Death Rituals of Scythia

Many of us living in towns and cities are somewhat insulated from death. Our chicken comes pre-packaged, neatly presented and devoid of feathers, feet or a head. We rarely hunt for our protein and animal slaughter is outsourced to a factory worker. Consequently, reminders of death are often demoted to observing the occasional pigeon or rat carcass along our daily commute.

Even with our modern detachment from death, it is an inevitability of the human condition. At some point we will lose loved ones and find ourselves staring vacantly at the ceiling from the death bed. Arranging and attending a funeral offers a special chance to pay respect to the departed and formalise closure within its rituals; whether it is a torrent of grief, a festivity of the person’s life, or both. If a Scythian from the fifth century were to step inside a time machine to visit us, they would be much surprised by our modern takes on death. Their nomadic worldview was epitomised by life and death, by predator and prey.

Narrating history

Barry Cunliffe’s book ‘The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe’ provides an illuminating insight into the funerary practices of this nomadic group. Scythians inhabited and migrated along the great steppes of Eurasia; stretching from the Danube, across the Caspian Basin, towards the Altai Mountains which punctuate the edges of western China. The book’s section on death heavily focuses on the Greek historian Herodotus’ accounts of Scythian burial practices from the fifth century CE.

We should cautiously note that Herodotus would likely have had in mind two different realms; one inhabited by Greeks and the rest by barbarians (barbaroi). Francois Hartog argues Herodotus’ writings on Scythia were placed “in order within the context of Greek knowledge, and, in so doing, constructed for the Greeks a representation of their own recent past”.[1] Essentially, Herodotus may have embellished Scythian practices to present a barbarian ‘other’ to juxtapose against the civilised Greek ‘self’. In this respect, we should view Herodotus’ works as literary pieces marketed towards Greek audiences rather than actual historical observations.

Nevertheless, Hyun Jin Kim asserts that Herodotus’ accounts are concordant with Scythian archaeological findings as well as social customs of other Central Asian nomads, often overlooked by Eurocentric scholarship on Scythia.[2] This is not to say Herodotus did not employ artistic license, but his works are far from the fairy tales assumed by Hartog and other neo-historicist sceptics.  

A funeral to remember

For the Scythians, death was bifurcated into two features: the death of the body and the transmigration of the soul afterwards. Bodily death was simple; it was the cessation of a person’s physical activity. The soul, however, wafted around the corpse and a proper burial would be required to prevent the spirit from causing mischief in the human realm. According to Scythian tradition it takes the soul up to forty days to fully disentangle itself from its body and the surrounding environs. This viewpoint was common among Indo-European cultures and is a widely held belief of many Eastern Orthodox Christians.[3]

Scythian funeral rites varied depending on the geographical location, era and social status of the deceased. Herodotus describes a forty day custom of Pontic Steppe Scythians from southern Ukraine and Russia. This involved placing the dead body in a wagon and trotting it out to various houses who would host feasts and offer their meals to the dead.

Before the tour, the person’s intestines and stomach were removed and some corpses had their brain matter withdrawn through punctures in the head. The skin was coated with wax which prevented flies from laying eggs and the resulting maggots which would hasten decay. The body’s empty cavity was then filled with fragrant herbs such as anise, incense and celery seed to help mask any smell.[4] This is likely because the odour of the putrefied corpse would be unbearable, especially if you had the pleasure of sitting beside the guest of honour during mealtime. Finally, to ensure the body kept its form, horse hair was stuffed in the empty cavities, including the skull.

Comforts for the next world

When a Scythian died they would take with them some worldly comforts to the next realm. Archaeological findings from burial sites include spears, clothing, jewellery, amphorae and bronze cauldrons. Furthermore, royals and nobles would be buried with horses, demonstrating the importance of the steed in taming the vast steppes and, presumably, the afterlife. In some cases, horses in a single burial site were found to originate from different regions, suggesting they were funerary gifts from neighbouring tribes. In the South Caucasus, Scythian and Cimmerian burial mounds contained skeletons of wolves or dogs and even the teeth of two lions.[5]

4th century BCE Scythian golden gorytos found in Melitopol Kurgan (Ukraine), VoidWanderer, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Horrifyingly, for those of higher social standing, trinkets and horses would not be sufficient to entertain the soul – they would require human company too. Herodotus claims a concubine would be strangled and buried with the king after the forty day mourning period. A year after the burial Herodotus notes:

They take the most suitable of the rest of the attendants […] they strangle fifty of them and fifty of the finest horses and, having removed their entrails, clean them and fill them with chaff and sew them up […] They mount each of the fifty strangled youths on the horses, mounting them in this way: they drive an upright stake through the body along the spine to the neck, and fix the end of this stake projecting from below the body into a hole made in the other stake that passes through the horse[6]

It was not only equestrians who would join their ruler in the grave as some Scythian burial mounds, known as kurgans, feature the bodies of cupbearers, serfs and carvers. It is difficult to determine the agency of the king’s entourage; did they go willingly into their master’s grave and were they accorded their own funerary rites? What is clear is that the bereaved were desperate to make certain the king’s soul would have enough pleasures in the afterlife to prevent it wreaking mayhem on the living.

