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ETHNONYMS: Digor, Ir, Iron, Tual


Identification. The Ossetes mainly inhabit both sides of the central Caucasian mountain chain. To the north are the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic and its capital, Vladikavkaz (former names: Dzæwjyqæw, Ordzhonikidze). The North Ossetian Republic belongs to the Russian Federation. The South Ossetian Autonomous Region on the southern side of the Caucasus, occupied by the Tual branch, is a part of the Georgian Republic; the capital of South Ossetia is Tskhinvali. Besides Ossetia proper there are also Ossetic communities in Kabardino-Balkaria and the environs of Stavropol, both in the northern Caucasus region; in the south Caucasus, the Ossetes are found in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, as well as in numerous places in eastern Georgia.

Beyond this, there also exist some Ossetic villages in central and eastern Anatolia that were founded by Ossetic Muslims in the previous century, when several Caucasian tribes who had been converted to Islam fled to Turkey and settled there. In recent years many Ossetes have left their traditional territories in the Caucasus and established themselves in various places in the former Soviet Union, especially in the Russian metropolitan areas.

There is no common ethnonym in Ossetic for the people as a whole. They call themselves by two primary tribal names: "Ir" or "Iron" is the proper designation used by the Ossetes living in the eastern part of the area, a subset of whom, in the south, term themselves "Tual" or "Tuallæg." The Ossetes who inhabit the northwestern territory call themselves "Digor." The terms "Ossetes" and "Ossetia" are based on Russian "Osetiny" and "Osetiia," which are derived from the Georgian name for the area, "O(v)seti" (Georgian-Os, "Ossete").

Location. North Ossetia borders Kabardino-Balkaria to the west, Russia to the north, and Chechen-Ingushia to the east; the southern frontier with the South Ossetian Autonomous Region within Georgia is a natural one: the main ridge of the Caucasus itself divides Ossetia into two parts. This geographic division is also responsible for a generally independent development in historical, administrative-political, economic, and cultural terms. The territory of northern Ossetia (about 8,000 square kilometers) includes the basin of the Terek River and its affluents, whereas southern Ossetia (about 3,800 square kilometers) covers the whole southern side of the main Caucasus chain and its promontories. The variety of geographical relief corresponds to a wide diversity of climatic conditions. The plains of northern Ossetia have the typical south-Russian-steppe climate, which can be characterized as comparatively warm and dry. In the low foothills adjoining the steppe to the south a milder and more humid climate prevails. In the mountains, the climate varies from zone to zone depending on elevation; in the high mountainous regions, especially all of central Ossetia, the weather is usually raw and cold with long and severe winters. In the wooded mountain range of southern Ossetia the climate is more temperate, and in the adjoining foothills the weather is pleasant and warm. The beginning of the growing season differs in the various climatic zones and agricultural conditions vary accordingly.

Demography. According to the 1970 census, some 430,000 people within the Soviet Union declared themselves Ossetes. (There is no information available on the number of Anatolian Ossetes.) During recent decades the official number of the Ossetic population has not changed significantly; the main reason for this may be that, since the middle of the nineteenth century, there has been a continuing trend toward smaller families, especially in the plains. At the present time, the typical Ossetic urban family consists of only three to four members, whereas in some out-of-the-way mountain villages families with eight to twelve members can still be found, although this is exceptional. Another reason for these population patterns is that a considerable number of Ossetes who have been living for more than one generation in areas dominated by other languages and cultures (i.e., mostly in Russia and Georgia) have assimilated and lost their Ossetic ethnic identity.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Ossetes are the only descendants of the medieval Alans, themselves descended from the Scytho-Sarmatian tribes who in antiquity lived in the vast steppes of southern Russia. Together with Yaghnobi (spoken in the Pamir region of Central Asia) and Pashto (spoken in Afghanistan), Ossetic is classified as a language of the North-East Iranian Branch of Iranian. Modern Ossetic has two distinct major dialects, which from the phonological and morphological points of view can be regarded as two successive stages in historical linguistic development. The Digoron or West Ossetic dialect is spoken in the western part of North Ossetia (it is relatively archaic and has many Circassian borrowings). Iron or East Ossetic is the dialect of the entire remaining Ossetic area; the Tual variety of Iron has absorbed many Georgian elements. Iron was the mother tongue and the linguistic medium of the national poet Khetægkaty K'osta (1859-1906; in Russian, Kosta Khetagurov), who is considered the creator of the literary language; the Iron dialect was consequently chosen to serve as the literary language for all Ossetes. From the period preceding this we have only some sporadic documents. The oldest one, a text from the Alanic period, is a short grave inscription (the Zelenchuk inscription) written in Greek characters, which has been dated to 941; it was discovered in 1888. The very few remaining early Ossetic texts consist of verses and glosses indirectly transmitted in Byzantine and Hungarian sources.

