Scythia was an area in Eurasia inhabited in ancient times by a people known as the Scythians. The location and extent of Scythia varied over time from the Altai region where Mongolia, China, Russia, and Kazakhstan come together to the lower Danube river area and Bulgaria. Saka are Asian Scythians.
The most significant Scythian tribes mentioned in antique sources resided in the steppe between the Dnieper and Don rivers. The peoples in the periphery steppes are usually referred as "Scythians", but they don't speak Iranian languages. Priscus, the Byzantine emissary to Attila referred to Attila's followers repeatedly as "Scythians," so some of them may have Scythian descents. However, since most of the significant areas have for a long time been inhabitated by Iranian groups, it is held that the Scythians were of Iranian origin. Their language, Scythian is from three words found to have strong similarity with Eastern Iranian.
To the best of our knowledge, the Scythians were a culture with no writing system. Most knowledge of the Scythians derives from antique Greek texts.
Etymologically, "Old Iranian Saka, Greek Scythai and Sogdian Sughde, as well as the biblical Hebrew Ashkenaz (via Syrian Askuzai) appear all to derive from *skuza, an ancient Indo-European word for archer, cf. English shoot." (Torday, Mounted archers).
The Scythians formed a network of nomadic tribes of horse-riding conquerors. See Domestication of the horse. They invaded many areas in the steppes of Eurasia, including areas in present-day Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and southern Russia. Ruled by small, closely-allied �lites, Scythians had a reputation for their archers, and many gained employment as mercenaries. Scythian elite were buried in kurgans, high barrows heaped over chamber-tombs of larch-wood, a wood that may have had special significance as a tree of life-renewal, since it is a deciduous conifer that stands out starkly in winter against other evergreens, but returns to life every spring. Burials at Pazyryk in the Altai Mountains have included some spectacularly-preserved Scythians of the "Pazyryk culture" including the "Ice Maiden" of the 5th century BC.
A Pazyryk burial found in the 1990s seems to confirm at least part of the legend. It contained the skeletons of a man and a woman, each with weapons, arrowheads, and an axe. "The woman was dressed exactly like a man. This shows that certain women, probably young and unmarried, could be warriors, literally Amazons. It didn't offend the principles of nomadic society", according to one of the archaeologists interviewed for the 1998 NOVA documentary "The Ice Mummies".
To date no certain explanation exists to account for the origin of the Scythians or details of how they migrated to the Caucasus and Ukraine, but the majority of scholars believe that they migrated westward from Central Asia between 800 BC and 600 BC.
The Scythians never had a writing system, so until recent archaeological developments most of our information about them came from the Greeks. Homer called them "the mare-milkers"; Herodotus described them in detail: their costume consisted of padded and quilted leather trousers tucked into boots, and open tunics. They rode with no stirrups or saddles, just saddlecloths. Herodotus' histories allegedly report that Saka Scythians used marijuana, but the specific reference is unclear. The Scythian philosopher Anacharsis visited Athens in the 6th century BC and became a legendary sage.
During the 5th to 3rd centuries BC the Scythians prospered. When Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century BC, Greeks distinguished a 'Greater Scythia' that extended a 20-day ride from the Danube River in the west, across the steppes of today's Ukraine to the lower Don basin from 'Scythia Minor'. The Don, then known as Tana�s, has been a major trading route ever since. The Scythians apparently obtained their wealth from their control over the slave trade from the north to Greece through the Greek Black Sea colonial ports. They also grew grain, and shipped wheat, flocks, and cheese to Greece.
Philip II of Macedon delivered a setback in 339 BC.
Although the Scythians allegedly disappeared in the 1st century BC, Eastern Romans continued to speak conventionally of "Scythians" to designate mounted barbarians in general: in 448 CE the emissary Priscus is led to Attila's encampment in Pannonia by two mounted "Scythians" who are distinguished from the Goths and Huns who also followed Attila. Some scholars believe that the Sarmatians, the Alans, and finally the Ossetians descend from them. The latter, the only Iranians who still live in Europe, call their country Iron, and are mostly Christians. They speak an Eastern Iranian language, Ossetic, called by them Ironig or Ironski (i.e. Iranian), which maintains some remarkable features of Gathic Avestan language. At the same time, it has a number of words remarkably similar to their modern German equivalents, such as THAU (tauen, to thaw, as snow) and GAU (district, region). Christianised Gaelic legends also include mention of Scythian origins.
Archaeology and artifacts
Archaeological remains of the Scythians include elaborate tombs containing gold, silk, horses and human sacrifices. Mummification techniques and permafrost have aided in the relative preservation of some remains.
One of the first Bronze Age Scythian burials documented by a modern archaeologist were the kurgans at Pazyryk, Ulagan district of the Gorno-Altai Republic, south of Novosibirsk. The name Pazyryk culture was attached to the finds, five large burial mounds and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949 opened in 1947 by a Russian archeologist, Sergei Rudenko; Pazyryk is in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. The burial mounds concealed chambers of larch logs covered over by large cairns of boulders and stones.
It flourished between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC mountain fastness of a group of Scythians that may have called themselves Sacae. It was the seat of the larger of two related Scythian groups.
All the things a person might use or need in this life were placed in the tomb as grave goods for use in the next. Among the rich or powerful, horses were sacrificed and buried with them. With the ordinary Pazyryks were only ordinary utensils, but in one was found among other treasures the famous Pazyryk Carpet, the oldest surviving wool pile oriental rug. Rudenko summed up the cultural context at one point:
- All that is known to us at the present time about the culture of the population of the High Altai, who have left behind them the large cairns, permits us to refer them to the Scythian period, and the Pazyryk group in particular to the fifth century BC. This is supported by radiocarbon dating.
