Traditionalists deplore music and drinking at North Ossetia’s biggest festival.

By Elizaveta Valieva in the Hetag Grove, North Ossetia (CRS No. 400 12-Jul-07)

For most of the year, the grove of Saint Hetag is a quiet, secluded island of green vegetation sitting in the midst of open fields.

But one day a year, that all changes. On the first Sunday in July, the grove – on the banks of the river Ardon — becomes the most popular place in North Ossetia, as thousands of people descend on it for a festival that is part pagan, part Christian – and which has now become the subject of a fierce national debate.

The pilgrims start arriving at six in the morning. As the grove is only half an hour by car from the North Ossetian capital Vladikavkaz, there are soon so many vehicles that the only way to reach get to the road is by a side-road through the cornfields.

The worshippers head for a small domed temple in the middle of the grove, each carrying home-made beer and three triangular pies on which they have placed three ribs of lamb.

After praying at a makeshift altar, they drop donations into a metal box and light candles.

Then they set about picnicking, either at tables in the open air or inside long brick hangars.

The St Hetag celebration is an old festival. In the Eighties, the Soviet authorities tried to ban the festivities, stationing a ring of policemen around the grove to stop pilgrims getting through. Then they tried making it into a secular national holiday stripped of its religious elements. Musicians and dance groups performed and sports competitions were held at the site.

Once the Soviet Union came to an end in 1991, the religious festival resumed with full force.

“In those years, the Ossetian people had a need for traditional religion,” said Timur Dzeranov, a scholar and specialist on religious practice. “Events [conflicts] in both North and South Ossetia were a threat to the Ossetians, so they tried to revive their national religion. There was a need for a shrine and the choice fell on Hetag Grove, because it lies in the middle of Ossetia.”

The festival now mixes an assortment of religious elements.

“Traditional Ossetian religion has been preserved only in part,” explained Dzeranov. “There isn’t a unified system of values. Christianity is not totally dominant here, nor is the pagan influence.”

Unlike the other republics of the North Caucasus where Muslim traditions are strong, North Ossetia has a high proportion of Christians, although Islam is also present here. At the same time, there is still an undercurrent of older pagan customs.

“Both the Orthodox Church and the Muslim community are growing stronger in Ossetia,” said Dzeranov. “Today the mosques are full of people and many Ossetians are remembering their Muslim roots. In parallel, other faiths are attracting adherents – Protestants, Baptists, Pentecostalists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Big efforts are also being made to revive traditional Ossetian religion, but my impression is that the Christian and Muslim communities are better organised and there isn’t the same kind of consistency when it comes to traditional religion.”

According to legend, St. Hetag, the son of a Kabardinian Muslim prince, converted to Christianity and had to flee from those who wanted to force him to turn back to Islam. He reached Ossetia, and as his pursuers attempted to catch and kill him, he prayed for help in an open field, and part of the forest descended from the mountains and covered him over. Seeing this miracle, his enemies fled.

Sergy, a novice monk in the Russian Orthodox church’s Uspensky monastery in Vladikavkaz, says that in its present form, the festival now has very little to do with Christianity.

“This is a holy place, a place that bears witness to God’s intervention. In the Christian tradition it’s customary to honour places like this, and churches are often built there,” he said. “How to honour this place is a different matter. Before the [1917 Russian] Revolution, a chapel of St. George stood here. But there’s little that’s Christian about what’s going on there now.”

If Christians are ambivalent about the site, Islamic clerics are strongly critical. The mufti of North Ossetia, Murat Tavkazakhov, condemned “stupid politicians” for promoting the festival.

“We condemn paganism,” he told IWPR. “And we deeply regret that pagans have invented other gods other than the Almighty. We are disgusted by this day of St. Hetag, this pagan holiday! A tree can’t defend itself, so how can it defend my family? So why pray to a tree? The Almighty does not have any intermediaries.”

The mufti was referring to customs derived from older beliefs in Ossetian deities, observed at shrines like this one that predate the cult of St Hedag and the arrival of both Christianity and Islam.

Even those who support the revival of authentic Ossetian traditions mourn the way the celebration has become stage-managed, and now involves what they see as unseemly over-indulgence in alcohol.

Zalina Khablieva, a teacher at North Ossetia’s State University, is outraged by the behaviour of many participants.

“There’s a belief that St. Hetag looks after everyone, and that even people who’ve committed a crime can pray in the grove. The main thing is not to damage what is a sacred place,” she said. “But the people who come and bring food and don’t clear it up afterwards are turning the shrine into a rubbish-tip. You shouldn’t drink strong alcohol, but few people obey that rule. I don’t like the way they put on concerts here. Bands come here and the drunken public starts to dance.”

Styr Nykhas, a group that holds Ossetian patriotic views, has spent years urging people not to drink vodka or anything else stronger than beer. This year, exhortations by elders not to get drunk or leave litter seem to have had some effect. However, there was still music and dancing.

The elders came in for some criticism because they prevented the festivities from getting under way until North Ossetian political leaders showed up.

“Some people came early in the morning, prayed, celebrated and left again without waiting for permission from the [political] leadership,” said indignant worshipper Mikhail Syukayev. “This is not the kind of holiday that the leadership ought to open and close.”

Elizaveta Valieva is the editor of the website.