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Scythian warriors, drawn after figures on an electrum cup from the Kul'Oba kurgan burial near Kerch. The warrior on the right strings his bow, bracing it behind his knee; note the typical pointed hood, long jacket with fur or fleece trimming at the edges, decorated trousers, and short boots tied at the ankle. Scythians apparently normally wore their hair long and loose, and all adult men apparently wore beards. The gorytos appears clearly on the left hip of the bare-headed spearman; his companion has an interesting shield, perhaps representing a plain leather covering over a wooden or wicker base. (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg)

The Scythians (also Scyths, from Greek Σκύθης), a nation of horse-riding nomadic pastoralists dominated the Pontic steppe throughout Classical Antiquity. By Late Antiquity the closely-related Sarmatians came to dominate the Scyths in this area. Much of what we know about the Scyths cromes from the Histories of Herodotus (c. 440 BC), and archaeologically from the exquisite goldwork found in their burial mounds in Ukraine and Southern Russia.

Also, since ancient times non-Scyths have used the name "Scythian" more broadly to refer to various peoples seen as similar or identical to the Scythians, or who lived anywhere in a vast area covering including present-day Ukraine, Russia and Central Asia — known until medieval times as Scythia.


History and Archaeology

Origins and pre-history (to 700 BC)

Scholars generally accept that Scythians spoke an Iranian language and classify them as one of the Iranian peoples. <ref> Oswald Szemerényi, "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian - Saka" (Sitzungsberichte der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 371), Vienna, 1980 = Scripta minora, vol. 4, pp. 2051-2093. [1] </ref> <ref> Sulimirski, T. "The Scyths" in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2: 149-99 [2] </ref> <ref> Grousset, Rene. "The empire of the Steppes", Rutgers University Press, 1989, pg 19 </ref> <ref> Jacbonson, Esther. "The Art of Scythians", Brill Academic Publishers, 1995, pg 63 ISBN 90-04-09856-9 </ref> <ref> Gamkrelidze and Ivanov Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Typological Analysis of a Proto-Language and Proto-Culture (Parts I and II). Tbilisi State University., 1984 </ref> <ref> Mallory, J.P. . In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language Archeology and Myth. Thames and Hudson. Read Chapter 2 and see 51-53 for a quick reference.(1989) </ref> <ref> Newark, T. The Barbarians: Warriors and wars of the Dark Ages. Blandford: New York. See pages 65, 85, 87, 119-139. ,1985 </ref> <ref> Renfrew, C. Archeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European origins. Cambridge University Press, 1988 </ref> <ref> Abaev, V.I. and H.W. Bailey, "Alans," Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. 1. pp. 801-803. </ref> <ref> Great Soviet Encyclopedia, (translation of the 3rd Russian-lanuguage edition), 31 vols., New York, 1973-1983. </ref> <ref> Vogelsang, W J The rise & organisation of the Achaemenid empire – the eastern evidence (Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East Vol. III). Leiden: Brill. pp. 344., 1992 ISBN 90-04-09682-5. </ref> <ref> Sinor, Denis. Inner Asia: History - Civilization - Languages, Routledge, 1997 pg 82 ISBN 0-7007-0896-0 </ref> <ref> "Scythian". (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved September 7, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service </ref> <ref> Masica, Colin P. The Indo-Aryan Languages, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pg 48 ISBN 0-521-29944-6 </ref>

The Histories of Herodotus provide the most important sources relating to ancient Scyths. According to Professor Sulimirski <ref> Sulimirski, T. "The Scyths," in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2: 149-99, </ref> , Herodotus provides a broadly correct depiction but apparently knew little of the eastern part of Scythia. According to Herotodus the ancient Perians called all the Scyths "Saca" (Herodotus .VII 64). Their principal tribe, the Royal Scyths, ruled the vast lands occupied by the nation as a whole (Herodotus .IV 20); and they called themselves Skolotoi. Professor Oswald Szemerényi devotes a thorough discussion to the etymology of the word Scyth in his work "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian - Saka". <ref> Oswald Szemerényi, "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian - Saka" (Sitzungsberichte der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 371), Vienna, 1980 = Scripta minora, vol. 4, pp. 2051-2093. </ref>.

