Infobox Ethnic group

popplace=Eastern Europe
Central Asia
West Asia
Northern India
langs=Scythian language
The Scythians or Scyths [Scythians are pronounced IPA|/'sɪθɪən/ or IPA|/'sɪðɪən/. Scyths are pronounced IPA|/'sɪθs/. From Greek polytonic|Σκύθης. Note "Scytho-" IPA|/'saɪθəʊ/ in composition (OED).] ( _el. Σκύθες, Σκύθοι) were an Iranian speaking people of horse-riding nomadic pastoralists [Scythian, member of a nomadic people originally of Iranian people who migrated from Central Asia to southern Russia in the 8th and 7th centuries BC - "The New Encyclopedia Britannica", 15th edition - Micropaedia on "Scythian", 10:576] [ [ Scythian mummy shown in Germany] , BBC News] who dominated the Pontic steppe throughout Classical Antiquity. By Late Antiquity the closely-related Sarmatians came to dominate the Scyths in this area. Much of the surviving information about the Scyths comes from the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 440 BC) in his "Histories", and archaeologically from the exquisite goldwork found in Scythian burial mounds in Ukraine and Southern Russia.

The name "Scythian" has also been used to refer to various peoples seen as similar to the Scythians, or who lived anywhere in a vast area covering present-day Ukraine, Russia and Central Asia — known until medieval times as Scythia. [ [ Frozen Siberian Mummies Reveal a Lost Civilization] , DISCOVER Magazine] The name was also used among early scholars studying the Proto Indo-Europeans, and within the framework of the Kurgan hypothesis the Scythians are considered a reasonable analogue for their Proto Indo-European ancestors.

History and archeology

Origins and pre-history (to 700 BC)

Scholars generally classify the Scythian language as a member of the Eastern Iranian languages, and the Scythians as a branch of the ancient Iranian peoples expanding into the steppe regions north of Greater Iran from around 1000 BC.
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. [] ] Sulimirski, T. "The Scyths" in "Cambridge History of Iran," vol. 2: 149-99 [] ] [ Grousset, Rene. "The empire of the Steppes," Rutgers University Press, 1989, pg 19 ;Jacbonson, Esther. "The Art of Scythians," Brill Academic Publishers, 1995, pg 63 ISBN 90-04-09856-9 ;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;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);Newark, T. "The Barbarians: Warriors and wars of the Dark Ages," Blandford: New York. See pages 65, 85, 87, 119-139. ,1985;
Renfrew, C. "Archeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European origins," Cambridge University Press, 1988;
Abaev, V.I. and H. W. Bailey, "Alans," "Encyclopaedia Iranica," Vol. 1. pp. 801-803. ;"Great Soviet Encyclopedia," (translation of the 3rd Russian-language edition), 31 vols., New York, 1973-1983.;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. ;Sinor, Denis. "Inner Asia: History — Civilization — Languages," Routledge, 1997 pg 82 ISBN 0-7007-0896-0 ;"Scythian." (2006). In "Encyclopædia Britannica". Retrieved September 7, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service ;Masica, Colin P. "The Indo-Aryan Languages", Cambridge University Press, 1993, pg 48 ISBN 0-521-29944-6

The "Histories" of Herodotus provide the most important literary sources relating to ancient Scyths. According to Sulimirski, Herodotus provides a broadly correct depiction but apparently knew little of the eastern part of Scythia. According to Herodotus the ancient Persians 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". 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". The related words derive from *skuza, an ancient Indo-European word for archer (cf. English shoot), hence Iranian "Ishkuzi" = archers.

The Scythians first appeared in the historical record in the 8th century BC. But Herodotus reported this version: [Herodotus 4.11 trans. G. Rawlinson.]

Around 676 BC, 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)

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.Fact|date=February 2007

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 East 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 later, in the mid-3th century AD.


Asians, especially Persians, knew the Scythians in Asia as Sakas. The Indo-Scythians had the name "Shaka" in South Asia, an extension on the name "Saka". Herodotus (VII.64) describes them as Scythians, called by a different name:


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 eastern Tarim Basin 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 Punjab 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". In Attila's regime Edekon was the king of Scythians.

