The North Caucasus is characterised by quite some religious diversity, since the region is ethnically diverse and has many cultural and political ties with the peoples of the East and the West, and is situated at the crossroads of European and Asian civilisations. Currently, the North Caucasus is dominated by Islam, but since old times the Caucasus has been a region of Orthodox Christianity.
Despite Islamisation and Christianisation of the Caucasus, to paraphrase Florensky one can say that mountaineers’ religion formed due to the interaction of three forces: the monotheistic religions, brought by the rulers from the outside, paganism and the Caucasian character, which in its own way adapted and reworked them.
The most interesting, full and peculiar extent of these beliefs are expressed in Ossetia. Syncretism (combination and interchange of beliefs) here has its most outstanding features – they remain committed to various kinds of ceremonies and national traditional beliefs which go back to ancient pagan cults: community, family and the clan (in most cases they took the form of worship of the hearth and home which symbolises the family) and associated funerary rites, the cult of ancestors and of the dead.
The funeral cult merged with the family and clan, and is very developed among the Caucasian peoples. In South Ossetia it took excessively complicated forms, however. It is a common belief that even after their death, ancestors remain invisibly present around their descendants and impact their life on earth. If the ancestor is pleased with their descendant, they will grant them wellbeing; therefore the descendants pray to their ancestors and remember to present them the gifts that they loved in life. Ossetians still preserve the tradition to regularly feed the dead, according to which a funeral feast with an abundance of food is arranged, because all that is eaten is done in commemoration of the deceased. A large number of people attend the funeral feast and hearty meals are served.
The cult of the Sun and Fire have always been in the foreground of Ossetian religious life. The main elements of the cults are sacrifices to the gods and common meals, which are called kuvds. Kuvd is a prayer which includes a ritual of blood sacrifice. The Ossetians usually slaughter ox or sheep for the sacrifice because the pig is considered an unholy animal.
The cult of the community patrons is tied to the local sanctuaries, where the rituals are performed. Typically this is an old building, sometimes a former Christian church, and sometimes just a group of sacred trees, stones or a meadow. In the sanctuary, before the slaughter a cross is drawn on the head of the sacrificial animal. Cooked animal meat is cut into pieces and his head is being placed on a separate plate. Three types of sacrificial cake must be present on the table as well. Each family in course of the year should organise at least one kuvd. Regional newspapers print advertisements about family kuvds. They are carried out in specially designated meadows.
In addition to the clan, funeral ceremonies and kuvds on major holidays, some regions have their own traditional kuvds. As a rule, all Ossetian rituals begin with a toast-prayer, addressed to the head of the Ossetian pantheon – Huytsau. Huytsau is not a personal name and refers to the concept of God. Ossetians believe and believed before the adoption of Islam and Christianity in one supreme God who dwells somewhere in heaven and rules the world. While Huytsau is inaccessible and abstract, the Christians and Muslims who participate in kuvds believe that they are praying to their Biblical or Koranic God and don’t feel themselves as apostates. Afterwards a toast in honour of other deities (saints) is proclaimed in strict sequence.
The most worshiped saint is the patron of men and travelers Uastyrdzhi (in the Ossetian folk tradition it eventually became associated with Saint George under the influence of Christianity). The Ossetians never start without a prayer to him. For women, his name is banned, and they euphemistically call him “the patron of men.”
So the Ossetians pray to ancient gods (Huytsata), the saints (dzuarta) and the spirits (daudzhita). One can say that a mixture of various beliefs and concepts in Ossetia formed a peculiar religion, which is remarkably comfortable for all Christians, Muslims and pagans alike.
WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #23 AUTUMN 2016 text by Tatiana Lari