The Scythians first appeared in the historical record in the beginning of the first millennium. According to some scholars they have been living there since time immemorial. <ref> Oswald Szemerényi, "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian - Saka" (Sitzungsberichte der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 371), pg 5-6, Vienna, 1980 = Scripta minora, vol. 4, pp. 2051-2093. </ref> . But Herodotus (IV. 11) <ref> Oswald Szemerényi, "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian - Saka" (Sitzungsberichte der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 371), pg 5-6, Vienna, 1980 = Scripta minora, vol. 4, pp. 2051-2093. </ref> reported a version according to which:

The nomadic tribes of Scythians who lived in Asia were hard-pressed by the Massagetae tribes, were forced across the araxes into Cimmeria. There is also another different story, now to be related, in which I am more inclined to put faith than in any other. It is that the wandering Scythians once dwelt in Asia, and there warred with the Massagetae, but with ill success; they therefore quitted their homes, crossed the Araxes, and entered the land of Cimmeria.

Around 770 BCE, the Scythians (led by Ishpaki — Old Iranian *Spakaaya) in alliance with the Mannaens attacked Assyria. The group first appears in Assyrian annals under the name Ishkuzai. According to the brief assertion of Esarhaddon's inscription, the Assyrian empire defeated the alliance. Subsequent mention of Scythians in Babylonian and Assyrian texts occurs in connection with Media. Both Old Persian and Greek sources mention them during the period of the Achaemenid empires, with Greek sources locating them in the steppe between the Dnieper and Don rivers.

Classical Antiquity (600 BC to AD 300)

Image:Scythia-Parthia 100 BC.png
Approximate extent of Scythia and Sarmatia in the 1st century BC.

Herodotus provides the first detailed description of the Scythians. He classes the Cimmerians as a distinct autochthonous tribe, expelled by the Scythians from the northern Black Sea coast (Hist. 4.11-12). Herodotus also states (4.6) that the Scythians consisted of the Auchatae, Catiaroi, Traspians and Paralatae or "Royal Scythians". Throughout his work Herodotus specifically distinguished between the nomadic Scythians in the south and the agricultural Scythians to the north.[citation needed]

In 512 BC, when king Darius the Great of Persia attacked the Scythians, he allegedly penetrated into their land after crossing the Danube. Herodotus relates that the nomad Scythians succeeded in frustrating the designs of the Persian army by letting it march through the entire country without an engagement. According to Herodotus, Darius in this manner came as far as the Volga river.

During the 5th to 3rd centuries BC the Scythians evidently prospered. When Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century BC, Greeks distinguished Scythia Minor in present-day Romania and Bulgaria from a Greater Scythia that extended eastwards for a twenty-day ride from the Danube River, across the steppes of today's Ukraine to the lower Don basin. The Don, then known as Tanaïs, has served as 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 of Olvia, Chersonesos, Cimmerian Bosporus, and Gorgippia. They also grew grain, and shipped wheat, flocks, and cheese to Greece.

Strabo (c. 63 BC - 24 AD) reports that king Ateas united under his power the Scythian tribes living between the Maeotian marshes and the Danube. His westward expansion brought him in conflict with Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359 to 336 BC), who took military action against the Scythians in 339 BC. Ateas died in battle and his empire disintegrated. In the aftermath of this defeat, the Celts seem to have displaced the Scythians from the Balkans, while in south Russia a kindred tribe, the Sarmatians, gradually overwhelmed them.

By the time of Strabo's account (the first decades of the first millennium AD), the Crimean Scythians had created a new kingdom extending from the lower Dnieper to the Crimea. The kings Skilurus and Palakus waged wars with Mithridates the Great (reigned 120–63 BC) for control of the Crimean littoral, including Chersonesos and the Cimmerian Bosporus. Their capital city, Scythian Neapolis, stood on the outskirts of modern Simferopol. The Goths destroyed it much later, in the 5th century AD.

