The Scythians

The Scythian soldier scrapes the scalp clean of flesh and softening it by rubbing between the hands, uses it thenceforth as a napkin. The Scyth is proud of these scalps and hangs them from his bridle rein; the greater the number of such napkins that a man can show, the more highly is he esteemed among them. Many make themselves cloaks by sewing a quantity of these scalps together.....Such as the Scythian customs with respect to scalps."
---- Herodotus, History

"What sort of men are these!?" That question must have perplexed the Persian leader Darius when, in the midst of battle, he watched his Scythian enemies abandon the serious business of war in order to take off suddenly in chase of a hare they had spied. Well the same query persists in the minds of modern civilized men as scholarhsip adds to what we know about this strange custom of Eurasia's mounted nomad. New research and thousands of examined burial sites in the last 20 years in South Russia and the Altai have helped us to paint a much fuller picture of this vigorous nomad people with their unique animal art and love of the horse - an extraordinary race from whom the civilized world learned to wear trousers and riding horses.

Land of Myth and Gold
Perhaps the most striking feature of Scythians was the enormous amount of gold they wore and used. The ancient legend tells the story about the one-eyed people, Arimaspians in Scythia who had on-going battle with the griffins who guarded the gold. This gold undoubtedly came from the rich fields in the Altai district. It is common that the Scythians wore golden ornaments and belts. Gold plates were sewn to their garments and gold gleamed from their weapons. The archaeologists are consistently amazed by the amount of gold offerings deposited in the great burial- mounds of the Scythian kings.

Where had they come from? The Scythians themselves had a legend that they sprang from the three sons of certain Targitaus, a person of supernatural birth who dwelled in the Black Sea domain. Together the three brothers ruled the land until four golden implements - a plow, a yoke, a battle-ax and a drinking cup - fell from the sky and suddenly began to blaze. Colaxais, the youngest, proved to be the only one of the brothers who could pick up the burning objects, and thus became sole ruler of the Scythian kingdom.

Another Scythian creation story was told by the ancient Diodorus Siculus at the 1st century B.C. According to Diodorus, Scythians "lived in very small numbers at the Araks River....that they gained for themselves a country in the mountains up to the Caucasus, in the lowland on the coast of the Ocean (Caspian Sea) and the Meot Lake (Azov Sea) and other territories up to the Tanais River (Don River). Born in that land from the conjugal union of Zeus and a snake-legged goddess was a son Scyth who gave the name Scythian to the people." His descendants were named Pal and Naps and were the ancestors of two congenetic people - pals and naps. "They won for themselves a country "behind the Tanais River up to the Egyptian Nile River" (Diodorus II, 43).

Dating the earliest Scythians has been a problem since they did not develop their distinctive art style until the 6th century B.C. A. I. Melyukova suggested that the early Scythians were descendants of tribes of the Srubnaya culture who, between the middle of the 2nd millenium B.C. and the end of the 7th century B.C., moved in several waves from the Volga-Ural steppes into the north Black Sea area and assimilated the local Cimmerians. In history, the Scythians was first recorded in the 7th century B.C. as Assyria's ally against the Cimmerians, who had lost their homeland to the Scythians and moved south. The Scythian king, Partatua married an Assyrian princess in 674 B.C. and two nations remained allies. Scythians and Assyrians together conquered the Medes of the Caspian Sea; however the Medes was able to drive the Scythians out of western Asia and back to the Pontic Steppes by the turn of the century.

In 514 BC. a very important event took place in the steppe. Herodotus described this account in full details. Darius, the third of the Persian great Kings, decided to invade Scythia. With Darius himself in command, the Persian army of 700,000 soldiers marched across the Danube to the Russian steppes. The Scythians steadily retreated while the Persians pursuit. Darius failed the attempt to force the Scythians to confront the Persians with head-on battle. The Scythians did not abandon their tactic of withdrawal and replied to Darius when he demanded an battle action:

There is nothing new or strange in what we do. We follow our mode of life in peaceful times. We have neither towns nor cultivated lands in these parts which might induce us, through fear of their being ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight you. But if you must needs come to blows with us speedily, look about you, and behold our fathers' tombs. Attempt to meddle with them and you shall see whether or not we will fight with you."

It was indeed very strange war to Darius. There was nothing to be captured and held - no citied, no buildings, no plunder, nothing but the rimless steppe. He was fighting air. Darius had no alternative but to turn back. All the way to the Danube the Scythians harassed his retreat. He never campaigned northward through Europe again and the Scythians prevailed on the south Russian steppe and kept expanding westward for the next century.

From the end of the 7th century to the 3rd century BC, the Scythians occupied the steppe from the north Black Sea area, from the Don in the east to the Danube in the west. Among all those Scythians tribes, the most distinguishing tribe is called the Royal Scythians. With the Royal Scythians playing the dominant role, nomad Scythians, the Callipidae, the Alizones, agricultural Scythians and ploughing Scythians hold a submissive position. While the Royal and Nomad scythians led the nomadic lives, the Callipidae and Alizones lived in semi-nomadic style. Of course ploughing Scythians definitely were sedentary agriculturalists. According to Herodotus, the Callipidae or the Graeco-Scythians lived not far from Olbia, at the mouth of the Bug. To the north, there lived the Alizones; and further north the ploughing Scythians covered the area between the Dnieper and Bug. The Nomad Scythians occupied the steppes of the Azov Sea area and the left and right banks of the Dnieper. Most scholars believe that both banks of the lower Bug as far as the River Konka were the lands of the Nomad Scythians while the Royal Scythians roamed lands further east and south as far as the Don. Lastly the nomadic Scythians occupied at the Altai region of Siberia are called Kindred Scythians or Eastern Scythians.

