Historiebloggen: Tattooed Scythian Warriors, Descendants of the Amazons
Herodotus describes the Scythians living in the area north of the Black Sea about three thousand years ago. According to him they traced their ancestry directly from Zeus and the river nymph Borysthenis, daughter of the river god Borysthenes, the union of which produced a son named Tagitaos and he in turn had three sons with a human woman, demigods, who were the progenitors of the three Scythian tribes. It is said that in the time of the sons of Tagitaos there came down from heaven four items made of gold. These items were a plow, a yoke, a cup and a battle axe. Each brother attempted to use the items but they were met with a blazing fire or great heat but when the youngest approached the items the fire was gone and they worked only for him and from him the tribe of the Royal Scythians was formed. If one looks at such a tale with modern eyes we could imagine that the items were technology coded to only function for one individual and possibly dangerous as it was also said that anyone who slept while guarding these items in the open would die within a year.
Now while Herodotus, the historian and teller of this tale doubted that the Scythians were indeed the descendants of Zeus, he nonetheless recorded their accounts. He also tells a different account where they are the descendants of another of Zeus’ sons, Heracles and the half serpent half goddess Echidna, but that story seems like a more fanciful telling of the first story and involves many of the same events. He goes on to say that he favours a third version of their origin which tells of wandering Asiatic tribes that migrated into the lands of the Cimmerians.
The longer you look, the origin of the Scythians becomes more and more cloudy and some scholars contend that the Scythians referred to by Herodotus are really only the remnants of a much earlier people who were once widespread and very advanced with great cities, ships, farming and herding. If we remember the story of the golden plow, yoke, cup and battle axe we would infer that farming must have been important to the early Scythians if their gods saw fit to gift them with a magical plow and yoke, not a very practical gift for nomadic horsemen. This possibility seems very likely since the Scythians of Herodotus’ time were known to be nomadic and the earlier Scythians are credited with developing the smelting of iron and bronze, the invention of the battle axe (actually credited to the Amazons among the Scythians), the pottery wheel, the bellows, the anchor and the science of horse breeding. One has to wonder why nomads would invent the anchor.
Fred Hamori wrote that Justinius II referred to the Scythians as one of the oldest civilizations in the world; even older than the Egyptians and that they were most likely a northern Mesopotamian culture, not the later immigrant tribes who adapted many of their customs. The Scythians described by the Greeks were apparently an amalgamation of many peoples overlaying a very ancient culture that existed in the area around the Black Sea. Whatever their origins, the Scythians were a remarkable people with a very ancient origin that remains a mystery. However, two more tales of the Scythians are even stranger. One is the story of the bald people who were once part of the royal Scythians but separated themselves and went to live isolated at the foot of a mountain. Herodotus described them thus; Passing over a great extent of this rough country, you come to a people dwelling at the foot of lofty mountains, who are said to be all- both men and women- bald from their birth, to have flat noses, and very long chins. These people speak a language of their own; the dress which they wear is the same as the Scythian. They live on the fruit of a certain tree, the name of which is Ponticum; in size it is about equal to our fig-tree, and it bears a fruit like a bean, with a stone inside. … No one harms these people, for they are looked upon as sacred- they do not even possess any warlike weapons. When their neighbours fall out, they make up the quarrel; and when one flies to them for refuge, he is safe from all hurt. They are called the Argippaeans. Now we have a race of people who believe they were descended from the three sons of a god, they are so early that even in the time of Herodotus their origins were ancient history, they believed they had received technology directly from their gods and a small number of them, described as not normal humans lived apart and served as judges and protectors and the strange story gets even stranger…now we bring in the Amazons.
It seems that in all the histories of the Scythians one point is either marginalized or simply mentioned as if it is not important, but I contend that it is of upmost importance if we are to truly understand the psyche of the Scythians, the existence of the Amazons and in fact the history of all humanity.
The ancient Scythians, the ones who predate the nomads, worshiped as their main deity not a god but a goddess, the half snake half woman deity known as Tabiti, who coincidentally fits the description of Tagitaos’ mother in the Scythian origin story . She was the Earth Goddess who was said to be the witness of all things, often depicted as a woman with child she travelled with a raven and a wolf.
