The Ossetians (Ossetic: ирæттæ [irættæ]) belong to an Iranic language group and mostly populate North Ossetia-Alania in Russia, and the Republic of South Ossetia. Ossetians also live in other parts of Russia, in Georgia, Turkey, and other countries. Altogether, there are more than 700,000 ethnic Ossetians in the world. They speak Ossetic, an Indo-European language of the Iranian branch, although nearly all Ossetians are bilingual, with Russian as a second language, and more rarely Georgian or Turkish. The Ossetians are mostly Christian, with a Muslim minority in North Ossetia.
The Ossetians descend from the Sarmatian tribe called Alans. This fact was confirmed by linguistic data, studies of the Ossetian mythology, and the latest genetic research. This close kinship is reflected in the name of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania.
In general, the Ossetians are the only surviving speakers of a language in the North-Iranian (Scythian-Sarmatian) family.
The Russian geographic name “Ossetia” and the corresponding ethnic designation “Ossetians” comes from a Georgian root. The Georgian name for Alans is Ovsi, it originated from the Alans’ name for themselves: Asi. The word “Ovseti” appeared in the 18th century, and it literally means “the lands of Ovsi’s”.
The Russians originally called the Ossetians Yasi (ясы), but in the 17th century adopted the Georgian name. From the Russian language the names Ossetia and Ossetians were adopted by other languages.
Today the Ossetians themselves refer to their nation as Irættæ (pl.) or Iron (singular).
Map of Indo European migrations from 4000 to 1000 B.C. according to the Kurgan model. The magenta area corresponds to the assumed Urheimat of all Indo-Europeans. The red area corresponds to the area which may have been settled by Indo-European-speaking peoples up to ca. 2500 BC, and the orange area by 1000 BC.
According to the Kurgan hypothesis, which is the most widely accepted theory of the Indo-European origins, the territory of the Volga and Black Sea steppe was the ancestral home (or Urheimat) of all Indo-Europeans. As archeologists and ancient authors confirm, a group of Iranian speaking nomadic tribes occupied the vast territory from the Danube River and Eastern Baltic to approximately the Ural region. Their society was called Scythia by the name of the predominant tribe. According to some Roman authors, the Scythians became civilized before Egyptians and ruled in today’s Europe and Asia 2,800 years before the founding of Rome (around 3553 B.C.), which partially corresponds with the contemporary Kurgan hypothesis.
Since Scythia consisted of many tribes, there was a constant, fierce fight for power over its vast territory. One of these tribes, the Sarmats (or Savromats), peacefully coexisted with the Scythians in the fifth to fourth centuries B.C., but in the third century they started to attack their weakening neighbor. Their attacks were so successful that by the second century B.C. the famous Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy addressed the former Scythian territory as Sarmatia.
One distinctive characteristic of the Sarmats was the important role of women and their active participation in both social life and warfare. Ancient authors often refer to Sarmats as a matriarchal society. Herodotus retells a legend about their origins being from marriages of Amazons, legendary women-warriors, with Scythian youths. This legend was probably created to explain why the Sarmat women rode on horseback, masterfully used weapons, hunted, waged wars, wore the same clothes as men did, and didn’t marry until they would kill an enemy. Later these matriarchal traits disappeared and Sarmats became a patriarchal society.
Approximate map of Scythia in the first century B.C.
Just like the Scythians, the Sarmats were not a homogeneous nation and consisted of several tribes, one of which inhabited the Caucasus territory and was called Alans. Among all Sarmatian unions, Alans stood out as being the most aggressive. They were very skillful horse riders and shooters, and gradually spread from the North Caucasus to the West, and to the South through the Caucasus range. According to sources from the second century, Alania was already mentioned as the territory populated by Alans; around the same time the names of other Sarmatian tribes disappear from the pages of the written sources. The military skills of Alans was so high that a special military textbook on the specifics of waging war with them was written in Rome. At the same time, the Roman cavalry borrowed certain tactical maneuvers from the Alans.
