Scythian religion refers to the mythology, ritual practices and beliefs of the Scythian cultures, a collection of closely related ancient Iranian peoples who inhabited Central Asia and the Pontic–Caspian steppe in Eastern Europe throughout Classical Antiquity, spoke the Scythian language (itself a member of the Eastern Iranian language family), and which included the Scythians proper, the Cimmerians, the Sarmatians, the Alans, the Sindi, the Massagetae and the Saka.
The Scythian religion is assumed to have been related to the earlier Proto-Indo-Iranian religion as well as to contemporary Eastern Iranian and Ossetian traditions, and to have influenced later Slavic, Hungarian and Turkic mythologies.
The primary archaeological context of horse sacrifice are burials, notably chariot burials, but graves with horse remains reach from the Eneolithic well into historical times. Herodotus describes the execution of horses at the burial of a Scythian king, and Iron Age kurgan graves known to contain horses number in the hundreds.
The Scythians had some reverence for the stag, which is one of the most common motifs in their artwork, especially at funeral sites (see, for example, the Pazyryk burials).
According to Herodotus, the Scythians worshipped a pantheon of seven gods and goddesses (heptad), which he equates with Greek divinities of Classical Antiquity following the interpretatio graeca. He mentioned eight deities divided into three ranks, with this structure of the Scythian pantheon being typically Indo-Iranian:
- In the first rank was the head of the pantheon:
- Tapatī́, the Flaming One, who was the goddess of heat, fire and the hearth, and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Hearth, Hestia
- In the second rank were the binary opposites and the father and mother of the universe:
- Api, the Earth and Water Mother, equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia
- Papaios, the Sky Father, equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Zeus
- The third and final rank was composed of four deities with specific characteristics
- The “Scythian Hēraklēs,” whose Scythian name was Dargatavah, and was the forefather of the Scythian kings
- The “Scythian Arēs,” the god of war
- Gaiθāsūra, who might have been associated with the Sun, and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek solar deity Apollōn
- Artimpasa was a more complex goddess who was a patron of fertility with power over sovereignty and the priestly force, and was equated by Herodotus with Aphroditē Ourania
- An eighth Scythian deity mentioned by Herodotus was Thagimasadas, whom he equated with the Greek god Poseidōn, and who was worshipped only by the Royal Scythians.
This list of the Scythian deities by Herodotus was a translation of a Scythian hymn to the gods which was chanted during sacrifices and rituals. With the omission of Thagimasadas who was worshipped only by the Royal Scythians, the Scythian pantheon was composed of seven gods, with the Sarmatian tribe of the Alans also being attested as worshipping seven deities, and traces of a similar tradition being recorded among Ossetians. This heptatheism was a typical feature of Indo-Iranian religions: seven Aməša Spəṇtas led by Ahura Mazdā are worshipped in the Zoroastrian religion of the more southern Iranian peoples, which had significantly transformed the concepts of the Indo-Iranian religion while also inheriting several features of it; the leading deities of the Indo-Aryan Vedic pantheon, the Ādityas, were also seven in number.
This pantheon was a reflection of the Scythian cosmology, headed by the primeval fire which was the basic essence and the source of all creation, following which came the Earth-Mother and Sky-Father who created the gods, the latter of whom were the four custodians of the four sides of the world regulating the universe. The world inhabited by humans existed between this celestial realm and the chthonic realm below the earth.
The first rank
The Scythian goddess Tapatī́ (Hellenised as Ταβιτι Tabiti; Latinised as Tabiti) and was equated by him with the Greek goddess of the Hearth, Hestia, was the most venerated of all Scythian deities. The name of Tapatī́ meant “the Burning One” or “the Flaming One,” and was related to the Avestan term tāpaiieⁱti meaning “to warm,” Latin tepeo and several other Indo-European terms for heat, as well as to the similar name of the Hindu goddess Tapatī (तपती) and to the verb related to the latter’s name, tapayati (तापयति), meaning “burns” and “is hot.” and to the Sanskrit term tápas (तपस्), which denoted the cosmic warmth and the original nature, that is the cosmic principle out of which originated the multiple elements of the Universe and the order in the world. Thus, Tapatī́ was the primordial fire which alone existed before the creation of the universe, and from her were born Api (the Earth) and Papaios (Heaven).
Due to being a deity representing an abstract notion of fire and divine bliss, Tapatī́ was rarely depicted in Scythian art, but was instead represented by the fireplace, which constituted the sacral centre of any community, from the family to the tribe.
The connections of her name to fire and warmth, as well as her role as the primordial fire attest of the role of Tapatī́ as a primordial sovereign deity of fire derived from the common fire-deity of the Indo-Europeans, whose iterations included the Greek Hestia, and the Vedic Agni (अग्नि) among the Indo-Aryans and Ātar among the more southern Iranian peoples. Tapatī́ was thus similar to the Vedic Agni and the Greek Hestia, therefore being connected to the common Iranian cult and concept of fire, although she belonged to an older period in the development of Indo-Iranian religion compared to the other Iranian peoples and the Indo-Aryans, among whom she had been respectively replaced by the male fire-gods Ātar and Agni, making her the only attested female Indo-Iranian fire-deity. Herodotus’s listing of Tapatī́ at the head of the Scythian pantheon was a reflection of the role of the fire-deity among the Indo-European peoples, and parallels the Greek tradition of beginning and ending every sacrificial rite with the sacrifice to Hestia, and every appeal to the gods starting by mentioning her name; another parallel is found in the Indo-Aryan Ṛgveda, which begins and ends with a hymn addressed to Agni; thus, the supreme position of Tapatī́ in the list of Scythian gods reflected her position in hymns to the gods pronounced during Scythian sacrifices and rituals.
Also attesting of the paramount role of the fire-deity in the Iranian pantheon as an omnipresent element, Tapatī́ was the primeval fire which was the basic essence and the source of all creation, a concept which was also present among the Indo-Aryan pantheon, where Agni was the fire which could be found throughout the Cosmos and which permeated the whole Universe, including the worlds of the humans and of the gods. The status of Tapatī́ as the incarnation of the primordial fire is also confirmed by the story recounted by Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus of the dispute which arose between the Scythians and the Egyptians for the right to the title of the most ancient people, and which consisted of an argument by each side about whether the world was initially fully flooded by water (referring to Nun) or covered with fire (referring to Tapatī́).
As a goddess of the Hearth, Tapatī́ was the patron of society, the state and families who protected the family and the clan, and, as a symbol of supreme authority, she was assigned the superior position over the other gods through her role as the guardian of the king, due to which as well as her to link to the common Iranian cult of fire, she was connected to the importance of fire and of royal hearths in Iranian religions. The king’s hearth was hence connected with Tapatī́, and was therefore an inviolable symbol of the prosperity of his people and a token of royal power, and Tapatī́ herself was connected with royal power, as attested by the Scythian king Idanthyrsus calling her the “Queen of the Scythians” in 513 BCE. As the guardian of the royal hearth, Tapatī́ therefore ensured the well-being of the tribe – an oath by the royal hearths was considered the most sacred and breaking it was believed to cause the king’s illness and was punished by death. The hestiai (ἑστῐ́αι hestíai) of Tapatī́ were likely the flaming gold objects which fell from the sky in the Scythian genealogical myth and of which the king was the trustee while Tapatī́ herself in turn was the protector of the king and the royal hearth, thus creating a strong bond between Tapatī́ and the Scythian king, who might have been seen as an intermediary between the goddess and the people, and any offence to the royal hestiai was considered as affecting the whole tribe and had to be averted at any cost. Her characterisation as “the Queen of the Scythians” was thus possibly linked to the notion of the fārnā (xᵛarənah in Avestan), the Iranian divine bliss, or even to that of the fire which protects the king, the warahrān.
The second rank
The Scythian goddess of the birth-giving chthonic principle was Api (Hellenised as Ἀπι Api; Latinised as Api) or Apia (Hellenised as Ἀπια Apia; Latinised as Apia), which is reflected by her name, Api, which was a Scythian cognate of the Avestan word for water, api (𐬀𐬞𐬌), and through her equation by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. These identifications rested upon the conceptualisation in ancient cosmologies of Earth and water as being two aspects of same the birth-giving chthonic principle, and, within Iranian tradition, the earth was a life-giving principle which was inextricably connected to water, which was held to have fertilising, nourishing, and healing properties. The name Api was also linked to a child-talk endearing word meaning “mommy,” with these various connections of Api and her name painting the consistent picture of her as a primordial deity from whom was born the world’s first inhabitants.
Api was the consort of Papaios, with the two of them being the children of Tapatī́, the primordial fire. Api and Papaios initially existed together into an inseparable unity until their union, which reflected the Indo-Iranian tradition of the marriage between Heaven and Earth as the basis for the creation of the world, gave birth to “middle world,” that is the air space, the part of the cosmos where humanity and all physical beings lived, and to the gods of the third rank of the Scythian pantheon, who were associated with the “middle world.” The completion of this process of cosmogenesis creating an ordered universe made up of three zones – a cosmic one, a central one, and a chthonic one – located each above the other. The birth of Dargatavah from the union of Api and Papaios thus represented the creation of the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms.
