|c. 8th century BCE–c. 3rd century BCE|
|Common languages||Saka language|
|King or Queen|
• c. 530 BCE
• c. 520 BCE
|Historical era||Iron Age Scythian cultures|
|c. 8th century BCE|
|c. 3rd century BCE|
|Part of a series on|
The Massagetae or Massageteans (Ancient Greek: Μασσαγεται, romanized: Massagetai; Latin: Massagetae), also known as Sakā tigraxaudā (Old Persian: 𐎿𐎣𐎠 𐏐 𐎫𐎡𐎥𐎼𐎧𐎢𐎭𐎠, romanized: Sakā tigraxaudā, lit. 'Saka who wear pointed caps') or Orthocorybantians (Ancient Greek: Ορθοκορυβαντες, romanized: Orthokorubantes, lit. 'wearer of pointed caps'; Latin: Orthocorybantes), were an ancient Eastern Iranian Saka people who inhabited the steppes of Central Asia and were part of the wider Scythian cultures.
The Massagetae rose to power in the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, when they kickstarted a series of events with wide-reaching consequences by expelling the Scythians out of Central Asia and into the Caucasian and Pontic Steppes. The Massagetae are most famous for their queen Tomyris's alleged defeating and killing of Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Achaemenid Empire.
The Massagetae declined after the 3rd century BCE, after which they merged with some other tribes to form the Alans people who belonged to the larger Sarmatian tribal confederation, and who moved westwards into the Caucasian and European steppes, where they participated in the events of Migration Period.
The Iranologist Rüdiger Schmitt notes that although the original name of the Massagetae is unattested, it appears that the most plausible etymon is Iranian *Masyaka-tā. *Masyaka-tā is the plural form, containing the East Iranian suffix *-tā, which is reflected in Greek -tai. The singular form is *Masi̯a-ka- and is composed of Iranian *-ka- and *masi̯a-, meaning "fish," derived from Young Avestan masiia- (𐬨𐬀𐬯𐬌𐬌𐬀; cognate with Vedic mátsya-). The name literally means "concerned with fish," or "fisherman." This corresponds with the remark by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (1.216.3) that "they live on their livestock and fish." Schmitt notes that objections to this reasoning, based on the assumption that, instead of masi̯a-, a derivation from Iranian *kapa- "fish" (compare Ossetian кӕф (kæf)) would be expected, is "not decisive." Schmitt states that any other interpretations on the origin of the original Iranian name of the Massagetae are "linguistically unacceptable."
The Iranologist János Harmatta had however criticised the proposal of Massagetai's derivation from masyaka-ta, meaning "fish-eating (men)," as being semantically and phonologically unacceptable, and instead suggested that the name might be derived from an early Bactrian language name Maššagatā, from an earlier Mašyagatā related to the Young Avestan terms maṣ̌a- (𐬨𐬀𐬴𐬀), maṣ̌iia- (𐬨𐬀𐬴𐬌𐬌𐬀), maṣ̌iiāka- (𐬨𐬀𐬴𐬌𐬌𐬁𐬐𐬀), meaning "men," with the ending of the name being derived from East Iranian suffix *-tā or from the collective formative syllable from which the suffix evolved. According to Harmatta's hypothesis, the Bactrian name Maššagatā would have corresponded to the name Dahā, meaning "men," used by the Massagetae for themselves.
The proposed etymologies for the Massagataean sub-tribe of the Apasiacae, whose name is not attested in ancient Iranian records, include *Āpasakā, meaning "Water-Sakas," and *Āpašyāka, meaning "rejoicing at water," which have so far not been conclusive.
The Old Persian name Sakā tigraxaudā (𐎿𐎣𐎠 𐏐 𐎫𐎡𐎥𐎼𐎧𐎢𐎭𐎠) meant "Saka who wear pointed hats", with the descriptive tigraxaudā (𐎫𐎡𐎥𐎼𐎧𐎢𐎭), meaning "wearer of pointed hats," being composed of the terms tigraʰ (𐎫𐎡𐎥𐎼), "pointed," and xauda- (𐎧𐎢𐎭𐎠), "cap." This name was a reference to the Phrygian cap worn by the ancient Iranian peoples, of which the Sakā tigraxaudā wore an unusually tall and pointed form.
