Ludvig Chibirov, Vladikavkaz. 1995.
Hospitality is one of the most important national traditions. Usually there were a lot of guests at funerals and various feasts. The etiquette depended on the purpose of the guests’ visit. In this article we’ll try to observe all range of traditions connected with hospitality. According to Professor Vsevolod Miller, hospitality was the most prominent feature of the Ossetians.
Nowadays, hospitality has lost its former public importance but it still has its basic elements. In order not to lose this etiquette finally we’ll try to recreate it in the form it existed in the second half of the XIX and early years of the XX centuries. We give our readers the opportunity to decide which rules of hospitality must be followed nowadays and which of them we needn’t any more.
Like everything connected with traditions, hospitality gradually became ritualized and even religious. The best illustration of this fact is an Ossetian greeting: “A guest is God’s guest”. It means a guest is God’s missioner and thus he is sacred no matter who he is and where he is from. That’s why the hosting families expressed their joy about the safe arrival of their guest.
The refusal to receive a guest meant covering the family and all relatives with disgrace. The host had to preserve peace and defend the honor of the guest, whoever he was. D. Lavrov wrote, "A true Ossetian will better do some" dzhigit "(crazy) stuff, than harshly deny welcoming someone, even a n absolute stranger."
N. Berzenov, another expert of Ossetian life, said: "According to the law of Ossetian hospitality, even if the archenemy comes as a guest, the hosts will never refuse in hospitality. On the contrary, they will do their best to secure his life in order he could leave their house safe and sound. Outside the place the host still has the right to take revenge on him. "
Thus, even a deadly enemy was considered to be a sacrosanct, till he stayed with a family as a guest and he could exercise the right of hospitality until he left the hosting family. According to the legend, an Ossetian man Boorhan was punished with immortality, like Ahasferus because of his refusal to welcome guests
N. Berzenov writes, "The murder of the hosted person – is revenged with the same ferocity as the murder of the closest person. If a foreigner managed to say the host “I am your guest”, he was treated like a brother, though in fact he could be an enemy of the family”. The host was obliged to defend his guest. This tradition was formed by our ancestors in the past and it is still observed nowadays. You can judge it from the examples given below, though they are separated by an interval of exactly seven centuries.
One day the Mongolian Emir Utrurka stayed as a guest with Alanian Marshal Pulad’s family.. In response to the terrible Mongolian Khan Timur’s ultimative demand to extradite the hostile Emir, Pulad replied : "Utrurka has found a shelter in my house and yet my heart is in my body, I will not betray him, and while I am able , I will protect and preserve him."
The second example was told us in 1959 by 100 years old Sandro Dzhioev. “It happened in South Ossetia in the yearly 1900’s. A Tkhinval townee Bagaev was on his way back home from the village Sarrita (Dzhava region). Not far from the village Goofta he met three drunken young men who quarreled with him and they even tried to horse ride him. In anger Bagaev fatally stabbed one of the hooligans. So he had nothing to do but to flee to the nearest village and hide in his friend’s house . After a while the killed man was brought to the same house, he turned out to be their son. All inhabitants of the village demanded to punish the manslayer but the parents of the killed guy refused to extradite their guest. They told they couldn’t betray the person who had asked for their protection.”
You can find a lot of similar examples of the hospitality in the Ossetian ethnographic literature. Though there were practically no cases of the violation of the hospitality law, nevertheless there was a definite punishment for breaking The Adat (the Law of ancient Ossetians). It could be the expulsion from the community and social boycott (khody) or even death penalty. Perhaps those severe penalties contributed to the inviolability of the laws of hospitality. Other Caucasian peoples also had different kinds of punishments for the violation of the hospitality laws.
Hospitality was extended equally to everyone. A host had to welcome and give the guest top honors if he didn’t want to become notorious. It was impossible to hide from people how a guest was treated, because the news of the guest’s arrival spread very quickly. Even if the hosting family didn’t have enough resources, they could borrow everything they needed from their neighbors and relatives. Those families, who took part in a feast in honor of the guest, supported the family with food. Thus, every host did his best to impress and take best care of guests. The names of the most hospitable people were known far beyond their communities and they enjoyed great respect in society. They were also mentioned in the national heroic songs.
