Prehistoric Religions: The Eurasian Steppes and Inner Asia

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During the Aeneolithic epoch of the fifth to the third millennium bce two types of cultures developed in the steppe zone of Eurasia. One was a sedentary culture of primitive agriculturists and livestock breeders. They lived in clay-walled dwellings that were grouped in fortified settlements. To this type belong the Anau (Jeytun) culture of southern Turkmenia, whose scientific study was inaugurated with the excavations made by Raphael Pumpelly's American expedition to the Anau mounds near Ashkhabad, and the Tripolye-Cucuteni culture between the Dnieper River and the eastern Carpathian Mountains. (The Tripolye-type remains were identified by the prerevolutionary Russian scholar V. V. Khvoiko.) These cultures are known in detail today primarily through the work of Soviet scholars.

The Aeneolithic cultures were closely connected with the oldest centers of agricultural civilization in the Near Eastthe Anau culture directly so, and the Tripolye-Cucuteni through the medium of the archaeological cultures of the Balkans. Adjoining the Aeneolithic cultures were those of livestock-breeding steppe tribes. In the steppe areas around the Caspian and Black seas, from the Urals to the Crimea, was the Pit-Grave cultural community; in the south of Siberia, in the Minusinsk Basin, was the Afanas'evo culture. The tribes of these two groups of cultures were closely related.

Tripolye-Cucuteni Religion

The religious concepts of the Tripolye-Cucuteni tribes are revealed by analysis of amulets, paintings on pottery, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuettes, models of dwellings and utensils, altars, and so on. The clay models of dwellings are in the form of two-storied houses with an accentuated rounded or quadrangular upper story. Inside is a representation of a bread-baking oven, with an anthropomorphic idol next to it. Excavations of the settlements have revealed that some houses contained clay altars in the form of a female figure, sometimes with a bird's head or a head in the shape of a chalice or cylinder. There were also ritual clay dippers. Sanctuaries adjoined the dwellings and were entirely separate from them, and the cult they housed was evidently a fertility cult. In the sanctuaries were distinctive clay "horned thrones" whose backs imitated bulls' horns.

The most abundant source for understanding the Tripolye ideology are the pottery with its paintings and moldings, and the statuettes. The paintings on Tripolye vessels are divided into three vertical zones that evidently represent a tripartite concept of the universe. In mythological depictions the sun is associated with the bull, and also, at times, with the female principle (the female breast). This apparently symbolizes a cosmogonic configuration of the world that combined the male and female principles. The snake as well occupied a high position in the mythological hierarchy. The world was thought to have the form of a square or a circle, and a female deity may have taken part in the process of creation, as suggested by a vessel with a female figure in relief embracing it, as it were, with both arms. A parallel is the Sumerian goddess Ninhursaga, who gives form as "mistress creator" or "mistress potter." Religious customs included ritual dances; dancing female figures are depicted on several vessels. The dances may be Dadolaic ceremonies for bringing rain, or magic fertility rites.

Anthropomorphic plastic art, especially statuettes, is combined with ornamental designs and portrayals. There are several types of female statuettes, some with signs of pregnancy. One group of statuettes has designs with a diamond shapea sexual symbol. In this way, the female principle and the idea of fertility were emphasized, as also seen in depictions of a snake on the stomachs of clay female statuettes that were clearly pregnant. The snake is a frequent motif in the oldest European art, and this motif often has a cosmogonic meaning. But on these statuettes the snake, as in Crete, appears as an attribute of a female deity; everywhere in the ancient East the snake symbolized fertility. Direct evidence of this is given by a group of statuettes in which the clay is mixed with flour or grains, and by another group with depictions of plants or animals. Thus, the cult of fertility and the deity (deities?) of fertility were prominent in the religion of the Tripolye-Cucuteni tribes.

Anau Religion

A complex system of religious beliefs existed among the Anau tribes. Both dwellings and cultic structures expressed spatial concepts, with squarish and rectangular buildings predominating. Structures at the center of a group of buildings had a special type of hearth, in which a fire was lit for cultic ceremonies. At Karadepe two sanctuaries, side by side, have squarish hearths. Adjoining are auxiliary structures. This cult center may be regarded as a proto-temple, although it also served as a granary. Together with large sanctuaries there were domestic ones, with traces of large fires inside, raising the hypothesis that they were deliberately burned down.