In the 2nd century BC, a group of Scythian tribes, known as the Indo-Scythians, migrated into Bactria, Sogdiana and Arachosia. The migrations in 175-125 BC of the Kushan (Chinese "Yuezhi") tribes, who originally lived in modern Gansu before the Huns (Chinese "Xiongnu") tribes dislodged them, displaced the Indo-Scythians from Central Asia. Led by their king Maues, they ultimately settled in modern-day Pakistan and Kashmir from around 85 BC, where they replaced the kingdom of the Indo-Greeks by the time of Azes II (reigned circa 35 - 12 BC). Kushans invaded again in the 1st century, but the Indo-Scythian rule persisted in some areas of Central India until the 5th century.

Hellenic-Scythian contact still focused on the Hellenistic cities and settlements of the Crimea (especially in the Bosporan Kingdom). Greek craftsmen from the colonies north of the Black Sea made spectacular Scythian-style gold ornaments (see below), applying Greek realism to depict Scythian motifs of lions, antlered reindeer and gryphons.

Late Antiquity (AD 300 to 600)

In Late Antiquity the notion of a Scythian ethnicity grew more vague, and outsiders might dub any people inhabiting the Pontic-Caspian steppe as "Scythians", regardless of their language. Thus, Priscus, a Byzantine emissary to Attila, repeatedly referred to the latter's followers as "Scythians".

The Goths had displaced the Sarmatians in the 2nd century, and by early medieval times, the Turkic migration marginalized East Iranian dialects, and assimilated the Saka linguistically.


Archaeological remains of the Scythians include kurgan tombs (ranging from simple exemplars to elaborate "Royal kurgans" containing the "Scythian triad" of weapons, horse-harness, and Scythian-style wild-animal art), gold, silk, and animal sacrifices, in places also with suspected human sacrifices. Mummification techniques and permafrost have aided in the relative preservation of some remains. Scythian archaeology also examines the remains of North Pontic Scythian cities and fortifications.

Carbon-14 dating of kurgans has allowed archaeologists to trace their emergence in the Sayan-Altay area from about 3,000 BC, and their westward spread starting about 900 BC.[citation needed]

Archaeologists can distinguish three periods of ancient Scythian archaeological remains:

  • 1st period - pre-Scythian and initial Scythian epoch: from the 9th to the middle of the 7th centuries BC
  • 2nd period - early Scythian epoch: from the 7th to the 6th centuries BC
  • 3rd period - classical Scythian epoch: from the 5th to the 4th centuries BC

From the 8th century BC to the 2nd century BC, archeology records a split into two distinct settlement areas: the older in the Sayan-Altai area in Central Asia, and the younger in the North Pontic area in Eastern Europe<ref>A. Yu. Alekseev et al., "Chronology of Eurasian Scythian Antiquities..."</ref>.


Main article: Kurgans
Image:Throne arm.jpg
An arm from the throne of a Scythian king, 7th century BC. Found at the Kerkemess kurgan, Krasnodar Krai in 1905. On exhibit at the Hermitage Museum.

Large burial mounds (some over 20 metres high), provide the most valuable archeological remains associated with the Scythians. They dot the south Russian steppe, extending in great chains for many kilometers along ridges and watersheds. From them archaeologists have learnt much about Scythian life and art. <ref> John Boardman, I. E. S. Edwards, E. Sollberger, N. G. L. Hammond. The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge University Press. Jan 16, 1992, pg 550. </ref> The Russian term for such a burial mound, kurgan, derives from a Turkic word for "castle". <ref> "kurgan." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (10 Oct. 2006). </ref>


Scythian tribes and clans have left behind them as important ethnological markers their tamgas (or brand marks which identify individual possession), a must for pastoral societies with shared grazing-ranges. An alternative point of view sees tamgas as a real script consisting of syllables and several logograms. Tamgas allow reconstruction of movements and family links where no written records have survived.

