late Soviet times, Ossetians started to show more interest in their roots and Alanian heritage. For example, in 1994 North Ossetia was renamed to North Ossetia-Alania.

Population

720.000, most of them living in North and South Ossetia.

Language

In both regions Ossetians are ethnic majority and they speak Ossetian language with slightly different dialects. Most common are: Iron, Digoron and Kudairag. Iron is the most-widely spoken one. Ossetian language is classified as member of Indo-Iranian language family. The  most similar language is Yaghnobi which is spoken in Tajikistan.

Today both South and North Ossetians use Cyrillic alphabet, but in old days they have used Greek, Latin and Georgian alphabet.

Estimated numbers of native speakers are 600.000.

Ossetian – English phrasebook

Political landscape

North Ossetia-Alania is a part of Russian Federation. Some parts of the region is claimed by  Republic of Ingushetia.

Ossetians in South Ossetia are continuously fighting for their independence from Georgia, however their economy is heavily relied on Russia.

Religion

Around 75% of Ossetians are Orthodox Christians. Small minority of Digor and Iron speaking Ossetians are Muslims. Some ancient ethnic religion (paganism) is still practiced as a separate religion or herewith other religions. Ætsæg Din is the modern revival of the Ossetian native religion.

Ossetians who practise native religion, believe in existence of an invisible God called Huytsau who dwells somewhere in heaven and rules the world.  Sometimes referred as a god of the gods.

Under his wings are deities. Here are mentioned some of them:

Uatsilla – the spirit of thunder and lighting. It was originally known as Gromovnika, but with early Christianity, it was changed to Uatsilla, which is a name of biblical prophet Elijah. If a person was killed by a thunder it was considered to have angered Uatsilla and could not be buried in a general commentary. Therefore, he/she was buried in the place where the sound of thunder followed. 

Wastyrdzhi – sometimes called St. George is most important  Ossetian deity after god. He is a patron of men, travelers, young and old and a scourge of thieves and murderers. He is most known and most respected deity by Ossetian people both in North and South Ossetia.

Tutyr – is a patron and ruler of wolves. People believe that with out his will, wolves would not attack livestock or people.

Falvara – is a protector of livestock. He is considered most kind and peaceful deity. When Ossetians want to praise someone for meekness, you would hear: “He/she is like Falvara”.

He is usually presented as one eyed, because the old story says that once he was discussing peacefully with Tutyr and he knocked out Falvara’s eye so it would be easier for wolves to sneak in and kill livestock animals.

Afsatiis a ruler of wild animals and patron of poor hunters. He is usually portrayed as an old man with a white long beard sitting on a high mountain. In old days hunters took with them three cakes to offer Afsati for a good luck.

Barastyris a patron of dead people and afterlife. He takes care of people both in hell and paradise.

Don Bettyr – ruler of water who lives in water and owns fish. He is a patron of fishermen. There is a belief that people who bathe late at night could get drown by him.

Rynybarduogis a deity of diseases and sickness. When some epidemic sickness arrived to a village, the shaman was invited to perform a ritual and sacrifice best animals for Rynybarduog to save people and animals from death. This ritual is not performed anymore in recent days.

Alard is most sinister saint who brought smallpox sickness in old times. He is usually presented as a white winged monster with an ugly face.

Huytsauy Dzuar – is a patron of marriage and procreation giver. He is mainly worshiped in mountain areas of Ossetia.

Mady Mayram – patroness of women, which is closely related to Saint Mary of Christian religion.

Bynaty Hitsau – is a female deity of the house, places of the habitation.

Sau Dzuar – “black saint”, the patron of the forest who protects it from the fire and unauthorized woodcutting.

Food

Ossetian traditional diet is mainly consisted of meat and bread products made of corn and wheat. Most common meat is lamb, poultry and beef. It is most common to cook it spiced with strong garlic sauce in whole carcasses or big chunks. On most of the Ossetian feasts livestock animal are sacrificed to the deities or god.

Pies

Famous Ossetian pies are mouth-watering pies made of flour, milk and yeast, which are filled with different kinds of fillings, for example meat, potatoes, squash, beans, cabbage and Dzykka cheese. It is important dish for many different occasions like feasts, funerals or weddings. It is considered to be good luck to serve three or more pies at the time.

Milk Products

Dzykka – is a cheese with distinctive taste, similar to Greek Feta. Back in old days it was made of mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Now it is mostly made of cow’s milk using rennet from the animal to make the milk set. It is still a main dish for people living in the highlands.