The name Orthocorybantians given to the Massagetai/Sakā tigraxaudā is derived from the Latin name Orthocorybantes, which is derived from the Ancient Greek: Ορθοκορυβαντες, romanized: Orthokorubantes, which is itself the literal translation of the Old Persian name tigraxaudā (𐎫𐎡𐎥𐎼𐎧𐎢𐎭), meaning "wearer of pointed hats."
The Iranologist János Harmatta has identified the Massagetae as being the same as the people named Sakā tigraxaudā (“Sakā who wear pointed caps”) by the Persians and Orthocorybantes by Graeco-Romans. Harmatta's identification is based on the mention of the Sakā tigraxaudā as living between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, where Arrian also located the Massagetae.
The scholar Marek Jan Olbrycht has also identified the Massagetae with the Sakā tigraxaudā.
János Harmatta has also identified the Massagetai/Sakā tigraxaudā with the Dahā, with this identification being based on the location of the former between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, where Arrian also located the Dahae. The scholars A. Abetekov and H. Yusupov have also suggested that the Dahā were a constituent tribe of the Massagetae. The scholar Y. A. Zadneprovskiy has instead suggested that the Dahae were descendants of the Massagetae.
Marek Jan Olbrycht considers the Dahā as being a separate group from the Saka, and therefore as not identical with the Massagetae/Sakā tigraxaudā.
Sꜣg pḥ Sk tꜣ
Based on Strabo's remark that the Massagetae lived partly on the plains, the mountains, the marshes, and the islands in the country irrigated by the Araxes river, the Iranologist Rüdiger Schmitt has also suggestive a tentative connection with the Sꜣg pḥ Sk tꜣ (Ancient Egyptian 𓐠𓎼𓄖𓋴𓎝𓎡𓇿𓈉), the "Saka of the Marshes, Saka of the Land," mentioned in the Suez Inscriptions of Darius the Great.
- the Apasiacae (Ancient Greek: Απασιακαι, romanized: Apasiakai)
- the Augasii (Αυγασιοι)
- the Derbices (Ancient Greek: Δερβικες, romanized: Derbikes; Δερβικκαι, romanized: Derbikkai; Δερβεκιοι, romanized: Derbekioi)
The Massagetae lived in the Caspian Steppe as well as in the lowlands of Central Asia located to the east of the Caspian Sea and the south-east of the Aral Sea, more precisely across the large area stretching from the lands around the Amu Darya and Zarafshan rivers up to the steppes and the deserts to the north of the Khorasan mountain corridor, that is in the region including the Kyzylkum and Karakum deserts and the Ustyurt Plateau, especially the area between the Araxes and Iaxartes rivers and around Chorasmia. The territory of the Massagetae thus included the area corresponding to modern-day Turkmenistan and might possibly have extended to parts of Hyrcania as well.
One of the Massagetaean sub-groups, the Apasiacae, lived either on the east coast of the Aral Sea between the Oxus and Tanais/Iaxartes rivers, or possibly along the Oxus in western Bactria. Another Massagetaean sub-group, the Derbices, lived in the area bordered by the Caspian Sea to the west and by Hyrcania to the south, and the Balkhan Mountain and the Ochus river and its estuary were in their territory.
The imprecise description of where the Massagetae lived by ancient authors has however led modern scholars to ascribe to them various locations, such as the Oxus delta, the Iaxartes delta, between the Caspian and Aral seas or further to the north or north-east, but without basing these suggestions on any conclusive arguments.
The Massagetae rose to power in the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, when they migrated from the east into Central Asia, from where they expelled the Scythians, another nomadic Iranian tribe to whom they were closely related, after which they came to occupy large areas of the region, including the Caspian Steppe where they supplanted the Scythians. The Massagetae displacing the early Scythians and forcing them to the west across the Araxes river and into the Caucasian and Pontic steppes started a significant movement of the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian Steppe, following which the Scythians displaced the Cimmerians and the Agathyrsi, who were also nomadic Iranian peoples closely related to the Massagetae and the Scythians, conquered their territories, and invaded Western Asia, where their presence had an important role in the history of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Egypt, and Iran.