Vessel paintings show clear-cut spatial and geometric concepts and relationships. Goat and tree (vegetation) motifs testify to a fertility cult; sometimes the goat is next to the tree. Unquestionably, there was a cycle of beliefs associated with the reproductive power of the goat, which in general serves as a symbol of the fructifying powers of nature and which may function as an attribute or embodiment of a corresponding deity. The goat motif is one of the most widespread in ancient Eastern glyptics; association of the goat with vegetation (the tree) also signifies a connection with the earth. Another mythologem reflected in the designs is a bird with the sun disk.

Equally important for revealing religious concepts are the earthenware statuettes. Most are of sitting women with arms schematically raised at the sides, with well-defined facial features, and with markedly emphasized breasts, pelvis, and buttocks. The sitting pose itself was evidently evoked by fertility concepts and an association with the chthonic principle. It symbolized birth and, more generally, the birth and organization of the cosmos. The marks and depictions on the statuettes confirm and develop this symbolism. Some of the statuettes are holding a child and perhaps a goat. The back and bosom of one statuette are covered with numerous female breasts; other statuettes are covered with schematic depictions of trees, and sometimes of snakes. It is not possible to formulate concretely the religio-mythological cycles reflected by these statuettes, but one may surmise that they were connected with communal cults. The feminine protectors of earthly births and the ancestors of communal groups were worshiped. These female deities had created an orderly world out of chaos and had established cosmic and terrestrial law and order. On them, then, depended the continuation of humankind, the reproduction of wild and domestic animals, and the fertility of fields.

Cult Centers

In the Late Bronze Age (end of the third through the second millennium bce), large cult centers with monumental edifices appeared in the agricultural and livestock-breeding communities of southern Central Asia. One such center, at Altyn-tepe in southern Turkmenia, consisted of a stepped towerlike edifice, a burial complex, dwellings ("the house of the priest"?), and household buildings. Most grandiose was a four-stepped towerlike edifice with a facade 26 meters in length and an estimated height of 12 meters. In configuration it resembled a Mesopotamian ziggurat. In one of the buildings of the burial complex was an altar, together with a gold bull's head, a wolf's head, and a plaque with astral symbols. The bull's head is akin to analogous but earlier Mesopotamian depictions, although it is more schematic. Characteristically, the Altyn-tepe bull has on its forehead a moon-shaped lapis lazuli laid-plate. The cult and image of the bull were widespread among early agricultural cultures (such as Çatal Hüyük), especially in Mesopotamia. A "heavenly bull" or a moon deity may have been worshiped at Altyn-tepe. Much later, in Zoroastrianism, the moon was called gao čithra ("having bull semen"). It was from this semen that all animals had been born, whereas from the semen falling on the ground domesticated plants had arisen. The mythic First Man had stood on one side of the Mythic River, and on the other side was the First Bull (Greater Bundahishn 1a.1213, 6e.13; Yashts 7.36).

Another, later, cult center, Dashly 3 (second half of the second millennium bce), has an entirely different structure. In the center of a square enclosure (roughly 150 meters on each side) is a round edifice in the form of a circumambulatory gallery, its interior divided into compartments and its exterior having nine salient towers. Three passageways lead into this gallery, whose interior includes chambers with fire-bearing altars. Parallel to the central edifice and outside it are two concentric walls that divide the space into three circles. All the enclosing walls are very thin and were clearly not used as fortifications.

This cultic ceremonial center mirrors in its structure a cosmogram of a ritual universe (Indic maala ), as well as a sociocosmic model of society with its tripartite division. The central part is the spiritual center of the universe, and the three outer rings must correlate with a tripartite universe. The tripartite division of Indo-European (in this case, proto-Indo-Iranian) communities was clearly reflected in this plan. In the centerthe focus of the entire compositionare reflected again the sacred triads (three gates, nine small towers). During rituals the sacred altars were lit and animals were sacrificed. This group of tribes evidently combined the idea of a tripartite world with a concept of the four sides of the world joined in a square. There is a certain correspondence with the ancient Iranian concept of vara and the divine fortress of the Kafirs.

Burial Grounds and Rites

A significant migration of tribes took place in the Eurasian steppes during the second millennium bce. Indo-Iranian tribes left the area of the Timber-Grave culture (the steppes between the Urals, the Volga, and the northern Black Sea region) and the western area of settlement of the Andronovo tribes (western Kazakhstan). They migrated south to Central Asia, spreading through that region in several waves and bringing in Indo-Iranian language, social institutions, and beliefs.

