Scythians shooting with bows Kertch antique Panticapeum Ukrainia 4th century, Wikimedia

M. Siemers, M. Bishop, N. Carlson, J. Foronda

The Scythians were nomads who roamed the Black Sea region during classical antiquity. Because of their nomadic existence, they left little evidence of their civilization. Most of what is known about them today comes from Greek authors who wrote about their encounters with Scythians. These accounts, however, are difficult to rely on because Greek authors frequently perceived Scythians as barbaric. Disentangling Greek dislike of or stereotypes about Scythians from more accurate accounts of Scythian culture and practices is difficult. In this paper, we will explore who the Scythians were by analyzing their artifacts, Greek texts, Greek art, and their encounters with Greek. We will also consider the discrepancies between who the Scythians were and how they were perceived by Greeks.

The term Scythian is one that refers to not just a specific population, but a “chronological and ethnocultural phenomenon” (Łukasik 2017, 585). Over the course of the classical period and the Iron age multiple groups were considered Scythian. Geographically, this group ranged from the Southern steppes of European Russia all the way to the Bering Strait (Huntingford 1935, 785). As the majority of the persisting ethnographies of Scythians are from a Greek perspective, much of what is known, or presumed, about the Scythians revolves around their role as barbarians to the Greeks. Troy Martin’s “The Scythian Perspective” challenges this, stating that the Greeks were considered barbarians to the Scythians based on the definition of barbarism that confines the term to someone who does not speak your language (Martin 1995, 254). In terms of language, the Scythians spoke their own, and the modern knowledge of this language consists of a few terms written in Herodotus’s works (Huntingford 1935, 791).

One of the mysteries of the Scythians is their race. There are two potential origins based on the regions they inhabited. The most likely ethnic group to harbor Scythian history is the Tataric family (akin to Mongols). This group is considered to come from North East Asia, and shares many traits with the Scythians. Physical features that are prominent in both groups include fatness, broad faces, and flat noses. Additionally, the nomadic lifestyle and aspects of  religion like shamanism point to the Scythians having their origins with the Tatars (Huntingford 1935, 792). Despite these similarities, there is a competing history that points to origins in Iran. A few of the named Scythian tribes were said to practice polyandry and one worshipped the sun, two features that were prominent in Iranian regions. With the conflict taken into account, it is reasonable to say that prolonged contact between civilizations could result in a transfer of culture, eventually leading one to the conclusion that the Scythians were most likely Tataric in origin.

One culprit behind the difficulty in assigning the ancestry of the Scythians was their nomadic lifestyle that was characteristic of the group. They were said to have lived in wagons in some cases, traveling on a regular basis (Huntingford 1935, 786). This was very characteristic if the Tatars, as was ritual shamanism, a practice dissimilar to much of the rest of the mediterranean world. While religion in Scythia was similar to that of the Greeks, (polytheistic, even worshipping some of the same gods as the Greeks themselves) the incorporation of shamen into society differentiated the cultures. For some Scythians, homoeroticism signified power. Men who became shamen often were eunuchs, or in the terms of the Scythians, men-women and were considered to change sex through wearing female clothing and taking a husband.

A compelling myth told in various versions of Scythian history is that of the Amazons. These women were legendary for their unlikely role as warriors in the ancient mediterranean. In Herodotus’s version, the Amazons wash ashore in Scythian territory after a battle lost to the Greeks, the Scythians learning that their enemies were women sent men to tame them. The amazons and Scythian men married to form the Sauromatians. Although this fable seems far fetched due to the typically strict gender roles enforced throughout the Ancient Mediterranean world, recent archeological evidence has uncovered ornate female graves containing weapons and other burial items (Guliaev 2003, 114).  This discovery leads modern archeologists to the belief that it was not an isolated group of Sauromatians that utilized women in war and as full members of society, but that it was a cultural phenomenon practiced in multiple areas of Scythia (Guliaev 2003, 115). The weaponry found laid to rest with these female warriors coincided with the weapons already used by the Scythians: a prevalence of bows and arrows and spears. Another aspect of the amazonian myth that lines up with Scythian culture is their skill as equestrians. As a whole, the Scythians lived as nomads, respected their women (on a higher level than their ancient neighbors), practiced religion similar to the Greeks, went to shamen for their woes, and rode horses into battle. Because of this lifestyle, the Scythians left little trace of the rich lives they lead.

