September 27, 2007

Ancient Peoples of the Russian Steppes

The first people of Russia, as far back as we can account (ca 7th c. BC), were the Scythians. Scythia was the region to the north and northwest of the Black Sea. Mount Caucasus, is where Prometheus, of Greek legend, was bound. The people called themselves Skoloti; is was the Greeks who named their three primary clans, "Scythians." The Scythians were of Iranian (Mesopotamian) descent and considered barbarians by the Greeks.

These ancient people were excellent horsemen and warriors. They managed to repel Alexander the Great's army, as well as the Persian invasion of Darius' troops. The setting was the 5th century BC. The Greek historian, Herodotus (ca. 485-425 BC) wrote extensively about the Scythians. They fade from history by ca. 200 BC.

There is evidence that, as early as the 6th century BC, another Mesopotamian group, the Sarmatians, appeared in this Black Sea region, also known as Colchis. Herodotus reported that they were the offspring of the Scythians and Amazon women. Legend suggests that the Amazons came ashore at the Sea of Azov, after escaping from their Greek captures. There is no proof that they originated in Egypt, however, there is evidence that African communities did exist in this region.

Every civilization or group has its own creation story. It seems to be human nature to need to know where you came from. This is true of the Scythians. Legend and oral tradition holds that the Scythians came from the three sons of Targitaus, a supernatural being who lived around the Black Sea. The three sons ruled the region jointly until one day when a plow, battle ax, cup and yoke fell from the sky in a ball of fire. The youngest son, Colaxais, was the only one of the three able to touch these implements without being burned. As a result, he became the single ruler of the Scythians.

Ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus (late 1st century BC), wrote that 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. The descendants of Scyth went on to obtain the lands behind the Tanais River up to the Egyptian Nile River (Diodorus II, 43).

Placing the beginnings of the Scythians in history is problematic because they did not present any known distinguishing characteristics until ca. the 700s BC. Some historians have speculated that they were, in fact, descendants of the Srubnaya who appeared in the Volga Ural steppes and the region to the north of the Black Sea as far back as 2000 BC.

The first recorded evidence of Scythian existence came in the 800s BC. Scythians allied with the Assyrians and their king, Partatua, too an Assyrian princess as his wife in ca. 675 BC.

The Greek historian, Herodotus, tells of an event which occurred in ca. 512 BC. Darius I, king of Persia, led some 700,000 troops on to the Russian steppes in an effort to conquer the area. Outnumbered, the Scythians refused to meet their intruder head on and kept retreating, leading the Persians further into the region. Finally, Darius demanded a confrontation. According to Herodotus, the Scythians replied, 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.

Darius was definitely bewildered. You can't do battle with people who won't fight. Besides, there was nothing for him to conquer; just the seemingly unending steppe. Darius did the only thing he could do and that was turn around and head for home. The Scythians heckled Darius and his troops the whole way to the Danube. Persia never again attempted to take the southern Russian steppe and the Scythians flourished for the next 100 years.

The Scythians lived on the steppe reaching from north of the Black Sea, the Don to the east and the Danube to the west until ca. 400 BC, reaching its peak in the 500s BC. They developed a tribal hierarchy with the most important group being the Royal Scythians. Lesser tribes included the nomadic and agricultural groups. The nomadic tribes roamed the steppes around the Azov Sea and both banks of the Dnieper. The Royal Scythians, also nomadic in nature, occupied the area to the southeast to the Don. Still other nomadic groups populated Siberia's Altai region and were known as Kindred or Eastern Scythians.

Beginning in the 4th century BC, several of the nomadic tribes settled to the north of the Black Sea. Kamenskoe Gorodishche (situated in the center of the land separating the Black and Caspian Seas, north of the Caucasus) became the center or capital of the Scythians. King Atheas managed to unite the many Scythian tribes and expanded his domain to the banks of the Danube. In 339 BC, Atheas died while doing battle with Philip of Macedon. Scythia was a power to be reckoned with until the latter part of the 3rd century BC when they were attacked and ultimately absorbed by Thracians from the west and Sarmatians from the east. From hence on, the Scythians are not mentioned in history.

The Sarmatians were nomadic, warring peoples who lived to the northeast of the Scythians. They used brass and wore mail. Sarmatians were fair haired in contrast to the dark haired Scythians. Scholars believe that they descended from the Timber Grace culture in the Volga River region and Andronovo culture located in the southern Ural steppes.

