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Herodotus' tenth logos: Scythia

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The tribes of Central Asia. Design Jona Lendering.

Country and customs of the Scythians (4.1-82)

After his successes in quelling the revolt of pseudo-Smerdis, the rebellion of Babylon, and conquering Samos, king Darius decides to attack the Scythian tribes that live in what is now called Ukraine.

The opening logos of Book Four tells about their way of life. Herodotus first gives a description of the country, which he knows as a green pasture dominated by large rivers, bordered in the north by vast stretches of snow. Herodotus is convinced that the Sycthians descend from Heracles, which makes them the youngest people in the world. There are several Greek cities on the shores of the Black Sea, where people have a more or less decent life style. Traveling north, you will leave civilization: first there are the farmer tribes of the Callipides and the Alizones, then you will reach the Neuri and finally the Man-eaters. More to the east live the Thyssagetes and the Iyrcans, both hunters; in the far east, you will encounter the Argippeans -who are all bold- and the Issedones.

No description of a foreign nation would be complete without Herodotus seizing the opportunity for a digression, this time on the relative size of the three continents Asia, Europe and Africa. This digression is interrupted by a brief but sensational digression about a Phoenician expedition that managed to round Cape of Good Hope and circumnavigate Africa (text). 

Returning to the topography of Scythia, Herodotus tells a lot about the main rivers of Scythia, then changes subject and informs us about Scythian customs - religion, sacrifices, royal burials, the use of marihuana, et cetera.

Darius I the Great


The northern frontier of the Achaemenid empire was open to attacks by the nomads who were roaming over the Central-Asian steppe. We may extrapolate Herodotus' description of the nomads of Ukraine to the tribes living in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and possibly Mongolia, even though Herodotus usually calls these eastern nomads 'Sacae'. In fact, just as the Scythians and the Sacae shared the same life style, they had the same name: in their own language, they called themselves Skudat ('archers'?), which the Persians rendered as Sak‚ and the Greeks as Skythai. The Chinese called them, at a later stage in history, Sai.

These nomad tribes were to roam over the steppes for centuries, incidentally attacking the countries to the south. The Chinese built a wall to protect themselves, India did not need walls because it was protected by the Himalayas, and the rulers of the Achaemenid empire, from Cyrus the Great to Alexander the Great, may have built walls as well. These walls are mentioned in the eighteenth sura of the Quran and in medieval legend, but cannot be identified with known archaeological remains. It is certain, however, that both Cyrus and Alexander built garrison towns along the river Syrdar'ya or Jaxartes; our sources call them Cyreschata and Alexandria EschatÍ.

One of first groups of nomads known to have gone south, is the tribe of the Cimmerians. Their name Gimirru -given to them by the Assyrians- means 'people traveling back and forth'; this name still exists in our word 'Crimea'. The Cimmerians destroyed the kingdoms of Urartu (an old name for Armenia) and Phrygia (in Turkey) in the first quarter of the seventh century BCE; other Scythians reached Ascalon in Palestine and -according to Herodotus- ruled Media for 28 years. 

Sak‚ tigrakhaud‚. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis. Photo Marco Prins.
Sak‚ tigrakhaud‚. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (more).

In the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, the Persians recognized several nomad tribes, such as
  • The Sak‚ haumavarg‚ ('haoma-drinking Sacae') who were subjected by Cyrus the Great and who are called Amyrgian Scythians by Herodotus. Because haoma is probably made from fly agaric, a mushroom that does not occur south of the river Amudar'ya (Oxus), we may assume that these nomads lived in Uzbekistan.
  • The Sak‚ tigrakhaud‚ ('Sacae with pointed hats') who were defeated by Darius and are visible on a relief at Persepolis. Their leader was a man named Skunkha. Herodotus calls this tribe Orthocorybantians ('pointed hat men') and informs us that they lived in the same tax district as the Medes. This suggests that these nomads lived on the banks of the ancient lower reaches of the Amudar'ya, which used to have a mouth in the Caspian Sea south of Krasnovodsk.
  • The Ap‚ Sak‚ ('Water Sacae'; or Pausikoi as Herodotus prefers to call them). They must be situated along the ancient lower reaches of the Amudar'ya.
  • The tribe that Herodotus (see above) calls 'Massagetes' must have been called something like Ma-Sak‚ in Persian, but this is confusing, because it is known that the Massagetes venerated only one god, the Sun. The Massagetes were responsible for the death of Cyrus. From Herodotus' description, it is clear that they lived along the Syrdar'ya (Jaxartes).
  • The Sak‚ paradray‚ ('Sacae across the sea'), living in Ukraine. These are the nomads that the Greeks called Scythians.
  • The Sauromatae are mentioned by Herodotus as the descendants of Scythian fathers and Amazon mothers. Of course, this is a legend, but the tribe did exist and was to move to the west (more).
  • The nomad tribe known as Dahae ('robbers') is mentioned for the first time in the Daiva inscription of Xerxes; this Persian king must have subjected them. Herodotus mentions them as a Persian tribe, but they can not have lived in Persia proper. They are also mentioned in the Anabasis of Arrian of Nicomedia and seem to have lived along the lower reaches of the Syrdar'ya..
As yet, there is no evidence to discredit Herodotus' description of the country of the Scythians, Ukraine. Probably, we may identify the Scythian-Farmers with the Chernoles culture and the Neuri with the Milograd-culture, which in turn can be identified with the ancestors of the Slavs and Balts. The strange story about the Man-eaters received some confirmation with the excavation of  human remains that were gnawed at by human jaws; these excavations were along the river Sula, southeast of Kiev. The Argippaeans are sometimes identified with the ancestors of the Calmucs; the Issedones may be identical to the Wu-sun who (according to Chinese texts) lived on the shore of Lake Balchash. Later, they became known as the Yuezhi nomads, and founded the Kushan Empire in the Punjab.

What Herodotus tells about Scythian customs has often been conroborated by archaeologists. Examples are the human sacrifices, the use of skulls as mug, drinking blood, the funerary rituals, the existence of Amazons, the use of hemp to get 'high', etc. Herodotus may have learned all this from Greeks who lived on the Scythian coast.




  • J. Harmatta, 'Herodotus, historian of the Cimmerians and the Scythians' in: Hťrodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposťs suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquitť classique, tome XXV) (1990 GenŤve), pages 115-130.
  • Renate Rolle, Die Welt der Skythen. Stutenmelker und Pferdebogner: ein antikes Reitervolk in neuer Sicht, 1980 Lucerne
  • T. Sulimivski, 'The Scyths' in: Ilya Gershevitch (ed.): The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. II: The Median and Achaemenian Periods, 1985 Cambridge, pages 149-199.
  • Stephanie West, "Scythians" in: Egbert Bakker, Irene de Jong and Hans van Wees (eds.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002 Leiden), pages 437-456

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