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

The Byzantine Silk Heist

Attending a wedding or preparing for a job interview often requires a silk tie, yet little thought is given to this piece of cloth other than its colour and that it feels different to an iron-pressed cotton shirt. Silk’s simplicity conceals its historical importance, where wars have been fought in pursuit of this lustrous commodity. To illustrate, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, hungry for silk, decided to invade the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen in order to secure uninterrupted sea shipments between India and Byzantine-administered Egypt.[1]

The importance of silk

Why would a war be waged over access to silk? In trade, silk was a substitute currency; east Mediterranean merchants could use silk to pay for a transaction in lieu of coinage whereas shipwreck survivors would be required to forfeit any salvaged silk as compensation for cargo losses. When dyed with the broken shells of the murex snail, silk would form a brilliant purple fit only for the emperor and imperial elite. The ones which weren’t dyed purple would be marketed towards wealthy and middle class citizens along with members of the clergy.

Silk also served diplomatic purposes. It helped deter enemies as indicated when emperor Constantine IX, in 1045, sent a thousand silk costumes to Caliph al-Mustansir to stave off a military attack. Crucially, silk helped Byzantium cement alliances, including one with Vladimir the Great of Rus’.[2] Between the years 907 and 971 Byzantium intensified its diplomatic relations with Rus’; where a marriage between emperor Basil II’s daughter Anna and the Rus’ Grand Prince Vladimir the Great culminated in the Christianisation of Rus’. Silk played a significant role in building this alliance; Rus’ merchants were given priority access to Byzantine silk items, Rus’ citizens who lost their slaves in Byzantine territory would be compensated with silk and a delegation even insisted on silk sails for their ships.[3] In return, Rus’ pledged its military support to the empire, most notably seen when Rus’ soldiers intervened to quell an Anatolian uprising which threatened to dethrone emperor Basil II in 988.

Rus’-Byzantine Treaty of 911, Radziwiłł Letopis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A tale of two heists

Let us return to the fourth century era of Justinian I, where we notice the emperor is faced with a puzzle. Without an established domestic silk industry, much of the empire’s silk was imported from China using an overland trade route via Persia. At the best of times, Persia was a fickle competitor, and consequently Byzantine was often mired by silk shortages. Shipments through the Red Sea would also face stiff competition from Persian traders or be hindered by hostile polities like the Himyarite Kingdom. Thus, there was an urgency to determine the secret behind sericulture, or the production of silk worms.

Fifth century Byzantine historians dispute the means in which sericulture was introduced to the empire. Procopius argues Christian monks from India, having learned of emperor Justinian’s dismay at Persia’s silk blockade, smuggled silkworm eggs hidden in dung into the empire. However, according to Theophanes, it was Persians from the land of Seres who presented emperor Justinian with silkworm eggs which had been impressively concealed within walking sticks.[4] The Theophanes account raises questions as to why Persians would provide their trade secrets to their Byzantine nemesis; I can only think it was opportunism or spite.

A complicated business

Both accounts are very likely to be colourful myths due to evidence of sericulture in Byzantine Syria prior to the heist. Nonetheless, analysing domestic sericulture provides a great insight into pre-modern economies. Byzantium’s silk production entailed a strict division of labour. Sericulturists would be responsible for rearing the silkworms and the production of yarns. This gave rise to the ancillary industry of mulberry growers because silkworms which were fed on mulberry leaves yielded the highest quality commercial silk.  

The sericulturists would send their yarns to private and government-run silk guilds which comprised a collection of weavers, dyers, embroiders and silk printers. The government-run guilds had evolved from the voluntary associations of the Roman Empire into compulsory public service corporations entirely controlled by the Byzantine state.[5] As a consequence of the strict policing of sericulture by the state, the government increased its tax base and revenues, whilst regulating silk imports and exports allowed it to manipulate foreign markets. Importantly, the sale of silk made certain the empire was inundated with foreign gold, whereas financial mismanagement of silk negatively affected its balance of trade.

