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THROUGH CAUCASUS TO VOLGA
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FRIDTJOF NANSEN: GJENNOM KAUKASUS TIL VOLGA (THROUGH CAUCASUS TO VOLGA) - 1929 

 

Pages 33-40, TRANSLATED BY EIRIK STOKKE, NORWAY. 

 

The Ossians or the Ossetians are a people with a population of approximately 225 000 inhabitants, living in Ossetia on the Western side of our way northwards. Much have been written and said about them by the scholars. The general idea is that they are descendants of the Indo-European Alans, and perhaps even of the Massagetae mentioned by Herodot; but they have also been connected to his Sarmatians. They were called Ossilians by Ptolemy (2nd century A.D.), and Asses or Alans by Arabic and Medieval writers. In Russian chronicles from early 12th century they were called Yas or Jossi. The Ossetians refer to themselves as Iron, which is believed to be the same as Aryon, again another term for Alan; but some believe that Ironian is simply just another word for Iranian. The language is Indo-European of the Indo-Iranian branch, and completely different from both North-Caucasian and South-Caucasian languages.  

 

They must have arrived into Caucasus from the North, and the population was widespread in the Southern Russia during the first centuries A.D., where they inhabited the lower parts of the river Don. This name is actually the Ossetian word for water; which also forms a part in many river-names on the North side of Caucasus, like Ar-don (= furious water) and others. The Azov-Sea, on whose Eastern coast the Ossetians lived, most probably also got its name from them. 

At the beginning of the Migration Period a great part of the Alans or Ossians went westwards together with the Goths and Huns and settled by the river Donau, whose name may also stem from them. They might as well have founded the city of Jassy (pronounced Jasj) in Moldavia. From the 7th to the 13th century the Ossians had been driven Southwards from the Don area by Khazars and Mongolians, to the rivers Kuban and Terek.  

 

Originally they were a mighty horse-riding nomadic people; but eventually, in the 14th century, the Crimean Kabardins invaded the land and pushed them up to their present mountainous resort. But that they already at an earlier stage were familiar with mountains or a mountainous land, is perhaps evident from their word Khokh for mountain, which seems to be identical to the first syllable in the Greek name Kaukhasos. 

 

In comparison to others, especially Eastern Caucasian people, an Ossian's skull is quite long (the average index perhaps about 81). The eyes are mostly blue or grey, hair and beard mostly blonde, light-brown or reddish. The face is often broad, the nose big, the lips thin. The colour of the face is light, often ruddy. They are mainly of medium height and strongly built, both men and women. For a large part the Ossians can originally have been of a Nordic stock, or there might have been an immigration from the North, but their language clearly shows that the largest part of Ossians have been connected with the Iranian people to the East. The varying skull forms, and the presence of darker hair and brown eyes, may indicate a strong influence from neighbouring tribes in later times. 

 

For us Scandinavians this people is of a certain interest since their name have been put in connection with the Old Norse word for the gods: Ass. Snorre Sturlason says in the Ynglinga Saga that "the country East of the Tanaquisl (= Don) in Asia was called Asaland, or Asaheim, and the chief city in that land was called Asgard", and that the chief was Odin himself. Although Snorre probably puts Áss in connection with the name Asia without noticing, thoughts can quite surely lead to the Ossians who lived precisely East of the river Tanaquisl or Don; Asaland then becomes land of the Ossians.  

Strangely enough Snorre goes on saying that Odin had great possessions South of "this mountain ridge", i.e. Caucasus (exactly where a part of the Ossians live today), and that "in those times the Roman chiefs went wide around in the world, subduing to themselves all people; and on this account many chiefs fled from their domains." The fore-seeing Odin then went away "with all the gods (= Diar) and a great many other people", at first westward to Gardarike (Russia), then Southward to Saksland (Germany) and then turning northwards. 

 

Linguists derive the word Åss or Ass, Old German Ans - Ansu, from the root Ans = breath or wind, and Ass could then almost be interpreted as a wind-god or a spirit. But that does not exclude the possibilities for the name having been put in connection with the Ossians on a later stage, whom might also have had an a-sound in their name (ref. Azov-Sea). 