The first larger documents, which appeared 200 years ago, were religious books and gospels. The script used for the first book (Moscow, 1798), a bilingual Slavonic-Ossetic church catechism, was in an adapted form of Cyrillic. The earliest South Ossetic texts, however, were written in the Georgian script (khutsuri ), with some additional letters. In 1844 a new variant of the Cyrillic alphabet came into use; this was replaced by a Latin script in 1923. Since 1938 another expanded form of Cyrillic has been used in North Ossetia, whereas in South Ossetia the mkhedruli variant of Georgian was customary until 1954, at which time the North Ossetic variant of Cyrillic was introduced as well. According to the linguistic data, all the remaining Iranian languages show a relatively clear continuity in their historical and areal development, whereas Ossetic contrasts with them in many respects. The reason is that Ossetic (as well as its predecessors, Scytho-Sarmatian and Alanic) has been isolated from the rest of the Iranian world for some 2,000 years and has at the same time been deeply influenced by the surrounding non-Indo-European languages. In the northwest, Ossetic borders the North-West Caucasian Circassian and Kabardian and the Turkic languages of the Nogays and the Karachay-Balkars; in the east are the North-East Caucasian Nakh (Veinakhian) languages Ingush and Chechen; in the southern regions there is a gradual linguistic transition to Georgian. In all these contact spheres bilingualism has long been common. Recently, Russian has become the new lingua franca, especially in the northern Caucasus. In North Ossetia Russian is the official language used in all spheres (education, administration, etc.), whereas in South Ossetia Georgian serves the same purpose. All these situations of linguistic contact have left numerous traces in the phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon of Ossetic.

History and Cultural Relations

There is no written history of the Ossetes; indeed, information even from indirect sources is limited. The most important source from which we can derive knowledge about the origin and past of the Ossetes lies in the findings of historical-comparative linguistics. Following the guiding principle of Jakob Grimm ("Our language is also our history"), Vasili I. Abaev, the founder of modern Ossetic philology, has succeeded in elucidating the history of the Ossetic people by using the methodological principles of historical-comparative reconstruction and the study of linguistic contacts. Further sources are oral literary traditions and folklore in general. Before the results of linguistic study were known, the Ossetes were not aware that they do not belong to the autochthonous peoples of the Caucasus, much less that their language is a member of the Iranian Linguistic Family and that they are descended from the Alanic and Scytho-Sarmatian tribes.

The Scytho-Sarmatians, who lived in the vast plains of southern Russia in antiquity (especially in the Ponto-Caspian steppes), left few linguistic remains. The only direct evidence consists of several proper names in Greek inscriptions from the first centuries a.d., some of which show phonological innovations that are characteristic of Ossetic but that are atypical of all other Iranian languages. The little we know about Scythian life we owe to certain classical authors, most particularly Herodotus. Aside from an Old Ossetic/Late-Alanic gravestone (see "Linguistic Affiliation"), we have no direct Alanic documents. Our scant knowledge about the Alans has been gathered from reports and references to them in contemporary sources, mainly Byzantine texts.

The Alans, who were a loose tribal confederacy in the Ponto-Caspian steppe region, are mentioned for the first time in classical sources in the first century a.d. During the period of the great migrations, and especially in the early fifth century, a segment of the Alanic tribes moved far west with the Goths, Vandals, and others. But the western Alans did not survive as an ethnic entity: they were totally absorbed by the autochthonous peoples. A comparison of the vast area of the eastern Alans in southern Russia and the limited area inhabited by the Ossetes in later centuries leads to the question, in which period did the late Alans (or early Ossetes) arrive in the region they currently inhabit? The main impetus to leave the plains of southern Russia and to retreat gradually to the mountains and valleys of the Caucasus must have been the the Mongol invasions. Despite stiff resistance, Alanic territory had been brought under the yoke of the Golden Horde by 1233.