Besides identifying property, tamgas marked participation of members of the clan in collective actions (treaties, religious ceremonies, fraternization, public functions), and served as symbols of authority for minting coins. The tamga forms stayed unchanged for about 2000 years within kindred ethnic groups, but after the decline of some famous clan another clan would adopt its tamga.

Wide use of tamgas originated from western Turkestan and Mongolia no later than the beginning of the 6th century BC.[citation needed] Analysis of tamgas for most powerful clans and for the kings of the Bosporus has allowed scholars to define precisely their genealogy and their relations with territories from where their forefathers migrated to Europe: Chorasm, Kang-Kü, Bactria, Sogdiana. <ref> S. A. Yatsenko, Tamgas ... </ref>

Pazyryk culture

Main article: Pazyryk

Some of the first Bronze Age Scythian burials documented by modern archaeologists include the kurgans at Pazyryk in the Ulagan district of the Altay Republic, south of Novosibirsk in the Altay Mountains of southern Siberia. Archaeologists have extrapolated the Pazyryk culture from these finds: five large burial mounds and several smaller ones between 1925 and 1949, one opened in 1947 by Russian archeologist Sergei Rudenko. The burial mounds concealed chambers of larch-logs covered over with large cairns of boulders and stones.

Pazyryk culture flourished between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC in the area associated with the Sacae.

Ordinary Pazyryk graves contain only common utensils, but in one, among other treasures, archaeologists found the famous Pazyryk Carpet, the oldest surviving wool-pile oriental rug. Another striking find, a 3-metre-high four-wheel funerary chariot, survived superbly preserved from the 5th century BC.

Horseman, Pazyryk felt artifact, ca. 300 BC.

Although some scholars sought to connect the Pazyryk nomads with indigenous ethnic groups of the Altay, Rudenko summed up the cultural context in the following dictum:

All that is known to us at the present time about the culture of the population of the High Altay, 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.[citation needed]

Belsk excavations

Recent digs[citation needed] in Belsk near Poltava (Ukraine) have uncovered a "vast city" tentatively identified by a team of archaeologists led by Boris Shramko as the site of Gelonus, the purported capital of Scythia. The city's commanding ramparts and vast area of 40 square kilometers exceed even the outlandish size reported by Herodotus. Its location at the northern edge of the Ukrainian steppe would have allowed strategic control of the north-south trade-route. Judging by the finds dated to the 5th and 4th centuries BC, craft workshops and Greek pottery abounded.

Scythian language

Main article: Scythian language

The personal names found in the contemporary Greek literary and epigraphic texts suggest that the language of the Scythians and the Sarmatians (who spoke a dialect of Scythian according to Hist. 4.117 Herodotus) belonged to the Northeast Iranian branch. An alternative theory suggests that at least some Scythian tribes, such as the Meotians (Sindi), spoke Indo-Aryan dialects. <ref> Rjabchikov 2004 </ref>

Naming and etymology

According to Herodotus (Hist. 4.6), the Scythians called themselves Skolotoi. The Greek Skythēs probably reflects an older rendering of the very same name, *Skuδa- (whereas Herodotus transcribes the unfamiliar [ð] as Λ; -toi represents the North-east Iranian plural ending -ta). The word originally means "shooter, archer", and it ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *skeud- "to shoot, throw" (compare English shoot). <ref> Oswald Szemerényi, "Four old Iranian ethnic names: Scythian - Skudra - Sogdian - Saka" (Sitzungsberichte der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 371), Vienna, 1980 = Scripta minora, vol. 4, pp. 2051-2093. </ref>

The Sogdians' name for themselves, Swγδ, may represent a related word (*Skuδa > *Suγuδa with an anaptyctic vowel). The name also occurs in Assyrian in the form Aškuzai or Iškuzai ("Scythian"). It may have provided the source for biblical Hebrew Ashkenaz (original *אשכוז ’škuz got misspelled as אשכנז ’šknz), later a Jewish name of the Germanic areas of Central Europe and hence a self-descriptor of the Central European Jews who lived there among the Ashkenazim ("Germans").