It was during the 4th century BC. that the Scythian kingdom reached the hightest economic, political, social and cultural development. Many nomads bacme sedentary in the north Black Sea and Kamenskoe Gorodishche was the economic, political and trading capital of Scythia in the 4th till the first half of the 3rd century BC. The great king Atheas united all the Scythian tribes and expanded his territory to Tracian border on the rigth bank of the Danube. In 339 B.C., Atheas was killed at age of 90 in the battle with Philip of Macedon. However the Scythian kingdom remained strong and wealthy. The outside threat did not disturb their stability until the Celts and the Thracians swept in from the west and the Sarmatians from the east starting at the second half of the 3rd century BC.; the Scythian kingdom was absorbed by other nomdic powers and pretty much disappeared in the history.

Scythians are illiterate, there is no written record left. However few Scythian words survived by Herodotus. According to him, 'pata' meant 'to kill'; 'spou' meant 'eye', 'arima' meant 'one', 'oior' meant 'man'. From these words, the phiologists are able to define Scythian dialecte as a prehistoric Indo-European language.

Taming the Horse
The first of these mounted nomads to attract the attention of historians were the Scythians. If the Scythians were not the first to domesticate the horse they were among the earliest, if not the first of the Central Asian people to learn to ride it. Mounted soldiers was the Scythians' success in war; so when they penetrated into Asia, the technique of riding was rapidly adopted and mastered throughout the entire Middle Eastern area.

Though the Scythian had elaborate bitted bridles, the stirrup was not known to them and they rode on saddleclothes, relying on grip and balance. Even so, they were formidable horsemen in battle.

Life Style in the Steppes
The Scythians were famous for their bloody tribal custom. Warriors not only cut off the heads of slain enemies but also made leather-bound drinking cups from their enemies' skulls. They lined these grisly trophies with gold and proudly displayed them to impress their guests. The Scythians were traditionally polygamous and male-dominated society. Even though the ancient Greeks' impression that Scythia was a matriarchy ,it is not supported by the archaeological evidence. A wealthy Scythian could take several wives, and upon his death a son or a brother would assume them as his own. Scythian women had little power beyond the confines of their households, unlike their neighboring tribe the Sarmatians, whose women not only rode but fought with the men equally. Scythian women travlled in waggons with their children instead. Some scholars suggest that the women may have lived a more active and influential life at one time.

Since fish and game are abundant the tribesmen were never short of food. Their staple diet consisted of kumis, a form of fermented mare's milk which is still popular in Central Asia, a good deal of cheese, and vegetables such as onions, garlic and beans. They cooked their meat as a stew. As for cleaning, Herodotus noted that the Scythians did not use water for washing. Instead the women used a paste of pounded cypress, cedar and frankincense that, according to Herodotus, they applied to the face and body: A sweet odor is thereby imparted to them, and when they take off the plaster on the day following, their skin is clean and glossy." Scythians are said to be passionate people - bearded men with dark, deep set eyes with long, wind-snarled hair. They are one of the earlist races wore trousers, reflecting their horseback lifestyle. They wore pliable boots with heels. From the 2000-years-old frozen body recovered in 1947 in Siberia, we learned that Scythians liked to cover themselves with elaborate tattoos.

The Scythians had no temples, or altars or religious images, and evidently no priests. It is known that the northern nomads including the Scythians practiced Shamanism in their religion: they used shamans to deal with the world of spirits and gave advice to the kings and chiefs. Being superstitious people, they believed in witchcraft, magic and the power of amulets. The most highly honoured of the Scythian shamans came from certain specific families. They are effeminate males called 'enarees' - meant 'men-women' or 'halfmen'. They spoke with high-pitched voices and wore women's clothes.

Rites of Death
Prolonged and demonstrative grieving followed the death of every Scythian tribesman. At the death of a king all Scythian tribes joined a show of stupendous grief that last 40 days. Men of the dominant tribe, the Royal Scythians, cropped their hair, lacerated their ears, forehead, noses and arms. After the king was buried with the best of all his weapons and possessions, the funeral party strangled one of his concubines, his cupbearer, his cook, his lackey, his messenger and his best horses and place all the bodies by him. Then the grave was to be covered with 60-feet hight mound.

Even then, the funeral was not over. One year later as many as 50 Scythian youths might be selected from among those who had directly served the king. They would be strangled and buried in a circle around the royal tomb.

Animal Art Style
One thing that Herodotus failed to report about these Scythian warriors is that they produced art of stunning force and vitality. Around the 6th century B.C., the Scythian created an art of pattern and ornament with naturalistic motifs based on animals. The favorite animals of the Scythian style are the stag, the horse, the ibex, the boar, the bear, the wolf, the felines, the eagle and the fish. The Scythian animal art style was adopted by all the mounted nomads as far as the borders of China by the end of the first millennium BC. During last two centuries, many rich and extraordinary finds were excavated from Scythian tombs and graves such as Pazyryk site in the Altai mountain of south-central Siberia, Kul Oba in the Kuban basin of the northern Black Sea.

Article on Scythian by Irma Marx

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