Ritual Feast and Transpersonal Experience: Ossetian Religious Traditionalists in Search of Legitimization

Author: Sergei Shtyrkov

The Republic of North Ossetia is special among other North Caucasian national republics of Russia (“national” means having a non-Russian ethnic majority as the main nation, the titular ethnic group). North Ossetia has the reputation of a special national republic because it is the only one in the region that has no Muslim majority. Sometimes, for outsiders, Ossetians even look like the only Orthodox native people of the North Caucasus.

However, the situation is not so simple. If one would have a look at it from inside, one could see that until recent years the most widespread expression to define the nature of the religious situation in the Ossetian society was (and still is) a ‘mixture’ – either of Christianity, Islam, and local paganism or of Christianity and some local superstitions. Plus, some people in Ossetia did not want to represent the nature of their practices, discussed by scholars and national activists as religious ones, in terms of religion. Until very recent times, for the majority things which a researcher may recognize as evidence of a religious cult (for example, the practice of pilgrimage to local sacred places) were just ethnic or even local traditions.

At the end of the last century such uncertainty as to what the Ossetian ethnic religion actually is ceased to be convenient for a large part of the Ossetian elite, and attempts were made to apply religious terms to traditional practices in order to explain their functions and significance for North Ossetia today. First, some ethnic religious activists began to speak about native Ossetian paganism, and then about pre-Christian (ancient Aryan) monotheism. Some of them call it Uats-din (which can be translated as “Holy faith”), some use other terms (such as Ass-din or Iron-din, that is the “Ossetian faith”). For many this conception of ethnic religion correlates directly with a conception of a particular historical way of the Ossetian people as an ethnic nation. Orthodox activists also joined the discussion and tried to represent Ossetian ethnic culture as an Orthodox one per se.

As to the religious nativists one can say that supporters of many ethnic religion projects proceed from the idea that every ethnic group has (or had or has to have) its peculiar religion, just as it has its own language and culture. For these activists it is very important to represent ethnic traditional beliefs, rituals, and other practices as elements of a particular religion. From this point of view, Christianity is dangerous and harmful for ethnic groups because it is an international and even cosmopolitan religion. Sometimes it is considered as a forerunner and symbol of current globalization processes. According to this perspective, Christianity is brought to non-Christian peoples by aliens and their voluntary or deceived allies.

In our case, the leaders of the Ossetian nativist movement cannot just renounce Christianity as a ‘religion of aliens’ – Russians and Georgians – because many Ossetians consider Orthodox Christianity as the faith of their glorious ancestors, the “Alans”. So, religious nationalists have to spend much time and effort to explain their anti-Christian position. Daurbek Makeev, a bright leader or even the ideological head of the movement, a former judo trainer, tried to be more persuasive in representing Christianity not only as a colonizing project but also as a means of the secret influence of Jewry and the West on the ethnic cultures of non-Christian peoples, i. e. as an instrument of Jewish (Western) “spiritual” imperialism.

In order to make their project look more reliable and thorough, the Ossetian nativists developed a two-fold strategy: Firstly, they started to officially register their communities as religious organizations. Secondly, they began to revise the very meaning of the term “religion”. The purpose of this revision was to prove that their project seemed to be non-religious only to narrow-minded Christians and Muslims who were not familiar with the achievements of actual present-day science. Obviously, an important aspect of this criticism was the protest against cultural colonialism on the part of religious and academic professionals who referred to the Christian-centered understanding of religion as the basis for their judgement of non-Christian religions. In order to achieve the goals of their opponents’ criticism of their conceptual apparatus, the ideological leaders of Uats-din had to become professional experts in religious studies and acquire relevant skills in discourse.

For example, Daurbek Makeev does his best to transfer his activities from the field of religious activism into the sphere of academic practices. Now he takes the floor at various academic conferences. He writes some of his texts in collaboration with Zaur Tsoraev, PhD, who teaches philosophy at the North-Ossetian State University in Vladikavkaz. Speaking on local television, Daurbek does not introduce himself as a religious activist as he did a decade ago, but as a scholar of religious studies who writes academic books and articles.

