Ossetes - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Because of a lack of written records, knowledge about the beginnings and development of Christianization and Islamicization in Ossetia is limited. In the course of their history, the Ossetes must have been converted to Christianity twice. A few remarks in Georgian sources indicate that the Alans came into contact with Christianity soon after the Christianization of Georgia in the fourth to fifth centuries, the Georgians themselves acting as intermediaries. Many ecclesiastical buildings, dating mainly from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, give evidence of a comparatively wide expansion of the Christian religion during the following centuries. The Ossetic pagan high god was partly assimilated to Saint George. The Mongol invasion had supplanted this early period of Christianity by the end of the thirteenth century. An extensive revival of old pagan customs and the changing of many churches into pagan cult-places resulted. A second phase of Christianization started in the eighteenth century under Russian influence.

At present the Ossetes, to a large extent, confess the faith of Christ, whereas Islam, which was introduced through Kabardian mediation toward the end of the seventeenth century, has never been a widespread religion. There is a tradition of mutual tolerance and respect for interdenominational marriages, practiced mostly by the Digor-speaking part of the Ossetic people. Alongside the official religions, there remain some traces of surviving older beliefs and pagan rites. Neither Christianity nor Islam has been able to erase them completely. On the contrary, it seems that Christian/Islamic and pagan rituals have coexisted over the centuries, mutually influencing each other. Indeed, neither Christianity nor Islam could really change the Ossetic traditions; they have merely served as renewed exterior forms for old animistic and totemistic beliefs. To a certain extent, this mixture of religions can be seen at the present time (for example, in the way in which Christian and Islamic festivals or funerals are celebrated). The names of Christian saints are often no more than masks for pagan gods and demons, which in this way continue to be worshiped in the guise of Christianity.

Ceremonies. Many traditional holidays are still observed. Almost every settlement had a saint of its own, who was worshiped on a special day of the year. There were also ceremonies for purposes such as assuring fertility, healing, rain, or protection in the mountains. The most interesting ceremony is that of bækhfældîsyn, the shamanistic "dedication of the horse," which is celebrated at funerals in rural areas even today. The bækhfældîsæg has to cut off the ear tip of the horse of the deceased. The ear tip takes the place of the whole horse, which formerly (until the Mongol invasion, in some areas later) had to follow its owner to the grave. The highlight of the ceremony is the speech of the bækhfældîsæg, in which he describes the good works of the deceased in this world and his ride into the other world. Because of the mixture of the various traditions, the celebration of Christian and (sometimes) Islamic holidays, even at the present time, shows traditional influences.

Arts. In modern Ossetia all kinds of arts enjoy great prestige. Much attention is paid to folk music, dance, and poetry. In the past almost every settlement had a storyteller of its own, who recited and sang fairy tales, heroic songs, and, especially, the "Tales of the Narts" (Narty kajjytæ), which is considered the Ossetian national epic, to the accompaniment of the fændyr (traditional lyre). Knowledge of the rich folk treasures is not as common these days as it used to be; it has mainly been reduced to official performances. The work of Kosta Khetagurov (see "Linguistic Affiliation") has inspired many people to write poetry; there are, indeed, some Ossetic poets of the highest literary standard (G. Maliev, I. Dzhanaev, etc.). In the Soviet era many theaters opened—mostly popular theaters, but also professional ones with a classical repertoire of original Ossetic pieces and translated international literature. Some paintings of a high level (e.g., those of the same K. Khetagurov) and many branches of applied art round off the wide sphere of arts in Ossetia.

Medicine. In the past, healing by natural remedies was a highly developed discipline. There were many famous healers in Ossetia, specializing in wounds, broken bones, and skin diseases. When natural medicine was not effective, Ossetes resorted to various kinds of superstition and magic. By the beginning of the twentieth century the first Ossetic medical doctors were beginning to practice. They had to combat widespread epidemic diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, and various children's complaints. The child mortality rate was very high, mainly because of a lack of hygienic precautions. In the Soviet era, the situation improved somewhat when poverty was gradually ameliorated and a general health system was introduced.

Death and Afterlife. A special courier (in the past, a mounted messenger) goes from house to house to announce a death. The whole settlement participates in funerals, and all the relatives and friends have to render assistance to the family of the deceased, including material support. Preparing the traditional funeral repast ( khærnæg ) takes a great deal of time and money; in the past it sometimes led to financial ruin of the family, all the more because regular graveyard feasts have to be held from time to time in honor of each deceased family member. Some food is reserved specifically for the "needs" of the deceased. Normally, the funeral takes place on the second day after death. Even nowadays women closely related to the deceased scratch their faces and tear their hair amid loud lamenting. In the past this was an official job, some women being famous for their skill at plaintive crying. Afterward some of the archaic rituals, better preserved in the rural areas than in urban society, are performed (see "Ceremonies"). The traditional images that the Ossetes had of life after death resembled the Greek Hades. The best information about the details are to be found in certain espisodes of the "Nart Tales."

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