The Goths had displaced the Sarmatians in the 2nd century from most areas near the Roman frontier, 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.Fact|date=February 2007

The spectacular Scythian grave-goods from Arzhan, and others in Tuva have been dated from about 900 BC onward. One grave find on the lower Volga gave a similar date, and one of the Steblev graves from the eastern, European end of the Scythian area was dated to the late 8th century BC. [SOME PROBLEMS IN THE STUDY OF THE CHRONOLOGY OF THE ANCIENT NOMADIC CULTURES IN EURASIA(9TH - 3RD CENTURIES BC. A.YU.ALEKSEEV, N.A.BOKOVENKO, YU.BOLTRIK, et alia. GEOCHRONOMETRIA Vol. 21, pp 143-150, 2002. Journal on Methods and Applications of Absolute Chronology. Available at ]

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. [A. Yu. Alekseev "et al.", "Chronology of Eurasian Scythian Antiquities..."]


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


Scythian tribes and clans have left behind them as important ethnological markers their "tamgas" (brand-marks which identify individual possession), a must for pastoral societies with shared grazing-ranges. 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.Fact|date=February 2007 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. [S. A. Yatsenko, "Tamgas ..."]

Pazyryk culture

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 archaeologist 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 . Another striking find, [ a 3-metre-high four-wheel funerary chariot] , survived superbly preserved from the 5th century 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:Fact|date=February 2007

Belsk excavations

Recent digsFact|date=February 2007(see:Gelonus) in Belsk near Poltava (Ukraine) have uncovered a "vast city", with the largest area of any city in the world at that time. It has been 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.

Tillia tepe treasure

A site found in 1968 in Tillia tepe (literally "The golden hill") in northern Afghanistan (former Bactria) near Shebergan consisted of the graves of five women and one man with extremely rich jewelry, dated to around the 1st century BC, and generally thought to belong to Scythian tribes. Altogether the graves yielded several thousands of pieces of fine jewelry, usually made from combinations of gold, turquoise and lapis-lazuli.

A high degree of cultural syncretism pervades the findings, however. Hellenistic cultural and artistic influences appear in many of the forms and human depictions (from amorini to rings with the depiction of Athena and her name inscribed in Greek), attributable to the existence of the Seleucid empire and Greco-Bactrian kingdom in the same area until around 140 BC, and the continued existence of the Indo-Greek kingdom in the northwestern Indian sub-continent until the beginning of our era. This testifies to the richness of cultural influences in the area of Bactria at that time.

cythian influences


Ancient influences from Central Asia became identifiable in China following contacts of metropolitan China with nomadic western and northwestern border territories from the 8th century BC.Chinese jade-carvers began to make imitations of the designs of the steppes. The Chinese adopted the Scythian-style animal art of the steppes (descriptions of animals locked in combat), particularly the rectangular belt-plaques made of gold or bronze, and created their own versions in jade and steatite. [Mallory and Mair, "The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West", 2000)]

Following their expulsion by the Yuezhi, some Scythians may also have migrated to the area of Yunnan in southern China. Excavations of the prehistoric art of the Dian civilization of Yunnan have revealed hunting scenes of Caucasoid horsemen in Central Asian clothing. ["Les Saces", Iaroslav Lebedynsky, p.73 ISBN 2877723372]

Northeastern Asia

Scythian influences have been identified as far as Korea and Japan. Various Korean artifacts, such as the royal crowns of the kingdom of Silla, are said to be of Scythian design. [Crowns similar to the Scythian ones discovered in Tillia Tepe "appear later, during the 5th and 6th century at the eastern edge of the Asia continent, in the tumulus tombs of the Kingdom of Silla, in South-East Korea. "Afganistan, les trésors retrouvés", 2006, p282, ISBN 9782711852185] Similar crowns, brought through contacts with the continent, can also be found in Kofun era Japan.

cythian language

The Scythian language and its various dialects formed part of the Indo-European language-family. 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. [Rjabchikov 2004]

Naming and etymology

The Scythians known to Herodotus ("Hist". 4.6) called themselves Skolotoi. The Greek word Skythēs probably reflects an older rendering of the very same name, *"Skuδa-" (whereas Herodotus transcribes the unfamiliar IPA| [ð] sound with 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", German "Schütze").

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") at that time called Teutons or Wendels.

