Scythian Religion

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SCYTHIAN RELIGION . The Scythians were predominantly nomadic, Iranian-speaking tribes inhabiting the steppes of the northern Black Sea region from the seventh to the third century bce. Owing to their lack of a written language, what is known of Scythian religion has been reconstructed on the basis of archaeological sources and information from Greek and Roman authors. This reconstruction is partly corroborated by data on the religion of Indo-Iranian peoples kindred to the Scythians.

The basic Scythian pantheon included seven gods. Their functions, which are not always clear, have been determined chiefly on the basis of their identification with Greek gods by Herodotus (4.59) and sometimes on the basis of the etymology of their Scythian names. It is clear, however, that the pantheon was divided into three ranks. In the first rank was Tabiti (the Greek Hestia), in the second were Papaeus (Zeus) and Api (Gaia), and in the third were Oetosyrus or Goetosyrus (Apollo); Artimpasa, or Argimpasa (Aphrodite Ourania); and two gods whose Scythian names are not known but who have been identified with Herakles and Ares. It is possible that the first of these unnamed gods is identical with the primeval figure of Scythian mythology, Targitaus (Herodotus, 4.510), who was also identified in the classical tradition with Herakles.

The structure of the Scythian pantheon is not so much a system reflecting the cultic hierarchy of the gods as it is a system mirroring the structure of the universe. The very number of gods reckoned in the Scythian pantheon corresponds to ancient Indo-Iranian tradition. The predominant position of the goddess of fire and the hearth, Tabiti (Iran., Tarayati, "the flaming one, the burning one"), corresponds to the Indo-Iranian concept of fire as the primeval substance and the basis of the universe. The conjugal couple, Papaeus ("father"?) and Api (from the Iranian ap -, "water"), personifies the concept, common among the Indo-Iranians, of the marriage of heaven and earth (or water) as a cosmogonical act. From their union was born Targitaus, the forefather of the Scythian people and of the Scythian royal dynasty. His mythological birth may be interpreted as the formation of the middle zone of the cosmos"the world of people," between the heavenly and chthonic worlds.

The inclusion in the third rank of the pantheon, on a level with this Scythian "Herakles," of three additional gods corresponds to the archaic cosmological conception of the four sides of the world as a structure regulating the universe, and of four gods as their custodians. Of these Scythian gods, Artimpasa (if this reading of her name is accepted) is conjectured to be the Iranian Arti (Ashi), a deity connected with the idea of material abundance, which conforms to her identification with Aphrodite, as proposed by Herodotus. The Scythian "Ares," who was venerated in the form of an ancient iron sword (Herodotus, 4.62), is, evidently, predominantly a war god, corresponding to the Iranian Verethragna. The meaning of the figure of Oetosyrus, the Scythian "Apollo," is still highly debatable.

Besides the seven gods of the basic pantheon, other personages of the Scythian religio-mythological system are also known. For example, a myth noted by Herodotus tells of the three sons of Targitaus, in whom, according to the most valid interpretation, can be seen the personification of the three zones of the cosmos and the ancestors of the three strata into which, corresponding to Indo-European tradition, Scythian society was divided: warriors, priests, and agriculturalists. However, in the specific interpretation of each of these personages, there is divergence among scholars. Besides the gods common to all the Scythians, there were also deities that were venerated by separate tribes. For example, the Royal Scyths, the most powerful of the Scythian tribes, worshiped Thagimasadas, identified by Herodotus with Poseidon.

Data on cult leaders among the Scythians are highly fragmentary. The most complete information is on the Enarees, a group of priests connected with the worship of Artimpasa. Divination was among their ritual functions, and sexual transvestism was apparently a feature of their cultic practices. It is not entirely clear whether membership in this group was hereditary; according to some sources, the Enarees came from the Scythian aristocracy. About other Scythian priests there is almost no information. Undoubtedly the Scythian king himself was an important, if not the chief, performer of cultic practices. The most significant evidence of this is the abundance in royal burials of ritual objects, including those having complex cosmological and social symbolism.

Although Scythian religious beliefs, originating in the main in the Common Iranian period, do not specifically express the values of a nomadic people, such values are manifested distinctly in the forms of Scythian cultic life. For example, according to Herodotusand this has been confirmed archaeologicallythe Scythians had neither temples nor monumental images of their gods, a fact connected, apparently, with the mobility of their way of life.