The Ossetian society didn’t respect a family which rarely hosted guests. It was regarded as a bad omen and the punishment of the celestial powers.
This point of view was the result of the belief that God would compensate many time all the spending associated with hosting guests thanks to the prayers of the guest.
Here is one more story. There were two brothers who lived prosperously in peace and harmony. The younger brother did all the chores while the elder one was always busy with guests. They used to lead the same way of life even after their marriages. But one day the younger o brother’s wife expressed her indignation. She didn’t like that her husband was doing all the work about the house while his elder brother was permanently had fun with the guests. She insisted on separation and they began to keep their own house. The younger brother kept working hard but the material status of the family became even worse rather than better. The elder brother didn’t change the lifeway but nevertheless his family didn’t become poorer. The situation hasn’t changed for several years and at last the younger brother asked the elder one to join their families again. The elder brother told him the secret of his prosperity: “God and his angels by all means hear at least one of our guests’ numerous prays for the welfare and abundance in our house and they bestow us wealth enough to compensate many times our spending on guests.”
A family should be ready to host a guest any time. According to the Ossetian belief “God endows every family I with a definite number of guests a year. It was the reason of the highlanders’ (Ossetians’) entreaties to God not to deprive them of their portion of guests. (“Holy, don’t deprive us of our portion of guests, please!”) Special respect enjoys the families where guests are never on the wane. Even the richest and most noble person will never be respected by his countrymen if his living room is not full of guests every day.”
The Ossetians fervently adhered to the custom of hospitality and were afraid to break it. They firmly believed that all their spending would be compensated with a vengeance by God. You can see the same idea in the plot of legend "St. George and three brothers".” One day in the guise of a poor pilgrim St. George decided to see for himself how people live on the earth. On his way he met three brothers and he decided to visit them. The brothers were very poor but they cordially hosted the guest. The grateful St George fulfilled their desires : he granted the eldest brother with an abundance of crops, he gave a herd of horses, cattle, sheep and goats to the second brother and the youngest one got a good wife. The brothers dreams came true and they were happy and satisfied. A year later St.George decided to visit the brothers again in the guise of a beggar. Both elder brothers refused to host him. The youngest brother was not at home but his wife welcomed the stranger and gave the guest top honors. In order not to upset the guest she even didn’t tell him that her child had recently died. St. George was so touched by the warm reception that he reanimated the dead child and bestowed well-being and wealth of the family. On the other hand he damned the elder brothers and deprived them of all he had granted them the previous year.”
The conviction that a guest brought happiness and prosperity to the family, had firmly established in the peoples’ consciousness. Hosts considered it their duty to protect their guest from all kinds of miseries and troubles, and even, if necessary, sacrifice their lives for his sake. To receive payment for food and shelter was considered to be extremely indecent. And even if the guest would try to impose a fee, the hosting family certainly would consider it as a personal insult. This custom is followed by the Ossetians nowadays too.
If a stranger appeared in the settlement everybody tried to be the first to invite him. In 1960”s our ethnographic group came to the village Cheliat in Dghava region. We met a group of young girls and boys near the wellspring. When the kids learnt that we didn’t have the place to stay at, they nearly scuffled and each of them begged us to be their guests.
When a guest appeared in a settlement all the inhabitants expressed their interest in him and showed their respect. When a guest was walking or riding along the street people, sitting in the street rose, those who were chatting stopped talking and even those who were doing some job stopped doing it in order to greet the guest. In front of the hosting hut he was met by the eldest of the family and the juniors took care of his horse. A guest was considered a guest of the whole family and relatives. All the inhabitants of the settlement were responsible for his health and welfare. Therefore all close relatives and neighbors took part in the process of preparing food for the guest( if it was necessary). If there was a large group of guests they were either distributed among the neighbors or the hosting family was assisted with food and beddings. Anyway the guest should have been hosted properly. A hosting family was obliged to kill the sacrificial animal( koushart) even if they had got a lot of fresh meat. All self-respecting Ossetians were afraid to be called stingy and inhospitable and to merit the bitterest irony.
