Warriors of the Steppes
Updated: May 15, 2022
"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?"
Herodotus, The Histories, Book 4
Between Europe and the Far East lies the vast, treeless steppes of Central Asia. Stretching from Ukraine and the shores of the Black Sea to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, the steppes are bounded by the Elburz and Altai mountain ranges in the south and the tundra of Siberia to the north. It is a landscape of harsh extremes. Warm, dry summers and bitterly cold winters. Birthplace of the Huns, the Mongols, and the Black Death. The foil of Alexander the Great, the Persians under Darius, and Napoleon.
For millennia, this region was home to groups of nomadic tribes. During antiquity, they were known to the Greeks, Persians, and Assyrians. One well-known group was centered on the Pontic Steppe, a region along the shores of the Black and Caspian Seas. The Greeks called this area Scythia. The Scythians first appear in the historical record during the 8th century BCE and last until the1st century BCE when they are displaced by other groups such as the Celts and Sarmatians (who had a close kinship to the Scythians). The Greek historian Herodotus provides us with one of the earliest descriptions.
Like many who populated the steppes, the horse played a central role in the lifestyle of the Scythians. Ancient writers were impressed with their horsemanship, especially in warfare. (It is likely that the myth of centaurs - half man, half horse - was inspired by those who inhabited the steppes.) At first, the Scythians herded horses mainly for their milk and hides. Eventually, they began to exploit the horse as a mount, one of the first groups of people to do so. This enabled them to expand their territories and travel the vast distances of the steppe. As they became expert riders, they improved upon the horse equipment. They developed an early form of the saddle which was adapted by their more sedentary neighbors. Evidence shows they preferred strong, athletic steeds that they hand-fed rather than let graze. This feeding was a departure from how other domesticated animals were treated. Horses were a symbol of one's status and were important to many Scythian rituals. It is common to find horses buried in Scythian graves.
It is not surprising then, that the Scythians employed the horse in combat. Not only did the horse provide mobility, but coupled with the Scythian bow, it made the Scythians into an effective fighting force that was feared and respected by Classical writers. The Scythian bow was an early form of a composite bow made of layers of wood and sinew. Horsehair or animal tendons were used for bowstrings. The exact nature of these bows have been lost to antiquity, but contemporaneous writers suggest that they were substantial weapons. The bows provided greater power than a simple wooden bow. The Scythians also invented what is called a gorytos, a case for both bow and arrows that allowed easy access while on horseback. The evidence speaks to the great skill these people had as mounted archers. (The root of the word Scythian is from the Indo-European word for "propel, shoot".) A single archer could unleash up to 15 arrows a minute. The Scythians used hundreds of mounted archers during a battle, and therefore, could potentially rain thousands of arrows within a short time upon an enemy. Some writers claimed the arrows were dipped with poison. Given all this, it is not hard to imagine the terror felt by opposing armies. Women also fought in combat and it is believed this gave rise to the Greek myth of the Amazons.
Feasting played an important role in social bonding, not just between individuals but between tribes. Feasting was also done during funerals. The Greeks called the Scythians "milk drinkers". They probably drank something like kumis which is fermented mare's milk. Kumis is a popular drink among the people of Central Asia. Later, they adapted wine drinking from the Greeks. Much to the chagrin of Greek writers, they drank their wine undiluted and drank excessively. (Though the Greeks tend to be a bit snobbish when comparing themselves to other cultures.)
For a long time, much of what we knew about the Scythians were from ancient writers. Nowadays, archeologists have been able to gain a better understanding of these people. Being a nomadic people, the Scythians left very few written records. At the same time, what few possessions they had, were sturdy in order to survive the rigors of constant travel. This meant we have found many well-preserved artifacts. Most of these come from excavating burial mounds called kurgans.
The Scythians had a strong belief in the afterlife, and they buried their dead with everything one would need including horses, weapons, gear, wagons, and other prized possessions. Tombs were made by digging a deep hole in the ground and supported by a wooden structure. For very important people, felt covered the floor while bark and moss lined the roof. The coffin was placed in the middle of the room, and jewelry and smaller objects were placed inside with the body. The Scythians practiced mummification by removing the soft organs and filling the body cavity with dried grass. The cold, dry conditions of the steppe have helped preserve many of these bodies. The bodies, both male and female, are heavily tattooed. Both sexes are sturdily built with men being more dark-haired than the women.
Herodotus's History is filled with many fanciful tales that he heard second-hand. But there are observations that archeologists have proven to be somewhat accurate in their telling. In one case, Herodotus describes a particular ritual of the Scythians:
Now they have hemp growing in their land, which is very like flax except in thickness and in height, for in these respects the hemp is much superior. This grows both of itself and with cultivation; and of it the Thracians even make garments, which are very like those made of flaxen thread, so that he who was not specially conversant with it would not be able to decide whether the garments were of flax or of hemp; and he who had not before seen stuff woven of hemp would suppose that the garment was made of flax.
The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and creep under the felt coverings, and then they throw the seed upon the stones which have been heated red-hot: and it burns like incense and produces a vapour so thick that no vapour-bath in Hellas would surpass it: and the Scythians being delighted with the vapour-bath howl like wolves.
In 2013, archeologists excavated a kurgan in the Caucus Mountains in southern Russia. The kurgan showed signs of grave robbers so the archeologists were surprised to find two gold vessels placed upside down in the tomb. Within the vessels was a finger ring, two neck rings, and other gold jewelry. The inside portions of the vessels were covered with a black soot. The archeologists brought in a criminal forensics team to analyze the soot. They discovered traces of opium and cannabis. Archeologists believe this supports Herodotus's observation that the Scythians partook of marijuana as well as other types of drugs. The use of psychotic substances is common among primitive cultures as a means of communicating with the spirit world and with the gods. Also, cannibis and opium have long been known for their pain relief properties. It is extremely possible that the Scythians utilized these substances for medicinal purposes as well.
The Scythians were one of many groups of people to inhabit the Eurasian steppes. Our knowledge of them and other cultures continues to grow. The harsh and demanding environment has produced a hearty people, fierce warriors, and skilled horsemen. The Scythians, like those who came after them, were well adapted to the extreme conditions they faced. It is no wonder that it had been difficult for more "civilized" cultures to conquor this vast and unforgiving territory.
More about the Scythians:
The History of Herodotus: translated by G.C. Macauly
Gold Artifacts Tell Tale of Drug-Fueled Rituals and "Bastard Wars": Andrew Curry (National Geographic)
Introducting the Scythians: The British Musuem blog
Amazon Warriors Did Indeed Fight and Die Like Men: Simon Worral (National Geographic)
The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World : Adrienne Mayor
Rites of the Scythians: Andrew Curry (Archeology magazine)