Research Notes on the Scythians

Background Information on the Scythians.

The Steppe – An endless sea of grass

3500BCE – beginning in Botai, Kazakhstan, and Dereivka, Ukraine -> humans started to domesticate wild horses. The lifestyle of nomadic pastoralism was born.

How the Scythians emerged as a distinct culture from other nomads is a mystery.  The Scythians were never a single nomadic people but rather a broad cultural group with regional differences. Broadly speaking, the average Scythian was pale-skinned. According to both Greek and Chinese sources, light eyes and red hair were common among them as well. While they did dress practically for the cold steppe they lived in, Scythian clothing was not primitive at all, but highly decorative, dyed in bright colours, and embroidered with complex patterns. Tattoos were common among both men and women, who used soot and bone needles to inject dark patterns under the skin. These markings depicted wild predators and mythical beasts attacking prey animals as a display of the chaotic, violent harmony of nature. Tattoos were probably administered upon worthy warriors to commemorate acts of bravery. Or as some sort of magical protection. From the spiritual powers that be.

Daily life among the Scythians was hardy and hearty. They travelled around the steppe with convoys of covered wagons, in which the woman and children rode while the men remained on horseback, herding flocks of sheep, cattle and goats. They settled in fresh grasslands by rivers, allowing their herds to drink and graze, before moving on to fresh pastures. Their diet relied heavily on the meat and milk of their herds.  As they often lacked good timber, the Scythians used bones and animal droppings to fuel the fires which roasted their meat. The Scythian woman had many personal freedoms that were not afforded to women in settled civilizations many were raised learning how to ride, shoot and hunt alongside men Archaeological evidence shows that in war, they fought alongside men in significant numbers. To the ancient Greeks, in particular, the ferocity of Scythian wives and daughters were such a novelty that they became associated with the myth of the Amazonian warriors.

Politically, the Scythians were divided into several large tribal confederations. It appears that at times, certain tribes would rise up and establish domination over all the other tribes. Herodotus wrote that during this time, the most powerful Scythian tribe were the Paralatae, known also as the Royal Scythians, and they looked upon all the other tribes in the light as slaves. As we have touched on, war was one of the core pillars of Scythian culture and the lords of the steppe were always ready for battle. Scythian tactics revolved around the ability to manoeuvre easily around the heavy cavalry and cumbersome infantry of the armies of the civilized world. The Scythians were the first culture in world history to perfect the mounted archer unit, which would be the backbone of so many future nomadic armies. A horse lord born into the warrior caste would have been trained to shoot from the moment they could walk, and their bow would have been like an extension of the arm. Throughout much of the 1st millennium BCE, the Scythians and their sister tribes would fight with, conquer, or otherwise influence mindbogglingly vast territory, and enter the historical records of a diverse array of ancient cultures. The first wave of campaigns undertaken by Scythians proper began in the early 7th century BCE when they burst onto the scene and engaged in a century’s worth of warfare upon the civilizations of the Caucasus and the middle east. As one might have guessed from Herodotus’ constant appearance in this account, the Scythians have an extensive history with the Ancient Greeks, with the two worlds mainly intersecting along the northern coast of the Black Sea. The Greeks had colonies in this region since the 7th century BCE, but it was in the 4th century the Bosporan Kingdom that Greeks and Scythians truly began to live in harmony with one another, thriving as partners in the local fish, grain and slave trades. That is not to say that the Scythians always maintained peaceful relations with the Greeks.