The Old Persians used another name for the Scythians, namely Saka, which perhaps derived from the Iranian verbal root sak- "to go, to roam", i.e. "wanderer, nomad". The Chinese knew the Saka (Asian Scythians) as Sai (Chinese character: 塞, Old Sinitic *sək).

Scythian society

Scythians lived in confederated tribes, a political form of voluntary association which regulated pastures and organized a common defence against encroaching neighbors for the pastoral tribes of mostly equestrian herdsmen. While the productivity of domesticated animal-breeding greatly exceeded that of the settled agricultural societies, the pastoral economy also needed supplemental agricultural produce, and stable nomadic confederations developed either symbiotic or forced alliances with sedentary peoples — in exchange for animal produce and military protection.

Herodotus relates that three main tribes of the Scythians descended from three brothers, Lipoxais, Arpoxais, and Colaxais<ref> Traces of the Iranian root xšaya — "ruler" — may persist in all three names. </ref>:

In their reign a plough, a yoke, an axe, and a bowl, all made of gold, fell from heaven upon the Scythian territory. The oldest of the brothers wished to take them away, but as he drew near the gold began to burn. The second brother approached them, but with the like result. The third and youngest then approached, upon which the fire went out, and he was enabled to carry away the golden gifts. The two eldest then made the youngest king, and henceforth the golden gifts were watched by the king with the greatest care, and annually approached with magnificent sacrifices.
Gold clothing appliqué, showing two Scythian archers, 400 to 350 BCE. Probably from Kul Oba, Crimea. British Museum.

Although scholars have traditionally treated the three tribes as geographically distinct, Georges Dumézil interpreted the divine gifts as the symbols of social occupations, illustrating his trifunctional vision of early Indo-European societies: the plough and yoke symbolised the farmers, the axe — the warriors, the bowl — the priests. <ref> The first scholar to compare the three strata of Scythian society to the Indian castes, Arthur Christensen, published Les types du premiere homme et du premier roi dans l'histoire legendaire des Iraniens, I (Stockholm, Leiden, 1917). </ref> According to Dumézil, "the fruitless attempts of Arpoxais and Lipoxais, in contrast to the success of Colaxais, may explain why the highest strata was not that of farmers or magicians, but rather that of warriors." <ref> Quoted in Wouter Wiggert Belier. Decayed Gods: Origin and Development of Georges Dumezil's "Ideologie Tripartie". Brill Academic Publishers, 1991. ISBN 9004061959. Page 69. </ref>

Ruled by small numbers of closely-allied élites, Scythians had a reputation for their archers, and many gained employment as mercenaries. Scythian élites had kurgan tombs: high barrows heaped over chamber-tombs of larch-wood — a deciduous conifer that may have had special significance as a tree of life-renewal, for it stands bare in winter. Burials at Pazyryk in the Altay Mountains have included some spectacularly preserved Scythians of the "Pazyryk culture" — including the Ice Maiden of the 5th century BC.

Scythian women dressed in much the same fashion as the men, and at times fought alongside them in battle. A Pazyryk burial found in the 1990s confirms this. 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 "Ice Mummies". Scythian warrior-women have become popular contenders for the honour of having inspired the Greek myths of the Amazons. The work of Jeannine Davis-Kimball (Secrets of the Dead, August 4, 2004) assembles archaeological evidence that the Sarmatians may have provided another source for the Greek tales.

As far as we know, the Scythians had no writing system. Until recent archaeological developments, most of our information about them came from the Greeks. The Ziwiye hoard, a treasure of gold and silver metalwork and ivory found near the town of Sakiz south of Lake Urmia and dated to between 680 and 625 BC, includes objects with Scythian "animal style" features. One silver dish from this find bears some inscriptions, as yet undeciphered and so possibly representing a form of Scythian writing.

Homer called the Scythians "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 saddle-cloths. Herodotus reports that Scythians used cannabis, both to weave their clothing and to cleanse themselves in its smoke (Hist. 4.73-75); archaeology has confirmed the use of cannabis in funeral rituals. The Scythian philosopher Anacharsis visited Athens in the 6th century BC and became a legendary sage.

