Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from Herodotus, the 5th-century BCE father of history from Halicarnassus. In book four of The Histories, Herodotus described what he had found out about the origin story of the Scythian people, their military exploits and what he perceived to be their daily lifestyle.
The framework of Herodotus’ history of the Scythians is fairly accurate. He wrote that the Scythians were a fierce nomadic tribe that specialized in horsemanship and archery. As warriors, they were powerful enough to strike fear into the hearts of both the Greeks and the Persians. They even successfully repelled a massive invasion led by the Persian King Darius I in the late 6th-century, years before the Persians decided to launch their ill-fated campaigns against Greece.
On the other hand, Herodotus wrote about more (fair warning) rather graphic and disturbing accounts, where truth became increasingly merged with folklore. Among other statements, Herodotus claimed that the Scythians held annual sacrifices to their gods, where horses, cattle and prisoners of war were ceremoniously slaughtered. During this ritual, Herodotus claimed that the Scythians cut off the right arms of the human sacrifices and sometimes drank the blood of their victims.
The ancient historian elaborated on the subject of what the Scythians did to their fallen enemies—he claimed that they severed the heads of their foes for the purpose of using them as tokens to determine the size of their share in war loot. According to Herodotus, the Scythians did not let these heads go to waste. The historian matter-of-factly claimed that the Scythians transformed the scalps into handkerchiefs, and after accumulating a number of these macabre trophies, they would be sewn into forms of clothing. Herodotus went on to say that skulls of the slain were particularly important. He claimed that the Scythians made grisly chalices or bowls from the skullcaps, covered with hide on the outside and sometimes gilded on the interior.
While Herodotus’s account is a fascinating read, archaeologists have found little evidence to back up his claims. For example, at least 5,700 golden artifacts were uncovered in a Scythian burial mound (called a kurgan) excavated in Tuva, Siberia, yet not a single skull chalice was found among the horde of treasure. Similarly, furs and the fragments of cloth garments were discovered in the mound, but no evidence of clothing made from human skin was found. Even so, some of Herodotus’ other claims are plausible. The killing of prisoners and the keeping of unsettling war trophies was, unfortunately, a fairly common practice in many areas of the ancient world. As for sacrifices, archaeologists did indeed find horses, servants and concubines who were killed and buried along with fallen Scythian kings in their burial grounds, but this tragic practice, too, was not uncommon in other areas of the world.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture attribution: (Decoration from the top of a Scythian comb. Found in the Soloha kurgan. Now resides in the Hermitage museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- From The Histories by Herodotus (Book IV), translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola (Penguin Classics, 2002).