Scythians between Russia and Ukraine

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To situate the Scythians linguistically, before delving into their history and culture, let us begin by noting:

The Scythian languages (/ˈsɪθiən/ or /ˈsɪðiən/ or /ˈskɪθiən/) are a group of Eastern Iranic languages of the classical and late antique period (the Middle Iranic period), spoken in a vast region of Eurasia by the populations belonging to the Scythian cultures and their descendants. The dominant ethnic groups among the Scythian-speakers were nomadic pastoralists of Central Asia and the Pontic–Caspian steppe. Fragments of their speech known from inscriptions and words quoted in ancient authors as well as analysis of their names indicate that it was an Indo-European language, more specifically from the Iranic group of Indo-Iranic languages.


Everyone will recognize the current avatar of this ancestress of the Scythian nation:

Source:  The Mixoparthenos (half-maiden), a hybrid creature from the Black Sea, limestone sculpture, 1st-2nd century AD, from Panticapaeum, Taurica (Crimea)

The Mixoparthenos (Greek: Μιξοπάρθενος) was a Greek mythological figure, a variety of Siren somewhat akin to a Mermaid, traditionally hailing from the Black Sea region. The name means "half-maiden" and is the surname of the Furies. The form of the Mixoparthenos is distinctive – above the waist, a beautiful woman, but covered with scales from waist down, ending in a double snake-tail. Some versions have the Mixoparthenos ending in a double fish-tail.

In Herodotus's Histories (4.9.2), Heracles marvels at a Mixoparthenos when he meets one, and mates with her, producing three sons, the youngest of which eventually became the founder of the Scythian nation.

The Starbucks logo depicts a Mixoparthenos, of the double fish-tailed variety.

The Mixoparthenos is a mythical creature whose image, to this day, is seen in the coastal areas around the Greek colonies of the Black Sea, where wheat has been a major crop since ancient times.

Herodotus writes that the horses of Heracles were stolen by the Mixoparthenos, who promised to return them if he mated with her. How could Hercules resist! From their union came three sons, the youngest, Scythes, the only son who could bend the bow of Hercules. He became king of the people who would be called ScythianThere were many Scythian wheat growers around the Black Sea.

[sources here and here]

I knew of this figure before, when Miriam Robbins Dexter and I wrote Sacred Display (see Selected readings below) but my attention was drawn to it today by this article:

"Legacy of the Scythians:  How the ancient warrior people of the steppes have found themselves on the cultural frontlines of Russia’s war against Ukraine", Peter Mumford, aeon (3/18/24)

This is a bipolar presentation, swinging between politics and history-culture.  I'm not very much interested in the former, but fortunately there is plenty enough material concerning the latter that we can use it to ruminate on the trans-Eurasian aspects of the Scythians and other peoples of the steppes and Central / Inner Asia.

The Scythians are known today from the substantial surviving archaeological evidence, much of it exquisite golden artefacts from warriors’ tombs, and from historical accounts from the ancient world. A warrior people of Iranian ethnic origin famous for their skills in mounted archery and their nomadic lifestyle, their presence in Ukraine and Russia has left a historical and archaeological legacy to both countries. Some evidence of a more symbolic cultural presence can be found in Russia, where elements of nationalist thought and political philosophy have conceptualised the Scythians as embodying both the warlike side of Russian identity and its sense of cultural superiority over its neighbours.

Much of our knowledge of the Scythians and their culture comes from the writing of the 5th-century BCE Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus, considered by many to be the ‘father of history’. He was also the first known historian of Ukraine. In his Histories, a project that aimed to chronicle the extent of the known world and its people, he wrote extensively on Scythian culture, customs and history. The Scythians themselves left no written records and were likely illiterate, so we have to rely on ancient Greek writers like Herodotus to provide an insight into their world.

The term ‘Scythian’ has at times been used as a more general description of the (often interrelated) nomadic steppe peoples of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Russia and Ukraine. Herodotus, however, defines ‘Scythians’ (as I will do here) as the inhabitants of the steppes of what is now Ukraine and a small part of modern-day Russia between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE, having migrated there previously from Central Asia and settled in the land the Greeks called ‘Scythia’. It is unclear whether or not Herodotus ever visited Scythia, although there are several indications in his detailed account of the coastline of southern Ukraine that suggest he travelled at least as far as Greek settlements on the shores of the Black Sea. Greek settlers developed commercial links with the Scythians down the Dnipro River (Herodotus calls it the Borysthenes and compares it with the Nile in Egypt). Some Scythians eventually intermarried with Greek settlers and lived alongside them in multicultural, multilingual trading communities along the Dnipro and the southern coast. This intercultural contact also allowed Scythian legends and tales to make their way into the writings of Greeks like Herodotus.