Scythians also had reputations for their usage of barbed and poisoned arrows of several types, for a nomadic life centered around horses — "fed from horse-blood" according to Herodotus — and for skill in guerrilla warfare.


Main article: Scythian art
The Hermitage Museum has preserved by far the greatest collection of Scythian gold, including one of the most famous of all Scythian finds: the golden comb, featuring a battle-scene, from the 4th century Solokha royal burial mound.

Scythian contacts with craftsmen in Greek colonies along the northern shores of the Black Sea resulted in the famous Scythian gold adornments that feature among the most glamorous artifacts of world museums. Ethnographically extremely useful as well, the gold depicts Scythian men as bearded, long-haired Caucasoids. "Greco-Scythian" works depicting Scythians within a much more Hellenic style date from a later period, when Scythians had already adopted Greek culture.

Scythians had a taste for elaborate personal jewelry, weapon-ornaments and horse-trappings. They executed Central-Asian animal motifs with Greek realism: winged gryphons attacking horses, battling stags, deer, and eagles, combined with everyday motifs like milking ewes.

In 2000 the touring exhibition 'Scythian Gold' introduced the North American public 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 present-day Ukraine, most of them unearthed after 1980.

In 2001, the discovery of an undisturbed royal Scythian burial-barrow illustrated for the first time Scythian animal-style gold that lacks 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.



Herodotus tells of an enormous city, Gelonus, in the northern part of Scythia (4.108):

"The Budini are a large and powerful nation: they have all deep blue eyes, and bright red hair. There is a city in their territory, called Gelonus, which is surrounded with a lofty wall, thirty furlongs [τριήκοντα σταδίων = ca. 5,5 km] each way, built entirely of wood. All the houses in the place and all the temples are of the same material. Here are temples built in honour of the Grecian gods, and adorned after the Greek fashion with images, altars, and shrines, all in wood. There is even a festival, held every third year in honour of Bacchus, at which the natives fall into the Bacchic fury. For the fact is that the Geloni were anciently Greeks, who, being driven out of the factories along the coast, fled to the Budini and took up their abode with them. They still speak a language half Greek, half Scythian." (transl. Rawlinson)

Herodotus and other classical historians list quite a number of tribes who lived near the Scythians, and presumably shared the same general milieu and nomadic steppe culture, often called "Scythian culture", even though scholars may have difficulties in determining their exact relationship to the "linguistic Scythians". A partial list of these tribes includes the Agathyrsi, Geloni, Budini, and Neuri.

Herodotus retells four different versions of Scythian origins:

  1. Firstly (4.7), the Scythians' legend about themselves, which portrays the first Scythian king, Targitaus, as the child of the sky-god and of a daughter of the Dnieper. Targitaus allegedly lived a thousand years before the failed Persian invasion of Scythia, or around 1500 BC. He had three sons, before whom fell from the sky a set of four golden implements — a plough, a yoke, a cup and a battle-axe. Only the youngest son succeeded in touching the golden implements without them bursting with fire, and this son's descendants, called by Herodotus the "Royal Scythians", continued to guard them.
  1. Secondly (4.8), a legend told by the Pontic Greeks featuring Scythes, the first king of the Scythians, as a child of Hercules and a monster.
  1. Thirdly (4.11), in the version which Herodotus said he believed most, the Scythians came from a more southern part of Central Asia, until a war with the Massagetae (a powerful tribe of steppe nomads who lived just northeast of Persia) forced them westward.
  1. Finally (4.13), a legend which Herodotus attributed to the Greek bard Aristeas, who claimed to have got himself into such a Bachanalian fury that he ran all the way northeast across Scythia and further. According to this, the Scythians originally lived south of the Rhipaean mountains, until they got into a conflict with a tribe called the Issedones, pressed in their turn by the Cyclopes; and so the Scythians decided to migrate westwards.

