George Hinge


Scythian and Spartan Analogies in Herodotos’ Representation
Rites of initiation and Kinship Groups

by George Hinge




This article will focus on certain parallels between the descriptions of Scythians and Spartans in Herodotos. Even though there are fundamental differences between the two ethnic groups’ ways of life (nomadism vs. sedentarianism), and they occupy divergent positions in relation to the writers themselves (Barbarian vs. Hellenic), they are both representatives of the other. They are situated more or less in the same position in the scheme of classical ethnography, and certain attitudes considered typical of unspoiled man are attributed indiscriminately to both. Furthermore, Dorian culture allegedly kept certain “primitive” (i.e., “tribal”) features in its social organisation that may be related to similar elements in Scythian culture.

To some extent, the Spartans and the Scythians occupy parallel positions in the narrative of Herodotos, too. Both are attacked by the Persian army and both walk victorious off the battlefield. When Dareios demands “earth and water” from the Scythians, they send him enigmatic gifts, a bird, a mouse and a frog as some sort of riddle (Hdt. 4.131-2). Faced with the same claim, the Spartans throw the envoys into a well, and tell them to take their “earth and water” from there (Hdt. 7.133). In fact, the Scythians offer an alliance to the Spartans against Dareios; unfortunately, King Kleomenes spends too much time with the Scythians, so he becomes accustomed to drinking unmixed wine and eventually loses his mind! (Hdt. 6.84)

Referring to the only wonder to see in Scythia, the colossal cauldron at Exampaios (the exact location of which is disputed) erected by the otherwise unknown king Ariantas, Herodotos immediately compares it to another cauldron erected by the Spartan Pausanias at the very mouth of the Black Sea (Hdt. 4.81). In addition to the geographical symmetry, the two cauldrons being at opposite ends of the same sea, it also demonstrates the excesses of the king – Ariantes’ excess being six times larger than that of Pausanias (who, it is true, was not truly a king). Yet another example of autocratic manners is the royal burials, which Herodotos depicts similarly in both cultures (Hdt. 4.71-75 and 6.58-60).

However, the two cultures are normally not directly compared. Thus, in the case of the Spartan burials, Herodotos’ explicit point of comparison is not the Scythians but rather the Asiatic barbarians such as the Egyptians and Persians (νόμος δὲ τοῖσι Λακεδαιμονίοισι κατὰ τῶν βασιλέων τοὺς θανάτους ἐστὶ ὡυτὸς καὶ τοῖσι βαρβάροισι τοῖσι ἐν τῇ Ἀσίῃ). On two occasions, Herodotos has the two cultures meet each other: Anacharsis says that the Lakedaimonians are the only Greeks who speak reasonably – an obvious pun on the Lakonian brachylogy; yet Herodotos himself doubts the authenticity of this apophthegm (Hdt. 4.77). The other occasion is, as we have seen, when the Scythian envoys cause the madness of King Kleomenes by teaching him their uninhibited drinking habits (Hdt. 6.84). One might consider this story, ascribed by Herodotos to the Scythians themselves, a parallel to the story about the Scythian King Skyles, who, in the eyes of the Scythians, goes mad consorting with the Olbians in Dionysiac rituals. Wine leads to the insanity and dethronement of the ruler in both cases. On the other hand, these analogies are, after all, superficial and should not be pushed too far.

The Scythian Myth of Origin

More exciting is the fact that Spartan institutions and traditions may also elucidate Herodotos’ Scythian version of the myth of origin (Hdt. 4.5-7). We hear about three brothers – Lipoxais, Arpoxais und Kolaxais – the sons of Targitaos, himself the son of Zeus and the river Borysthenes. One day, some golden objects fell from the sky: “a plough and a yoke, a battle-axe and a cup” (ἄροτρόν τε καὶ ζυγόν καὶ σάγαριν καὶ φιάλην). The older brothers could not touch the objects, but the youngest brother succeeded in grabbing the golden gifts and as a result was announced king of the Scythians. The oldest brother, Lipoxais, became the forefather of the Auchatai, the middle brother, Arpoxais, the forefather of the Katiaroi and the Traspies, and the youngest brother, Kolaxais, the forefather of the kings, which were called Paralatai. However, the territory was too large and was therefore divided into three parts, which Kolaxais distributed to his three sons.