As a primordial goddess who gave birth to the first inhabitants of the world, Api remained aloof from worldly affairs and did not interfere with them after the creation of the world and the establishment of the proper order.
The worship of Api by Scythian peoples is attested in Strabo’s mention that the Derbices worshipped “Mother Earth.”
Papaios (Παπαιος Papaios; Latin as Papaeus), whose original Scythian name is still uncertain, was the personification of Heaven, the Scythian equivalent of the Zoroastrian great god Ahura Mazdā, the consort of the Earth goddess Api, and was therefore equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Zeus.
The original Scythian form of the name of Papaios is uncertain, and has variously been interpreted as meaning either “father,” or “guardian” or “protector.”
Papaios was the consort of Api, with the two of them being the children of Tapatī́, the primordial fire. Papaios and Api initially existed together into an inseparable unity until their union, which reflected the Indo-Iranian tradition of the marriage between Heaven and Earth as the basis for the creation of the world (and parallels the union between Ahurā Mazdā and the Earth goddess Ārmaiti in the Avesta), gave birth to “middle world,” that is the part of the cosmos where humanity and all physical beings lived, and to the gods of the third rank of the Scythian pantheon, who were associated with the “middle world.” The completion of this process of cosmogenesis creating an ordered universe made up of three zones – a cosmic one, a central one, and a chthonic one – located each above the other. The birth of Dargatavah from the union of Papaios and Api thus represented the creation of the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms.
According to Origen, the Scythians considered Papaios to be a supreme god. Darius I’s statement in the Behistun Inscription that the Scythians did not worship Auramazdā thus had no basis and this declaration of his was a political one resulting from the hostilities between the Persian Empire and the Scythians.
The third rank
The deities of the third rank of the Scythian pantheon were associated to the “middle world” inhabited by humans and physical living beings, and which the Scythian cosmology, like all ancient cosmologies, conceptualised as a square plane with four sides each corresponding to one of the radical coordinates as a structural aspect of space. Each side of this quadrangular earthly plane had a symbol, and was thus associated to one of the four deities of the third rank, who were the collective personification of the four-sided “middle world,” with a similar concept being found in Indic mythology in the form of the Lokapālas, the four guardian-gods of the directions, who each also had their own “sphere of action,” such as Yama, the guardian of the South, being the ruler over the world of the deceased ancestors, and Indra, the guardian of the East, being the king of the gods and the personification of the “middle world.”
Main article: Targitaos
The Scythian god Dargatavah (meaning “whose might is far-reaching”; Ταργιταος Targitaos) or Scythēs (Σκυθης; Skuthēs), who appears in the Greek recollections of Scythian genealogical myth as the divine ancestor of the Scythians, was called “Scythian Hēraklēs” (Ἡρακλης Hēraklēs; Heracles) by Herodotus, although he was the not same as the Greek hero Hēraklēs. The birth of Dargatavah from the union of Api and Papaios represented the creation of the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms.
This “Scythian Hēraklēs,” the Scythian god Dargatavah was likely assimilated by the Greeks from the northern shores of the Black Sea with their hero Hēraklēs, and the main feature of this deity identifying him with Hēraklēs was the cattle he drives in the Scythian genealogical myth, although unlike the Greek Hēraklēs who drove the cattle of Gēryōn on foot, the Scythian “Hēraklēs” drove a chariot pulled by mares. This cattle-driver aspect of Scythēs/Dargatavah was likely derived from the motif of cattle-theft of Iranian mythology which is also reflected in the legend of Miθra as a cattle-stealing god.
Dargatavah was very closely associated with Papaios or confused with him in Scythian mythology, and the “Scythian Hēraklēs” was sometimes replaced by Papaios in some versions of the Scythian genealogical myth, thus attributing the ancestry of the Scythians alternatively to Dargatavah or to Papaios directly.
The Sindo-Maeotian form of Dargatavah was named Sanerges (Σανεργες Sanerges; Sanerges). Reflecting the role of Dargatavah in the Scythian genealogical legend, Sanerges was considered the partner of the goddess Aphroditē Apatoura, who was a local iteration of the Snake-Legged Goddess. Like Dargatavah, Sanerges was also assimilated with Hēraklēs.
Dargatavah is the same figure who appears in Scythian art as the masculine figure facing Artimpasa in her depictions as a seated goddess. These scenes depicted the marriage of Dargatavah with Artimpasa, but also represented the granting of a promise of afterlife and future resurrection to Dargatavah, and, by extension, collectively to his descendants, the Scythians.
Dargatavah’s role in these scenes also consisted of representing a deified mortal who was identified with him, the Scythian king, who thus was given apotheosis by identifying him with his divine ancestor. Thus, the scene of the masculine figure facing the seated Artimpasa represented both the goddess’s granting of royal power to the king, but also, through the identification with Dargatavah, the father of the first Scythian king, the giving of supreme legitimacy to the authority of the royal descendants of Artimpasa in her role as the divine spouse of the Scythian kings.
A representation of Dargatavah as investing a king is a scene from a silver rhyton discovered in the Karagodeouashkh Kurgan, depicting two bearded adult mounted horsemen. One of the horsemen holds a rhyton in his right hand and a sceptre in his left hand, while the other horseman has the right hand raised in a gesture of salutation. This scene represented the investiture of a king by a god, and has its parallels in the Iranian world in the Sasanid reliefs of Naqš-e Rostam and Bay-Šāpūr depicting the investitures of Ardašīr I and of Warahrān I by Ahura Mazdā. Although the identity of the figure holding the rhyton has been suggested to be Papaios, it most likely represented Dargatavah. In the scene on the rhyton, Dargatavah, in his role as the first king and divine ancestor of the Scythians acts as a custodian of the power and the victories of his descendants, and the rhyton he holds represents a communion between the king and the god, paralleling the communion with Artimpasa in the scenes with the seated goddess. The topmost and bottommost parts of the rhyton are decorated with floral patterns, representing the connection between Tartigaos and Artimpasa.
The Scythian “Arēs”
The Scythian “Arēs” (Ἀρης Arēs; Ares), that is the Scythian war god equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Arēs, corresponded to the Iranian deity Vərᵊθraγna, and might possibly have been an offspring of Tapatī́. The Scythian and Sarmatian “Arēs” was represented by an acinaces sword planted upwards at the top of a tall square altar made of brushwood of which three sides were vertical and the fourth was inclined to allow access to it. The Scythian “Arēs” was given blood sacrifices and his representation in the form of a sword are evidence of his military function. The Scythian “Arēs” was also a god of kingship, and the use of horses and of the blood and right arms of prisoners in his cult was a symbolic devotion of the swifness of horses and the strength of men to this god who had similar powers.
The square shape of the altar of the Scythian “Arēs” represented the four-sided “middle world,” that is the air space, and the sword placed at its top represented the world axis which represented the vertical structure of the universe and connected its cosmic, central, and chthonic zones; the altar to the Scythian “Arēs” was thus a model of the universe as conceptualised within Scythian cosmology, most and represented especially its central zone, the air space. The tallness of the mound which acted as the altar to the Scythian “Arēs,” as well as the practice of throwing the right arms of prisoners sacrificed to him in the sky, are evidence of the celestial nature of the Scythian “Arēs” as a god of the air space, that is the practice of throwing these sacrificed arms in the air indicate that the Scythian “Arēs” was associated to the gods of the sky and wind (Vayu and Vata), and more especially the wind, since the wind-god Vayu was the first incarnation of Vərᵊθraγna and a special carrier of fārnā/xᵛarənah. This is also recorded in the works of the Greek author Lucian of Samosata, who recorded that the Scythians worshipped the Wind and the Sword as gods, referring to the dual nature of the Scythian “Arēs” as a god of both the Wind, which brings gives life, and the Sword, which brings death; the dual nature of this god is also visible in the acinaces used to represent him being shaped like a phallus, thus being a deadly weapon which was also shaped in the form of a life-giving organ.
According to Tadeusz Sulimirski, this form of worship continued among the descendants of the Scythians, the Alans, through to the 4th century CE; this tradition may be reflected in Iordanēs’s assertion that Attila was able to assert his authority over the Scythians through his possession of a particular blade, referred to as the “Sword of Mars.”
The hero Batyraʒ from the Ossetian Nart saga might have originated from the Scythian “Arēs.” In the sagas, Batyraʒ appears as a brave but uncontrolled warrior living in the air space and sometimes took the form of a whirlwind, who often protected his peoples from multiple enemies, and who was made of steel and connected to his sword, which provided him with immortality so long as it remained unbroken, thus being the incarnation of Batyraʒ himself.
The Scythian god Gaiθāsūra (Hellenised as Γοιτοσυρος Goitosuros; Latinised as Goetosyrus), might have been a solar deity, due to which Herodotus equated him with the Greek god Apollōn.