A traditionalist Iron-din priest giving an interview to a local TV channel
at the mountain Ossetian shrine Rekomy dzuar ©Sergei Shtyrkov, 2018

Makeev’s academic discursive style is close to the political traditionalist utopia sought by the European New Right (de Benoist, 1981) and Mircea Eliade’s phenomenology of religion. Thus, Makeev’s main methodological presupposition is that every little detail in a folk epic song or ritual has a deep meaning going back to some ancient conditions of mankind when it was not yet destroyed by destructive modernization. Seen from this perspective, an academic reconstruction of that lost meaning is supposed to return the initial sense of social and personal harmony to modern life.

Besides, Makeev is sure that religion exists for real as a universal phenomenon for all of humanity (meaning that it is outside of our social imagination) and thus can and must be defined as such. We find such a definition in a book (in a paragraph on “Religion and Religious studies”) of the Russian scholar of religion Evgeny Torchinov (1956–2003), who proceeded from works by the Czech-American psychiatrist Stanislav Grof (b. 1931), one of the co-founders of transpersonal psychology. Torchinov was a renowned expert on a non-Abrahamic religion – Buddhism. This circumstance made Torchinov’s opinion particularly important to Makeev, since it guaranteed that his view would not be Christianity-centered.

“The scientist [Torchinov] set himself the goal to derive a common defining feature of all existing religions. The implementation of this task required not only theoretical knowledge of religious cultures, religious studies, theology, psychology, but also some practical religious experience. Based on a huge amount of material, he came up with a general definition that sounds like this: it is ‘a complex of ideas, beliefs, doctrines, elements of a cult, ritual, and other forms of practice, based on certain transpersonal experience and suggesting a reproduction of this basic experience’.” (Torchinov 1998, 64, cited in Makeev 2017, 19)

In order to make the concept of transpersonal experience clearer for readers who are not familiar with the term, Makeev cites the Russian Wikipedia definition of “transpersonal psychology”.

“Transpersonal psychology is a field in psychology which studies transpersonal experience, altered states of consciousness, and religious experience, connecting current psychological conceptions, theories, and methods with traditional Western and Eastern spiritual practices. The main ideas of transpersonal psychology are based on non-dualism and mind expansion beyond the usual limits of Ego.” (Makeev 2017, 20)

The chosen references to transpersonal psychology are neither incidental nor accidental because they broaden the general perspective for religious creativity in the spirit of New Age spirituality, which at the same time can be considered as an academic practice of re-describing well-known phenomena (Ossetian ritual practices in our case) in terms of comparative religion and/or science of psychology. Let us read a detail of Makeev’s typical (re)description of the ritual feast (kuyvd):

“Spirits at a kuyvd are used to enter artificially into the state of mind expansion and non-dualism, that is, into the state of transpersonal experience. That was not the state of hallucinations at all. That was the state of natural relaxation and light inhibition of a cascade of uncontrolled vain thoughts (such a state can be reached without liquor as well). The ancient priests used spirits only for sacred repasts at feasts prayers for definition of landmarks in reaching states of mind expansion and non-dualism. This state of natural relaxation and inhibition by it from vain thoughts facilitates concentration and intensifies praying wishes.” (Makeev 2017, 134)

The search for new (?) deep meanings in old practices is characteristic for both New Age spirituality and ethnic traditionalism, two fields overlapping in forms of new paganism or other nativist religious or “not-religious-but-spiritual” movements. We can see how “hidden wisdom of ages” is represented in terms of an ultra-modern and simultaneously anti-modern project of total re-representation of the whole world (and reframing religious phenomena) in order to avoid control by modern institutions such as “traditional” religions and “traditional” academic regimes of truth.


De Benoist, Alain. Comment peut-on être païen? [How to be a Pagan]. Paris: Albin Michel, 1981.

{Makeev} Макеев, Даурбек Б. Æсс дин. Народная религия [The True Faith. A Folk Religion]. Владикавказ: ИПЦ «Литера», 2017.

{Torchinov} Торчинов, Евгений. А. Религии мира. Опыт запредельного. Трансперсональные состояния и психотехника [The World Religions. Experience of the Beyond. Transpersonal States and Psycho-Technology]. СПб: Петербургское Востоковедение, 1998.

Cite this article as: Sergei Shtyrkov, “Ritual Feast and Transpersonal Experience: Ossetian Religious Traditionalists in Search of Legitimization”, in New Age in Russia, 29/10/2019, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/1589

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Romina Heim (October 29, 2019). Ritual Feast and Transpersonal Experience: Ossetian Religious Traditionalists in Search of Legitimization. New Age in Russia. Retrieved July 15, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/sbkl

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