The Sakā tigraxaudā had close contact with the Median Empire, whose influence had stretched to the lands east of the Caspian Sea, before it was replaced by the Persian Achaemenid dynasty in 550 BC. It has been also speculated that the Orthocorybantians may have lived in Eastern Armenia which bordered the Median Empire. However, this interpretation clearly conflicts with Herodotus' information on Achaemenid military rosters.
Death of Cyrus
During the 6th century BCE, the Massagetae had to face the successor of the Median Empire, the newly formed Persian Achaemenid Empire, whose founder, Cyrus II, carried out a campaign against them in 530 BCE. According to Herodotus, Cyrus captured a Massagetaean camp by ruse, after which the Massagetae queen Tomyris led the tribe's main force against the Persians, defeated them, killed Cyrus, and placed his severed head in a sack full of blood. According to another version of the death of Cyrus recorded by Ctesias, it was the Derbices, who were the tribe against whom Cyrus died in battle: according to this version, he was mortally wounded by the Derbices and their Indian allies, after which Cyrus's ally, the king Amorges of the Sakā haumavargā, intervened with his own army and helped the Persian soldiers defeat the Derbices, following which Cyrus endured for three days, during which he organised his empire and appointed Spitaces son of Sisamas as satrap over the Derbices, before finally dying. The reason why the Derbices, and not the Massagetae, are named as the people against whom Cyrus died fighting is because the Derbices were members or identical with the Massagetae. According to Strabo, Cyrus died fighting against the Saka (of which the Massagetae were a group), and according to Quintus Curtius Rufus he died fighting against the Abiae.
The Babylonian scribe Berossus, who lived in 3rd century BCE, instead recorded that Cyrus died in a battle against the Dahae; according to the Iranologist Muhammad Dandamayev, Berossus identified the Dahae rather than the Massagetae as Cyrus's killers because they had replaced the Massagetae as the most famous nomadic tribe of Central Asia long before Berossus's time; although some scholars identified the Dahae as being identical with the Massagetae or as one of their sub-groups.
Little is further known about the Massagetae after the war with Cyrus. By around 520 BCE and possibly earlier, they were ruled by a king named Skuⁿxa, who rebelled against the Persian Empire until one of the successors of Cyrus, the Achaemenid king Darius I, carried out a campaign against the Sakas from 520 to 518 BCE during which he conquered the Massagetae/Sakā tigraxaudā, captured Skuⁿxa, and replaced him with a ruler who was loyal to Achaemenid power. According to Polyaenus, Darius fought against three armies led by three kings, respectively named Sacesphares, Thamyris (whose name might be related to that of Tomyris), and Amorges or Homarges, with Polyaenus's account being based on accurate Persian historical records.
The territories of the Saka were absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire as part of Chorasmia that included much of the territory between the Oxus and the Iaxartes rivers, and the Saka supplied the Achaemenid army with large number of mounted bowmen. After Darius's administrative reforms of the Achaemenid Empire, the Sakā tigraxaudā were included within the same tax district as the Medes.
The Massagetae, along with the Sogdians and Bactrians, participated in the rebellion of Spitamenes against Alexander III of Macedon, but they later submitted to him again after Spitamenes was murdered.
Among the scholars who do not identify the Massagetae with the Dahae, Rüdiger Schmitt suggests that the Massagetae were instead absorbed by the Dahae by the later Hellenistic period, and Muhammad Dandamayev suggested that the Dahae had replaced the Massagetae as the most known people of the Central Asian steppes, while Marek Jan Olbrycht suggests that the Dahae migrated to the west from the areas east of the Aral Sea and around the Iaxartes valley and expelled the Derbices from their homeland, after which the latter split, with part of them migrating into Hyrcania and others on the lower Uzboy river.
