Stop me if you have heard this one before. There is a cave, dank and fetid with the smell of still water, living animal, and dead human. The fire burns low, it seems that it does a better job of heightening the darkness than expelling it. Every now and then an ambitious flame leaps high to reveal a seemingly supernaturally sized man (surely, he has more than one eye?). There, on the other side of the ingle, hidden by shadows, lank hair, and a ragged beard, is a man. His earlier boasting is all at odds with his slightly shell-shocked appearance. Perhaps he is indeed a famous warrior, a hero, but right now he just looks small; far too small to lift the massive boulder at the entrance to the cave.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this scene has been taken from the ninth book of the Odyssey, and perhaps in a roundabout way it has, but in this instance, it has come from a piece of Scythian mythology. Many words come to mind at hearing “Scythian”; none quite conjures the idea of careful literary curation reaching back into hoary antiquity. However, before we get into the nitty gritty of philology, it is worth hearing a fuller precis of the Scythian version before attempting to make some sense of its context and possible lines of transmission.
Amongst the Narts (whose very name meant “heroes”) there was a man called Urizhmag (or Warzameg) who was pre-eminent. Naturally, this prominence drew the ire of the yet untried youths in the village but Urizhmag was not the kind of man to suffer insult. So he issued a challenge: the youth of all three Nart tribes were to travel with him to the mysterious Black Mountain, where they were to carry off a flock of sheep – for sheep were wealth, and wealth brought renown. The journey, predictably, was arduous and by the time the Black Mountain was in sight only Urizhmag remained.
At the foot of the mountain, he espied a flock of sheep led by a billy-goat (the shepherd was nowhere in evidence) and, intending to eat one and carry off the rest, Urizhmag followed them into a mountain cave. At last, the absent shepherd appeared: he was a giant of a man who could carry whole trees in his hands. At the sight of such a monstruous caricature of humanity, thoughts of wealth and renown were at once replaced by hopes for survival. Yet even amongst the monstrous, guest friendship – what the Greeks called xenia – is held to be sacred, so the shepherd takes and slaughters one of the sheep our hero had intended to steal and shares the meal with him before falling asleep, leaving Urizhmag trapped in the cave.
Daybreak follows night and the heart of guest-friendship is reciprocity. What has Urizhmag to offer in exchange for yesterday’s feast? He has nothing. Indeed, he came to steal a herd. The giant hits upon a solution: he takes the Nart in his hands and impales him on a spit, leaving him to roast for his dinner whilst he sleeps. Urizhmag is having none of this: he is possessed of both outstanding strength and wit. He waits for the giant to doze off and pulls himself off the spit. He cannot kill his host outright – who will move the boulder blocking the entrance way? – instead, he takes the hot roasting spit and blinds him with it.
Even blinded, the giant is a formidable foe and rather than take him on Urizhmag hides amongst the flock, waiting out the giant’s understandable rage. He has used his considerable strength, now it is time to use his wits. He takes hold of the billy-goat, Bodzo, and skins him. When day breaks once more and the giant sets his animals out to pasture, he escapes under his legs in the disguise, wearing the goatskin. Finally free, he is at liberty to call and mock the outraged giant and proceeds to escape with his ill-gotten ruminants.
Whilst there are similarities between the above and the Odyssey, that does not necessitate that the Scythian version derives directly from the Greek. After all, one of the big messages from a globally engaged Classical Philology is that human beings subjected to similar living conditions will develop similar cultural practices and perhaps even stories. However, the similarities are striking: Urizhmag, like Odysseus, is a hero from an earlier generation who either fails or is failed by his younger contemporaries; the site of the story is an almost mythic distance away from home; the shepherd lives in a cave and is monstruous; he has a favourite animal who leads his herd (indeed, Urizhmag’s parting words are a rather cruel reminder that he has killed Bodzo); a distorted version of guest-friendship plays an important part in the escalation of the plot; the hero escapes via the exact same stratagem and cannot but help boasting of his victory.
The above has been a necessarily brief sketch of the tale as comes down to us and I would recommend any interested parties read the full version (and, indeed, the other related stories) provided in the suggested reading below. With some idea of the story in mind we should now examine the possible vectors of transmission from the Greeks to the Scythians and, indeed, how the Scythian version has come down to us.