The Scythian name Gaiθāsūra is comparable to Avestan Gaoiiaoⁱtiš.sūrō and Vedic Sanskrit गव्युतिसुर (Gavyutisura), with the Avestan form being an epithet of Miθra as the “Lord of Cattle-Land,” that is a deity of cattle culture widely worshipped by the common people in Scythian society. The first term composing this name, gaiθā, meaning “herd” and “possessions,” is a cognate of Avestan gaoiiaoⁱtiš (meaning “cow pasture,” and reflects the nature of “Apollōn Goitosyros” as a Hellenization of the Iranian deity Miθra Voᵘru.gaoiiaoⁱtiš (the second element sūra, meaning “strong” and “mighty,” is the same as the Avestan element sūra “mighty” from the name of the goddess Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā, and is connected to the Scythians’ association of Gaiθāsūra with the goddess Artimpasa, who had absorbed many of the traits of Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā.
Due to the connections of Gaiθāsūra’s and his identification with the Greek god Apollōn, he has therefore been identified with Miθra, although this identification is largely tentative, with the multiple functions of Apollōn contributing to this uncertainty.
Depictions of a solar god with a radiate head and riding a carriage pulled by two or four horses on numerous pieces of art found in Scythian burials from the 3rd century BCE and later might have been representations of Gaiθāsūra.
Artimpasa (Hellenised as Ἀρτίμπασα Artímpasa; Latinised as Artimpasa), more commonly known as Argimpasa (Hellenised as Ἀργίμπασα; Latinised as Argimpasa) due to a scribal corruption, was an androgynous goddess of warfare, sovereignty, priestly force, fecundity, vegetation and fertility. Artimpasa was the Scythian variant of the Iranian goddess Arti (Aṣ̌i), who was a patron of fertility and marriage and a guardian of laws who represented material wealth in its various forms, including domestic animals, previous objects, and a plentiful descendance, and from whom the first element of Artimpasa’s name was derived. Artimpasa was thus equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess Aphroditē Ourania, who herself presided over productivity in the material world. The cult of Artimpasa was performed by the Anarya, who were powerful transvestite priests from the most noble families affiliated to an orgiastic cult of the goddess.
There were outside influences on Artimpasa, such as from the fellow Iranian goddess Anāhitā, whose closeness to Arti enabled the merging of her traits into Artimpasa. Anāhitā’s triple name, Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā, meaning “The Humid, Strong, and Immaculate” respectively represented the three functions of fecundity, sovereignty, and priestly force, which were also functions present in Artimpasa, as were also Anāhitā’s functions as an ancient fertility goddess influenced by the Assyro-Babylonian Ištar-ʿAštart, her later orgiastic rites, and her roles as a warrior and victory-granting goddess. The cult of Artimpasa had transformed into one of the divine patron of the royal dynasty by the 4th century BCE, reflecting the absorption of Anāhitā’s role as a divine patroness of the king and a giver of royal power by Artimpasa, as well as the influence on Artimpasa of the role of the Levantine Great Goddesses as grantors of divine power to the king. These warrior aspects of Artimpasa would later allow for her identification with the Greek goddess Athena in the Bosporan Kingdom.
Other influences on Artimpasa include that of the Great Mother goddess Bendis of the Thracian neighbours of the Scythians, who like Artimpasa was a mistress of animals and a power-giver. The presence of these similarities between Artimpasa and however suggests that these aspects of Artimpasa had an indigenously Scythian/Balkan element and were not fully results of the undermentioned influence of ancient West Asian cults.
These ancient West Asian cults who influenced Artimpasa were those of ʿAštart-Ištar-Aphroditē during the long-period of Scythian presence in the Levant in the 7th century BCE, especially in the latter’s form worshipped at Ascalon of an androgynous vegetation-fertility goddess, her ability to change men into women and women into men, and her affiliation with a semi-human goddess subordinate with her in the form of ʿAtarʿatah for ʿAštart and the Snake-Legged Goddess for Artimpasa. Artimpasa henceforth preserved many traits inherited from ʿAštart. Reflecting influence from Levantine cults in which the Great Goddess was often accompanied by a minor semi-bestial goddess, the Snake-Legged Goddess, who was also the Scythian foremother, was affiliated to Artimpasa. This affiliation was so close that the images of the two goddesses would almost merge, but nevertheless remained distinct from each other. This distinction is more clear in how Artimpasa was assigned the role of the king’s sexual partner (see below) and the divine power of the kings who granted royal power, but was not considered the foremother of the people, and in how neither the Bosporan kings of Sarmatian ancestry nor the Greco-Roman authors’ records assigned Aphroditē or Artimpasa as the Scythians’ ancestor.
The assimilation of these traits thus meant that the Greeks on the northern shores of the Black Sea identified Artimpasa with their own goddess Aphroditē Ourania and the Scythians themselves in turn assimilated Aphroditē Ourania with Artimpasa. Due to this association, multiple depictions of Greek-style and Greek-made Aphroditē and Erōs have been found in the tombs of Scythian nobles.
The winged Artimpasa
Artimpasa was also a potnia thērōn, as was depicted as such on a mirror from the Kelermes kurgan, whose circle was divided into eight equal segments portraying demons, animals, and semi-bestial men, and was dominated by the goddess, winged, and holding two panthers in her spread hands. This imagery might have been influenced directly and indirectly (via the intermediary of orientalizing Greek art from Ionia) by the Levantine depictions of Inanna-Ištar, who was portrayed as winged as symbol of her being a celestial and warrior goddess, and was also represented as a potnia thērōn holding animals in both her hands or surrounded by animals, and whose warrior nature was shown in her representations as a Mistress of Animals holding weapons.
A Sarmatian phalera decorated with an image of a winged Aphroditē with her head decorated with leaves, and holding a small round object in one hand and a rosette in the other hand was found in the Yanchorak treasure from the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE. This phalera was part of a horse harness and the Sarmatians who copied a Greek representation of Aphroditē associated her image with their own goddess. These representations also characterise Artimpasa as a potnia thērōn alongside her status as a potnia thērōn.
Another winged depiction of Artimpasa shows her as a winged goddess flanked by deer from a plate found in the Alexandropol’skiy kurgan alongside a sceptre head shaped like the Snake-Legged Goddess affiliated to Artimpasa. A possibly winged representation of Artimpasa was on a damaged bronze cart beam decoration from Krasnoye Znamya. That this portrayal of the goddess showed her within a radiate circle, implying she was also a solar goddess. Artimpasa role as a potnia hippōn and the nature of the horse as both solar and chthonic furthermore implied that Artimpasa, although a celestial goddess, was also a killer and earth deity.
The seated Artimpasa
Another Scythian art motif depicting Artimpasa portrays her as a seated goddess who wears a calathus with a veil above it and holds a mirror while a young man wearing Scythian clothing and drinking from a rhyton stands in front of her. Although this composition has sometimes been identified as a representation of Tapatī́, the mirror the goddess holds is more fitting of Artimpasa’s role as a goddess of fertility and sexuality and a patroness of the Anarya soothsayers due to the mirror being a symbol of feminine principle, eroticism and fertility which played an important role in the wedding rites of Iranian peoples, as well as a magical object used for prophecy and shamanic rites (the Sarmatians buried their priestesses with mirrors). One pendant from the Kul-Oba kurgan depicts Artimpasa in the centre, with a spherical vessel to her right and an alter or incense burner to her left, representing the consecration by fire (which holds an important place in the marital rites of Iranian peoples) of the communion between the goddess and humanity.
A more complex form of the seated Artimpasa motif is found on a 4th-century BCE headgear gold band from Sakhnova, where the seated Artimpasa holds a mirror and a round vessel, with a bearded Scythian with a gorytos hanging on his belt and holding a rhyton in one hand and a sceptre in the other hand kneels in front of her. To their right are a musician and two “cup-bearers,” and to their left is a youth with a fan and two Scythians drinking from the same rhyton (interpreted as “sworn brothers”), and two sacrificers of a ram. This scene is a representation of a sacred feast where the kneeling man, a worshipper or young god, is uniting with the goddess by drinking a holy beverage. This feast is comparable to the orgiastic festival of Sacaia which was celebrated in Pontus in honour of Anāhitā and was defined as a “Scythian feast” by Hesychius of Alexandria.
A similar artistic motif is that of a horseman facing Artimpasa. One depiction of this scene is from a famous Saka carpet from one of the Pazyryk kurgans in Siberia representing the seated Artimpasa with her right hand raised to her head and her left hand holding a blossoming branch, with a horseman facing her. Another representation of this scene is found on a 1st-century BCE to 1st-century CE relief from Chayka in which a horseman holding a bow approaches a standing woman who holds a round object (which might be a mirror, a spherical vessel or a fruit), with an altar between them.
Another possible Siberian representation of Artimpasa can be found on two belt buckles depicting two dismounted horsemen, one of whom is holding the horses while the other lays in the lap of a goddess whose torso emerges from the earth and whose hair is interwoven with the branches of a tree above her head. This scene might depict the Scythian ritual sleep on the Earth and could be related to the relation between Artimpasa and the divine twins.