A guest had to enter the house with his right foot stepping in first and leave it with his left one stepping out. Entering the house he had to say:” I’m your guest” and the host greeted him saying,” A guest is Envoy of God. You are welcome!” A guest was treated as a brother even if I fact he was a bitter enemy of the hosting family. According to the etiquette it was not polite to ask a guest who he was, where he was from, where he was going to, etc. A famous Ossetian historian and ethnographer Dr. George Kokiev described, “One winter night in 1913 I was riding from Kurtat Valley to the village Ardon. It was a very stormy night and nearly at 3 a.m. I reached an Ossetian village Dzuarikau. As far as I had no opportunity to continue my trip I knocked at the door of a hut at the edge of the village. The host welcomed me rather warmly. Despite the late hour he took care of my horse, fed and put me to sleep. The following day I set to ride only in the afternoon as the day remained to be rather gloomy till midday. The hostess gave me hot cheese cakes and some arak. According to the Ossetian custom the host accompanied me to the edge of the village and only there he asked me who I was and where I was going to. I answered his questions and he also told me his name and surname. So we made friends and I continued my trip.”
This episode was rather typical for the Ossetians and you can find the evidences in the ethnographic literature. The Ossetians didn’t use to ask guests questions about their private life. Later people didn’t strongly follow this custom and if a guest didn’t tell his name and the purpose of his visit for himself, the host could ask very politely using such phrases as:”Pardon me, but could I ask…, I hope it won’t be rude if I ask you…, etc. Surely, a guest could tell about himself and the aim of his visit. He could also ask the host questions. The Ossetians had no strict rules about the period when a guest should tell about himself, but the Adygs had such limit of 3 days of his stay.
All families were practically ready to host a guest any time. For this purpose the hostess saved the best part of grain, cheese, meat and other food.
Anyone who had experienced the hospitality of the Caucasian people pointed out the quick table setting and hospitality. The menu depended not only on the social status of the guest but also on the duration of his stay and on the opportunities of the hosting family.
An anonymous author who had visited the village Wallag Kani in 1910 wrote:” It is rather interesting how quickly our highlanders can laid the table. Of course, there exist abreks( robbers) and bad people among them, but good traditions are strongly followed there. It is very important they still have strong home etiquette and families are not subjected to separations and divorces.”
Here is one more fact about the hospitality of the Ossetians. In 1958 an ethnographic expedition had been lost in the Ossetian mountains and a path led them to some village called Sadzhyn Kuyrf. When they reached the huts they asked the host if it was the village Fazy Dzomag. After receiving a negative reply and advice on the further route, they said goodbye to the owner of the house and wanted to continue their journey. But the man immediately stopped them and angrily said:”Stop! Have you ever heard a guest can turn back from the threshold of the door? You disgrace me and yourselves.” The guestswere invited into the hut. There was not ready meal but after making sure that the guests would not stay for the night and have too little time, the hostess quickly prepared dzykka (porridge made of fresh cheese, butter and corn flour). After the meal the host escorted them to the outskirt of the village and wished the guests a nice trip saying:” Let Wasterdzhi (Ossetian God of travelers) be your companion”
At the banquet guests were always served a “nuazhan”(a honorary glass of drink) otherwise guests could regard it as a personal offense.
A popular legend tells how a man walking back home, met another man. The traveler having learnt that the other man was on a visit somewhere asked why he looked so dissatisfied and if the hosting family had treated him poorly. The traveler replied that they hadhosted him very well but hadn’t given him a“nuazhan”
During the meal, the guest was practically forgiven for all their faults. Even if they behaved provocatively, everybody tried to forgive them and avoid wrangling with them. However it was not enough to feed the guest. The youth took care of him and did their best to entertain him. Usually there was organized a dancing in his honor. Young people played the national harmony, danced, sang songs and sometimes they even organized racing, shooting, etc.. Women were not allowed to enter into the “wazagdon” except for the time when it was necessary to make the bed. This extra attention helped to raise the prestige of the hosting family. The more people took part in the entertaining of the guest the more honor obtained the hosting family.