Private guilds, like their government counterparts, had to address the dilemma of the significant level of seasonal capital demanded by the trade along with securing steady supplies of raw material. Lacking state funding, private guilds acted as cartels, where resources were pooled among members. This allowed them to collectively purchase silk at lower prices than if each guild-member attempted to negotiate by themselves. The cartels also ensured a fair distribution of silk by allowing poorer members to buy from the affluent at a predetermined profit margin. The 10th century Book of the Prefect outlined how private guilds paid utmost attention to product quality and had measures to prevent unethical behaviour among their membership, not too dissimilar to modern quality control practices in businesses.[6]

As we have seen, silk was a very important commodity replete with material and symbolic significance. It helped form a tapestry of alliances, augmented economies and generated resource wars. With all of this in mind, in the mad rush prior to my next job interview, I’ll be sure to better appreciate my tie.


References

Featured image: Emperor Justinian and his retinue, Basilica of San Vitale. Courtesy of Roger Culos, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


[1] Liu, Xinru. The Silk Road in world history. Oxford University Press, 2010. pp. 62-86.

[2] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “Silk, power and diplomacy in Byzantium.” (1992).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Muthesius, Anna Maria. “The Byzantine silk industry: Lopez and beyond.” Journal of Medieval History 19, no. 1-2 (1993): 1-67.

[5] Ibid.

Tsarist Russia’s Indian Merchants

The city of Astrakhan sits on a delta, not too far from where the Volga River empties into the Caspian Sea. In modern Russia it is an industrial city known for its fish processing and as a regional administrative centre. Yet, in the 17th century, Astrakhan had a far more glamorous role, owing to its position on a geographical crossroad between Russia and lucrative Asian markets.

A warm welcome

During the Time of Troubles (1598-1613), Russia experienced enormous socio-political upheaval characterised by the end of the 800-year old Rurikid ruling dynasty, numerous pretenders to the Tsarist throne and foreign interventions by neigbouring powers. Once the chaos subsided, Russian officials faced the predicament of building an economy depleted by famine and war. To increase customs revenues and ensure the flow of foreign silver into the empire, the Russian state encouraged foreign merchants to settle in Astrakhan, a city conquered by Ivan the Terrible nearly seven decades prior.

Non-Russians dominated the imports and exports trade in Astrakhan, among whom were merchants hailing from Mughal India. By 1725, there were 209 Indians residing in Astrakhan and engaging in local banking, mercantilism and moneylending. Additionally, the need to interact with the resident Turkic and Russian communities necessitated the hiring of interpreters.1 The Russian state cautiously allowed merchants to practice religious rites; where merchants could employ private cooks (likely to meet strict vegetarian diets) and were even allowed to cremate the dead, even if it alarmed local Christians.2

The mercantile community mainly imported Persian textiles into Russia; a 1638 Russian customs report found one merchant carried up to 28 varieties of silk and cotton. Similar to European markets, Mughal Indian consumers valued Russian furs. However, unlike their European counterparts there was a lower demand for Russian forest products in India. Instead, Mughal elites coveted luxury goods such as gyrfalcons, walrus tusks and Borzoi dogs.

The transcontinental trader’s dilemma

Between the 16th and 17th century Astrakhan’s Indian merchants formed part of a wider Persianate world, where the Persian language facilitated international trade stretching from Bengal to southern Russia’s borders. Trade routes could encompass distances as long as 3,600 kilometres, and this required enormous levels of trust between traders. To better understand how Indian merchants would have imported and exported under such uncertainty, I will introduce transaction costs; which are costs incurred to accomplish a trade.