Georges Dumézil, who had a keen interest in Scythian and Ossetic cultures, tried of course to analyse this myth according to his celebrated model of the three functions. Even if one does not accept this model as a comprehensive key to all Indo-European ideology in the mother culture(s) and in the single cultures, it is hard not to accept its presence in our case. Hence, he relates the golden cup to the first function of the priest, the golden battle-axe to the second function of the warrior, and, finally, the golden plough and the golden yoke, which are really one thing, to the third function of the provider (similar gifts are presented by the Central Asiatic Scythians in Quintus Curtius 7.8.18-19 jugum boum et aratrum, sagitta, hasta, patera).

The names Auchatai, Katiaroi, Traspies and Paralatai do not appear again in Herodotos, and they are almost never mentioned in later ethnographical literature. There is thus good reason to doubt that they were living ethnonyms in the age of Herodotos. Nevertheless, Holzer identifies them with the Skythai geōrgoi (“Farmer Scythians”), the Skythai nomads (“Nomad Scythians”), and the Skythai basilēioi (“King Scythians”) mentioned in the geographical excursus (Hdt. 4.17-20). They correspond perfectly to Dumézil’s tripartite scheme. However, as Dumézil has pointed out, the genē of the myths cannot be geographically distinct groups since all tribes had of course providers and warriors among them, and the regional division is moreover covered by the second triad represented by the sons of Kolaxais, which would otherwise be superfluous. At the time of the Persian invasion, Herodotos speaks about three Scythian realms under the kings Skopasis, Idanthyrsos and Taxakis (Hdt. 4.120). Apparently, one of the kings, probably the one who seized the largest realm, was considered the Great King of the Scythians. Nothing supports that these three kingdoms are identical with the three economically different kinds of Scythians.

Grantovskij has suggested, also on the basis of Dumézil’s system, that the Katiaroi/Traspies, the Auchatai and the Paralatai were social classes with qualities corresponding to the three functions – i.e., commoners, priests and warriors respectively. This is confirmed, he says, by Lucian, Scythes 1, where it is said of Anacharsis that he does not belong to the royal family (τοῦ βασιλείου γένου) or the ones who wear felt caps (τῶν πιλοφορικῶν), but to the common people called eight-footed (οἱ ὀκτάποδες) because they possessed only one carriage and two oxen. It may however be disputed whether the felt cap is a sign of the priest, as it seems to be a common garment of the Scythian warriors. Dumézil argues that the Auchatai, the Katiaroi, the Traspies and the Paralatai cannot be social classes, either, since the Scythians did not have a specialised priest caste like the Indian Brahmans. The transsexual diviners called Enarees (Hdt. 1.105.4, 4.67.2) or Anarieis (Hipp., Aer. 22.1) are not a separate class, but isolated gifted individuals. Instead, Herodotos’ genē are human types existing everywhere, an ideal model that has nothing to do with real Scythian society. There was certainly a social diversity in Scythian society, which could be and probably was conceived in the framework of the tripartite structure. The question is, however, if proper castes existed.

The scholarly literature has suggested quite different etymologies for the names of the three brothers – Arpoxais, Lipoxais and Kolaxais – and the corresponding four groups: Auchatai, Katiaroi, Traspies, Paralatai. The first names are obviously compounds with the Iranian noun kšaya (“ruler”), but the first parts of the words are less evident. The roles ascribed by different scholars to these three ancestors and their descendants differ according to the etymology chosen. Of course, from a methodological point of view it is rather problematic to suggest etymologies for words that do not have an established denotation, and even more problematic if these etymologies are exploited as an argument for defining the denotation of the word in question. If one accepts the tripartite structure as a valid model in our case, the range of denotations is of course limited to three – i.e., provider ~ warrior ~ priest. The key person is Kolaxais, as he becomes the ruler of the others and eventually the ancestor of three Scythian royal dynasties, so it is necessary to find an etymology in accordance with this particular role.

