Scythian religion

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A collection of drawings of Scythian stelae of the 6th and 5th centuries BC.[1] Many of them depict warriors, apparently representing the deceased buried in the kurgan, holding a drinking horn in their right hand.

Scythian religion refers to the mythology, ritual practices and beliefs of the Scythian cultures, a collection of closely related ancient Iranian people who inhabited Central Asia and the Pontic–Caspian steppe in Eastern Europe throughout Classical Antiquity and which included the Cimmerians, the Scythians proper, the Sarmatians, the Sindi, the Massagetae and the Saka. 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.

Archaeological context[edit]

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.[citation needed]

The Scythians had some reverence for the stag, which is one of the most common motifs in their artwork, especially at funeral sites (see, for example, the Pazyryk burials).[2]


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.

The structure of the Scythian pantheon was typically Indo-Iranian, being divided into three ranks:[3][4]

  1. In the first rank was the head of the pantheon:
    • Tabiti (Ταβιτί), the flaming one, who was the goddess of heat, fire and the hearth and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Hearth, Hestia
  2. In the second rank were the binary opposites and the father and mother of the universe:
    • Api (Ἀπί), the Earth and Water Mother, equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia
    • Papaios (Παπαῖος), the Sky Father, equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Zeus
  3. The third and final rank was composed of four deities with specific characteristics
    • The "Scythian Heracles" (Ἡρακλῆς), likely the same as the deity Targitaos, the forefather of the Scythian kings
    • The "Scythian Ares" (Ἄρης), the god of war
    • Goitosyros (Γοιτόσῠρος) or Oitosyros (Οἰτόσυρος), who might have been associated with the Sun, and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek solar deity Apollo
    • Artimpasa (Ἀρτίμπασα) or Argimpasa (Ἀργίμπασα), a more complex deity who was a patron of fertility with power over sovereignty and the priestly force, and was equated by Herodotus with Aphrodite Urania

A eighth Scythian deity mentioned by Herodotus was Thagimasadas (Θαγιμασάδας), whom he equated with the Greek god Poseidon.

The pantheon was thus also a reflection of the Scythian cosmology, headed by the primeval fire which was the basic essence and the source of all creation, following which came the Earth-Mother and Sky-Father who created the gods, who were the four custodians of the four sides of the world regulating the universe. The world inhabited by humans existed between this celestial realm and the chthonic realm below the earth.[4]

Decorated tapestry with a seated goddess (Tabiti, or more likely Artimpasa[5]) and Scythian rider, Pazyryk Kurgan 5, Altai, Southern Russia c.241 BCE.[6]


Tabiti (Ταβιτί), equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Hearth, Hestia, is thought to be a Hellenized version of a Scythian name *Tapatī́[7] similar to Hindu Tapatī and related verb तापयति tapayati ("burns"/"is hot"), as well as Avestan 𐬙𐬁𐬞𐬀𐬌𐬌𐬈𐬌𐬙𐬌‎ tāpaiieiti, Latin tepeo and several other Indo-European terms for heat.[8]

Tabiti was the most venerated of all Scythian deities, her high status being attested when she was called the "Queen of the Scythians" around 450 BCE by the king Idanthyrsus.[9][10] Tabiti was a primordial sovereign deity of fire similar to the Vedic Agni and the Greek Hestia, therefore being connected to the common Iranian cult and concept of fire,[5] although she belonged to an older period in the development of Indo-Iranian religion compared to the other Iranian peoples and the Indo-Aryans, among whom she had been respectively replaced by the male fire-gods Atar and Agni.[11] Due to being a deity representing an abstract notion of fire and divine bliss, Tabiti was rarely depicted in Scythian art, but was instead represented by the fireplace, which constituted the sacral centre of any community, from the family to the tribe. As a goddess of the Hearth, Tabiti was considered the goddess of the home, ensuring prosperity to a well-functioning household,[12] as well as the patron of society, the state and families who protected the family and the clan.[5]

As a symbol of supreme authority, Tabiti was assigned the superior position among the other gods through her role as the guardian of the king, due to which as well as her to link to the common Iranian cult of fire, she was connected to the importance of fire and of royal hearths in Iranian religions. The king's hearth was hence connected with Tabiti, and was therefore an inviolable symbol of the prosperity of his people and a token of royal power. As the guardian of the royal hearth, Tabiti therefore ensured the well-being of the tribe - an oath by the royal hearths was considered the most sacred and breaking it was believed to cause the king's illness and was punished by death. The hestiai (Ancient Greek: ἑστῐ́αι, romanizedhestíai) of Tabiti were likely the flaming gold objects which fell from the sky in the Scythian genealogical myth and of which the king was the trustee while Tabiti herself in turn was the protector of the king and the royal hearth, thus creating a strong bond between Tabiti and the Scythian king, who might have been seen as an intermediary between the goddess and the people,[4] and any offense to the royal hestiai was considered as affecting the whole tribe and had to be averted at any cost. Her characterisation as "the Queen of the Scythians" was thus possibly linked to the notion of the Khvarenah, the Iranian divine bliss, or even to that of the fire which protects the king, the vahran.[5]

The hestiai were part of the ceremony of the ritual sleep during which a substitute ritual king would ceremonially sleep in an open air field along with the gold objects for a single night, possibly as a symbolical ritual impregnation of the earth. This substitute king would receive as much land as he could ride around in one day: this land belonged to the real king and was given to the substitute king to complete his symbolic identification with the real king, following which he would be allowed to live for one year until he would be sacrificed when the time for the next ritual sleep festival would arrive.[5]


Api (Ἀπί), equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. Api was the consort of Papaios, and their union reflected the Indo-Iranian tradition of the marriage between Heaven and Earth as the basis for the creation of the world. The birth of Targitaos from the union of Api and Papaios thus represented the creation of the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms.[9]

As a primordial goddess who gave birth to the first inhabitants of the world, Api remained aloof from worldly affairs and did not interfere with them after the creation of the world and the establishment of the proper order. Api's name has been connected with the Avestan word for water, 𐬀𐬞𐬌 api, and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek Earth goddess Gaia - reflecting her origins in the Iranian pantheon where the Earth as a life-giving principle is connected with the fertilising, nourishing and healing properties of water.[5]

The worship of Api by Scythian peoples in literature is attested in Strabo's mention that the Derbices worshipped "Mother Earth".[9]


Papaios (Παπαῖος), equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Zeus, was the Scythian equivalent of the Iranian great god Ahura Mazda and the consort of the Earth goddess Api.[9][13] From the union of Papaios with Api - which parallels the union between Ahura Mazda and the Earth goddess Armaiti in the Avesta - was created the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms in the form of their offspring, the deity Targitaos, which reflected the Indo-Iranian tradition of the marriage between Heaven and Earth as the basis for the creation of the world.[9]

According to Origen, the Scythians considered Papaios to be a supreme god.[13] Darius I's statement in the Behistun Inscription that the Scythians did not worship Ahura Mazda thus had no basis and this declaration of his was a political one resulting from the hostilities between the Persian Empire and the Scythians.[9]


The deity mentioned by Herodotus as the "Scythian Heracles" is the same as the Greek hero Heracles, but is the Scythian god who appears in the Scythian genealogical myth as the divine ancestor of the Scythians under the name of Targitaos (Ancient Greek: Ταργιτάος, romanizedTargitáos, from Scythian *Dargatavah "whose might is far-reaching"[11]) or Scythes as a son of Papaios. The birth of Targitaos from the union of Api and Papaios represented the creation of the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms.[9]

