The foreword to “FROM SCYTHIA TO CAMELOT” (by C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor)
… Following the earlier work of such scholars as Georges Dumezil, Bernard S. Bachrach, and Helmut Nickel, Littleton and Malcor have sought this unknown "something else" in the culture of the Sarmatians, specifically of the Iazyges tribe, and of their kinsmen the Alans.
At this point the reader can be forgiven for asking, "Culture of who?" In this matter even the specialist must continually exercise imagination in order to keep in mind a realistic image of these vanished peoples. The Scythians of early Classical Antiquity, the Sarmatians, and the Alans of late classical times were nomads of the steppes of Central Asia, extending in their heyday from the plains of what is now Hungary to those of western China, perhaps as far as present-day Kansu, nearly in the center of China. As far as we can determine from contemporary accounts, archaeological findings, and consideration of scanty linguistic remains, these peoples were of European appearance (often blond and blue-eyed), left behind enormous hordes of animal-style art (much of it golden), entombed their chieftains in burial mounds (the ultimate origin of the pagoda by way of the Buddhist stupa), and spoke Iranian languages. While their culture was shaped by its underlying nomad economy, many of its aspects had parallels among the more familiar ones of European antiquity, thus setting them apart from the later nomads of Hunnish, Turkic, and Mongol origin and placing them closer to the Europeans of antiquity. Furthermore, they seem to have shown little similarity with the Iranians of present-day Iran. The latter appear to have undergone a cultural specialization early on, so that even in ancient times the Medes and Persians may have viewed the steppe Iranians as alien.
In a larger context all the Iranians are related to the Indo-Aryans that came to reside in India, bequeathing world civilization the Rg Veda among other things. In a still larger context these Indo-Iranians were in turn part of the Indo-European family of languages and cultures, encompassing the ancestors of the Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Baltic, Slavic, Greek, Armenian, Albanian, and other, more obscure, peoples and found from Ireland to China and from Scandinavia to India. This prehistoric people, the Proto-Indo-Europeans, retrieved from the obliteration of time by diligent linguistic comparison, has been the abused vehicle for racists from the early nineteenth century through the Nazis down to today. Nevertheless, a dispassionate assessment of them, as scholarship delineates their language and culture, cannot but rank them among the most fascinating intellectual discoveries of all time and see in their existence a deep, if remote, historical unity of many of the peoples of Eurasia.
One trend in modern scholarship is to locate the Indo-European homeland in the northwest Caucasus, among the "Kurgan" (burial mound) culture, at a time depth of three to five thousand years B.C.E. Clearly the vast spread of the Indo-Europeans through the millennia was aided by, if not solely due to, their conjectured nomadism. As they spread out from the steppes north of the Caucasus, they encountered non-Indo-European sedentary cultures and blended with them to create the peoples of attested European and western Asian history. What is most interesting about the steppe Iranians is that this was the one Indo-European people whose culture underwent an evolution that was primarily internal, in that it remained nomadic and did not blend with some major sedentary civilization. In this sense then, the steppe Iranians, as depicted during the classical period, continued ancient Indo-European civilization in a direct way. This fact in itself makes the steppe Iranians interesting for understanding the history of much of Eurasia. And, it makes their loss all the more regrettable.
By the close of the classical period these steppe Iranians had been pushed to the peripheries of their nomad homeland by the Altaic-speaking (non-Indo-European) Huns and their kinsmen the Turks. Some fled into what is now Tajikistan, Afghanistan, eastern Iran (Sistan), and western India. Others went into the Roman Empire, at times causing parts of it to dissolve while in other parts helping to maintain it against others by becoming mercenaries of the Caesars. They are known to have migrated to Britain (the Iazyge Sarmatians), Italy, France, Spain, and North Africa (the last three areas having largely Alanic contingents). Others fled into Poland, European Russia, and the Caucasus.
The standing assumption is that, apart from tantalizing traces as laid out by Bachrach and Nickel, these peoples vanished without a trace. This assumption is difficult to challenge for two reasons. First, those undergoing the obliteration no longer have representatives to step forward and speak for themselves. Second, the civilization in question is so exotic and so far removed from our contemporary view of Eurasia, that it tends to have an insubstantial quality even in the mind of the most dedicated scholar and therefore lends itself to obscurity.
This assumption cannot be right, however, as a little thought shows: European armies enter the Middle Ages looking like those of the late Roman Empire and come out of this period wearing chain mail and jousting. One must turn to engraved scenes found in Iranian burial hordes that antedate the Middle Ages by a thousand years and are removed from Europe by several thousand kilometers in order to see warriors dressed this way and fighting this way. In other words, the Europeans enter the Middle Ages looking like Romans and emerge from them looking like Sarmatian or Alanic warriors. Clearly the steppe Iranians had an enormous influence on Europe. Clearly, they are much closer to us than we are accustomed to thinking, so close that they are hard to see.
The Iranians who fled into Poland and Russia survive only as a vague tradition among the aristocracies of those nations and perhaps in the names "Russia" and "Belarus" themselves, which may reflect earlier *rukhsh—(with the Middle Iranian shift of khsh to ss), as in Roxalani (an Alanic tribe) and Roxanne (the Alanic wife of Alexander the Great), meaning "white" or "northern." A sense reinforced by the bela—"white" part of "Belarus." There is one place, however, where the Alans persist down to the modern day (without an obscuring overlay of first Zoroastrianism and later Islam, as is the case in the Pamirs of Tajikistan and in Afghanistan), and that is in the Caucasus. This time the reader can be forgiven for asking, "Where?"
The Caucasus Mountains lie between the Black and Caspian seas, in what is now southern Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. They are the tallest mountains in Europe, with fifty-six ethnic groups in an area the size of Spain, fully thirty-six of which are indigenous to this remote and beautiful region. The center of the North Caucasus was the one place into which the Alans retreated and in which they retained their identity down to the time of Chingis Khan. Until the thirteenth century the North Caucasus had a region or nation called Alania, first part of the Khazar Empire and later a kingdom or empire in its own right. At first these Alans, like their neighbors the Circassians, Chechens, and Daghestanis (indigenous Caucasian peoples), successfully resisted the Mongol onslaught, saving eastern Europe in the process, but under subsequent attack they were pushed higher into the mountains and disappeared as a political entity. They shortly emerged again in the late thirteenth century s the "Ossetes" or "Ossetians," having at this time pulled up into the highlands of the center of the Caucasus chain and spilled own the southern slope of the Caucasian massif into what is now the Republic of Georgia. They were incorporated into the tsarist empire in 1774 as a protectorate.
They were divided into North and South administrative units during the late nineteenth century, and this was continued under Communist rule by the creation of the South Ossetian Autonomous Region as part of the Georgian SSR in 1922 and the North Ossetian Autonomous region as part of the Russian RSFSR in 1924 and upgraded to an Autonomous Republic in 1936.
Today this fascinating people, perhaps totaling half a million souls and still preserving its Iranian language, is split between the Russian Federation and the Georgian Republic. When Georgia left the USSR in late 1990, it took with it South Ossetia, which promptly declared its intention to unite with
North Ossetia and thereby join the Russian Federation. This was seen by Georgia as a provocation and in early 1991 the Georgian-Ossetian war erupted in South Ossetia. This small but savage conflict continued into 1992, stopping only when a ceasefire was mediated and guaranteed by the Russians. Since 1992 the peace in South Ossetia has been maintained by Russian forces. South Ossetia has held a referendum and overwhelmingly chosen to join North Ossetia. North Ossetia has endorsed this intention to unite and thereby bring all of Ossetia into the Russian federation. Russia, fearful both of offending Georgia and of alienating the Ossetians, has refrained from any political response.
As if matters were not bad enough, in late 1992 North Ossetia and neighboring Ingushetia (a politically distinct unit of the indigenous Caucasian Chechen peoples) indulged in a brief but bitter bloodbath over a disputed region (Prigorodny), so that the present-day Alans face serious threats from two adversaries. This violence also resulted in Russian peacekeepers being brought in.
The position of the Ossetians in the Caucasus is strategi¬cally crucial; their capital, Dzaujikau, was renamed Vladikavkaz ("Ruler of the Caucasus") by the Russians. It is unlikely that Russia will let matters unfold there without further direct intervention. One can only hope that the Ossetians will survive the current turmoil that afflicts the Caucasus.
If the Ossetians are known at all in the West outside of linguistic circles, where they play a minor role in Indo-European studies, it is because they are the bearers of the so-called Nart sagas. These are a set of heroic tales, somewhere between myth and saga in tone, which the Ossetians share with their non-Indo-European neighbors to the west, the Circassians, Ubykhs, Abazas, and Abkhaz, and to some extent with those to the south, the Svans and Georgian highlanders, and to the east, the Chechen-Ingush and the Daghestanis, as well as with some of the small neighboring Turkic peoples, such as the Balkars and Karachays. No one can read these vivid, complex, chaotic tales without a sense of astonishment, for not only do they show numerous, striking, detailed parallels with the lore of ancient India and Greece, as one might expect from their intermediate position between these two great traditions, but they also show similar parallels with, of all things, the Arthurian cycle. One's first impulse, as was mine, is to dismiss these Arthurian parallels as due to mere chance. One's second impulse, as was mine too, is to set them aside as curious but enigmatic. What Littleton and Malcor did, however, was take the third inexorable step and examine these parallels critically and in detail. This is their second great achievement.
As their third achievement, regardless of which arguments or etymologies one might find compelling or otiose, Littleton and Malcor have added four new dimensions to the field of Arthurian studies. They have opened the doors to Eurasian steppe archaeology and the iconography of its artifacts; they
have shown the worth of carefully examining the scanty European remains of the vanished Iranians of the steppes; they have shown at least the possibility, and most likely the plausibility, that the Arthurian cycle, however seamless and whole it may seem, is comprehensible only in terms of an Iranian core, much like the Nart sagas, with an overlay of Celtic material, which has been strongly influenced by Roman hegemony; and finally, they have brought long overdue attention to the Nart sagas of the Caucasus and to the cultures and languages of the Ossetians and their neighbors. Examining many of their claims and arguments will entail a vast amount of new study and hard work for the Arthurian scholar. Nevertheless, the parallels between the Iranian material and the Arthurian cycle are so numerous, and in many cases so exact, that this effort must be taken on by the scholarly establishment concerned with Arthur and his origins. The study of the Arthurian corpora will never be the same after this book, and our understanding of the origins of so much of our own civilization, I may safely say, will never look quite the same again.
16 August 1993