In the Soviet culture, Rudenko could not stress the cultural similarities between Pazyryk and Scythians from the Kuban and lower Dneiper Valley in European Russia. Even in more modern times the blond hair and white skin and the frozen "Ice Maiden" and other burials may be seen, but are not mentioned in the Nova segment devoted to these burials. That the ancient culture he studied has become the basis of nomadic tribes of today including modern Altaians, Kirgiz, and Kazakhs is now a source of considerable pride for the Gorno-Altai Republic.
Scythian Gelonus (Belsk)
Recent digs in Belsk, Ukraine uncovered a vast city believed to be the Scythian capital Gelonus described by Herodotus. The city's commanding ramparts and vast 40 square kilometers exceeded even the outlandish size reported by Herodotus. Its location at the northern edge of Ukraine's steppe would have allowed strategic control of the north-south trade. Judging by the finds dated to the 5th and 4th centuries BC, craft workshops and Greek pottery abounded, and perhaps so did slaves destined for Greece.
The Ryzhanovka kurgan
A kurgan or burial mound near the village of Ryzhanovka in Ukraine, 75 miles south of Kyiv, has revealed one of the only unlooted tombs of a Scythian chieftain, who was ruling in the forest-steppe area of the western fringe of Scythian lands. There at a late date in Scythian culture (ca. 250 - 225 BC), a recently nomadic aristocratic class was gradually adopting the agricultural life-style of their subjects: the tomb contained a mock hearth, the first ever found in a Scythian context, symbolic of the warmth and comfort of a farmhouse.
Scythian contacts with craftsmen in Greek colonies along the northern shores of the Black Sea resulted in the famous Scythian gold adornments that are among the most glamorous prestige artifacts of world museums. Ethnographically extremely useful also, the gold depicts Scythian men as bearded, long-haired Europeans (though such images may simply have been the projections of the Greek artisans onto the works they were commissioned for). "Greco-Scythian" works depicting Scythians within a much more Hellenic style date from a much later period when Scythians had already much mixed with Greeks, clouding the issue of their origins.
Scythians had a taste for elaborate personal jewelry, weapon ornaments and horse trappings. They executed Central Asian animal motifs with Greek realism: winged griffins attacking horses, battling stags, deer, and eagles, combined with everyday motifs like milking ewes.
In 2000 the touring exhibition 'Scythian Gold' introduced North Americans to the objects made for Scythian nomads by Greek craftsmen north of the Black Sea, and buried with their Scythian owners under burial mounds on the flat plains of what is now Ukraine, most of which researchers unearthed after 1980.
In 2001 a discovery of an undisturbed royal Scythian burial barrow illustrated for the first time Scythian animal-style gold that lacked the direct influence of Greek styles. Forty-four pounds of gold weighed down the royal couple in this burial, discovered near Kyzyl, capital of the Siberian republic of Tuva.
The idea of Scythia
The Scythians feature in national origin mythologies, even of Celts: they are claimed by some romantic nationalist writers to have figured in the formation of the empire of the Medes and likewise of Caucasian Albania, the precursor in Antiquity of the modern-day Azerbaijan Republic.
Aside from the findings of modern archaeology, most of what subesquent generations "knew" of Scythia and Scythians was at second hand, a matter of literary conventions. In the 19th century, the "barbarian" Scythians of literature were transformed into the wild and free hardy and democratic ancestors of all the blond Indo-Europeans. Some modern groups claim to be descended from the Scythians. Modern mythological uses of "Scythian"— when they stray far from the archaeologists' findings— tend often to be as a covert euphemism for the currently deprecated "Aryan." A skeptical reader will judge these uses on a case-by-case basis.
Owing to their reputation as promulgated by Greek historians, the Scythians served as an epitome of savagery and barbarism in the early modern period. Specifically, the early modern English discourse on Ireland frequently resorted to comparisons with this people to prove that the indigenous population of Ireland were descendants of these ancient "bogeymen" and as barbaric as their alleged ancestors. Edmund Spenser wrote that "the Chiefest [nation that settled in Ireland] I Suppose to be Scithians ... which firste inhabitinge and afterwarde stretchinge themselves forthe into the lande as theire numbers increased named it all of themselues Scuttenlande which more brieflye is Called Scuttlande or Scotlande" (A View of the Present State of Ireland, c. 1596). Among the proofs Spenser names for this origin are the alleged Irish customs of blood-drinking, nomadic lifestyle, the wearing of mantles and certain haircuts and "Cryes [or wailings] allsoe vsed amongeste the Irishe which savor greatlye of the Scythyan Barbarisme". William Camden, one of Spenser's main sources, comments on this myth of origin that "to derive descent from a Scythian stock, cannot be thought any waies dishonourable, seeing that the Scythians, as they are most ancient, so they have been the Conquerours of most Nations, themselves alwaies invincible, and never subject to the Empire of others" (Britannia, 1586 etc., Engl. transl. 1610).
About 50% of Slavs and Balts,and about 30% of Central Europeans share the same Y chromosome haplogroup (R1a) with 50% of the people of the Indus Valley. This Y-chromosome mutation is believed to have originated in people of the kurgan-building culture of traditional Scythia, the Eurasian steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas. This lineage is currently found in central and western Asia, India, and in Slavic populations of Eastern Europe.
Torday, Laszlo (1998). Mounted Archers: The Beginnings of Central Asian History. Durham Academic Press. ISBN 1-90-083803-6.
- Livius articles on ancient history, entry on Scythians/Sacae.
- The early burial in Tuva.
- Scythian myth and culture; map.
- Color illustrations of Scythian gold.
- Published excavations of royal Scythian kurgan (barrow) at Chertomlyk reviewed.
- Herodotus, Histories, Book IV - translated by Rawlinson, the 1942 edition.
- 1998 NOVA documentary: "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden" Transcript.