After dinner when it was time to relax, guests were invited to the bedrooms. There was a definite etiquette too. The hosts and the younger guests had to stay near the oldest guest while he was getting ready for bed. The youngest guest or one of the host’s sons had to take off the guest’s shoes (the left shoe first) and wash his feet. The hosts also helped all the guests to take off their shoes but they washed their feet for themselves. Guests were also helped to take off their clothes which should have been unbuttoned from top to bottom and fastened from bottom to top. When the guests went to bed, the women of the hosting family had to tidy their clothes (wash and iron if necessary).
There was a very strong etiquette which should have been followed both by guests and the hosting families. Whatever happened, even if the guest was not welcomed well enough it was not bon ton to leave the hosting family and go to the neighbors’ house. It was strongly condemned by the people. A guest had to behave properly, it was shame to eat and drink too much. One of the dignities of the guest was to eat little. As soon as the oldest person finished eating the others had to do the same. Rules of etiquette required that during the meal the guest gave the best piece of meat to the host's son. Some of the ancient Ossetian traditions are followed even nowadays. For-example, before going to the wedding or any other party you should eat at home in order not to eat too much there.
According to the etiquette a guest had no right to interfere in family conversations, sort things out, revenge to anyone, quarrel, and especially insult the dignity of the members of the hosting family. On the contrary, he might be polite and thank the hosts for their hospitality, especially when leaving the family. Once the guest went to sleep, the women put in order his clothes (washed, ironed).
Every self respecting person had stick to the rule that it was not polite to stay too long somewhere as a guest. A hasty departure of guests could offend the hosting family but two, three or more days stay could burden the family, though they never showed it.
At the same time when guests were going to leave the hosting family they were traditionally asked to stay for another couple of days or more. Usually only men could see off the guests because it was not polite to mount a horse or sit in the cart in the presence of women. Before mounting a horse, he was set face-to-house. It symbolized that the guest was grateful for the hospitality of the hosting family. However if he was dissatisfied he sat on his horse back to the house. The same custom had the Adygs.
Horses were being mounted according to seniority of the riders. It was not allowed to strike the horse near the hosting house because the hosts could think the guest was dissatisfied with something. The host could not go into the house until his guests moved far away from the house. In the old days the foreign guests were seen off up to the next village.
A stranger, especially if he was from a foreign country, was particularly honored. In the works of foreign authors who have visited Ossetia, you can find a lot of evidences of the hospitality of the local people, emphasizing special sensitivity and care of their guests. A wonderful expert of the Ossetian life Vakhushti- Prince of Georgia emphasized: “"The Ossetians know how to honor and protect outlandish guests. Nobody dares to harm a guest as he knows that all his family will be responsible for his misdoing.”
The following notes were written by a well known German ethnographer Julius Heinrich Klaproth. “"When a stranger comes to an Ossetian village where he have no friend, he can be sure he will be safe, protected and fed. Besides he will be treated as a close relative.”
However, the best description of Ossetian hospitality with specific details of etiquette was given by a German scientist Karl Koch in his book “REISE DURCH RUSSLAND NACH DEM KAUKASISCHEN ISTHMUS IN DEN JAHREN 1836, 1837 UND 1838”.” As soon as I reached the destination where I decided to stop I was met and welcomed by the elders of the village. They accompanied me to the house I was going to stay. One of them helped me to dismount and took me into a very clean and tidy room with a fire in the middle. The host greeted me with bared head and said,” My family and I are happy that you honor us allowing to host you according to our traditions and customs.” He crossed his arms on his chest, put his right foot sock behind the left one and bowed saying ”It’s a great happiness for us” . As soon as I sat down on the low rickety stool near the little three-legged table which stood just opposite the door, the host stood in front of me and said with a solemn voice the following words, ”You have brought happiness to my house and to our village so allow us to welcome you and your friends according to our customs. What animal would you like to be killed in your honor: a cow or a buffalo, two pigs and two sheep? Tell us what you want, sir. My sons are ready to execute your commands”. After the interpreter had expressed our desire to have only necessary and minimum food the young men waiting respectfully at the door, left the room. After a while they appeared again and put the killed animal in front of me. “Sir, we have carried out your desire, the sacrificial animal (the animal intended for the feast ) did not cry out of pain so allow us to cook for the fiesta now”.( The Ossetians have a custom to avoid crying of the killing animal. If the animal cries , people believe it to be a bad sign and it gets rid of being killed.) The young people immediately put the killed animal on the thick burning tree trunk and began to gut and skin it. While the young men were preparing the meat, the young women and older girls also did not remain idle, they were busy with baking bread … Women, mostly in blue long and wide dresses, were stirring rough grind flour with water. . As soon as the dough was ready, it was placed in small round pans about a foot in diameter. Bread was baked on the charcoal and ash. The same way they baked something like a pie that is very similar to a Thuringian pie filled with onions and bacon: it contained the same ingredients and vividly reminded me of my homeland.
