Scythian religion refers to the mythology, ritual practices and beliefs of the Scythians, an ancient Iranian people who dominated Central Asia and the Pontic-Caspian steppe in Eastern Europe throughout Classical Antiquity. What little is known of the religion is drawn from the work of the 5th century Greek historian and ethnographer Herodotus. Scythian religion is assumed to have been related to the earlier Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, and to have influenced later Slavic, Hungarian and Turkic mythologies, as well as some contemporary Eastern Iranian and Ossetian traditions.
The primary archaeological context of horse sacrifice are burials, notably chariot burials, but graves with horse remains reach from the Eneolithic well into historical times. Herodotus describes the execution of horses at the burial of a Scythian king, and Iron Age kurgan graves known to contain horses number in the hundreds.
According to Herodotus, the Scythians worshipped a pantheon of seven gods and goddesses (heptad), which he equates with Greek divinities of Classical Antiquity following the interpretatio graeca. He mentions eight deities in particular, the eighth being worshipped by the Royal Scythians, and gives the Scythian names for seven of them as follows:
- Agin - Ares
- Tabiti - Hestia
- Papaios - Zeus
- Api - Gaia
- Oitosyros - Apollo
- Argimpasa - Aphrodite Urania
- Thagimasidas - Poseidon
The mode of Scythian sacrifice was, in the opinion of Herodotus, relatively simple. Sacrificial victims included various kinds of livestock, though the most prestigious offering was considered to be the horse. The pig, on the other hand, was never offered in sacrifice, and apparently the Scythians were loath to keep swine within their lands. Herodotus describes the Scythian manner of sacrifice as follows:
The victim stands with its fore-feet tied, and the sacrificing priest stands behind the victim, and by pulling the end of the cord he throws the beast down; and as the victim falls, he calls upon the god to whom he is sacrificing, and then at once throws a noose round its neck, and putting a small stick into it he turns it round and so strangles the animal, without either lighting a fire or making any first offering from the victim or pouring any libation over it: and when he has strangled it and flayed off the skin, he proceeds to boil it. [...] Then when the flesh is boiled, the sacrificer takes a first offering of the flesh and of the vital organs and casts it in front of him.
Worship of "Agin"
Although Tabiti was apparently the most important deity in the Scythian pantheon, the worship accorded to the deity Herodotus refers to as "Agin" was unique. He notes that "it is not their custom [...] to make images, altars or temples to any except Agin, but to him it is their custom to make them". He describes the construction of the altar and the subsequent sacrifice as follows:
In each district of the several governments they have a temple of Agin set up in this way: bundles of brushwood are heaped up for about three furlongs in length and in breadth, but less in height; and on the top of this there is a level square made, and three of the sides rise sheer but by the remaining one side the pile may be ascended. Every year they pile on a hundred and fifty wagon-loads of brushwood, for it is constantly settling down by reason of the weather. Upon this pile of which I speak each people has an ancient iron sword set up, and this is the sacred symbol of Agin. To this sword they bring yearly offerings of cattle and of horses; and they have the following sacrifice in addition, beyond what they make to the other gods, that is to say, of all the enemies whom they take captive in war they sacrifice one man in every hundred, not in the same manner as they sacrifice cattle, but in a different manner: for they first pour wine over their heads, and after that they cut the throats of the men, so that the blood runs into a bowl; and then they carry this up to the top of the pile of brushwood and pour the blood over the sword. This, I say, they carry up; and meanwhile below by the side of the temple they are doing thus: they cut off all the right arms of the slaughtered men with the hands and throw them up into the air, and then when they have finished offering the other victims, they go away; and the arm lies wheresoever it has chanced to fall, and the corpse apart from it.
Herodotus writes that the chief deity of the Scythians was Tabiti, the goddess of the hearth, and was equivalent, he says, to the Greek goddess Hestia. Tabiti means "the one who heats" and perhaps symbolises the sacred element of fire, being linked to the cult of fire. The origin of the word is uncertain, however various etymological attempts have been proposed:
- German linguist Harald Haarmann derives "Tabiti" from the Proto-Indo-European word root *tap- ("heat up; stir up (of fire)") and lists Old Iranian tapayati ("the one who stirs up the fire") as a cognate term. Further cognates include Russian топить (tapíť, tòpiti, "to heat"), Latin tepidus ("warm"), Hittite tapašša ("heat, fever"), Irish tine, Cymric tán ("fire") and Avestan tafnu- ("fever").