Persians and other peoples in Asia referred to the Scythians living in Asia as Sakas. Herodotus describes them as Scythians, although they figure under a different name:

"The Sacae, or Scyths, were clad in trousers, and had on their heads tall stiff caps rising to a point. They bore the bow of their country and the dagger; besides which they carried the battle-axe, or sagaris. They were in truth Amyrgian (Western) Scythians, but the Persians called them Sacae, since that is the name which they gave to all Scythians." (Herodotus 4.64)


In the 1st century BCE, the Greek-Roman geographer Strabo gives an extensive description of the eastern Scythians, whom he located in north-eastern Asia beyond Bactria and Sogdiana:

"Then comes Bactriana, and Sogdiana, and finally the Scythian nomads." (Strabo, Geography, 11.8.1)

Strabo goes on to list the names of the various tribes among the Scythians, probably making an amalgam with some of the tribes of eastern Central Asia (such as the Tochari):

"Now the greater part of the Scythians, beginning at the Caspian Sea, are called Dahae, but those who are situated more to the east than these are named Massagetae and Sacae, whereas all the rest are given the general name of Scythians, though each people is given a separate name of its own. They are all for the most part nomads.
But the best known of the nomads are those who took away Bactriana from the Greeks (i.e. Greco-Bactrians), I mean the Asii, Pasiani, Tochari, and Sacarauli, who originally came from the country on the other side of the Jaxartes River that adjoins that of the Sacae and the Sogdiani and was occupied by the Sacae.
And as for the Däae, some of them are called Aparni, some Xanthii, and some Pissuri. Now of these the Aparni are situated closest to Hyrcania and the part of the sea that borders on it, but the remainder extend even as far as the country that stretches parallel to Aria." (Strabo, Geography, 11.8.1)

Indian sources

Silver coin of the Indo-Scythian King Azes II (r.c. 35-12 7BC). Note the royal tamga on the coin.

Sakas receive numerous mentions in Indian texts, including the Puranas, the Manusmriti, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Mahabhashya of Patanjali, the Brhat Samhita of Vraha Mihira, the Kavyamimamsa, the Brhat-Katha-Manjari and the Kaṭha-Saritsagara.

Hebrew Bible

The people briefly mentioned in the Bible as "Ashkenaz" — perhaps as a result of ancient Hebrew alphabet misreading: אשכנז instead of the correct אשכוז (= Ashkūz), in Genesis x. 3 and I Chronicles i. 6 — traced their ancestry back through Gomer to Noah's third son, Japheth. The Book of Jeremiah li. 27, 28, mentions Ashkenaz in connection with the kingdoms of Ararat and Minni (in the Taurus Mountains), together with the Medes — and portrays them all as hostile to Babylon.


Genetic research in modern populations reveals[citation needed] that the same paternal Y-chromosome haplogroup (R1a) represents a genetic lineage currently found in central, western and south Asia, and in Slavic populations of Europe. The simplest explanation of this distribution involves this Y-chromosome mutation originating in people of the kurgan-building culture of prehistoric Scythia.

Post-classical "Scythians"

Migration period

Although the classical Scythians may have largely disappeared by the 1st century BC, Eastern Romans continued to speak conventionally of "Scythians" to designate mounted Eurasian nomadic barbarians in general: in 448 AD two mounted "Scythians" led the emissary Priscus to Attila's encampment in Pannonia. The Byzantines in this case carefully distinguished the Scythians from the Goths and Huns who also followed Attila.

The Sarmatians, the Alans, and finally the Ossetes counted as Scythians in the broadest sense of the word — as speakers of Northeast Iranian languages — but nevertheless remain distinct from the Scythians proper. <ref> The Ossetes, the only Iranian people presently resident in Europe, call their country Iriston or Iron, though North Ossetia now officially has the designation Alania. They speak an North-Eastern Iranian language Ossetic, whose more widely-spoken dialect, Iron or Ironig (i.e. Iranian), preserves some similarities with the Gathic Avestan language, another Iranian language of the Eastern branch. </ref>

Byzantine sources also refer to the Rus raiders who attacked Constantinople around 860 AD in contemporary accounts as "Tauroscythians", because of their geographical origin, and despite their lack of any ethnic relation to Scythians. Patriarch Photius may have first applied the term to them during the Siege of Constantinople (860).