 Sweets

Baldzhin – Cake made of wheat and cherries.

Drinks

Bagan – Ossetian beer. It has been the national drink of Ossetians for centuries. It is mainly made from barley.

Arak (arakh) – An alcoholic drink produced from corn and barley or other grains. Taste of it is similar to Scotch whisky.

Dress

The main elements of mens’ dress is chokha (long sleeve dress), tunic and boots. During the cold winter days men used coat made of sheepskin, woolen socks and boots. Every man used to have a dagger as a decoration. Women dress before 19th century was identically the same, but with influence from Russia, it became more diverse. Festive dress, silk skirts and jewelry became part of the traditional clothing. Today, Ossetian costumes are usually used on weddings or cultural events. In daily life, people dress in regular clothes.

ossetia-men-women-traditional-costume-north-caucasus-people-culture

Ossetians in traditional dress [via thenorthcaucasus.wordpress.com]

Art

Most famous Ossetian form of art is Simd dance, which is rooted in the ancient times and still actively practiced by younger generations. Simd does not mean the name of a particular dance. It is a noun that derives from the verb simyn, which means “mass dance”.

Special long sleeve dress is used which covers all exposed body parts and during the dance, partners do not touch each other.

There are several varieties of Simd, the Nart is oldest and most complex dance. It can include up to 200 people. Other varieties include: Tyimbyil Simd and Naguay Simd.

Feasts & Celebrations

Christmas, Easter and New Year are widely known to Ossetian people and have its importance in their own culture. However, more importance is given to the native celebrations which are little or not related to Orthodox Christianity. Almost all Ossetian feasts contain sacrifice of animal and eating traditional dishes together at the table surrounded with family members, relatives or other guests.

Day of Wastyrdzhi

One of the most important events is the Day of Wastyrdzhi (Day of Saint George). As it was mentioned in religion section, he is a patron of poor and rich, and travelers. The feast is one week long (from Monday to Monday) and it is held in November.

On the eve of the festival, traditionally every family sacrifices cattle or sheep to God. During the week Ossetians are forbidden to consume pork, poultry and eggs.

The first Monday has to be spent with family, rest of the week until Monday neighbors and relatives visit each other. Last day of the feast is spent with family members.

Binaty Hitsauy Ahsan

Celebrated first week of new New Year on Wednesday’s night. Family sacrifices an animal, and meat is served along with drinks and Ossetian pies. Head of the house asks Bynaty Hitsauy to protect home from harm.

Hayradzhyty Ahsan

According to the legend people and devils have lived together in peace, but some conflict arose. Wastyrdzhi drove devils away, but people are still afraid of them. Similar like with other feasts, sacrifice of animal is performed and later in the evening family members eat together. Because of possible bad luck, guests are not invited.

Nogbon

Ossetian New Year starts in January 12-14. People sacrifice an animal and at down each family lights a fire. Later on, family head utters a prayer, wishes a God to have a good year.

At the dining table a huge round cake is prepared which symbolizes the sun.

Styr Tutyr

Ossetian people believe that things made on this holiday will last longer. Ossetian pies were not allowed to be cut, in order not to anger Tutyr. So people eat it with hands.

Niccolo

Feast is held in honor of one of the oldest saints called Niccolo. People ask him for good weather, harvest and health.

 Sport

Ossetians are also proud of their athletes, many of them have become Olympic champions in various sports like free style wrestling and weightlifting.

Famous Ossetians

Kosta Khegaturov – (19-20th century) a linguist, poet, writer, and regarded as a founder of Ossetian literature. His birthday is celebrated as one of the national events.

Gaito Gazdanov – (20th century) writer and publisher. He migrated to France during the World War 2, but he is one of the authors of Russian classical literature.

Gergiev Valeriy – the world famous musician and conductor.

There are also many Greco-Roman wrestlers who are World and Olympic champions and are from Ossetian origin.

Grigori Tokaty – Rocket scientistist in the field of rocket dynamics and Astronautics.

Vasili Abaev – Linguist specialized in Ossetian and Iranian linguistics. He has contributed a lot of work on Ossetian etymology and Ossetian folklore.

Artur Taymazov – Three times Olympic champion in wrestling.

 

Presented information is collected from various books, magazines, internet websites, student researches and collaboration with members of ethnic groups. 

Special thanks to all Ossetian people who helped with finding information.

by M.Borgarbúi

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