Having posted at MetaFilter about the ubiquitous legendary heroes of the North Caucasus, I thought I’d give the etymology (from John Colarusso’s introduction to Nart Sagas from the Caucasus):

These sagas are of interest not only in their own right as a testament to the civilization of this lost world, but also because they show striking parallels with the traditions of the ancient peoples who at one time were in contact with the North Caucasus. They have been largely viewed as a relic of the old Iranian-speaking culture of the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Alans, with only passing reference made to Circassian lore (chiefly Dumézil 1978; see pp. 34-49, 146-68). That there is an ancient Iranian core in the various corpora is not to be denied (Dumézil 1934, 1956; Bjazyrty 1992). The name Nart is of Indo-Iranian origin (PIE *ə₂n(ə)r-, Greek ânér-, Lincoln 1981, 97 and n. 4); Sabine Nerô– ‘strong’ (personal name), Umbrian nerus, Old Irish nert, Vedic Sanskrit nrtama ‘most manly’ (an epithet of Indra), Sanskrit nâ, nár-am (accusative) ‘man, hero’, Avestan nar-, nərə-(gara-) (Pisani 1947, 147, §302), Ossetic nart (Benveniste 1959, 37 and n. l).

I’m not sure what that first r– is doing there, but I’m guessing it’s a typo. [Typo fixed (and some vowels changed) thanks to Angelo’s comment; I now realize that Colarusso forgot to close that first parenthesis, before “PIE.”]


  1. I read that Stalin was part Ossetian on his father’s side. As far as I know, most linguists consider Ossetic to be a direct descendent of the language of the Ancient Scythians. They were a vicious people not only by all historical accounts but by what Russian archeologists have found too: scalps taken from the enemy and the skulls of enemies (probably other Scythians in many cases) turned into gilded drinking cups.
    The root *Nar- or *Ner is indeed widespread in the southern tier of Indo-European languages. In addition to Greek and Latin, Gallic had the name Nertomaros meaning either ‘Great Strength” or “Famous For His Strength” depending on whose translations you go by. In Albanian, it has become njer meaning “person” or “inhabitant” even though it probably meant “man” in the older language. I can’t think of any isoglosses for this root in the Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages but they could still be concealed there somewhere.

  2. The Scythians were the original steppe nomads, western version, comparable to the Hsiung-nu near China in the east. While they were indeed vicious, so were most peoples were in that day (e.g. Greeks, Romans). I think that to many, the vividness of their practices compared to the more bureaucratic Roman cruelty made them seem relatively worse then they were.
    There’s an argument that the Scythians, via their Alan descendants, originated chivalry. When Rome disintegrated Alan cavalry units settled in Armorica (now Brittany) where they intermarried with the newly-arrived Bretons. (The name “Alan”/ “Alain” is Alan in origin.) It is claimed that the Alans contributed heavily to the Breton Arthurian legends which later became so influential via French and English versions.
    Their contribution to heavy-armed cavalry warfare is well-established, and I believe that the medieval baron with his horse, hawk, and hound has steppe antecedents.
    All argued at my URL.
    BTW, I’ve found Dumezil’s writings hard to read — he doesn’t seem to like to summarize or state a central idea — and trying to follow the development of his ideas is very hard because they end up seeming to apply to everyone (e.g. the early Japanese) and no one (but not necessarily the Greeks). Mira-Varuna was great, though.

  3. "[T]hat first r-" results from a typo indeed. The posted PDF version (pp.5–6) reads:
    “The name Nart is of Indo-Iranian origin (PIE *ə₂n—(ə)r-, Greek anè-r, … ”
    Not sure what the IE cognates, messily marshalled (in HTML, less so in the print version), are supposed to illustrate, if IIr gave Nart to non-IE Caucasian languages in post-PIE times. Skimming the intro, seems to me that comparison with IE outside IIr is confused. (Or was PIE the source? Which brings up more questions.)

  4. Thanks for the correction; I’ll fix the post. I assume the IE cognates were brought in just for general interest.

  5. (It’s not your typo by the way. ^0_0^ )

  6. “And just as the only vestige of Scotism came to be the word “dunce”, the only relic of the mighty Narts today is the English word for their pitiful heirs: ‘nerd’.”

  7. Re: >>”And just as the only vestige of Scotism came to be the word “dunce”, the only relic of the mighty Narts today is the English word for their pitiful heirs: ‘nerd’.”>>
    A little bit of humor there I suppose but factually no. “Nerd” is a new word in English appearing in the vernacular only in the mid-1960’s. It was still scarcely used before 1975. The word comes from a character in the Dr. Seuss children’s books. Although Dr. Seuss doesn’t say where he got it from, it is probably a contraction of “gooney bird” a slang term for an oddballish person that was popular in the 1950’s, especially in New York.
    It’s use in the U.S. is now rapidly receding partly because, in my view, the country is becoming more fundamentalist Christian.

  8. Osset.GiRL says:

    interesting……. oh how little i know about my own ppl …..i feel pathetic and lame ..
    – Atsaruhsh-
    a.k.a Atsa !

  9. You’re only lame if you’re not interested in knowing more. If you want to learn, you’re way ahead of most people!

  10. Clover Stroud says:

    I am trying to find out more about the link between Arthur legends and North Ossetia/Alania. If anyone has any information on this I would be most grateful to hear from them

  11. David Marjanović says:

    PIE *ə₂n—(ə)r-

    The dash is of course some kind of error; the modern reconstruction is nom. sg. *h₂nēr, stem for most other cases *h₂n̩r-.

  12. You’re right, it must be a typo (it’s not the only one) — I’ve deleted it.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Maybe a hyphen was intended; I’ve never before seen an attempt to interpret two morphemes into this root, but perhaps it was once thought to be derived from a *-ro- adjective, or something.

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