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 Origin of the Indo-European languages: Part IX

Scythian culture


Hi, Andrés Muni again. The following document has some names. I have attempted to translate all those names into English properly to a certain extent, but since my knowledge of English language is limited, I maybe made some mistakes. Besides, some of them are in Spanish, because I do not know their respective translation.

If you note some errors or know a translation for a certain word, please e-mail me in order to correct the mistake or translate the word. I have marked with an asterisk the words with a problematical translation.

In this document, we will study the ancient Scythian culture. Enjoy!



The remote origins of the Scythian people date from 1,000 BC. A key fact in their culture was the breaking-in of horses, and the environment in which it was developed comprehended the vast territory of the Eurasian steppes. The appearance of the horsemen would alter the course of human history. It is not known how those horsemen of the steppes called themselves, who will then be grouped in the form of gangs of hostile marauders. Since these tribes did not know how to write, the names given to them were generalizations made by foreign peoples (Greek and Chinese), who, in different times and places, came across the Scythian and wrote about them.

Their territory included almost 6,000 km of steppe, from Hungary through Manchuria. They were known by different names according to the region, e.g. Scythian, Sarmatian, Yueh-chi and Hsiung-nu. They were bearded, weatherbeaten-faced, long-untidy-haired men. They drank from the skulls of their enemies killed in battle and showed the scalps of their victims as trophies or spoils of war. In a time where the nations had not still formed their regiments of cavalry, and only had infantry and war-chariots, the Scythian people, because of their use of horses and inherent ability as archers, deployed devastating maneuvers endowed with great mobility. Their garments, armament and tactics exhibited a level of experience resulting from a lot of generations of people living practically on horseback.

They wore trousers, flexible heelless boots, leather-armors or imbricate scales and narrow-sleeved clothes which let them move freely. Every man carried bow and arrows stored in a quiver (Gorytus), along with a straight-bladed sword made of bronze or iron, apart from javelins and leather-shields reinforced with metallic plates. While moving, they showed harmony in their movements on horseback and did not dismount from the horses even to eat or drink. Their horses were little, vigorous and descended from the steppe's wild droves.

The Scythian rode on rudimentary stirrupless mounts. Some authors suppose that the Scythian people came from the Volga's watershed. They reached the steppe of southern Russia (1,000 BC), and drove the Cimmerian out of there. In late 6th century BC, the Scythian held sway over the territory currently occupied by Ukraine (the plain extending to the west, from the Black and Azov Seas through the outlet of the river Danube. They subjugated the peasants who lived on the borders of the steppe and river valleys, and subdued the trade colonies settled down on the septentrional banks of the Black Sea (Euxine Sea), such as Olbia, Tyras and Theodosia. The inhabitants of these cities called this enormous territory ruled by those nomadic peoples "Scythia", and their horsemen "Scythian".


 In depth

The Scythian did not leave any written documents. They are historically recognized due to the descriptions made by Herodotus and other writers. From ancient sources, the names of various tribes are known, which seem to be of Iranian origin. These peoples consisted of different groups but they had the same life style; besides, their funeral traditions were similar. In other words, the term "Scythian" does not designate a unique people but numerous tribes sharing a common culture. The major historical testimonies as regards the existence of the Scythian arise from the great pomp and splendor exhibited when they buried their kings and other important personages. Thousands of little and big tumuli marking the tombs of their most respected defuncts can be found from Ukraine up to the Altai range in Siberia.

These tombs reveal a Scythian aspect being already extolled by Herodotus and other authors: the force and vitality of their artistic works. The Scythian, as well as other peoples from the steppes, were very interested in the animals, almost all of them wild or fantastic. In these works of art there are eagles, deers, leopards and griffons (sometimes joined in a mortal combat) engraved on gold plates that the horsemen used to decorate their garments, reins, belt buckles and similar adornments. They had a strong taste for the Greek art from their contact with craftsmen living in the commercial Greek colonies located on the shores of the Black Sea. There have been new discoveries in their tombs for more than two centuries (bracelets, diadems, sword hilts and sheaths, pots, etc.). However, it was only in the second half of the twentieth century when certain evidences were found, which aided in clearly depicting the importance and position occupied by the Scythian in the nomad society of the steppes.