The rites performed at the Sintashta burial ground (in the southern Ural region, northeast of Magnitogorsk) had a pronounced Indo-Iranian character. The tribes that used this and related burial grounds from the eighteenth to the sixteenth century bce carried out both individual and group interments. The wooden burial cover was held up by wooden posts; the most ancient of Indian scriptures, the gveda, makes reference to a similar practice. In the graves are massive finds of the bones of sacrificial animals. For example, in Pit I five horse skulls were in a row along a wall; along the opposite wall were four skulls of hornless oxen and a horse skull. In another grave were seventeen skulls of cows, rams, and horses. There were also dog bones. In a number of graves horse skulls and leg bones were laid at one end of the burial chamber, and a chariot, complete with wheels and spokes, stood at the other end. Horse skeletons were generally laid either behind each other or with skulls and legs facing each other. Many of the buried were warriors. On the earth-covered tombs, long-burning fires had been built. The chariots and steeds reflect the beliefs that the soul departs for the world beyond on a chariot and that the steed is the fire deity's companion. The same may be said of the dog. The sacrifice of animals is reminiscent of another ancient Indian sacrificial custom, the Agnicayana.

The Sintashta burial ground reflects a stage of ancient Indian beliefs earlier than that found in the gveda. Moreover, elements of the funeral rites have parallels to those in a wider area. For example, many steppe tribes of western Europe used burial covers on posts and cremated the deceased. In the Bronze Age, cremation and the corresponding cycle of beliefs existed in a vast area of the Eurasian steppes, particularly among the Fedorovo tribes of Kazakhstan and the Timber-Grave tribes of the Volga and northern Black Sea areas.

These Bronze Age beliefs were also widespread in Central Asia. In the Tigrovaia Balka burial ground, one central kurgan (burial mound) was surrounded by a ring of twenty, and another by forty-one, small mounds under which hearths were found. During the burial ritual, a ring of fire was lit around the entombed persons. This fiery barrier bore witness simultaneously to a belief in a circular universe (isomorphic with the ancient Indian belief) and to its fiery essence. This group of beliefs was further developed in the religion of the Saka peoples of the Eurasian steppes.

Saka Religion

The vast area of the steppe and mountain-steppe zones, from the Aral Sea in the west to the Minusinsk Basin in the east and including Mongolia, Sinkiang, and Central Asia, was inhabited by tribes related culturally, and probably ethnically, to the East Iraniansthe Saka group, mentioned in Old Persian and Greek sources. They spoke an East Iranian language. The tribes of Central Asia and of southern, western, and central Kazakhstan are termed Saka; those farther to the east are called Saka-Siberian.

In the Greco-Roman sources, references to the Saka beliefs are very scant. They may be supplemented by material from the ancient sacred works of the Indo-Iranians, especially the Avesta and the Vedas; from Middle Persian Zoroastrian works; and from the religious concepts of contemporary East Iranian and Indo-Aryan peoples. On the other hand, the archaeological materials of the Saka tribes, dating from the seventh century bce to the beginning of the common era, are unusually abundant, especially the burial grounds and works of art. They are the main source for an assessment of the Saka religion, which had an overall similarity to that of the Scythians, although the two were by no means identical.

Divine gifts

An important mythological isogloss uniting the religious beliefs of the European Scythians and the Asian Saka is the motif of divine gifts. According to the account of Quintus Cortius Rufus, a Latin biographer of Alexander the Great, the Saka received from the gods the yoke, plow, spear, arrow, and chalice (7.8.1718). The first two are associated with obtaining the fruits of the earth; the spear and arrow, with the defeat of enemies; and the chalice, with libations to the gods. The three-layered social condition emerges here with absolute clarity.

Sun cult

In the Histories of Herodotos, Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae pronounces the formula "I swear by the sun, the lord of the Massagetae" (1.212). Oaths by the sun and by fire were widespread among Iranians in antiquity and in medieval times. But even until recently the inhabitants of the Pamir, who formerly called the sun "great," swore by the "sun's head" as their strongest oath. They perceived the sun as an anthropomorphic being. The ancient Iranians had the same anthropomorphic concept of the great luminary. To them the sun was the visible form of the supreme deity, Ahura Mazdāhis child or his eye. The fact that these concepts were those of the Saka as well is made evident by the word for "sun" in the medieval language of Khotan, which is, as in the Pamir dialects, urmaysde (cf. Old Iranian Ahura Mazdāh ).