After Tamerlane's conquest in 1395 the Alans totally disappeared from the northern foothills. After the Mongol period diverse Turkic and autochthonous West-Caucasian peoples and tribes forced the Alans to recede even further. In addition to these political reasons there were other motives for migrations, including the chronic lack of arable land, infertile soil, hunger, epidemic diseases, and avalanches and landslides that often devastated entire villages. Also, the strict traditional rule of blood vengeance not only caused the person directly involved to flee but sometimes obliged the entire clan to leave the hereditary residence. These migrations, which were common until the last century, ultimately resulted in all the Ossetes leaving the fertile North Ossetic plains. On the other hand, in the regions of South Ossetia and eastern Georgia, which have better climates and soil, the Ossetes have been present continuously since their first immigrations in the Middle Ages. After Russia annexed Ossetia at the end of the eighteenth century, thousands of Ossetes from the high mountainous regions started to recolonize the north Caucasian plains, hoping for amelioration of their basic living conditions under the protection of their new lords. Practically all the villages and towns founded in the present North Ossetia date from this period, whereas many settlements in southern and central Ossetia can be traced back to the sixteenth century (sometimes to the thirteenth or fourteenth century, or, in one case (Dmanisi), even to the ninth century. Information relevant to these issues consists mainly of the oral histories of the various clans and families; sporadic written documentation is available as of the eighteenth century. Until the beginning of the Soviet era, the Ossetes never succeeded in forming a state of their own. The various clans and rural communities were to a great degree independent of one another; they were bound politically and economically only to their various feudal lords. This situation changed in the 1920s when the South Ossetian Autonomous Region on Georgian soil (founded in 1922) and the North Ossetian Autonomous Region of the RSFSR (founded in 1924) were created. In 1936 the status of North Ossetia was upgraded to that of an autonomous republic, signifying greater independence.


Every traditional Ossetic settlement (qæw ) is subdivided into several quarters (sykh ). In the past it was common for all inhabitants to be members of a single family or of closely related groups. Although this tradition has been more or less maintained in the rural parts of central and southern Ossetia, a more mixed settlement was predominant in North Ossetia (with the exception of the high-mountain regions) by the nineteenth century; there each family had a quarter of its own. The ground plan of the mountain settlements almost always had to be adapted to suit the topography. To save land for agricultural use, the living quarters and farm buildings normally occupied different floors under a single roof. In the valleys and foothills, better conditions allowed separate buildings under separate roofs, aligned horizontally. Houses often had two or three stories and were 20 or more yards wide and deep. In the mountains, the main criteria for choosing a settlement site were the proximity of fresh-water springs, arable soil, and hay fields. In the higher regions, relative safety from avalanches was an important factor as well, leading in some cases to situating the village far from the nearest spring. Otherwise, Ossetic settlements used to be built on one or both sides of a watercourse. There are no streets in the mountain villages, only tortuous narrow lanes connecting the houses to one another. The center of social life in such a village is the square (nykhas ), where all community issues are discussed. The cemetery, and often the family vaults, are found close by the settlements. In the past nearly every village had its own watchtower, many of which still exist today. The defense and residential towers were always located in the center of the village. Nearly every village had its own holy shrine or temple (dzwar ), which could be in the shape of an altar, a small hut, or a pile of rocks.