Interactions between Greeks and Scythians were not a single time event but a stream of continual giving and taking. Our first evidence for Greco-Scythian interaction is from the age of heroes itself, the Bronze Age. Linear B tablets provide us with a handful of Iranian loanwords: perhaps the most thematically relevant when discussing horse-borne nomads is the word for “bow” as seen from two tablets, one from Pylos (PY An(-) 207 which gives us to-ko-so-wo-ko, “a bowyer”) and another from Knossos on Crete (KN V-(1) 150 which gives us to-ko-so-ta, “an archer”).
Readers are likely to notice the sudden switch from “Scythian” to “Iranian” and so this requires explanation. Whilst today Iran and its demonym “Iranian” refer most commonly to the nation state, the term also serves as a signifier of an ethnolinguistic group that in antiquity could be found all over Eurasia. The Scythians spoke an East Iranian language and were part of a network of closely related groups that spoke such languages, relied on the horse and bow, and lived nomadic lifestyles connected to the Eurasian steppe lands. This means that whilst we are unable to whittle down the provenance of these loan-words beyond “Iranian”, we can still be reasonably sure that they came from the ancestors of the Scythians or a very closely related group.
Perhaps a useful comparison for these terms (“Scythian” and “Iranian”) would be how we use “Germanic” and “Romance” here in Western Europe. Germanic at once suggests a genetic relationship between languages such as English, Dutch, German and Norwegian, and it may be inferred that since such languages arose from a common source, their speakers at one point shared a common culture. In the case of the Romance languages, this is even more apparent, since the Romans left behind much literary, linguistic, and physical evidence for their French-, Spanish-, and Italian-speaking epigones. For an out group, the differences between discrete languages within a group may not always be clear. When their North Germanic cousins were raiding Britain throughout the 8th to 11th centuries, the Anglo-Saxons referred to them all as “Danes”. Likewise, the East Germanic rulers of various sub-Roman kingdoms in Spain and France did not care whether their subjects spoke early forms of Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian; they simply called them all Romans.
Such was the case amongst the Greeks themselves who had, as we will see, very intimate and intense relationships with the Scythians and other Iranian speakers. Both Persians and Medes were simply referred to as “Medes” more often than not and a whole number of nomadic tribes were referred to simply as “Scythian”. This sort of confusion must lie behind Herodotus’ interesting story about the Sauromatians drawing their origins from an illicit union of Scythian bastard males and Amazons (Histories 4.110–17) and that their tongue is a sort of Scythian incorrectly learnt. To the Greeks, these people must have looked, sounded, and acted in a remarkably similar way, despite any internal divergences.
Throughout this piece “(East) Iranian” will be used to refer to a language family, just as we speak of (say) Germanic, and “Scythian” an ethnocultural classifier within that broad grouping, equivalent to (say) English or German but with considerably more closeness in linguistic and material culture than exists between modern Germanic speakers.
Such an approach, which uses evidence from very closely related groups to fill in the gaps, is the typical way of studying horse-nomads who perforce leave behind little direct evidence. Some readers may recall one of the more innovative recent studies which leveraged linguistic analysis to decipher seemingly nonsensical inscriptions on Greek pottery and reveal that they were recognisably Scythian. A similar methodology can be profitably applied to our story here: our hero’s name, Urizhmag (or Warzameg), is recognisably comprised of two (East) Iranian stems. The first stem is likely to go back to Proto-Indo-European *u̯erh₁ǵ which takes on a number of meanings across descendent languages (take Ancient Greek ὀργή, orgē, for example) but in East Iranian has, since the time of the Avestan Gathas, meant something like “strength” or “nourishment”. The second stem is derived from Proto-Indo-European *méǵh₂s meaning “big” or “great” (consider its descendants in Ancient Greek and Latin, μέγας, megas, and magnus respectively). East Iranian retains the same meaning and takes the form maza. So Urizhmag is one “nourished in great(ness)”, or perhaps one who is simply “great in (his) strength”.
The giant shepherd’s poor goat’s name is likewise decipherable. It goes back to PIE *bʰedʰh₂ but, interestingly, does not descend via East Iranian. Instead it comes via Slavic *bosti which means “to gore” or “to ram”. Yes, the goat is named something like “Gorer” or “Mr Rammy”. The importance of this Slavic interpolation will be dealt with later, but for now let us continue adding links to our evidentiary chain.