The Migration period and the influence of Alans on the West
During the Migration period between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D. (also called the Barbarian Invasions) the Allan territories between the Don and the Volga, as well as the Northern Caucasus were invaded by the Huns, who destroyed the Alans kingdom. After this invasion the majority of Alans merged with the Huns’ hordes and migrated to the west. Even though in the west the Alans stopped existing as a nation, their traces were found in contemporary Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Hungary, Romania and even North Africa, where in the fourth century A.D. they established the Kingdom of the Vandals and Alans. During the Migration Period, Alans who spoke the Iranic language, were the only non-Germanic ethnic group that created many settlements and societal formations in Western Europe. Today only in France and North Italy are there known to be about 300 towns and settlements which have Alanian names, for example the French towns Alenya and Lanet.
Through the Sarmatian-Alanian influence, the Scythian civilization has entered into many national cultures. Alans, for example, have significantly influenced European marshal arts. Goths and other Germanic tribes mastered cavalry warfare techniques due to their contacts with the Scythian world. Traditions of the medieval European Knighthood, including its vestments and armament, weaponry, and military elite’s honor code and ideology ascend to the Scythian-Sarmatian military culture.
According to the research by C. Scott Littleton published in a book called From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, the core of the Arthurian legends derive originally from Scythians rather than Celts. According to the author, this folklore was carried to Britain and Gaul from the steppes by Alan and Sarmatian tribes during the final days of the Roman Empire. Elements of this folklore exist today among the Ossetians and other peoples of the northern Caucasus.
While being active participants in all major events of the Migration Period between the fourth and seventh centuries A.D., and significantly influencing European culture, the west Alans were not able to build their own state, and their extraordinary military talents served other kings and emperors. They lost their language and unique culture, and became part of other nations.
Caucasian Alans, Ossetians
Those Alans who stayed in the Caucasus were gradually able to form their own state. They formed close bonds with the Byzantine Empire, and officially accepted Christianity in 916 A.D. under its influence. From Byzantine sources we know that Alania was a key Christian state in the region, squeezed between Judaic Khazar Kaganate from the North, and Islamic Arabic Caliphate from the South. In the tenth century A.D. Arabs were driven out of Transcaucasia, and the Khazars fell after the war with the Old Russian State. These years and until thirteenth century were the most prosperous for Alania. According to the Byzantine diplomatic protocol, Georgian, Abkhazian, and other Caucasus rulers had to take orders from Byzantine Emperors, but Kings of Alans were called “spiritual sons”, and were recognized as independent. Alan’s king dynasty also formed close blood bonds with Byzantine Emperors. But this prosperity did not last too long.
In the first decade of the thirteenth century Mongolian nomadic tribes formed a strong state and engaged in a wider conquest. This wave of belligerent nomadic invasions crashed on many countries of the West and East. In 1237 together with Russia, they attacked the Caucasus, and in 1239 the capital of Alania, Magas, had fallen after a three-month siege. Even though the Alans bravely resisted the Mongolian invasion, Alanian princes were not able to unite and withstand the Mongols as a single force. As a result of those events, most of the Alanian flat ground was occupied by Mongols, the remnants of its population were forced out to the mountains, and Alania stopped existing as an independent state.
For Alans the repercussions of the Mongolian invasion were disastrous, and the casualties – irretrievable. Not only did Alania lose those who were killed and taken captive, but also those who for various reasons had left its territory forever. For example, a large group of Alans who did not want to resign and live in the occupied territories had left their home and settled in Hungary. These Alans served Hungarian kings, were ennobled, and given various privileges. Their descendants became part of the Hungarian people saving only their name: Yasi.