Dumézil argues that the Scythian kings belonged to the first function, that of religion (not to the second one, as Grantovskij assumes). Thus, Aristotle ascribes the effeminacy disease of the Enarees to the Scythian kings (Arist., Eth.Nic. 7.8, 1150b). The name of the group to which the royal families belonged, Paralatai, seems to be related to Iranian Paraδāta, which in the Avesta is a constant epithet of Haošiiaŋha, the mythic founder of the Iranian kingdom and the destroyer of demons and sorcerers, and hence, in Dumézil’s analysis, representative of the first function. Auchatai is (in spite of the unusual g ~ ch alternation) connected with Avestic aogah- “force” (i.e., “the strong ones”), and identified with the second function of the warrior. Accordingly, the Katiaroi and the Traspies, both descendants of Lipoxais, must represent the third function; Dumézil derives Katiaroi from *Gau-čahrya (“with cow-meadows”) or *Hu-čahrya (“with good meadows”) (Avest. čaŋra ), and Traspies is presumably connected with the Avestic horse god Drvāspā.

Askold I. Ivantchik maintains in a recent article that Kolaxais and the Paralatai represent the second function of the warrior, whereas Arpoxais and the Auchatai represent the priests, and Lipoxais and the Katiaroi and Traspies the providers. This partition of the roles is supported by a more adequate linguistic and mythological analysis of the names transmitted in Herodotos: Ivantchik rejects the idea that Haošiiaŋha Paraδāta should be a representative of the priest caste; in Avestic mythology he is described as the prototypical warrior. Auchatai belongs to vahu- (“good”), a word regularly connected with the function of the priest in the Iranian tradition. As for Katiaroi and Traspies, Ivantchik accepts the etymologies of Dumézil. Furthermore, the ancestors of the groups have names corresponding with their assumed functions: Kola- = *hwarya- (“sun”) (Scythian *xola- with the regular development ry > l), Arpo- = *āpra > *ārpa (“water”) (Ossetic arf) and Lipo- = *ripa (“mountain”) (Greek Rhipai, Vedic [Rgveda 3.5.5] Ripa). The first equation is very convincing, as in the Avestic tradition, the ancestor of the warriors is called Hvar.čiθra- / Xuršēδčihr, a compound with the very same *hwarya- (“sun”), as in Kolaxais. Thus the three groups are connected to three different cosmic levels, just like the three families in the Ossetic Nart Epic: at the bottom, the Boratæ, who were rich with cattle; in the middle, the intelligent Alægatæ, and at the top, the brave and strong Æxsærtægkatæ.


The gold items, which symbolise the three functions, are in the hands of the Scythian kings and are displayed at a festival once a year (Hdt. 4.7). It is furthermore stated that “whoever sleeps with the gold in the open during the festival, will not, according to the Scythians, live through the year, and he is given all the land he is able to ride around himself in one day”.

I suggest that the ritual described here is part of the initiation rites into the world of male adults – to be exact, the so-called rite of marginality or liminality, which is characterised by a perilous isolation outside of society itself and a suspension of ordinary societal values. The rite of liminality is frequently described in death metaphors – indeed, the initiand is often thought of as dead himself. The ritual of spending the night with the religious objects may be a solemn staging (or circumscription?) of the youth’s life in the bush.

This interpretation is not as farfetched as it may seem. It is no coincidence that in a passage describing Cretan institutions Ephoros introduces gifts almost identical to those playing a central role in the ritual described above, namely a warrior dress, an ox and a drinking cup, which are given to the young man by his lover during a festival celebrating the youth’s admission into adulthood (FGrHist 70 F 149 ap. Strabon, Geogr. 10.4.21 στολὴν πολεμικὴν καὶ βοῦν καὶ ποτήριον). As Bernhard Sergent points out, the three functions are present here, too: the war equipment represents the second function (= the battle-axe), the ox the third function (= the plough and yoke) and the cup the first function (= the phiale). These gifts are presented to the youth at the festival celebrating his inclusion into the ranks of the adult men. In several respects Sparta’s social structure, especially the education of children – the so-called agōgē – resembled that of Crete (the tradition reflects this idea in the myth about Lycurgos importing his Spartan laws from Crete). Even though we have no record of a similar ritual in the case of Sparta, Sergent suggests that the Hellenistic poet Lykophron provides testimony of the same gifts being given in Sparta, inasmuch as he states that on his return from Troy, Menelaos came through Iapyge, where he dedicated a shield, Helene’s shoe and a crater to Athena Skylatria (Alex. 852-855 Ταμάσσιον κρατῆρα καὶ βοάγριον καὶ τὰς δάμαρτος ἀσκέρας εὐμαρίδας). Iapyge lies in the vicinity of the Spartan colony of Taras, and Menelaos and Helene are themselves Spartan heroes. At any rate, the Dumézilian objects are in my opinion a symbol of the initiation into the clubs of adult men, and thus their presence in both Scythian myth and ritual is a key to the interpretation.