The bezel of the signet ring of the Scythian king Scyles was decorated with the image of Artimpasa seated on a throne and holding a mirror in her right hand and a sceptre in her left hand, with Skuleō (Σκυλεω) engraved near the figure of the goddess, and on whose band was inscribed in Greek Κέλεοε Ἄργοταν πὰρ ὲναι (“Tell to be with Argotas!”).
These scenes have been interpreted as depicting the adoration or communion of Artimpasa and a god or a mortal, and more specifically as the granting of divine benediction to a king, or an investiture, or a sacred marriage. The rhyta and the spherical vessels like the one depicted in the Sakhnova band were used for drinking sacred beverages consumed in religious rituals. The spherical vessels specifically were widely used in the rituals of Iranian peoples, and large numbers of them have been found in Scythian sites, and their ornamentation typically consisting of vegetal and solar imagery as well as their depiction in Scythian art where they are held or being offered to a goddess associate them with Artimpasa.
These depictions represent the male figure, who is often a standing youth of smaller stature than the goddess, as subordinate to Artimpasa, who remains seated. This artistic composition reflects a divine marriage of the goddess with a younger god, similar to the union of Cybele and Attis or of Aphroditē and Adōnis, or a deified mortal identified with a god or a hero, likely the Scythian forefather Dargatavah. These scenes represent this younger god receiving grace endowed by the goddess upon him after the communion. In some variants of this scene, the male partner of the goddess is bearded and is more imposing on horseback, which, if not simply a local artistic variation, reflected the increasing prominence of a warrior god in this ritual.
The image of the seated Artimpasa on the signet ring of Scyles who held a mirror and a sceptre represented communion with the goddess as guaranteeing sovereignty in Scythian religion. The image of the Artimpasa on the ring was therefore a representation of her as a granter of sovereignty, with the ring having been inherited from generation to generation of the Scythian royal dynasty as a token of royal power, and Argotas was probably a former Scythian king from whom his descendant Scyles inherited this ring. The ring did not feature any image of the male partner of the goddess because the kings were themselves considered to be these partners, with the Scythian royal investiture having been considered both a communion between man and the goddess as well as a marital union which elevated the king to the status of spouse of the goddess and granted him power through sexual intercourse with the goddess. This was also a reflection of Levantine influence on Artimpasa, since Mesopotamian equivalents of Aphroditē Ourania were sometimes represented together with the king in scenes represented sacred marriages, and the stability of royal power in Paphos was believed to be derived from intimate relations between the Aphroditē, with whom the queen of Paphos was identified, and the king, who claimed descent from Aphroditē’s lover Cinyras.
These scenes however had multiple interpretations, and the communion with the goddess might have also represented blessing of the worshipper with an promise of afterlife and future resurrection through communion with the goddess, as well as an endowment of the king with royal power, reflecting Artimpasa’s role as a giver of power and victory, which also explains why all the variants of the scene of the seated goddess and a male partner were found in the tombs of Scythian nobility.
Artimpasa was known under the name of Astara (Ἀστάρα Astára) by the Sindo-Maeotians, a name which was derived from that of ʿAštart. Like Artimpasa, Astara’s paraedrus was a male deity who was a local form of Dargatavah and was identified with Hēraklēs, named Sanerges, and depictions of Astara with a horseman facing her have also been found in the Kuban region inhabited by these peoples:
A 4th century BCE rhyton from the Merdzhany kurgan was decorated with a representation of the seated goddess holding a spherical vessel, with a seven-branched leafless tree (a Tree of Life possibly characterising this scene as a marriage ceremony) on one side of her throne, and a pole with a horse skull (symbolising the importance of horses and horse sacrifice in this goddess’s cult) on it on the other side, while mounted god with a rhyton approaches her – the scene represents this Sindo-Maeotian goddess and a local male deity in communion, possibly of marital nature. This scene is also parallel to the scenes of Artimpasa with a male partner, and the presence of the Tree of Life as well as the goddess’s link to horses reflect her similarity with Artimpasa, and thus indicate close links between the Scythian and Sindo-Maeotian worship of the fertility and vegetation goddess.
A relief from the 4th century BCE Trekhbratniy kurgan depicted a small charioteer drawing the horses of a carriage with a naiskos-shaped coach in which is seated a woman who stretches her hand towards a young beardless horseman who has a gorytos hanging on his left hip while another gorytos hands from a pole near the naiskos. The gorytos hanging on the pole might be linked to the Massagetae custom described by Herodotus whereby a man desiring to have sexual intercourse with a woman would hang his gorytos in front of her wagon before proceeding to the act; the hanging gorytos in the Trekhbratniy kurgan relief might thus have been a symbol of sexual union or marriage, and its location near the carriage as well as the handclasp of the woman and the horseman might therefore hint that the scene showed a sacred marriage ceremony. This scene represented the apotheosis of a deceased noblewoman who participated in the worship of the Sindo-Maeotian goddess before her death, with her receiving the status of the goddess depicted in similar scenes alongside the hero after her death. The scene might alternatively have represented the Sindo-Maeotian equivalent of Artimpasa with the hero.
The goddess and the divine twins
One gold plate which decorated a priestess’s headdress which was discovered in the 4th-3rd century BCE Karagodeuashkh kurgan depicting a Sindo-Maeotian form of Artimpasa is divided into three registers corresponding to the division of the universe into three levels of Scythian cosmology:
- the upper one depicts a woman dressed in a Greek chiton and himation and holding a cornucopia
- the middle one depicts a person wearing a chiton and riding in a chariot carried by two horses
- the lower one depicts two rows of characters all dressed in Scythian dress, with a woman wearing a complex headgear decorated by a triangular plate and seated in a priestly position dominating the scene, while two beardless youths site by her side on the same bench as her: the youth to the goddess’ left holds a round vessel, and the youth to her right has a gorytos on his hip and is either handing a rhyton to the goddess or receiving it from her. In the background, two beardless persons wearing a hood are standing.
The woman in the upper level of the plate was identified an Iranian deity representing fārnā, that is divine bliss, and assimilated with Tyche, and the charioteer in the middle section has been identified with Gaiθāsūra.
The three divisions of the Karagodeuashkh plate have also been interpreted as representing the same goddess respectively reigning the world from heaven, driving the sun-chariot in the middle, and accepting the veneration of humans and blessing them in the lower section. The identification of the goddess with the Scytho-Maeotian Aphroditē, that is Artimpasa, is supported by the use of motifs of griffins flanking a thymiaterion, ova, and female masks and bucrania – all symbols of Aphroditē Ourania who was identified with Artimpasa – being respectively used as separations below the three sections of the plate. This identification was further supported by the cornucopia – which was a symbol of fertility and fortune identified with the Iranian fārnā – held by the goddess in the first section; the affiliation of Artimpasa with the chariot-riding Iranian goddess Anāhitā; and the presence of gold pendants in the shape of doves and gorgoneia, both symbols of Aphroditē Ourania, as decorations of the Karagodeuashkh plate and of the headgear which it was part of.
The third division’s scene has been interpreted as depicting either the worship of the Scytho-Maeotian ʿAštart-Anāhitā (that is, Artimpasa) or the goddess granting power to the youth with the rhyton. Although the youth with the rhyton was visually similar to that of the male figure of the seated Artimpasa compositions, he differed from the latter in that both youths in the Karagodeuashh plate were represented as equals and seated on the same bench as the goddess, which signaled their divine nature – however the twin gods’ smaller statures compared to the goddess, who dominated the scene, implied they were of an inferior rank to her in the mythical hierarchy and were in the rank of divine heroes. This scene therefore represented the Indo-European triad of the Great Goddess with the divine twins, itself related to the connection between the pre-Zoroastrian Anāhitā and the Nåŋhaⁱθiia twins, ultimately derived from the Indo-European theme of the divine twins as the companions of the Mother Goddess who flanked her symbol of the Tree of Life. Thus, the scene on the Karagodeuashkh plate also represented a Scythian form of the cult of the divine twins.
The divine nature of all the other beings represented on the Karagodeuashkh plate implied that the two hooded figures in the background of the scene could not have been eunuch priests and therefore might have instead represented mythological attendants of Artimpasa of unclear significance in the scene.
The Karagodeuashkh plate thus depicted a communion of Artimpasa with a pair of heroes which therefore represented concepts of eternal life and resurrection and divine legitimation of royal power.
Thagimasadas (Hellenised as Θαγιμασάδας Thagimasádas; Latinised as Thagimasadas) was a god worshipped only by the tribe of the Royal Scythians. Thagimasadas was thus not a member of the pan-Scythian heptatheistic pantheon and was likely the tribal- and ancestor- deity of the Royal Scythians.
The name of this deity is uncertain, and element -μασάδας of the god’s name might be derived from the Iranian term mazdā, which is also found in the name of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda; the element θαγι- might have been a cognate of the Avestan word θβāṣ̌a (meaning “firmament”), and the Vedic Sanskrit term tvakṣ- (त्वक्ष्) or takṣ- (तक्ष्), meaning ‘to create by putting into motion’.