Sarmatians are said to be the offspring of Scythian males and Amazon females; both warrior groups. Herodotus wrote that the female offspring, have continued from that day to the present to observe their ancient [Amazon] customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their husbands; in war taking the field; and wearing the very same dress as the men . . . No girl shall wed till she has killed a man in battle.

The Sarmatians and Scythians were kindred tribes with the primary difference being the role of women in their cultures. Traditionally, Scythian women did not have much status in their society. Their duties were purely domestic. This contrasts with neighboring tribes of Sarmatians whose women, believed to be descendants of the part myth, part fact based Amazons, had gained a reputation as fierce warriors. Scythian women did not ride horses like their Sarmatian counterparts. Instead, they traveled in wagons with their young. There is no evidence of strive between these two groups during the 700 - 500s BC. In fact, Herodotus claims that the Sarmatians were allies of the Scythians in their resistance of Darius' attempts to expand the Persian Empire to the southern Russian steppes during the 600s BC.

By the 500s BC, individual Sarmatian tribes had moved into the lower Volga River area. Their westward expansion continued to the 300s BC as powerful Sarmatian tribes occupied lands from the southern Urals to the lower Don and Kuban Rivers. These tribes had names; the Aorsi, Roxolani, Alans and Iazyges. Eventually, these tribes aborbed their cousins, the Sycthians, in the northern Black Seas area by the early 300s BC.

The Alans were well established in the area to the northeast of the Azov Sea and along the Don by the 1st century AD. The were the ruling force in this region until the 4th century AD when they were taken over by the Huns. A small group of Alans escaped and settled along the shores of Gilbralter in modern day

Now that we know where they lived and died, the question remains; who were these people? Darius I surly wondered the same. A picture of the Scythians has eluded historians for centuries. Recent archaeology of countless burial grounds in southern Russia and Altai have helped to reveal what these people were all about, how they lived and what there communities were like.

It is safe to say that the Scythians were mysterious and feared in their time, and with good reason. A male warrior dominated society, they had this unsavory habit of using the body parts of their slain enemies for everyday utensils. For example, they would fashion a leather wrapped drinking mug from the skulls of their unfortunate victims. Often, such implements would be crusted in gold and proudly displayed as trophies.

The Scythian men, typically, had several wives. Excavation of burial sites overwhelmingly supports this. When a Scythian died, his eldest son or a brother would inherit his wives as their own. This practice was not at all unusual. Known as a levirate marriage, the widow would marry her late husband's brother or closest male next of kin. The reason was to keep the wealth and heirs in the immediate family. Such was the practice of ancient Israel prior to their captivity in Egypt (cf Gen 38:8). The practice of levirate marriage is put down in detail within the commands given to Israel during the Exodus (cf. Deut 25:5-10). So, this custom was not unique to the Scythians and, in fact, pre-existed them by several centuries.

Herodotus wrote an account of a tribe of warring females known as Amazons. According to this historian, these women did battle with the Scythians at the Sea of Azov. When the Sycthian warriors discovered that their enemy was a band of women, they seduced them in the hope of creating a super-human new race of mighty warriors. The seduction succeeded but the Amazons refused to comply with Scythian traditions when it came to the domestic role of women. Herodotus claims that the Amazons and their Scythian mates left the steppes and started a new tribe which became known as the Sarmations. This is largely considered to be myth. However, recent excavations in southern Russia have produced art which suggests that there was a place in Scythian culture, at one time, for warrior women.

Hunger was one thing the Scythians rarely had to worry about. Because of their geographical location across the fertile steppes and near the Black Sea, etc., fish and wild game were plentiful. Their diet consisted of stewed meat, fresh vegetables, cheese and kumis; fermented mare's milk still consumed in Central Asia. Cooking presented an unusual challenge to Scythian women because there was no wood to be had on the steppe. To stew meat, they would use the animal's stomach for the pot and burn its bones to create the needed heat.

Herodotus noticed many unusual things about the Scythians. One was the fact that they did not use water to clean themselves. A paste of cypress, cedar and frankincense was made, the body was plastered with it and left on for a day. When this cast was removed, the revealed skin was clean, shiny and possessed a most pleasing aroma.

Archaeologists believe that the Scythians were the first to wear pants and boots with heels. This probably evolved because the great amount of time their men spent on horseback. The frozen remains of an ancient Scythian in Siberia was covered in intricate tattoos. It is unknown if this form of body adornment was practiced by the Scythians of the southern steppes. elaborate tattoos.