Concerning the beliefs of the Massagetae, Herodotos wrote: "The only god they worship is the sun, to whom they sacrifice horses. The idea behind this is to offer the swiftest animal to the swiftest of the gods" (1.216). According to the Avesta, the ancient Iranians repeated: "We worship the shining sun, the immortal, the rich, [who owns] swift steeds (aurva-aspem )." They conceived of the sun's movement across the sky as that of a gleaming carriage to which heavenly steeds were harnessed. In the gveda as well, that is, among the ancient Hindus, the theme of white heavenly steeds in connection with the sun god (Sūrya) is elaborated in great detail. Thus, in the gveda the sun repeatedly appears in the form of a horse, Dadhikrā (Dadhikrāvan).

After the beginning of the common era, the solar cult in India greatly increased in importance because of the arrival there of the Central Asian Saka and the related Yüeh-chih. By the first millennium ce there were temples honoring the sun in various places in Central Asia, particularly Merv and Ferghana. Nothing is known about their structure. Some edifices in the south of Siberia give us an idea of the cult places associated with the sun and with steeds, the sun's attribute.

The Arzhan kurgan (in Tuva), a very ancient monument of Scytho-Siberian culture (eighth and seventh centuries bce), had a round stone platform mound about 110 meters in diameter and 3 to 4 meters high. Under the mound was an enormous wood edifice, in whose center was a square (8 by 8 meters) wooden frame. In the middle of this structure was a smaller one with a king and a queen interred in coffins, surrounded by six wooden coffins and two small enclosures in which the king's courtiers were interred. Here too were the king's personal horses. Lines of logs, like spokes of a gigantic wheel, came radially out of the central structure. The entire surface was divided into seventy trapezoidal compartments by cross-pieces forming concentric lines. Some of these compartments had additional divisions. In nine of the compartments there were mass burials of horses; burials of humans and horses were found in a number of other compartments. The king was dressed in a rich garment of wool and one of sable; both he and his female companion had numerous gold ornaments. The ground in the royal compartment was covered with horse tails and manes. The courtiers too were clothed in costly garments and had gold ornaments. The mass horse-burials included groups of fifteen or thirty old stallions, evidently gifts to the king from tribal units subordinate to him.

The Arzhan kurgan clearly testifies to a developed cult of the sun. The king is at the center of a gigantic wheel, which symbolized the solar chariot or, rather, the sun itself. The concept of the "solar wheel" is widespread in Indo-European thought. Not only is the king equated with the sun, at the center, but the steeds accompanying the sun are placed, both individually and as a body, in strictly defined groups within the construction. This clearly indicates that they are immediate participants of the myth depicted by the Arzhan kurgan. The horses of the kurgan enter, as it were, the inner essence of the sun on the one hand, and on the other they indicate the way by which souls may reach this luminary.

Such sepulchral "temples of the sun" were not isolated instances. Another, simpler, variant is the Ulug-Khorum kurgan (also in Tuva), in whose center is a semi-spherical stone mound 22 meters in diameter. Thirty-three meters from the mound's center is a stone wall. The ring between the foundation of the mound and the wall is divided into sections by thirty-two radial spokes made of stone. On the stone are incised depictions of horses.

Cult of the horse

Throughout the entire Scythian, Saka, and Saka-Siberian areas there are burials of horses, both individual and collective, and either with or without human burials. In Central Asia and Kazakhstan there were until recent times a number of variants of the custom of dedicating a horse to the deceased. The Kafir of Nuristan retained the practice of setting up on the grave a wooden statue of a horseman, and in Central Asia, dolls on a wooden horse were set up. All this reflects a perception of the chthonic nature of the horse and, on the other hand, of its functions as an intermediary between worldsan animal hastening to the upper worlds and conveying the soul of the deceased there.

The cult of the horse was associated with its otherwordly nature, and this cult was reflected in numerous depictions of horses. Very frequently these were made on cliffs and mountains, as the Oglakhta pictograph in the Yenisei region, and the pictograph on the Aravan cliff in Ferghana. In Chinese sources, Central Asian, and especially Ferghana, horses are termed "heavenly," evidently reflecting local concepts. A "heavenly steed" was said to live in a mountain cave in Tokharistan. Wherever there were many horse depictions in mountainous areas, as at Oglakhta, there were sanctuaries dedicated to the heavenly steed.