There are several traditional types of houses (khædzar ). Differences in construction and material (stone, wood, and later also brick) are found not only between the mountain and foothill types, but also also between northern and southern Ossetia. Originally, the khædzar consisted of one large room that was divided into two parts, one for men and one for women. Domestic and familial life were concentrated in this room. The most important object was the fireplace (k'ona ), with a continually burning fire and a heavy chain (rækhys ) hanging above. This chain was traditionally the most sacred object for every Ossete; they even used to swear by the raekhys, and theft of the chain called for murderous revenge. Ossetic families took their rækhys with them when they moved from the mountains to the plains. Another important, sometimes even mystical, place in the Ossetic house was the larder (k'æbits ), which guaranteed survival in severe winters. During recent decades the rural style of life has become less important; economic motives and a desire for more education have led to the migration of thousands of country people into the towns of Ossetia (Vladikavkaz, Mozdok, Tskhinvali, Alagir, Beslan, Ardon, Digora) and other republics.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. For centuries dairy farming and cattle breeding have been the most developed economic activities. Ossetic butter, kefir, and cheese (tsykht ) from the milk of cow and sheep are famous throughout the Caucasus. Because of the harsh geological and climatic conditions in the mountains, agriculture did not play an important role there. The only species of grain that could be cultivated in the higher regions was barley, but it was constantly in danger of perishing from the cold. The other cereals with which the Ossetes were already familiar were millet and wheat, but their cultivation, as that of fruits and vegetables, was limited. The general situation changed for the better when Ossetia became a part of Russia and many peasants settled down in the fertile plains. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, maize, rye, and buckwheat have also been brought under cultivation. Today, agriculture and the raising of cattle and sheep are the most profitable economic activities. In keeping with the economy, traditional Ossetic cooking is relatively simple, with a restricted variety of ingredients and dishes. Some Ossetic dishes are fyjjyn (a cake with meat), wælîbækh (a cake with cheese), churek (a kind of maize-bread), various milk products, and fîzonæg (shashlik). The brewing of beer (bæegæny ) has been an Ossetic specialty for hundreds of years.

Modern North Ossetia is a center of metallurgy; deposits of mineral resources have enriched several areas, as has scientific metallurgy. The numerous rivers in the Ossetic mountains have made it possible to develop a profitable hydroelectric industry. The forest industry has become another important part of the Ossetic economy.

Industrial Arts. The production of wooden utensils and furniture, as well as textile manufacture, have a long tradition in Ossetia; in part they are still practiced as cottage industries. Other handicrafts and applied arts, such as specialized smithery (in particular the production of knives, swords, and special scimitars) were very important in the past, and in several cases can be traced back to the Alanic period.

Trade. Ossetic trade is tied into the framework of Soviet trade. Until recently there were few opportunities for personal initiative. The daily shopping situation is characterized by the same problems that one finds elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Markets and other comparable institutions, such as cooperatives, to the extent that they exist, are normally distinguished by a better and richer assortment of goods than the official shopping centers.

Division of Labor. In the traditional Ossetic family every member had sharply defined duties. The paterfamilias, who normally was the oldest man of the clan, assigned the various tasks to the men of the family and supervised their work; he also received guests and performed some light work, such as repairing tools and equipment. In addition, he was responsible for trade of every kind and represented the family. Each of the younger male family members had to carry out a specific task: for example, one had to care for the cattle, another was engaged in fieldwork, a third had to do temporary work in the nearest town. The profits from the various jobs went to the common fund of the family. The female members of the family had to obey the paterfamilias's wife, who was held in high esteem by the entire clan. Her main responsibility was taking care of the common pantry and supervising the other women. The distribution of female work followed an exact hierarchical order: cooking was always the task of the eldest daughter-in-law and the preparation of cheese and other dairy products that of the other senior daughters-in-law. The younger daughters-in-law had to carry water, heat the fireplace, milk the cows, and clean the house, stable, and courtyardthe most unpleasant housework was always the job of the youngest daughter-in-law. The daughters were in a relatively free position, as they were considered to be only temporary members of the family. Spinning, weaving, and sewing were the common tasks of all women.

Today, under urban living conditions and with smaller families, many details have changed. The situation of the housewife has not become much easier, however, since much work that was formerly done by many women now has to be done by one woman. Moreover, most Ossetic women, like women everywhere in the former Soviet Union, hold an outside job.

Land Tenure. In the past almost all landed property was in the hands of a few feudal families, whereas the farmers had the status of leaseholders. Since the Revolution of 1917, privately held land has in most cases been turned into state property in Ossetia as elsewhere in the USSR.