However, certain cultic structures did exist in Scythia. Thus, in the center of each of the districts of Scythia, huge brushwood altars were heaped up in honor of the Scythian "Ares," in the form of square platforms, accessible on one side. At the top of the platform a sword personifying the god was placed vertically, and domestic animals and every hundredth prisoner were sacrificed to it (Herodotus, 4.62). This structure may be interpreted as a cosmogram mirroring the form of the "four-sided universe," and the sword as one of the equivalents of the axis mundi, uniting the world of the gods and the world of people. Also known is the existence in the area between the Dnieper and the Southern Bug rivers of a place called Exampaeus, whose name Herodotus translates as "holy ways." Here, according to legend, there was a huge copper caldron cast from arrowheads brought by all the inhabitants of Scythia. This caldron was unquestionably a sacred object for all the Scythians and may be interpreted as one of the symbols of the center of the world.

It is possible that precisely in this Common Scythian cultic center was held the annual Scythian festival connected with the worship of golden sacred objects: a yoked plow, an ax, and a cup that had fallen, according to Scythian myth, from the sky, and that symbolized the cosmic and social order. This festival is one of the few Scythian ritual activities about which relatively detailed information has been preserved. The golden sacred objects, which had a fiery nature and were, perhaps, connected with the goddess Tabiti, were carefully guarded by the Scythian kings and were annually venerated with rich offerings.

According to Herodotus (4.7), during the festival a man would sleep among the golden sacred objects, and he would die less than a year afterward (it is obvious that a violent killing took place); meanwhile, he was allotted as much land as he could cover on horseback in a day. The meaning of this story is not entirely clear, but most probably reference here is to a temporary ritual "deputy king" and his imitation "kingdom." Insofar as the horse in the mythology of the Indo-Iranian peoples is connected with the sun, the method of determining the size of the "kingdom," and also the life span of its "owner," allows one to reconstruct the existence among the Scythians of the concept of the solar nature of the king, and to interpret the festival as calendrical, connected with the yearly cycle of the sun.

Most probably, in the course of this festival was repeated the fate of Targitaus's youngest son, the mythical first king of the Scythians, Colaxais. (The Soviet Iranologist V. I. Abaev has proposed that this name derives etymologically from the Iranian hvar-xšaya, "sun king.") The golden sacred objects, obtained, according to the Scythian myth, by this Colaxais, served as proof of the god-given nature of the power of the Scythian kings. This idea also found embodiment in the different investiture ceremonies practiced in Scythia, about which there exists, unfortunately, only highly obscure evidence.

There is information about the methods of sacrifice among the Scythians. Animals (most commonly horses) were asphyxiated while a salutation was made to the god to whom the sacrifice was offered. The flesh was then boiled, and the part intended for the god was thrown on the ground, in front of the sacrificer. There also were ecstatic rituals, in particular purification rituals, during which hemp seeds were burned and wine imported from Greece was used.

The most complete existing information on any aspect of Scythian culturewhich has been confirmed, moreover, by archaeological datais on burial rituals. When a man died, his corpse (apparently embalmed) was carried by cart on a round of visits to the homes of his friends; after forty days the body was buried. The form of the grave (usually a deep chamber-catacomb) and the collection of objects accompanying the dead man were quite uniform and were regulated by tradition. When a king died, his body was carried through the territory of all the tribes subject to him, and this journey was accompanied by various mourning rites. Together with the king were buried retainers of various ranks, and royal horses, and over the grave a monumental burial mound was erected. The graves of ancestors and especially of kings were considered national holy sites and were carefully protected from profanation.

In the early stages of their history, the Scythians (in conformity with the aniconic traditions characteristic of many Indo-Iranians) had virtually no images of gods. During the period of the campaigns in the Near East from the seventh to the early sixth century bce, they attempted to adapt ancient Eastern iconography for the depiction of personages of their own pantheon. Such depictions were not large-scale monuments but were, rather, decorative elements on ritual objects; however, even these were not widespread in Scythia.

