Ossetian traditions and customs go very far into centuries with their roots, many of them-right into the Scyth-Alanian times. From all the people of Northern Caucasus, whose life is based on patriarchal principles, Ossetians were able to save their language, culture, religion, traditions, in almost unaltered way. Mostly, this is due to continuous isolation of the people in the mountains after exhaustive invasions of Mongol Tatars and hordes of Timur. And even though the closeness of the territories and strong relations with neighbouring people, Ossetians still try to carefully keep Farn of their ancestors and their moral-spiritual heritage.
When talking about our traditions and customs, very often people start with the description of the national holidays, elements of the table etiquette, etc. Of course, they are all extremely important. But there is something else that makes up our way of living, which is much more essential and important. This is the moral-spiritual heritage of Ossetians, norms of their behaviour and rules of communication between people. So let’s start with those...
Traditional Standards of Behavior For Ossetians in Society.
As it is known, institutions built by the government and so-called aristocratic laws came into our Ossetian life not too long-a couple of hundred years ago. Or to be more exact, even now, they are not as understood and followed, as in the countries of Western Europe.
During many centuries, many laws were unshakeable for Ossetian, such as unwritten norms of behaviour, a certain code of honour. Adati, as they were called in the Russian spoken environment, were worked on for centuries and were surprisingly effective. They also did not lack elements of democracy and social justice.
In every society in the mountains, there was a counsel of Elders - Nihas (lit.-“word, conversation”). To resolve larger issues, there was a people’s court-Tarhon, where the wisest and the most respectable people stood up for justice.
That is what an Ossetian historian G.Kokiev wrote about it:
“An Ossetian always showed a lot of interest towards everything that is associated with the society, of which he was a member. If someone attacked this certain society, all men, who were able to carry weapons, considered it to be their sacred responsibility to protect the interests of his society. During “fædis”-the public alarm, every man played an important role, nobody would simply stand and observe. Every man would grab his weapons, go to Nihas and would ask “Tsirdoma fades”? (“Where is the enemy?) After getting the answer from the Elder of Nihas, he would run and fight the enemy, who invaded the region.
Nihas has always played an important role in the public life of an Ossetian. The term “nihas”, literally means “conversation, word”. In every region in Ossetia, there is a particular spot for gathering of elders, which is also called “nihas”. Older people sat on large stones that changed shapes and often adopted the shape of the human behind, from such long use.
On “nihas”, elders sat in certain order, based on age and wisdom. If one was to face the people sitting on “nihas”, then the most important person, who was in charge was second from the left side. The elder sitting on the right side was a substitute for the Elder in charge. All other people sat in strict order on the left side. There were also a lot of young people that were not allowed to sit with elders, so they stood on the left side of “nihas”. Young people respectfully listened to the stories of elders. People gathered not only to discuss important public issues, but also to listen to the daily news, or “habærtta”, as they are called in Ossetian... The elders would tell some stories, sharing their experience with younger men.
“Nihas” has been an organization, where everyone had the right to speak. The Elder let even young people speak up when it was necessary. Young man, who got the right to speak, went in the middle of “nihas” and spoke from there, so that all elders could see and hear him well. He made a short speech to the point, after which he would go back to his place. Young people learned the art of public speech, respect towards the elders, norms of behaviour, rights, world views, and views of their own people from these elders. “Nihas” acted as a certain “parliament” of people’s organization, in which public opinion that was necessary for all members of the organization, was formed. Conflicts between neighbouring communities, as well as problems, involving venetta, or other conflicts between people were also discussed and resolved at the “nihas”.
The decisions and resolutions for every problem or question (internal or external) were made in coordination and agreement with norms of Ossetian rights.
Ossetians’ understanding of honour and human virtue and dignity were formed in conditions where motto “one-for all and all-for one”, was essential. Social and personal issues were inseparable in the understanding of an Ossetian. Every member of a certain family or larger community was responsible for it and each community was responsible for every one of its members. That is why every Ossetian who cared for his honour and dignity cared for the honour and dignity of his family at the same time.
Based on Ossetian way of thinking, a person could be offended physically and morally. An example of physical offence could be beating with a stick or a lash. Ossetians say that a stick exists only for disciplining animals, so someone who hits a man with a stick, makes him equal to an animal. That is why in response to such offence and humiliation of human’s dignity, followed a murder of the offender...
Beating with a lash was just as humiliating. Only slaves were beaten with lashes, so for an Ossetian, it was incredibly shameful and degrading to be like a slave who is punished by a lash.