 

Most Ossians are now Christian by name, Greek-Orthodox, and about 1/4 are Muslim; but like the Khevsurs they all more or less still live in heathendom and worship their ancient gods and spirits. That some of these have gotten saint's names do not make them less heathen. The god for lightning and thunder is thus called AsElia, but seems to have much in common with the Norse thundergod Thor. When someone gets struck by lightning, they say he has been struck by AsElia, because this person has dishonoured him.  

The dead is either buried at the place he was struck, or at an occasional place where a two-wheeled wagon pulled by two goats leads the body. At the burial site a black goat is slaughtered, and the fur hanged up on a pole. The two goats finding the burial site could probably be considered as AsElia' goats, and it makes me wonder if they and the two-wheeled wagon could have anything to do with the god Thor's carriage?  

The sacred AsElia also free the people on Earth from the blind dragon Ruimon, who resides in the spirit world, and who brings disease and death upon the people with its terrible roar. AsElia captivates it with a chain and pulls it up to the surface, where heavenly spirits cut pieces of its flesh, which souls cook and eat and get rejuvenated by. This seems to have some connection with Thor and the Midgard-serpent, who encircled the Earth, and whom he hooked while on a fishing trip in the Jotunheim and then pulled up to the surface. 

 

The Ossians also have many other gods who govern different aspects of life: the highest god of both good and evil who must always be called upon; a god of judgment, of Paradise and Hell; son of the sun; sun of the moon; the god of the fields, fall, cattle, game, the waters, the fish and health; a god who protects robbers and many more. For the god of evil the farmer slaughter a lamb on the wednesday night between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, and places it in front of the door. The god is offered food and drink and is being implored not to harm people and cattle. Then there is held a great feast through the night; but during the event the name of the most high god must not be uttered. It is just like our own saying: if anyone seek the friendship of the devil, God's name must not be uttered, or else the devil will disappear at once. 

 

Of great value is the spirits (Safa) of the fore-fathers and the spirit of the house, protector of the fire-place, which must be treated with much respect. To him they sacrifice a goat at certain times; whose blood they bury; and sometimes they even sacrifice food to him or to the deceased, often at certain places in the woods. These are conceptions from the oldest of times prior to the great heathen religions, and is evident within many cultures.They have a lot in common with our own concept of the hauge-bonde (tufte-kall or garsvord), even also with the tomte-gubbe (the nisse). The hauge-bonde is actually the ancestor of the family, or of the folk ancestors in general, and to him people used to sacrifice food and beer next to a tree that was sanctified him. The beer could also be poured out to him into the fire-place.  

 

As with the Georgian mountain-tribes, the Khevsurs, the Pshavs, the Tushs, the Svans and other tribes, the Ossians also have sacred groves, where the people gather for worship and holy feasts. The groves consist of different types of leaf trees, and often at places outside of the woods. Obviously they are ancient heathen places of sacrifice, and often churches and altars are built at these places. At the feasts they sacrifice animals, and blood is smeared on the altar and on the people, and beer is also brewed, and drank together with liqour in great numbers while the sacrificial animals are eaten. The women must not, not even during the feasts, enter these groves or touch the holy trees. Some places there are also larger groups of trees where weddings are celebrated. 

 

Only the priests can enter these sacred groves to collect firewood needed for the brewing of the beer. If anybody else dares to cut down a tree or as much as break a twig, the god of the grove will curse him with great disease or death. In a holy grove at Abanokan in the cleft at Trusso it is the holy Ilja (Elias) who strikes the perpetrator with blindness, and if the poor fellow wants his sight back he must sacrifice an ox. 

Sacred trees and groves exists in many cultures from around the world; these were also common in Scandinavia (ref. Uppsala). At Birte in Mo in Telemark there was a grove so sacred that not even the grass could be cut or used for pasture, or else somebody would suffer an accident. 

 

A characteristic mark in the sacred groves of the Ossians is large heaps of twigs under certain trees: anyone passing such a grove is obliged to leave a twig or a piece of wood as a sacrifice to the god of the grove. In Norway we have had the same custom, and one can still see large heaps of twigs by the tracks, where those passing by toss a twig by old habit, without knowing the reason for it. At other places rocks are left behind as sacrifice in a similar manner. 

On top of Ossian graves there used to be raised uncut stones, about 3 metres high, and these could have had some resemblance with the Scandinavian standing stones (Bauta-stones). 