One such legend made it significantly further than that. Mixoparthenos, a part-woman, part-snake goddess who was worshipped by Scythians on the Crimean peninsula and allegedly considered to be the mythological ancestor of the Scythian race, is the figure that appears in the Starbucks logo. Thousands of years later and thousands of miles across the world, the Scythians’ legacy runs surprisingly deep.

Herodotus’ discussion of the Scythians focuses on a failed invasion of Scythia by the Persian Empire. The Persian king Darius (550-486 BCE) was allegedly motivated by a desire to avenge historical grievances; around a century earlier, the Scythians had invaded and occupied territory in modern-day Iran. In 513 BCE, Darius led a vast force up the western Black Sea coast to establish Persian dominance over Scythia and further expand his colossal empire. Outnumbered and outmatched militarily, the various Scythian tribes united to resist the invasion and resorted to unorthodox tactics. Using their nomadic, mobile lifestyle to their advantage, they avoided open battles with the Persian army and forced the invaders to chase them deep into their territory, towards the Don River. They employed scorched-earth tactics that left Scythia devastated but denied the Persians any tangible victories. Eventually, worn down by fatigue and partisan raids and frustrated by the elusive nature of their foes, the Persians were compelled to abandon their attempt at conquest.

Herodotus’ account of Scythian resistance to the Persians is most relevant in its contribution to a cultural perception of the Scythians’ indomitability, courage and hardiness. This is not to say that his characterisation of the Scythians was overwhelmingly positive. He recounts many of their more brutal alleged customs, such as drinking blood, scalping enemies and performing human sacrifice, to name a few. This characterisation led other Greek authors to depict the Scythians as stereotypical ‘barbarians’: uncouth, uncultured and uncivilised. The Greek term βάρβαρος originated as a general description for any people who did not speak Greek, conveying the meaning ‘foreigner’ or ‘non-Greek’ as well as ‘barbarian’ in the modern sense of the term. However, it gradually came to be associated with the hostile caricatures with which Greek (and especially Athenian) literature portrayed foreigners.

Evidence from Greek literature and vase paintings indicates the presence of a group of Scythians as some sort of police force in Athens during Herodotus’ lifetime. The circumstances surrounding the establishment and responsibilities of this force remain unclear, but it is likely that encountering Scythians in their daily lives would have helped Greeks to associate them with the image of the ‘barbarian’. A member of this alleged police force appears as a ‘Scythian archer’ in a play by the comic playwright Aristophanes, speaking broken Greek and intended as an object of mockery – a far cry from the Scythians of Herodotus’ Histories.

This symbolic appeal of the Scythians to nationalist ideology in Russia began in the 19th century and still exists to a certain extent. The discovery and excavations of Scythian burial mounds (known as kurgans or kurhany) from the 18th century onwards accrued more widespread public interest in the Scythians. Dotting the steppes of Ukraine and Russia, many kurhany were found to contain valuable Scythian artefacts worked in gold and silver. Ukraine’s most prized Scythian artefact is an elaborate golden pectoral from the Tovsta Mohyla kurhan, discovered in 1971 near the city of Pokrov. Made from solid gold, it depicts intricately worked scenes of humans and animals (both real and mythological).

The golden pectoral from the Tovsta Mohyla burial mound. Courtesy the Museum of Historical Treasures, Kyiv/Wikipedia (click to enlarge)

[VHM:  Notice the incredible wealth of detail from daily life, mythology, etc.  This Scythian work of art is a genuine masterpiece, a wonder of the world.  I was privileged to see it in person in several exhibitions.]

Other finds in the kurhany provided evidence of the Scythians’ extensive trade links with regions as far away as China, from where some of the artefacts originated.

Inspired by the archaeological discoveries, a literary and cultural movement known as Skifstvo (‘Scythianism’) emerged in late 19th-century Russia that identified ideologically with the Scythians as Russia’s cultural forebears. These poets and artists viewed the Scythians through the lens of Russia embracing its identity as both Asiatic and European, as well as freeing itself from the (European-imposed) constraints of moderation and etiquette. They were idealised in art and poetry as wild, untamed and fierce warriors living in harmony with the natural world. In the words of the historian Orlando Figes, the Scythians became ‘a symbol of the wild rebellious nature of primeval Russian man’. One of Pushkin’s poems contains the lines ‘Now temperance is not appropriate/I want to drink like a savage Scythian’. Association of the Scythians with drunkenness has been a literary trope since ancient Greek times.

Perhaps the most famous example of Skifstvo is the poem Skify (1918) (‘The Scythians’) by Aleksandr Blok, in which the poet emphatically identifies Russia with the Scythians, as a means of asserting its cultural superiority over West and East alike. The poem depicts Russians as Scythians keeping ‘two hostile powers –/Old Europe and the barbarous Mongol horde’ at bay, using the image of the Scythian to present Russia as superior to both in terms of population size, military strength and national character.

