Herodotus – The Histories, Book 4, “Melpomene” [1-82] – Country & Customs of the Scythians

  1. After taking Babylon, Darius turned his attention to Scythia. He wanted revenge on them for when they invaded Media. It had been 28 years since they’d come down & overthrew the Medes. The Scythians had been away so long that the women had to intermarry with the slaves.
  2. The Scythians blind their slaves when milking mares. They stick a tube up the mares’ privates to blow the udders into place for another to milk. Then they put the milk into wooden casks. The part that rises to the top is skimmed off – the best part.
  3. When children from the slaves & Scythian women grew up, they understood their social position & were determined to oppose any Scythian army returning. They dug a long trench around the lake & mountains. When the Scythian army returned, the men saw armed slave children. They told themselves they ought to put down their soldiers’ arms & pick up their slave whips. The nerve of slaves to rise up against their masters…
  4. The slaves were so stunned by this that they forgot to fight & so they ran off. The Scythians returned to their country. At this point, Darius wanted revenge & began assembling an invasion force.
  5. The Scythians claim to be the youngest nation around. They claim the first man to live there was Targitaüs. Before him, it was deserted of people. He had 3 sons. Then came falling from the sky 4 implements made of gold – a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe & a drinking cup. The eldest brothers couldn’t pick them up because they were on fire. But the youngest could & so they decided he should become king.
  6. Each of the brothers sprung off different tribes, all under the name “Scoloti” – The Greeks call them Scythians.
  7. From the reign of Targitaüs to the invasion of Darius, was a period of 1000 years. The Royal Scythians guarded the sacred gold. The man in custody was not supposed to fall asleep outside while on duty or it was said that he would die that year. North of Scythia was a country hidden from sight & made impassable by the earth & air being covered with feathers.
  8. The Greeks tell a different story. Hercules carried off the cows of Geryon & moved to Scythia, then still a desert but covered in frost & storms. He covered himself with the lion’s skin & fell asleep. While he was asleep, his horses ran off.
  9. He woke up & went looking for them until he found a creature who was half woman & half snake. She said she’d take them & wouldn’t give them back until he allowed her to be his mistress. She delayed telling him where they were to keep the game going. She gave them up when she knew she was pregnant with 3 of his sons. She asked what she should do with them – keep them or send them to him. He answered if one of them could bend his bow as he did, the boy should stay. If he couldn’t, he should be sent away.
  10. He strung the bow & gave her a belt with a golden goblet attached to it. When the kids grew up, she put them to the test. Agathyrsus & Gêlonus couldn’t pull the bow but the 3rd one, Scythes, could. His children & descendants became the Scythians. The others were sent away.
  11. The most likely story is that the wandering Scythians fought with the Massagetae but lost. They left for the lands of Cimmeria, home of the wandering Cimmerians, who were out of the area at the time. They came back & had to decide what to do – fight or runaway. Half decided to run away & the other half decided to fight. The Royal tribe were killed & buried near the River Tyras & the Scythians had possession of the land.
  12. Scythia still has some Cimmerian roots – castles, a ferry & the Cimmerian Bosphorous. The Cimmerians are likely to have settled in the area of Sinôpé. The Scyths followed them & accidentally invaded Media when losing track of the Cimmerians.
  13. Aristeas says he went as far as the Issedones. He claimed that above them live the one-eyed Arimaspi, the gold-guarding griffins & the Hyperborean giants. The Arimaspi were constantly threatening their neighbors. The Issedonians were the ones to drive the Cimmerians out.
  14. There’s a story about Aristeas in Proconnêsus. He walked into a fuller’s ship & dropped dead. The fuller went to tell Aristeas’s family. Reports of the death spread throughout town but a man from Cyzicus denied these rumors. The family came to collect the body & it wasn’t there. 7 years later, he showed up in Proconnêsus & wrote the Arimaspeia & then disappeared again.