From the sixth to the first half of the fourth century bce, Scythian art was dominated by the animal style, employing motifs of animals connected to the religio-mythological concepts of the Scythians. The strictly canonical depictions of only certain animals served as a symbolic system for the description of the Scythian mythological model of the world. A definite connection has been established between the repertoire of the animal forms of Scythian art and the archaeological evidence of sacrificial animals found in Scythian monuments. In the fourth century bce anthropomorphic motifs based on Scythian myths and rituals played an important role in Scythian religious life. These motifs ornamented various ritual objects that were made by Greek artisans from colonies on the northern coast of the Black Sea. In the rich Scythian burials of this time, objects with motifs from Greek mythology have also been found. These most probably reflect not the adoption of Greek cults by the Scythian aristocracy, but yet another attempt to adapt another culture's iconography to embody local religio-mythological concepts.

The religion of the steppe peoples of Asia who were related to or similar in culture to the Scythians was evidently close to that of the Scythians, but data on it are almost completely lacking. The sum of the data on the religious life of the Scythians leads to the conclusion that the overall aim of their ceremonies and rituals was above all to ensure the stability, going back to mythic times, of the cosmic and social order and to guarantee the well-being of the community.

See Also

Inner Asian Religions; Prehistoric Religions, article on the Eurasian Steppes and Inner Asia.


The most complete survey of Scythian antiquity is contained in the still-valuable book of Ellis H. Minns, Scythians and Greeks (Cambridge, 1913). Important observations on the cultures of the Scythians, including their religion, were made by Mikhail I. Rostovtsev in Iranians and Greeks in South Russia (Oxford, 1922). The most recent research devoted exclusively to the religion of the Scythians is S. S. Bessonova's Religioznye predstavleniia Skifov (Kiev, 1983). For Scythian mythology and some aspects of Scythian ritual practices, see my book Ocherki ideologii skifo-sakskikh plemen: Opyt rekonstruktsii skifskoi mifologii (Moscow, 1977). An interpretation of linguistic data on Scythian mythology and religion is in V. I. Abaev's Osetinskii iazyk i fol'klor (Moscow, 1949). A detailed survey of Scythian burials and an analysis of burial rituals has been made by Renate Rolle in Totenkult der Skythen, vol. 1 of Das Steppengebiet, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1978). For the Scythian religion in the general system of beliefs of the Iranian-speaking peoples of antiquity, see Henrik S. Nyberg's Die Religionen des alten Iran (Leipzig, 1938) and Geo Widengren's Die Religionen Irans (Stuttgart, 1965). An important landmark in the study of the spiritual legacy of the Scythians is Georges Dumézil's Romans de Scythie et d'alentour (Paris, 1978).

New Sources

Dumézil investigated also, from his comparative point of view, social functions and religious customs in Ossetia: see in particular: Georges Dumézil, Légendes sur les Nartes. Paris, 1935; Le livre des héros, légendes ossètes sur les Nartes. Paris, 1965.

Of the same scholar, who variously dealt with Skythian mythology and heritage, it is worth quoting one of his volumes, where some essays on this subject are collected La courtisane et les seigneurs colorés et autres essais (Paris, 1983).

On the same subject see also: L. S. Klejn "The Nartian epos and the legend in Herodotus about the Asiatic origin of the Scythians." Vestnik Drevnej Istorii 134 (1975): 1427.

General monographs on Skythians include: René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes, section I, parts 1, 3, and 4, New Brunswick, 1989) [original French edition, Paris 1939]. Tamara Talbot Rice, The Scythians (London, 1957); Boris N. Grakov, Die Skythen (Berlin, 1978); Alexej P. Smirnow, Die Skythen (Dresden, 1979); D. S. Raevskij, Model' mira skifskoj kul'tury (Moskva, 1985); I. V. Kuklina, Etnogeografija Skifii po antičnym istočnikam (Leningrad, 1985); Renate Rolle, Die Welt der Skythen. Stutenmelker und Pferdebogner. Ein antikes Reitervolk in neuer Sicht (Luzern-Frankfurt, 1980; English Transl. Princeton, 1989); I. N. Chrapunov, Drevnjaja istorija Kryma. Ucebnoe posobie. Simferopol, 2003.