Ossetian considered himself humiliated when someone touched his hat. In his understanding, a hat is a sacred thing and should not be touched. People, who live in the mountains, never cared about any other part of clothing in the way they care about their hat. One could be dressed in a ripped shirt, but the hat has to be flawless, no matter how poor he may be. Based on Ossetian belief (as well as other nations that live in the mountains), a hat is man’s belonging and a scarf - woman’s belonging. If someone wanted to comment on a particular man’s cowardice, he could say that the man is not worthy of wearing a hat and should change it to a scarf. That way nobody would expect him to act as a man. A hat as Ossetian see it is a symbol of strength, courage and that’s why it needs to be in excellent condition and untouched.
Ossetian man would react the same way if someone offended (with rude words) his wife, mother or an ancestor who passed away. For centuries, pride and vindictiveness were taught to Ossetians. For offending human dignity, Ossetian took revenge harshly. The motto “blood for blood”, brought up vindictiveness for the offence. No type of offence could be left without punishment to avoid a great shame on the man or on his family.
Ossetian’s understanding of shame is also very specific. Some norms of behaviour that are shameful to Ossetian may not be understood by many other people. All understanding of shame could be divided into two main groups. The first group consists of norms of behaviour in public, the second-of norms of behaviour in his/her personal life. The level of personal good breeding was judged by his/her behaviour in public towards the elders and the society. Well-mannered person needs to have a lot of respect the elders. Disrespect was judged publicly, which was shameful and the offender’s good name was dragged into mud. Young people were not allowed to sit with the elder, could not interrupt him when he was speaking. They were supposed to know how to respectfully act on “nihas”, at the table and on the trip. Even a very old infirm elder’s opinion was always respected. That is why there is a saying: “Zarondan fiddzag iæ findz asarf, stai ia zondai bafars” (“First wipe the nose of the elder, and then you can ask him for an advice”)...
In return, the elder has to act with respect and tact towards the younger people.
It was considered very shameful to come to feasts or funerals without an invitation. Of course, nobody would reproach this guest, but other guests would let him know with their behaviour that his action deserves a bad judgement.
There is an old proverb that is still popular today: “Da gubuni fadyl ma tso”, which literally means: “do not follow up your stomach.” In this saying, one can see Ossetian views, who clearly state that the person needs to be above hunger and that it should be his head and not his stomach that should be responsible for his behaviour at the table.
At the table, an Ossetian cannot feel completely free, as he has to obey certain etiquette. Disobeying the rules was condemned by the public. Every Ossetian sat at an appropriate place at the table and followed all the rules of the table etiquette. Older people were honoured. Everyone sat for a long time, but did not eat a lot, because to eat a lot was considered incredible shame. Even nowadays, people say: “Hundi fatso afsastai, da hadzarma artso astongai”, which in translation means “Come full to the feast and go home hungry”. To show hunger in public, was very shameful and humiliating. At the table Ossetians ate very little and they always tried to cover the process of eating with interesting conversation...
Getting drunk was considered even worse than overeating. Of course, at the table, everyone drank enough of beer or arak (Ossetian home made alcohol drink), but they all knew their limits and no one would get drunk. It was a big shame to be addictive to alcohol. No one would let their daughter marry a young man who drank too much, even if he came from a respectable family. Young Ossetians usually didn’t drink at all except beer or kumal (light refreshing non-alcoholic drink).
Cowardice was also shameful, no matter where it was shown, in a fight, or at war. By means of his behaviour, a coward broke the bonds of friendship and solidarity. That is why if cowardice was shown in war, that person was considered a traitor. His whole family was covered with shame and in public, this person was hated and people boycotted against him. Sometimes people made shameful songs about cowards, or on contrary, heroic song-ballade about a hero or someone who died an honourable action. That way, the song written for him would be glorifying his name forever. It was shameful for a man to react to physical pain. Based on Ossetian beliefs and culture, a real man should not react to physical pain. It is equal to crying, and a man should not cry, because that’s only appropriate for women.
Norms of people’s rights, helped grow honesty in Ossetian, as well as motivated them to always keep their word.
Feeling of honesty and integrity was essential and very well developed. It is important to say that Ossetians had no real understanding of lying, fraud or any kind of deception. There existed no written contracts or guarantees between people. The only guarantee was person’s word and it was equal to a written document. If an Ossetian gave his word to someone, no one ever doubted that he would keep it. Without any witnesses, an Ossetian could let another Ossetian borrow money or livestock and expect him to pay everything back on time. When one person swore that he would do something, everyone believed him, as the society understood that no one will ever lie in their oath. If someone suspected an Ossetian in something bad and shameful, but since he pronounced a vow or took an oath, all the suspicion was lifted. In return for trust, Ossetian person always answered with trust. He appreciated person’s trust and it was very humiliating if another person did not believe or trust him.”