  15. 350 years later, he showed up in Metapontines, Italy & ordered the people to build an altar to Apollo & a statue of him. Apollo, appearing as a crow, told him that they should do it. So, now there’s an altar to Apollo & a statue of Aristeas in Metapontines, Italy.
  16. No one knows much about lands above Scythia. It’s mostly hearsay, but we can mention it.
  17. The people above the Borysthenites are the Callipedae. Those inland are the Alazonians. These 2 tribes are very similar to the Scythians. Beyond the Alazonians are the cultivating Scythians who farm grain & vegetables, not for their own use, but for export. Higher up are the Neuri. Any further up, it’s uninhabited.
  18. Across the Borysthenes (Dnieper), leaving the coast is Hylaea (Woodland). Above there are the Husbandmen, called Boysthenites, whose territories extend a 3 day journey to the River Panticapes. North for 11 days is uninhabited. Above that are Cannibals. Any further is deserted.
  19. Cross the Panticapes & east of the Husbandmen who don’t do any farming at all.
  20. There, are the largest & bravest Scythian tribes who look on others as slaves. Their land stretches to the trenches dug by the blind slaves. North of the Royal Scythians are the “Black Robes” – Melanchlachi.
  21. Cross the Tanais & you leave Scythia & go to the area of the Sauromatae whose land stretches for 15 days. North in this area, no trees grew. North of the treeless region is a heavily wooded area.
  22. Beyond the Budini, there’s a 7-day journey to the east to get to the Tyssagetae who live purely on hunting. Next to them are the Iyrcae who also live off hunting. They hunt by sitting up in a tree. They have horses trained to lie down & a dog nearby. When the hunter sees the prey, he fires an arrow, jumps down on the horse & chases after the animal with the dog following behind.
  23. There is a smooth plain with deep soil. Beyond that is a rugged & stony land. People there are so rough from living at the foot of the mountains that they are all born bald, have flat noses & long chins. They have a very different language but dress like Scythians. They live off the fruit of the Ponticum tree. They strain the fruit & drink the juice mixed with milk. They ferment it & make it into cakes because they don’t have much in the way of meat. No one bothers them because they’re considered sacred. They, the Argippaeans, are considered conflict mediators.
  24. We know this area is well-explored by the Scythians & Greeks. In order to speak with the people, they need 7 interpreters to translate the language a few times before it gets to Greek.
  25. Beyond these people, we don’t know very much. I don’t believe they have feet like goats or are men who hibernate half the year.
  26. The issedonians have special customs. When an old man dies, his relatives bring sheep to the house to be sacrificed. The sheep’s & the man’s flesh are mixed together at a banquet. They make his head into an ornament to be brought our yearly at the father-son festival. In these tribes, the women have just as much authority as the men.
  27. Beyond this region, we don’t know much. We’ve heard stories of the one-eyed Arimaspi fighting the gold-guarding griffin.
  28. The winters there are terrible. 8 months of the year, the ground is covered in frost. The sea & the Bosphorous freeze over. The trench-living Scythians travel on the ice to make war on the Sindians. The other 4 months of the year are still cool. There’s no rain in the winter but it never stops raining in the summer. The horses seem well-suited to the weather.
  29. It seems that the cold stops the oxen from growing horns as is true with most animals in the cold.
  30. In Elis, mules are never produced. That is from a curse – or possible from the fact that mares are taken into other regions to foal & then brought back to Elis.
  31. With respect to “feathers” that the Scythians say float in the air in northern regions – it’s probably just very thick snow that floats around like feathers.
  32. No one really knows much about the Hyperboreans. Rumors from Hesiod & Home are all we have.
  33. The only ones who can say much about the Hyperboreans are the Delians. Sometimes offerings are sent from the Hyperboreans into Scythia, & then are passed on & on until they reach the Adriatic. 2 damsels brought the first offerings protected by 5 men. They wrapped up the offerings in straw & brought them from one place only to be sent to another until they reach Delos.