The collapse of Mycenaean palatial culture, however that happened, causes a breach in our evidence only for East Iranian speakers to appear again in an oblique reference in Homer’s Odyssey, since the epic poet knows something of the Cimmerians (who gave their name to the Crimea) and their land (11.13–19). There are also a handful of references to Scythians and related tribes found amongst the sadly fragmentary remains of Greek lyric poetry. But it is with Herodotus, the father of history, that the Scythians burst from the steppe and into historiography; from this point the complex web of interactions between them, their various cousins, and the Greeks becomes far too fulsome and frequent to recount. Half raconteur, half magsman, and entirely worth your time, Herodotus deals in Book 4 of his Histories largely with these horse nomads. Central to this account are the various Greek and Scythian settlements around the river Dnieper in the Ukraine. If ever there was an inflection point from Greek to Scythian in the Classical period, this must have been it. Contacts between the two peoples were intense (indeed, Herodotus tells us, without elaboration, of the existence of a mixed Greek-Scythian tribe, the Callippidae) as attested by both literary and material evidence.
Whilst I think these various Black Sea settlements are the likeliest point of transmission, they are certainly not the only ones. When Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Persian empire he opened points of contact with Iranian speakers from the Black Sea down to the Indus; his various successors lived out their careers negotiating these complex cultural intersections (almost) as often as they warred with one another.
An example is in order: Seleucus I Nikator alone of Alexander’s generals did not repudiate his Persian wife upon the king’s death, perhaps in part because he inherited the old Achaemenid heartlands. Seleucid rule in the area would last for nearly 250 years. Hellenisation of local cultures was intense, so intense in fact that when the Parthians (another set of Iranian-speaking horse nomads who overthrew the Seleucids and set up their own empire in the area) defeated the Roman triumvir and plutocrat Crassus, they used his head as a prop in a production of Euripides’ Bacchae.
This gruesome anecdote handily leads us to another pertinent question. We have sketched out avenues for this Greco-Scythian interaction, but do we have any idea as to the mechanisms of transfer? Unfortunately, no bilingual texts have come down to us, nor literary accounts of young Scythians sitting at the feet of Greek epic singers. Stories like the one above, of a production of Euripides at the Parthian court, or the young prince Scyles learning to read and speak Greek, are few and far between. Such is the nature of oral storytelling: winged words do not fossil records make. What evidence we do have for cultural contact is sieved through a net of implications and inferences. It is now widely accepted that the cultures of the Near East influenced the development of Greek literature from an early state, despite the precise mechanisms being contested. The extent of this is hard to grasp and rather humbling. Writing in the 3rd century AD, Aelian knew of Gilgamesh (Γίλγαμος in Greek) more than 1,500 years before George Smith discovered and translated the eleventh tablet of the epic. If we are at a loss to specify how well-attested traditions such as Greek, Akkadian, and Sumerian exchanged ideas then it stands to reason that our evidence for Scythian is so much scantier.
This entire piece has been working under the assumption that the route of transmission was from Greek to Scythian and not the other way around. I believe that the weight of the evidence, such as it is, suggests this direction of travel. But for methodological propriety, we should consider why this is likely. There are three possibilities. First, that the Greek influenced the Scythian (our working assumption); second, that the Scythian influenced the Greek; and third, that each draws from a shared, but otherwise unknown, source. The last of these options is immaterial, as a third point of origin does not preclude subsequent Greek versions influencing Scythian versions or vice versa. To support the claim that the Scythian influenced the Greek, there is simply not enough evidence. By contrast, the Greek version is supported by a hoard of early literary and artistic references which have no parallel in any other tradition. It is not just that the Greek is earlier per se (textualization of a tradition is no guarantee of age or originality) but that the odd tenderness of Polyphemus to his ram juxtaposed with the horror of his cannibalism and the violence of his defeat is so Odyssean that it is unikely to have arisen elsewhere.