The young men cut the meat with their big daggers and put it into the caldron filled with water and all sorts of spicy greens, especially onions. The best pieces of the meat were cut even smaller, spread on sharpened stakes and roasted over moderate heat. I had never and nowhere eaten before such a delicious fried meat as in Ossetia.
The elders of the settlement were entertaining me with talks while the others were cooking. To reward anyhow our kind hosts I ordered my servant to make tea for them. This drink was absolutely new to them and though at first they drank it with care, they eventually liked it and asked to make it again and again. When at last the meal was ready, all the villagers and my companions gathered in the room. Along the wall there were place long benches. The older men sat at the table first and then the others followed them. Women and children didn’t participate in the fiesta.
When everything was ready, the master of the house came up to me and respectfully said,” Sir, my sons and daughters have finished cooking and are ready to set the table. Can I ask your permission to start the fiesta?”
After that two juniors brought a jug of water and a towel and the guests washed their hands. Another guy laid a long napkin on the knees of the noblest guests. Then the elder of the village cut the boiled and roasted meat with his kinzhal (dagger). As soon as all guests took their places according to their age, rank and status the host took a big cup made of horn. He filled it with home-made Ossetian beer, came up to me and in a solemn voice said the following words, “Thank you that you came here and gave us a chance to show our goodness and hospitality. Let happiness and grace power out their cornucopia upon you. Let God help you to return home healthy and happy. We wish you happy and long life with your family and those who are dear to you. Let you always be surrounded by sweetly fragrant flowers of love and respect. Thank you again for being our guest.” After that he drank some beer from the horn in the honor of the patron gods of the family hearth, and then drank up the rest of the beer. Then to show his high respect he came up to the fire and turned the goblet upside down over it. Not a single drop fell in the burning flame. Less drinking is left in the goblet better is expressed the respect. Then all the guests sitting at the table had to drink for my health and turn the goblet upside down over the fire. Then the host said,”
The second toast is for the health of your family. (Here they always express their respect by saying prays for the health.) Let your father, mother, brothers, sisters wife and children be rewarded for they let you travel to foreign countries and gave us opportunity to host you here. God bless your family!” After that I thanked my hosting family via the interpreter and I poured beer into the horn and drank it to the bottom according to the custom . Now it was my turn to say a pray (toast). I took the horn again and drank for the health of my companion Knyaz(prince) Pavlenko.
Everybody at the table was obliged to do the same. After that Knyaz Pavlenko had to drink for the health of any other person. I should note here that it was against the Ossetian etiquette to drink for the health of the host. Cheerful humor and fun characterize such fiestas. From time to time the loud laughter was heard from the accommodation. People teased each other on various occasions, which often dated back to the past events. Mr. Grigoryevskiy told that they could even quarrel during a fiesta. But however during my trip I hadn’t seen anything like that. Probably the demonstration of noisy joy deceived him.
Ossetian decency demands everybody must stop eating as soon as the guest do it that’s why I was sitting at the table until all the meal was eaten.
At the end of the fiesta the host got up from the table and again thanked me for the visit that glorified them and the villagers went home. Then two guys brought water and a towel. We washed ourselves and went to bed to enjoy our sweet sleep.”