  34. These damsels died in Delos. In their honor, Delian girls cut off their hair. Girls in Delos cut off a lock of their own hair before their wedding & put it on the damels’ grave, which has an olive tree growing over it.
  35. Once before those 2 girls, 2 other damsels made a similar trip to Ilithya but came at the same time as the Delian gods. They are invoked in a hymn. Ashes from the thigh bones of sacrifices are spread on their tomb behind the temple to Diana.
  36. Abaris is said to have been a Hyperborean. He’s said to have gone around the world with his arrow without eating even once. We hear about the Hypernotians. It’s ridiculous what passes for maps these days with Europe & Asia being the same size.
  37. The Persians’ land by the Erythraean Sea beyond the Medes, Saspirians & with the Colchians to the Northern Sea.
  38. West of these nations – beginning at the River Phasis, stretching along the Euxine & Hellespont to the Sigeum in the Troas. The Myriandrian Gulf joins up with Phoenicia to the Triopic promontory. The area is inhabited by 30 nations.
  39. The land from the Persians stretches into the Erythraean Sea, containing Persia, Assyria & Arabia. It ends at the Arabian Gulf. All this ends at Palestine-Syria at Egypt.
  40. Beyond Persian territory is what’s held by the Medes, Saspirians & Colchians, up to the Caspian Sea. It stretches to India & beyond that, there are no more inhabitants.
  41. Libya joins up next to Egypt. Egypt, the “land” is only 250 at its widest.
  42. It’s surprising that Libya, Asia & Europe were ever divided as they were. Europe is twice the length of the other 2. Libya is mostly by the sea, except when joined up to Asia between the Nile & the Arabian Gulf. Phoenicians left Egypt by the Erythraean Sea & sailed to the Southern Ocean. It took them 2 years to get around to Gibraltar.
  43. The Carthaginians did it too. Staspes was sent to do it but turned back because of the length & desolateness of the journey. He was about to be executed for beating up a girl when his mother intervened & asked if he could sail around Africa back to Egypt. King Xerxes allowed it. He went passed the Pillars of Hercules & went for a long time but turned back to Egypt. He reported to Xerxes about a dwarfish race who ran off when they landed. They returned because the ship could not go any further. Xerxes had him killed for not completing the trip. A eunuch ran off with his gold to Samos but the Samians took it from him.
  44. Darius was the discoverer of a lot of Asia. He wanted to know where the Indus emptied to the Sea & so followed it from Caspatyrus to the sea. It took 30 months to get from there until reaching Egypt. Darius conquered the Indians & made of the part of the sea his territory
  45. We don’t know much of the boundaries of Europe, maybe there’s a sea on the edge of it. Why are women’s names used in geography? Libya was a native woman. Asia was Prometheus’s wife. Lydians say that Lydia was his wife. So, we don’t know if Europe is surrounded by sea or where the name Europe comes from. Maybe from the Tyrian, Europé – but she was Asiatic.
  46. In the area of Scythia, not a single nation has any high repute or wisdom. The Scythians seem the wisest of the group in the sense that they’ve chosen a land that makes them pretty much invulnerable to invasion. They don’t have cities & their houses are easily moved, they can shoot from horseback. They live on cattle, not farming.
  47. The country is riddled by rivers, favoring their defense. There are some navigable rivers at some distance from the sea.
  48. The Ister (Danube) is the largest of their rivers. It maintains its levels in summer & winter. One tributary, Tiaranatus is of less volume & off to the best. It has 4 other tributaries.
  49. Agathyrsi people live near the River Maris. Thrace gives it 3 tributaries, all passing through the Crobyzian Thracian land. From Paeonia comes the Scius River & from Illyria comes the River Angrus, which waters the Triballian plain. The Ister receives water from the Carpis & Alpis from Umbria. It flows through Celtic lands.
  50. All these streams flow into the Ister. It’s one of the greatest rivers. While the Nile is much bigger, it has no tributaries to augment the volume like the Ister does. The Ister doesn’t rise & fall with the seasons. In winter, it’s fed by snow. In the summer, the snow from the mountains melts & feeds the river.