For various questions see also: E. A. Grantovsky. Indo-iranskie kasty u skifov (Moscow, 1960). Peter Lindegger, Griechische und römische Quellen zum peripheren Tibet, I: Frühe Zeugnisse bis Herodot: der fernere skythische Nordosten (Zürich, 1979). Grigorii M. Bongard-Levin, E.A. Grantovskij, translated by Philippe Gignoux, De la Scythie à l'Inde. Énigmes de l'histoire des anciens Aryens (Louvain, 1981) (the authors follow Dumezil's perspective). Michail I. Rostowzew, Skythien und der Bosporus, German edition by Glen W. Bowersock, translated by Heinz Heinen, et al. (Stuttgart, 1993). Victor Parker, "Bemerkungen zu den Zügen der Kimmerier und der Skythen durch Vorderasien." Klio 77 (1995): 734. Bruce Lincoln, "On the Scythian Royal Burials." In Proto-Indo-European. The Archaeology of a Linguistic Problem. Studies in Honour of Marija Gimbutas, ed. by Susan N. Skomal and Edgar C. Polomé (Washington, D.C., 1987), pp. 267285. Fridrik Thordarson, "The Scythian Funeral Customs: Some notes on Herodotus IV, 7175." In A Green Leaf. Papers in Honour of Professor Jes P. Asmussen, edited by Werner Sundermann, Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin and Fereydun Vahman (=Acta Iranica 28, Leiden, 1988), pp. 539547.

Studies specifically devoted to religion are: M. I. Artamonov, "Antropomorfnye bozhestva v religii skifov." In Archeologitsheskij sbornik. Gosudarstvennyj Ermitazh, vol. 3, Leningrad, 1961, pp. 5787. I. I. Tolstoy, Statyi o folklore (Moscow and Leningrad, 1966) deals, among other folkloric motifs, with the legend about Heracles and the Snake Maiden. Petro B. T. Bilaniuk, "Die religiöse Lage an der skythischen Schwarzmeerküste und ihr Einfluss auf Westeuropa in der Spätantike und im frühen Mittelalter." In Die Schwarzmeerküste in der Spätantike und im frühen Mittelalter: Referate des dritten, vom 16 bis 19. Oktober 1990 durch die Antiquarische Abteilung der Balkan-Kommission der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften und das Bulgarische Forschungsinstitut in Österreich veranstalteten Symposions, edited by Renate Pillinger, Andreas Pülz and Hermann Vetters, Vienna, 1992, pp. 123135.

The seminal paper by Karl Meuli, "Scythica." Hermes 70 (1935): 122176 deals with Shamanic patterns in Scythian culture, as they were echoed by Greeks. On this subject see also Donat Margreth, Skythische Schamanen. Die Nachrichten über Enarees-Anarieis bei Herodot und Hippokrates (Schaffhausen, 1993).

Moreover, Herodotus's account of Skythia has attracted scholarly interest: see, for example: Janós Harmatta, Forrástamulmányok Herodotos Skythika-jához. Quellenstudien zu den Skythika des Herodot. Budapest, 1942. O. Kimball Armayor, "Did Herodotus Ever Go to the Black Sea?" Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978): 4562. Askold I. Ivantchik, "Une légende sur l'origine des Scythes (Hérodote IV, 57) et le problème des sources du Scythikos logos d'Hérodote." Revue des Études Grecques 112 (1999): 141192. Stephanie West, "Hippocrates' Scythian Sketches." Eirene 35 (1999): 1432. Stephanie West, "Herodotus in the North? Reflections on a Colossal Cauldron (4.81)." Scripta Classica Israelica 19 (2000): 1534. Erodoto. Le storie. Libro IV. La Scizia e la Libia, ed. by Aldo Corcella and Silvio M. Medaglia (Milano, 1993) is important for the rich commentary.

For the later history of Skythia in contact with the Greeks see: Viktor F. Gajdukevic, Das bosporanische Reich, mit den Ergebnissen der archäologischen Untersuchungen von 19491966 (Berlin, 1971); V. I. Kadejev, "Chersonesus, Bosporus and Rome, IIII Centuries A.D." Vestnik Drevnej Istorii 148 (1979): 5576; Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Nordpontos nach antiken Quellen, edited by Alexandr K. Gavrilov (St. Petersburg, 1992).

The religious aspect is investigated by S. R. Tokhtas'jev, "Apaturum. A History of the Bosporan Shrine of Aphrodite Urania." Vestnik Drevnej Istorii 177 (1986): 138145, and, most of all, in the recent and detailed inquiry by Yulia Ustinova, The Supreme Gods of the Bosporan Kingdom (Leiden, 1999).

D. S. Raevskii (1987)

Translated from Russian by Mary Lou Masey
Revised Bibliography