On the contrary, some of their most devastating wars were fought against the Hellenic world. In the latter half of the 3rd century BCE, a man known to the greeks as Ateas had become among the most powerful of Scythian Kings, ruling a vast confederation of tribes between the Danube and the Don rivers.  In 339 BCE, he turned his territorial ambitions southwards, past the Thracians and into Macedon. The kingdom was still a generation away from the reign of Alexander, but the Great One’s father, Philip II, was a military genius in his own right and more than a match for the Scythians. That same year, Scythian cavalry came head to head with the Macedonian phalanx on the plains of the modern-day Dobruja. King Philip won a decisive victory.  King Ateas was killed in battle and his army was scattered, his tribal confederation shattering into pieces upon his death. This greatly weakened the power of the Scythians in the Pontic steppe. Like the Western Tribes, the Scythians on the Asian end of the Altai mountains were composed of many diverse tribes but collectively are referred to as the Saka. Records of their existence are found as far east as the annals of Ham Dynasty China. According to the Chinese, the Saka originally lived between the fertile Ili and Chu river valleys, between present-day Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan,  but in the early 2nd century BC, they fell victim to a classic phenomenon known as the nomadic migration domino effect.  The Xiongnu, predecessors of the Huns, pushed the nomadic Yuezhi people out of their homeland in modern-day Gansu, China. As a result, the Yuezhi were forced on a mass exodus westward, making war on the Sakas and pushing them out of their homeland.  Thus, the Sakas in turn were forced to find themselves a new home. The Sakas did not stop in Bactria, but rode further south, through the Hindu Kush and past the ancient Indus river. Indeed, for a time, a branch of the Scythians established domination over much of Northwestern India, deposing the Indo-Greek kings who had ruled before.  The Scythian presence in India would endure in some form or another, for over four centuries.  Another place the Saka-Scythians had a presence was in the desert kingdom of Khotan and Schule in the Tarim Basin. Eventually, like with all peoples and cultures, the Scythian world transitioned from its golden age into its twilight years.  Over the centuries, different people groups would come and replace them in different chunks of their traditional heartland, and before long, the Iranian nomads had assimilated into the medieval forebears of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians.  In India, the Scythians eventually lost their territories to other power players in the region,  like the Sassanids, Indo-Parthians, and Gutas. Meanwhile, the Scythians of the Tarim Basin and most of central Asia were largely displaced and assimilated by a wave of early Turkic migration from the 6th century AD onwards, a legacy we still see today, as the majority of modern Central Asia is Turkic-speaking. The Scythian world was largely gone by the early middle ages, but the Scythian people were not wiped out entirely. The medieval Alans,  who established a powerful kingdom in the Caucasus between the 9th and the 13th centuries AD, were believed to be the descendants of Queen Tomyrus and the Scythian Massagetae tribe.  While their kingdom was wiped out by the Mongol invasion in 1239 AD, they remained in the region into the present day, in the form of the modern Ossetian people.  Today the Scythians are a faded memory, a footnote in the history books of Greece, Iran, India, and China.  Yet, as army after army of horse-riding,  bow-shooting nomadic warlords thundered across the Eurasian steppe over the centuries,  whether they acknowledged it or not, they were building upon the legacy of the Scythians, the first and original horse lords of the ancient world.

Herodotus and the Scythians

The Scythians and milk proteins:

“Now the Scythians blind all their slaves, because of the milk2 they drink; and this is how they get it: taking tubes of bone very much like flutes, they insert these into the genitalia of the mares and blow into them, some blowing while others milk. According to them, their reason for doing this is that blowing makes the mare’s veins swell and her udder drop. [2] When done milking, they pour the milk into deep wooden buckets, and make their slaves stand around the buckets and shake the milk; they draw off what stands on the surface and value this most; what lies at the bottom is less valued. This is why the Scythians blind all prisoners whom they take: for they do not cultivate the soil, but are nomads. 3.” (      

Herodotus is describing the Scythian rivers and writes in reference to salt curing:

The fourth is the Borysthenes river. This is the next greatest after the Ister, and the most productive, in our judgment, not only of the Scythian but of all rivers, except the Egyptian Nile, with which no other river can be compared. [2] But of the rest, the Borysthenes is the most productive; it provides the finest and best-nurturing pasture lands for beasts, and the fish in it are beyond all in their excellence and abundance. Its water is most sweet to drink, flowing with a clear current, whereas the other rivers are turbid. There is excellent soil on its banks, and very rich grass where the land is not planted; [3] and self-formed crusts of salt abound at its mouth; it provides great spineless fish, called sturgeons, for salting, and many other wonderful things besides. (

More about salt:

How numerous the Scythians are, I was not able to learn exactly, and the accounts that I heard did not tally, some saying that they are very numerous, and some that they are few, so far as they are true Scythians. [2] But this much they let me see for myself: there is a region between the Borysthenes and Hypanis rivers, whose name is Exampaeus; this is the land that I mentioned when I said that there is a spring of salt water in it, whose water makes the Hypanis unfit to drink.


I have now described all the nomadic Libyans who live on the coast. Farther inland than these is that Libyan country which is haunted by wild beasts, and beyond this wild beasts’ haunt runs a ridge of sand that stretches from Thebes of Egypt to the Pillars of Heracles.60 [2] At intervals of about ten days’ journey along this ridge there are masses of great lumps of salt in hills; on the top of every hill, a fountain of cold sweet water shoots up from the midst of the salt; men live around it who are farthest away toward the desert and inland from the wild beasts’ country. The first on the journey from Thebes , ten days distant from there, are the Ammonians, who follow the worship of the Zeus of Thebes ; for, as I have said before, the image of Zeus at Thebes has the head of a ram. [3] They have another spring of water besides, which is warm at dawn, and colder at market-time, and very cold at noon; [4] and it is then that they water their gardens; as the day declines, the coldness abates, until at sunset the water grows warm. It becomes ever hotter and hotter until midnight, and then it boils and bubbles; after midnight it becomes ever cooler until dawn. This spring is called the Spring of the Sun. 182.

At a distance of ten days’ journey again from the Ammonians along the sandy ridge, there is a hill of salt like that of the Ammonians, and springs of water, where men live; this place is called Augila; it is to this that the Nasamones come to gather palm-fruit. 183.

After ten days’ journey again from Augila there is yet another hill of salt and springs of water and many fruit-bearing palms, as at the other places; men live there called Garamantes, an exceedingly great nation, who sow in earth which they have laid on the salt. [2] The shortest way to the Lotus Eaters’ country is from here, thirty days’ journey distant. Among the Garamantes are the cattle that go backward as they graze, the reason being that their horns curve forward; [3] therefore, not being able to go forward, since the horns would stick in the ground, they walk backward grazing. Otherwise, they are like other cattle, except that their hide is thicker and harder to the touch. [4] These Garamantes go in their four-horse chariots chasing the cave-dwelling Ethiopians: for the Ethiopian cave-dwellers are swifter of foot than any men of whom tales are brought to us. They live on snakes and lizards and such-like creeping things. Their speech is like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats. 184.

Another ten days’ journey from the Garamantes there is again a salt hill and water, where men live called Atarantes. These are the only men whom we know who have no names; for the whole people are called Atarantes, but no man has a name of his own. [2] When the sun is high, they curse and very foully revile him, because his burning heat afflicts their people and their land. [3] After another ten days’ journey there is again a hill of salt, and water, and men living there. Near to this salt is a mountain called Atlas, whose shape is slender and conical; and it is said to be so high that its heights cannot be seen, for clouds are always on them winter and summer. The people of the country call it the pillar of heaven. [4] These men get their name, which is Atlantes, from this mountain. It is said that they eat no living creature, and see no dreams in their sleep. 185.

I know and can tell the names of all the peoples that live on the ridge as far as the Atlantes, but no farther than that. But I know this, that the ridge reaches as far as the Pillars of Heracles and beyond them. [2] There is a mine of salt on it every ten days’ journey, and men live there. Their houses are all built of blocks of the salt; for these are parts of Libya where no rain falls; for the walls, being of salt, could not stand firm if there were rain. [3] The salt there is both white and purple. Beyond this ridge, the southern and inland parts of Libya are desolate and waterless: there are no wild beasts, no rain, no forests; this region is wholly without moisture. 186.

Cooking with bones:

Now as the Scythian land is quite bare of wood, this is how they contrive to cook the meat. When they have skinned the victims, they strip the meat from the bones and throw it into the cauldrons of the country, if they have them: these are most like Lesbian bowls, except that they are much bigger; they throw the meat into these, then, and cook it by lighting a fire beneath with the bones of the victims. But if they have no cauldron, then they put all the meat into the victims’ stomachs, adding water, and make a fire of the bones beneath, [2] which burn nicely; the stomachs easily hold the meat when it is stripped from the bones; thus a steer serves to cook itself, and every other victim does likewise. When the flesh is cooked, the sacrificer takes the first-fruits of the flesh and the entrails and casts them before him. They use all grazing animals for sacrifice, but mainly horses. 62.

Euxine Sea (Black Sea):

Nowhere are men so ignorant as in the lands by the Euxine Pontus (excluding the Scythian nation) into which Darius led his army. For we cannot show that any nation within the region of the Pontus has any cleverness, nor do we know of (overlooking the Scythian nation and Anacharsis) any notable man born there. [2] But the Scythian race has made the cleverest discovery that we know in what is the most important of all human affairs; I do not praise the Scythians in all respects, but in this, the most important: that they have contrived that no one who attacks them can escape, and no one can catch them if they do not want to be found. [3] For when men have no established cities or forts, but are all nomads and mounted archers, not living by tilling the soil but by raising cattle and carrying their dwellings on wagons, how can they not be invincible and unapproachable? 47. (

Eating of meat:

Thus from Egypt to the Tritonian lake, the Libyans are nomads that eat meat and drink milk; for the same reason as the Egyptians too profess, they will not touch the flesh of cows; and they rear no swine. [2] The women of Cyrene, too, consider it wrong to eat cows’ flesh, because of the Isis of Egypt; and they even honor her with fasts and festivals; and the Barcaean women refuse to eat swine too, as well as cows. 187.

Herodotus, The Histories A. D. Godley, Ed.

Herodotus, & Francis R. B. Godolphin. (1973). Herodotus: On the Scythians. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 32(5), 129–149.