Firstly, participants in a transaction need to address search and information costs; that is the costs of finding a trading partner and to market their goods. Subsequent bargaining and decision costs involves the ironing out of a contract which is agreeable to the respective trading parties. Finally, policing and enforcement costs ensure the contract is not broken and there is a recourse to action should a default occur.3 Trading is difficult enough for a modern-day seller who uses eBay to peddle old revision guides and, arguably, Astrakhan’s merchants faced much more manifold challenges.

A Caravan by Ilya Zankovsky, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Indian merchants would mainly operationalise Commenda agreements to reduce the transaction costs associated with long-distance trades. These were straightforward contracts where one or many merchants would provide capital for the business venture and traders, who lacked funds for investments, would need to fulfill the potentially life-threatening task of marketing or delivering the merchandise. If successful, the profits would be divided; where two thirds went to the investors and one third to the trader.4 On the other hand, if an attack on a caravan led to the endeavour’s failure, the investor would lose their money, whilst the trader risked losing their life. The 17th century merchant would be faced with an impasse: how could they find a trustworthy business partner who would not renege on their contract? It would be incredibly tempting for a trader to dash off with expensive merchandise they have not paid for.

The answer to this may lie in the 1747 Russian Census which revealed, out of the 51 Indian merchants residing in the Astrakhan, nearly half originated from a single city; Multan, whilst most other came from nearby areas in southern Punjab. Stephen Frederic Dale asserts that the Multani Hindu merchants would most likely have been from the Punjabi Khatri caste whereas Muslim traders would have hailed from the Pashtun ethnic group.5 Furthermore, there was a familial aspect to these firms too; five pairs of brothers conducted joint trade within Astrakhan and twelve Astrakhan Indians received goods from uncles or brothers in the Gilan province of Iran.

Membership of the same caste meant prospective firm partners were usually employed in the same profession, consequently their skills could be easily verified. In place of complicated contracts, kinship also provided a set of common cultural norms and allowed for mutual peer-monitoring. Furthermore, transaction costs associated with rule-breaking could be met with enforceable sanctions, including exclusion from the community.6 This ultimately encouraged prolonged economic interactions between Indian merchants, whilst discouraging opportunism associated with uncertainty. Similar kinship firms were also found among the Indian merchants’ Armenian contemporaries who originated from a single suburb of Isfahan in Iran, yet dominated the lucrative Indian Ocean silk trade.7

Protectionism and decline

Astrakhan’s Indian merchants kept business within the family as a response to trading in an uncertain environment. Yet, these same firms proved to be quite dynamic in the face of state pressures. Whilst Indian merchants were initially welcomed by Russian officials, Peter the Great’s introduction of the New Trade Regulations posed a serious financial challenge. The protectionist measures bestowed special trading privileges to Russians, Turks and Armenians, whilst Indians would have to pay extra custom duties, thus introducing new transaction costs. Indian firms would bypass these regulations by intermittently increasing their firm’s size, through recruiting Armenians and Russians, who would act as intermediaries for their business.

Whilst Russia’s protectionist measures discouraged Indian traders, it was external socio-political processes which ultimately debilitated Astrakhan’s mercantile activity. The sudden collapse of the Safavid empire in 1722 interrupted Multani trade networks within Iran, resulting in a rapid dwindling of Astrakhan’s Indian population. The slower disintegration of the Mughal empire had disrupted Multan itself and by 1850, Astrakhan’s Indian community had all but vanished.


References

Featured image: ‘Astrakhan in Russia’ in Rambaud’s Russia, volume 2 (1898), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

1 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

2 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

3 Dahlman, Carl J. “The problem of externality.” The journal of law and economics 22, no. 1 (1979): 141-162.

4 Dale, Stephen Frederic. Indian merchants and Eurasian trade, 1600-1750. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

5 Ibid.

6 Gopal, Surendra. “A Brief Note on Business Organisation of Indian Merchants in Russia in the 17th Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient/Journal de l’histoire economique et sociale de l’Orient (1986): 205-212.

7 Aslanian, Sebouh. From the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. University of California Press, 2011.