Early Modern usage

Owing to their reputation as established by Greek historians, the Scythians long served as the epitome of savagery and barbarism in the early modern period. Shakespeare, for instance, alluded to the legend that Scythians ate their parents in his play King Lear: The barbarous Scythian / Or he that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom / Be as well neighbour'd, pitied, and relieved, / As thou my sometime daughter. <ref> Act I, Scene i. </ref>

Characteristically, early modern English discourse on Ireland frequently resorted to comparisons with Scythians in order to confirm that the indigenous population of Ireland descended from these ancient "bogeymen", and showed themselves 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).

As proofs for this origin Spenser cites the alleged Irish customs of blood-drinking, nomadic lifestyle, the wearing of mantles and certain haircuts and

"Cryes allsoe vsed amongeste the Irishe which savor greatlye of the Scythyan Barbarisme".

William Camden, one of Spenser's main sources, comments on this legend 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., English translation 1610).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, foreigners regarded the Russians as descendants of Scythians. It became conventional to refer to Russians as Scythians in 18th-century poetry, and Alexander Blok drew on this tradition sarcastically in his last major poem, The Scythians (1920). In the nineteenth century, romantic revisionists in the West transformed the "barbarian" Scyths of literature into the wild and free, hardy and democratic ancestors of all blond Indo-Europeans.


Some modern ethnic groups have claimed descent from the Scythians as a means to prolong their national history and to provide a prestigious connection with classical antiquity. The Scythians feature in the national origin-legends of the Celts and in traditions of the Turkic Kazakhs and Yakuts (who call themselves "Sakha"); and the Pashtuns, Gujjars and Maratha's of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan connect these peoples to Scythians. Some legends of the Picts; the Gaels; the Hungarians; Serbs and Croats (among others) also include mention of Scythian origins. In the second paragraph of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath the élite of Scotland claim Scythia as a former homeland of the Scots. Some romantic nationalist writers claim that Scythians 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. Claims of Scythian origins also play a role in both Pan-Turkism and Sarmatism.




  • Alekseev, A. Yu. et al., "Chronology of Eurasian Scythian Antiquities Born by New Archaeological and 14C Data". Radiocarbon, Vol .43, No 2B, 2001, p 1085-1107.
  • Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. 2002. Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines. Warner Books, New York. 1st Trade printing, 2003. ISBN 0-446-67983-6 (pbk).
  • Gamkrelidze and Ivanov (1984). Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Typological Analysis of a Proto-Language and Proto-Culture (Parts I and II). Tbilisi State University.
  • Harmatta, J., "Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians", Acta Universitatis de Attila József Nominatae. Acta antique et archaeologica Tomus XIII. Szeged 1970 [3]
  • Mallory, J.P. (1989). In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language Archeology and Myth. Thames and Hudson. Chapter 2; and pages 51-53 for a quick reference.
  • Newark, T. (1985). The Barbarians: Warriors and wars of the Dark Ages. Blandford: New York. See pages 65, 85, 87, 119-139.
  • Renfrew, C. (1988). Archeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European origins. Cambridge University Press.
  • Rolle, Renate, The world of the Scythians, London and New York (1989).
  • Rjabchikov, S. V., The Scythians, Sarmatians, Meotians and Slavs: Sign System, Mythology, Folklore. Rostov-on-Don, 2004 (in Russian)
  • Rybakov, Boris. Paganism of Ancient Rus. Nauka, Moscow, 1987 (in Russian)
  • Sulimirski, T. "The Scyths," in Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 2: 149-99 [4]
  • Szemerényi, O., "Four Old Iranian Ethnic Names: SCYTHIAN - SKUDRA - SOGDIAN - SAKA", Vienna (1980) [5]
  • Torday, Laszlo (1998). Mounted Archers: The Beginnings of Central Asian History. Durham Academic Press. ISBN 1-90-083803-6.
  • Yatsenko, S. A., "Tamgas of Iranolingual antique and Early Middle Ages people". Russian Academy of Science, Moscow Press "Eastern Literature", 2001 (in Russian)

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