In ancient Central Asian legends, sacred horses dwell in a lake, a motif that may be traced back to ancient Iranian beliefs. In the Avesta, the deity of water and river streams, Aredvi, was drawn by four horses, whereas the rain deity, Tistrya, appeared in the form of a white horse with golden ears and muscles who received rainwater from the celestial lake, Vourukasa. It is possible, however, that the concept of the horse as a water steed has an even older, Indo-Iranian, foundation.

Thus, the Saka tribes had a cult of a supreme deity with pronounced solar coloration. Originating in the ancient Iranian pantheon, which is known from Zoroastrian works, this deity may have been Ahura Mazda, Mithra, or perhaps Mithra Ahura; moreover, different hypostases of this deity may have had primary significance among different Saka tribes. The cult of the horse and the cult of fire in its various manifestations (see below) were associated with the worship of this deity.

Cult of fire

The cult of fire played a large role in funerary ritual. In the Uigarak and Tagisken burial grounds (Aral Sea region); in those of Besshatyr (the Semirechʾe region of Kazakhstan), Kokuibel (the Pamirs), and Tashkurgan (Sinkiang); and in the Sauromatian burial grounds of the North Caucasus the funerary structure was sometimes burned, either with total or partial cremation of the deceased, or without such cremation. Funerary pyres were sometimes burned over the deceased or around the funerary platform, and sometimes the deceased was covered with coals from a pyre that had been lit to one side of him.

In the Pamirs, the Aral Sea area, and among the Sauromatians the deceased was colored red or red paint was placed in the grave. The color red functions as a symbol and substitute for fire. Perhaps this was based on a deeper stratum of beliefs with a universal cosmological dichotomy, in which red denoted the world of the beyond, and painting the deceased red led him from the world of the living and joined him to the world of the dead. All these customs are echoes of Indo-European beliefs in the necessity of cremation. A number of Saka tribes believed that burning the deceased and his property was a sacrifice to the gods. For the deceased himself it was a "blessing," since the tongues of the flames, like horses, would perforce carry him off to heaven.

The Saka world had other manifestations of the cult of fire, differing among the groupings of the Saka tribes. The tribes of the Semirechʾe and adjoining regions of Sinkiang had censers and sacrificial altars with depictions of animals, processions of beasts, and scenes of battle between beasts. The censers reflected the mytheme of the "tree of the world" and the tripartite division of the universe. They constituted a sacred cosmogram whose functions, realized in the ritual of the fire cult, were denoted by animals and their groupings.


The available data confirm that the Saka had a well-developed (although less complex than among the ancient Hindus) system of myths. It united deities and their animal incarnations with the cosmological concept of the triadic nature of the universe (and of all that existed) and that of the "tree of the world." These deities and concepts were united with the sacred act isomorphic to the Hindu yajña (lit., "worship of the god"; later, any sacred act). In these beliefs, in complex oblique ways, the earthly and the divine, the profane and the sacred, were interwoven. Through sacrifices associated with fire and animals, a socially defined human being became a participant in a series of transformations. When the small sacred area of the sacrificial altar extended to the limits of the entire universe, the person making the sacrifice was embodied in the altar itself (an emanation of the deity), in the sacred fire, and in the animals associated with the deity or deities. In this way he merged with the infinite.

On a felt rug from Pazyryk kurgan V (Altai), there is a frequently repeated scene: a goddess with the appearance of a man sits on a throne, wearing a long-sleeved garment covering her to the feet. On her head is a spiked crown. Her left hand is raised to her mouth, and in her extended right hand is a flowering sacred tree. Before her is a mounted archer with a quiver. This is one of the feminine deities of the Saka pantheon. If she originates in the Scythian pantheon, she is most likely Tabiti or, perhaps, Api. The scene is a divine wedding, with the king acquiring divine status.

