1902 Encyclopedia > Scythia, Scythians

Scythia, Scythians

SCYTHIA, SCYTHIANS. When the Greeks began to settle the north coast of the Black Sea, about the middle of the 7th century B.C., they found the south Russian steppe in the hands of a nomadic race, whom they called Scythians. An exacter form of the name was Scoloti. The inhabitants of the steppe must always have been nomads; but the life of all nomads is so much alike that we cannot tell whether the Scythians are the race alluded to in II., xiii. 5 sq.

The name is first found in Hesiod (Strabo, vii. p. 300) about 800 B.C., and about 689 (Herod., iv. 15) Aristeas of Proconnesus knew a good deal about them in connexion with the ancient trade route leading from their country to Central Asia. From the passage of the Tanais (Don) for fifteen marches north-east through the steppe the country belonged to the nomad Sarmatians, whose speech and way of life resembled those of the Scythians. Then came the wooded region of the Budini, who spread far inland and were probably a Finnish race of hunters with filthy habits. In this region lay Gelonus, the Greek emporium of the fur trade, round which lived the half-Grecian Geloni, prob-ably on the Volga and hardly farther south than Simbirsk. Seven more marches in the same line ran through desert, and then in the country of the Thyssagetae the road turned south-east, and led first through the country of the Iyrcae, whose way of hunting (Herod., iv. 22) indicates that they dwelt between the steppe and the forest, but belonged more to the former; the road perhaps crossed the river Ural near Orenburg, and ascending its tributary the Ilek crossed the Mugojar Mountains. Beyond this in the steppe as far as the Sir-Darya and Amu-Darya the traveller was again among Scythians, who were regarded as a branch of the European Scythians. Next came a long tract of rocky soil, till the bald-headed Argippaei were reached, a race esteemed holy and seemingly Mongolian, who dwelt on the slopes of impassable mountains, probably the Belur-tagh, and served as intermediaries in trade with the remoter peoples of Central Asia. The description of the fruit on which they subsisted (Herod., iv. 23) suits the Elxagnus hortensis, indigenous on the upper Zerafshan. Many notices of ancient writers about Scythia (e.g., as to the eight months winter and the rainy summer) suit only the lands on the first part of this trade road; moreover, the Greeks soon began to extend the name of Scythians to all the nations beyond in a northerly or north-easterly direc-tion. But such inaccuracy is not common till the fall of the Scythian race, when their name became a favourite designation of more remote and less known nations. Our best and chief informants, Herodotus and Hippocrates, clearly distinguish the Scolots or true Scythians from all their neighbours, and on them alone this article is based.

The boundaries of Scythia are, broadly speaking, those of the steppe, which had as wide a range in antiquity as at the present day, cultivable land having always been confined to the immediate neighbourhood of the rivers. But to the west the Scythians went beyond the steppe, and held Great Wallachia between the Aluta and the Danube (Atlas and Ister). Here their northern neigh-bours were the Agathyrsians of Transylvania, who were perhaps Aryans, though in manners they resembled the Thracians. The Dniester was Scythian as far up the stream as the Greeks knew it. On the Bug were found first the mixed Grasco-Scythian Callipidae and Alazones as far as Exampaeus (an eastern feeder of the Bug), then agri-cultural Scythians (______), who grew corn for export, and therefore were not confined to the steppe. This points to south-east Podolia as their dwelling-place. Beyond them on the upper Bug and above the Dniester were the Neuri, who passed for were-wolves, a superstition still current in Volhynia and about Kieff. On the left bank of the Dnieper the "forest-land" (______) reached as far as the modern Bereslaff; then came the Scythians of the Dnieper (the Borysthenians), who tilled the soil (of course only close to the river), and extended inland to the Panticapes (Inguletz ?) and up the stream to the district of Gerrhi (near Alexandrovsk). Herodotus does not know the falls of the Dnieper; beyond Gerrhi he places a desert which seems to occupy the rest of the steppe. Still farther north were the wandering Androphagi (Cannibals), presumably hunters and of Mordvinian race. The nomadic Scythians proper succeeded their agricultural brethren to the east as far as the Gerrhus (Konskaya), and their land was watered by the Hypacyris (Molotchnaya). The royal horde was east of the Gerrhus and extended into the Crimea as far as the fosse which cut off Chersonesus Trachea from the rest of the peninsula, and remains of which can still be traced east of Theodosia. The southern neighbours of the royal Scythians were the savage Taurian mountaineers. Along the coast of the Sea of Azoff the royal horde stretched eastward as far as Cremni (Tagan-rog) ; farther inland their eastern border was the Don. They extended inland for twenty marches, as far probably as the steppe itself, and here their neighbours were the Melanchlaeni (Black-cloaks).

