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Scythians in the Ancient World

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Maps: Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Scythia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Author: Ptolemy, 2nd cent., Published by Jacopo Pencio: 1511. Kyrgyzstan, Scythia, Tajikistan, Xinjiang Uygur Zizhiqu (China) and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Scythia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan. See Maps Enlarged.

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Scythian youth from a Roman table 2nd Century B.C.

Scythian youth from a Roman table 2nd Century B.C.

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Persepolis Relief Showing Scythians

Persepolis Relief Showing Scythians

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Scythians -- a Greek designation -- were an ancient group of people from Central Eurasia distinguished from others of the area by their customs and their contact with their neighbors. There appear to have been several groups of Scythians, who were known to the Persians as Sakas. We don't know where each group lived, but they lived in the area from the Danube River to Mongolia on the East-West dimension and southward to the Iranian plateau.

Where the Scythians Lived:

Nomadic, Indo-Iranian (a term that also covers inhabitants of the Iranian plateau and the Indus Valley [e.g., Persians and Indians]) horsemen, archers, and pastoralists, depicted wearing pointed hats and trousers, the Scythians lived in the Steppes northeast of the Black Sea, from the 7th-3rd century B.C.

Scythia also refers to a region from the Ukraine and Russia (where archaeologists have unearthed Scythian burial mounds) into Central Asia.

The Scythians are closely associated with horses (and the Huns). [The 21st century movie Attila showed a starving boy drinking the blood of his horse to stay alive. However much this might be Hollywood license, it conveys the essential, survival bond between the steppe nomads and their horses.]

Ancient Names of the Scythians:

  • The greek epic poet Hesiod called the northern tribes hippemolgi 'mare milkers'.

  • The Greek historian Herodotus refers to the European Scythians as Scythians and the eastern ones as Sacae. Beyond the Scythians and other Steppe tribes was supposed to be Apollo's sometime home, among the Hyperboreans.

  • The name Scythians and Sacae applied to themselves was Skudat 'archer'.

  • Later, the Scythians were sometimes called Getae.

  • The Persians also called the Scythians Sakai. According to Richard N. Frye (The Heritage of Central Asia; 2007) of these there were

    • Saka Haumavarga
    • Saka Paradraya (beyond the sea or river)
    • Saka Tigrakhauda (pointed hats)
    • Saka para Sugdam (beyond Sogdiana)
  • Scythians, who attacked the kingdom of Urartu in Armenia, were called Ashguzai or Ishguzai by the Assyrians. The Scythians may have been the Biblical Ashkenaz.

 

Legendary Origins of the Scythians:

 

  • A rightly skeptical Herodotus says the Scythians claimed the first man to exist in the region -- at a time when it was desert and about a millennium before Darius of Persia -- was named Targitaos.

    Targitaos was the son of Zeus and the daughter of the river Borysthenes. He had three sons from whom the tribes of the Scythians sprang.

  • Another legend Herodotus reports connects the Scythians with Hercules and Echidna.

 

Tribes of the Scythians:

Herodotus IV.6 lists the 4 tribes of the Scythians:

From Leipoxais sprang the Scythians of the race called Auchatae;
from Arpoxais, the middle brother, those known as the Catiari and Traspians;
from Colaxais, the youngest, the Royal Scythians, or Paralatae.
All together they are named Scoloti, after one of their kings: the Greeks, however, call them Scythians.

The Scythians are also divided into:

  • Sacae,
  • Massagetae (may mean 'strong Getae'),
  • Cimmerians, and
  • Getae.

 

Appeal of the Scythians:

The Scythians are connected with a variety of customs that interest modern people, including the use of hallucinogenic drugs, fabulous gold treasures, and cannibalism [see Cannibalism in ancient myth]. They have been popular as the noble savage from the 4th century B.C. Ancient writers eulogized the Scythians as more virtuous, hardy, and chaste than their civilized contemporaries.

Sources:

 

  • The Scythians, by Jona Lendering.
  • The Scythian Domination in Western Asia: Its Record in History, Scripture and Archaeology, by E. D. Phillips World Archaeology. 1972.
  • The Scythian: His Rise and Fall, by James William Johnson. Journal of the History of Ideas. 1959 University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • The Scythians: Invading Hordes from the Russian Steppes, by Edwin Yamauchi. The Biblical Archaeologist. 1983.
Also see About.com's Asian History Guides detailed glossary entry on the Scythians.

 

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