Cult of gold

According to Ctesias (see Diodorus 2.34.1), the Saka built a sepulcher above the grave of their queen, Zarina, in the form of a huge pyramid. On top of it "they set up a colossal gold statue, to which they rendered heroic homage." Archaeological excavations have not unearthed the gold statue, but "golden burials" have been found. At the Issyk kurgan, not far from Alma-Ata, a princely burial dating from the fourth or third century bce has been discovered. The deceased wore a headdress richly decorated with gold clasps and plaques; his clothing and footgear were almost solidly covered with gold plaques. More than four thousand gold objects, as well as two silver vessels, were found at this burial. In northern Afghanistan, at the Tillya-tepe mound, princely graves of the first century bce to the first century ce were found. The deceased wore gold-embroidered clothing decorated with small gold plaques. Each grave contained from twenty-five hundred to four thousand of these plaques. The deceased were indeed clad in gold; they also wore gold crowns, and under their heads gold or silver chalices had been placed.

In ancient Iran, in Parthia, only the king could sleep on a golden couch. The Achaemenid kings, including Cyrus II, were buried in gold sarcophagi. Gold symbolized royal power in ancient India (Śatapatha Brāhmana In Kazakhstan and Afghan "golden" burials the idea that gold is the symbol of the kingof his power, his fate, and his good fortune (farn )was the dominant one in decorating royal corpses with an enormous quantity of gold, a literal "wrapping" in gold.

These concepts are underlain by deeper ones, according to which gold is the inner content and the outer environment of divinities, for example, Agni and other gods of ancient Indian mythology. In the Hindu epics there are "golden-eyed" and "golden-skinned" gods. The newly born Buddha Śākyamuni's body was radiant like the sun and shone with gold (Aśvaghoa, Buddhacarita 1.1.14, 1.1.45). The ancient Iranian god Vainu wore red clothing decorated in gold, and in medieval Iran a person whose skin had a golden hue was thought to be divine. The wrapping of a corpse in clothing covered with gold distinguished it from ordinary corpses, making it a divine being from another world, for the deceased ruler was like the setting sun. The same beliefs gave rise to the custom of setting up gold statues on the graves of the Saka kings or covering their corpses with gold.

The Issyk royal headdress

Knowledge of the religious beliefs of the Saka tribes facilitates analysis of the complex spiked headdress of the Issyk prince. Above the diadem are two horse's heads turned in different directions but with a single body. In back are two more horse heads, as well as vertical arrow shafts and bent plates that imitate birds' wings. The decorations on the sides have a distinct zonal character, with mountains, trees with small birds on them, mountains with snow leopards, and medallions with depictions of goats and snow leopards. On top of the headdress is a figurine of a snow leopard. This cosmogram is the Saka variant of the sacred macrocosm and also a depiction of the "tree of the world." It is undoubtedly associated with the texts of rituals, invocations, and myths, and was an iconographic embodiment of some of these.

The Saka king undoubtedly functioned also as a priest. He was believed to know and to personify the cosmological structure of the world; it was he who correlated it with the social structure of the tribe or tribes. The axis mundi went through the king, as embodied in his head and crown. This was the most sacred point in space, corresponding with the sacred space and axis of the sacrificial altar.

Still more concrete conclusions may be made. Double horse heads with a single body may reflect beliefs in divine twins that are akin to beliefs widespread among different Indo-European traditions. Their contrast with depictions of ordinary earthly horses laid out side by side sets off and emphasizes the former's unearthly power. The facial part of the headdress is associated with symbols of royal power in the form of birds' wings with feathers. This may stand for the ancient Iranian god of victory, Verethragna, who was symbolized by the bird of prey vāregna. An amulet made of feathers from this bird gave khvarenah, in this case "royal good fortune." For the ancient Hindus, the eagle was the personification of Indra, and Agni the "eagle of the heavens." The symbolism of royal power is reinforced by the vertical arrows and by the figurine, atop the headdress, of a ramthe symbol of Farn, the Iranian deity of royal destiny and good fortune.

The depictions on the sides of the headdress are in three tiers, which reflect the concept of a tripartite model of the world. The bottom layer, in turn, is in three parts, recalling the ancient Indian belief that there are three worlds, this one and two beyond. The idea of triplicity permeated the Saka cosmogony and was its essence; however, each of the component elements was not homogeneous. The concept of a tripartite universe corresponded to the tripartite structure of Saka society.

Thus, the depictions on the Issyk royal headdress linked together the king's earthly and sacred power (as portrayed on the frontal part) and his cosmic essence (as portrayed on the sides). All this is united with the diadem below and the figurine of the ram abovethe pole toward which everything strives and which embodies the divine attribution of the king.

