In the Caucasus, the Northern faces of the Caucasian mountains, the plains nearer Europe, the coasts of the Black Sea and the rivers valleys have been host to one of the richest mosaics of peoples in ancient and modern times.
Some had already settled in periods when they came into contact with Greek and Latin culture, others were outposts or subsequent waves of peoples from Asia who, spreading west, decided to stay, attracted by the good land and climate.
In spite of its fragmentary culture and frequent internal wars, the Caucasus kept its own wealth of peculiarities and differences from the surrounding world for as long as it was cut off from other peoples. The inhabitants of this world were Circassians, Ubykhs, Abkhaz, Tatars, Ossetians, Chechens, Ingushetians and, in the south, Dagestans and Georgians, as well as other minor ethnicities.
In the eighteenth century, Cossacks were the forerunners of a Russian invasion that would take place in the following century during the Caucasian wars. At that time about two million people, with their own languages and their own customs, lived there. During peacetime they were organized into several tribes and, in wartime, they joined together and behaved as one sole state.
They had an elaborate social structure: the peoples were warriors and society was heavily structured so as to strengthen the discipline and order necessary on the battlefield.
On feast days, bards, both men and women, celebrated ancient legends in the different languages of the area. There did not have grand buildings and the main monument to their civilization was made up of the languages and folklore of their culture. Of all these stories, the most varied and precious was a corpus of legends recounting the exploits of a group of heroes who, according to the story-tellers, were born to the same mother, a woman of singular beauty. These were the Caucasian Nart sagas.
Around the middle of nineteenth century Russia’s Northern Caucasian military campaigns led to expansion into this area and, in spite of fierce local resistance, ended with the deportation of entire populations.
On the other hand, in recent times, the same Russian authorities have founded cultural institutions such as museums and heritage centres and modern scholars have tried to revitalize the surviving ancient traditions, those same traditions their ancestors had tried to destroy in the past. The Nart sagas were painstakingly collected and most of the corpora have now been published. The crucial step in achieving these results was the creation of literary languages into which these oral traditions could be gathered and codified.
The Narts appear in many Caucasian legends, especially in those handed down by the Ossetians, but also to varying degrees among Tatars, Circassians, Chechens and Ingushetians.
In this huge cultural Caucasian mosaic the small Ossetian population has a fundamental role. They are the only Indo-European people from that area, the last trace left by ancient peoples like the Scythians Sarmatians and, later on, Alani who, in the past, crossed Europe to go westwards.
The word Nart is of uncertain origin. Because of the Ossetians’ affiliation with the ancient Alani and Scythians, it is most probably of Iranian origin. We find it in the Indo-Iranian root “nar”, the Greek “Aner” and the Irish “nert”, all meaning “strength” or “hero” which are the distinguishing marks of this race.
The Sagas are a series of stories forming the mythological base of the tribes living in that area. Some of them are only short tales, but other legends were important for the creation of myths and of an ancient theology.
While the Abkhazi, Circassians, Ossetians and Ubykhi have different versions of the sagas, the leitmotiv is always the same. These sagas often show modified or omitted details, while in others the story has been enriched with local characteristics.
Nart legends are different from the usual sagas whose stories deal with more or less historical details concerning one person’s life, but they are similar to Scandinavian and ancient Greek pagan myths. Even though the characters have skills comparable to those of the gods, only a few of them have an authentic divine nature.
These sagas are interesting not only as vestiges of a civilization belonging to a vanished world, but also because they show clear analogies with traditions and myths of peoples who had contacts with the Caucasus in the past.
We may gain an insight into the meaning of this folklore as a whole through comparative mythology that shows the most evident analogies of this corpus. There are connections between some of these characters and those in the Greek myths such as Aphrodite, the Gorgons, Prometheus, the Cyclops and the Amazons. There are connections also with Nordic mythology and its God of war, Odin, or between the tree of the Scandinavian world, Yggdrasil, and the Nart “Lady Tree”.
Julius Von Kloproth was the first to talk about these epos. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Ossetian and Russian members of the intelligentsia began to show interest in Nart legends and to study Caucasian peoples. But real scientific studies on Nart epos appear in 1880, with the expert in languages and folklore, Vsevolod Miller, and the publication of his work “Ossetian Studies”.
In Western Europe, texts on Narts appear in 1887 thanks to Johann Heinrich Hubschmann. Many other publications and studies followed in the Caucasus and Western Europe. Georges Dumézil, a French philologist and comparatist, is the main author of French- language literature on Ossetian mythology: in 1930 he published “Nart legends” in which his work on comparative mythology exerted considerable influence on the study of Ossetian mythology.