There was not much left behind by the Scythians, as they were nomads that resided from the Black Sea to China. Specifically, the Scythians did not leave any surviving written material, but they left many artifacts that clues us into who they were and how they lived. Therefore, artifacts that they left behind and used help us to interpret their lives and culture. First of all, the royal kurgan (Scythian burial sites) left a plethora of gold jewelry, weapons, statues, and armor that can be used to interpret how they lived. In a tomb in Scythian Neapolis, the neatly placed graves held glass beads, pottery, masks, iron buckles (presumably a part of a horse’s saddle), bows, and jewelry (Puzdroyskii 2005, 85-105). When examining these artifacts, it is clear that the Scythians valued these beautiful, well-crafted, gold accessories as they are riddled across many kurgan and Scythian land. Also, there is no evidence in the tombs that the Scythians wore tall, pointed caps as there is mostly just gold and bronze helmets left (Gleba 2008, 14). This contradicts just one of many Greek stereotypes of the Scythians and shows the clear inaccuracy of their writings and art that we will analyze later on. Many of the artifacts found indicate that the Scythians wore colorful clothing and royal women often wore large headdresses and long dresses with decorated coats (Gleba 2008, 24-25). Therefore, it is seen that the Scythians seem to break from the barbaric stereotype that the Greeks often gave them. The Scythians artifacts and the exquisite design of their jewelry seems to be overlooked by the Greeks. Nevertheless, there is evidence that the Scythian culture and Greek culture influenced each other.

Costume of a Scythian princess from Ryzhanovka, Wikimedia
Scythian Belt, Wikimedia

The Greeks and Scythians show signs of positive interactions with each other seen in art and weapon artifacts. For instance, Scythian art usually showed “animalistic mythology”, but when the migrated westward towards the black sea, they began to incorporate “Hellenistic Iconography,” (Ciuk 2000, 21). This shows there had to be some interactions between the two that caused the Scythians to use Hellenistic symbols on their weapons, art, and amour. It is possible that the Scythians even thought kindly of the Greeks as it is not likely that they would incorporate such images into their sacred battle gear if they did not think the Greeks were respectable. This wildly contrasts how many Greek authors speak of the Scythians during the same period these artifacts date to. Greek authors stated that, “the Scythians were cursed with the “feminine sickness” by Aphrodite as punishment for demolishing her temple at Askalon in Palestine,” and Herodotus himself often attacks the Scythians of being weak and effeminate (Ciuk 2000, 23). It is clear the Greeks did not have such a positive outlook on the Scythians and alike how they did to other barbarians, stereotype them to be weak and uncivilized. Furthermore, we have already observed artifacts that would conflict with these statements of the Greeks. This depicts the bias the Greeks showed in their art and writing. Additionally, it is clear that when we are attempting to discover who the Scythians were and how they lived, most of the Greek writings must be analyzed carefully as they are full of falsities.

One of the most interesting interactions the Scythians had was the Amazons. The story of the Amazons is told in many Greek mythology stories, such as Hercules’ labors. The Greeks describe the Amazons to be these mythical women, who the Scythians were too weak to conquer, so they instead integrated with them to create the Sarmatians (Guliaev 2003, 113). This story is often used by Herodotus to enfeminate the Scythians since they are said to not be able to defeat women, while a Greek man would be able to. Yet again, artifacts left by the Scythians shows many discrepancies with how the Greeks described the Scythians. In the Middle Don, it is seen to have women warriors who were buried with with arrowheads, signs of battle scars, and other characteristics that was thought to be only seen in Amazon and Sarmatian graves (Guliaev 2003, 114). Furthermore, this area was known to be owned by the Scythians, thus indicates that Scythian women may have been these Amazon warriors all along. We can tell though their sculptures that the Scythians pride themselves as great warriors as Gleba said, “the most typical attributes of sculptures representing warriors are various weapons, which, in the best examples, reflect real objects found in burials,” (Gleba 2003, 19). Thus, it is not outlandish to believe that the Greeks story of the Amazons was just a inaccurate depiction of the strong, Scythian women warriors that were among Scythians all along. Since the idea of a woman being a powerful warrior is so outlandish to the Greeks, they may have just made the story to give reason to why they are seeing these women warriors help conquer so much land. Moreover, the Scythians were powerful warriors and the idea of the women also learning how to fight would make sense in such a militarized society.

It was no secret that the Greeks had their own set of morals and physical characteristics that they compared themselves with to other groups of people. Groups of barbarians were no exception to this, and the Scythians faced much judgement from them, especially in regards to the supposed correlation between their physical features and overall morals/ethics. In order to uncover the Greeks’ perception of Scythians, we must first look at what the Greeks considered to be classified as “barbarian.” In Christopher Tuplin’s article, Greek Racism, a barbarian was someone who the Greeks saw as being full of “unreliability and stupidity” (Heraclitus 480 BCE, 9). Now, barbarian here could be in reference to any number of groups of people, but the specific comparison is made to the Scythians later on in the article, where there is a claim made that the environment is what created them to have such barbarian characteristics. The debate of whether climate/environment can shape a person into who they are was often conflicting among all the Greek narratives, but the statements made in Tuplin’s article appear to be a common thread whenever the Scythians were brought to attention: “…to account for both physiological and moral features by detailed reference to climatic and geographical considerations…discuss specific nations…living in a specially climatically favoured area which he calls the “spring region”, Scythians…uniformity of climate goes with moral and physical failings (flabbiness, small stature, etc.), whereas a changeable climate promotes tough physique and moral qualities of courage and endurance (Tuplin 1999, 18). Because the Scythians were known nomads to wander the Black Sea region, an environment that was apparently looked at as “easy” to live in and having no true difficulties by the Greeks, assumptions were made that the Scythians must therefore be weak and lacking the courage that seemingly goes hand-in-hand with physicality.