Scythian spirituality was filled with the supernatural and superstitions. They did not worship any god(s), nor did they have altars, temples, idols or clergy. The caretaker of their spiritual lives was the shaman. Shaman was bestowed with the gift of communicating with nature, spirits and all things supernatural. In Scythian culture, shaman came from certain families and were said to be half- beings; men who spoke like women and wore women's clothing.

The Scythians had no written language. As a result, they left no written account of their existence. The only such accounting is that of Herodotus. Their spoken language is classified, by some, as a prehistoric dialect known as Safarik. Other scholars identify Scythian language as a branch of the Persian Indo-European family. The only thing language experts have to go on are words, alleged by Herodotus, to have been part of the Scythian vocabulary. These are pata (to kill), spou (eye), arima (one) and oior (man).

It is believed that the Scythians were some of the earliest, if not the first, culture to tame and ride the horse in Central Asia. Their success in battle was attributed directly to their equestrian skills. The horse gave them speed and tactical advantage, while saving the strength of the warrior rider. Scythian techniques were quickly adopted by peoples throughout the Middle East. The Scythians wore trousers and heeled boots and their horse's bridles were, of course, gold gilded. They never developed saddles, using only a cloth. Scythian skill depended on the development of individual balance and the ability to hang on.

Burial rites are often interesting and tell us a thing or two about what a certain culture deemed important. Scythian society was structured and material possessions, servants, etc., were signs of wealth and authority. When a king or tribal chief died, the tribes would commence forty days of profuse mourning. This was followed by the burial of the deceased under a 60 foot tall mound or kurhan. Not quite the pyramids of Egypt or the Ziggurats of ancient Ur, but, nonetheless, a marker that indicated someone important lay beneath. The dead king was not alone under his mound. He was accompanied in death by a concubine, cook, lackey, cup bearer, horses, weapons and other personal affects. It would seem, like the ancient Egyptians, that the Scythians believed in, at least the chance, of an afterlife. The burial of the average tribesman was not so elaborate. One thing that was the same was the long period of mourning.

Even though the Scythians disappeared from history over 2 millennium ago, their kurhan have been treated as holy sites. The largest mounds, likely those of kings, measure up to 60 feet tall by 300 feet across. Many are topped with figures carved of stone. These mounds are not just a big pile of dirt. Archaeology has shown that they were planned constructions which included layers of sod thought to be intended as food for the warrior's horses buried within. One mound excavated in 1898, contained 400 horses. Another included the remains of roughly 1,000 people lining the perimeter of the burial site. Long seen as a fanciful story teller, Herodotus' accounts of radical human sacrifice are being supported by archaeology.

The one thing that stands out in Scythian culture is gold. Archaeologists are continually shocked at the mass quantities of gold found in burial mounds and other excavated areas. It is believed that the gold came, primarily, from the Altai area. Virtually everything in everyday life was crusted with gold; utensils, weapons, belts, etc., not to mention all manner of personal adornments and decorative figurines.

Thanks to gold, we have some of our best images of what the Scythian warrior looked like. One example is a gold helmet, ca. 500s BC, unearthed in 1988, upon which detailed images of Scythian warriors are carved. The image shows a man with long hair wearing a belted, adorned tunic with leggings and boots. The craftsmanship of the ancient Scythian is impressive. One such artifact is a 4th century BC sword and scabbard, carved in incredible detail with the images of warring beasts. This was a favorite design of Scythian warrior artisans dating back to the 700s BC. Animals featured most included the horse, boar, bear, wolf, large cats, eagle and stag. Artifact examples of these carvings have been found at several sites in various locations including Altai mountains of southern Siberia and the Kuban basin area north of the Black Sea.

Many burial mounds were looted for their gold. This became quite a profession to the point that Peter the Great ordered the stop of this activity in the early 1700s. He had known looters arrested and their caches of gold donated to the Imperial treasure troves. Scientific exploration of the Scythian mounds began in the late 1800s. Excavations readily produced not just gold and weapons but pottery chards, pieces of fabric and other personal items. Most of the Scythian archaeological digs are located in modern day Ukraine. During the Soviet era, over fifty teams of archaeologists were digging and studying ancient Scythian history. Today, there are two such teams, lack of money being the primary curse. The biggest goal and dream of historians and archaeologist is to find the city of Gerrhi. Herodotus wrote about this place and said it was the center of Scythian wealth and included the most heavily gold laden tombs in all of Scythian history. Let's hope that medieval looters haven't gotten there first!

Tags: Sarmatians
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