Guests visits were so often Ossetian everyday life that it was necessary to have a special building for guests- wazagdon(Russian variant- kunatskaya) . Up to the beginning of the XX century practically all wealthy North Ossetians had a wazagdon , which was a rudiment of a primitive communal system when a guest was considered to be a guest of the whole community. Wazagdon could be used by the villagers without asking permission of its owner. It was regarded a common property of all relatives and villagers and its door was never locked. The most detailed description of the purpose of a wazagdon( room for guests) was made by S.Kokiev. He wrote,” Wazagdon must be built close to the gate but away from the main building where the family lived . There must be a stable for the guests’ horses near the wazagdon. Being the accommodation for guests, its doors were always open. Guests felt free and comfortable there and could do everything they wanted. If a guest was not a blood relative he didn’t live with the hosting family. He had all the necessary stuff in the wazagdon: beds and beddings,tables, chais, skins of animals, kumgans( jar) with water and even brooms.”
It was not polite to leave the guest alone in the wazagdon.A guest could be there with the neighbors or other villagers because they spent there their leisure time. A guest could not walk about the yard or go to other rooms even if he was very curious about the life of the hosting family. “A guest could not go anywhere outside the wazagdon. And according to the aborigines’ code of life it was extremely indecent to ask questions about the wives and daughters of the hosting family.”
Before the meal there was always a lively, peaceful and polite conversation in the wazagdon. Bad language and rudeness were not allowed even if the guest was unwanted or an enemy.
A guest was always accompanied by the eldest of the hosting family and the juniors were standing near the windows or doors. If the guest was younger than the head of the hosting family, the latter met him sitting on the bench and asked to sit down. The neighbors and close relatives had to come and stay with the guests in the wazagdon the longer the better.
If the head of the hosting family didn’t have the opportunity to stay with the guest he could ask a neighbor, a relative or any other villager who knew the hosting etiquette well to replace him. A well-known Ossetian writer and ethnographer Inal Kanukov described a typical villager (Danel) without whom no more or less important event in the village could take place. “Despite of his poor dressing, he is always cheerful, talkative, polite and complaisant. His fellow villagers often need him and he is often asked to help when some important guest is coming. Danel knows the hosting etiquette very well and he knows how to treat a guests even if he is a Kabardei knyaz (prince.duke). Danel knows a lot of things and traditions because he has travelled to many places and has met a lot of different people.”
Not being a private room, kunatskaya(wazagdon) played the role of a public institution. As it has already been noted above, in the absence of guests the local youth used to meet and entertain there. The elders of the settlement also met there for the Nihas (Council of Elders). S. Kokievs wrote,” As soon as kunatskaya was free, the youth gathered there to discuss different intimate questions, entertain, made fun and even discussed serious and important problems. They could even stay there for the night and nobody would ask who they were, why they were here,etc..”
At the end of the XIX century with the strengthening of the patriarchal and individual family “wazagdon” disappeared from the everyday life and it was replaced by one of the most tidy and clean rooms of the house –“wazag wat”( a literal translation from Ossetic- “a guest’s bed”) . The room had to be comfortable and always clean. The best furnish of the house was there. “Wazag wat” was a private property of the family and nobody can stay there without its owners’ permission.
The described hosting etiquette existed in Ossetia from the second half of the XIX up to the beginning of the XX centuries. But later, as a result of the penetration of European culture, the custom of hospitality has lost its original strictness. At the beginning of the XX century some unanimous author wrote,” If earlier all Caucasian people hosted every stranger regardless of his social status and position, nowadays we can hardly see the same universal hospitality. In the villages that are situated close to towns and railway stations guest are welcomed taking into account family relations and social status. Preference is given to wealthy acquaintances and if guests are unfamiliar, the preference is often given to the most representative and well dressed person with good manners. Strangers are not welcomed cordially.
Nowadays you can find real hospitality only in poky holes of the Caucasus where there is neither rail-ways no even normal roads. There a stranger is still considered to be dear and a hosting family is always ready to share with him the last piece of bread.”
Translated from Russian by Ibragim Kusov and Bella Zakaeva