The Narts were legendary people with superhuman characteristics, such as being moulded in fire or being able to live on the sea floor.
According to Georges Dumézil, the fact that Nartswere divided into three clans could be proof that proto-Indo-European peoples too were divided into three castes: warriors, priests and merchants according to the Indo-Iranian view of society as being formed of the three elements of wisdom, physical strength and economic prosperity.
The Nart village is, by tradition, divided into three areas on three different levels and occupied by three main families:
On the upper level are the Aehsaertaegggata who stood out because of their heroism and strength.
On the lower level are the Boratae who were rich herd owner.
In the middle are the Alaergatae, people known for their great intelligence.
Their supreme god is Hutsan whose title is Hutsanty Hutsani- “God of gods”; the whole universe is populated by creatures who are able to intervene in mankind’s fate.
Some of these are veritable mythological characters. Among them: Uacilla formidable hurler of thunderbolts and guardian of the harvest, and Uastyrdzhi, protector of men and travellers.
Safa, the village benefactor, embodies the spirit of hearth and home and is the model of family life;
Kurdalaegon, the blacksmith, has his own forge in heaven and is a friend of the Narts; his task is to forge Nart heroes, first in the furnace and then in sea water.
Donbettyr lives on the sea floor, he is the patron of waters (don) and many rivers flowing into the Black Sea have his name: Danube, Don, Dnieper, and Dniester;
Huyaendon Aeldar is the chief of fishes, the meaning of his name is “Lord of the Straits”, most probably referring to the Bosphorus Strait.
The land of the dead is ruled by Barastyr who also acts as judge, guardian and welcoming host; Aminon patrols e threshold and must check the passage of the living to the land of the dead and the dead’s return before sunset. At that time, Giants were a danger for Ossetian villages, being strong and stupid, clumsy and conceited.
Satan appears in many cycles of the Nart Sagas. She is the Narts’ mother, a figure who represents fertility and also authority over her children. She is often depicted as a wise person or a matriarch. She is a very beautiful woman and the story of her birth is extraordinary.
John Colarusso: Nart Sagas from the Caucasus. Princeton University Press, 2002
Georges Dumézil: Il libro degli Eroi, Adelphi, 1996
The Nart Epos: http://www.geocities.ws/Eureka/Enerprises/2493/nartsaga.html
Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)
The birth of Satan
After getting married, Uærhæg and Dzerassæ lived together for a whole year, then Uærhæg died. After another year, Dzerassae became ill. When she was on her deathbed she said to her two sons, who were watching over her: « Do not leave me unprotected for the first three nights after I am dead. I owe a very evil creditor, and he will follow me even in the afterlife in order to claim what he is due».
She died and was buried. That evening Uryzmæg, the first of her children, mounted the guard at the entrance of her tomb holding his weapons. And there he stayed until morning. He did the same the following night. On the third night Hæmyts, his brother, said: «We were raised together by our mother. Tonight it is my turn to mount the guard».
But Uryzmæg replied: «You are the youngest of the two of us. If I had faith in you, you would have mounted the guard on all three nights».
Hæmyts took offence to those words, but took his weapons in any case and went to stand guard in front of the door of the tomb.
While he was there, he could hear on one side the cheerful songs of a banquet and on the other the sounds typical of a wedding party. He listened with envy, then said to himself: «So this is the reward for those who obey the wishes of a dying person! Who would ever come to take my mother from her tomb?».
He threw down his weapons and said: «I’m going to enjoy myself somewhere».
He walked away but as soon as his figure disappeared in the dark, the tomb lit up suddenly. Uastyrdji, the God of The Sun, was already inside. He struck Dzerassæ with his whip and she was transformed, becoming seven times more beautiful than she was when alive. Then he struck her again with the whip and, in an instant, she went back to how she was before.
One year later, Syrdon, the scourge of Narti, passed by Dzerassæ’s tomb and heard a baby cry. So he ran to the Great Square where the Narti of the three families had gathered.
«Peace be with you all, and good day!» he greeted them.
«Peace and good luck to you, Sydron», they welcomed him.
«Something strange is happening in your graveyard», he informed them. «If you listen carefully at Dzerassæ’s tomb you can hear a baby cry».
Uryzmæg, the eldest son of Dzerassæ, was presiding over the meeting. On hearing these words, caring not for his duty and his own position, he jumped up and ran hurriedly to his mother’s tomb. He opened the door, entered and after a few moments remerged with a baby girl in his arms: Satan.
As Satan grew she became so beautiful and intelligent that her mere presence transformed the night into a bright day, and her words were sharper than a sword and more penetrating than an arrow. This was how Dzerassæ paid her debt.
Translation by Amneris Di Cesare (edited by Ester Tossi)