The Goddess is the most ancient of all deities with depictions dating back over 29000 years BC and her worship held sway until only about four thousand years ago when mankind spiralled into never ending warfare. Her names are almost endless, Anu, Eki, Hathor, Isis, Danu, Cali; the list would go on for pages but they all represented the same thing, the sacred feminine, the great mother. The fact that matriarchal or egalitarian societies might have existed and in fact may have been the norm prior to the ‘historical’ period is now dismissed by most mainstream historians but I contend that they were the norm and they did not die out suddenly. There was a time of transition during which women and men still existed as equals in society and the Amazons are a compelling example of one of these transitions.
Herodotus, with his usual flare, tells a remarkable story of how the Amazons came to be with the Scythians which makes a great deal more sense when one understands that the nomadic Scythians were later arrivals and the Amazons were part of an earlier civilization still existing to the south of the Black Sea but in constant threat from the Greeks as the accounts of many battles suggest. He recounts that after the Battle of Thermodon, several galleys carrying Amazon prisoners were retaken by the captives and the women came ashore in the land of Scythia on the north shore of the Black Sea They engaged some of the Scythians in combat who upon discovering that the dead were actually women decided not to try to kill the newcomers but woo them instead. They eventually approached them unarmed and the two groups decided to merge but not without negotiations. The Amazons refused to live as Scythian women, they would not give up their place in society so their new Scythian husbands agreed and asked for their inheritance to be given them and they left for lands to the northeast. This story seems to tell of a merging of the nomadic Scythians with the earlier matriarchal society and their migration away from the patriarchal societies rising to power to the south and eventually the entire world.
Of course most mainstream historians call the Amazons creatures of myth not because there are not ample records of their battles and individuals but for the reason Strabo the Greek historian put it 2000 years ago, “For who can believe that an army of women, or a city, or a nation, could ever subsist without men? and not only subsist, but make inroads upon the territories of other people, and obtain possession not only of the places near them, and advance as far as the present Ionia, but even dispatch an expedition across the sea to Attica?” Who indeed could believe such a thing? Certainly not the men who have written history but now we have their bodies, women buried with the respect once though only reserved for men and these tattooed women warriors are much harder to call a myth.
The origin of the word Amazon may have come from the Iranian language. The work ha-mazan (phonetic pronunciation) meant warrior and the nomadic Scythians that migrated into the eastern European region are believed to have been Indo-Iranian tribes so the etymology of the word seems right. As the Scythian nomads moved across the area, described in Herodotus’ third story of their origin, a stratified society developed in which the farmers and herders (the earlier inhabitants) were lower status and the newer Scythian warrior class became the royal or ruling class.
However, unlike most societies that are absorbed by a warrior based culture, this one did not immediately or exclusively denigrate women to the lowest status. It seems that in their world there was a place for the warrior woman, a practice perhaps influenced by their female deities. Herodotus believed that the Samatians were the result of the merging of the Scythian and Amazon cultures. Whether this acceptance came from the merging of a society, such as the Amazonians that already had such practices, or it was inherent in the customs of the early nomads is not clear, but archaeological evidence shows that women both as warriors and as high status individuals existed in the Scythian society and similar cultures in the region of Pazyryk.
The Scythians buried their high status dead in mounds called kurgans or tumuli. The dead were laid out often as if asleep in a hollowed out log, facing the east. Grave goods included fine clothes, jewellery, food, cannabis, hand mirrors (also carried by the followers of Hathor), horse tack, bows, swords, shields, entire chariots and often other humans and horses. The horses were sacrificed by axe blow and then buried with the deceased. A later excavation, such as the one of the Pazyryk mummy known as the Ice Maiden excavated by Natalia Polosmak, has shown that at least in this instance the horses were older rather than younger stock suggesting a hint of practicality when killing the livestock. The bodies were mummified in a complex process involving the removal of internal organs, packing the body cavity with aromatic herbs and spices and then embalming the flesh with oils and resin. Some of the kurgans also filled with ground water and subsequently sealed the mummies in ice which further preserved all of the burial goods. The craftsmanship of the gold work, textiles, leather items and wood carving is exceptional and equally so for both male and female burials.