Later, in the Scythian logos (Hdt. 4.64-65), Herodotos writes that the young Scythian drinks the blood of the first man he slays. Every year there is a festival that only those men who have killed an enemy already are allowed to attend; we are told that it is very shameful for an adult not to have killed anyone yet (cf. also Arist. 7, 1324b). This account resembles the Spartan Krypteia, i.e., the liminal phase of the boys’ initiation, a year during which the youths had to live isolated from society itself in the chora, sleeping on the bare ground, stealing their food and killing innocent helots. The festival in question is different from the one described at the beginning of book 4. The first one is in the hands of the local chieftains (Hdt. 4.65 ὁ νομάρχης ἕκαστος ἐν τῷ ἑωυτοῦ νομῷ), whereas the latter is arranged by the kings (Hdt. 4.7 οἱ βασιλέες ἐς τὰ μάλιστα καὶ θυσίῃσι μεγάλῃσι ἱλασκόμενοι μετέρχονται ἀνὰ πᾶν ἔτος). I would suggest that the common festival marks the rite of marginality, whereas the local festival marks the rite of aggregation and is therefore only for those who have accomplished the liminal ordeal.

In Sparta, three festivals representing the rite of separation, the rite of liminality and the rite of aggregation, respectively, celebrate the boys’ rite of passage. The Hyakinthia mark the separation from community: the aetiological myth is the tragic death of Apollon’s young favourite, Hyakinthos. The Gymnopaidia mark civilisation turned upside down, with naked dances in the summer heat and sphairomachia, a combination of football and boxing. Finally, the inclusion into the polis is celebrated by the Karneia, which unlike the two first pan-Spartan festivals are celebrated separately in nine so-called tents, each with three phratriai (Ath. 4, 414e-f), most likely one from each phyle. Just as the Spartan initiation ruled admission into the community, or rather secret society, of male Spartiats, which was conceived, it seems, in terms of kinship (phyle) and expressed in common meals reserved (and obligatory) for adult male citizens, so the Scythian initiation was obviously connected with the membership of the genē described in the myth of origin and celebrated once a year at a local drinking festival.

The Doric Myth of Origin

Gregory Nagy has drawn the attention to the fact that the Dorian phylai fit perfectly into Dumézil’s scheme of the three functions. In the Dymanes he recognises the first function of the priest, in the Hylleis the second function of the warrior, and in the Pamphyloi the third function of the provider. The Dorian royal families are correspondingly derived from the eponymous hero Hyllos (cf. Hdt. 6.52, 7.204, 8.31). Furthermore, an inscription from Kos connects the Hylleis with Herakles’ sanctuary, the Dymanes with the Anaxilea (“the sovereign’s sanctuary”) and the Pamphyloi with Demeter’s sanctuary (ICos 140). It is interesting to note that the choral lyric of Alkman (Sparta, 7th century BC) mentions only the Dymanes of these three phylai. Hence, the Dymanes may have had a special connection to the Spartan cult, which supports the idea that the phyle did in fact embody the first function. Alkman’s famous Partheneion (fr. 1) seems to have been performed by Hylleis girls, one of whom is called Agido (literally, “from the (royal) House of Agis”), and the choir describes itself as cousins. However, this does not disturb the overall notion that the Dymanes played a special role in Spartan cult.

In this connection, it is interesting that the Dorian myth of origin also corresponds in many respects with the Scythian myth in Herodotos: Aigimios, the son of the eponymous forefather Doros, begot two sons, Dymas and Pamphylos, and adopted a third one, Hyllos; they are the ancestors of three phylai, just as the genē Auchatai, Katiaroi, Traspies and Paralatai originate from Targitaos’ sons, Arpoxais, Lipoxais and Kolaxais. Furthermore, both in the Dorian and the Scythian version, the royal power was allotted to the youngest / adopted son. Finally, Hyllos’ great-grandchild had three sons: they divided the kingdom among themselves and were the founders of the royal houses of Argos, Messene and Sparta. The genealogies of the Dorians and the Scythians match astonishingly well: in both we have two rows of three brothers, the first of which procreates a social division, whereas the second row leads to a regional division (Tab. 2 + 3).