It is interesting to look at the Greek perceptions above summarized by Tuplin, and then looking at Ptolemy’s views of the Scythians in Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World. Despite some opinions that Scythians were perceived as lazy, there were other perspectives about Scythians that depicted them as large, well fed, and savage because of the climate. According to Ptolemy, the Black Sea region in which they roamed, was further from the sun, which resulted in a colder climate, but one that also contained a lot of precipitation, which kept their land bountiful. Because of this environment, Ptolemy claims that the Scythians were therefore inevitably, “…white-skinned, straight-haired, and have large and well-nourished physiques. Their natures are cold. They, too, are savage, as a general characteristic, because their homes are constantly cold. It thus follows that the wintry climate affects the size…the same way it affects the people” (Ptolemy, 2nd Century CE, 50). Comparing this outlook on the Scythians with Tuplin’s analysis above is interesting because they differ in so many ways. It seems as though Greek narratives did not solely agree on a single perspective on this group of so-called barbarians. This goes to show that perhaps the Greek society did not have enough interactions with the Scythians, and therefore they could not make reasonable judgement. In effect, the Scythians were not a well-understood group of people, which is maybe why there were so many differing opinions on them by Greek society.

Skythian Archer, Wikimedia

Despite the differences in opinion on the Scythians moralities, the outlook on their war practices and military prowess by the Greeks is another thing to make note of that can create a connection between this sort of “savage” way of life held by these barbarians and their perceived qualities, in this case, their intelligence. Again, in Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World, Thucydides discusses the Peloponnesian War in relation to the Odrysian Empire. In his exploration of this empire’s war techniques, the Scythians are mentioned in quite an optimistic light: “…the Odrysian Empire was the greatest of all those in Europe between the Ionian Sea and the Euxine. In military strength, however, they were second by a large margin to the Scythians. No one in Europe or Asia could stand against the Scythians if they united” (Thucydides, 4th/5th Century BCE, 327). It is interesting to look at Thucydides following statement, “However, they are not equal to others in soundness of judgement or in that intelligence a people uses to guide their way of life” (Thucydides, 4th/5th Century BCE, 328). This claim evokes Tuplin’s argument above that Greeks made some unfair judgements on the Scythians with little to no evidence explaining why. Essentially, Thucydides makes a backhanded compliment to these nomads. The Greeks definitely had a wide range of opinions on the Scythians, where not even a positive comment could be made without making it obvious that they still saw them as being beneath the Greeks in terms of their morals and overall intelligence.

An important aspect of Greek painting and sculptures is that they were able to differentiate Greek and non-Greek characters from their artwork. This proves to be beneficial in the exploration of the perspectives of the Scythian people as they had left very little behind. By understanding how Greeks portrayed Scythians in their work, we will hopefully better understand their perspectives.

One of the main identifying factors of the Scythians in Greek artwork was what they wore. According to Margarita Gleba, the most recurring image of the Scythian costume in Greek artwork is the depiction of a tall pointed cap with flaps on the sides and back (Gleba 2008, 16). These depictions of the Scythians would also portray them wielding weapons with the bow and quiver of arrows being the most common. Occasionally, the Scythians are often portrayed wearing long jackets with trousers. Taken altogether, these indicators of Scythian identity are indicative that the Greeks understood that they were geographically located near Asia given that they depict similar imagery for other foreigners of that area. This complicates things however given that much of these indicators describe other foreigners and are even characteristic to the portrayal of archer stereotypes (Gleba 2008, 16). The only thing that seems to truly indicate the portrayal of Scythians is the wearing of their iconic pointy hats. This indicates some ambiguity regarding the true accuracy of Greek artwork in their portrayal of specifically the Scythians as these ethnic indicators seem to be applicable to others.