The true Scythians led the usual life of nomads, moving through the steppe from exhausted to fresh pasture-grounds, their women in waggons roofed with felt and drawn by oxen, the men on horseback, the droves of sheep, cattle, and horses following. They lived on boiled flesh, mare's milk, and cheese; they never washed, but enjoyed a narcotic intoxication in combination with a vapour bath by shutting themselves up within curtains of felt and strew-ing hemp seed on heated stones. The women, in place of washing, daubed themselves with a paste containing dust of fragrant woods and removed it on the second day. Like many other barbarians, the Scythians, at least in Hippocrates's time (ed. Littre, ii. 72), were not a specially hardy race; they had stout, fleshy, flabby bodies, the joints concealed by fat, their countenances somewhat ruddy. The observation of Hippocrates that they all looked alike is one that has often been made by travellers among lower races. They were liable to dysentery and rheumatism, which they treated by the actual cautery; impotence and sterility were common, and, though the accounts vary, it is probable that the race was not very numerous (Herod., iv. 81).

Hippocrates's description has led many writers to view the Scythians as Mongolian; but the life of the steppe impresses a certain common stamp on all its nomad inhabitants, and the features described are not sufficiently characteristic to justify the assumption of so distant a Mongol migration. What remains of the Scythian language, on the other hand, furnished Zeuss with clear proofs that they were Aryans and nearly akin to the settled Iranians. The most decisive evidence is found in Herodotus (iv. 117), viz., that Scythians and SARMATIANS (q.v.) were of cognate speech; for the latter were certainly Aryans, as even the ancients observed, supposing them to be a Median colony (Diod., ii. 43; Pliny, vi. 19). The whole steppe lands from the Oxus and the Jaxartes to the Hungarian pusztas seem to have, been held at an early date by a chain of Aryan nomad races.

The Scythian deities have also an Aryan complexion. The highest deity was Tahiti, goddess of the hearth; next came the heaven-god Papseus, with his wife the earth-goddess Apia; a sun-god, (Etosyrus; a goddess of fecundity, Arippasa, who is compared with the Queen of Heaven at Ascalon; and two gods to whom Herodotus (iv. 59) gives the Greek names of Heracles and Ares. These deities were common to all Scythians. The royal horde had also a sea-god, Thamimasadas. In true Iranian fashion the gods were adored without images, altars, or temples, save only that Ares had as his symbol a sabre (Herod., iv. 62), which was set up on a huge altar piled up of faggots of brushwood. He received yearly sacrifices of sheep and oxen, as well as every hundredth captive. Ordinarily victims were strangled. Diviners were common, and one species of them, who came only from certain families, the Enarians or Anarians, were held in high honour. These supposed their race to have offended the goddess of heaven, who in revenge smote them with impotence; they assumed the dress and avocations of women and spoke with a woman's voice. Divination was practised with willow withes as among the Old Germans ; the Enarians, however, used lime-tree bark. False prophets were tied on a waggon with burning brushwood, and the frightened team was driven forth. Oaths were sealed by drinking of a mixture of wine with the blood of the parties into which they had dipped their weapons. When the king was sick it was thought that some one had sworn falsely by the deities of his hearth, and the man was beheaded whom the diviners, or a majority of them, pronounced to be the culprit. When the king commanded the death of a man all his male offspring perished with him (for fear of blood-revenge). He who gained a suit before the king had the right to make a drinking-cup of his adversary's skull. Actions at law thus stood on the same footing with war, for this is what one did after slay-ing a foe. The Scythians fought always on horseback with bow and arrow, and the warrior drank the blood of the first man he slew in battle, probably deeming that his adversary's prowess thus passed into him. No one shared in booty who had not brought the king a foeman's head; the scalp was then tanned and hung on the bridle. Cap-tive slaves were blinded on the absurd pretext that this kept them from stealing the mare's-milk butter they were employed to churn.

