The Scythians​—A Mysterious People of the Past

GALLOPING through the dust, their saddlebags bulging with booty, came the cavalry of a nomadic nation. This mysterious people held sway over the steppes of Eurasia from about 700 to 300 B.C.E. Then they disappeared​—but only after securing a place in history. There is a trace of them even in the Bible. They were the Scythians.

For centuries, nomads and herds of wild horses had roamed the grasslands stretching from the Carpathian Mountains of eastern Europe to what is now southeastern Russia. By the eighth century B.C.E., military action taken by the Chinese Emperor Hsüan triggered migrations to the west. Moving westward, the Scythians fought and drove out the Cimmerians, who controlled the Caucasus and the area north of the Black Sea.

Seeking wealth, the Scythians sacked the Assyrian capital, Nineveh. Later, they allied themselves with Assyria against Media, Babylonia, and other nations. Their attacks touched even northern Egypt. The fact that the city of Beth-shan in northeastern Israel was later called Scythopolis may indicate a period of Scythian occupation.​—1 Samuel 31:11, 12.

Eventually, the Scythians settled in the steppes of present-day Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, and southern Russia. There they grew wealthy, serving as middlemen between the Greeks and the grain producers of present-day Ukraine and southern Russia. The Scythians traded grain, honey, fur, and cattle in exchange for Greek wine, textiles, weapons, and works of art. They thus amassed fabulous riches.

 Formidable Horsemen

For these warriors of the steppe, the horse was what the camel has been for people of the desert. The Scythians were excellent horsemen and were among the first to use the saddle and stirrup. They ate the flesh of horses and drank mare’s milk. In fact, they used horses for burnt offerings. When a Scythian warrior died, his horse was killed and given an honorable burial​—complete with harness and trappings.

As portrayed by the historian Herodotus, the Scythians were given to sadistic customs, which included using the skulls of their victims as drinking cups. Storming their enemies, they decimated them with iron swords, battle-axes, spears, and barbed arrows that tore flesh.

Tombs Outfitted for Eternity

The Scythians practiced witchcraft and shamanism and worshiped fire and a mother goddess. (Deuteronomy 18:10-12) They regarded the tomb as a dwelling for the dead. Slaves and animals were sacrificed for the dead master’s use. Treasure and household retainers supposedly accompanied chieftains into the “next world.” In one royal tomb, five menservants were found lying with their feet toward the master, ready to rise and resume their duties.

Rulers were buried with lavish offerings, and during periods of mourning, the Scythians spilled their blood and cut off their hair. Herodotus wrote: “They cut off a part of their ears, shave their heads, make cuts round their arms, tear their foreheads and noses, and pierce their left hands with arrows.” In contrast, God’s Law to the Israelites of the same era commanded: “You must not make cuts in your flesh for a deceased soul.”​—Leviticus 19:28.

The Scythians left behind thousands of kurgans (burial mounds). Many ornaments found in the kurgans depict everyday Scythian life. Russian Czar Peter the Great began to collect such items in 1715, and these glittering objects can now be seen in museums in Russia and Ukraine. This “animal art” includes horses, eagles, falcons, cats, panthers, elk, deer, bird-griffins, and lion-griffins (mythological creatures having the winged or wingless body of one animal and the head of another).

Scythians and the Bible

The Bible makes only one direct reference to Scythians. At Colossians 3:11, we read: “There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, foreigner, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all things and in all.” When the Christian apostle Paul wrote those words, the Greek term rendered “Scythian” implied, not a specific nation, but the worst of uncivilized people. Paul was stressing that under the influence of Jehovah’s holy spirit, or active force, even such individuals could put on a godly personality.​—Colossians 3:9, 10.

Some archaeologists believe that the name Ashkenaz found at Jeremiah 51:27 is the  equivalent of the Assyrian Ashguzai, a term that was applied to the Scythians. Cuneiform tablets cite an alliance between this people and the Mannai in a revolt against Assyria in the seventh century B.C.E. Just before Jeremiah began to prophesy, the Scythians harmlessly passed by the land of Judah on their way to and from Egypt. Hence, many who had heard him foretell an assault on Judah from the north may have questioned the accuracy of his prophecy.​—Jeremiah 1:13-15.

Certain scholars think that there is an allusion to the Scythians at Jeremiah 50:42, which reads: “Bow and javelin they handle. They are cruel and will show no mercy. The sound of them is like the sea that is boisterous, and upon horses they will ride; set in array as one man for war against you, O daughter of Babylon.” But this verse applies primarily to the Medes and the Persians, who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E.

It has been suggested that “the land of Magog” referred to in Ezekiel chapters 38 and 39 pertains to the Scythian tribes. However, “the land of Magog” has a symbolic significance. It evidently refers to the vicinity of the earth, to which Satan and his angels were consigned after the war in heaven.​—Revelation 12:7-17.

The Scythians were involved in the fulfillment of Nahum’s prophecy foretelling the overthrow of Nineveh. (Nahum 1:1, 14) The Chaldeans, the Scythians, and the Medes sacked Nineveh in 632 B.C.E., causing the downfall of the Assyrian Empire.

A Mysterious Decline

The Scythians have disappeared but why? “The truth is, we simply don’t know what happened,” says a leading Ukrainian archaeologist. Some believe that softened by their taste for opulence they succumbed in the first and second centuries B.C.E. to a new group of nomads from Asia​—the Sarmatians.

Others think that strife among Scythian clans led to their decline. Still others say that a remnant of the Scythians may be found among the Ossetians of the Caucasus. In any case, this mysterious people of the past left a mark on human history​—one that made the name Scythian a synonym for cruelty.

[Map on page 24]

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□ Ancient City

• Modern City

Danube

SCYTHIA MIGRATION ROUTE

• Kiev

Dnieper

Dniester

Black Sea

OSSETIA

Caucasus Mountains

Caspian Sea

ASSYRIA ← INVASION ROUTES

□ Nineveh

Tigris

MEDIA ← INVASION ROUTES

MESOPOTAMIA

BABYLONIA ← INVASION ROUTES

□ Babylon

Euphrates

PERSIAN EMPIRE

□ Susa

Persian Gulf

PALESTINE

• Beth-shan (Scythopolis)

EGYPT ← INVASION ROUTES

Nile

Mediterranean Sea

GREECE

[Pictures on page 25]

The Scythians were a warring people

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The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg

[Pictures on page 26]

The Scythians traded their goods for Greek works of art and became very wealthy

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Courtesy of the Ukraine Historic Treasures Museum, Kiev