Those Alans who still stayed in the Caucasus, even though blocked up in the mountains, kept their freedom, and continued guerilla warfare against the Golden Horde (the state Mongols had formed in the occupied territories). The center of the resistance, which lasted for many years, was located on the northern and southern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. The ambassador of the French King to Mongolia, Guillaume de Rubrouck, saw on his way back to France in 1254 that “Alans in those mountains are still disobedient, so that every two out of ten people of Sartak (Mongolian Khan, sun of the famous Batu Khan) had to watch the mountain gorges, so that those Alans won’t come down to steal herds of cows from the plain land.”
Internal feuds and revolts that started in the Golden Horde in the middle of the fourteenth century were the beginning of its decline. That predetermined the Horde’s destiny in the face of a great danger that came from the East. The new great conqueror from Central Asia, Emir Timur, defeated in 1395 the Horde’s Khan, and directed his army to the mountainous Alania. He came there with the aim to carry out a jihad, a holy war against non-Muslim nations, and this war turned out to be a full-scale genocide of Alans. Timur managed to do something Mongols couldn’t do: he entered the Alanian high mountain gorges, and Alanian settlements between the mountain Kazbek and Elbrus were brutally ravaged; in one cave in Dzivgisa scientists found 235 human skulls.
Timur’s military campaign was the final blow in the series of tragic events of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The universal catastrophe that befell Alania at that time led to the mass liquidation of the population, undermining of the nation’s economy, and yet another collapse of the Alanian state. Only a small group of Alans was able to hide high up in the mountains in the present day Ahohia (territory of North Ossetia). They lost touch with their counterparts who lived beyond the Caucasus territory, but kept the ethnic tradition of their destroyed nation. It was here, in the mountainous Ahohia, where during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the Ossetian ethnicity and folk culture finally formed. Probably at the same time a division of the Ossetian people into gorge societies formed: Tagiatœ, Kurtatœ, Wœllagir, Tualgom, Digor, Kudargom, Dzaugom, Chisangom and so on.
The Ossetic language belongs to the Northeastern Iranian group of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family (which has now almost disappeared). Contemporary Ossetic is a direct descendant of medieval Alanian language. Ossetic has distinctly archaic phonetics and morphology, which attracts linguists’ attention to it. There are certain similarities between Ossetic and Old Persian, Avestian, Sogdian, Hatansaka and Sanskrit that indicate the ancient separation of Ossetian ancestors from the rest of the Iranian speaking people. At the same time, Ossetic also preserved certain traces of longstanding contacts with Germanic, Celtic, Turkic, Slavic, and Finno-Ugric languages. All that confirms the widely accepted theory that Ossetians belong to the isolated relict of the Scythian-Sarmatian Iranian speaking family.
Ossetic is divided into four main dialect groups: Ironian (Os. – Ирон) in North and Kudarian in South Ossetia, Chisan in South-East Ossetia and Digorian (Os. – Дыгурон) in western North Ossetia. The Ironian dialect is the most widely spoken, and the literary language is based on it. Written Ossetian is based on Russian script, and may be immediately recognized by its use of the æ, a letter to be found in no other language using the Cyrillic alphabet. The creator of the Ossetian literary language is the national poet Kosta Khetœggaty (1859-1906).
Most of the Ossetians became Christians in the tenth century under Byzantine influence. Today the majority of Ossetians, from both North and South Ossetia, follow Eastern Orthodoxy.
Islam was introduced in the seventeenth century, mainly in the North Ossetia under the influence of the neighboring Kabardians.
Traces of local traditional beliefs are still very widespread among Ossetians.
Symphony conductor Valery Gergiev, symphony conductor Veronica Dudarova, linguist Vaso Abaev, poet Kosta Khetagurov, NASA rocket engineer Grigory (Gokki) Tokati, Commander Issa Pliev, Olympic wrestler Vadim Bogiev, Soslan Andiev, Aslanbek Khadartsev, Arsen Fadzaev, authors Gaito Gazdanov, Alikhan Tokaty, Seka Gœdiaty, Taimuraz Khadzety and Alan Cherchesov and physicist Fatima Butaeva.