Sarmatian Religion

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SARMATIAN RELIGION . The Sarmatians were Iranian-speaking nomadic tribes that formed in the middle of the first millennium bce in the southern Urals. In the last centuries before the common era they spread from there in a westward directionto the lower Volga region, the Ciscaucasus, and the northern Black Sea shorewhere they were still dominant in the first centuries ce. In language and culture, the Sarmatians were close to the Scythians. Their ethnonym is similar to that of the Sauromatians, who inhabited the left bank of the Lower Don in the middle of the first millennium bce. Classical tradition often treated both these names as identical, but in contemporary scholarship the question of the degree of relationship between the Sauromatians and the Sarmatians remains debatable.

The Sarmatians' lack of a written language has severely limited the scope of available data about their religion. The only evidence about their pantheon is the indication by a writer of the fifth century ce that in the language of the Alani (a tribe of the Sarmatian group) the name of the town Feodosia in the Crimea was Ardabda ("seven gods"). This is a reflection of the tradition, common among the ancient Indo-Iranians, of worshiping seven gods, a practice also characteristic of Scythian religion. The actual makeup of this Sarmatian pantheon is unknown. Perhaps it was about one of the gods of this pantheon that Ammianus Marcellinus (31.2.23) wrote, comparing him to the Roman Mars and relating that the Alani worshiped him in the form of an unsheathed sword driven into the ground. This ritual may be interpreted as the erection of the axis mundi, which joins the world of people with the world of the gods. Such an interpretation is confirmed by information about the Scythians, who had a similar ritual; but the Scythians performed it on special stationary altars, whose complete absence among the Sarmatians (and of all other monumental religious structures as well) was specifically noted by the classical writers. Hence the religious practices of the Sarmatians had a more nomadic character, entirely suited to their mobile way of life.

The ancient writers also indicate that the tribes living along the Don worshiped that river (the ancient Tanais) as a god and that, moreover, they called the Sauromatians "fire worshipers." The worship of fire and water as gods is an ancient tradition of all Iranian peoples, and it may be assumed that the deities of these elements were part of the Sarmatian pantheon of seven gods, as was the case among the Scythians.

These sparse data constitute the sole written evidence on the religion of the Sarmatians. To some extent they have been correlated with archaeological findings, the basic sources for the reconstruction of this religion. It is true that, owing to the nomadic character of the Sarmatian way of life, the only monuments left by them are burial mounds. Thus they reflect only those aspects of Sarmatian religion that focus on Sarmatian burial practices. For example, data on Sarmatian fire-worship have something in common with their extensive use of fire in one form or another in their burial practices. The Sarmatians did not practice cremation of the dead or the burning of the grave construction, but quite often they covered the graves with the remnants of the ritual bonfire, which sometimes led to the combustion of the grave's wooden covering and even to the scorching of the corpse. The earth tempered by such fires was sometimes spread in a ring around the grave or was admixed with the soil from which the burial mound covering the grave was formed. Traces of such fires are often found in the burial mound itself, not far from the grave. It is not clear whether the fire in these rituals was considered as an element to which the dead person was consigned or only as a purifying principle.

Also connected with the worship of fire are the stone or ceramic censers, used for burning aromatic substances, that have frequently been found in Sarmatian graves. Archaeologists also consider fragments of a red mineral dye, realgar, often found in Sarmatian graves, to be a substitute for fire in a burial. The same interpretation for chalkanother mineral commonly found in Sarmatian gravesis more debatable. But its purifying function is completely obvious. Chalk was either put in the grave in pieces or strewn on the bottom of the grave. The latter custom, like the tradition of laying grass under the burial, was evidently meant to prevent the corpse from coming into direct contact with the earth and thus being defiled. This custom was a prominent characteristic of Zoroastrian burial practice, which developed from ancient Iranian beliefs.

The Sarmatian custom of placing burial mounds around one of the oldest mounds may be interpreted as evidence of the worship of ancestor graves and, in the final analysis, of an ancestor cult. In some burial mounds in which persons of high social rank were interred, there have also been found the bodies of people who were deliberately killedservants, swordbearers, and so forthindicating that the Sarmatians practiced human sacrifice. Far more widespread was the custom of placing in the graves food for the dead, in the form of parts of the carcass of a horse or a sheep. A typically Sarmatian feature is the placing in the grave of a specially broken mirror, or of its fragments, perhaps indicating that the Sarmatians regarded the mirror as the person's "double," who died together with him.

