The bulk of what is known about the Scythian people was recorded by the Greek historian, Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE. In more modern times, archaeologists have broadened the historical perspective on the Scythians by studying sites found within the territory of the ancient Scythian empire. From unearthed relics and artifacts, archeologists have found that the Scythians possessed bronze armor of Greek design and swords of Persian style, as well as ample gold, art and jewelry.
In book four of The Histories, Herodotus gave three possible scenarios that led to the creation of the Scythian people as he knew them in the 5th century BCE. Of the three possibilities that were recorded, Herodotus favored one about nomadic migration. In the model, the Scythian people moved from central Asia into Russia and Ukraine between the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, displacing the Cimmerians as they flooded into the region.
Although Herodotus favored the nomadic model mentioned above, that did not stop him from recording two other interesting and entertaining Scythian creation myths. The two myths relayed to the reader by Herodotus differed greatly, but they had two great similarities. In both myths, three children played a great role in the story, with the youngest child always taking the most prominent role.
In this creation myth, a man named Targitaus was said to have been the first man to ever inhabit the lands of Scythia. Yet, Targitaus was no mere human—he was the offspring of Zeus and a river deity. Targitaus, himself, had three sons with an unnamed woman. The boys’ names were Lipozais, Arpoxais and Colaxais.
One day, after Targitaus and his sons had settled in Scythia, a miraculous event occurred—golden objects began to drop from the sky. All of a sudden, a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe and a cup all plummeted from the heavens and all were genuine, solid gold. As if that were not enough, the golden objects had an additional quirk. These golden tools, weapons and utensils would sometimes spontaneously burst into flames!
The eldest son of Targitaus, the one named Lipozais, was the first to spot flammable golden objects. Yet, whenever he reached out to touch a golden item, the object would erupt with fire. The middle son, Arpoxais, soon noticed the odd spectacle, too, and came out to aid his brother. Nevertheless, the flames persisted and the two brothers could only look at the exquisite gold with envious eyes from a safe distance.
While the two brothers stared at the golden objects with frustration, their younger brother, Colaxais, made his way over to the unobtainable treasure. When Colaxais approached the golden items, however, the fires all miraculously disappeared and stayed dormant. With no trouble at all, Colaxais was able to gather up the golden plough, yoke, axe and cup, and carry the gilded objects back to his home.
Understanding the divine hint, the two older brothers forfeited their land inheritances to their younger brother, uniting all of Scythia under Colaxais. From there, Colaxais went on to father the line of Royal Scythians and the golden implements remained heavily guarded treasures for generations.
Heracles and the Maiden
According to this myth, the demigod adventurer, Heracles (also a son of Zeus), drove his chariot into the lands of Scythia while the region was still uninhabited by mankind. When he found a good spot to camp for the night, he unharnessed his horses from the chariot and bedded down, wrapping his lion pelt about himself for warmth.
When Heracles awoke in the morning, all was not well. His horses had run off and were nowhere to be seen. With his chariot useless, Heracles began searching the Scythian countryside for his horses, eventually reaching a woodland, called Hylaea. Within Hylaea, Heracles stumbled upon a cave with a peculiar inhabitant—a viper-maiden. Heracles was initially shocked by the sight of the viper-maiden, a creature with the tail of a snake, but shaped like a woman from pelvis to head. Shaking off his astonishment, Heracles calmly asked if the viper-maiden had seen his horses. In a fortunate stroke of luck, she claimed she had, indeed, found the scattered horses. Even greater, she had taken the beasts into her possession.
The viper-maiden made a deal with Heracles—she would give back the horses if Heracles would sleep with her and give her children. No mention is made about the amount of time Heracles spent with the viper-maiden, but he fathered three sons with her before he left Scythia with his horses. The boys’ names were Agathyrsus, Gelonus and Scythes.
Before Heracles left, the viper-maiden asked for advice on what should be done with the boys once they reached adulthood—should they stay to rule Scythia or join Heracles in Greece? As a response, Heracles donned his girdle and drew his bow, claiming that the sons who could do the same could rule in Scythia. Any of his sons who failed the test were to be exiled.
When the sons of Heracles and the viper-maiden grew to adulthood, it was time for them to undergo their test. Of the three, only the youngest, Scythes, was able to successfully wear the belt of Heracles and draw back the powerful bow. Agathyrsus and Gelonus, after failing the test, were banished from their homeland, but Scythes, the lone victor, went on to father the ruling class of the Scythians.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002).