The Massagetae, or Massageteans (Greek: Μασσαγέται, Massagetai), were an ancient Eastern Iranian nomadic confederation, inhabiting the steppes of Central Asia east of the Caspian Sea, in modern-day Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, western Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakhstan. They are known primarily from the writings of Herodotus.
About the origin of the name Massagetae, scholars have emphasized that:
"The classical and modern authorities say that the word "Massagetae" means "great" Getae. The ninth-century work De Universo of Rabanus Maurus states, "The Massagetae are in origin from the tribe of the Scythians, and are called Massagetae, as if heavy, that is, strong Getae."
Herodotus described the Massagetae as living on a sizeable portion of the great plain east of the Caspian Sea. He several times refers to them as living "beyond the River Araxes", which he describes as running into the Caspian. Scholars have offered various identifications for this river. Herodotus had only a limited understanding of the geography of Europe and Asia, and may have confused several rivers in his statements about the Araxes.
According to Herodotus:
|“||[1.215] In their dress and mode of living the Massagetae resemble the Scythians. They fight both on horseback and on foot, neither method is strange to them: they use bows and lances, but their favourite weapon is the battle-axe. Their arms are all either of gold or brass. For their spear-points, and arrow-heads, and for their battle-axes, they make use of brass; for head-gear, belts, and girdles, of gold. So too with the caparison of their horses, they give them breastplates of brass, but employ gold about the reins, the bit, and the cheek-plates. They use neither iron nor silver, having none in their country; but they have brass and gold in abundance.||”|
|“||[1.216] The following are some of their customs; – Each man has but one wife, yet all the wives are held in common; for this is a custom of the Massagetae and not of the Scythians, as the Greeks wrongly say. Human life does not come to its natural close with this people; but when a man grows very old, all his kinsfolk collect together and offer him up in sacrifice; offering at the same time some cattle also. After the sacrifice they boil the flesh and feast on it; and those who thus end their days are reckoned the happiest. If a man dies of disease they do not eat him, but bury him in the ground, bewailing his ill-fortune that he did not come to be sacrificed. They sow no grain, but live on their herds, and on fish, of which there is great plenty in the Araxes River. Milk is what they chiefly drink. The only god they worship is the sun, and to him they offer the horse in sacrifice; under the notion of giving to the swiftest of the gods the swiftest of all mortal creatures.||”|
|“||[1.201] When Cyrus had achieved the conquest of the Babylonians, he conceived the desire of bringing the Massagetae under his dominion. Now the Massagetae are said to be a great and warlike nation, dwelling eastward, toward the rising of the sun, beyond the river Araxes, and opposite the Issedones. By many they are regarded as a Scythian race.||”|
|“||[1.211] Cyrus advanced a day's journey into Massagetan territory from the Araxes... Many of the Massagetae were killed, but even more taken prisoner, including Queen Tomyris's son, who was commander of the army and whose name was Spargapises.||”|
|“||[1.214] Tomyris mustered all her forces and engaged Cyrus in battle. I consider this to have been the fiercest battle between non-Greeks that there has ever been.... They fought at close quarters for a long time, and neither side would give way, until eventually the Massagetae gained the upper hand. Most of the Persian army was wiped out there, and Cyrus himself died too.||”|
Ammianus Marcellinus considered the Alans to be the former Massagetae. At the close of the 4th century CE, Claudian (the court poet of Emperor Honorius and Stilicho) wrote of Alans and Massagetae in the same breath: "the Massagetes who cruelly wound their horses that they may drink their blood, the Alans who break the ice and drink the waters of Maeotis' lake" (In Rufinem).
Procopius writes in History of the Wars Book III: The Vandalic War: "the Massagetae whom they now call Huns" (XI. 37.), "there was a certain man among the Massagetae, well gifted with courage and strength of body, the leader of a few men; this man had the privilege handed down from his fathers and ancestors to be the first in all the Hunnic armies to attack the enemy" (XVIII. 54.).
Tadeusz Sulimirski notes that the Sacae also invaded parts of Northern India. Weer Rajendra Rishi, an Indian linguist has identified linguistic affinities between Indian and Central Asian languages, which further lends credence to the possibility of historical Sacae influence in Northern India.
Connection to the Sakā haumavargā
According to Guive Mirfendereski at the The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS), the Massagetae are synonymous with the Sakā haumavargā.