Around 230 BCE, the Parnian king and founder of the Parthian Empire, Arsaces I, sought refuge from the Seleucid king Seleucus II Callinicus by fleeing among the Massagataean sub-tribe of the Apasiacae. Seleucus's attempted campaign to recover the eastern satrapies of his empire were initially successful, however the outbreak of revolts in the western part of his empire prevented him from continuing his war against the Parthians, who, with the backing of the Apasiacae, were ultimately successful.
The dominance of the Massagetae in Central Asia ended in the 3rd century BCE, following the Macedonian conquest of Persia, which cut off the relations of coexistence between the steppe nomads with the sedentary populations of the previous Persian Achaemenid Empire. The succeeding Seleucid Empire started attacking the Massagetae, Saka and Dahae nomads who had lived to the north of its borders, which in turn led to these peoples putting westward pressure from the east on a related nomadic Iranian people, the Sarmatians, who, taking advantage of the decline of Scythian power in the west, crossed the Don river and invaded Scythia starting in the late 4th century and the early 3rd century BCE (later in the mediaeval period, the military campaigns of Ismail Samani against the Oghuz Turks in Central Asia would similarly pressure the Hungarians into moving westwards into the Pannonian Basin), and also migrated to the south, into the North Caucasus.
The Massagetae themselves merged with some old tribal groups in Central Asia to form the Alans people who themselves belonged to the larger Sarmatian group. Related to the Asii who had invaded Bactria in the 2nd century BCE, the Alans were pushed by the Kang-chü people to the west into the Caucasian and Pontic steppes where they came in contact and conflict with the Parthian and Roman empires, and by the 2nd century CE had conquered the steppes of the north Caucasus and of the north Black Sea area and created a powerful confederation of tribes under their rule.
In 375 CE, the Huns conquered most of the Alans living to the east of the Don river, massacred a significant number of them, and absorbed them into their tribal polity, while the Alans to the west of the Don remained free from Hunnish domination and participated in the movements of the Migration Period. Some free Alans fled into the mountains of the Caucasus, where they participated in the ethnogenesis of populations including the Ossetians and the Kabardians, and other Alan groupings survived in Crimea. Other free Alans migrated into Central and then Western Europe, from where some of them went to Britannia and Hispania, and some Alans joined the Germanic Vandals into crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and creating the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa.
Byzantine authors later used the name "Massagetae" as an archaising term for the Huns, Turks, Tatars and other related peoples who were completely unrelated to the populations the name initially designated in Antiquity.
A 9th century work by Rabanus Maurus, De Universo, states: "The Massagetae are in origin from the tribe of the Scythians, and are called Massagetae, as if heavy, that is, strong Getae." In Central Asian languages such as Middle Persian and Avestan, the prefix massa means "great," "heavy," or "strong."
Some authors, such as Alexander Cunningham, James P. Mallory, Victor H. Mair, and Edgar Knobloch have proposed relating the Massagetae to the Gutians of 2000 BC Mesopotamia, and/or a people known in ancient China as the "Da Yuezhi" or "Great Yuezhi" (who founded the Kushan Empire in South Asia). Mallory and Mair suggest that Da Yuezhi may at one time have been pronounced d'ad-ngiwat-tieg, connecting them to the Massagetae. These theories are not widely accepted, however.
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.
Some Massagetae were primarily fisherman, and other groups of the tribe bred sheep for their milk and wool, but also harvested root vegetables and wild fruits. None of the Massagetae however practised any form of agriculture, and their food consisted of meat and fish, and they primarily drank milk, but not wine.
Gold and bronze were plentiful where the Massagetae lived, but they did not use any iron or silver because these were not available in their country.
Like all ancient Iranian peoples, the Massagetae/Sakā tigraxaudā wore wearing knee-length tunics which were either straight and closed (following Median fashion) or open with lapels with both styles fastened by a belt at the waist (following typically Scythic fashion), as well as narrow trousers and moccasins, over which they sometimes wore a cloak with long and narrow sleeves, and the pointed cap, although their tribe wore a distinctive form of this headdress which had a sharp point, and from which the names given to them by the Persians (𐎫𐎡𐎥𐎼𐎧𐎢𐎭 Tigraxaudā) and the Greeks (Ορθοκορυβαντες Orthokorubantes), both meaning "wearer of pointed caps," were derived. The use of the Median closed tunic among the Sakā tigraxaudā was the result of extensive contact between the Tigraxaudā and the Medes during the period of the Median Empire.