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"). The modern province Iranian province of Sistan takes its name from the classical Sakestan (place of Saka). [Donna Rosenberg, "World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics ", NTC Pub. Group, 1999. pg 58. excerpt:"Later, in the second century B.C., related Saka tribes moved southwest from Sakestan ("the land of the Sakas")to the area that become Seistan and Zabulistan on the eastern border of Persia."] [B.N. Puri, "The Sakas and Indo-Parthians" in Ahmad Hasan Dani, Vadim Mikhaĭlovich Masson, János Harmatta, Boris Abramovich Litvinovskiĭ,Edmund Bosworth. History of Civilizations of Central Asia, Motilal Banarsidass Publ, 1999. excerpt:""The Indo-Greeks in Kabul impeded further Saka progress and compelled them to move westwards in the direction of Herat and thence to Sistan. This country was finally named Sakastan after them."] [Jane Hathaway, "A Tale of Two Factions: Myth, Memory, and Identity in Ottoman Egypt and Yemen".SUNY Press, 2003. excerpt:"Sistan (Sakastan) takes its name from the Scythians"]

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: [Traces of the Iranian root "xšaya" — "ruler" — may persist in all three names.]

cquote|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. [cite book | last=Herodotus | title=History | pages=Book IV, verse 5 | url= ]

Herodotus also mentions a royal tribe or clan, an elite which dominated the other Scythians:

cquote|The elder brothers then, acknowledging the significance of this thing, delivered the whole of the kingly power to the youngest. From Lixopais, they say, are descended those Scythians who are called the race of the Auchatai; from the middle brother Arpoxais those who are called Catiaroi and Traspians, and from the youngest of them the “Royal” tribe, who are called Paralatai: and the whole together are called, they say, Scolotoi, after the name of their king; but the Hellenes gave them the name of Scythians. Thus the Scythians say they were produced; and from the time of their origin, that is to say from the first king Targitaos, to the passing over of Dareios [the Persian Emperor Darius I] against them [512 BC] , they say that there is a period of a thousand years and no more. [cite book | last=Herodotus | title=History | pages=Book IV, verses 6-7 | url= ]

This royal clan is also named in other classical sources the "Royal Dahae". The rich burials of Scythian kings in (kurgans) is independent evidence for the existence of this powerful royal elite.

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. [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). ] 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." [Quoted in Wouter Wiggert Belier. "Decayed Gods: Origin and Development of Georges Dumezil’s "Ideologie Tripartie". Brill Academic Publishers, 1991. ISBN 90-04-06195-9. Page 69.]

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 men, and at times fought alongside them in battle. A Pazyryk burial found in the 1990s contained the skeletons of a man and a woman, each with weapons, arrowheads, and an axe. In the 1998 NOVA documentary "Ice Mummies", an archaeologist explains that, "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."

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 a reputation for the use 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.


thumb|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 elements of 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.


The religious beliefs of the Scythians was a type of Pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion and differed from the post-Zoroastrian Iranian thoughts.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. pg 182] Foremost in the Scythian pantheon stood Tabiti, who was later replaced by Atar, the fire-pantheon of Iranian tribes, and Agni, the fire deity of Indo-Aryans. The Scythian belief was a more archaic stage than the Zoroastrian and Hindu systems. The use of hemp to induce trance and divination by soothsayers was a characteristic of the Scythian belief system.



Herodotus wrote about an enormous city, Gelonus, in the northern part of Scythia [Herodotus 4.108 trans. Rawlinson.]

Herodotus and other classical historians listed 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 presented four different versions of Scythian origins:

# 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.
# 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.
# 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.
# 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 (IV.64) describes them as Scythians, although they figure under a different name:


In the 1st century BC, the Greek-Roman geographer Strabo gave an extensive description of the eastern Scythians, whom he located in north-eastern Asia beyond Bactria and Sogdiana: [ [ Strabo, "Geography", 11.8.1] ]

Strabo went 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 Tocharians): [ [ Strabo, "Geography", 11.8.1] ]

Indian sources

Sakas receive numerous mentions in Indian texts, including the Puranas, the Manusmriti, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Mahabhashya of Patanjali, the Brhat Samhita of Varaha 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" 10:3 and "1 Chronicles" 1:6 — traced their ancestry back through Gomer to Noah's third son, Japheth. The Book of "Jeremiah" 51:27, 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. They are also mentioned in 2 Maccabees 4:47.