In conventional wisdom the Massagetae and Saka Haumavarga are depicted as neighbors and inhabiting an area beyond Jaxartes [present-day Uzbekistan], with the Massagetae occupying the area north of Haumavarga. The Saka Tigraxauda are depicted as inhabiting the eastern littoral of the Caspian Sea between Hyrcania and Chorasmia [present-day Turkmenistan]. See, for example, Cook, pp. 282–283 (map).
There is sufficient evidence in Herodotus to call for the reorientation of the geographical positioning of the Saka so that Saka Tigraxauda are placed in the Jaxartes watershed and Massagetae and Haumavarga are relocated to the eastern littoral of the Caspian Sea. There is also evidence to suggest strongly that the term Massagetae was a Greek (Herodotus) name for the Saka Haumavarga.
The term Saka Haumavarga did not appear in Herodotus. Instead one learns of the Amyrgian Saka who formed a part of Xerxes' army [VII:64], a name that is said to have derived from the name of the plains [Amyrgium] that these Saka inhabited. It is equally plausible that the Amyrgian plain received its name from the Amyrgian Saka themselves. Regardless, by the process of elimination, considering that the Achaemenian records in Susa and Naqsh-e Rostam identified the Saka as Haumavarga and Tigraxauda, one may conclude that Herodotus' Amyrgian Saka must have been a reference to Saka Haumavarga. To further intimate the connection, the names Amyrgian and Haumavarga are not phonetically that far apart for the Greek name (Amyrgian) to be considered a corruption of the Persian (Haumavarga).
The Achaemenian records and Herodotus suggest that Massagetae and Haumavarga were one and the same and they inhabited the present-day region east of the Caspian Sea and west of the Aral Sea. This area that presently is watered by Gorganrud and Atrak in the south and the Oxus and Jaxartes in the north had a different look in the views of the ancient geographers. The Oxus and Jaxartes were deemed to empty into the Caspian Sea, thereby creating a milieu consisting of plains intersected by various rivers closer to the Iranian heartland. See, for example, Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1950), pp. 2–5.
The coincidence of Massagetae and Saka Haumavarga obtains from the correlation of a few shreds of evidence. First, Herodotus stated that Massagetae were viewed according to some as a nation belonging to the Saka race (I:201). Second, Herodotus placed the Massagetae in the plains that stretched eastward of the Caspian Sea (I:204), against whom Cyrus the Great led an expedition right after the taking of Babylon according to an itinerary that Herodotus described to have included a campaign against the Saka (I: 153). In reaching the Massagetae/Saka, Cyrus crossed the Araxes, which in antiquity was viewed as a watershed area consisting of the present-day Aras River, southern Caspian littoral and Atrak and Gorgan rivers and, possibly, the Oxus (old course). See Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography (London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1950), pp. 2–5.
Third, etymologically, many have concluded that the name Massagetae meant "Great Saka" (Mallory & Mair, pp. 98–99). Massagetae, the reasoning goes, referred to Saga/Saka and "ma" or "massa" meant "big" or "great" so the whole name meant "Great Saka" in the language of Persia or Central Asia. This etymology is dubious at best. One would be hard pressed to find an example of the word "massa" in any of the Old Persian texts. The one word that would have meant "great" was "meh" or "mah-a" in Sanskrit but in Persian that would have dated to Middle Persian, as did "amavand" (powerful). The equation of "massa" with "great" or "heavy" or "big" or "powerful" is tainted apparently by the Latin notion or connotation of the word form "massa," "mass" or "mas." If quantum of the Saka was the emphasis, then a more appropriate word for "big" would have been "s*g" that meant "numerous;" "mah" would have been "moon." See generally, D.N. Mackenzie, A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press, 1971).
To understand what Herodotus meant by the name Massagetae should be left to Herodotus to answer. The same way that Herodotus did not refer to Saka Tigraxauda and Saka Haumavarga by their Persian names (he used Orthocorybantes and Amyrgian instead), one should not expect him to have referred to Massagetae by their Persian name either. At best, Massagetae was Greek for a nation that was known to the Achaemenians by another name, as one finds no direct by-name reference to a group called Massagetae in Achaemenian records. However, according to Herodotus, the Massagetae lived in the plains east of the Caspian Sea and the Amyrgian Saka also inhabited a plain. Arguably, because the word "nomas" in Greek means pasture, the label Massagetae may have referred to the pastoral Saka.