 

The Ossians have a very fortunate manner of getting their way, worthy of envy. When a man cannot get back his belongings from another man, and some sort of a remedy is not possible, he threatens to kill a dog or a cat on top of his opponent's ancestral grave. The souls within the grave are then threatened by the dishonour of being troubled by these animals in the after-life. Since no Ossian can bear the thought of this, the case is soon put in order. When an Ossian takes the oath, he holds a dog by its tale or a donkey by its ear; and if he makes himself guilty of perjury, the souls of his relatives and his fore-fathers must eat animals like these in the after-life. Similar conceptions also exist within the Khevsurs and is most probably remains from common ancestral worship. 

 

The Ossian villages up here in the mountains are not very big, spanning from 20-30 farms down to 5 or 6, resting on terraces up through the steap mountain-sides. Further up in the mountains farms can be seen scattered around, but these are fortified. The houses here in the hill-sides are made of stone like the Khevsurs', further down in the valley they are also built from logs like the Norwegian log houses. In the villages there are always tall watchtowers for defence, and often one at every farm. At all times these people have had to be ready for war. It is also a characteristic trait among the Ossians that theft and plunder of people from a foreign tribe is not considered a crime; it it as they are always on the alert for war. 

 

Each village forms a community with an "eldest" as chief. This is again divided into larger families, with a head of each family; but these larger families are no longer strongly attached to each other, and the possessions no longer joint property. When a man dies, the heritage is divided equally between his sons, but the oldest one inherits the house and some cattle in addition, the youngest inherits mostly just weapon and cattle. The daughters get nothing; but at the time of marriage an amount of money is paid to either the father or the brothers; it is as they are property which can be traded with. With the largest part of the Ossian tribes there exist no distinction between social classes. 

 

The Ossians live off of agriculture, but even more of cattle breeding, especially up in the mountains; in times past theft was also an important occupation. In the lower parts of the valleys different types of crop is cultivated: the first year a field is manured wheat or corn is grown, the second year barley, and on the third year the field lies fallow. But oats and millet, peas, beans, potatoes, cucumbers etc. are also grown. In the higher valleys mostly rye and barley are grown; but the soil available in these hillsides is poor, and therefore cattle breeding is more profitable. For the most part they breed sheep, some goats, cows and horses. The cattle grazes on a field close to the house during the summer, enclosed by stone-walls or wooden fences, like our "kveer", - in wintertime they are kept indoors, often in the basement of the houses, like the Khevsurs do. The manure is collected and made use of as we do, for manuring the fields. This is otherwise not custom with other Caucasian people; like the Russians they use dried dung for fuel; up in the mountains, where there are no woods, it is otherwise difficult to get fuel. The dung is kneaded into cakes and smeared up against the house walls where they are left to dry in the sun.  

 

In the forest-clad valleys forestry is also practised, and the timber is being floated in a similar manner as practiced in Norway. The rivers are swift and unmanageable, and the timber therefore often gets stuck and must be let loose again. 

 

The men carry the hard work outside: ploughing, haymaking, threshing, lumbering, floating, carpentry and masonry etc. The women work indoors, milk and tend for the cows, sheep and goats, spin and weave, but also attend some of the work on the field, cut the grain with sickles, gather firewood from the forest etc.  

A man's death is of course a big event within these small communities, and is celebrated among the Ossians and the Khevsurs with great festivities, which the whole village take part in, with lamentations and wailer women and horse racing and funeral feast with food plentyful, beer and liqour. The burial and the passage to the Underworld stems from old, heathen practices. In the following year there is held up to as many as 12 memorial feasts, and even people from the neighbouring villages get invited. This is necessary in order for the deceased to get to eat sacred bread, beer and liqour, and not having to eat grass in the after-life. But the widow must fast a whole year wearing a black dress, and every friday visit the grave bringing food and drink with her to the deceased. 

 

Their cups and vessels and kitchen utensils are in many ways reminiscent of that of the Germanic people, this is also true about their custom of brewing beer from barley. This is also the custom with the Khevsurs, while other Caucasian tribes brew a kind of beer from millet. 

 

That many traits in the Ossian way of life and customs, and tools, show a great similarity with that of the North Germanic peoples, may for a large part be due to a common Indo-European origin, but can of course also have an explanation in the similar ways and manners of life and livelihood. It is worth noticing that many similar customs are not just to be found among their neighbours the Khevsurs and the Pshavs, but also among other tribes and peoples of completely different origins and languages. 

 

The End

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