Herodotus identified Thagimasadas with the Greek god Poseidōn because both Thagimasadas and Poseidōn (in his form as Poseidōn Hippios Ποσειδων Ἱππιος, lit. ’the equine Poseidōn’) were horse-tamer deities, but also because, among the Athenians who were his audience, Poseidōn was identified with Erikhthonios, whom the Athenians considered their mythical ancestor, similarly to how Thagimasadas was believed to be the ancestor of the Royal Scythians.
The equation of Thagimasadas with Poseidōn might also be due to his possible rola as a fashioner of the sky and hence was connected to sky-waters and thunderbolts just like the Greek Poseidōn was.
The Scythian images of a winged horse inspired from that of the Greek Pēgasos might have been connected to Thagimasadas.
The Snake-Legged Goddess
The Scythian deity known in the modern day as the “Snake-Legged Goddess,” also referred to as the “Anguipede Goddess,” so called because several representations of her, often crafted by Greek artisans for the Scythian market, depict her as a goddess with snake-shaped legs or tendrils as legs, although other depictions represent her as winged, with griffin heads growing below her waist, or holding a severed head, was associated to the life-giving principle, as attested by her posture where her hands and legs were spread wide, which constituted a “birth-giving attitude.” This complex imagery thus reflected the combination of human motherhood, vegetation and animal life within the Snake-Legged Goddess. Some images of Snake-Legged Goddess were discovered in burials, thus assigning both a chthonic and vegetal symbolism to this goddess, which follows the motif of vegetal deities possessing chthonic features.
Several representations are known of the “Snake-Legged Goddess,” often crafted by Greek artisans for the Scythian market, most of them depicting her as a goddess with snake-shaped legs or tendrils as legs, and some depicting her as winged, with griffin heads growing below her waist or holding a severed head, with many of them having been found discovered in burials, thus assigning both a chthonic and vegetal symbolism to the goddess, which follows the motif of vegetal deities possessing chthonic features.
She appears in all variations of the Scythian genealogical myth as the Scythian foremother who sires the ancestor and first king of the Scythians with Dargatavah. Her traits, consistent across the multiple versions of the genealogical myth, include her being the daughter of either a river-god or of the Earth and dwelling in a cave, as well as her being half-woman and half-snake. Diodorus Siculus’s description of this goddess in his retelling of the genealogical myth as an “anguiped earth-born maiden” implies that she was a daughter of Api, likely through a river-god, and therefore was both chthonic and connected to water, but was however not identical with Api herself and instead belonged to a younger generation of deities of “lower status” who were more actively involved in human life. The role of the Snake-Legged Goddess role as the foremother of the Scythians had been very firmly established in Scythian religion before the contacts with Mediterranean religions which influenced the cult of Artimpasa to whom the Snake-Legged Goddess was affiliated
Due to the influence of Levantine religions on the religion of the Scythians during their presence in the Near East, the Snake-Legged Goddess also bore a resemblance to the Levantine goddess ʿAtarʿatah-Derketō in several aspects, including their monstrous bodies, fertility and vegetation symbolism, legends about their love affairs, and their respective affiliations and near-identification to Artimpasa and Aphroditē Ourania. Although the Snake-Legged Goddess was very closely identified to Artimpasa to the point of bordering on identification, the two goddesses were nevertheless distinct. Another influence might have been the Greco-Colchian goddess Leucothea, whose mythology as a woman who was turned into a goddess after throwing herself into the sea due to a curse from Hera connects her to Derketō-ʿAtarʿatah, and whose sanctuary at Vani had columns crowned with female protomes emerging from acanthus leaves similar to those of the Snake-Legged Goddess.
Reflecting influence from Levantine cults in which the Great Goddess was often accompanied by a minor semi-bestial goddess, the Snake-Legged Goddess, who was also the Scythian foremother, was affiliated to Artimpasa. This affiliation was so close that the images of the two goddesses would almost merge, but nevertheless remained distinct from each other. This distinctiveness is more clear in how Artimpasa was assigned the role of the king’s sexual partner and the divine power of the kings who granted royal power, but was not considered the foremother of the people, and in how neither the Bosporan kings of Sarmatian ancestry nor the Greco-Roman authors’ records assigned Aphroditē or Artimpasa as the Scythians’ ancestor.
The shape of these representations is similar to that of the Tree of Life connecting the upper and lower spheres of the Universe as well as symbolising supreme life-giving power, and therefore merging with the image of the fertility goddess, and was additionally linked to the Iranian creation myth of the Simurgh bird resting on the Saēna Tree. The snakes and griffins as well as, and representations of the Snake-Legged Goddess alongside predatory feline animals also characterised her as a potnia thērōn in addition to being a vegetation goddess of the Tree of Life. The snakes also connected the Snake-Legged Goddess to the Greek Medousa, and Greek-manufactured representations of Medusa, especially in the form of pendants found in the tombs of Scythian nobles, were very popular in Scythia due to her association with the Snake-Legged Goddess. Possible depictions of the goddess as a potnia thērōn in the form of Medusa have also been found in Scythian art, with a damaged rhyton from the Kelermes kurgan depicting her as a winged running deity with small wings on non-serpentiform legs and flanked by griffins on both sides, and a gold plate from the Shakhan kurgan being decorated with the image of winged deity holding two animals.
The chthonic nature of the Snake-Legged Goddess also explained why her depictions were placed in Scythian tombs, and her status as the fore-mother of the Scythians associated her with the cult of the ancestors – the Snake-Legged Goddess, being the controller of the life cycle, was also a granter of eternal life for the deceased.
The depictions of the Snake-Legged Goddess holding a severed head which represented the sacrificial offering of a man hanging on the Tree of Life, were another example of Levantine influence, since severed human heads appeared in Levantine goddess cults in which the life-granting goddess demanded death, and re-enacted the death of her partner, whom she loved, emasculated, and killed. The Snake-Legged Goddess therefore also had a blood-thirsty aspect, and there is attestation of human sacrifices to local goddesses accompanied by the exposure of the victims’ severed heads on the northern Black Sea coast; one such head placed on an altar close to a representation of a vegetation goddess was discovered in the Sarmatian town of Ilutarum. The Scythian practice of severing the heads of all enemies they killed in battle and bringing them to their kings in exchange of war booty, the depictions of warriors near or holding decapitated heads in Scythian art, as well as the pendants shaped like satyr heads found in the same structures as the representations of the Snake-Legged Goddess and of Artimpasa might have been connected with this aspect of the Snake-Legged Goddess.
In addition to her connection with the Tree of Life, the Snake-Legged Goddess’s image was used in shamanic rites due to her affiliation with Artimpasa, with one of the sceptres from the Alexandropol’skiy kurgan having been found decorated with a depiction of her, and the other sceptre heads being furnished with bells or decorated with schematic trees with birds sitting on them.
Moreover, depictions of the Snake-Legged Goddess on Scythian horse harness decorations imply that she was also a patroness of horses, which might be connected with the love affair between Dargatavah and the goddess beginning after she had kept his mares in the genealogical myth.
The Snake-Legged Goddess outside of Scythia
The Kuban Region
Depictions of the Snake-Legged Goddess were also found in the Sindo-Maeotian areas on the Asian side of the Bosporus, and her representations in her tendril-legged form became more predominant in the first centuries CE and appeared in Bosporan Greek cities, where they became a common design on sarcophagi, as well as in graves in Chersonesus.
The Kingdom of the Bosporus
A possible Sindo-Maeotian variant of the Snake-Legged Goddess appears in the Kingdom of the Bosporus under the name of Aphroditē Apatouros (Αφροδίτη Ἀπάτουρος Aphrodítē Apátouros). The goddess’s epithet Apatouros was derived from a name in a Sindian dialect of Scythian meaning “mighty water” or “quick water” composed of the terms ap-, meaning “water,” and tura-, meaning “quick” or “mighty.” The cult of this goddess was of indigenous Sindo-Maeotian origin and was adopted by the Greeks, who syncretised her with their own Aphroditē Ourania, when they colonised the Taman peninsula.
Since the ancient Greeks did not understand the meaning of the epithet Apatouros, Strabo attempted to explain it as being derived from the Greek word ἀπάτη, meaning “treachery,” through a retelling of a legend about this goddess, according to which she had been attacked by Giants and called on Hēraklēs for help. After concealing Hēraklēs, the goddess, under guise of introducing the Giants one by one, treacherously handed them to Hēraklēs, who killed them.
This legend of Aphroditē Apatouros and the Giants and the Scythian genealogical were part of the same narrative. According to this hypothesis, Aphroditē Apatouros’s reward to Hēraklēs for defeating the Giants would have been her love.
The Taurian Parthenos, the goddess to whom, according to Herodotus, the Tauri sacrificed ship-wrecked men and Greeks captured in sea-raids and exposed their heads on a pole, might have been another form of the Snake-Legged Goddess worshipped by non-Scythians.
Thracian interpretations of the Scythian Snake-Legged Goddess appear in the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari as caryatids with feminine bodies wearing calathi hats and chitons with pleats shaped like floral volutes which have an acanthus between them. Their disproportionally large raised hands, which either hold the volutes or are raised to appear as supporting the entablure, are similar to the goddess with her hands raised to her face depicted on a series of Thracian votive plaques. Above the caryatids, a wall painting depicts a goddess holding a crown and reaching out to an approaching horseman. The overall scene represents a Thracian nobleman’s posthumous heroisation and depicts the same elements of the Great Goddess-minor goddess complex found in the relation between Artimpasa and the Snake-Legged Goddess.