The government was strictly despotic, as appears most plainly in the hideous customs at the burial of kings. The corpse of an ordinary Scythian was carried about among all the neighbours for forty days, and a funeral feast was given by every friend so visited. But the royal corpse was embalmed and passed in like manner from tribe to tribe, and the people of each tribe joined the procession with their whole bodies disfigured by bloody wounds, till at length the royal tombs at Gerrhi were reached. Then the king was buried along with one of his concubines, his cupbearer, cook, groom, chamberlain, and messenger, all of whom were slain. Horses, too, and golden utensils were buried under the vast barrow that was raised over the grave. Many such tumuli (called in Tatar kurgan) have been found between the Dnieper and the sources of the Tokmak, a tributary of the Molotchnaya. Then, on the first anniver-sary, yet fifty horses and fifty free-born Scythian servants of the king were slain, and the latter were pinned upright on the stuffed horses as watchmen over the dead.
The Scythians deemed themselves autochthonous; their patriarch was Targitaus, a son of the god of heaven by a daughter of the river Dnieper. This legend, with the site of the royal graves, points to the lower Dnieper as the cradle of their kingdom. The further legend (Herod., iv. 5) of the golden plough, yoke, battle-axe, and cup (tokens of sovereignty over husbandmen and warriors) that fell from heaven, and burned when the two eldest sons of Targitaus approached them, but allowed the youngest son to take them and become king, has been well compared by Duncker with the Iranian conception of hvarend, the halo of majesty, which refused to be grasped by the Turanian Franrace, but attached itself to pious kings like Thraetaona. The eldest brother, Lipoxais, was ancestor of the Auchatae; the second, Arpoxais, of the Catiari and Traspians ; the youngest, Colaxais (whose name seems to be mutilated), was father of the royal tribe of Paralatse, and from him, too, the whole nation had the name of Scolots. Pliny (H. N., iv. 88) places the Auchatae on the upper Bug, so this seems to be the proper name of the agricultural Scythians; if so, the Catiari and Traspians will be the Borysthenian and nomad Scythians who dwelt between the husbandmen and the royal horde. Colaxais divided his kingdom among his three sons, the chief kingdom being that in which the golden relics were kept; and these three sons correspond to the three kings of the Scythians in the time of Darius's invasion, viz., Scopasis, whose realm bordered on the Sarmatians; Idan-thyrsus, sovereign of the chief kingdom; and Taxacis,—the last two being neighbours of the Budini and the Geloni. According to the Scythians, Targitaus lived just a thousand years before the year 513 B.C.,—a legend which, taken with the tradition of autochthonism, indicates a much earlier date for the immigration of the Scythians than we should deduce from other narratives.

Aristeas of Proconnesus (Herod., iv. 13) had heard of a migration of the Scythians into their later settlement. The one-eyed Arimaspians, who, as neighbours of the gold-guarding griffins, may be sought near the gold-fields of the Tibetan plateau, had attacked the Issedones (whom later authors are probably right in placing in the region of Kashgar and Khotan), and the latter in turn fell on the Scythians and drove them from their seats, whereupon these occupied the lands held till then by the Cimmerians. It is a probable conjecture that the branch of the royal Scythians spoken of as dwelling north of the Oxus and Jaxartes was really a part of the nation that remained in their ancient home. Aristeas's story has much internal probability ; but it is impossible to hold that the Scythian migration immediately preceded the first appearance of the expelled Cimmerians in Asia Minor, in Aristeas's own days (695 B.C.). The Scythians must have seized the steppe as far as the Dnieper centuries before, but the older inhabitants, who were probably of one race with the Thracians, remained their neighbours in the Crimea and the extreme west till the beginning of the 7th century.