In 1971, a group of soviet archeologists discovered a funeral tumulus that was 2,400 years old. When the excavators got to the bottom of it, they realized that it was a tomb which had not been plundered yet... something exceptional... as the last intact tomb had been discovered in 1912. The elements they found there, which were essential for the sake of reconstructing the story of these horsemen, might have been damaged or lost if it had not been for an order given by the tsar Peter the Great (eighteenth century), who built an Imperial Museum, in which one of its glass cabinets exhibited a portion of the treasures belonging to the Siberian tombs. The Scythian never attempted to hide their graves. On the contrary, by relying on the fact that none of them would dare disturb the final abode of their defuncts, they highlighted them by piling earth and rocks to form a mound over the tombs ("kurgans", in Russian language). In Ukraine, there are almost 100,000 tumuli of that sort, and the Minusinsk zone (Siberia) is a gigantic necropolis.

The sacking of these tumuli attracted attention of Peter the Great and this was the prologue to the rediscovery of the Scythian and other nomad peoples. In 1715, the tsar received a enormous collection of artistic golden objects in commemoration of his first-born's birth. The treasure, which had been taken from the Siberian funeral tumuli, overwhelmed the tsar and his retinue because of the mastery and dynamism with which the animals were shown in those pieces. When the tsar learnt that other pieces similar to those given as a gift to him were being stolen from the graves in order to found them, he ordered to put an end to that destruction and demanded that from that moment on they should be delivered to the Crown. The retrieved pieces constituted the core of the Siberian treasure of Peter the Great, which currently can be found in the Museum of Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

Scythian griffons

In 2001, the Russian archeologists were excavating in the Republic of Tuva, a region hardly known region in Siberia belonging to the Russian Federation, located 3,400 km to the east of Moscow. In a kurgan called Arzhan-2, they discovered an wooden crypt still intact, with two skeletons and 20 kg (about 44 pounds) in gold, much more than any other archeologist had found in a Siberian tomb. In another area of the kurgan, they came across a grave with incredible remains of garments, a horse tomb and many other burial places (some of them being Scythian and other related to later cultures). There were about 5,700 pieces of gold in all, which mostly showed images of animals, particularly felines (lions or tigers) and boars, together with some handfuls of beads made of amber proceeding from the Baltic region. This treasure might have arrived at that region in the form of commercial items or as being part of some booty.

Plenty of gold has been found in the Scythian tombs of Ukraine, but they are pieces created in later times, whether by Greek goldsmiths or under their influence. The 5,700 pieces mentioned in the last paragraph are older than these ones being referred to at the beginning of the present paragraph. The former clearly show the special Scythian style, which proves that the Scythian were skillful goldsmiths long before their encounter with the Greek. This finding sheds new light on the Scythian life style, because being the Greek the creators of the celebrated Scythian golden adornments which were discovered near the Black Sea, nobody suspected that this nomad people had great artistic merits. Nonetheless, as for the ornaments found in Arzhan-2, it has not still been proved that in the seventh century BC most advanced peoples inhabited the region of Tuva. The excavated tombs do not reveal any contact between Scythian and Greek at that time.

The scholars now believe that there were settlements where sedentary craftsmen manufactured the golden objects. This refutes the stereotype depicting the Scythian simply as wild warrior horsemen that migrated and besieged other peoples, as it has been shown that they had attained a high cultural development. The vision that they had of themselves and their world becomes evident from the way they used gold and the meaning of this metal according to them. With the precious gold they created very beautiful objects with which they adorned their tents, mounts and even their own bodies. Besides their economic value, gold had a special significance. They related gold to their own presence on the earth, as they believed that the lineage of their supreme sovereign had arisen from a miraculous fact occurred in ancient times, when four pieces of gold fell down from the sky. For that reason, they paid homage to gold. They utilized it to make significant objects generally linked to magic. Their entire art, just as the one developed by other nomad peoples from the steppes, is symbolic of a supernatural world full of wild animals. To these nomads, whose life was so closely connected with the Nature's fluctuations, the animals were manifestations of higher forces and represented the will of supernormal powers.


 Concluding remarks

It has been a good document. I decided to include a big image of some griffons to show you how skillful goldsmiths the Scythian were. Thus, the general notion of primitive people inhabiting the steppes and devoting their lives to eat, sleep, devastate towns and the like, is not an exact description of these nomads. For being able to create those golden pieces, they should have attained a high level of artistic development, which evidences a solid culture behind. See you.


 Further Information

Andrés Muni

This document was conceived by Andrés Muni, one of the two founders of this site, and conversant with linguistics.

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