Genetic research in modern populations reveals [Semino et al. [ The Genetic Legacy of Paleolithic "Homo sapiens sapiens" in Extant Europeans: A Y Chromosome Perspective] , "Science", 290, 1155-1159, 2000] that the same paternal Y-chromosome haplogroup (R1a1) represents a genetic lineage currently found in central, western and south Asia, and in Slavic populations of Europe. The distribution of this haplogroup has been posited to represent the spread of peoples from the Ukrainian steppelands which served as an ice-age refuge during the LGM, in the eneolithic succeeded by the Pit Grave ("Kurgan") culture. This latter culture is associated with the spread of Indo-European languages in the "Kurgan hypothesis". The R1a allele thus far predates the Scythians, and its distribution consequently cannot be used simplistically to trace Scythian migrations in particular.

The distribution of Y-chromosome haplogroup (G2) from Pakistan and northwest India and out to Spain rather closely mirrors the spread of the Scythians, Sarmatians, and their offshoot, the Alans. Haplogroup G2 reaches its highest worldwide concentration in the Caucasian Russian Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, and the present-day Ossetians, who speak a Scythian Northeast Iranic language are the last remnant of the ancient Alans. Although this may be indirect evidence of Scythian "genetic legacy", it is likewise of Neolithic origin and cannot be used as a one-to-one identification of Scythian ancestry.

Mitochondrial DNA extracted from skeletal remains obtained from excavated Scythian kurgans have produced a myriad of results and conclusions. Analysis of the HV1 sequence obtained from a male Scytho-Siberian's remains at the Kizil site in the Altai Republic revealed the individual possessed the N1a maternal lineage. The study also noted that haplogroup mtDNA N1a was found at a relatively high frequency in the southern fringes of the Eurasian steppe, Iran (8.3%), and within the Indian Havik group (8.3%), an upper Brahman caste. From this, a possible link to ancient populations presumed to have come from Europe that lived in the neighboring Central Asian parts of India and Iran was suggested. [Ricaut, F. et al. 2004. Genetic Analysis of a Scytho-Siberian Skeleton and Its Implications for Ancient Central Asian Migrations. "Human Biology". 76 (1): 109–125]

Additionally, mitochondrial DNA has been extracted from two Scytho-Siberian skeletons found in the Altai Republic (Russia) dating back 2,500 years. Both remains were determined to be of males from a population who had characteristics "of mixed Euro-Mongoloid origin." One of the individuals was found to carry the F2a maternal lineage, and the other the D lineage, both of which are characteristic of East Eurasian populations. [Ricaut,F. et al. 2004. Genetic Analysis and Ethnic Affinities From TwoScytho-Siberian Skeletons. "American Journal of Physical Anthropology". 123:351–360]

Maternal genetic analysis of Saka period male and female skeletal remains from a double inhumation kurgan located at the Beral site in Kazakhstan determined that the two were most likely not closely related and were possibly husband and wife. The HV1 mitochondrial sequence of the male was similar to the Anderson sequence which is most frequent in European populations. Contrary, the HV1 sequence of the female suggested a greater likelihood of Asian origins. The study's findings were in line with the hypothesis that mixings between Scythians and other populations occurred. This was buttressed by the discovery of several objects with a Chinese inspiration in the grave. No conclusive associations with haplogroups were made though it was suggested that the female may have derived from either mtDNA X or D. [Clisson, I. et al. 2002. Genetic analysis of human remains from a double inhumation in a frozen kurgan in Kazakhstan (Berel site, Early 3rd Century BC). "International Journal of Legal Medicine". 116:304–308]

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 Germanic tribes and confederations [see Zosimus, "Historia Nova", 1.23 & 1.28, also Zonaras, "Epitome historiarum", book 12. Also the title "Scythika" of the lost work of the 3rd century Greek historian Dexippus who narrated the Germanic invasions of his age] or 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 (including the Alans and finally the Ossetians) counted as Scythians in the broadest sense of the word — as speakers of Northeast Iranian languages — but nevertheless remain distinct from the Scythians proper. [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.]

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 children in his play "King Lear":cquote|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. [King Lear Act I, Scene i.]