Although knowing what Scythians wear may not provide much insight into how they were seen by the Greeks, more can be gathered by the way they are posed. According to Caspar Meyer, Greco-Scythian art portray them as civilized savages (Meyer 2013, 214). Through the analysis of Greek artworks, it is apparent that the poses and behaviors portrayed in Greek artwork have an attributed meaning to the character portrayed in such poses or behaviors. In some Greco-Scythian metalwork, the Scythians are portrayed as sitting down or kneeling. These poses are attributed to a reverting into a primitive state as the act of standing upright was seen as the main reason humans were superior to animals (Meyer 2013, 214). Furthermore, the act of kneeling appears to be a sign of weakness and is commonly associated with accepting death as there is no mobility regarding a kneeling position. Ultimately, these observations suggest that the Greeks viewed the Scythians as inferiors and that in their portrayal they are made to appear weak as well as being almost animalistic.

Scythian Warrior with Axe, Bow, and Spear, Wikimedia

Despite their poses, the Scythians were not perceived as complete savages but rather civilized ones. In their portrayal in Greco-Scythian metalwork, the Scythians are never alone which indicate that they were not simply akin to beasts. Scythians are always depicted with gestures that suggest that they can communicate with others. It is important in Greek artwork to indicate some social capacity because portrayal in solitude typically reflects a subhuman mental state. To be unable to communicate with others is indicative that one is similar to an animal. The Greeks believe that the power of speech is an important aspect of their civilization, attributing it to why they were able to come together to form cities and societies (Caspar 2013, 216). Taken together, the poses and behaviors of Scythian portrayal in Greek artwork demonstrate the Greek perspective of them as civilized savages since although they are portrayed as an inferior people they do have something similar with the Greeks in that they are able to communicate with others of their kind.

With Greek artwork not being restricted to just the portrayal of imagery, there have been some Athenian vases with nonsense inscriptions that are associated to the Scythians. Through the observations of inscriptions of Greek letters that match no known words on Athenian vases, these may indicate a closer relationship between the Greeks and Scythians. By exploring the various instances these nonsense inscriptions appear on Athenian vases, Adrienne Mayor implies that the Greek nonsense may be attempts to “sound out” either Scythian names or words (Mayor 2014, 448). There are a variety of explanations for this appearance of nonsense inscriptions ranging from the vase painters being foreign or multilingual to Greeks attempting to write foreign words they have heard. Any of these explanations seem to emphasize the importance of the relations between the Greek and Scythians and how they may have been close, especially regarding overseas trade. These observations show not only the interest Greeks have for other cultures but also the apparent influence of Scythians themselves.

The Scythians were a group of nomads worth mentioning when talking about ancient Greece and Rome. Despite information not being as easily accessible on them, there are certain things to make note of. The Greeks had a seemingly very biased view on them, with some narratives strongly believing they lacked intelligence and morals, and others complimenting their military skills. In general, it seems that the Scythians were misunderstood, which bred these sort of inconsistent views of them originating from the Greeks. From the accounts of their histories and the evidence the left behind, it can be concluded that the Scythians were likely people of Tataric origin who were mostly nomadic over vast swathes of land. Their language, although sparsely documented, existed throughout their society. Their religion was similar to that of the Greeks, with the addition of powerful shamen who bent the rules of ancient sexuality. Unlike most of the contemporaneous civilizations, women were more integral into society, even serving in combat, earning the myth of the Amazons. These portly equestrians called much of Russia their home and left behind scattered evidence of their existence.

The most accurate information we can get about the Scythians are from the Scythians themselves. They may have not left many texts for us to translate and analyze, however, there were many artifacts from their everyday lives. We are able to piece together the information they left and find the falsities in the way the Greeks described them. For instance, the Greeks often portrayed them to be barbaric, uncivilized people with no culture. Yet, when one looks at the facts left from the Scythians, we now know for certain that the Scythians were great warriors and they had rich culture with lavish, intricate clothing and jewelry. This just shows the amount of bias and unreliability within Greek literature about what they called history. By analyzing the portrayal of Scythians in Greek artwork, we gain a further understanding of the relationship between the Scythians and the Greeks. Their outfit portrayed throughout Greek vase paintings and metalworks indicate the generalization of a more encompassing outfit for much of Asia with long pointy hats being the greatest indicator for Scythian identity. Another point of interest is the behaviors and poses the Scythians are portrayed within Greek metalwork. By portraying them as kneeling and communicating with others, it shows that the Greeks saw the Scythians as civilized savages, lowly people akin to animals but shared the ability to communicate similarly to Greeks. Finally, by looking into nonsense inscriptions on Athenian vases it is implied that the Greeks and the Scythians had a closer relationship than one would think. With the inscriptions ultimately being an attempt to sound out Scythian words or names in Greek, it would seem that interactions between each other were common and indicative of closer relations such as trade. The Scythians are more obscure in history, but looking at Greek stereotypes of them, their artwork, language and their religion helps us to gain an understanding of who they were and how they were perceived.

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