A Thracian equivalent of the Snake-Legged Goddess might also appear in the series of horse bridle plaques from Letnitsa. One of the plaques depicts a seated male figure (an ancestral hero and likely Thracian equivalent of the “Scythian Hēraklēs”) with a female figure (the Thracian Great Goddess) straddling him from above, both of them explicitly engaging in sexual intercourse, and symbolising the king’s acquirement of royal power through intercourse with the Great Goddess similarly to the Scythian king’s obtaining of royal power through his union with Artimpasa. Behind the Great Goddess is another woman, holding a vessel in one hand and in the other one a branch which obscures the view of the hero; this figure is a vegetation goddess with an ectatic aspect, which is symbolised by the vessel she holds, which contains a sacred beverage, and whose connection to the Great Goddess is analogous to that of the Snake-Legged Goddess with Artimpasa.
Several Thracian stelae and votive plaques have also been discovered depicting a horseman facing a standing or seated Great Goddess while a tree with a coiling snake stands between them, attesting of the similarity of the Thracian and Scythian conceptions of the Great Goddess and the affiliation to her of a snake goddess who was considered the foremother of the people.
The Goddess with Raised Hands
Multiple headgear pendants from three kurgans respectively found in Mastyuginskiy, Tolstaya Mogila, and Lyubimovskiy have been discovered which represent a goddess with large hands raised in a praying gestures and sitting on the protomes of two lions in profile. The posture of this goddess depicts an imagery which originated in either Luristan or the Caucasus, and has been interpreted as an act of prayer towards a solar or celestian deity. The depiction of this goddess from the Tolstaya Mogila kurgan shows her half-nude, with uncovered breasts and wearing only a cross-belt above the skirt. The nudity of the Goddess with Raised Hands connect hers with the Snake-Legged Goddess, who is often depicted in topless dress, and with Artimpasa.
A later Bosporan goddess in the same praying gesture is depicted with leaf-shaped or branch-shaped hands. Like the earlier goddess with raised hands, this goddess sits on two lions or on a throne flanked by lions. The leaf-shaped hands of this goddess as well as the wild animals on her sides connect her with the tendril-legged form of the Snake-Legged Goddess, and therefore to Artimpasa.
The Divine Twins
The mytheme of the Divine twins, which appears across several Indo-European religions in the form of the Ancient Greek Dioscuri, the Vedic Ashvins and the twins from the Dacian tablets – these divine twins had in earlier Indo-European mythology been horses before later evolving into horsemen such as the Ashvins and the English Hengist and Horsa, who had horse-names. In Indo-European mythology, the divine twins were companions of the Mother-Goddess who flanked her symbol of the Tree of Life, especially in depictions of them as two horses or horsemen who stand symmetrically near a goddess or a tree.
In pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion, Nåŋhaⁱθiia, the Iranian inflection of the divine twins, were connected with Anāhitā and were her companions. The cult of the divine twins existed among the Scythians, with Lucian recording the veneration of two twin deities in a Scythian temple whom he identified with the Greek Orestes and Pylades. Their duality represented the contrast of death against fertility and resurrection, and were related to royalty and warrior society, which thus made them companions of Artimpasa, as depicted in the Karagodeuashkh plate.
Depictions of the divine twins among Scythian peoples included some Sarmatian royal brands depicting the theme of the two horsemen standing symmetrically near a tree, a small figure from a Scythian burial at Krasny Mayak depicting two men embracing one another, as well as two Greek-made bronze figurines from Scythian Neapolis depicting the Greek Dioscuri who were identified by the Scythians with the divine twins, together with a terracotta sculpture in the shape of a goddess’s head were discovered in an ash altar near a wall of a temple where was worshipped a fertility goddess to whom was associated images of rams.
The divine twins’ position in Scythian religion was inferior to that of the gods, likely belonging to the rank of heroes, and might possibly have been the same as the two brothers and first Scythian kings born of Dargatavah and the Snake-Legged Goddess in the genealogical myth. The Scythian divine twins, who were most likely the origin of the twin heroes who appear in the Ossetian Nart saga, are another reflection of the Indo-European mytheme of the divine twins as the progenitors of royal dynasties, also found in the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the English Hengist and Horsa, and the Greek Dioscuri as the originators of the dual-monarchy of Sparta.
The Solar Horseman
Among the Scythians and the Sindo-Maeotians was present the cult of a solar god depicted as a mounted deified ancestor. This deity was believed to be a fighter against evil, and was popular from the late first millennium BCE to the first centuries of the Common Era on the Black Sea coast, Central Asia and Transcaucasia, and appeared in India following the migrations of the Saka there.
The Mounted God of the Bosporus
By the 1st centuries CE in the Bosporus, the chariot-riding Scythian solar god Gaiθāsūra had been syncretised with the horse-riding Persian god Miθra, imported from the southern and eastern shores of the Pontus Euxinus, to become the “Most High God” (known in Ancient Greek as Θεός Ὕψιστος Theós Húpsistos) of the Bosporus. This Most High God, who was depicted as a horseman, enjoyed wide popularity and was raised to the status of divine patron of the royal dynasty.
The “Most High God” was known in Tanais as Pharnoukhos (Φαρνοῦχος Pharnoûkhos) derived from Old Iranian fārnā-, which reflects his nature as a grace- and power-giving solar god.
A stele from 104 CE which commemorates the celebration of the Day of Tanais depicts the “Most High God” as a mounted horseman dressed in Sarmatian costume and holding a rhyton in his right hand, with a blazing altar in front of him and a tree behind the altar. This scene is consistent with the depictions of the horsemen facing Artimpasa in Scythian art, and represents the communion of the Most High God with the Bosporan Aphroditē Ourania evolved from Artimpasa, and is represented by the tree (similarly to Artimpasa, the Bosporan Aphroditē Ourania was sometimes represented with tree-shaped limbs or head, with her palm shaped like large leaves on stele, and her head shaped like a tree top and her hands shaped like branches on a stamp), while the alter sanctifies the ceremony.
In the 19th century, Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev and French philologist Frédéric-Guillaume Bergmann (fr) mentioned a Scythian deity of the Sun by the name of Svalius.
The Genealogical Myth
Five variants of the Scythian genealogical myth have been retold by Greco-Roman authors:
- Herodotus’s recorded two variants of the myth, and according to his first version, the first man born in hitherto desert Scythia was named Targitaos and was the son of Zeus and a daughter of the river Borysthenes. Targitaos in turn had three sons, who each ruled a different part of the kingdom, named:
- Lipoxais (Λιποξαις Lipoxais; Lipoxais)
- Arpoxais (Ἀρποξαις Arpoxais; Arpoxais)
- Kolaxais (Κολαξαις Kolaxais; Colaxais)
- One day four gold objects – a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe, a drinking cup – fell from the sky, and each brother in turn tried to pick the gold, but when Lipoxais and Aropxais tried, it burst in flames, while the flames were extinguished when Kolaxais tried. Kolaxais thus became the guardian of this sacred gold (which was likely the hestiai of Tapatī́), and the other brothers decided that he should become the high king and king of the Royal Scythians while they would rule different branches of the Scythians.
- According to the second version of the myth recorded by Herodotus, Hēraklēs arrived in deserted Scythia with Gēryōn’s cattle. After his mares disappeared during his sleep, he searched for them until he arrived at a land called Hylaia (Ὑλαια Hulaia; Hylaea), that is the Woodland, and in a cave found a half-maiden, half-viper being who later revealed to him that she was the mistress of this country, and that she had kept Hēraklēs’s horses which she agreed to return only if he had sexual intercourse with her. She returned his freedom to Hēraklēs after three sons were born of their union:
- Agathyrsos (Ἀγαθυρσος Agathursos; Agathyrsus)
- Gelōnos (Γελωνος Gelōnos; Gelonus)
- Scythēs (Σκυθης Skuthēs; Scythes)
- Before Hēraklēs left Scythia, the serpent maiden asked him what should be done once the boys had reached adulthood, and he told her that they should be each tasked with stringing a bow and putting on a girdle in the correct way, with whoever succeeded being the one who would rule his mother’s land while those who would fail the test would be banished. When the time for the test had arrived, only the youngest of the sons, Scythēs, was able to correctly complete it, and he thus became the ancestor of the Scythians and their first king, with all subsequent Scythian kings claiming descent from him. Agathyrsos and Gelōnos, who were exiled, became the ancestors of the Agathyrsi and Gelonians.
- A third variant of the myth, recorded by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, described the Scythians as descendants of Colaxes (Colaxes), who was himself a son of the god Iūpiter with a half-serpent nymph named Hora.