Burial customs

Mircea Eliade has established that after a mythic, cosmic catastrophe only devout people, shamans, and so on may ascend to the heavens, with the help of a "sacred cord" (tree, cliff, etc.). To facilitate their ascent, at the interment of these persons wooden stakes are set up in the burial pits, or stone columns are placed on the burial mounds (as in the Pamir).

Burial rituals and customs varied considerably among the different Saka tribes. Among the large kurgans of the Pazyryk group, a chamber made of logs was sometimes set on top of the stone foundation of the burial pit, which was about 4 meters deep. On top of the chamber, the pit was packed with logs and stones. Its surface was covered with rounded earth, topped with a stone mound that had a diameter of 36 to 46 meters. The burial pit was quadrangular, oriented to the cardinal directions. The largest kurgan s had a double log chamber, protected from pressure by a wooden covering resting on posts. In the northern third of the burial pit, horses (up to ten) were buried and carts were placed. In the largest kurgan s, human burials were in log coffins with covers. One such sarcophagus was decorated with roosters cut out of leather, another with reindeer cutouts. The chamber walls were draped with felt rugs. The burial chambers and rites of the Bashadyr and Tuekta kurgans, also in the Altai, were similar. Although the kurgan s were robbed in antiquity, the objects were so diverse and their remains so amazingly well preserved, owing to permafrost, that they give a clear impression of the ancient inhabitants' appearance, their material culture, and, in part, their beliefs.

In Scythian times in the Altai region, deceased persons of outstanding importance were embalmed, by rather complex methods. Evidently, these deceased were believed to play a special role in the world beyond. The Scythians, for example, embalmed the corpses of their kings (Herodotus 4.71).

Some of the Altai princely burials have preserved traces of the removal of muscle tissue. Hecataeus of Miletus (fl. 500 bce) wrote of the Massagetae: "They consider it the best kind of death, when they are old, to be chopped up with the flesh of cattle and eaten mixed up with that flesh" (Strabo, Geography 11.8.6). Similar evidence is found in Herodotus (1.216). Classical sources and the Avesta hint at the ritual killing, among a number of Iranian-speaking peoples, of aged men. In the Altai, small pieces of the deceased's flesh were apparently eaten; in this way his spiritual and physical qualities and his social rank were acquired. If a woman consumed one of these pieces of flesh, her subsequent children would inherit the outstanding qualities of the deceased. A deeper stratum of these animistic beliefs is the totemic one. Also associated with animistic beliefs was the custom of placing in the grave nail parings from the deceased and small sacks containing his hair. The burial was accompanied by purifying and ecstatic rites, particularly the smoking of hemp.

The religious worldview of the Saka was reflected in the artworks of the animal style. Analysis of these works and of the materials associated with funerary rituals confirms the existence of shamanistic beliefs and practices, especially in Siberia. The origins of the heroic epos of the Inner Asian and Siberian peoples date to Saka times. The greatest Iranian epic hero, Rotastahm (Rustam), had the epithet Sagčīk, "from among the Saka." His name is a symbol of the hero.

See Also

Ahura Mazdā and Angra Mainyu; Fire; Horses; Indo-European Religions, overview article; Indus Valley Religion; Iranian Religions; Sarmatian Religion; Scythian Religion; Sheep and Goats; Snakes; Sun; Vedism and Brahmanism.


Books covering the overall subject of this article do not exist. A general review of the Aeneolithic sites of the Eurasian steppes is Arkheologiia SSSR: Eneolit SSSR, edited by V. M. Masson and N. Ia. Merpert (Moscow, 1982). The first work on the Aeneolithic and Bronze ages of Central Asia to contain information on religious beliefs was Explorations in Turkestan: Expedition of 1904; Prehistoric Civilizations of Anau, 2 vols., edited by Raphael Pumpelly (Washington, D.C., 1908). The most recent review and analysis is Philip L. Kohl's Central Asia: Palaeolithic Beginnings to the Iron Age (Paris, 1984), which has an outstanding bibliography and only a few serious omissions.

Two excellent monographs by Elena V. Antonova are devoted to the religion of the Aeneolithic and Bronze Age tribes: Antropomorfnaia skulʾptura drevnikh zemledelʾtsev Perednei i Srednei Azii (Moscow, 1977) and Ocherki kulʾtury drevnikh zemledel'tsev Perednei i Srednei Azii: Opyt rekonstruktsii i mirovospriiatiia (Moscow, 1984). The latter is a fundamental work that investigates in depth the religions of the ancient agriculturist tribes of the entire East, from Anatolia to Central Asia.