  51. The next big river is the Tyras (Dniester) which comes from a great lake which separates the Scythians from the Neuri.
  52. The next river is the Hypanis (Bug/Buh) which rises on the edge of Scythia from a lake. From here it is shallow for a 5 day journey & then it’s navigable to the sea (4 days). It is very bitter which comes from a spring where the Husbandmen live.
  53. The next is the Borysthenes (Dnieper), 2nd in size to the Ister. It feeds the fields & has lots of fish. It’s joined by the Hypanis where the land is called Cape Hippolaüs – there is a temple to Ceres.
  54. The Panticapes (Inhul) runs north & south & is occupied by the Scythians.
  55. The Hypancyris river is in the area of the nomadic Scythians.
  56. The Gerrhus (Molocha) divides the land between the nomadic & the Royal Scyths.
  57. The Tanais (Don) has its source far up north & empties into the Palus Maeotis, where the Royal Scythians are divided from the Sauromatae.
  58. These are the rivers of the region. The tall grass that grows here is said to generate more bile in the local animals.
  59. The Scythians have all the necessities for life. Their main gods are Vesta, Jupiter & Tellus. Then come Apollo, Venus, Hercules & Mars. The Royal Scythians hold Neptune in high regard. They only use images, altars or temples for the god, Mars.
  60. As for sacrifices, the victim’s front legs are bound. The person offering the victim pulls it with a rope, causing it to fall. He invokes the relevant god & puts a noose around its neck & strangles it. No fire, no consecration, no drink-offerings.
  61. Because Scythia has no firewood, they have a special way to boil the flesh. After deboning the animal, they put the flesh into the boiler & use the bones to light the fires. Sometimes they use the animal’s belly to hold the meat. Bones are great for burning. They mostly sacrifice horses instead of cattle.
  62. This is how sacrifices are made to gods other than Mars. Every region has a temple built to him where they do sacrifices this way… They build a pile of brushwood with 3 sides high & the 4th side sloped up to allow people to walk up. 150 wagonloads of wood are added to the pile. An old iron sword is put in the middle as an image of Mars. Sacrifices of horses & cattle are made annually. Sometimes prisoners of war are taken. 1 out of 100 are slaughtered & then their right hands are chopped off & thrown up into the air, possibly into the fire.
  63. The Scythians never use pigs for sacrifice. In fact, they don’t have any in their country at all
  64. The Scythian men drink the blood of their first kill in battle. They collect the heads of the slain in order to procure their share of the booty. Those who don’t have any heads don’t get any booty. They strip the skull of its scalp & hand them from their bridle reins as trophies. Right arms of enemies are used for quivers.
  65. The skulls are cut at the eyebrow level & the insides are cleaned out & the top is covered in leather. The rich line the insides with gold. They use it to drink from. They even do this with friends & relations who have turned against them.
  66. Once a year, the governor has a bowl of wine. If you’ve killed enemies you can drink from it. If not, you have to sit & watch in shame.
  67. Scythia has loads of soothsayers who use willow wands to wave & make predictions. They say them & then wrap the rods up in a bundle. The Enareas – women-like men – use the bark of a Linden tree & fiddle the pieces in their hands while making prophesies.
  68. When the king gets sick, he calls for 3 soothsayers & puts them to the test. Usually, they’ll blame the illness on someone close to him being a liar & making a false oath – very serious offense to them. The accused is arrest & told his accusation. If he denies the charge, the king sends for 6 other soothsayers to consult with. If they think he’s guilty, the accuser has to or gets to execute the accused & gets to take all of his possessions. If they think he’s innocent, the accuser is put to death.
  69. They do executions using a wagonload of brushwood. They tie the condemned man’s feet together, with his hands bound behind his back & his mouth gagged. They put him in the brushwood & light it on fire. The oxen get startled & run off. Sometimes the oxen burn up. Sometimes the oxen get away unharmed. When the king puts a diviner to death, he makes sure all of his sons die too. The females of the family are allowed to live.
