I’ve always had an interest – actually more of an intense fascination for far-away exotic peoples from long-ago. One of those peoples exerting a draw to my curiosity are the so-called Scythians, an ancient wildly nomadic peoples located roughly north of the Persians in that vast expanse of land from the Danube river across the north shores of the Black Sea to the River Don in present day Russia. A huge land expanse.
Also, there’s a sound track to this blog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pPYWZYhWuGw
Herodotus does his best to cast some light on the Scythians. He starts by speculating on their origins and has it narrowed down to three possibilities:
- Three sons were begot by Zeus and the daughter of the river Borysthenes: Lipoxais, Arpoxais, and Colaxais. Precisely how Zeus ended up in a match-up with the daughter of the river Borythenes is not elaborated upon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Borysthenes. So the best I can figure is back then, certain rivers had nymphs and Zeus would date them once in a while. And this must be one of those times. Ends up the youngest son Colaxais, is deemed most worthy because a hoard of great stuff fell straight out of heaven: a plough, a yoke, and a battle axe; all wrought from solid gold. As each of the older brothers approached the booty, it burst into flames which subsided when they retreated. Only Colaxais could take possession of the heavenly hoard. So he got to be king and thus Scythians. Uh huh. Herodotus considers this a rather unlikely origin for them and says so; but I suppose someone thought it was true…
- Another god begatting three sons story, this time it’s Hercules and there is a lot more detail and it’s pretty weird so stop reading if you are squeamish, prudish, or easily shocked by lurid descriptions of relations between gods and half-humans. Here’s Herodotus: “8. …Thence Heracles came to the land now called Scythia; and as a storm came upon him together with icy cold, he drew over him his lion’s skin and went to sleep. Meanwhile the mares harnessed to his chariot disappeared by a miraculous chance, as they were feeding. 9. Then when Heracles woke he sought for them; and having gone over the whole land, at last he came to the region which is called Hylaia; and there he found in a cave a kind of twofold creature formed by the union of a maiden and a serpent, whose upper parts from the buttocks upwards were those of a woman, but her lower parts were those of a snake.” Hold on. This is getting too weird. Totally reminds me of this:
Maybe it’s just me, but I’m thinking Heracles may have stumbled upon the original Starbucks where he had a bizarre match-up. As Herodotus tells it: “Having seen her and marveled at her, he asked her then whether she had seen any mares straying anywhere; and she said that she had them herself and would not give them up until he lay with her; and Heracles lay with her on condition of receiving them. She then tried to put off the giving back of the mares, desiring to have Heracles with her as long as possible, while he on the other hand desired to get his mares and depart. At last she gave them back and said: “These mares when they came hither I saved for you, and you rewarded me for saving them; for I have by you three sons…” . Starbucks then asks how she should raise his three sons, Agathyrsos, Gelonos, and the youngest Skythes. Heracles leaves behind one of his bows and the boy that grows up and is able to string the bow shall be king. It’s the youngest, Skythes, and thus Scythia. Hmmm. Again, not too likely.