The fourth factor that intimates a connection between the Massagetae and Haumavarga is the place of milk in their cultures. "Milk is what they chiefly drink," wrote Herodotus [I: 216] of the Massagetae. For the Haumavarga the importance of milk would have been in connection with the preparation of hom, which according to the Avesta [Hom Yasht, Yasna 10: 13] was mixed with milk. If a nation is called "consumer of hom" and uses milk to mix with it, then it is easy to see how milk in the Saka Haumavarga tradition too would be a chief drink.
The key to the etymological significance of "Massagetae" is likely in Massagetae being a Greek rendition of Haumavarga – in which "hauma" appeared in the form of the first syllable "ma" and Saka was represented in "sagetae" or "saketae". Therefore, Herodotus' Massagetae was a corruption of the name "Hauma Saka."
The synonymy of Massagetae with Saka Haumavarga situates the latter on the eastern littoral of the Caspian Sea. This relocation is significant in that it provides a rational basis for the reference to the "Saka of the marshes" and "Saka of the plains" in Darius' Egyptian hieroglyphs [Susa statue and Suez stele]. The "Saka of the marshes" were depicted in relation to a watershed resembling a lagoon-looking shape (diagramed like a stomach) with rivers connecting to it, just like the Caspian would have appeared to the ancient geographers. For that reason the "Saka of the marshes" (or later "Saka of the waters") would have been the ones inhabiting this region east of the Caspian. By the same token, the "Saka of the plains" referenced in Darius' hieroglyphs would have been the Saka who inhabited the plains of Central Asia and farther to the east of Jaxartes. It was no coincidence therefore that the mentioning of Saka Haumavarga by Darius preceded the mention of the farther Saka Tigraxauda, just as the nearer "Saka of the marshes" were mentioned before the distant Saka of the plains.
The relocation of Saka Haumavarga (Amyrgian and Massagetae of Herodotus) to a region immediately east of the Caspian Sea is consistent with Darius' scheme of imperial administration. According to Herodotus, the method of administration employed by the Medes and later adopted by the Persians was to rule directly their immediate neighbors and then let the neighbors rule the peoples and lands farther out [I:134]. When Darius smote the Saka Tigraxauda he appointed for them another chief. While it is not said whom he appointed to the task, it is significant to note that in Darius' records after the campaign – such as at Susa and Naqshi Rustam – the name Saka Haumavarga preceded the Saka Tigraxauda. This would have made perfect sense within the linear administrative method: The Saka Haumavarga, who were closer to the Persian heartland (east of the Caspian) were put in charge of Saka Tigraxauda farther away in the plains beyond Soghdia in Central Asia.
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The Massagetae are in origin from the tribe of the Scythians, and are called Massagetae, as if heavy, that is, strong Getae.
- Dhillon, Balbir Singh (1994). History and study of the Jats: with reference to Sikhs, Scythians, Alans, Sarmatians, Goths, and Jutes (illustrated ed.). Canada: Beta Publishers. p. 8. ISBN 1-895603-02-1.
The classical and modern authorities say that the word "Massagetae" means "great" Getae (Jats). The ninth-century work De Universo of Rabanus Maurus states, "The Massagetae are in origin from the tribe of the Scythians, and are called Massagetae, as if heavy, that is, strong Getae."
- Rishi, Weer Rajendra (1982). India & Russia: linguistic & cultural affinity. Roma. p. 95.
- Herodotus, The Histories, 1.204.
- Herodotus, The Histories, 1.202.
- Herodotus, The Histories, translation by Robin Waterfield, with notes by Carolyn Deward (1998), p. 613, notes on 1.201-16.
- Ammianus Marcellinus: "iuxtaque Massagetae Halani et Sargetae"; "per Albanos et Massagetas, quos Alanos nunc appellamus"; "Halanos pervenit, veteres Massagetas".
- Procopius: History of the Wars. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/History_of_the_Wars/Book_III
- Ecclesiastical History. Book 3. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/evagrius_3_book3.htm
- Sulimirski, Tadeusz (1970). The Sarmatians. Volume 73 of Ancient peoples and places. New York: Praeger. pp. 113–114.
The evidence of both the ancient authors and the archaeological remains point to a massive migration of Sacian (Sakas)/Massagetan tribes from the Syr Daria Delta (Central Asia) by the middle of the second century B.C. Some of the Syr Darian tribes; they also invaded North India.
- Indian Institute of Romani Studies