North Ossetia Honours 'Pagan' Saint George

In their most important religious festival, North Ossetians freely mix the names of Saint George and the pagan God Uasturji - but should not drink too much vodka.

North Ossetia Honours 'Pagan' Saint George

In their most important religious festival, North Ossetians freely mix the names of Saint George and the pagan God Uasturji - but should not drink too much vodka.

Thursday, 28 November, 2002

"Uastyrji, grant us your blessing," the Ossetian elder, or khistar, pronounces, whereupon everyone else seated around the festival table in the village of Khataldon last week stood up. You cannot drink to God sitting down.

"And turn off your mobile phones right now, so they do not distract us from the feast," the elder added.

The festival, known as Jiorguyba, which brings the republic of North Ossetia to a halt in the third week of November, mixes ancient and modern, pagan and Christian.

St George is the patron saint of the festival and as in Georgia, the Ossetians mark as his feast day not the day of his death but the day he was broken on the wheel

Vasily Abayev, who compiled the etymological dictionary of the Ossetian language finds a common root with the Ossetian form of St George in the name of the pagan god Uastyrji.

No one hides the fact that Jiorguyba, which has been celebrated here for more than 1,000 years ever since the Alans, the ancestors of the Ossetians, converted to Christianity, has been superimposed on an even more ancient pagan rite.

In fact, St George is depicted here in Ossetia not as a 30-year-old warrior as in most of the Christian world, but as a grey-haired old man. And the information that he died a martyr for Christ, fighting a pagan king, does not bother anyone.

For centuries, the Ossetians have freely blended their pagan and Christian traditions and often it is hard to know where one tradition begins and the other ends. Uastyrji is the custodian of pagan shrines in the high valleys of the Caucasus and in the last ten years churches have been built at these sites of ancient worship.

At the turn of the last century, the German scholar of the Caucasus Gottfried Merzbacher wrote, "In name and in their outer habits, the Ossetians are partly Muslims and mostly Christians. But in reality, both in their laws and in their religious displays ancient pagan rituals continue to predominate, which hark back to their former primitive cult."

A hundred years on, little has changed. Modern day benefactors pray with the same zeal in both Orthodox monasteries and in the roadside shrines dedicated to pagan gods and spirits, known as zduars.

In the winter of 1992, schoolchildren in the small town of Digora reported seeing an extraordinary vision of St George in full pagan glory, which local journalists had no qualms calling a "milestone in the renaissance of Christianity in North Ossetia".

The children were playing ice hockey on a frozen river when they reported seeing a huge horseman clad in white, riding a three-legged steed, who descended from the sky onto the roof a nearby house. The apparition uttered two phrases, "You have stopped praying to God", and "Look after your young people".

For two weeks afterwards, the marks made by outstretched wings one and a half meters on either side and the deep imprints of the horse's hooves could be discerned on the roof, locals said. Snow did not fall on them and they did not melt in the sun. A church was built in Digora in honour of the vision.

Citing further proof of the single divinity of their god, mountain villagers said that both Christian and pagan shrines were spared by natural calamities this years. This summer a flood inundated all the houses in the village of Verkhny Fiagdon, but left the church of the Holy Trinity untouched. And the avalanche of ice that overwhelmed the Karmadon valley this autumn stopped just short of the shrine to Uastyrji.

"There's no coincidence here," said Mikhail Gioyev, a local historian. "Uastyrji is the favourite divinity of the Ossetians, the protector of men, travellers and warriors, but the main thing is that Uastyrji is the intermediary between God and man, people's ally, always ready to help them."

The beginning of the Jiorguyba festival, traditionally held on the third Sunday of November is marked by special ceremonies. In 2001, a bell-tower was dedicated in the new cathedral being built in Vladikavkaz. This year, on St George's Day, November 24, two miracle-working icons from the town of Ivanovo were solemnly presented to the cathedral.

North Ossetia's president Alexander Dzasokhov and prime minister Mikhail Shatalov were in the congregation for the feast-day service and the priest Pavel Samoilenko read out the greetings of Patriarch Alexii II to worshippers.

"I am really happy today," one of the excited worshippers, lawyer Alan Magkayev, told IWPR. "This is a special holiday for all Ossetians. Once again we have a good reason to get drunk. If I'm serious, Uastyrji is the patron saint of men and travellers. And what is our life but a journey, which we are all travelling with faith in our hearts, sheltered by the right wing of St George?"

It is no coincidence that the festival also falls at the end of the harvest, when the fruits have been picked and can be enjoyed. When the guests sit down at the feast, the first toast is always drunk to Khutsauty Khutsau (God of Gods) and the second is to St George.

In every Ossetian home, three cheese pies are baked for the special day, to symbolise the union of heaven, sun and earth. In the old days, beer was specially brewed for the festival. Nowadays people get by with cans of beer and vodka is now ubiquitous - to the evident displeasure of the guardians of tradition.

"Thoughts at the Jiorguyba feast ought to be clear and unsullied by alcohol," said an elder, Mairbek Gostiev. "Otherwise a ritual full of spiritual meaning descends into general drunkenness."

The second most important Ossetian festival is that of St Khetaga, commemorated on the second Sunday of July, when, tradition has it, Uastyrji appeared to the Alan prince, who had converted to Christianity in the sacred grove of Khetaga.

Thousands of pilgrims flock here every year. They are strictly forbidden to talk loudly, swear or quarrel. In July 1993, a group of young men fired guns at each other in the grove. The old men could not remember a thunderstorm of the ferocity of the one that struck Vladikavkaz the next day.

"We bear collective responsibility before God for everything that happens on our earth," said archaeologist Mikhail Mamiev. "And when someone commits a sin nearby, don't think that it doesn't concern you and don't be surprised when it affects you."

These precepts are getting close to becoming the basis for a state religion for the North Caucasian republic. The phrase "Uastyrji, grant us your blessing" is now not only the beginning of a feast-day prayer but of the republican anthem of North Ossetia.

Ksenia Gokoyeva is general director of the news organization International Information Company in Vladikavkaz.

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