Mare Milkers and War Lords

The Scythians aren’t a well-known people group, but their innovations revolutionized ancient warfare. In their day, they were the boogey-men of the Greek world. These guys were downright scary.

Who were the Scythians?

The Scythians were an Indo-Iranian nomadic people group who lived on the steppes (plains) of modern-day Ukraine between 700-300 BCE. Their territory, according to Herodotus, extended 20 days ride in every direction. They claimed wherever the sea of grass of the open steppes grew. Homer called them ‘mare-milkers’ due to their love of mare’s milk and cheese.

The Scythes were excellent traders, their most profitable trade was slaves and wheat with the Greeks. They seemed to care little who they traded with, as seen in the weapons they carried from a variety of ancient sources from Greece and Persia, to the Orient.

Scythians lived in a hostile, unforgiving environment, and were master horsemen whose primary occupation was war. They were tall, the average upper class warrior was light-skinned, and about 5’8” (with some as tall as 6’6”), and they sported thick beards and long hair. Scythian trade routes were extensive including being part of the infamous silk road.

detailed work on one end of a gold torc

There is no gold on the Ukrainian steppes, but the Scythians were exquisite gold craftsmen and adorned everything they owned in gold. They had a trade route requiring 7 different interpreters spanning from Olbia to the Asian interior to import the gold they were so fond of. The men wore trousers, which appalled Greek men, and adorned their clothing with colorful felt, applique’s, pearl and gold objects. They built no cities, and instead lived in yurts mounted on waggons. A rich warrior was known to possess upwards of 80 waggons, each driven by a wife and a team of a dozen or more oxen. A warrior’s primary wife drove his primary living yurt. The yurts could be assembled off the waggons in times when they camped for more than a night or two.

Scythian women had a lot more freedom than a Greek woman, and may have given rise to the Amazon myths in Greece (though I believe Sarmatian women gave more life to the myths – but that’s another post). Scythian women learned archery, were allowed to carry basic weapons for self-defence, and were involved in raising horses. When a warrior died, Herodotus reports that his wives fought for the honor to die with him, all the remaining wives were then given to the dead man’s eldest son.

A Brutal People

Some of the more brutal aspects of Scythian society are directly related to war. They reportedly excelled at 3 things, and were infamous for a fourth.

  1. They were extremely skilled at war. They were hired as mercenaries by the Greek city-state of Olbia, they reportedly invaded Judea, Nineveh and other notable cities, and perhaps are best known for defeating King Darius of Persia. They skinned their enemies and used their flesh as saddle blankets. To determine a warrior’s share of the booty after battle, his contribution was measured by the number of enemy heads he presented killed by his own hand. They scalped their enemies, and wore their grisly collection of matted hair on their belts, on their horse’s bridles and saddles as a measure of their valor. They made cups out of the skulls of defeated enemies and drank from them, using the temple holes as handles.
  2. The Greeks had a saying, “Getting drunk the Scythian way,” because reportedly a Scythian could drink the stereotypical Irish or Scotsman under the table. They are also one of the first peoples to use marijuana recreationally (as well as a few other hallucinogens).
  3. They are known for the burial kurgans they left behind. They believed the soul did not leave the body for 40 days, so built burial chambers equipped with everything the dead might need in the next life, in an attempt to occupy the souls from ‘wandering.’ For a people who left so little physical imprint on the land, their burial practices have provided a very rich understanding of their culture and contribution to warfare.
  4. **Scythians are also infamous for meeting with the mythological Amazon warriors every spring for an outdoor orgy to help the Amazons conceive daughters.**

But the Scythians’ contribution to modern-day life was their innovation in war.

The Scythians were thought to be the first to mount an organized cavalry. They pioneered a new-for-its-time three-sided barbed arrowhead later called the ‘Scythian point’, thought to better penetrate armor and cause irreparable damage with extraction. Not that survival was common – but I’ll get to that in a minute. The rich among them wore scaled armor, overlapping metal plates sewn onto leather, much like the scales on a dragon which gave them freedom to move on horseback. They were known for their archery skills. Their short bow could fire an arrow 80 yards (this is from several different sources) and they carried anywhere from 30 – 150 arrows into battle, employing a rapid-fire technique from horseback allowing them expend all their arrows in 3 to 15 minutes.

They used a scorched earth battle technique with great success. Because they moved everything of value with them, they had no villages to defend. This tactic ultimately led to their defeat of Darius’ invasion. Their warriors were swift, agile, and would feign defeat swing back and slaughter an enemy before they realized they were in trouble.

Ancient germ warfare.

If you were hit by a Scythian arrow, you prayed it killed you quickly. Scythians caught and killed young snakes (a poisonous variety) and left the bodies to decompose in the sun to retain the potency of the venom. They then dropped the snake into a container filled with human blood, and buried the whole thing until it putrefied. This foul concoction was called Scythicon or toxicon and they dipped all their arrows in it. If the wound itself didn’t kill you, the snake poison would take effect within an hour. If you survived the snake venom, tetanus could set in, or gangrene from the putrefied human blood would kill you for sure inside a week to a month. On lazy days, they spiked their arrows with hemlock.

There is so much more that fascinates me about this ancient culture. Have you heard of the Scythians? Have you read about Scythia in fiction? They’re usually portrayed as barely-capable-of-speech barbarians. Scythians are the heroes of my story – can you imagine a fictional world where these people are the good guys?


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  1. says

    I almost did my MA dig in Russia with Jeannine Davis-Kimball (you probably ran across her while researching). Almost everything we know about the Scythians comes from their enemies. Can’t wait to hear your take. That’s why I love fiction and got out of academia!
    Debra Eve recently posted…Edgar Rice Burroughs: John Carter of Mars Centenary

    • says

      Oh – of course. Our novel features both the Scythians AND Amazons – so she’s been one of my primary resources. I’ve read her book like…3 times now. Fascinating work. You had a chance to work with her? Wow – I would have loved to be on that dig. History is such a passion for me.

  2. says

    What a delightful read! I love expression like “Their territory (…) extended 20 days ride in every direction.” As a kid, I used to read quite a lot about history and mythology, and your post took me back to my childhood.
    I’ve never heard of the Scythians before. After reading this, I can easily see the possibilities for an epic story. I can’t wait to read your book!
    Fabio Bueno recently posted…The Evil Twin Returns

  3. says

    My eyes are so tired I’m not even going to tell you the word and names that jumped to my mind when I read your title. LOL I couldn’t have been farther off. Doh!

    These guys sound serious. You got my attention. I hadn’t heard of them, but that’s not surprising. It’s funny, much like what Fabio had to say, a 20 days ride today would be a far different thing. I can totally envision them. I don’t see them as barely-able-to-speak, but rather as a people with their own language others don’t understand. In their attempts to communicate with others it is perceived as barbaric. That’s how I’m using my artistic license. :)
    Debra Kristi recently posted…Fae and Sex ǀ The Incubus – Immortal Monday

  4. says

    Very interesting, Lisa! I didn’t know about the Scythians, but as I was reading your description, it made me think of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones. Some truly ruthless, but still sympathetic warriors in those books.
    Kecia Adams recently posted…Slainte: The Stone of Eloquence


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