  70. Oaths are sworn like this. A large bowl is filled with wine. The participants cut themselves to drip some blood into the wine. A sword, some arrows, a battle-axe & a javelin are thrown into the bowl. The men say prayers & drink from the bowl.
  71. The Kings’ tombs are in the land of the Gerrhi where the Borysthenes first becomes navigable. When one dies, they dig a grave. They put his body in there. Every man puts a piece of his ear & locks of their hair into the grave. They carve a circle around their arms & make lacerations on their foreheads & noses. They put arrows through the palms of their hands. The king’s body does a tour of the villages & returned to be buried with a concubine, his cupbearer, cook, groom, lackey, messenger, horses – all of which have to be killed before being placed with the body. The put a good amount of his possessions in with him. Then they bury him, trying to make the mound as high as possible.
  72. After a year, 50 of the king’s attendants are taken & strangled, as are 50 horses. Their bowels are cleaned out, filled with chaff & sewn up. The horses & men are run through with stakes & made to look like horseback riders in action, all surrounding the grave.
  73. When a normal person dies, he is taken around to his family. Each family member puts on a banquet for him, where a piece of him is served with the rest of the food. They do this for 40 days. The family purify themselves & put up a tent with red hot stones & throw hemp seeds on them.
  74. Hemp grows in Scythia. It’s like flax but rougher. Thracians make clothes of it that are like linen.
  75. The Scythians take the hempseeds & throw them on the hot stones. It smokes up & gives off a vapor like no other. They use it instead of a bath because they rarely get to use water baths. The women make a mixture of cypress, cedar & frankincense wood. They pound it into a paste & rub it all over their bodies.
  76. The Scythians hate foreign customs, especially Greek ones. Anacharsis went to Cyzicus & walked in on a festival of the Mother of the Gods. He was made to make a vow to her that if he got back home safely, he’d give her a festival. When he got to Scythia, he told the king, Saulius, what he’d seen. He would go into an area called the “Woodland” & performed sacred rites with images. He was seen doing this & reported to the king, who had him killed. They claim not to know who he is or was.
  77. There’s a similar story that Anacharsis was sent down to Greece to learn about the place & when he wrote back, he said that the Greeks had a lot more knowledge than they did in Scythia. He was probably killed for going native.
  78. Scylas had a similar fate. Ariapithes, the Scythian king, was son to a Greek woman from Istria. He was very familiar with the Greek language & customs. He was killed & his son, Scylas, became king. Scylas also preferred the Greek way of life. Whenever he went never the town of the Borysthenites – a Greek colony – he’d leave the army for a month or so & hang out just to be Greek for a bit. He even had a house built & took a Greek wife. He did his best not to get caught. Afterwards, he’d go back to being a Scythian.
  79. He wanted to be initiated in the Bacchic rites. In his Greek house, he had lots of Greek statues & ornaments – all very expensive. The Scythians had a particular hatred for the god Bacchus because they thought he made men go crazy. He eventually let it slip that he knew lots about Greek culture. The Scythians began to suspect him & followed him to see him in his double life. The army got wind of this.
  80. As Scylas was going back home, the Scythians revolted & replaced him with Octamasadas. Scylas ran off to Thrace. Octamasadas followed him down there to the Ister River. Thracian troops met the Scythians. They were about to engage in battle when the Thracians sent a message to Octamasadas that instead of losing a lot of men on the battlefield over a nothing, it’d be better if they exchanged Scylas for the brother of the Thracian general, Sitacles. They agreed to this. Once Octamasadas got his hands on Scylas, he beheaded him on the spot.
  81. I’m not sure about the population numbers of Scythia. They have conducted censuses but I don’t have any numbers.
  82. The most remarkable thing about the land itself is its size. Other than that, they’ve showed me a footprint they claim is Hercules’s but 3 cubits long – somewhere near Tyras.

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