Difference between what’s “good” and what’s “bad” may be understood quite differently by various nations. Often, this difference is thin and unclear. In Ossetian culture, “good” or “dishonourable” is when a person creates problems or bad feelings for people around him with his behaviour, when personal interests become above the interests of the society, or when actions go against the norms of behaviour that are appropriate for this culture. Society itself, always critically reacted to any act of dishonourable behaviour.
In Ossetian life, there were always a lot of “æmbaeli” or “ne mbaeli” (appropriate or not appropriate). There were always norms that formed the base of people’s spirit, strength, power and unity. Norms, such as respect towards elders, respect towards women, honour and integrity. There are many similarities between European knighthood traditions and Ossetian æhdau.
As stated by some European scholars, such as Franko Kardini, Alans greatly influenced cavalry traditions in Europe. These traditions were kept for many centuries in Ossetia, and were part of our “æhdau”- a specific code of behavioural rules. Up to a certain degree, they are still present in modern Ossetian culture.
It is incorrect to think that respect towards the elders meant completely obeying them. Wise older people always respected young generation and tried to listen and understand their thoughts and needs. A person, who did not understand that, could loose all the respect. I remember, in 1970s, I often visited my friend in Gizel. His father, a much respected man – WW2 veteran, after asking a few courteous questions, always left us alone, because he understood that we both would feel slightly uncomfortable in his presence. He respected our need for privacy.
There is no standard for behaviour in different situations. What may be allowed in one case may be absolutely shameful in another. There may be no rudeness, swearing, or any other shameful actions in front of elders, women or at the table. It is also not allowed in front of churches, sanctuaries or cemeteries. Basically, Ossetian society followed many unwritten rules to avoid doing something that was offensive. Everyone was responsible for their actions. If someone went against the rules and norms of behaviour, he brought shame upon his whole family and village. In those conditions, shame was considered worse than a physical death.
In the very extreme cases, “Hody” (outcast and rejection) could be declared to a person or whole family at Nihas. Then this family would be like in a public vacuum, as a thing without a soul. Nobody was allowed to talk to this family or to help them in any way. Anyone who broke the rules of Hody, should be punished in the same way.
Cases that involved murders or other offences to members of the family were followed by a blood vengeance (vendetta). Close relatives (men) of the offender could be killed. If someone could not take revenge he covered himself with shame. Vendetta could continue for centuries, taking the lives of many young men. However, even during the harshest times of bloody confrontation, no one would ever touch children, women or elders. These kind of actions were considered very low and therefore not acceptable for any man.
Sooner or later, blood feuds would end with peace. Sometimes people needed a lot of diplomatic skills to stop unreasoned blood shedding. Nowadays, these actions may seem savage, but in those times, it was often acting as an efficient regulator of public relations.
Since this is a patriarchal society, many decisions were made by men. Man was the head of the family and a woman could not disagree, especially publicly. If she did that, she put shame on her whole family. A smart woman always tried to uplift her husband in the eyes of other people. Unfortunately today, not too many people obey this tradition.
In the old days, a woman could not interrupt a conversation between men, did not participate in Nihas and was not allowed to go into many sanctuaries. However, she still received a lot of respect and gratitude, as she had a special place in the structure of Ossetian society. Many Ossetian traditions are connected with this respect and are pretty much similar to the European knighthood traditions. But some belong to Ossetians only. For examples, there is a beautiful tradition, where a fight is stopped immediately if a woman throws her scarf between the fighters. (see the fragment from the choreographic staging of “Duel” on the picture).
There is an interesting custom “uaisadin”-when a bride was not allowed to talk in front of older members of the family on the groom’s side. Because of this, she could always keep the distance and would not cross the line of decency. This custom is followed even now. However, today, people do not want to seem too archaic, so after the wedding, then officially cancel “uaisaidin” to let the bride talk in their presence, after which many people start to regret their decision...
In large families, women took care of clear women’s duties: preparation of food, taking care of children, etc. Ossetian man would cover himself with great shame if he did any of these things. That is why he would never cook, wash, or even play with his children in front of elders or other people.
There is an interesting story that corresponds with this tradition. One day, a young man was talking to the elder and he noticed that his young baby son is almost falling off the cliff. Without stopping the conversation, he stepped on the shirt of his son and held him like this until the older man finished the conversation and left. This man could not pick his child up in front of the elder, even to save his own son’s life.
Men were brought up and raised in such a way that they knew their responsibilities. Hard physical work, support and protection of their family were their main concerns. A man had to be a hunter, a warrior and head of the family. From young age, they were raised with Spartan’s spirit, ready to protect people around them. In need and difficult life conditions, young men trained their bodies and minds and practiced different fighting arts. Every young boy was considered a future warrior. People who practiced fencing, fighting, etc. were highly respected. Also, it was necessary to be able to sing and dance. Before allowing a young woman to marry someone, her family tested him based on all these categories, after which, they would decided if he is worth or not. Brave and decisive young men were respected much more than ones that was simply rich. Physical death cannot scare an Ossetian. The worst thing could only be shame for both men and women. Someone who showed cowardice was covered with shame, but brave and strong warriors became heroes for centuries and their heroism was glorified further in stories and songs.