There is no doubt that animal-style art, widespread in Sarmatian culture, is connected with the religio-mythological concepts of the Sarmatians. Zoomorphic motifs were used to decorate ritual objects and to adorn the trappings of horses and warriors. However, no study has yet been made of the Sarmatian animal style, and the iconography remains obscure.

Among the objects most frequently decorated with zoomorphic images are the Sauromato-Sarmatian portable altarssmall stone dishes with or without supporting feetused for grinding chalk and realgar, for igniting fires, and, probably, for other ritual activities. The small size of these altars again bears witness to the mobile nature of Sarmatian religious practice, which had been adapted to a nomadic way of life. An interesting feature of these altars is that they are found exclusively at female burials. Evidently, the rituals connected with them were the monopoly of priestesses. This fact is usually related to the information from Herodotus and other classical authors about the high position of women in Sauromato-Sarmatian society. It is not by chance that ancient authors connected the origins of these people with the Amazons, and even called them "woman-ruled."

The rather sparse data cited here on the Sauromato-Sarmatian religion are constantly being supplemented with archaeological investigations of the monuments of this people. In time these will enable a much more detailed and well-grounded reconstruction of the Sarmatian religion.

See Also

Inner Asian Religions; Prehistoric Religions, article on The Eurasian Steppes and Inner Asia; Scythian Religion.


Up to the present, no monographs have been devoted to the Sarmatian religion. For general information on the history of the Sarmatians, see János Harmatta's Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians, vol. 13 of "Acta Universitatis de Attilla Jozsef Nominatae: Acta Antiqua et Archaeologica" (Szeged, 1970). A fuller summary of archaeological data on the Sauromatians, including information on their religious antiquities, is in K. F. Smirnov's Savromaty: Ranniaia istoriia i kulʾtura sarmatov (Moscow, 1964). On Sarmatian monuments of the Ural region, see K. F. Smirnov's Sarmaty na Ileke (Moscow, 1975). As for works devoted exclusively to the Sarmatian religion, there is only a short article, K. F. Smirnov's "Sarmaty-ognepoklonniki," in the collection Arkheologiia Severnoi i Tsentralʾnoi Azii (Novosibirsk, 1975), pp. 155159.

New Sources

General studies on the Sarmatians include, after the pioneering inqury by Mikhail Rostovtzeff, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia (Oxford, 1922); Tadeusz Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (New York, 1970); Antiquités d'Eurasie de l'époque scytho-sarmate, edited by M.G. Moškova (Moskva, 1984). M. A. Ocir-Gor'ajeva, La culture sarmate de la Basse Volga du VI au V siècle avant notre ère (Leningrad, 1988); V. V. Fedotov, "La typologie des caractéristiques historico-géographiques des Sarmates et des Alains dans les sources antiques." In La culture matérielle de l'Orient, pp. 5468. Moskva, 1988; John Joseph Wilkes, "Romans, Dacians and Sarmatians in the first and early second centuries." In Rome and Her Northern Provinces. Papers Presented to S. Frere in Honour of His Retirement from the Chair of Archaeology of the Roman Empire, edited by Brian Hartley and John Wacher, pp. 255289. Gloucester, 1983.

Bibliographic hints are offered by Alexander Haeusler, "Beiträge zum Stand der Sarmatenforschung." Zeitschrift für Archäologie 17 (1983): 159194.

Mikhail I. Rostovtzeff, "L'État, la religion et la culture des Scythes et des Sarmates." Vestnik Drevnej Istorii 188 (1989): 192206 deals with religion in a general perspective.

On funerary customs see: K. F. Smirnov, "Les sépultures sarmates en catacombes découvertes dans les régions méridionales préouraliennes et transvolgiennes et leurs rapports aux catacombes du Caucase du Nord." Sovietskaja Archeologija 1 (1972): 7381; I. I. Marcenko, Les Sarmates des steppes de la rive droite du Bas Kouban de la 2 moitié du IV siècle avant notre ère au III siècle de notre ère (d'après les sépultures en tumuli) (Leningrad, 1988).

D. S. Raevskii (1987)

Translated from Russian by Mary Lou Masey
Revised Bibliography