The two discrepancies are easily accounted for: I. Hyllos is described as Herakles’ biological son to legitimise the Dorian kings’ claim to the Peloponnese (“the return of the Heraklids”). II. Two generations are inserted between Hyllos and the three kings to account for the traditional time span between the pre-Trojan era of Herakles and the Dorian immigration.

The Spartan phylai and the Scythian genē are envisaged within Dumézil’s tripartite structure. However, this does not mean that all Pamphyloi or Katiaroi / Traspies were necessarily producers, that all Hylleis or Paralatai were warriors, or that all Dymanes or Auchatai were priests. All social roles were in principle present in all phylai / genē. Yet, the three phylai / genē were after all co-dependent, and they represent jointly the whole ideological spectrum. This being said, certain privileges tended to be allotted to certain phylai / genē. It is neither a regional nor an economical division, but a kinship division cutting across all distinctions.

The Dumézilian model has been criticised for the fact that the triad is a universal division. Given that man tends to divide the world into three, the tripartite structure is not necessarily of Indo-European origin. This objection touches only the naive version of Dumézilianism. Only the triad that organises the same three functions of the priest, the warrior and the provider in a closed and mutually co-dependent system can be called a real tripartite structure. The figure three is of course not sufficient in itself. Thus, the simple geographical division into three kingdoms is not a Dumézilian triad, as it occurs in virtually all human mythologies. Noah begets three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, who divide the earth among themselves – after all, Genesis is not a likely repository for Indo-European ideology. Thus, the fact that both the Scythians and the Dorians have settled in three kingdoms, and that this triad is projected by mythology back to three brothers, does not prove that the mythologies are interdependent. On the other hand, it cannot be accidental that this obviously common human geographical triad has been subjected to a Dumézilan tripartite structure in both mythologies.

Eduard Norden points to the extensively corresponding myths of origin of the Scythians and Germans in Herodotos and Tacitus, respectively. In Tacitus, too, there is both a native version that speaks about an obscure progenitor and three brothers and a foreign version that departs from Herakles. In the Tacitean narrative, however, there is only one – geographical – triad of brothers: the ancestors of Ingaevones, Hermiones and Istaevones, the three tribal leagues. It is not my purpose here to decide whether Tacitus depends ultimately on Herodotos, perhaps through intermediary informants like Poseidonios. At any rate, Tacitus’ myths have no Dumézilian features in them.

In the Iranian Pehlevi tradition (in Ayātkār i Jāmāspīk), Frētōn (Ferīdūn) has three sons who represent the three functions: Salm gets wealth, Tōz courage and Ērič law and religion. They are allotted three parts of the world too: Salm possesses Rome (= the Byzantine Empire), Tōz Central Asia and Ērič Iran and India. The two levels, the functional and geographical divisions, are combined, and the geographical division is not within the tribe, but embraces the whole world. In this respect, it is more similar (on a larger scale) to the Pontic Greek version of the myth of origin, according to which Herakles begot three sons, Agathyrsos, Gelonos and Skythes, the forefathers of the Agathyrsoi, the Gelones and the Scythians, respectively (Hdt. 4.10).

The wide range of parallels between the Scythian and the Dorian myths of origin does show that the explanatory strategy of source criticism is inadequate, and that we are not only dealing with a literary convention of the ethnography of the barbarians, but also in part with a common Indo-European heritage in all the described nations and in part with a basic ideology to which the ethnography of the Greeks and Romans ultimately adheres. The question is where the heritage stops and the ideology begins, which is of course difficult to determine, as the ideology has arisen on the basis of the heritage.