Moreover, there are too many possible routes of transmission from Greek to Scythian: perhaps a Scythian mercenary is struck by the oddness of a statue of Odysseus under a ram and asks for the story; perhaps a Sarmatian auxiliary commander in the Roman army learnt enough Greek to relay orders and stumbled upon the story; perhaps an Alan in Constantinople wished to learn more of the culture of the metropole; perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…
One final question remains. How do we have this Scythian tale? As noted earlier, many words come to mind on hearing “Scythian”. None quite conjures the idea of careful literary curation reaching back into hoary antiquity. Yet the vicissitudes of time are a funny thing, and the Scythians have, even if in a slightly roundabout way, descendants. The Sarmatians, for reason of space, have not received their due here. We have had no space to discuss how they burst onto the scene aiding their Scythian siblings against the Achaemenids, how they fought the Romans as foes and then served as federates as far away as gloomy Britain (where they may have been a source for the King Arthur stories), the Black Sea and the Caucasus before finally succumbing to waves of Slavic and Gothic invaders. Their descendants, the Ossetians, speak an East Iranian language and live to this day in the Caucasus, within the Russian federation. They have preserved their ancient tales in a sea of Slavic and Caucasian speakers, and whilst these stories undoubtedly preserve a large amount of material from antiquity, they have also influenced – and been influenced by – the cultural traditions of their neighbours. Hence why the Scythian Urizhmag can fight an unnamed pastoralist who gave his billy goat a Slavic name. In short, the Nart sagas (as they are called) are part of a larger, living, tradition well worth the reader’s time.
It is tempting, natural even, to wish that the Nart sagas had been textualized earlier. The 12th-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes, for example, was sufficiently exposed to Sarmatian speakers that he is able to inscribe a handful of their words as part of a recherché joke. Imagine if he handed one of his interlocutors a pen? Imagine if, eight centuries earlier, Herodotus did likewise? Textualisation of these stories happened late as part of the general rise of national consciousness in the 18th and 19th centuries. The same impetus that caused Elias Lönnrot to collect Finnish folk stories and weave them into the Kalevala, and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to collect German fairy tales was naturally also found in the Russian Empire and it was thanks to Adolf Pyetrovich Berzhe’s German translations of Shora Begmurzin Nogma’s earlier Russian accounts that the Nart sagas came to Western attention.
Whenever Classical scholars study the effect of nationalism on the discipline, they (often rightly) focus on its ills and the tendency of powerful groups to (mal)appropriate the past. But we have the benefit not only of hindsight but comfortable conditions and well-edited texts to work from; it is easy to forget the effort and commitment involved when working with predominantly oral traditions. Late we may have them, but that we do have these Nart sagas at all is a wonderful thing indeed. These stories have passed from many mouths to fewer hands, Papaios and Targitaos have long yielded to Christ and St George, and the Ossetians have traded the nomadic tents of their Scythian forebears for settled lives. If we can still hear some faint echo of the twang of a recurve bow or the stamp of a horse-hoof, we should do so with gratitude. Antiquity is never fully in the past, for those who are willing to look.
So, to close, can we decisively say that the Scythian version is a reflection of the Greek? Perhaps not. Whilst we have hinted at some of the close interactions between Greek speakers and East Iranian nomads over millennia, decisive evidence one way or the other is now beyond our reach. Although the similarities between the two versions, especially the giant’s loving speech to Bodzo the goat and Polyphemus’ lament for his poor ram are, to my mind, too close to be mere chance. It is ever thus with antiquity, where students must resign themselves to looking, at best, through a glass darkly. However, that Homer sung sweetly enough to charm even savage horse nomads, surely none can doubt?
J. S. Ubhi is a teacher of Classics at a secondary school in the UK. He has previously written for Antigone about the magic of philology.
Books on the Scythians and their cousins are as endless as the sea of grass, though few are as fecund and fertile. For ease of use the recommending reading has been split into sections.
Myth and Literature
- John Colarusso, Nart Sagas from the Caucasus: Myths and Legends from the Circassians, Abazas, Abkhaz, and Ubykhs (Princeton UP, 2014) is a fantastic collection and the story at the beginning of this article is drawn in part from Chapter 11. The author has also translated another series of Nart sagas and produced reams of interesting academic work on the languages of the area.
- Herodotus Book 4 remains much the most entertaining account of the Scythians and their cousins and the relevant sections of Strabo’s Geographica (predominantly Book 10) are full of interesting information.
