(also Ossetians, Osetes, Ossetes; self-designation, Iron and, in western Severnaia Osetiia, Digoron), a nation (natsiia, nation in the historical sense) and the basic population of the Severnaia Osetiia ASSR and Iuzhnaia Osetiia Autonomous Oblast. Ossets also live in a number of regions of the Georgian SSR, the Kabarda-Balkar ASSR, and Stavropol’ Krai, including Karachai-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast. They speak the Ossetic language. Total population, 488,000 (1970 census).
The Ossets are ethnically related to the ancient aboriginal population of the Northern Caucasus and to alien peoples including the Scythians (seventh and eighth centuries B.C.), Sarmatians (fourth to first centuries B.C.), and particularly the Alani (from the first century A.D.). The native population adopted the language and many aspects of the culture of the Iranian-speaking tribes that settled in the Central Caucasus. The powerful Alani Ossetic alliance, which marked the beginning of the Ossetic nation, was crushed by the Mongol Tatar invasion of the 13th century. The formation of the Ossetic nation began again in the late 15th century. By the 18th century, the ethnic identity of the Ossets was fully established. During this period the ancestors of the Ossets colonized the southern slopes of the Glavnyi Range. The ancestors of the Ossets were called Alani in Western European and Oriental sources, Os (or Ovs) by the Georgians, and Iasy by the Russians.
After the Mongol Tatar invasion in the 13th century and other subsequent invasions, Alani-Ossets were driven southward out of the fertile plains to the mountain gorges of the Central Caucasus. There they formed four large communities (Digora, Alagir, Kurtatinskoie, and Tagaur) on the northern slopes and many small communities, which were dependent on Georgian feudal lords, on the southern slopes. Severnaia Osetiia (Northern Ossetia) was united with Russia in 1774, after which part of the Ossetic population resettled in the plains regions to the north. Iuzhnaia Osetiia (Southern Ossetia) became part of Russia in 1801.
For many centuries the Ossets were in close contact with the Georgians and other neighboring peoples, who influenced their language, culture, and way of life. Most of the Ossets professed Christianity, which first came to Ossetia from Byzantium in the sixth and seventh centuries, and later from Georgia. A minority professed Islam, which had some influence among the Ossets during the 17th and 18th centuries. Pagan beliefs and rites existed alongside the official religions and were in fact of far greater importance.
The chief occupations of the Ossets were farming (in the plains) and livestock breeding (in the mountains). The oldest forms of Ossetic applied art are wood and stone carving, artistic metalworking, and embroidery. The most prominent of the various Ossetic folklore genres is the Narty epic.
Soviet power and the kolkhoz system have changed the Ossetic economy. Agriculture has become highly mechanized and diversified. Many of the Ossets are employed in industry. There have been important developments in all forms of national culture, and a national intelligentsia has emerged. The Ossets have become a socialist nation.
REFERENCENarody Kavkaza, vol. 1. Moscow, 1960.
B. A. KALOEV