The Scythians have since been appropriated as a symbol of cultural superiority by present-day Russian nationalists, but any remaining links with the Skifstvo of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are tangential and distorted. One fringe group calls itself the ‘New Scythians’ and members of a notorious far-Right biker gang involved in the invasion of Crimea have used the pseudonym ‘Scythian’ when interviewed by international media. These groups subscribe to the wider ideology of ‘Eurasianism’, a far-Right, ultranationalist movement that seeks to restore Russian dominance over its neighbours in ‘Eurasia’, especially Ukraine. Eurasianism is at its core deeply hostile to the West and supportive of a Russia-dominated sphere of influence that corresponds to the former borders of the Soviet Union. Its proponents, most notably the far-Right philosopher Aleksandr Dugin, have spent decades advocating against Ukrainian independence and in favour of Russian political control over its neighbour.

The author skillfully weaves a narrative based on accounts in ancient, medieval, and modern languages, but it is too long to recapitulate here.  This is a fascinating tale, and if you are interested in the Scythian background of trans-Eurasian history and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, not to mention linguistic and cultural exchange across the Eurasian continent, this is a good place to start.

I will close by stating that, when I went to Ukraine in the summer of 2002 (?) — it was very hot — and clambered over and around the kurgans, I came upon some young Russian families who were living outdoors with their little children, cooking over wood fires, and giving all the appearance of having gone wild.  They were taciturn, but I got the impression that they were trying to adopt a Scythian lifestyle.

Selected readings

    • C. Scott Littleton, "Were Some of the Xinjiang Mummies 'Epi-Scythians'? An Excursus in Trans-Eurasian Folklore and Mythology." In Victor H. Mair, The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia (Washington D.C. and Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Man and the University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1998), vol. 2, pp. 746-766.
    • C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor, From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (New York and London: Garland, 1994; rev. pb. 2000). In the British journal, Religion, 28.3 (July, 1998), 294-300, I [VHM] wrote a review in which I pointed out that the celebrated motif of a mighty arm rising up out of the water holding aloft the hero's sword can also be found in a medieval Chinese tale from Dunhuang. That review is available electronically from ScienceDirect, if your library subscribes to it. Otherwise, I think this version on the Web is a fairly faithful copy.
  • Miriam Robbins Dexter and Victor H. Mair, Sacred Display: Divine and Magical Female Figures of Eurasia (Amherst, NY: Cambria, 2010)
  • Miriam Robbins Dexter and Victor H. Mair, "Sacred Display: New Findings", Sino-Platonic Papers, 240 (Sept. 2013), 122 pages
  • Petya Andreeva, Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea:  Image-Making in Eurasian Nomadic Societies, 700 BCE-500 CE (Edinburgh:  University Press, 2024).

[h.t. Wang Chiu-kuei]


  1. Carlana said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 5:21 am

    Christopher Beckwith claims that the “Sakamuni” of Buddha’s name really just means “Scythian”.

  2. languagehat said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 9:26 am

    Christopher Beckwith is a brilliant man who knows a great deal about things most scholars know too little about, and is able to read an impressive number of languages, but is (as is common with people like that) prone to thinking he knows more than he does and dismissing people who raise reasonable objections as ignorant fools. (He also lambasts what he calls “Modernism,” by which he means pretty much everything bad that’s happened since the nineteenth century; this is of course irrelevant to his scholarly credentials but makes me roll my eyes.)

  3. bks said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 10:29 am

    Isn't that the Starbucks logo?

  4. Peter B. Golden said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 12:14 pm

    Turkic scholars have been claiming for some time that the Scythian-Saka peoples were Turkic cf. M.Z. Zäkiyev, 'Törki-Tatar Etnogenezï [Turkic-Tatar Ethnogenesis] (Kazan, 1998), Emine Sonnur Özcan, "Kültür Tarihi Açısından Iskit-Türk Aynılığı" [Scythian-Turkic Identity from the Perspective of Culture History] Istanbul, 2016), Fatih Şengül, "Sakaların ve Sarmatların Kökeni" [The origins of the Saka and Sarmatians] (Ankara, 2023) are just a few examples.

    Chris Beckwith, an old friend, claims in his recent book, "The Scythian Empire" (Princeton, 2023) that Xiongnu can be reconstructed in Old Chinese as *soɣla ~ *suɣla < *suŋla Suguda and that it is "East Scythian."

    I have to agree with the comments of languagehat.

  5. Chris Button said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 1:18 pm

    @ Peter B. Golden

    Chris Beckwith, an old friend, claims in his recent book, "The Scythian Empire" (Princeton, 2023) that Xiongnu can be reconstructed in Old Chinese as *soɣla ~ *suɣla < *suŋla Suguda and that it is "East Scythian."