For extensive material on the beliefs of the Tripolye tribes, see S. M. Bibikov's Rannetripolʾskoe poselenie Luka-Vrublevetskaia na Dnestre (Moscow, 1953). See also Aina P. Pogozheva's Antropomorfnaia plastika Tripolʾia (Novosibirsk, 1983). The beliefs of the Tripolye-Cucuteni tribes are examined in the context of other European beliefs in Marija Gimbutas's The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 65003500 B.C. (Berkeley, Calif., 1982); her interpretations, however, are sometimes unjustifiably bold.

For the religion of the proto-Iranians, Iranians, and, in particular, the Saka, see Mary Boyce's A History of Zoroastrianism, 2 vols. (Leiden, 19751982). It is an excellent investigation of the origins and early history of Iranian religions. An outstanding overall review of these religions, especially that of the Saka, is Geo Widengren's Die Religionen Irans (Stuttgart, 1965), based on nonarchaeological materials. On the Saka, see also Julius Junge's Saka-studien: Der Ferne Nordosten in Weltbild der Antike (Leipzig, 1939) and my own archaeologically based study Kangiuisko-sarmatskii farn (Dushanbe, 1968), translated as "Das Kʿang-chü-sarmatische Farnah," Central Asiatic Journal 16 (1972): 241289 and 20 (1976): 4774.

Comprehensive descriptions and valuable analyses of the materials from the Saka archaeological complexes can be found in M. I. Artamonov's Sokrovishcha sakov (Moscow, 1973) and in Karl Jettmar's Die frühen Steppenvolker (Baden-Baden, 1964), translated as The Art of the Steppes (New York, 1967). For a general survey of all the Saka materials in Central Asia, see my book Eisenzeitliche Kurgane zwischen Pamir und Aral-See (Munich, 1984).

Monographs devoted to recent discoveries at individual complexes usually include a chapter on religious beliefs. Among them are K. A. Akishev's Kurgan Issyk: Iskusstvo sakov Kazakhstana (Moscow, 1978), K. A. Akishev and G. A. Kushaev's Drevniaia kulʾtura sakov i usunei reki Ili (Alma-Ata, 1963), O. A. Vishnevskaia's Kulʾtura sakskikh plemen nizovʾev Syrdarʾa v VIIV vv. do n. e.: Po materialam Uigaraka (Moscow, 1973), M. P. Griaznov's Arzhan: Tsarskii kurgan ranneskifskogo vremeni (Leningrad, 1980), S. I. Rudenko's Kulʾtura naseleniia Gornogo Altaia v skifskoe vremia (Moscow, 1953) and Kulʾtura nasaleniia Tsentralʾnogo Altaia v skifskoe vremia (Moscow, 1960), V. I. Sarianidi's Bactrian Gold: From the Excavations of the Tillya-Tepe Necropolis in Northern Afghanistan (Leningrad, 1984), and my Drevnie kochevniki "Kryshi mira" (Moscow, 1972). Considerable attention is devoted to the Saka religion in two outstanding works by D. S. Raevskii: Ocherki ideologii skifo-sakskikh plemen: Opyt rekonstruktsii skifskoi mifologii (Moscow, 1977) and Modelʾ mira skifskoi kulʾtury (Moscow, 1985).

New Sources

Dandamaev, Muhammad A. and Vladimir G. Lukonin. The Culture and Social Institutions of Ancient Iran. Translated by Philip L. Kohl with the assistance of D.J. Dadson. New York, 1989.

Dexter, Miriam Robbins. and Edgar C. Polomé, eds. Varia on the Indo-European Past: Papers in Memory of Marija Gimbutas. Washington, D.C., 1997.

Hiebert, Fredrik T. Origins of the Bronze Age Oasis Civilization in Central Asia. Cambridge, 1994.

Ionesov, Vladimir I. The Struggle Between Life and Death in Proto-Bactrian Culture: Ritual and Conflict. Lewiston, N.Y., 2002.

Kenoyer, Jonathan Mark. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. New York, 1998.

Mair, Victor H. The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia. Washington, D.C., 1998.

Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth. London, 1989.

Zbenovich, V. G. "Tripolye Culture: Centenary of Research." Journal of World Prehistor y 10, no. 2 (1996): 199241.

B. A. Litvinskii (1987)

Translated from Russian by Demitri B. Shimkin
Revised Bibliography