Concerning the complete expulsion of the Cimmerians and the Scythian invasion of Asia that followed, Herodotus (iv. 11 sq., i. 103-106, iv. 1, 3 sq.) gives an account, taken from several sources, which is intelligible only when we put aside the historian's attempts to combine these. A barbarian (i.e., Median) account was that the Scythian nomads of Asia, pressed by the Massagetae, crossed the Araxes (by which Herodotus here and in other places means the Amu-Darya) and fell on Media. Taking these Scythians for Scolots and assuming, therefore, that the reference was to their first migration, Herodotus had to place the expulsion of the Cimmerians between the crossing of the Araxes and the invasion of Media, and he had heard from Greeks (of Pontus) that on the Dniester was the grave of the Cimmerian kings, who had slain each other in single combat rather than share the migration of their people. This local tradition implies that the Cimmerians reached Asia Minor through Thrace, which, indeed, is the only possible route, except by sea; Herodotus, however, is led by his false presuppositions to conduct them east-wards from the Dniester by the Crimea (where many local names preserved their memory), and so along the Black Sea coast, and then westwards from the Caucasus to Asia Minor. The Scythians, he thinks, followed them, but, losing the trail, went east from the Caucasus, and so reached Media. This he gives only as his own inference from two things—(1) that the Cimmerians settled on the peninsula of Sinope, from which their forays into Asia Minor seem to have been conducted, and (2) that the Scythians invaded Media. The Median source spoke further of a great victory of the Scythians, after which they overran all Asia, and held it for twenty-eight years (631-606), levying tribute and plundering at will, till at length the Medes, under Cyaxares, destroyed most of them after making them drunk at a banquet. Here a third, Egyptian, account comes in, viz., that King Psam-metichus (d. 611) bought off certain northern invaders who had advanced as far as Philistaea ; there is no reason to doubt that these are the Scythians of the Median account. Still more important is the evidence of certain prophecies of Jeremiah (comp. iii. 6) in the reign of Josiah (628-609), describing the approach from the north of an all-destroying nation of riders and bowmen (Jer. iv. 6 sq., v. 15 sq., vi. 1 sq., 22 s<7.). Herodotus's twenty-eight years are simply the period between the accession of Cyaxares and the taking of Nineveh, which followed close on the overthrow of the Scythians; Justin, on the other hand, gives the Scythians eight years of sovereignty, which fits well with the interval between the first and the second siege of Nineveh (619-609).
A fourth account in Herodotus, which connects the Orjkeia vocros of the Enarians with the plundering of the temple of Astarte at Ascalon, is entirely apocryphal, and must come from the Greek identification of this Astarte with the Scythian Arippasa. Yet it seems to have been chiefly this story that led Herodotus to take the Scythians of his Median source for Scolots. He is refuted by another account of Iranian origin : Ctesias (in Diod., ii. 34) tells of a long war between the Medes and the Sacae, occasioned by the defection of Parthian subjects of Media to the latter nation in the time of Astibaras (Cyaxares); so that the Scythian conquerors actually came from the east, not from the north. Herodotus's Median source closed with Cyaxares recovering his power; the story which follows about the resistance of the slaves of the Scythians to their returning lords, who cowed them by using whips instead of arms, must have come from the Pontic Greeks, and is certainly a local legend, which has nothing to do with the wars in Asia, and indeed is connected by Callistratus (Steph. Byz., s.v. Tatppcu) with a war between Scythians and Thracians.

From the expedition of Darius upwards Herodotus names five generations of Scythian kings, Idanthyrsus, Saulius, Gnurus, Lycus, Spargapeithes; the last may be contemporary with the foundation of Olbia (646 B.C.). Under Idanthyrsus fell the invasion of Darius (513 B.C.). The motive for this invasion cannot possibly have been revenge for the Scythian invasion of Media. It is possible that a popular war against the chief nation of the nomads, who are so hated by the Iranian peasants, seemed to Darius a good way of stimulating common feeling among his scattered subjects, and it is certain that he had quite false ideas of the wealth of Scythia, due perhaps to export of grain from the Grecian cities of the Scythian coast. Herodotus's account of the campaign is made up in a puzzling way of several distinct narratives, retouched to smooth away contradictions. Here it must suffice to refer to the article PERSIA (vol. xviii. p. 570), and to add that the geographical confusion in Herodotus and his exaggerated idea of the distance to which the Persians advanced seem to be due partly to a false combination between a Scythian account of the campaign and certain notices about the burning of Gelonus by enemies and about fortresses on the river Oarus which had come to him from the inland trade route, and had nothing to do with Darius, partly to a confusion between the desert reached by the Persians and that which lay between the Budini and Thyssagette.

While the Persian rule in the newly conquered districts of Europe was shaken by the Ionic revolt, the Scythians made plundering expeditions in Thrace, and in 495 penetrated into the Chersonesus, whose tyrant Miltiades fled, but was restored after their retreat by the Dolonci (Herod., vi. 40). Darius had Abydus and the other cities of the Propontis burned lest they should furnish a base for a projected Scythian expedition against Asia (Strabo, xiii. p. 591); this agrees with the fact known from Herodotus (v. 117), that Abydus had been retaken by Daurises a little before. In this connexion the Scythian embassy to King Cleomenes at Sparta (Herod., vi. 84) to arrange a combined attack on Asia becomes credible ; for, barbarians though they were, the Scythians had a political organization and many connexions with the Ionians of the Pontic colonies, so that their envoys may well have reached Sparta at the same time with Aristagoras (499) and served as decoys for his fantastic schemes.

Our accounts of the Scythians begin to fail after the time of King Scyles, who affected Grecian habits and was deposed and finally slain for sharing in Bacchic orgies (Herod., iv. 78-80); his death fell a little before Herodotus's visit to Olbia (c. 456). We read in an unclear context (Diod., ii. 43) of a division of the Scythians into two great tribes, the Pali and the Napte, the former of whom crossed the Don from the east and destroyed the latter and also the Tanaites. These events seem to point to a change of dynasty in the royal horde.