    So he's reconstructing 匈奴 as *suŋla ? I'm all for challenging the orthodoxy when it comes to reconstructing Old Chinese, but this seem to me extremely hard to justify. What about the more standard suggestion that it goes back the underlying source of words like Sanskrit hūṇa, Latin Hunni, etc. in Pulleyblank's 2000 "Ji and Jiang" paper?

  6. Peter B. Golden said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 2:33 pm

    @Chris Button
    I didn't say that I accepted Beckwith's proposed reconstruction. I merely noted it. For reconstructions, I prefer Pulleyblank, Schuessler, Baxter and Sagart, Knoll…
    Overall, I prefer Chris Atwood's , “Huns and Xiōngnú: New Thoughts on an Old Problem” in Dubitando: Studies in History and Culture in Honor of Donald Ostrowski. Brian J. Boeck, Russell E. Martin, and Daniel Rowland, eds. (Bloomington: Slavica Publishers, 2012): 27–52.
    Publishers, 2012): 27–52: 匈奴 Old Chin. *Xoŋa/ Xoŋai. I am less certain with regard to his further comments in his “The Qai, Khongai, and the Names of the Xiōngnú” International Journal of Eurasian Studies 2 (2015): 035-063, where he argues that "*Xoŋai, the original form of Xiōngnú, far from being
    an early ethnonym, is actually the name of a river in southern Mongolia
    the modern Ongi, which the Xiōngnú empire founder adopted as his dynasty’s name." He also argues for a Scythian connection. "Archeologically and culturally, the link between the Xiōngnú and the Iranian-speaking Central Eurasians, Skythians and Sakas appears to be quite strong.
    It is entirely possible therefore that in their dealings with Iranian speaking
    westerners, the Xiōngnú court would title their state as the “realm of the skuða-” or archers."

    My concluding comment was: I have to agree with the comments of languagehat.


  7. Marcel Erdal said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 3:05 pm

    I agree that there is no proof that the Scythians spoke a Turkic language and were Turkic, but is there any real proof that they (not referring to Alans, Sarmatians, or Khotanese and Tumshuqese Sakas) spoke an Iranian language and were Iranian?

  8. Zeljko said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 4:04 pm

    Interesting, 7 days ago, in Bergamo, Italy, I spotted interesting figure of two tailed siren, and I made i picture of it! But now I see it the Mixoparthenos mermaid !

  9. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    March 24, 2024 @ 5:35 pm

    Why did he choose that goddess for his pseudo-coffee shop chain? because she stole the horses and asked something in return?

    I also found this:

    Icon. The twin-tailed siren represents the sea and Seattle – the place of origin for Starbucks. There’s no confirmed reason why the siren was used for the Starbucks logo, but many believe it represents mystique, obsession, and addiction.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    March 25, 2024 @ 2:46 pm

    I assume that the adoption by Messrs Starbuck of an avatar based on "this ancestress of the Scythian nation" is the reason for Victor’s assertion that "everyone will recognize [the avatar]", but as one who has never entered a branch of Messrs Starbuck (I now seek out AMT or Caffè Nero if I am wishing to drink coffee in a dedicated coffee house, following the the sad demise of Messrs Twining and Importers Ltd as coffee houses), I was until these recent comments totally perplexed as to why he might believe that the avatar would be universally recognised.

  11. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    March 25, 2024 @ 5:28 pm

    For the Scythians, Anacharsis, who became one of the Seven Sages of Greece around 588 BC, had said: "The noblest are the wild animals, because they can die to keep their freedom"

  12. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    March 25, 2024 @ 7:12 pm

    @Philip Taylor —

    Messers Starbuck? There was a Mr. Twining, but no Mr. Starbuck:

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    March 26, 2024 @ 5:47 am

    Well I'm d@mned — I had always assumed that there was. Ah well, one lives and learns …

  14. Victor Mair said,

    April 9, 2024 @ 8:51 pm

    From Ralph Rosen:

    Herodotus’ account of the Scythians is of course classic, but another fascinating account is in the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places chs. 18-22

  15. Victor Mair said,

    April 10, 2024 @ 7:16 pm

    From Siamak Adhami:

    There seems to be a Scythian fascination with the bodies of water too, in particular I’m thinking of the names of the Sakan hero in the Iranian epic Shahnamah and his family: Rustam probably meaning ‘the mighty river’; his wife Rudāba ‘the child of water(s), river’, and their son Sohrāb ‘the Red River, i.e. blood’. The last name is quite fitting as he’s killed by his own father! I thought it’s interesting—haven’t seen anything addressing it either.

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