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

William Camden, one of Spenser's main sources, comments on this legend of origin that

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 extend back in time their national history, and to provide a prestigious connection with classical antiquity.

The Scythians feature in some post-Medieval national origin-legends of the Celts.

British historian Sharon Turner in his "History of the Anglo-Saxons", concluded:"“The migrating Scythians crossed the Araxes, passed out of Asia, and suddenly appeared in Europe in the sixth century B.C.”Citing many ancient sources, Turner identified the Scythians ("Sakai") as the ancestors of the Anglo Saxons. However, that conclusion remains controversial.

Traditions of the Turkic Kazakhs and Yakuts (whose endoethnonym is "Sakha"); and the Pashtuns of 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.

Various Frankish and Carolingian sources traced royal Merovingian ancestry to the Germanic tribe of the Sicambri. Gregory of Tours documents in his "History of the Franks" that when Clovis was baptised, he was referred to as a Sicamber with the words "Mitis depone colla, Sicamber, adora quod incendisti, incendi quod adorasti."'. The Chronicle of Fredegar in turn reveals that the Franks believed the Sicambri to be a tribe of Scythian or Cimmerian descent, who had changed their name to Franks in honour of their chieftain Franco in 11 BC.


Further reading

* 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 []
* Jaedtke, Wolfgang. "Steppenkind", Piper Verlag, Munich 2008. ISBN 978-3-492-25146-4. This novel contains detailed descriptions of the life of nomadic Scythians around 700 BC (German).
* Lebedynsky, I. (2001). "Les Scythes: la civilisation nomade des steppes VIIe - III siècle av. J.-C." / Errance, Paris.
* Lebedynsky Iaroslav (2006) "Les Saces", Editions Errance, ISBN 2877723372
* 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 []
* Szemerényi, O., "Four Old Iranian Ethnic Names: SCYTHIAN - SKUDRA - SOGDIAN - SAKA", Vienna (1980) []
* Torday, Laszlo (1998). "Mounted Archers: The Beginnings of Central Asian History". Durham Academic Press. ISBN 1-900838-03-6.
* Yatsenko, S. A., "Tamgas of Iranolingual antique and Early Middle Ages people". Russian Academy of Science, Moscow Press "Eastern Literature", 2001 (in Russian)

External links

* [ "A chronology of the Scythian antiquities of Eurasia based on new archaeological and C-14 data", Alekseev, A.Y. et al] A detailed scholarly article on pre-Scythian, early Scythian and classical Scythian archaeological sites and their dating, by the Hermitage Museum's director of archaeology and others.
* [ "Some problems in the study of the chronology of the ancient nomadic cultures in Eurasia (9th - 3rd centuries BC)", Alekseev, A.Y. et al] More of the same.
* [ "Scythian Gold From Siberia Said to Predate the Greeks"] A journalist's article on the Arzhan finds, quoting Hermitage experts
* [,23739,20246739-5003419,00.html A Scythian warrior found at a height of 2600 metres in the Altay Mountains in an intact burial mound] (August 25, 2006)
* [ Scythians overview] by Chris Bennet
* [ "Livius" website articles on ancient history, entry on Scythians/Sacae] by Jona Lendering
* [ The early burial in Tuva]
* [ Scythian myth and culture; map]
* [ Color illustrations of Scythian gold]
* [ Published excavations of royal Scythian kurgan (barrow) at Chertomlyk reviewed]
* [ all known Scythian kings listed on "Regnal Chronologies"]
* [ Herodotus, "Histories, Book IV" - translated by Rawlinson, the 1942 edition]
** [ Livio Stecchini, "The Mapping of the Earth: Scythia"] : reconstructing the map of Scythia according to the conceptual geography of Herodotus
** [ Livio Stecchini, "The Mapping of the Earth: Gerrhos"]
* [ 1998 NOVA documentary: "Ice Mummies: Siberian Ice Maiden"] Transcript
* [ on Sarmatian (a related Iranian group) trade and ethnic connections]
* [ Scythia Group (a Yahoo group for discussing the Scythians)]

* [ "Archaeology" abstract of 1997 article]
* [ the Ryzhanovka Kurgan in Ukraine]

* [ Haplogroups in India] (PDF file)
* [ Y-Chromosome Biallelic Haplogroups]

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