The Perijrtus ascribed to Scylax (346 B.O.) knows the Scythians as still occupying almost exactly the same limits as in Herodotus's time ; only in the east there is a small but significant change: the Sarmatians have already crossed the Don (§ 68). King Ateas still ruled Scythia in its old extent (Strabo, vii. 307), but all that we know of the events of his reign took place south of the Danube,— wars with the Triballi in Servia, with Byzantium, with the king of the Greek city of Istrus, and finally with his old ally Philip of Macedon. Philip defeated and slew Ateas near the Danube in 339 B.C. He was then over ninety years old.

The Scythians appear once more in the region of the Dobrudja in 313, when they helped the citizens of Callatis against Lysimachus and were defeated by him (Diod., xix. 73). All this points to a considerable advance of their frontier southwards, and in fact Pseudo-Scymnus (Ephorus) gives Dionysopolis (a little to the west of the modern Bal-tchik) as the place where the Crobyzian and the Scythian territories met in his time (334 B.C.). This apparent ad-vance of the realm contrasts singularly with the distress to which Ateas was reduced by the king of the insignificant town of Istrus, an evidence that the Scythian power was really much decayed. Ateas indeed is sometimes painted as a rude barbarian lord of a poor but valiant and hardy race, and Ephorus, who mainly follows Herodotus about Scythia, yet speaks of the Scythians in contrast with the fierce Sarmatians as corresponding to Homer's description of a just and poor people feeding on milk (Strabo, vii. 302). But Aristotle, on the contrary (______, vii. 8), speaks of the effeminacy of the Scythian monarchs as notorious; and indeed there can be little doubt that the Scythians crossed the Danube and settled in the Dobrudja under pressure of the Sarmatians behind them, and that the idyllic picture drawn by Ephorus presupposes the fall of their political system. Diodorus (ii. 43^ tells us that the Sarmatians ex-terminated the inhabitants of most part of Scythia, and this must have taken place in the later years of Ateas, between 346 and 339.

At a later but uncertain date the great inferiority of the Scythians to the Sarmatians is illustrated by the story of Amage, the warlike consort of a debauched Sarmatian king, who with only 120 chosen horsemen delivered Chersonesus in Tauris from the neighbouring Scythian king, slew him with all his followers, and gave the kingdom to his son (Polyten., viii. 56). It is, however, not quite certain whether these were a remnant of the old Scythians ; and it is still more doubtful whether the powerful Scythian kingdom of Scilurus, who brought the Greek cities of the Crimea to the verge of ruin, but was destroyed by Mithradates Eupa-tor (105), was really a kingdom of Scolots. The last cer-tain trace of true Scythians occurs about 100 B.C. in the Olbian psephisma in honour of Protogenes. Here they appear as a small nation west of Olbia between the Thisa-matss and Saudaratse, who are anxious to take refuge in Olbia from the (Scordiscian) Galatians.

Sources.—Herodotus (iv. 1-82, 97-142) and Hippocrates (De Acre, &c, c. 17-22, in Littre's ed., ii. 66-82) are alone trustworthy, because they carefully distinguish the Scythians from the other northern nations. Ephorus (in Strabo, vii. p. 302 sq., and Scymn., Perieg., 773-873), Diodorus (ii. 43 sq.), and Trogus (in Justin, ii. 1-3, 5, 1-11, and Jordan., Get., v.-vi., x.) do not do so, and must be used with great caution.

Helps.—Ukert, Geog. d. Gr. und Romer, iii. 2 (complete collection of materials from original sources) ; Niebuhr, Kleine Schriften, vol. i. (1828); Zeuss, Die Deutschen und die Nachbarstamme (1837)—an admirable discussion, which established the Aryan origin of the Scythians ; Boeekh, in O. Insc. Gr., ii. 81 sq. ; K. Neumann, Hellenen im Skythenlande (1855)—the best book, in spite of certain fundamental errors, such as the ideas that great part of the steppe was once w'ooded and that the Scythians were Mongols ; Müllenhoff, "Origin and Speech of the Pontic Scythians and Sarmatians," in Monatsb. d. Berl. Ak. (1866). The best account of the trade route which in the 5th century B. C. passed through a great part of what is now Russian territory is by K. E. v. Baer, Historische Fragen, &c. (1873) ; comp. also Grote, Hist. of Greece, iii. 314 sq. (1850), and Duncker, ii. 430 sq. (5th ed.). There is a class of mere amateurs, especially in east Germany, who absurdly take the Scythians to have been Slavs. (A. v. G.)


2 Herodotus (iv. 54) makes it an eastern instead of a western feeder of the Dnieper.

The above article was written by: Prof. A. von Gutschmid, University of Tübingen.

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