Monuments to the departed

The Scythians of Herodotus’ time would bury their dead in quadrangular pits. Later on, these pits would include entrances and contain various wooden and stone shafts. After digging out the pit, the body would be lowered inside, often with spears placed on either side of the body. The architects and workers would then build wooden beams above the corpse to create a roof.

The roof would be topped with vegetation from nearby grasslands and may have poetically symbolised the royal taking his pasture with him into death.[7] Cunliffe estimates that a hundred thousand square metres of grass would have been cleared to obtain the required organic material for the Tovsta Mohlya kurgan, one of the smaller mounds.[8] The size of these kurgans also corresponded with the social status of the dead; larger mounds indicated a more important person – where the Pontic Steppe kurgans could be between twelve to fifteen metres high.

Aerial view of kurgans, Boris Rezvantsev, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is likely the kurgans served the function of legitimacy because of the amount of energy expended by the living to create these mounds. Communal effort into building these structures represented commitment on the part of the tribe to their leader and community. When the Persian emperor Darius challenged the Scythian king Idanthyrsus to battle, the Scythian leader boldly announced the tombs’ significance to his people:

We Scythians have neither towns nor cultivated lands, which might induce us, through fear of their being taken or ravaged, to be in any hurry to fight with you. If, however, you must needs come to blows with us speedily, look you now, there are our fathers’ tombs – seek them out, and attempt to meddle with them – then ye shall see whether or not we will fight with you.[9]

A painful grieving process

So far we have examined a bizarre embalming practice, the violent ritual burial of surviving community members and the pharaonic kurgans built to provide everlasting comfort. This raises a key question – what would happen to those fortunate enough not to be buried alongside their master or mistress? The survivors would demonstrate their loyalty to the tribe and the departed by partaking in acts of self-mutilation. Herodotus argues the bereaved would:

[…] cut off a part of their ears, crop their hair close, cut around their arms, slash their foreheads and noses, and pierce their left hands with arrows[10]

This claim may sound far-fetched but Kim notes this unusual form of mourning was found among other Eurasian nomads. Following Atilla the Hun’s death, in 453CE, the mourners:

[…] plucked out the hair of their heads and made their faces hideous with deep wounds, that the renowned warrior might be mourned, not by effeminate wailings and tears, but by the blood of men[11]

To mark the end of the grieving period the bereaved would enter a tent, place hemp seeds on hot stones and inhale the vapours – an ancient hotbox of sorts. This is surmised to be an act of purification or, more likely, a form of catharsis to ease the traumas associated with such a torturous grieving process. Returning to our Scythian time traveller, it would not be presumptuous for them to think our modern funerals are jubilant parties compared to their petrifying rituals of death.


References

Featured Image: Scythian Gold Comb from the Solokha Kurgan, Levan Ramishvili from Tbilisi, Georgia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Kim, Hyun Jin. “Herodotus’ Scythians viewed from a central Asian perspective: Its historicity and significance.” Anc West East 9 (2010): p.122

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p.127

[4] Cunliffe, Barry. The Scythians: Nomad warriors of the steppe. Oxford University Press, USA, 2019. p.295

[5] Tumanyan, Garegin S. “Cimmerian and Scythian Funerary Rituals in the South Caucasus.” Near Eastern Archaeology 80, no. 3 (2017): pp.196-201.

[6] Cunliffe, “The Scythians”, p.306

[7] Parzinger, Hermann. “Burial mounds of Scythian elites in the Eurasian steppe: New discoveries.” Journal of the British Academy 5 (2017): p.332

[8] Cunliffe, “The Scythians”, p.305

[9] Piotrovsky, Boris. From the Lands of Scythians: Ancient Treasures from the Museums of the USSR, 3000 BC–100 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1975. p.147

[10] Cunliffe, “The Scythians”, p.297

[11] Kim, “Herodotus’ Scythians”, p.128

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