Kin Groups and Descent. Until the Revolution the traditional forms of social and familial structure existed. The highest level within a close blood relationship was the mykkag (family, clan), which consisted of several patronymically related extended-family households. Such a large family is called îw fydy fyrttæ (sons of one father) ; the patronymic family, in which all male members had the same ancestor, was considered to be the "family of the first category." The name of this ancestor served as the base for the formation of the common name of the clan; this has become the modern surname. This kind of family consisted of all the brothers with their wives and children, their parents, their uncles with their families, their grandparents, and so on. They all lived and worked closely together and shared, for example, defense towers and cemeteries. A very important position in the family was occupied by the oldest woman (khîstær ûs ). The "family of the second category" was represented by more distant relationships. The law of exogamy, which had been absolute within this group in the past, is still observed in most cases. A member of the "family of the second category" is called ærvad (member of the same family). Another form of relationship was that with the qonaq (fictive kin): anyone other than blood-related persons could obtain the status of qonaq, including members of other Caucasian peoples. Qonaq friendships were considered to be as binding as familial relationships; the duties were the same, including even the reciprocal obligation of blood vengeance.

Kinship Terminology. Ossetic kinship terminology has a simple structure and coincides with the common Iranian system. Some expressions, however, show interesting semantic changes. For example, ærvad, which reflects the Old Iranian word for "brother," now denotes "brother in an enlarged sense, kinsman"; the original word for "daughter," dyghd, exists only in the compound kho-dyghd, "the husband's sister." It has been replaced by chyzg, "daughter," which is derived from a Turkic word.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The possibilities of marriage within Ossetic society were strictly defined by the rules of endogamy and exogamy, which prohibited marriage between relatives and restricted marriages between members of different religions or social classes. Until the Soviet era, marriage was based mainly on the bride-price and on sociopolitical motives, but almost never on love. The rituals before, during, and after the wedding festivities were very complicated and involved large amounts of money and time. Specifically the wedding involved at least five principal stages: a meeeting between the two families to discuss the bride-price, dowry, and similar matters; a gathering of all the bride's relatives to celebrate the engagement; a second meeting of both families to discuss gift giving; the "small wedding" at the home of the bride's parents, for which animals were slaughtered and the groom's family presented a calf to that of the bride and the "big wedding" at the groom's home. (As of the late 1970s 30 to 70 percent of these stages were being realized in weddings.) Whereas traditional marriage was monogamous, the Islamic part of Ossetic society also practiced polygyny, although for material reasons polygyny was found almost exclusively among rich feudal families. In Ossetia there was a customary obligation that an unmarried brother marry the widow of his dead brother, so that the family could keep her economic contribution and there would be no need to pay a bride-price once more. Typically, it was the bride who left her parents' house, but if her family had no son the bridegroom could be accepted at the house of his parents-in-lawthis was quite common in southern and central Ossetia. After the birth of the first son, which formerly was a cause for great celebration, the position of the young mother in the family was strengthened. At the present time, social and material reasons have led to smaller families. As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, abortion is considered a normal form of birth control. Divorce, which was rare in traditional Ossetia, has also become acceptable in modern Ossetia.

Domestic Unit. As a rule, the traditional extended households no longer exist. The small family itself is the ideal domestic unit, but in many cases the lack of new apartments leads to two or three families living together involuntarily.

Inheritance. The inheritance of land, houses, and cattle was strictly defined. The brothers and the widow of the deceased had to divide the inheritance into equal shares among themselves. The best part of the inherited property was reserved for the eldest brother, who also obtained a special "share for the eldest one."

Socialization. Traditionally, the younger family members had to follow the advice of the elder ones. The male and female leaders of the family were responsible for maintaining the tranquility of their community. Although in the past they were respected absolutely, at the present time young people follow their own wishes more and more, often leading to conflicts between the generations.

Sociopolitical Organization

North and South Ossetia conformed to the sociopolitical structures of the RSFSR and the Georgian SSR. Private or any other nonofficial initiatives in social or political organizations were not tolerated until recently.

Social Control. In the extended-family household social control was based on respect for the elderly and for tradition. The exactly defined roles that the family members were assigned did not allow for many mistakes. In the Soviet era laws came to have more weight than family guidance.

Conflict. The Ossetes are one of the numerous peoples of the former USSR longing for greater freedom. Like most other Caucasian peoples and tribes, they demand more independence in the spheres of politics, economics, and culture; the similar wishes of other ethnic groups, however, have led to an ongoing conflict of interests, in which the Ossetes are deeply involved.

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 openedmostly 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."


Abaev, Vasilii Ivanovich (1949). Osetinskii iazyk i fol'klor (Ossetic language and folklore). Moscow and Leningrad.

Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 181-190. London: KPI.

Charachidzé, Georges (1987). La mémoire indo-européenne du Caucase. Paris: Hachette.

Dumézil, Georges (1965). Le livre des héros: Légendes ossètes sur les Nartes. Paris: Gallimard.

Dumézil, Georges (1978). Romans de Scythie et d'alentour. Paris: Payot.

Kaloev, Boris Aleksandrovich (1971). Osetiny: Istorikoetnograficheskoe issledovanie (The Ossetes: Historical and ethnographic research). 2nd ed., revised and expanded. Moscow.

Thordarson, Fridrik (1989). "Ossetic." In Compendium linguarum Iranicarum, edited by Rüdiger Schmitt, 456-479. Wiesbaden: L. Reichert.


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The Osetins are an Iranian nationality of the central Caucasus. They speak a language from the Eastern Iranian group of the Indo-European language family. The three major ethnic and linguistic subdivisions of the Osetins are the Taullag, Iron, and Digor groups. The territories they inhabit straddle the primary land routes across the central Great Caucasus mountain range.

Their remote origins can be traced to Iranian-speaking warrior and pastoralist groups such as the Scythians and Alans. Byzantine, Armenian, and Georgian sources from the seventh through thirteenth centuries suggest that the Alans became a major power in the central Caucasus, and linguistic and ethnographic evidence links the modern Osetins to the Alans. In the tenth century the Alans often allied with the Byzantine Empire. Over the next two centuries Christian missionaries gained wide influence among the Alans. In the upper Kuban, Teberda, Urup, and Zelenchuk river valleys many churches and monasteries were constructed. By the twelfth century Kypchaks became the main power in the region, and the Alans were eclipsed by their Turkic neighbors. During the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century Alans took refuge high in the mountains and abandoned their centers in the territory of modern-day Karachaevo-Cherkessia. At some point before the mid-sixteenth century, the Osetins came under the domination of princes in Kabarda.

As Russian influence in the central Caucasus began to grow in the mid-eighteenth century, Osetin elders sought political alliances and trade ties with the imperial government. In 1774 negotiations between an Osetian delegation and the imperial government recognized the incorporation of Osetia into the Russian empire. In subsequent decades imperial authorities facilitated the relocation of loyal Osetins from the mountains to settlements and forts in the plains between Vladikavkaz and Mozdok. Beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century Russian Orthodox missionaries worked to revitalize Christianity among the Osetins, who had remained nominally Christian but practiced a combination of pagan and Christian rituals. The construction of military road networks through Osetia in the nineteenth century facilitated the economic development of the central Caucasus and the extension of Russian rule to Georgia and Chechnya. During the Russian Revolution and civil war, both Red and White armies vied for control of Vladikavkaz, the main political and economic center of the region. A South Osetian autonomous region was established in 1922 within the Georgian Soviet Republic, and a North Osetian autonomous region was established in 1924 within the boundaries of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). Although their territories were occupied by German forces during the World War II, the Osetins were considered reliable by the Soviet regime and, with the exception of some Muslim Digors, they avoided deportation to Central Asia. During the Gorbachev period Osetins began to pressure for unification of the two autonomous republics into a single entity. In 1991 attempts by Georgian authorities to suppress local autonomy led to a war between Georgian and South Osetian militias. In 1992 conflicts also broke out in the suburbs of Vladikavkaz between Osetin and Ingush groups. While Northern Osetia became a republic of the Russian Federation and renamed itself Alania in the 1990s, the precise juridical status of Southern Osetia within Georgia remained unresolved.

Traditionally Osetins residing in the mountains subsisted on stock-raising, and Osetins inhabiting the plains pursued agriculture. In the late nineteenth century many Osetins began to migrate to cities in search of employment, and by the last decades of the twentieth century the majority of Osetins lived in urban areas. In the twentieth century the Osetin population grew from 250,000 to more than 600,000. An Osetin literary language based upon the Iron dialect was developed during the imperial period, and Osetins were one of the few groups in the North Caucasus to possess a standardized literary language and to have developed literature in their native tongue before the revolution.

See also: caucasus; georgia and georgians; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Wixman, Ronald. (1980). Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brian Boeck

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