The fishermen Massagetae wore seal skins, while the sheep-breeding Massagetae wore clothing made of wool.
The Massagetae wore golden headdresses, belts, shoulder straps, and used golden harnesses and bronze armour for their horses.
The name of the Massagetaean prince, recorded in the Greek form Spargapisēs (Σπαργαπισης) and reflecting the Scythian form *Spargapis, is of Scythian language origin, and his name and the name of the Agathyrsi king Spargapeithes and the Scythian king Spargapeithes (Scythian: *Spargapaisah) are variants of the same name, and are cognates with the Avestan name Sparəγa-paēsa (𐬯𐬞𐬀𐬭𐬆𐬖𐬀-𐬞𐬀𐬉𐬯𐬀).
The name of the Sakā tigraxaudā king Skuⁿxa might be related to the Ossetian term meaning "distinguishing oneself," and attested as skₒyxyn (скойхйн) in the Digor dialect, and as æsk’wænxun (ӕскъуӕнхун) in the Iron dialect.
Herodotus mentioned that the Massagetae worshipped only the Sun-god, to whom they sacrificed horses, that is they performed the cult of the Iranian supreme Sun-god Mithra, who was associated with the worship of fire and horses. When Cyrus attacked the Massagetae, their queen Tomyris swore by the Sun to kill him if he did not return back to his kingdom.
The Massagetae contracted monogamous marriages, although the women were held in common so that the wives could have sexual relations with other men. When a Massagetaean man wanted to have sexual relations with a woman, he would hang his gorytos outside of her tent, inside of which the couple would proceed to have intercourse. Edvard Westermarck, however, in The History of Human Marriage, suggested that Herodotus and Strabo, on whose writings this understanding of Massagetaean marriage customs is based, might have been mistaken, and that the relevant custom was instead one, said to be common in Central Asia, by which brothers shared a single wife.
Old members of the Massagetae were sacrificed and cooked and eaten with the meat of sacrificial animals. Members of the Massagetae who died of illness were buried or left as food for wild animals, which was considered a calamity by the tribe.
- Zarinaea, queen of a Saka tribe which also had contact with the Medes
- Mount Imeon
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Herodotus calls the Sakâ tigrakhaudâ the Orthocorybantians ("pointed hat men")
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During the first millennium BCE, nomadic people spread over the Eurasian Steppe from the Altai Mountains over the northern Black Sea area as far as the Carpathian Basin... Greek and Persian historians of the 1st millennium BCE chronicle the existence of the Massagetae and Sauromatians, and later, the Sarmatians and Sacae: cultures possessing artefacts similar to those found in classical Scythian monuments, such as weapons, horse harnesses and a distinctive 'Animal Style' artistic tradition. Accordingly, these groups are often assigned to the Scythian culture...
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In the quoted passage, however, Arrian says that these Scythians, living in the neighbourhood of the Sogdians between the Amu-darya and the Sir-darya rivers, were called Massagetae. Consequently, the name Μασσαγέται may be the individual denomination, the proper name of this Iranian nomadic people.
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The middle of the third century b.c. saw the rise to power of a group of tribes consisting of the Parni (Aparni) and the Dahae, descendants of the Massagetae of the Aral Sea region.
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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.
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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.
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OPers. Skunxa- (the leader of the Sakas, who rebelled against Darius I), perhaps related to Oss. skₒyxyn/æsk'wænxun "to distinguish oneself".
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3. altpers. Skunxa- (der Anführer der Saken, die sich gegen Dareios I. erhoben), vielleicht zu verbinden mit osset. digoron skₒyxyn, iron æsk'wænxun „sich auszeichnen usw.".[3. OPers. Skunxa- (the leader of the Sakas, who rebelled against Darius I), perhaps related to Osset. Digor skₒyxyn, Iron æsk’wænxun "to distinguish oneself, etc.".]
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