- The fourth variant of the myth, recorded by Diodorus Siculus, calls Scythēs the first Scythian and the first king, and describes him as a son of Zeus and an earth-born viper-limbed maiden
- The fifth version of the myth, recorded in the Tabula Albana, recorded that after Hēraklēs had defeated the river-god Araxēs, he fathered two sons with his daughter Ekhidna, who were named Agathyrsos and Scythēs, who became the ancestors of the Scythians.
The “Hēraklēs” of Herodotus’s second version and from the Tabula Albana‘s version of the genealogical myth is not the Greek hero Hēraklēs, but the same Scythian god as the one who appears in the other recorded variants of the genealogical myth under the name of Targitaos or Scythēs as a son of Papaios, and was likely assimilated by the Greeks from the northern shores of the Black Sea with the Greek Hēraklēs. The mother’s traits are consistent across the multiple versions of the genealogical myth and include her being the daughter of either a river-god or of the Earth and dwelling in a cave, as well as her being half-woman and half-snake
The Scythian genealogical myth has been tentatively connected to the legend of Aphroditē Apatouros and the Giants as recorded by Strabo, according to which she had been attacked by Giants and called on Hēraklēs for help. After concealing Hēraklēs, the goddess, under guise of introducing the Giants one by one, treacherously handed them to Hēraklēs, who killed them. Aphroditē Apatouros was the same goddess as the Snake-Legged Goddess of the Scythian genealogical myth, and her reward to “Hēraklēs” for defeating the Giants was her love.
The Scythian genealogical myth exhibits clear textual and narrative parallels with the Persian story of Fereydun and his three sons – Saⁱrima, Tūⁱriia, and Aⁱriia – from the Šāhnāme, and thus ascribes the origin of the Scythians to the Sky Father Papaios, either directly or through his son, and to the Snake-Legged Goddess affiliated to Artimpasa, and represented the threefold division of the universe into the Heavens, the Earth, and the Underworld, as well as the division of Scythian society into the warrior, priest, and agriculturalist classes.
The names of Dargatavah’s sons in the first version of the genealogical myth – Lipoxais, Arpoxais, and Kolaxais – end with the suffix “-xais,” which is a Hellenisation of the Old Iranian term xšaya meaning ruler:
- Lipoxais, from Scythian *Ripaxšaya “king of the soil”
- Arpoxais, from Scythian *Arpaxšaya “king of the battle”
- Kolaxais, from Scythian *Kuraxšaya “young king”
Each of the sons of Dargatavah were forebearers of tribes constituting the Scythian people:
- Lipoxais was the ancestor of the Auchatae
- Arpoxais was the ancestor of the Katiaroi and the Traspies
- Kolaxais was the ancestor of the Paralatai, also known as the Royal Scythians.
The first version of the genealogical myth recounted by Herodotus therefore also explains the division of Scythia into three kingdoms of which the king of the Royal Scythians was the High King, which is a structure also recorded in Herodotus’s account of the Scythian campaign of the Persian king Darius I, where Idanthyrsus was the Scythian high king while Scopasis and Taxacis were sub-kings.
The sons of Dargatavah according to the second version of the genealogical myth were each also ancestors of tribes belonging to the Scythian cultures:
- Agathyrsos (from Scythian Haxāθrᵃušᵃ, meaning “prospering the friend” or “prospering the socius”) was the ancestor of the Agathyrsi
- Gelōnos was the ancestor of the Gelonians
- Scythēs was the ancestor of the Scythians proper
Scythian religion was largely aniconic, and the Scythians did not make statues of their deities for worship, with the one notable exception being the war-god, the Scythian “Arēs.” Nevertheless, the Scythians did make smaller scale images of certain of their deities for use as decorations, although Tapatī́, Papaios and Api seem to have never been represented in any anthropomorphised form.
The only god to which Scythians built sanctuaries was the war-god, the Scythian “Arēs,” to whom a high place was made out of a pile of brushwood, of which the three sides were upright and vertical and the fourth side formed a slope on which worshippers could walk to the top of the high place, which was itself a square-shaped platform on which the god himself was ritually represented in the form of a sword placed pointing upward. The square shape of the platform might have formed a representation of Scythian religion’s conceptualisation of the universe as being four-sided while the sword-idol might have been a cosmic axis which united the human and divine worlds. This tall brushwood high place was a representation of the world mountain. These brushwood high places could be found throughout all regions inhabited by the Scythians, and every year more brushwood was added to the high place to maintain its structure.
The Sarmatians similarly represented their “Arēs” in the form of a sword planted upright.
A holy site of the Scythians was Exampaios (Ἐξαμπαῖος Exampaîos), that is the “Holy Ways,” located between the Dniepr and the southern Bug rivers, where was located a large bronze cauldron which Herodotus described as “six fingers breadth in thickness” and which could contain the volume of six hundred amphorae. According to Scythian legend, this cauldron was made when the king Ariantas ordered every one of his subjects to bring him a single arrowhead so he could know the exact number of his subjects. The great bronze cauldron at Exampaeus was made out of the heap of arrowheads which accumulated from this census. This cauldron located at the “Holy Ways” was believed to be the centre of the world, and the legend of the arrowheads reflected that all Scythians had collective ownership of it.
Herodotus mentioned that the Massagetae worshipped only the Sun-god, to whom they sacrificed horses, which referred to the cult of the supreme Sun-god Gaiθāsūra, who was associated with the worship of fire and horses. When the Persian king Cyrus attacked the Massagetae, their queen Tomyris swore by the Sun to kill him if he did not return back to his kingdom.
The king of the Royal Scythians performed the duties of a priest during the pan-Scythian rituals which involved the hestiai of Tapatī́. Among Indo-Iranian peoples, the king had a charisma which took the physical form of gold, held to be a royal metal, and therefore the king displayed his visible extraordinary powers by controlling the gold hestiai of Tapatī́.
The Anarya (meaning “unmanly,” and rendered by Greek writers as Ἐνάρεες Enárees and Ἀναριεῖς Anarieîs,) were a section of the Scythian clergy composed of tranvestite priests.
The Anarya were affiliated to an orgiastic cult of Artimpasa in her form strongly influenced by Near Eastern fertility goddesses, and the rites of the Anarya thus combined both indigenous Scythians religious practices of a shamanistic nature, as well as ones imported from Levantine religions. The Anarya also acted as seers and performed a particular form of divination which, unlike the methods of traditional Scythian soothsayers, used linden bark. The Anarya were especially consulted when the king of the Scythians was ill, which was itself believed by the Scythians to be caused by a false oath being sworn upon the king’s hearth, and the Scythians believed these prophetic abilities of the Anarya to have been granted to them by the goddess Artimpasa.
The Scythians also ascribed the androgyny of the Anarya to a “female disease” causing sexual impotency, itself resulting from a curse by the goddess Artimpasa to the perpetrators of the sack of the temple of the goddess ʿAštart (whom the Scythians identified with Artimpasa) in Askalōn and their descendants during the Scythian presence in the Levant in the 7th century BCE; the transvestite androgyny of the Anarya was thus also typical of the cult of the Levantine celestial ʿAštart. The Anarya being enunchs who belonged to the most powerful Scythian aristocracy and wore women’s clothing as well performed women’s jobs and spoke like women, according to indigenous Scythian shamanic traditions they were considered “transformed” shamans who changed their sex, signaled them as being the most powerful shamans, due to which they inspired fear and were thus accordingly given special respect in Scythian society.
Like all ancient priesthoods, the Anarya differentiated themselves from ordinary mortals through their dress, behaviour, and secred rituals. Therefore, in addition to their transvestism, the Anarya might also have worn additional regalia, such as drums used in shamanic rituals and antlered headdresses similar to those found in Saka horse burials and those worn in more recent times by Siberian shamans. Sceptres capped with ornate pole tops, which have been discovered throughout the steppe from Mongolia to the Great Hungarian Plains were also used by the Anarya as symbols of authority: these pole tops often included rattles, and the oldest of these date from the 8th century BCE, are from Tuva and the Minusinsk Basin, and are topped by a stag or ibex standing with its feet together as if perched on a rocky eminence. The more recent pole tops are more elaborate in design, such as one found in the Akexandropol kurgan, which is in the shape of a goddess with her hands on her hips, and another one from the same kurgan in the shape of a griffin in a frame from which two bells hang, and a third from that same kurgan which splits into three branches each topped by a bird of prey holding a bell in its beak. The rattling and tinkling of the sceptres’ bells invited the audience to the impending rites.
Given the hereditary nature of the Anarya and the belief that the curse of ʿAštart affected the looters of her shrine at Ascalon as well as their descendants, their transvestite transformation likely happened late in their lives.
The Bosporan thiasoi
The cult of the Most High God in Tanais was performed by thiasoi (θίασοι thíasoi), which were state-recognised all-male collegia of which all the free men of the city were members, including both the rank-and-file citizens and the aristocracy of Tanais. These worshippers’ associations belonged to the same institution and organised the whole citizenry of Tanais into distinct groups which each had a very strict hierarchy, and around half of their memberships was ethnically Greek while the other half was ethnically Iranian.
These thasioi originated in the Iranian institution of male societies, that is male societies of young warriors, which were present among both the Persians and the Scythians. These male societies had been Hellenised when they were incorporated into the social structure of the Bosporan Kingdom.