Young girls were raised to be modest, reserved, chaste and feminine. Qualities, such as harshness of character, leadership, etc. were associated with men and could cover her name with such shame that no man would ever come to marry her.
To show too much attention towards men, was also considered very shameful. Young people never met in public. Even if they loved each other, they could meet very rarely and in a place where no one would see them. However, if a father or brother found out, the young man could be in trouble. If a young man touched her even with one finger (on purpose or not), he risked losing his head for that.
The only place where young people met and talked, were holidays, feasts and weddings. Everyone tried to prepare for them in advance, like Natasha Rostova for her first ball (“War and Peace”. By Leo Tolstoy).
Young men invited girls to dance and were happy if they were able to dance with someone they liked. In the dance, they tried to show all their skill. Also, in “Simd”, traditional dance, men were allowed to take a girl to hand, without making her relatives angry.
Today’s life inserted many changes in people’s relationships. Things that were never allowed back then are now considered normal. Men and women changed. But even now, when the time comes to build a family, many men prefer women who have qualities that were appreciated and were important in Ossetia for centuries, instead of those that are simple “easy”.
The main elements of relationships between men and women were modesty and reserved behaviour. It was inappropriate to talk about your wife, or to say something very nice about her in front of other people. In cases, where one had to mention her or children, a man always almost excused himself in front of others (“uae farn birae, ...”)
Man and wife never called each other by their names. People used expressions, such as “Ne fsin” (our hostess), “Sivaellaetti mad” (mother of our children), “Nae kaebaergaenaeg” (The One Who prepares our food), “Nae laeg” (Our Man), “Nae haedzari hitsau”(Head of our family), etc. Often a man called his wife by her family name. Giving compliments to your wife at the table was considered inappropriate. Guests could give her compliments, or say a toast to her, but the head of the house, never did that. Also, if grandparents (“Dada and “Nana”) were at the table, it was expected to give them compliments first. The wife stayed “in the shadow”.
Loud arguments between man and wife or yelling at children were also considered quite inappropriate. A self-respected man would never hit his wife, or any woman, for that matter. With that, a man was the head of the house and his word was a law, which could not be discussed for people living with him.
Ossetian never took off his clothes in front of people, despite of the heat or hard physical work. It was behaviour not suitable for men; they had to be fully dressed. A good example of the carrier of this tradition, was famous circus wrestler of the beginning of XIX century Temirbolat Kanukov
( http://ossetians.com/rus/news.php?newsid=8&f=6 )
He talked to the manager of the circus, until they let him wrestle on the mat in a shirt. That is why on all the pictures of the best Russian wrestlers, Bola is the only one who is always fully clothed.
These norms of behaviour were followed and are still followed by elders and middle age people. But life goes on and now, mini-skirts and shorts are part of fashion and no one wrestles in shirts any more.
But in any case, a man who walks on the street half naked with the belly falling over his belt, or a woman in skirt, where no matter how you move, “something” will be seen, cannot be norms for our people. If we want to stay Ossetians, we cannot follow every bit of European fashion, where tomorrow it may be fashionable to walk outside in a swimming suit.
Of course, no one insists for men to be buttoned up all the way until their chin, or for women to wear dresses until ankles. But the dress code has to be reasonable and appropriate to the place and the surroundings. If shorts work very well on beaches, then to come wearing shorts at the traditional Ossetian holiday or feast, is incredibly rude and offensive to the culture of your own people.
That is why, it is very sad to see half-naked pictures of our young men and women, who show their pictures on different sites, such as “odnoklassniki”, “vkontakte” and others. It seems that many of them who like to show off their bodies forget or just do not know that they break one of the most important rules that make up Ossetian norms of behaviour.
Relationships between elders and the bride in the house were interesting as both sides kept the distance. Elders could not criticize her and she could not talk in front of them. At first, this custom “Uaisadin” seems strange, but after careful study, it becomes obvious that it is very helpful and worked very well in traditional way of life of Ossetian.
In more recent years, people started to cancel Uaisadin. For this occasion, head of the house, would kill a ram and invite close relatives and neighbours for kuvd (feast). Here, in front of everyone, he would pronounce a toast, to thank her for keeping with all the traditions and her high moral standing and would let her speak to him from this moment and on.
Traditional relationships in Ossetian families of the past are very well described in the book “Ossetian etiquette” from the series “My Ossetia”, written by A. H. Hadikova (in Russian).
By Ruslan Kuchity
Translated from Russian by Anastassia Grankina