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Tuesday, 26 December 2017 12:00

A HISTORY OF UKRAINE. EPISODE 7. THE SCYTHIANS

Oleksandr Palii, A History of Ukraine, 27.12.2017 

 

EPISODE SIX HERE 


The Scythians believed that their ancestral home was the territory of modern Ukraine and claimed that they lived along the Dnipro 1,000 years before their return in the 7th century BC when they met the Cimmerians here. 

 

The Scythians were among the first peoples in Europe, following only Greece and Italy, to develop a full-fledged state with a permanent army, government, taxes, minted money etc. The Scythian state existed for a millennium (until the 4th century AD) in some regions of Ukraine. 

 

The name of Scythians was given to them by the Greeks. They called themselves Skolotoi, after their king Scyles, who ruled in the 5th century BC.

 

the scythians 1 pectoral

Gold pectoral of a Scythian king from the Tovsta Monyla burial mound (near the city of Pokrov), 1.14kg, 4th century BC. 

 

The Greeks counted the Scythian philosopher Anacharsis (6th century BC) among the Seven Sages as the only non-Greek. He was thought to have invented the anchor and the potter’s wheel and his maxims were memorized by schoolchildren in ancient Greece. Anacharsis considered wealth vanity, believed in God and the immortality of the soul, and thought the natural order of things was best. He put the highest value on freedom. He wrote in defense of his origins: “The Greeks are wise people but not in any way wiser than the barbarians from whom the gods have taken away the ability to recognize beauty... Signs of stupidity, just like signs of intelligence, are the same among the Greeks and the barbarians.” Ancient Greek authors considered the Scythians most honest among all peoples. It is known that the police force in the Greek state of Athens was recruited from among the Scythians in the 4th century BC. The Apostle Paul wrote in the 1st century AD that in Christianity there was neither Greek nor Jew, Barbarian or Scythian, thus separating the Scythians from the rest of “barbarian” peoples.

 

the scythians 2 anacharsis

The Scythian philosopher Anacharsis, engraving, 18th century, copied from an ancient miniature stone engraving

 

Greater Scythia had clear boundaries from the Danube to the Don, almost coinciding with the territory of modern Ukraine. The Scythians were governed by the Paralatae, or “Royal Scythians”. The king and part of the tribal chiefs had to come from this tribe. The Royal Scythians roamed the territory between the Lower Dnipro and the Lower Don. 

 

Scythian tillers and farmers lived on both banks of the Dnipro River. They accounted for a bigger portion of the population of Greater Scythia and included the ancestors of the Slavs. 

 

The plough, yoke, axe and bowl were among the sacred objects of the Scythians. The plough could only be sacred in an agricultural people.

 

the scythians 3 bowl
Scythian bowl from the Haimanova Mohyla burial mound (Zaporizhia Oblast), silver-gilt, 4th century BC. 

 

From the beginning, the Scythians buried their kings in Gerros, an area reportedly located up the Dnipro River, 40 days of navigation from the Black Sea. This is probably an area in Kyiv Oblast near Vasylkiv (a blue dot on the map — RL), where the biggest ancient Scythian burial mounds were discovered. 

 

Large wooden fortresses and ramparts were built in Greater Scythia. More material was used for ramparts in the vicinity of one fortress only, the Motronynske settlement (a red dot on the map — RL), than for the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. In the 7th century BC, the Scythian king Ariant conducted a sort of “census” of the population, forcing all residents to give him one copper arrowhead each. These were melted into a giant cauldron whose size indicated that Greater Scythia had a population of several million people. 

 

The Scythians invaded the Middle East in their pursuit of the Cimmerians. In the mid-7th century BC, the Scythians crushed the Median army, turning the population of Western Asia into their tributaries. In 625 BC, the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I had to pay tribute to the Scythians. The Scythians were involved in the destruction of the bloody Assyrian state that had ruled over the region for more than a millennium. It was a turning point in the history of the Middle East. The Scythians dominated Western Asia for 28 years. However, the vassal king of the Medes invited Scythian leaders to a banquet and killed them, after which the rest of the Scythians returned to their home region along the Dnipro River. 

 

Every soldier in the Scythian cavalry knew his place and role in the joint attack and retreat. The Scythians used circular fortifications — cart camps — for defense. They were able to repel the attacks of a fairly large army from within such a camp set up in the steppe. This defensive tactic was used by Ukrainians until the 18th century.

 

the scythians 3 vase
Silver amphora vase, 4th century BC, Chortomlyk burial mound, near Nikopol


The rich Scythian culture was associated with the cultures of the Balkans, the North Caucasus and the Middle East. 

 

In contrast, the eastern and northern neighbors of the Scythians were still wild at the time, stuck in the Stone Age. According to the great Greek historian Herodotus, at that time the tribe of Androphagi (i.e. cannibals) lived in what is now Central Russia: “They neither observe justice, nor are governed by any laws. They are nomads, and their dress is Scythian; but the language which they speak is peculiar to themselves [i.e. non-Indo-European]. Unlike any other nation in these parts, they are cannibals.” The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (1st century AD) wrote that the Androphagi dwelt ten days' journey, i.e., 400-700 kilometers, beyond the Dnipro. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus (4th century AD) mentioned that they were nomads and that other peoples did not want to live next to them due to their cannibalism. In the late 19th century, the Czech Slavicist Wilhelm Tomaschek proposed that Mordva, the name of a Finno-Ugric group of peoples, came from the Scythian word mard-xwaar “man-eater”. The Mordvins call themselves Erzya and Moksha.

 

Ellis Minns, a British archaeologist whose studies focused on Eastern Europe, placed the Androphagi in central Muscovy: “The Androphagi were probably Finns, and the most barbarous of them, as no trade route passed through their land.” The Androphagi were mentioned by an Armenian geographer back in the 7th century AD. 

 

Until the mid-1st millennium AD, the tribes in Central Russia used primarily bone and flint tools. Metals were very rare and primarily imported. Arrowheads were made from bones in a shape resembling that of Scythian bronze arrowheads. The area to the north of Scythia, what is now Belarus, was inhabited by the Neuri, a Baltic tribe which also borrowed extensively from the Scythians. 

 

Similar to Indo-European peoples, the Scythians had a typical European appearance, which is evidenced by contemporaneous images. The Ukrainian language inherited certain features from the Scythian language: ikavism (saying i instead of o, the distinct h vowel, the vowel combination hv instead of f, etc. Sharovary (wide trousers), the traditional bowl haircut, the animal style of the Kyivan Rus’ art and the fairytale character Babai (named for the chief Scythian deity Papai) — all of this Ukrainians inherited from the Scythians. The Kyivan medieval state maintained the Scythian order of succession in the ruling dynasty — not from father to son, as in Europe, but to the oldest of kin.

 

the scythians 5 fraternity

Gold plate depicting the Scythian fraternity ritual, southern Ukraine, 4th century BC. 

TO EPISODE EIGHT

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