- This is probably what really happened: “11. There is however also another story, and to this I am most inclined myself. It is to the effect that the nomad Scythians dwelling in Asia, being hard pressed in war by the Massgetai, left their abode and crossing the river Araxes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aras_(river)) came towards Kimmerian land (for the land which now is occupied by the Scythians is said to have been in former times the land of the Kimmerians)…
Ah the Massgetai – they were tough customers indeed. Remember this? https://gregole.com/2015/04/14/herodotus-cyrus-the-great-and-the-end-of-book-i/#more-1375
Herodotus continues Book IV with colorful descriptions of distant reaches of the known and imagined world of his time; and the descriptions are not entirely fanciful and naive. In one aside he mentions a Greco-Egyptian sailing expedition that seems to make it about halfway around the west coast of Africa. An amazing feat of navigation and daring. His description of the lands of the Scythians seems quite accurate:
Book IV 28. This whole land is so exceedingly severe in climate, that for eight months of the year there is frost so hard as to be intolerable; and during these if you pour out water you will not be able to make mud, bu only if you kindle a fire can you make it. The sea also is frozen and the whole of Kimmerian Bosphorus, so that the Scythians who are settled within the trench (modern Crimea) make expeditions and drive their wagons over into the Sindians. (I assume what he is describing is a large body of water frozen-solid enough to drive wagons over…). Thus it continues to be winter for eight months, and even for the remaining four it is cold in those parts. This winter is distinguished in its character from all the winters in other parts of the world; for there is no rain to speak of at the usual season for rain, whereas in summer it rains continually; and thunder does not come at the time when it comes in other countries, but is very frequent in the summer; and if thunder comes in winter, it is marveled at as a prodigy… 31. As to the feathers, the Scythians say that the air is full of them, and that they render them unable either to see or to pass through the further parts of the continent, but I think this: – in the parts beyond this land it snows continuously, though less in summer than in winter, as might be supposed. Now whosoever has seen close at hand snow falling thickly, knows what I mean without further explanation, for the snow is like feathers. On account of this wintry weather, the Northern parts of this continent are uninhabitable. I think therefore that by the feathers the Scythians and those who dwell near them mean to suggest the snow. This then goes to the furthest reaches of the accounts given.
Of their religion, Herodotus relates that it is similar to the Greek polytheist religion which came as a surprise to me; I would have guessed they were pagan naturalists with charms and shamans et al; but apparently they worshiped and sacrificed to specific gods much as the Greeks did. And they were highly defensive of their customs and way of life. Apostasy meant death. Merely dressing in foreign clothes could get you killed – there’s no mention of cross-dressing but I would assume it was frowned upon. Herodotus relates several examples of Scythians who strayed and their subsequent treatment – death in all cases.
Scythian art is amazing, stunning, and worthy of a separate posting. Google around and check it out – it’s gorgeous!
“The art of the period is essentially an animal art. Combat scenes between two or more animals are numerous, as are single animal figures. Many real or mythical beasts are represented, the majority of the types having roots in deep antiquity, but the Scythians fashioned them in a manner that was new and characteristically their own. As is to be expected with nomads who were constantly on the move, the decorative objects they produced are generally small in size, but many are made of precious materials and practically all are of superb workmanship.” http://www.britannica.com/art/Scythian-art
As can be imagined, they were fierce warriors and motivated horror stories from China, to India, to the Mideast. They were the first to perfect en-mass mobile horseback archery warfare – a military tactic masterfully used centuries later by Genghis Khan to conquer the known world excluding extreme western Europe. So they could present shall we say, challenges to established kingdoms like Persia. These Scythians had in fact overrun eastern parts of the Persian empire, and Darius, the Persian king, had to deal with them. But it would be a tough assignment as Herodotus describes their nomadic ways:
“46. Now the region of the Euxine upon which Darius was preparing to march has, apart from the Scythian race, the most ignorant nations. We can neither put forward any nation of those who dwell within the region of Pontus as eminent in cleverness, nor do we know of any man of learning having arisen there, apart from the Scythian nation… By the Scythian race one most important problem has been solved most cleverly of men of whom we know; but in other respects I am not impressed with them. That most important discovery is such that none can escape again who has come to attack them, and if they do not desire to be found, it is not possible to catch them. They who have neither cities founded nor walls built, but carry their houses with them and are mounted archers, living not by the plough but by cattle, and whose dwellings are upon cars, these assuredly are invincible and impossible to approach. 47. This they have found out, seeing that their land is suitable to it and at the same time the rivers are their allies; for first this land is plain land and is grassy and well watered, and then fivers flow through it not much fewer than the canals of Egypt…”
Darius’ campaign against the Scythians was inconclusive – actually the Persians were fortunate to have been able to get out of Scythia with the forces largely intact. He had attacked the western portion of Scythia with help from Greeks and their navy so was campaigning pretty much due north of Greece and ancient Thrace.
While inconclusive, the campaign against the Scythians let them know the Persians were no trifling force to contend with; so they went after easier game making the campaign a sort of strategic victory for the Persians who could now focus on other problems. Like the Ionian Greeks settled in Asia Minor, the focus of his next book, the actual beginning of the Greco-Persian wars.