Gold, Blood, Scythians

Shaochen Shi
October 1, 2020

I

“The Royal Scythians guard the sacred gold with most especial care, and year by year offer great sacrifices in its honour. At this feast, if the man who has the custody of the gold should fall asleep in the open air, he is sure not to outlive the year. His pay therefore is as much land as he can ride round on horseback in a day.”

History, Book 4
Scythian Golden Comb, early 4th century.

In Herodotus’ History, the Scythians, a semi-nomadic civilization roaming across the great steppes of Euro-Asia from the Caspian Sea to the east of modern-day Kazakhstan, are often depicted as fierce warriors and troublesome enemies. The name itself even became an umbrella term for other “barbarians” like the Huns or the Goths in early Roman history, bringing fear to merchants and sailors. 

They wear pointed hats reminiscent of the people of early Indo-European civilization, drink hallucinogens in their rituals, eat fermented sheep milk (later known as cheese), and enjoy a lavish lifestyle from the loot they take. They are natural-born riders and merchants, master craftsmen and warriors. They bring milk and bows in exchange for gold, then leave scorched soil when peace cannot be attained. 

These ideas are what a well-educated Greek scholar would have thought when facing a Scythian. Indeed, we know today that their artistic craftsmanship with gold was extraordinary on its own. Moreover, in each and every hairpin or scabbard, the Greek influence on the realistic, sculpture-like figures similar to those at temples in Athens or Alexandria were spread to Ancient India through their conquest; needless to say that by crafting such detailed, minuscule scenes of war using only gold, these artifacts truly showed how the advanced metallurgy of the Scythians could hardly lose its shine.

II

While they are best known for their gold and destruction in Greek history records, the Scythians’ most famous and exceptionally unusual story remembered for generations would be the heroic battle between Cyrus the Great and Queen Tomyris, the latter being the leader of the Massagetae tribe west of Afghanistan.

“…Tomyris sent a herald to him, who said, “King of the Medes, cease to press this enterprise, for you cannot know if what you are doing will be of real advantage to you. Be content to rule in peace your own kingdom, and bear to see us reign over the countries that are ours to govern. As, however, I know you will not choose to hearken to this counsel, since there is nothing you less desirest than peace and quietness, come now, if you are so mightily desirous of meeting the Massagetai in arms, leave your useless toil of bridge-making; let us retire three days’ march from the river bank, and do you come across with your soldiers; or, if you like better to give us battle on your side the stream, retire yourself an equal distance. Bloodthirsty as you are, I will give you your fill of warriors’ blood.”

The History

The Scythians followed their Queen into a brutal battle for the revenge of her son, dead by suicide, whom the Persians captured through a vile plot. A day and a night passed while both parties took heavy casualties; blood ran into the river. That scene was something Cyrus would never think to see- he conquered the powerful kingdoms of Medes, Lydia and Babylon, reigning over the vast empire for twenty-nine years with little effort. Yet today, his head was dipped in the blood of the fallen Scythians by the anguished Queen.

Queen Tomyris and the Head of Cyrus, Peter Paul Rubens

The story ends in revenge and tragedy: the Scythians defeated one of the most powerful empires to ever exist with the death of its greatest ruler, yet were to be diminished years after. A millennium passed. In the tide of romanticist orientalism, the Scythians, once seen as barbarians by westerners, transformed into the noble representation of free, revolting spirit against the tyranny that reemerged in works produced by the western poets, artists, and historians during the Enlightenment and Revolutionary era. Only memories and gold-artifacts still silently tell the story of the people of Scythia, but their influence in the history of civilizations is, as Herodotus would say, immeasurable.


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