Royal Scythians were also tattooed and apparently those tattoos attested to their elite status. Their tattoos are almost modern in appearance and were created not by the most common ancient method of sewing dye soaked thread under the skin but instead by the puncture method. This technique allowed the artists to create stylized designs in the shapes of goats, horses, deer and leopards. A tattoo stencil (pattern used for creating the design) was actually found in one of the burials. The males and females wore the same designs and there is also evidence of more medicinal tattoos that as usual were only lines. Among the Scythians it is relatively easy to separate the therapeutic tattoos from the decorative because they had such advanced tattooing skills.
There are many very interesting Scythians and Pazyryk burials and it would take a book to describe them all, but some contained women, or men and women together, who were buried as warriors with bows, shields and swords as well as their horses. It is apparent that this society accepted the participation of women in warfare and allowed them the honours afforded to such a status and perhaps it is this very custom that earned these people the title of barbarian because the cultures that surrounded them found the very thought of women in such roles as unthinkable, even mythical. It has long been an accepted practice in anthropology to draw inferences about people and gender role within a society based on the way they are treated in death and there must have been some degree of equality within this society.
Just as the Pazyryk culture greatly resembled the Scythian culture to their west, I think we can also see cultural similarities in the Norse and Celtic peoples to the east of Scythia who, whether from intermingling in trade or migration, exhibited the same treatment of women until the spread of Rome and Christianity across Europe destroyed the native culture and purposefully erased any pagan history especially Goddess worship. I will also go as far to say that Rome and the church at the time began the systematic persecution of women taking away any power they had in society including, medicine, religion, brewing and warfare.
The Sarmatians, the people Herodotus believed were the mix of Amazons and Scythians, are known to have invaded Gaul and pushed out the Picts and there are many Roman accounts of the women warriors among the Gauls. The Norse shield maidens are not myth and accounts of their participation in known battles is generally not disputed unlike those of the Amazons. Queen Boudicca, trained as a warrior when she was a child went on to led an army of over 10,0000 many of them women against the Romans in Briton. Of course the Romans described her as a woman who was smarter than most of her gender which explained her successes but they still considered her a person not to be dealt with lightly.
Of her own part Boudicca said “We British are used to women commanders in war; I am descended from mighty men! But I am not fighting for my kingdom and my wealth now. I am fighting as an ordinary citizen for my lost freedom, my bruised body and my outraged daughters…Consider how many of you are fighting and why! Then you will win this battle or perish. That is what I, a woman, plan to do, let the men live in slavery if they will.”(Boudicca according to Tacitus)
In 61 AD Boudicca died when she took her own life instead of being captured and with her died the hope of women all over Europe for social equality in the face of the Roman invasion and the subsequent spread of Christianity. Perhaps Boudicca represents the last great stand of the descendants of the Amazons and the tattooed warriors of the steppes who rode into battle together, man and woman side by side, against the new societies where woman were seen as weak and inferior and their great deeds in history were turned into myths.
J. A. Salmonson, The Encyclopedia of Amazons (1991), ISBN 0385423667
F. G. Bergmann, Les Amazones dans l'histoire et dans la fable (1853)
J.Harmatta: "Scythians" in UNESCO Collection of History of Humanity – Volume III: From the Seventh Century BC to the Seventh Century AD. Routledge/UNESCO. 1996.
The Real Scythians of Messopotamia, Fred Hamori, based on a work by Gyula Meszaros
The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, ed. and tr., vol. 3, Book 4, Chapters 2-36, 46-82. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1885]
Scythians in the Ancient World by Gill, Education About.com Ancient / Classical History Herodotus History Book IV
Scythian tumuli : Bouzek Jan (2/22/2008) "Scythian tumuli", 2008, Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Black Sea
Origins of the Picts and Scots, Hal MacGregor, Origins of the Clan Gregor
The Boudicca Chapters, Isha Bassi, Heroines of History.
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