This "Scythian Heracles", the Scythian god Targitaos was likely assimilated by the Greeks from the northern shores of the Black Sea with their hero Heracles, and the main feature of this deity identifying him with Heracles was the cattle he drives in the Scythian genealogical myth, although unlike the Greek Heracles who drove the cattle of Geryon on foot, the "Scythian Heracles" drove a chariot pulled by mares. This cattle-driver aspect of Scythes/Targitaos was likely derived from the motif of cattle-theft of Iranian mythology which is also reflected in the legend of Mithra as a cattle-stealing god.[5][5]

Targitaos was very closely associated with Papaios or confused with him in Scythian mythology, and the "Scythian Heracles" was sometimes replaced by Papaios in some versions of the Scythian genealogical myth, thus attributing the ancestry of the Scythians alternatively to Targitaos or to Papaios directly.[13]

The Scythian genealogical myth[edit]

Five variants of the Scythian genealogical myth have been retold by Greco-Roman authors:[4][5]

  1. Herodotus' recorded two variants of the myth, and according to his first version, the first man born in hitherto desert Scythia was named Targitaos and was the son of Zeus and a daughter of the river Borysthenes. Targitaos in turn had three sons, named Lipoxais (Λιπόξαϊς, from Scythian *Ripaxšaya "king of the soil"[11]), Arpoxais (Ἀρποξάϊς, from Scythian *Arpaxšaya "king of the battle"[11]), and Kolaxais (Κολάξαϊς, from Scythian *Kuraxšaya "young king"[11]), who each ruled a different part of the kingdom. One day four gold objects - a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe, a drinking cup - fell from the sky, and each brother in turn tried to pick the gold, but when Leipoxais and Arpoxais tried, it burst in flames, while the flames were extinguished when Colaxais tried. Colaxais thus became the guardian of this sacred gold (which was likely the hestiai of Tabiti), and the other brothers decided that he should become the high king and king of the Royal Scythians while they would rule different branches of the Scythians.
  2. According to the second version of the myth recorded by Herodotus, Heracles arrived in deserted Scythia with Geryon's cattle. After his mares disappeared during his sleep, he searched for them until he arrived at a land called Hylaia (Ancient Greek: Ὑλαία, romanizedHulaía), that is the Woodland, and in a cave found a half-maiden, half-viper being who later revealed to him that she was the mistress of this country, and that she had kept Heracles' horses which she agreed to return only if he had sexual intercourse with her. After three sons - Agathyrsus, Gelonus, Scythes - were born of their union, she returned his freedom to Heracles. Before Heracles left Scythia, the serpent maiden asked him what should be done once the boys had reached adulthood, and he told her that they should be each tasked with stringing a bow and putting on a girdle in the correct way. When the time for the test had arrived, only the youngest of the sons, named Scythes, was able to correctly complete it, and he thus became the ancestor of the Scythians and their first king, with all subsequent Scythian kings claiming descent from him.
  3. A third variant of the myth, recorded by Valerius Flaccus, described the Scythians as descendants of Colaxes, a son of Jupiter with a half-serpent nymph named Hora.
  4. The fourth variant of the myth, recorded by Diodorus Siculus, calls Scythes the first Scythian and the first king, and describes him as a son of Zeus and an earth-born viper-limbed maiden
  5. The fifth version of the myth, recorded in the Tabula Albana, recorded that after Heracles had defeated the river-god Araxes, he fathered two sons with his daughter Echidna, named Agathyrsus and Scythes, who became the ancestors of the Scythians.

The "Heracles" of Herodotus' second version and from the Tabula Albana's version of the genealogical myth is not the Greek hero Heracles, but the same Scythian godone who appears in the other recorded variants of the genealogical myth under the name of Targitaos or Scythes as a son of Papaios, and was likely assimilated by the Greeks from the northern shores of the Black Sea with the Greek Heracles. The mother's traits are consistent across the multiple versions of the genealogical myth and include her being the daughter of either a river-god or of the Earth and dwelling in a cave, as well as her being half-woman and half-snake[5]

The Scythian genealogical myth exhibits clear textual and narrative parallels with the Persian story of Fereydun and his three sons - Salm, Tur, and Iraj - from the Shahnameh,[9] and thus ascribes the origin of the Scythians to the Sky Father Papaios, either directly or through his son, and to the anguipede goddess affiliated to Artimpasa,[5] and represented the threefold division of the universe into the Heavens, the Earth, and the Underworld, as well as the division of Scythian society into the warrior, priest, and agriculturalist classes.[9]

The names of Targitaos's sons - *Ripaxšaya, *Arpaxšaya, and *Kuraxšaya - contain the Old Iranian term *xšaya meaning ruler[9] and each were forebearers of tribes constituting the Scythian people:[11]

  • *Ripaxšaya was the ancestor of the Auchatae (Αὐχάται, from Scythian *Auxyatah "the sedentary ones")
  • *Arpaxšaya was the ancestor of the Katiaroi (Κατίαροί, from Scythian *Katiara "the warlike") and the Traspies (Τράσπιες, from Scythian *Trāspya "horse-keeper")
  • *Kuraxšaya was the ancestor of the Paralatai (Παραλάται, from Scythian *Paradata "first created") or Royal Scythians.

The first version of the genealogical myth recounted by Herodotus therefore also explains the division of Scythia into three kingdoms of which the king of the Royal Scythians was the High King, which is a structure also recorded in Herodotus' account of the Scythian campaign of Darius I, where Idanthyrsus was the Scythian high king while Scopasis and Taxacis were sub-kings.[4]

The Genealogical myth and the legend of Aphrodite Apátouros and the Giants[edit]

A tentative connection has been suggested between the Scythian genealogical myth and the legend of Aphrodite Apátouros and the Giants as recorded by Strabo, according to which she had been attacked by Giants and called on Heracles for help. After concealing Heracles, the goddess, under guise of introducing the Giants one by one, treacherously handed them to Heracles, who killed them. According to this hypothesis, Aphrodite Apátouros was the same goddess as the Anguipede Goddess of the Scythian genealogical myth, and her reward to Heracles for defeating the Giants would have been her love.[14]

Targitaos and Artimpasa[edit]

Targitaos is likely the same figure who appears in Scythian art as the masculine figure facing Artimpasa in her depictions as a seated goddess (see below). These scenes depicted the marriage of Targitaos with Artimpasa, but also represented the granting of a promise of afterlife and future resurrection to Targitaos, and, by extension, collectively to his descendants, the Scythians.[5]

Targitaos' role in these scenes might also have consisted of representing a deified mortal who was identified with him, probably a king, who thus was given apotheosis by identifying him with his divine ancestor. Thus, the scene of the masculine figure facing the seated Artimpasa represented both the goddess's granting of royal power to the king, but also, through the identification with Targitaos, the father of the first Scythian king, the giving of supreme legitimacy to the authority of the royal descendants of Artimpasa in her role as the divine spouse of the Scythian kings.[5]

Targitaos as granter of royal power?[edit]

A possible representation of Targitaos as investing a king might be a scene from a silver rhyton discovered in the Karagodeouashkh kurgan, depicting two bearded adult mounted horsemen. One of the horsemen holds a rhyton in his right hand and a sceptre in his left hand, while the other horseman has the right hand raised in a gesture of salutation. This scene represented the investiture of a king by a god, and has its parallels in the Iranian world in the Sasanid reliefs of Naqsh-e Rostam and Bishapur depicting the investitures of Ardashir I and of Bahram I by Ahura Mazda.[13]

Although the identity of the figure holding the rhyton as been suggested to be Papaios, it most likely represented Targitaos. In the scene on the rhyton, Targitaos, in his role as the first king and divine ancestor of the Scythians acts as a custodian of the power and the victories of his descendants, and the rhyton he holds represents a communion between the king and the god, paralleling the communion with Artimpasa in the scenes with the seated goddess.[13]

The topmost and bottommost parts of the rhyton are decorated with floral patterns, representing the connection between Tartigaos and Artimpasa.[13]


The Sindo-Maeotian form of Targitaos was named Sanerges (Ancient Greek: Σανέργες, romanizedSanérges). Reflecting the role of Targitaos in the Scythian genealogical legend, Sanerges was considered the partner of the goddess Aphrodite Apatoura, who was a local iteration of the Anguipede Goddess. Like Targitaos, Sanerges was also assimilated with Heracles.[14]

"Scythian Ares"[edit]

Scythian Ares (Ἄρης), equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Ares, corresponded to the Iranian deity Vərəθraγna (𐬬𐬆𐬭𐬆𐬚𐬭𐬀𐬖𐬥𐬀), and might possibly have been an offspring of Tabiti.[9]

Although Tabiti was apparently the most important deity in the Scythian pantheon, the worship accorded to the deity Herodotus refers to as "Ares" was unique. He notes that "it is not their custom [...] to make images, altars or temples to any except Ares, 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 Ares 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 Ares. 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.[15]

According to Tadeusz Sulimirski, this form of worship continued among the descendants of the Scythians, the Alans, through to the 4th century CE;[16] this tradition may be reflected in Jordanes' assertion that Attila was able to assert his authority over the Scythians through his possession of a particular blade, referred to as the "Sword of Mars".[17]


Goitosyros (Γοιτόσῠρος) or Oitosyros (Οἰτόσυρος), might have been a solar deity, due to which Herodotus equated him with the Greek god Apollo.[4]

The name Goitosyros is derived from the Scythian name *Gaiθā-sūra (cf. Vedic Sanskrit Gavyuti-sura (गव्युतिसुर), Avestan Gaoyaoitiš-sūrō (𐬔𐬀𐬫𐬀𐬊𐬌𐬙𐬌𐬱𐬯𐬏𐬭𐬋)), which is an epithet of Mithra as the "Lord of Cattle-Land", a deity of cattle culture widely worshipped by the common people in Scythian society.[18] The first term composing this name, *gaiθā, meaning "herd" and "possessions", is a cognate of Avestan 𐬔𐬀𐬫𐬀𐬊𐬌𐬙𐬌𐬱 gaoyaoitiš "cow pasture" and reflects the nature of Apollo Goitosyros as a Hellenization of the Iranian deity Mithra Vouru-gayaoitiš (𐬬𐬊𐬎𐬭𐬎𐬔𐬀𐬫𐬀𐬊𐬌𐬙𐬌𐬱‎; the second element *sūra, meaning "strong" and "mighty", is the same as the Avestan element sūra "mighty" from the name of the goddess Aredvi Sura Anahita, and is connected to the Scythians' association of Goitosyros with the goddess Artimpasa, who had absorbed many of the traits of Aredvi Sura Anahita.[19][20]

Depictions of a solar god with a radiate head and riding a carriage pulled by two or four horses on numerous pieces of art found in Scythian burials from the 3rd century BCE and later might have been representations of Goitosyros.[5]


The Karagodeuashkh kurgan headdress
Detail of the Karagodeuashkh kurgan headdress, with the bottom row depicting Artimpasa or her chief priestess in the center surrounded by priestesses and an Enaree on the right[21]

Artimpasa (Ἀρτίμπασα), more commonly known as Argimpasa (Ἀργίμπασα) due to a scribal corruption, was equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess Aphrodite Urania. Artimpasa was an androgynous goddess of warfare, sovereignty, priestly force, fecundity, vegetation and fertility and was the Scythian variant of the Iranian goddess Arti (𐬀𐬭𐬙𐬌‎, a patron of fertility and marriage and a guardian of laws, and from whom the first element of Artimpasa's name was derived.[9][5]

The cult of Artimpasa was performed by the Enarei, who were powerful transvestite priests from the most noble families affiliated to an orgiastic cult of the goddess.[5]

There were outside influences on Artimpasa, such as from the cult of Astarte-Ishtar-Aphrodite during the long-period of Scythian presence in the Levant in the 7th century BCE, especially in the latter's form worshipped at Ascalon of an androgynous vegetation-fertility goddess, her ability to change men into women and women into men, and her affiliation with a semi-human goddess subordinate with her in the form of Atargatis for Astarte and the Anguipede Goddess for Artimpasa.[5] Artimpasa henceforth preserved many traits inherited from Astarte.[14]

Reflecting influence from Levantine cults in which the Great Goddess was often accompanied by a minor semi-bestial goddess, the Anguipede Goddess, who was also the Scythian foremother, was affiliated to Artimpasa. This affiliation was so close that the images of the two goddesses would almost merge, but nevertheless remained distinct from each other. This distinction is more clear in how Artimpasa was assigned the role of the king's sexual partner (see below) and the divine power of the kings who granted royal power, but was not considered the foremother of the people, and in how neither the Bosporan kings of Sarmatian ancestry nor the Greco-Roman authors' records assigned Aphrodite or Artimpasa as the Scythians' ancestor.[5]

The assimilation of these traits thus meant that the Greeks on the northern shores of the Black Sea identified Artimpasa with their own goddess Aphrodite Urania and the Scythians themselves assimilated Aphrodite Urania with Artimpasa. Due to this association, multiple depictions of Greek-style and made Aphrodite and Eros have been found in the tombs of Scythian nobles.[5]

The presence of similarities between Artimpasa and the Great Mother goddess Bendis of the Thracian neighbours of the Scythians, who like Artimpasa was a mistress of animals and a power-giver, however suggests that these aspects of Artimpasa were not completely borrowed from Levantine cults and had also an indigenously Scythian/Balkan element.[5]

Other influences on Artimpasa include that of the fellow Iranian goddess Anahita, whose closeness to Ashi/Arti enabled the merging of her traits into Artimpasa. Anahita's triple name, Aredvi Sura Anahita, meaning "The Humid, Strong, and Immaculate" respectively represented the three functions of fecundity, sovereignty, and priestly force, which were also functions present in Artimpasa, as were also Anahita's functions as an ancient fertility goddess influenced by the Assyro-Babylonian Ishtar-Astarte, her later orgiastic rites, and her roles as a warrior and victory-granting goddess. The cult of Artimpasa had transformed into one of the divine patron of the royal dynasty by the 4th century BCE, reflecting the absorption of Anahita's role as a divine patroness of the king and a giver of royal power by Artimpasa, as well as the influence on Artimpasa of the role of the Levantine Great Goddesses as grantors of divine power to the king. These warrior aspects of Artimpasa would later allow for her identification with Athena in the Bosporan Kingdom.[5]

Artimpasa as a winged goddess[edit]

Artimpasa was also a potnia theron, as was depicted as such on a mirror from the Kelermes kurgan, whose circle was divided into eight equal segments portraying demons, animals, and semi-bestial men, and was dominated by the goddess, winged, and holding two panthers in her spread hands. This imagery might have been influenced directly and indirectly (via the intermediary of orientalizing Greek art from Ionia) by the Levantine depictions of Inanna-Ishtar, who was portrayed as winged as symbol of her being a celestial and warrior goddess, and was also represented as a potnia theron holding animals in both her hands or surrounded by animals, and whose warrior nature was shown in her representations as a Mistress of Animals holding weapons.[5]

A Sarmatian phalera decorated with an image of a winged Aphrodite with her head decorated with leaves, and holding a small round object in one hand and a rosette in the other hand was found in the Yanchorak treasure from the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE. This phalera was part of a horse harness and the Sarmatians who copied a Greek representation of Aphrodite associated her image with their own goddess. These representations also characterise Artimpasa as a potnia hippon alongside her status as a potnia theron.[5]

Another winged depiction of Artimpasa shows her as a winged goddess flanked by deer from a plate found in the Alexandropol'skiy kurgan alongside a sceptre head shaped like the Anguipede Goddess affiliated to Artimpasa. A possibly winged representation of Artimpasa was on a damaged bronze cart beam decoration from Krasnoye Znamya. That this portrayal of the goddess showed her within a radiate circle, implying she was also a solar goddess. Artimpasa role as a potnia hippon and the nature of the horse as both solar and chthonic furthermore implied that Artimpasa, although a celestial goddess, was also a killer and earth deity.[5]

Artimpasa as the seated goddess[edit]

The seated Artimpasa and the standing god[edit]

Another Scythian art motif depicting Artimpasa portrays her as a seated goddess who wears a calathus with a veil above it and holds a mirror while a young man wearing Scythian clothing and drinking from a rhyton stands in front of her. Although this composition has sometimes been identified as a representation of Tabiti, the mirror the goddess holds is more fitting of Artimpasa's role as a goddess of fertility and sexuality and a patroness of the Enarei soothsayers due to the mirror being a symbol of feminine principle, eroticism and fertility which played an important role in the wedding rites of Iranian peoples, as well as a magical object used for prophecy and shamanic rites (the Sarmatians buried their priestesses with mirrors). One pendant from the Kul-Oba kurgan depicts Artimpasa in the centre, with a spherical vessel to her right and an alter or incense burner to her left, representing the consecration by fire (which holds an important place in the marital rites of Iranian peoples) of the communion between the goddess and humanity.[5]

The seated Artimpasa and the kneeling worshipper[edit]

A more complex form of the seated Artimpasa motif is found on a 4th-century BCE headgear gold band from Sakhnova, where the seated Artimpasa holds a mirror and a round vessel, with a bearded Scythian with a gorytos hanging on his belt and holding a rhyton in one hand and a sceptre in the other hand kneels in front of her. To their right are a musician and two "cup-bearers", and to their left is a youth with a fan and two Scythians drinking from the same rhyton (interpreted as "sworn brothers"), and two sacrificers of a ram. This scene is a representation of a sacred feast where the kneeling man, a worshipper or young god, is uniting with the goddess by drinking a holy beverage. This feast is comparable to the orgiastic festival of Sacaia which was celebrated in Pontus in honour of Anahita and was defined as a ''Scythian feast" by Hesychius of Alexandria.[5]: 114 [22]

The seated Artimpasa and the horseman[edit]

A similar artistic motif is that of a horseman facing Artimpasa. One depiction of this scene is from a famous Saka carpet from one of the Pazyryk kurgans in Siberia representing the seated Artimpasa with her right hand raised to her head and her left hand holding a blossoming branch, with a horseman facing her. Another representation of this scene is found on a 1st-century BCE to 1st-century CE relief from Chayka in which a horseman holding a bow approaches a standing woman who holds a round object (which might be a mirror, a spherical vessel or a fruit), with an altar between them.[5]

Another possible Siberian representation of Artimpasa can be found on two belt buckles depicting two dismounted horsemen, one of whom is holding the horses while the other lays in the lap of a goddess whose torso emerges from the earth and whose hair is interwoven with the branches of a tree above her head. This scene might depict the Scythian ritual sleep on the Earth and could be related to the relation between Artimpasa and the divine twins.[5]


These scenes have been interpreted as depicting the adoration or communion of Artimpasa and a god or a mortal, and more specifically as the granting of divine benediction to a king, or an investiture, or a sacred marriage. The rhyta and the spherical vessels like the one depicted in the Sakhnova band were used for drinking sacred beverages consumed in religious rituals. The spherical vessels specifically were widely used in the rituals of Iranian peoples, and large numbers of them have been found in Scythian sites, and their ornamentation typically consisting of vegetal and solar imagery as well as their depiction in Scythian art where they are held or being offered to a goddess associate them with Artimpasa.[5]

These depictions represent the male figure, who is often a standing youth of smaller stature than the goddess, as subordinate to Artimpasa, who remains seated. This artistic composition reflects a divine marriage of the goddess with a younger god, similar to the union of Cybele and Attis or of Aphrodite and Adonis, or a deified mortal identified with a god or a hero, likely the Scythian forefather Targitaos. These scenes represent this younger god receiving grace endowed by the goddess upon him after the communion. In some variants of this scene, the male partner of the goddess is bearded and is more imposing on horseback, which, if not simply a local artistic variation, reflected the increasing prominence of a warrior god in this ritual.[5]

These scenes however had multiple interpretations, and the communion with the goddess might have also represented blessing of the worshipper with an promise of afterlife and future resurrection through communion with the goddess, as well as an endowment of the king with royal power, reflecting Artimpasa's role as a giver of power and victory, which also explains why all the variants of the scene of the seated goddess and a male partner were found in the tombs of Scythian nobility.[5]

The seated Artimpasa as the royal spouse[edit]

A representation of communion with Artimpasa as guaranteeing sovereignty in Scythian religion is the signet ring of the Scythian king Scyles whose bezel was decorated with the image of a woman seated on a throne and holding a mirror in her right hand and a sceptre in her left hand, with "Σκυλεω" engraved near the figure of the goddess, and on whose band was inscribed in Greek Κέλεοε Ἄργοταν πὰρ ὲναι ("Tell to be with Argotas!"). The image of the Artimpasa on the ring was therefore a representation of her as a granter of sovereignty which inherated from generation to generation of the Scythian royal dynasty as a token of royal power, and Argotas was probably a former Scythian king from whom his descendant Scyles inherited this ring. The ring did not feature any image of the male partner of the goddess because the kings were themselves considered to be these partners, with the Scythian royal investiture having been considered both a communion between man and the goddess as well as a marital union which elevated the king to the status of spouse of the goddess and granted him power through sexual intercourse with the goddess. This was also a reflection of Levantine influence on Artimpasa, since Mesopotamian equivalents of Aphrodite Urania were sometimes represented together with the king in scenes represented sacred marriages, and the stability of royal power in Paphos was believed to be derived from intimate relations between the Aphrodite, with whom the queen of Paphos was identified, and the king, who claimed descent from Aphrodite's lover Cinyras.[5]

The Sindo-Maeotian Astara[edit]

Artimpasa was known under the name of Astara (Ancient Greek: Ἀστάρα, romanizedAstára) by the Sindo-Maeotians,[13] a name which was derived from that of Astarte.[14] Like Artimpasa, Astara's paraedrus was a male deity identified with Heracles, named Sanerges,[14] and depictions of Astara with a horseman facing her have also been found in the Kuban region inhabited by these peoples:[5]

A 4th century BCE rhyton from the Merdzhany kurgan was decorated with a representation of the seated goddess holding a spherical vessel, with a seven-branched leafless tree (a tree of life possibly characterising this scene as a marriage ceremony) on one side of her throne, and a pole with a horse skull (symbolising the importance of horses and horse sacrifice in this goddess's cult) on it on the other side, while mounted god with a rhyton approaches her - the scene represents this Sindo-Maeotian goddess and a local male deity in communion, possibly of marital nature. This scene is also parallel to the scenes of Artimpasa with a male partner, and the presence of the tree of life as well as the goddess's link to horses reflect her similarity with Artimpasa, and thus indicate close links between the Scythian and Sindo-Maeotian worship of the fertility and vegetation goddess.[5]

A relief from the 4th century BCE Trekhbratniy kurgan depicted a small charioteer drawing the horses of a carriage with a naiskos-shaped coach in which is seated a woman who stretches her hand towards a young beardless horseman who has a gorytos hanging on his left hip while another gorytos hands from a pole near the naiskos. The gorytos hanging on the pole might be linked to the Massagetae custom described by Herodotus whereby a man desiring to have sexual intercourse with a woman would hang his gorytos in front of her wagon before proceeding to the act; the hanging gorytos in the Trekhbratniy kurgan relief might thus have been a symbol of sexual union or marriage, and its location near the carriage as well as the handclasp of the woman and the horseman might therefore hint that the scene showed a sacred marriage ceremony. This scene represented the apotheosis of a deceased noblewoman who participated in the worship of the Sindo-Maeotian goddess before her death, with her receiving the status of the goddess depicted in similar scenes alongside the hero after her death. The scene might alternatively have represented the Sindo-Maeotian equivalent of Artimpasa with the hero.[5]

The Thracian divine marriage[edit]

A Thracian equivalent of Artimpasa might also appear in the series of horse bridle plaques from Letnitsa. One of the plaques depicts a seated male figure (an ancestral hero and likely Thracian equivalent of the "Scythian Heracles") with a female figure (the Thracian Great Goddess) straddling him from above, both of them explicitly engaging in sexual intercourse, and symbolising the king's acquirement of royal power through intercourse with the Great Goddess similarly to the Scythian king's obtaining of royal power through his union with Artimpasa. Behind the Great Goddess is another woman, holding a vessel in one hand and in the other one a branch which obscures the view of the hero; this figure is a vegetation goddess with an ectatic aspect, which is symbolised by the vessel she holds, which contains a sacred beverage, and whose connection to the Great Goddess is analogous to that of the Anguipede Goddess with Artimpasa.[5]

Another example of the Thracian belief in the rite of the sacred marriage with the goddess was in how the Odrysian king Cotys I believed that Athena accepted to be a substitute for the Great Goddess as his spouse.[5]

Several Thracian stelae and votive plaques have also been discovered depicting a horseman facing a standing or seated Great Goddess while a tree with a coiling snake stands between them, attesting of the similarity of the Thracian and Scythian conceptions of the Great Goddess and the affiliation to her of a snake goddess who was considered the foremother of the people.[5]

Artimpasa and the divine twins[edit]

One gold plate which decorated a priestess's headdress which was discovered in the 4th-3rd century BCE Karagodeuashkh kurgan depicting a Sindo-Maeotian form of Artimpasa is divided into three registers corresponding to the division of the universe into three levels of Scythian cosmology:[5]

  1. the upper one depicts a woman dressed in a Greek chiton and himation and holding a cornucopia
  2. the middle one depicts a person wearing a chiton and riding in a chariot carried by two horses
  3. the lower one depicts two rows of characters all dressed in Scythian dress, with a woman wearing a complex headgear decorated by a triangular plate and seated in a priestly position dominating the scene, while two beardless youths site by her side on the same bench as her: the youth to the goddess' left holds a round vessel, and the youth to her right has a gorytos on his hip and is either handing a rhyton to the goddess or receiving it from her. In the background, two beardless persons wearing a hood are standing.

The woman in the upper level of the plate was identified an Iranian deity representing khvarenah, that is divine bliss, and assimilated with Tyche, and the charioteer in the middle section has been identified with Goitosyros.[5]

The three divisions of the Karagodeuashkh plate have also been interpreted as representing the same goddess respectively reigning the world from heaven, driving the sun-chariot in the middle, and accepting the veneration of humans and blessing them in the lower section. The identification of the goddess with the Scytho-Maeotian Aphrodite, that is Artimpasa, is supported by the use of motifs of griffins flanking a thymiaterion, ova, and female masks and bucrania - all symbols of Aphrodite Urania who was identified with Artimpasa - being respectively used as separations below the three sections of the plate. This identification was further supported by the cornucopia - which was a symbol of fertility and fortune identified with the Iranian khvarenah - held by the goddess in the first section; the affiliation of Artimpasa with the chariot-riding Iranian goddess Anahita; and the presence of gold pendants in the shape of doves and gorgoneia, both symbols of Aphrodite Urania, as decorations of the Karagodeuashkh plate and of the headgear which it was part of.[5]

The third division's scene has been interpreted as depicting either the worship of the Scytho-Maeotian Astarte-Anahita (that is, Artimpasa) or the goddess granting power to the youth with the rhyton. Although the youth with the rhyton was visually similar to that of the male figure of the seated Artimpasa compositions, he differed from the latter in that both youths in the Karagodeuashh plate were represented as equals and seated on the same bench as the goddess, which signaled their divine nature - however the twin gods' smaller statures compared to the goddess, who dominated the scene, implied they were of an inferior rank to her in the mythical hierarchy and were in the rank of divine heroes. This scene therefore represented the Indo-European triad of the Great Goddess with the divine twins, itself related to the connection between the pre-Zoroastrian Anahita and the Nahaithya twins, ultimately derived from the Indo-European theme of the divine twins as the companions of the Mother Goddess who flanked her symbol of the Tree of Life. Thus, the scene on the Karagodeuashkh plate also represented a Scythian form of the cult of the divine twins.[5]

The divine nature of all the other beings represented on the Karagodeuashkh plate implied that the two hooded figures in the background of the scene could not have been eunuch priests and therefore might have instead represented mythological attendants of Artimpasa of unclear significance in the scene.[5]

The Karagodeuashkh plate thus depicted a communion of Artimpasa with a pair of heroes which therefore represented concepts of eternal life and resurrection and divine legitimation of royal power.[5]


Thagimasidas (Θαγιμασάδας) was a god worshipped only by the tribe of the Royal Scythians. Herodotus identified him with the Greek god Poseidon, which was likely not because of Poseidon's aspect as a sea god, but rather because both Thagimasadas and Poseidon were horse-tamer deities.[4]

Other deities[edit]

The Anguipede Goddess[edit]

The Anguipede Goddess (top)

The so-called "Anguipede Goddess" appears in all variations of the Scythian genealogical myth as the Scythian fore-mother who sires the ancestor and first king of the Scythians with Targitaos. Her traits, consistent across the multiple versions of the genealogical myth, include her being the daughter of either a river-god or of the Earth and dwelling in a cave, as well as her being half-woman and half-snake. Diodorus Siculus's description of this goddess in his retelling of the genealogical myth as an "anguipede earth-born maiden" implies that that she was a daughter of Api, likely through a river-god, and therefore was both chthonic and connected to water, but was however not identical with Api herself and instead belonged to a younger generation of deities of "lower status" who were more actively involved in human life. The role of the Anguipede Goddess role as the foremother of the Scythians had been very firmly established in Scythian religion before the contacts with Mediterannean religions which influenced the cult of Artimpasa to whom the Anguipede Goddess was affiliated[5]

Due to the influence of Levantine religions on the religion of the Scythians during their presence in the Near East, the Anguipede goddess also bore a resemblance to the Levantine goddess Atargatis-Derceto in several aspects, including their monstrous bodies, fertility and vegetation symbolism, legends about their love affairs, and their respective affiliations and near-identification to Artimpasa and Aphrodite Urania. Although the Anguipede Goddess was very closely identified to Artimpasa to the point of bordering on identification, the two goddesses were nevertheless distinct. Another influence might have been the Greco-Colchian goddess Leucothea, whose mythology as a woman who was turned into a goddess after throwing herself into the sea due to a curse from Hera connects her to Deuceto-Atargatis, and whose sanctuary at Vani had columns crowned with female protomes emerging from acanthus leaves similar to those of the anguipede goddess.[5]

Reflecting influence from Levantine cults in which the Great Goddess was often accompanied by a minor semi-bestial goddess, the Anguipede Goddess, who was also the Scythian foremother, was affiliated to Artimpasa. This affiliation was so close that the images of the two goddesses would almost merge, but nevertheless remained distinct from each other. This distinctiveness is more clear in how Artimpasa was assigned the role of the king's sexual partner and the divine power of the kings who granted royal power, but was not considered the foremother of the people, and in how neither the Bosporan kings of Sarmatian ancestry nor the Greco-Roman authors' records assigned Aphrodite or Artimpasa as the Scythians' ancestor.[5]

Several representations are known of the "Anguipede Goddess", often crafted by Greek artisans for the Scythian market, most of them depicting her as a goddess with snake-shaped legs or tendrils as legs, and some depicting her as winged, with griffin heads growing below her waist or holding a severed head, with many of them having been found discovered in burials, thus assigning both a chthonic and vegetal symbolism to the goddess, which follows the motif of vegetal deities possessing chthonic features.[5]

The shape of these representations is similar to that of the tree of life connecting the upper and lower spheres of the Universe as well as symbolising supreme life-giving power, and therefore merging with the image of the fertility goddess, and was additionally linked to the Iranian creation myth of the Simurgh bird resting on the Saena Tree.[5]

The snakes and griffins as well as, and representations of the Anguipede Goddess alongside predatory feline animals also characterised her as a potnia theron. The snakes also connected the Anguipede Goddess to the Greek Medusa, and Greek-manufactured representations of Medusa, especially in the form of pendants found in the tombs of Scythian nobles, were very popular in Scythia due to her association with the Anguipede Goddess. Possible depictions of the goddess as a potnia theron in the form of Medusa have also been found in Scythian art, with a damaged rhyton from the Kelermes kurgan depicting her as a winged running deity with small wings on non-serpentiform legs and flanked by griffins on both sides, and a gold plate from the Shakhan kurgan being decorated with the image of winged deity holding two animals.[5]

The posture of the Anguipede goddess, where her hands and legs were spread wide, constituted a "birth-giving attitude", and therefore associated her with a life-giving principle. This complex imagery thus reflected the combination of human motherhood, vegetation and animal life within the Anguipede Goddess.[5]

The chthonic nature of the Anguipede Goddess also explained why her depictions were placed in Scythian tombs, and her status as the fore-mother of the Scythians associated her with the cult of the ancestors - the Anguipede Goddess, being the controller of the life cycle, was also a granter of eternal life for the deceased.[5]

The depictions of the Anguipede Goddess holding a severed head which represented the sacrificial offering of a man hanging on the tree of life, were another example of Levantine influence, since severed human heads appeared in Levantine goddess cults in which the life-granting goddesses demanded death and the death of partner whom she loved and killed was re-enacted. The Anguipede Goddess therefore also had a blood-thirsty aspect, and there is attestation of human sacrifices to local goddesses accompanied by the exposure of the victims' severed heads on the northern Black Sea coast; one such head placed on an altar close to a representation of a vegetation goddess was discovered in the Sarmatian town of Ilutarum. The Scythian practice of severing the heads of all enemies they killed in battle and bringing them to their kinds in exchange of war booty, the depictions of warriors near or holding decapitated heads in Scythian art, as well as the pendants shaped like satyr heads found in the same structures as the representations of the Anguipede Goddess and of Artimpasa might have been connected with this aspect of the Anguipede Goddess.[5]

In addition to her connection with the Tree of Life, the Anguipede Goddess's image was used in shamanic rites due to her affiliation with Artimpasa, with one of the sceptres from the Alexandropol'skiy kurgan having been found decorated with a depiction of her, and the other sceptre heads being furnished with bells or decorated with schematic trees with birds sitting on them.[5]

Moreover, depictions of the Anguipede Goddess on Scythian horse harness decorations imply that she was also a patroness of horses, which might be connected with the love affair between Targitaos and the goddess beginning after she had kept his mares in the genealogical myth.[5]

The Anguipede Goddess outside of Scythia[edit]
The Kuban Region[edit]

Depictions of the snake-legged goddess were also found in the Sindo-Maeotian areas on the Asian side of the Bosporus, and her representations in her tendril-legged form became more predominant in the first centuries CE and appeared in Bosporan Greek cities, where they became a common design on sarcophagi, as well as in graves in Chersonesus.[5]

The Kingdom of the Bosporus[edit]

A possible Sindo-Maeotian variant of the Anguipede Goddess appears in the Kingdom of the Bosporus under the name of Aphrodite Apatouros (Ancient Greek: Αφροδίτη Ἀπάτουρος, romanizedAphrodítē Apátouros.[14] The goddess's epithet Apátouros was derived from a name in a Sindian dialect of Scythian meaning "mighty water" or "quick water" composed of the terms *ap-, meaning "water", and *tura-, meaning "quick" or "mighty". The cult of this goddess was of indigenous Sindo-Maeotian origin and was adopted by the Greeks, who syncretised her with their own Aphrodite Urania, when they colonised the Taman peninsula.[14]

Since the ancient Greeks did not understand the meaning of the epithet Apátouros, Strabo attempted to explain it as being derived from the Greek word ἀπάτη, meaning "treachery", through a retelling of a legend about this goddess, according to which she had been attacked by Giants and called on Heracles for help. After concealing Heracles, the goddess, under guise of introducing the Giants one by one, treacherously handed them to Heracles, who killed them.[14]

A tentative connection between this legend and the Scythian genealogical might has been suggested, whereby the legend of Aphrodite Apátouros and the Giants, and that of the Anguipede Goddess and Targitaos, might have been part of the same narrative. According to this hypothesis, Aphrodite Apátouros's reward to Heracles for defeating the Giants would have been her love.[14]

Southern Crimea[edit]

The Taurian Parthenos, the goddess to whom, according to Herodotus, the Tauri sacrificed ship-wrecked men and Greeks captured in sea-raids and exposed their heads on a pole, might have been another form of the Anguipede Goddess worshipped by non-Scythians.[5]


Thracian interpretations of the Scythian Anguipede Goddess appear in the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari as caryatids with feminine bodies wearing calathi hats and chitons with pleats shaped like floral volutes which have an acanthus between them. Their disproportionally large raised hands, which either hold the volutes or are raised to appear as supporting the entablure, are similar to the goddess with her hads raised to her face depicted on a series of Thracian votive plaques. Above the caryatids, a wall painting depicts a goddess holding a crown and reaching out to an approaching horsemen. The overall scene represents a Thracian nobleman's posthumous heroisation and depicts the same elements of the Great Goddess-minor goddess complex found in the relation between Artimpasa and the Anguipede Goddess.[5]

A Thracian equivalent of the Anguipede Goddess might also appear in the series of horse bridle plaques from Letnitsa. One of the plaques depicts a seated male figure (an ancestral hero and likely Thracian equivalent of the "Scythian Heracles") with a female figure (the Thracian Great Goddess) straddling him from above, both of them explicitly engaging in sexual intercourse, and symbolising the king's acquirement of royal power through intercourse with the Great Goddess similarly to the Scythian king's obtaining of royal power through his union with Artimpasa. Behind the Great Goddess is another woman, holding a vessel in one hand and in the other one a branch which obscures the view of the hero; this figure is a vegetation goddess with an ectatic aspect, which is symbolised by the vessel she holds, which contains a sacred beverage, and whose connection to the Great Goddess is analogous to that of the Anguipede Goddess with Artimpasa.[5]

Several Thracian stelae and votive plaques have also been discovered depicting a horseman facing a standing or seated Great Goddess while a tree with a coiling snake stands between them, attesting of the similarity of the Thracian and Scythian conceptions of the Great Goddess and the affiliation to her of a snake goddess who was considered the foremother of the people.[5]

The Goddess with Raised Hands[edit]

Multiple headgear pendants from three kurgans respectively found in Mastyuginskiy, Tolstaya Mogila, and Lyubimovskiy have been discovered which represent a goddess with large hands raised in a praying gestures and sitting on the protomes of two lions in profile. The posture of this goddess depicts an imagery which originated in either Luristan or the Caucasus, and has been interpreted as an act of prayer towards a solar or celestian deity. The depiction of this goddess from the Tolstaya Mogila kurgan shows her half-nude, with uncovered breasts and wearing only a cross-belt above the skirt. The nudity of the Goddess with Raised Hands connect hers with the Anguipede Goddess, who is often depicted in topless dress, and with Artimpasa.[5]

A later Bosporan goddess in the same praying gesture is depicted with leaf-shaped or branch-shaped hands. Like the earlier goddess with raised hands, this goddess sits on two lions or on a throne flanked by lions. The leaf-shaped hands of this goddess as well as the wild animals on her sides connect her with the tendril-legged form of the Anguipede Goddess, and therefore to Artimpasa.[5]

The Divine Twins[edit]

The mytheme of the Divine twins, which appears across several Indo-European religions in the form of the Ancient Greek Dioscuri, the Vedic Ashvins and the twins from the Dacian tablets - these divine twins had earlier Indo-European mythology been horses before later evolving into horsemen such as the Ashvins and the English Hengist and Horsa, who had horse-names. In Indo-European mythology, the divine twins were companions of the Mother-Goddess who flanked her symbol of the Tree of Life, especially in depictions of them as two horses or horsemen who stand symmetrically near a goddess or a tree.[5]

In pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion, Nahaithya, the Iranian declension of the divine twins, were connected with Anahita and were her companions. The cult of the divine twins existed among the Scythians, with Lucian recording the veneration of two twin deities in a Scythian temple whom he identified with the Greek Orestes and Pylades. Their duality represented the contrast of death against fertility and resurrection, and were related to royalty and warrior society, which thus made them companions of Artimpasa, as depicted in the Karagodeuashkh plate.[5]

Depictions of the divine twins among Scythian peoples included some Sarmatian royal brands depicting the theme of the two horsemen standing symmetrically near a tree, a small figure from a Scythian burial at Krasny Mayak depicting two men embracing one another, as well as two Greek-made bronze figurines from Scythian Neapolis depicting the Greek Dioscuri who were identified by the Scythians with the divine twins, together with a terracotta sculpture in the shape of a goddess's head were discovered in an ash altar near a wall of a temple where was worshipped a fertility goddess to whom was associated images of rams.[5]

The divine twins' position in Scythian religion was inferior to that of the gods, likely belonging to the rank of heroes, and might possibly have been the same as the two brothers and first Scythian kings born of Targitaos and the Anguipede Goddess in the genealogical myth. The Scythian divine twins, who were most likely the origin of the twin heroes who appear in the Ossetian Nart saga, are another reflection of the Indo-European mytheme of the divine twins as the progenitors of royal dynasties, also found in the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the English Hengist and Horsa, and the Greek Dioscuri as the originators of the dual-monarchy of Sparta.[5]

The Solar Horseman[edit]

Among the Scythians and the Sindo-Maeotians was present the cult of a solar god depicted as a mounted deified ancestor. This deity was believed to be a fighter against evil, and was popular from the late first millennium BCE to the first centuries of the Common Era on the Black Sea coast, Central Asia and Transcaucasia, and appeared in India following the migrations of the Saka there.[13]

The Mounted God of the Bosporus[edit]

By the 1st centuries CE in the Bosporus, the chariot-riding Scythian solar god Goitosyros had been syncretised with the horse-riding Persian god Mithra, imported from the southern and eastern shores of the Pontus Euxinus, to become the Most High God (in Ancient Greek, Θεός Ὕψιστος‎ Theós Húpsistos) of the Bosporus. This Most High God, who was depicted as a horseman, enjoyed wide popularity and was raised to the status of divine patron of the royal dynasty.[13]

The Most High God was known in Tanais as Pharnouchos (Φαρνοῦχος) derived from Old Iranian *farna-, which reflects his nature as a grace- and power-giving solar god.[13]

A stele from 104 CE which commemorates the celebration of the Day of Tanais depicts the Most High God as a mounted horseman dressed in Sarmatian costume and holding a rhyton in his right hand, with a blazing altar in front of him and a tree behind the altar. This scene is consistent with the depictions of the horsemen facing Artimpasa in Scythian art, and represents the communion of the Most High God with the Bosporan Aphrodite Urania evolved from Artimpasa, and is represented by the tree (similarly to Artimpasa, the Bosporan Aphrodite Urania was sometimes represented with tree-shaped limbs or head, with her palm shaped like large leaves on stele, and her head shaped like a tree top and her hands shaped like branches on a stamp), while the alter sanctifies the ceremony.[13]

The Bosporan thiasoi[edit]

The cult of the Most High God in Tanais was performed by thiasoi, which were state-recognised all-male collegia of which all the free men of the city were members, including both the rank-and-file citizens and the aristocracy of Tanais. These worshippers' associations belonged to the same institution and organised the whole citizenry of Tanais into distinct groups which each had a very strict hierarchy, and around half of their memberships was ethnically Greek while the other half was ethnically Iranian.[13]

These thasioi originated in the Iranian institution of male societies (Männerbunde), that is male societies of young warriors, which were present among both the Persians and the Scythians. These male societies had been Hellenised when they were incorporated into the social structure of the Bosporan Kingdom.[13]

The typical functions of these Iranian male societies, such as the worship of Mithra, the performing of ecstatic cults involving the consumption of haoma, and fire worship were reflected in the syncretised Bosporan cult of the Most High God, such as the depoction of the deity holding of a rhyton and facing a blazing altar on the Day of Tanais commemoration stele; fire worship was also present among the Bosporan thasiotes in the form of the fire cult's presence among the funerary rituals of the inhabitants of Tanais. The cult of the dead of the male societies was visible in the numerous stelae the Bosporan thasiotes built in commemoration of their dead members. Iranian male societies also maintained justice and punished law-breakers - reflected in the thiasoi officials being among the Bosporan synods' leading magistrates -, and were closely connected to royal power, hence the close connection of the thasioi and their Most High God with the Bosporan royal family and its cults. And, like the Iranian male societies, the Bosporan thiasoi were divided into age classes, and required initiations so members could join an ideal community of alive and deceased warriors.[13]


In the 19th century, Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev and French philologist Frédéric-Guillaume Bergmann (fr) mentioned a Scythian deity of the Sun by the name of Svalius.[23][24][25]

Clergy and Cult[edit]

The Enarei[edit]