- Barry Cunliffe, The Scythians: Nomad Warriors of the Steppe (Oxford UP, 2019) is one of the most user-friendly and rightly feted modern introductions to the Scythians. It is particularly good at situating them in their Eurasian context and integrating art and archaeology with the historical record.
- Adrienne Mayor, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World (Princeton UP, 2014) traces the colourful history of perhaps the best known Iranian tribe in Western myth.
- Tadeusz Sulimirski, The Sarmatians (Thames & Hudson, London, 1970) is sadly all too difficult to find, but it remains one of the best illustrated and written introductions to those peoples despite its advanced age.
- Two Antigone articles have explored what Plato thought of the Amazons, and the adventures of Amazonian pirates in Herodotus’ Histories.
- John Boardman The Greeks Overseas (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964) first awakened me to how fascinating the Black Sea area was in antiquity and this small book is perhaps the best exemplar of the old mode, where the Greeks were central and the others other.
- Michael Rostovtzeff, Iranians & Greeks in South Russia (Oxford UP, 1922) is not so much antiquated as venerable. My debt to this book, especially Chapters 4 to 6, is perhaps too obvious.
- David Braund & Sergei Kryzhitskiy, Classical Olbia and the Scythian World: From the Sixth Century BC to the Second Century AD (Oxford UP, 2007) is a series of essays by British and Ukrainian scholars, all of which are worth reading.
Language and linguistics
- The Encyclopaedia Iranica (available here) is a free – but underused – resource on a variety of topics.
- Benjamin W. Fortson, Indo-European language and culture: An introduction (2nd ed., Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2011). Chapters 10 and 11 should give the curious neophyte some grounding in the basics of Indo-Iranian linguistics
- János Harmatta, Studies in the History and Language of the Sarmatians (Acta Universitatis de Attila Jozsef, Szeged, 1970). Readers are unlikely to find this volume outside specialised libraries but is a good exploration of an otherwise obscure topic. Its principal values lies in the linguistic data in the last 50 or so pages.
- Oleg Belyaev & Sergei Tatevosov, The Ossetic Language. (Mouton De Gruyter, Berlin, 2023) still has nearly a year to go to publication but is liable to be an instant mainstay of the subject. Ossetian is surprisingly poorly served.
- Adrienne Mayor et al., “Making Sense of Nonsense Inscriptions Associated with Amazons and Scythians on Athenian Vases,” Hesperia 83 (2014) 447–93, is the article alluded to earlier. A brilliant example of where philology and detective work meet.
|⇧1||It may be helpful to pursue the comparison of these terms (“Scythian” and “Iranian”) with how “Germanic” and “Romance” are used here in Western Europe. Germanic at once suggests a genetic relationship between languages such as English, Dutch, German and Norwegian, and it may be inferred that since such languages arose from a common source, their speakers at one point shared a common culture. In the case of the Romance languages, this is even more apparent, since the Romans left behind much literary, linguistic, and physical evidence for their French-, Spanish-, and Italian-speaking epigones. For an out group, the differences between discrete languages within a group may not always be clear. When their North Germanic cousins were raiding Britain throughout the 8th to 11th centuries, the Anglo-Saxons referred to them all as “Danes”. Likewise, the East Germanic rulers of various sub-Roman kingdoms in Spain and France did not care whether their subjects spoke early forms of Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian; they simply called them all Romans. Such was the case amongst the Greeks themselves who had, as we will see, very intimate and intense relationships with the Scythians and other Iranian speakers. Both Persians and Medes were simply referred to as “Medes” more often than not and a whole number of nomadic tribes were referred to simply as “Scythian”. Thissort of confusion must lie behind Herodotus’ interesting story about the Sauromatians drawing their origins from an illicit union of Scythian bastard males and Amazons (Histories 4.110–17) and that their tongue is a sort of Scythian incorrectly learnt. To the Greeks, these people must have looked, sounded, and acted in a remarkably similar way, despite any internal divergences.|
|⇧2||The tale is told at Plutarch Crassus 33.|
|⇧3||It would be a further two decades before Theophilus Pinches correctly read the name as Gilgamesh and not Gizdubar.|