- Turkish-Tatar Etruscologist Adile Ayda derives "Tabiti" from the Turkic word tap, tabynu ("to worship"), corroborated by Etruscan than, to beseech with the Etruscan version of the God(dess) Tabiti.
- Montclair State University Professor H. Mark Hubey connects "Tabiti" with a whole host of Turkic words related to fire, heating, metal working, fire-worship and branding, specifically beginning with the roots tap-/tab-/tam-/tep-/tev-/tem-, forming words such as: tıbır ("hearth, fireplace"), temir ("iron"), taba ("frying pan"), tabak/tepir/tevsi/tepsi ("metal plate, dish"), tamĝa ("stamp, brand"), tab/tap ("scar, mark on the body"), tabın/tapın ("to worship"), tablaw ("forging; smithery"), tap- ("service"), tam ("home, hearth, fire"), tamū ("hell"), tav ("proper heat"), taŋ ("sky, sunrise, daylight"), kav ("tinder"), tıbır ("hearth"). Although it is said that many of these words are borrowed from Persian, Hubey argues that there is a great deal of evidence to show these words and others like it were not borrowed from Iranian but the reverse, since these words are also related to the words for forging, which are commonly rooted in the proposed Proto-Altaic root words *t`áp`à ("to worship"), *t`ébo ("to help, assist, serve"), *t`ep`V ("warm, to burn"). Hubey further connects these Turkic words with the Hurrian root tab-/taw- ("to cast metal"), Sumerian tibira ("iron") and Etruscan Tiber ("iron mines on the river Tiber").
The Enarei were a privileged caste of hereditary priests which played an important political role in Scythian society as they were believed to have received the gift of prophesy directly from the goddess Argimpasa. The method employed by the Enarei differed from that practised by traditional Scythian diviners: whereas the latter used a bundle of willow rods, the Enarei used strips cut from the bark of the linden tree (genus tilia) to tell the future. The Enarei were also noted for dressing themselves in the clothes of women, a custom which Herodotus understands as being reflected in the title ena-rei, glossing this as ἀνδρό-γυνοι or "man-women", from Turkic Anair or Enar (womenlike man/to castrate/to lose his manhood).
- Abaris the Hyperborean
- Horse sacrifice
- Issyk kurgan
- Kurgan stelae
- Paleo-Balkanic mythology
- Scythian art
- Macaulay (1904:314). Cf. also Rolle (1980:128-129); Hort (1827:188-190).
- Macaulay (1904:315).
- Macaulay (1904:314).
- Sulimirski (1985:158-159).
- Hdt. 4.59.
- G. Dumézil, Romans de Scythie et d'alentour (Paris, 1978), p.143.
- Mariko Namba Walter, Eva Jane Neumann Fridman, Shamanism: An Encyclopedia of World Beliefs, Practices, and Culture, Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2004, page 605.
- Christoph Baumer, The History of Central Asia: The Age of the Steppe Warriors, I.B.Tauris, 2012, p.236
- Harald Haarmann, Skythisch, 1. Geschichte und Kultur der Skythen. p.920.
- Adile Ayda, Etrüskler (Tursakalar) Türk idiler. İlmî Deliller. Ankara: 1992.
- H. M. Hubey, Akkadian and Prototurkic, First chapter e.g. Akkadian words beginning with /a/. Version 1a. 2003, In: Uysal - Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative.
- Starostin, Sergei; Dybo, Vladimir; Mudrak, Oleg (2003). "*t`áp`à". Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers.
- Starostin, Sergei; Dybo, Vladimir; Mudrak, Oleg (2003). "*t`ébo". Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers.
- Starostin, Sergei; Dybo, Vladimir; Mudrak, Oleg (2003). "*t`ep`V". Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers.
- Macaulay (1904:317); Christian (1998:148).
- Dremin George Ivanovitch, Scythian Vocabulary, 2006
- Christian, David (1998). A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia, Volume I: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-18321-3. pg. 148.
- Hort, W. Jillard (1827). The New Pantheon: An Introduction to the Mythology of the Ancients. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green. pp. 188–190.
- Macaulay, G. C. (1904). The History of Herodotus, Vol. I. London: Macmillan & Co. pp. 313–317.
- Rolle, Renate (1980). The World of the Scythians. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06864-5. pp. 128–129.
- Sulimirski, T. (1985). "The Scyths" in: Fisher, W. B. (Ed.) The Cambridge History of Iran, Vol. 2: The Median and Achaemenian Periods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-20091-1. pp. 158–159.