The Enarei (Ancient Greek Ἐνάρεες Enárees,[26][27] Ἀναριεῖς Anarieîs,[28] derived from the Iranian term *anarya, meaning "unmanly"[29]) were a section of the Scythian clergy composed of tranvestite priests.[29]

The Enarei were affiliated to an orgiastic cult of Artimpasa in her form strongly influenced by Near Eastern fertility goddesses, and the rites of the Enarei thus combined both indigenous Scythians religious practices of a shamanistic nature, as well as ones imported from Levantine religions. The Enarei also acted as seers and performed a particular form of divination which, unlike the methods of traditional Scythian soothsayers, used linden bark;[5] the Enarei performed this form of divination by splitting the linden bark and twining the strands among open fingers.[30]. The Enarei were especially consulted when the king of the Scythians was ill,[30] which was itself believed by the Scythians to be caused by a false oath being sworn upon the king's hearth,[31] and the Scythians believed these prophetic abilities of the Enarei to have been granted to them by the goddess Artimpasa.[5]

The Scythians also ascribed the androgyny of the Enarei to a "female disease" causing sexual impotency, itself resulting from a curse by the goddess Artimpasa to the perpetrators of the sack of the temple of the goddess Astarte (whom the Scythians identified with Artimpasa) in Ascalon and their descendants during the Scythian presence in the Levant in the 7th century BCE; the transvestite androgyny of the Enarei was thus also typical of the cult of the Levantine celestial Astarte. The Enarei being enunchs who belonged to the most powerful Scythian aristocracy and wore women's clothing as well performed women's jobs and spoke like women, according to indigenous Scythian shamanic traditions they were considered "transformed" shamans who changed their sex, signaled them as being the most powerful shamans, due to which they inspired fear and were thus accordingly given special respect in Scythian society.[5]

Given the hereditary nature of the Enarei and the belief that the curse of Astarte affected the looters of her shrine at Ascalon as well as their descendants, their transvestite transformation likely happened late in their lives.[5]

Funerary customs[edit]

The rich furnishings of Scythian tombs demonstrate that Scythians devoted significant resources to ensuring the proper burial of their members, especially of nobles. This attested that the afterlife was extremely important in Scythian religion.[5]

Sarmatians buried their priestesses with mirrors, which were symbols of feminine principle, eroticism and fertility that played an important role in the wedding rites of Iranian peoples, and were believed to be magical objects used for prophecy and shamanic rites.[5] The Sarmatian citizens of the city of Tanais were buried along with weapons as well as with pieces of chalk and realgar which functioned as symbols of fire, while their graves were accompanied by burial constructions shaped as circular stone fences. These, along with horse harnesses being present in pit graves, as well as the burial of horses in tumuli, attested of the importance of the solar and fire cults in Sarmatian funerary rites.[13]

Due to increasing Scythian and Sarmatian cultural influence in Panticapaeum, the deceased were often depicted as mounted horsemen on murals in their funerary vaults and tombstones at the same time as the horseman became a recurring motif in Late Scythian and Sarmatian art in the first centuries of the Common Era.[13]

Animal sacrifice[edit]

The mode of Scythian animal sacrifice was, in the opinion of Herodotus, relatively simple. Sacrificial animals 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.[15] 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.[32]


The Massagetae custom of eating the men of their tribe who had grown old might have reflected among Scythian peoples the presence of age classes, which were a distinguishing aspect of Iranian male societies.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ redrawn from B. A. Rybakov, Язычество древней Руси ("Paganism of Ancient Rus", 1987, fig. 7).
  2. ^ Loehr, Max. "The Stag Image in Scythia and the Far East." Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America 9 (1955): 63-76.
  3. ^ Macaulay (1904:314). Cf. also Rolle (1980:128–129); Hort (1827:188–190).
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Cunliffe, Barry (2019). The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe. Oxford University Press. pp. 265–290. ISBN 978-0198820123.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh bi bj bk bl bm bn bo bp bq br bs bt Ustinova 1999, p. 67-128.
  6. ^ Atwood, Christopher P.; Andreeva, Petya. "Camp and audience scenes in late iron age rock drawings from Khawtsgait, Mongolia": 4. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ West, Martin Litchfield (2007). Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 267. ISBN 978-0-199-28075-9.
  8. ^ Cheung, Johnny (2007). Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 378–379. ISBN 978-9-004-15496-4.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Safaee 2020.
  10. ^ MacLeod, Sharon (Dec 7, 2013). The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe: Goddesses, Sacred Women and the Origins of Western Culture. McFarland. p. 116–128. ISBN 9781476613925.- Retrieved 2018-12-17
  11. ^ a b c d e f Harmatta, János (1996). "10.4.1. The Scythians". In Hermann, Joachim; de Laet, Sigfried (eds.). History of Humanity. 3. UNESCO. p. 181-182. ISBN 978-9-231-02812-0.
  12. ^ Auset, Brandi (2009). The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine. Llewellyn Publications. p. 72. ISBN 9780738715513.- Retrieved 2018-12-17
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Ustinova 1999, p. 255-283.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ustinova 1999, p. 29-66.
  15. ^ a b Macaulay (1904:315).
  16. ^ Sulimirski (1985:158–159).
  17. ^ Geary (1994:63).
  18. ^ Campbell, Leroy A. (1969). Mithraic Iconography and Ideology. Leiden: BRILL. p. 150. ISBN 978-9-004-30830-5.
  19. ^ Schmitt, Rüdiger. "SCYTHIAN LANGUAGE". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 22 October 2021. *gaiθā- “herd, possessions” and *sūra- “strong, mighty” (in the theonym Goitó-syros)
  20. ^ Herzfeld, Ernst (1947). Zoroaster and His World. 2. Princeton University Press. p. 516.
  21. ^ Randy P. Conner (1997). Cassell's encyclopedia of queer myth, symbol, and spirit. pp. 129–131. ISBN 0304337609.
  22. ^ Hesychius of Alexandria. "Γλῶσσαι/Σ". Lexicon.
  23. ^ Bergmann, Frederic Guillaume. Les Scythes. Halle: W. H. Schmidt. 1858. pp. 37 and 178-179.
  24. ^ Афанасьев, А.Н. Поэтические воззрения славян на природу: Опыт сравнительного изучения славянских преданий и верований в связи с мифическими сказаниями других родственных народов. Том 1. Moskva: Izd. K. Soldatenkova 1865. p. 81. (In Russian) [1]
  25. ^ Афанасьев, А.Н. Боги-суть предки наши. Moskva: 2009. pp. 285-286. ISBN 978-5-386-00999-1 (In Russian)
  26. ^ Herodotus. "105". Ἱστορίαι [The History]. 1.
  27. ^ Herodotus. "67". Ἱστορίαι [The History]. 4.
  28. ^ Pseudo-Hippocrates. "22". Περί Αέρων, Υδάτων, Τόπων [On Airs, Waters and Places] (in Ancient Greek).
  29. ^ a b Ivantchik, Askold (25 April 2018). "SCYTHIANS". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 23 October 2021. referred to by Herodotus as enareës (ἐνάρεες; 1.105.4; 4.67.2), and more accurately by Pseudo-Hippocrates (Aër. 22) as anarieis (ἀναριεῖς, from the Iranian *anarya-, “unmanly”)
  30. ^ a b Phillips, E. D. (1972). "The Scythian Domination in Western Asia: Its Record in History, Scripture and Archaeology". World Archaeology. 4 (2): 129–138. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  31. ^ Ustinova 1999, p. 69.
  32. ^ Macaulay (1904:314).