The typical functions of these Iranian male societies, such as the worship of Miθra, the performing of ecstatic cults involving the consumption of haoma, and fire worship were reflected in the syncretised Bosporan cult of the Most High God, such as the depoction of the deity holding of a rhyton and facing a blazing altar on the Day of Tanais commemoration stele; fire worship was also present among the Bosporan thiasotes in the form of the fire cult’s presence among the funerary rituals of the inhabitants of Tanais. The cult of the dead of the male societies was visible in the numerous stelae the Bosporan thiasotes built in commemoration of their dead members. Iranian male societies also maintained justice and punished law-breakers – reflected in the thiasoi officials being among the Bosporan synods’ leading magistrates -, and were closely connected to royal power, hence the close connection of the thiasoi and their Most High God with the Bosporan royal family and its cults. And, like the Iranian male societies, the Bosporan thiasoi were divided into age classes, and required initiations so members could join an ideal community of alive and deceased warriors.
Renewal of the high place
The Scythians would annually bring more brushwood to the high place of the Scythian “Arēs” to maintain its structure. This ceremony also symbolised a recommitment and created a consciousness of the continuity of worship at the high place, and was also a reaffirmation of tribal identity.
Sacrifices to the war-god
Every year, the Scythians held a ceremony to honour their “Arēs” during which they sacrificed cattle, horses and every hundredth prisoner of war to him. Libations of wine were poured over the prisoners who were to be sacrificed, following which their throats were cut over a vessel to catch their blood. This vessel was carried to the top of the brushwood high place of the god and the prisoners’ blood was poured as libations on the sword functioning as the god’s idol, and their right arms were severed and thrown into the sky and left wherever they fell. The use of horses and of the blood and right arms of prisoners in the cult of the Scythian “Arēs” was a symbolic devotion of the swifness of horses and the strength of men to this god of kingship who had similar powers, and the tall brushwood altar on which the blood was offered to the god was a representation of the world mountain.
No priests were required for the sacrifices to the Scythian “Arēs.”
The Scythians held an annual ceremony where everyone who had killed at least one enemy was acknowledged by being allowed to drink from a communal bowl of wine in front of the assembled company, although it is unknown whether or not this festivity was performed at the same time as the yearly sacrifices to the Scythian “Arēs.”
According to Herodotus, animal sacrifices among the Scythians to all gods except to “Arēs” was carried out by tying a rope around the front legs of the sacrificial animal, then the offerer of the sacrifice standing behind the animal and pulling the rope to throw the animal forward, and strangling it to death using a rope tied around the animal’s neck and tightened using a stick. The sacrificed animal was then cut up, its flesh was boiled in a cauldron, or, for those who did not have a cauldron, in the animal’s own skin, while the bones were added to the fire on which the animal’s flesh was cooked so they could be consumed following the approved ritual. Once the meat was cooked, the person who initiated the sacrifice would throw some of cooked meat and entrails into the ground as an offering for the god.
The cult of Thagimasadas might have involved horse sacrifice.
Animals sacrificed to “Arēs” were horses, sheep, and goats.
The Scythian “Arēs” was also propitiated using human sacrifice, which involved cutting the throat of one man out of every hundred prisoners and pouring his blood on the sword-idol of the god, and then cutting the sacrificed man’s right arm and throwing it into the air and leaving it wherever it fell.
The royal divine marriage
The signet ring of the Scythian king Scyles, whose bezel was decorated with the image of a woman seated on a throne and holding a mirror in her right hand and a sceptre in her left hand, with Skuleō (Σκυλεω) engraved near the figure of the goddess, and on whose band was inscribed in Greek Κέλεοε Ἄργοταν πὰρ ὲναι (“Tell to be with Argotas!”), represented communion with Artimpasa as guaranteeing sovereignty in Scythian religion. The image of the Artimpasa on the ring was therefore a representation of her as a granter of sovereignty, with the ring having been inherited from generation to generation of the Scythian royal dynasty as a token of royal power, and Argotas was probably a former Scythian king from whom his descendant Scyles inherited this ring. The ring did not feature any image of the male partner of the goddess because the kings were themselves considered to be these partners, with the Scythian royal investiture having been considered both a communion between man and the goddess as well as a marital union which elevated the king to the status of spouse of the goddess and granted him power through sexual intercourse with the goddess. This was also a reflection of Levantine influence on Artimpasa, since Mesopotamian equivalents of Aphroditē Ourania were sometimes represented together with the king in scenes represented sacred marriages, and the stability of royal power in Paphos was believed to be derived from intimate relations between Aphroditē, with whom the queen of Paphos was identified, and the king, who claimed descent from Aphroditē’s lover Cinyras.
A similar rite of the marriage between the king and the great goddess existed among the Scythians’ Thracian neighbours.
The ritual sleep
The ritual sleep during was a ceremony during which a substitute ritual king would ceremonially sleep in an open air field along with the gold hestiai for a single night, possibly as a symbolical ritual impregnation of the earth. This substitute king would receive as much land as he could ride around in one day: this land belonged to the real king and was given to the substitute king to complete his symbolic identification with the real king, following which he would be allowed to live for one year until he would be sacrificed when the time for the next ritual sleep festival would arrive and a successor of the ritual king was chosen. This ceremony also represented the death and rebirth of the Scythian king and was conducted at the “Holy Ways,” where the great bronze cauldron representing the centre of the world was located.
Willow stick divination
Traditional Scythian soothsayers used willow withies for divination. This method of divination involved placing a bundle of willow sticks on the ground, untying it, and laying out the individual sticks.
Linden bark divination
A particular form of divination which was performed by the Anarya used linden bark; the Anarya performed this form of divination by splitting the linden bark and twining the strands among open fingers.
The Anarya were especially consulted when the king of the Scythians was ill, which was itself believed by the Scythians to be caused by a false oath being sworn upon the king’s hearth. Once the Anarya had identified the suspect who had sworn the false oath, the said suspect would claim to be innocent. If the Anarya maintained the accusation, six more soothsayers were consulted, and if they upheld the original accusation, the suspect was executed by being beheaded. If the additional soothsayers declared the suspect was innocent, the process of consulting more soothsayers was repeated, and if the larger number of soothsayers still declared the suspect to be innocent, the initial accusers were executed by being put into a wagon filled with brushwood which was set on fire, and their sons were all killed.
Main article: Scythian art
The motifs of Scythian cultures’ Animal style art reflected the cosmological notion of the ever-present struggle of life which was held to be the essence of being. These motifs consisted of stags (sometimes substituted by elks, moose, and rams), depicted as noble beasts in repose whose legs are tucked underneath its body, and which represented Tree of Life which sustained the world which was always in tension. The other components of these motifs were snow leopard-like felines and birds of prey, which were represented competing with each other for the herbivores, thus creating an interlocking style of tension. These compositions featuring predator and prey were present throughout the Scythian cultures, from the Pontic Steppe to the Altai Mountains.
In the western regions, under Greek influence, the art of the Pontic Scythians underwent an evolution, with the majestic stags being replaced by docile deer or horses or rams, the felines’ designs changing from snow leopard-like into images of lions, and the birds of prey becoming winged griffins, although the central theme of the struggle between predator and prey remained the same. This Greek-influenced Scythian animal art is visible in the lower frieze of the Golden Pectoral from Tovsta Mohyla, where two griffins attack a horse in its centre, while the rest of the frieze depicts lions and cheetahs attacking stags and pigs. The upper frieze instead represents humans interacting with their domesticated animals to counterpose the harmony of the human world with the conflict of the supernatural realm, as well as to equate the humans with the predators with respect to their relationship with the productive power of the earth.
In the eastern regions, the predator-prey motif could be found depicted on the Saka saddle covers from the Pazyryk kurgans and leather flasks, as well as tattooeed on the bodies of the deceased buried in the kurgans.
The rich furnishings of Scythian tombs demonstrate that Scythians devoted significant resources to ensuring the proper burial of their members, especially of nobles. This attested that the afterlife was extremely important in Scythian religion.
Sarmatians buried their priestesses with mirrors, which were symbols of feminine principle, eroticism and fertility that played an important role in the wedding rites of Iranian peoples, and were believed to be magical objects used for prophecy and shamanic rites. The Sarmatian citizens of the city of Tanais were buried along with weapons as well as with pieces of chalk and realgar which functioned as symbols of fire, while their graves were accompanied by burial constructions shaped as circular stone fences. These, along with horse harnesses being present in pit graves, as well as the burial of horses in tumuli, attested of the importance of the solar and fire cults in Sarmatian funerary rites.
Due to increasing Scythian and Sarmatian cultural influence in Panticapaeum, the deceased were often depicted as mounted horsemen on murals in their funerary vaults and tombstones at the same time as the horseman became a recurring motif in Late Scythian and Sarmatian art in the first centuries of the Common Era.
The Massagetae custom of eating the men of their tribe who had grown old might have reflected among Scythian peoples the presence of age classes, which were a distinguishing aspect of Iranian male societies.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia