The problem of the origin of the Scythians is fare from the final solution. Herodotus cites three legendary accounts. According to two of them, the Scythian homeland was in the Black Sea steppe. The first legend calls them the descendants from the principal Greek god Zeus and the daughter of river god of the Borysthenes (Dnieper), though the second legend relates their origin with Heracles and Echidna, half-snake and half-woman, whom he met in one of his travels. Both legends are about three brothers who had to pass a trial by taking magic weapons and equipment. Only the youngest brother fulfilled the task with success, which is why his descendants became the masters of Scythia. The third legend says that the ancient Scythian homeland was located somewhere far away in the east. They were driven away from it by the Massagetians and, in their own turn, ousted the Cimmerians from the northern Black Sea area.
Those modern researchers who consider the Scythians to be the descendants of the tribes living in the northern Black Sea area in the Bronze Age look for support in the first and second legend. Others are champions of the interpretation of the Scythian culture as developed in the Asian steppe and brought to Europe in ready form, so they prefer the story of the expulsion of the Cimmerians.
Be that as it may, nomadic Scythians took possession of the northern Black Sea area and used it as a base for raids against the Middle East. For a hundred of years, they terrorized the local populations. As Herodotus put it, "besides exacting from each the tribute which was assessed, they rode about the land carrying off everyone's possessions." Finally, king Kyaxares of Media and his retinue once invited many Scythians to have a feast, so "most of them were entertained and made drunk and then slain..." The Scythians that survived decided to stop the war and returned to the northern Black Sea steppe.
In the late sixth century BC, the Scythians defeated huge army of Persian king Darius who invaded their country. From that moment on, they received long-lasted glory of invincible warriors.
In the struggle against Darius, the Scythians developed unprecedented tactics: they did not fight but retreated into the depth of their land, leaving scorched earth for the Persians. When hunger, thirst and diseases destroyed a considerable part of his army, Darius had to run away in disgrace. It is said that more than two thousand years after Napoleon, looking at the burning Moscow, exclaimed: "What a terrible spectacle! They started the fires themselves... What a resolution! What a people! They are Scythians!" So the French emperor compared the actions of the Russian army with the tactics of ancient nomads.
Classical Greek writers created detailed descriptions of the Scythians, whose life was so unlike their own. Greeks contrasted these "noble barbarians" with their fellow countrymen, effete and knee-deep in luxury, pleasure-thirsty and striving for riches. By the way, the Scythians valued their own customs so high that they could even kill their relative suspected of accepting traditions of other peoples and disdaining his own. Herodotus told a story of Scythian physician and philosopher Anacharsis by name. He belonged to a royal family that reigned among the Scythians and spent many years far from his fatherland, in travels through the Greek cities. The Hellenes considered Anacharsis one of the Seven Sages, the most wise persons in history, and particularly ascribed to him the invention of the anchor. "When Anacharsis was coming back to the Scythian country after having seen much of the world in his travels and given many examples of his wisdom, he sailed through the Hellespont [Dardanelles] and put in at Cyzicus [in Asia Minor]; where, finding the Cyzicenes celebrating the feast of the Mother of the Gods with great ceremony, he vowed to this same Mother that if he returned to his own country safe and sound he would sacrifice to her as he saw the Cyzicenes doing, and establish a nightly rite of worship. So when he came to Scythia, he hid himself... and... celebrated the goddess* ritual with exactness, carrying a small drum and hanging images about himself. Then some Scythian saw him doing this and told the king, Saulius; who, coming to the place himself and seeing Anacharsis performing these rites, shot an arrow at him and killed him. And now the Scythians, if they are asked about Anacharsis, say they have no knowledge of him; this is because he left his country for Hellas and followed the customs of strangers."
There is a book ascribed to the famous ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (ca. 460 - ca. 377 BC) that survived to these days. However, as it turned out, it was written by another physician whose name remained unknown. Here is his account of the Scythians, who "are called nomads, because they have no houses, but live in wagons. The smallest of these wagons have four wheels, but some have six; they are covered in with felt, and they are constructed in the manner of houses, some having but a single apartment, and some three; they are proof against rain, snow, and winds. The wagons are drawn by yokes of oxen, some of two and others of three, and all without horns, for they have no horns, owing to the cold. In these wagons the women live, but the men are carried about on horses, and the sheep, oxen, and horses accompany them; and they remain on any spot as long as there is provender for their cattle, and when that fails they migrate to some other place. They eat boiled meat, and drink the milk of mares, and also eat hippake, which is cheese prepared from the milk of the mare..." Cattle made the Scythians' main wealth supplying them with materials to make cloths and shoes, weapons and armours, and naturally with food and drinks. In Herodotus' words, the Scythians boiled meat in bronze cauldrons, and if they did not have a cauldron with them, "they put all the meat into the animals' stomachs, adding water, and make afire of the bones beneath, which burn nicely; the stomachs easily hold the meat when it is stripped from the bones; thus a steer serves to cook itself..."
In contrast to the Greeks, the Scythians wore pointed caps and trousers (it is interesting to admit that according to Pseudo-Hippocrates trousers can cause sexual dysfunction). They drank wine, without adding water to it like Greeks, and kumiss, i. e. beverage of fermented mare's milk that was churned in wooden containers. The kumiss was made by the captives taken by the Scythians and made slaves doing home jobs. According to Herodotus, the Scythians blinded their slaves in order to prevent them from running away.
The Scythians did not know farming and settled life, but were nomadic cattle-breeders. It is interesting that huge Scythian herds did not have donkeys, so their braying frightened Scythian horses so that it could even put them to flight. Invincible Scythian warriors fought only from horseback, armed with spears and short sword (akinakai), battle-axes and bows that shouted deadly arrows with bronze heads.
"A Scythian drinks the blood of the first man whom he has taken down" the Greek historian wrote. The purpose was that the winner got the force of his victim with the blood. "He carries the heads of all whom he has slain in the battle to his king; for if he brings a head, he receives a share of the booty taken, but not otherwise." Every year the Scythians arranged a great festival where only those who had killed enemies drank wine, the others sat apart dishonoured.
The Scythians took great pride of their bloody trophies. Human scalps ornamented Scythian bridle, though of human skin they made coats and coverings for their quivers. Cutting off heads of their enemies, they made bowls out of them, and poor men covered these bowls with rawhide, though rich persons set in gold.
The Scythian name of the principal god, the patron of heaven, was Papaios, goddess of earth was Apia, sun god was Goitosyros, the patroness of females was Argimpasa, though waters were ruled by Thagimasadas. They especially venerated war god represented by sword; he was the only one that received shrines and altars. According to Herodotus, the Scythians erected "a pile of bundles of sticks... on the top of which there is a flattened four-sided surface; three of its sides are sheer, but the fourth can be ascended... On this sacred pile an ancient akinakes of iron is set...: their image of [the god]. They bring yearly sacrifice of sheep and goats and horses to this akinakes... Of enemies that they take alive, they sacrifice one man in every hundred... They pour wine on the mens heads and cut their throats over a bowl; then they carry the blood up on to the pile of sticks and pour it on the akinakes."
There also were priests and prophets among the Scythians. They foretold the future while sorting out willow wands or braiding tree bark. For careless prophets the Scythians had terrible execution: they were burnt alive.
The Scythians valued freedom higher than any other thing. They were brave and just people living the simple life. The Scythians were straightforward and took each other's or foreigner's word for it, so they could be easily deceived. They preferred horse's neigh to the sound of musical instruments. Having no settle- ments, the Scythians greatly esteemed their ancestors' graves.
When Scythian king died, his embalmed body was transported from tribe to tribe for the subjects were able to pay him their last respect. As a sign of sorrow, the Scythians cut off a part of their ears, sheared off their hair, scratched their faces, and pierced their left hands with arrows. The king should go to the better world in a company of his courtiers, so in his tomb they buried "one of the kings concubines, his cupbearer, his cook, his groom, his squire, and his messenger, after strangling them, besides horses, and first-fruits of everything else, and golden cups" Having done this, they erected a barrow above the tomb. Archaeological excavations proved that this tale of Herodotus was true.
After the burial the Scythians organized ritual purification: they smeared their heads with oil and washed them, and then took steam bath. They put a container of water into the middle of the tent and threw red-hot stones into it. Sometimes they laid the seed of hemp on these stones. As Herodotus put it, the seed "smoulders and sends forth such fumes that no Greek vapour-bath could surpass it. The Scythians howl in their joy at the vapour-bath" Quite possibly, it is a description of a special ritual rather than an orgy. Scythian shamans could be presented among those under this tent, so the "howls of joy' were their songs describing how the souls of the dead went down to the underworld.
Scythian women never washed themselves. They "pound cypress and cedar and frankincense wood on a rough stone, adding water also, and with the thick staff thus pounded they anoint their bodies and faces, as a result of which not only does a fragrant scent come from them, but when on the second day they take off the ointment, their skin becomes clear and shining."
The Crimean peninsula was a periphery of the Scythian world, the place where the Royal Scythians roamed; being acknowledged "the best and most numerous"among this people, they "consider all other Scythians their slaves."
The barrows in the steppe contained numerous nomadic burials. The dead were accompanied with offerings of weapons, first of all tens and hundreds of arrows with their shafts painted red. Arrowheads were cast of bronze and supplied with pins to hamper the extraction of the arrow from a wound. In many graves there were akinakai and, not so often, spears and battleaxes. Leather jackets were strengthened with metal scales to make them a kind of armour. Shields were woven of wands and covered with leather. Numerous are finds of horse tack including fragments of bridle and badges that protected horse's head in battle. Graves of women were accompanied with bronze mirrors, bracelets, earrings, fingerrings, needles, and spindle whorls. The graves contained vessels with funeral food and, rarely, bronze cauldrons. Stone statues stood above the barrows.
Weapons, details of tack, and ornaments of bone, bronze and precious metals were decorated in a specific "animal" style. These artefacts were covered with skilful images of moving animals that combined real and fantastic features. Later on, Greek artisans started using such a technique when they produced goods for the Scythians.
It was 1830 when the barrow of Kul'- Oba with extraordinary rich Scythian burial from the fourth century BC was excavated on the outskirts of Kerch. Below the barrow mound, there was burial vault with stepped ceiling constructed of huge ashlars. A Scythian king was buried into wooden sarcophagus inside the vault. His remains were covered with gold badges that once decorated the cloths that decayed. These badges were made of thin foil and had images of humans and beasts impressed by stamps. The king's neck was adorned with gold neck-ring with sculptured horse-riders on its ends. His arms and legs wore gold bracelets. Near the body, there laid weapons: sword in scabbard, bow and arrows in a special case, and shield, all decorated with gold plates with chased designs. The tomb contained numerous vessels of gold, silver, and bronze, as well ceramics vases with bright drawings.
The Scythian king's spouse was buried together with her husband; most likely, she was of Greek origin. Her costume was similarly embroidered with gold. She had gold diadem on her head, neck-ring with sculptures of lions and necklace of fine gold chains with bottle pendants on her neck, and bracelets on her legs and arms. Near the feet, there was a bowl of electrum (alloy of silver and gold) with pictures of Scythians. The tomb also contained remains of kings servant wearing armour, and a horse.
Archaeologists did not succeed to finish their works in the tomb in the first day. In the evening they returned to their places leaving two soldiers to watch over the sepulchre. Nevertheless, as a Swiss traveller wrote, "the inquisitive crowd that gathered near the tomb at night, was so large that the sentries could not hold it back. The people broke in the burial chamber and dug everywhere..." Having realized that the slabs in a corner of the grave sounded like there was an empty space below, the people removed the slabs and discovered the secret compartment full of gold ware. "During this plunder, vandalism reached its extremes; they snatched artefacts from each other, and in order to find mutual consent they divided the most valuable goods by chopping them with axe..." Only a part of the finds was ransomed from the plunderers successfully; now these artefacts adorn the collection of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Precious finds from the burials of Scythian noblemen became the reason why local residents started plundering graves in search of treasures. It should be said that the Scythians themselves had not have aversion to such a business: not by accident they had arranged secret compartments in their tombs, though modern archaeologists regularly discovered that this or that grave had been plundered in ancient times. Any-way, the contemporaries could not even imagine the colossal grave robbing from the nineteenth century to these days. Now professional tomb raiders sell their finds to dealers who organize illegal restoration of antiquities and their delivery to collectors that certainly realize the source from where the treasures come.
Soon there appeared fakers who gained profits from the desire to purchase Greek treasures expressed by many museums and private collectors. One of the most famous counterfeits was the so-called "tiara of Scythian king Saitapharnes" made in Odessa in the late nineteenth century after the examples of authentic masterpieces of ancient Greek art. This gold cap decorated with images of the Scythians and Greeks was sold to the Louvre Museum at a fabulous price of 200,000 gold French francs. The fraud was exposed only few years after.
In the third century BC the culture of the Scythians changed, so they left most of their possessions in the steppe, concentrated at places good for farming, and turned to settled way of life. A new stage of their history started.
After Nikita Khrapunov and Dmitriy Prokhorov