Political structure of Ossetia was democratic in XV-XVI centuries. Translating from ancient Greek, the word “democracy” means “power of people”. Power in the society as a whole as well as in its various sections, belonged to the citizens. *Uazdan? A person who had his proper land as well as his proper agriculture, did not depend on anyone, and actively took part in the political life. His rights were protected by the people’s gathering and the court.
*Uazdan – a noble man.
The highest level of administration in Ossetia was a people’s gathering-Nihas. The word “nihas” itself means “people’s gathering” in Ossetian language. Another meaning of this word is “conversation” as it comes from the common root of the verb “nihasin”-“to glue together, to connect”. This gathering brought people together and was a symbol of their unity.
Ossetian Nihas-a system of self-governing that consists of many levels. All men could attend the nihas of familial and village’s levels. Sometimes certain women that were famous for their wisdom were invited. The head of the family had the right of vote and their age did not play an important role. Young man could present his family’s interests if older members of the family were missing or were too old. Questions reserved for discussions at the Nihas of the village, were first discussed at the Family (clan) Nihas.
In the gatherings of higher levels, people that attended had to be elected first. Nihas from every village elected a deputy to present them at the general Nihas. Three general gatherings elected deputies to the Nihas of civil community. From there, a group of deputies was sent to the highest level of Nihas, Nihas of the whole society. It was called Stir Nihas - The Great People’s Gathering.
If decided by smaller groups, they could call for a Stir Nihas of all Ossetia, but that was a rare occasion. It would take place in case of a serious danger, such as war, or to conduct international talks that are essential in their importance to the life of the population.
Not everyone was trusted to represent the interests of his society. The honour of the deputy’s family, name and village depended on his nobleness and responsibility. That is why only the worthiest and wisest people were in the highest levels of the people’s gatherings. They were elected many times through democratic elections.
Nihas looked at questions and issues of very special importance: entrance in unions, declaration of war or peace. Nihas was a legislative organ where the norms of general rights were asserted. During the war, war generals were elected. In more peaceful times, responsible people were appointed to carry out the decisions of Nihas.
Certain communities had sole elected leaders. In Digor society, the head of the community was called “uoli”. Responsibilities that were put on a citizen by Nihas, were done voluntarily and without any monetary reward. The power, whether it’s political or war-related, was passed on to the elected people for a limited time. Nihas followed all the actions of the people in power and they had to report back for everything they did. If Nihas asked foreigners to work, they would receive payment for their work.
Nihas of the village took care of many daily things and issues. Here, people negotiated the order of the use of fields and forest, the length (in hours) of the fieldwork. At these Nihas gatherings, people were chosen to be responsible for organizing annual holiday in a sanctuary and were appointed people for different public work (such as building of a bridge, or fixing of the roads). Nihas also organized the security of the village and land, distributed the common expenses between all the households and took care of foreigners’ requests for rights to live on this land. For breaking the rules or rights created by Nihas, citizens risked to be expelled from the community.
For Ossetians, the gathering itself as well as its location, was called Nihas. Up to this day, the Nihas of Alagirs is called “Nihas”. The gathering of Tsarazon took place on the sacred glade Sidan. In every village, there was a special place set aside for nihas. Sometimes a certain structure was built, but more often than not, it was taking place outside. Elders usually sat on stones placed in the shape of an amphitheatre. Younger people stood around the elders.
Times of gatherings as well as final decisions were announced with the help of messengers. People attending nihas came dressed up and fully armed. Everyone had to act reserved and calm when the conflict situations were being discussed. Every deputy had the right to speak, but the elders with the most authority spoke first. After that, deputies talked to each other, shared their thoughts and tried to come up with a common opinion or idea. If that was not possible, they would divide themselves into different parties. After listening to everyone, the vote was taken. People for and against the discussed decision stood on different sides and counted the votes.
This kind of gathering was not just a system of governing. It was also an essential school of morality, eloquence, good manners and political experience. Men gathered every evening at the Nihas of the village. They shared their daily concerns, trips, hunting. They shared their problems and seeked an advice. The life of every Ossetian was public and his good side or bad side, honour or shame were known to everyone. Nihas formed the public opinion and judged or encouraged deeds of its members. The smallest suspicion of some dishonourable deed was announced and was investigated in a strict manner. Things like gossip and intrigues were not discussed. No one was allowed to get into personal life or family’s relations of an Ossetian.
Nihas was also a type of information centre. All news were gathered and messengers from all neighbours came there. People, who took part in any kind of travel, shared the information about what they saw and heard in foreign places with everyone.
Different parts of national culture were presented at Nihas. Elders remembered the past and passed on elements of national history orally. Young men exhibited their skills in horseback riding and handling different weaponry. Different athletic competitions and games took place as well. Best singers and storytellers exhibited their skills as well. Often Nihas asked to write a song in the honour of a hero and then listened to the performance.
Ossetian court was called “Tarhon”. It worked based the rules that went in accordance with the national customs.
Usually the victims and the accused were in court with their relatives. Court consisted of the people, chosen by the mutual consent of both sides. Judges were people that were wise intellectuals and who were aware of all the legal norms and laws. They came from highly respected and strong families. Being a judge was dangerous; people that were not happy with the decision of the court could seek revenge.
Based on an ancient rule, people elected three to nine judges-there had to be a representative from each of the civil communities. Only decision that was supported by all of the representatives was considered legal. The judges of the highest level, held the last word. They had the right to support or refuse the final decision.
Firstly, the plaintiff spoke up and explained his complaint. Then the accused had the right to speak. After that, relatives held their word, if that was necessary. Ossetian court paid most attention to the fact of the crime and to all its available evidence. Comments of witnesses were considered secondary. After figuring out all the details, judges tried to reconcile both sides, which was considered the hardest task. If peace was not possible between the two sides, then the judges would announce their decision. The verdict always included reimbursement of damages and money, as well as two conditions.
First condition was an oath. The person who was proved innocence based on the decision of the judges, had to take this oath along with some people from his family. This was done in a sanctuary or at the tombstones of his relatives and ancestors. A false vow was considered a horrible sin in Ossetian culture. That is why the refusal to take an oath was an obvious sign of guilt. So if the plaintiff and his relatives refused to take it, then the accused was free to go without any punishment.
Second condition before the case could be officially dismissed, was a conciliatory dinner. The family of the accused was in charge of it and when both sides gathered together, they would turn to God and end the enmity.
Sometimes a special trial of water or fire was set up to confirm the innocence. If someone who walked across fire and didn’t burn or didn’t drown when he was thrown into a fast river, was considered innocent by the court. Also, there was a famous magical trial: the suspected person had to step over burning tendons of the wolf. Ossetians believed that if someone was guilty, would be gravely sick after this.
Court could let one of the relatives of the killed fight with the killer, if that was demanded by the relatives. There were two kinds of duels. The first option was for the killer to stand and wait to be shot and the shooter’s name was drawn randomly. The second option was duel with daggers, where both people were not able to see as they had their eyes covered with a piece of material.
Special locations for court dates were always close to the sanctuaries. There were connoisseurs of the jurisdiction and law in every community. Those people would be invited to other communities as well. Judges from Tualskoe community were famous for their wisdom and justice all over Ossetia but most respected judges were from Dagom. The highest level of the Ossetian court system was in Dagom village. People would come here to solve a hopeless case or to change an unfair sentence. Even foreigners asked Dagom for help if they lost hope to get justice in their own homeland.
“History of Ossetia”
Vladikavkaz, Ir. 2000.
Translated from Russian by Anastassia Grankina