Are the Scythian genē therefore some sort of phylai as well? In the chapter in question, rather than using the word ethnos, Herodotos uses the word genos, i.e., a stock and not a people. However, according to the etymology of the word genos, it designates any group that claims a common origin (syngeneia), and according to context it may mean family, phyle or people. A social class, on the other hand, would hardly be called genos. The Scythian and Doric phylai may be a common inheritance, but the question is whether we are allowed to project the three functionally distinct phylai back to Indo-European times. However, Dénis Roussel argues in a rather influential book that the Doric phylai were not some old tribal relict surviving in the historical societies, but an innovation of the Classical polis.

Thus, the possibility exists that the intimate correspondence between the Spartan and the Scythian institutions is due to the Greeks describing those customs. Herodotos and his Greek informants (we do not know if Herodotos had any opportunity to interview native Scythians, but if he did, he certainly did it in Greek, and then the discourse remained Greek anyway) would necessarily express the Scythian culture within the framework of Greek ideology. So, they may have unconsciously interpolated both the embedded genealogy and the familiar phyle / genos system of the Greek polis into their description of Scythian society and mythology.

Within Greek culture itself, Sparta represented in the eyes of classical observers a more simple cultural level than Athens and Ionia (which were originally non-Greek according to Hdt. 1.56). Her cruel tribal customs and underdeveloped polis structure made her a natural scheme for the construction of the primitive other in Athenian and Ionic ideology. Furthermore, the Spartan agōgē seemed to have adopted a nomadic stereotypy. The back-to-basics phase of Spartan initiation, Krypteia, conforms to the sedentary agriculturalists’ stereotype of nomadic life. The Byzantine lexicographer Photios (s.v. συνέφηβος) states that the Eleans call the ephebes ‘Scythians’, and it is well known that the Athenian guards, who were probably young citizens, were dressed as and called Scythians. After the Krypteia, the best of the young Spartan men were chosen for the corps of the Three Hundred, the so-called Hippeis (Hdt. 1.67.5, 8.124.3), which were elected by three hippagretai (Xen., Lac. 4.3), probably according to phylai. Thus, like the Scythian elite, the best of the Spartan youth consisted of horse warriors.

This ideology worked both ways. As a people the Scythians were themselves pictured as ephebes, too. Just as the Spartan agōgē preserves certain “tribal” elements, which were conceived of as similar to the Scythian way of life, so Scythian society was in a sense depicted as a full-scale rite of liminality. The whole space of Scythia is described as marginal, and, accordingly, the inhabitants live a non-urbanised, non-settled, non-agricultural life in which ordinary values are turned upside down.

Herodotos’ tale about the origin of the Sauromatians (Hdt. 4.110-116) is interesting in this context: The Greeks took some Amazons prisoner at Thermodon and sailed away with them. But the Amazons killed their new masters and landed on Kremnoi at the Sea of Azov, where they ran into a herd of grazing horses, on which they rode away. At first the Scythians thought they were young men, but gradually they realised the Amazons were women, and so they sent a group of young men out to them on the steppes. They lived the same life nearby each other, became accustomed to each other and eventually paired off. The Scythians proposed going home to their parents and property, but the Amazons did not think they would be able to live with the Scythian women, who were doing women’s work at the carriages and did not hunt, so instead the men fetched their property, and they all left to live beyond the Tanais.

The Spartan women were notorious for their unrestricted life (which according to Aristotle (Pol. 2, 1269b-1270a), was the very cause of Sparta’s final decline). Normally Herodotos does not speak much about Greek women – who lived secluded from the public – but the Spartan women are often described as strong and independent individuals in line with the eastern women – e.g., Eurysthenes’ and Prokles’ mother Argeia (6.52), the Spartan wives of the Minyans (4.145-6), Anaxandrides’ wife (5.39-41), Kleomenes’ daughter Gorgo (5.51, 7.205, 7.239) and Demaretos’ mother (6.61-63, 6.67). It is typical that Herodotos only speaks about intellectually and erotically independent women in connection with royal (or tyrant) houses. In other words, it is an unspoken premise in Herodotos (and a spoken one in Aristotle) that autocratic societies are also gynecocratic.

In reality, it is true that the Spartan women did not enjoy political independence, and their place was at the hearth just like the Athenian or, for that matter, the Scythian women. However, the agōgē of the young girls was characterised by a liberty that was unparalleled in classical Athens. In the girls’ rites of passage there was of course a period of liminality, too, in which values were turned upside down, and the young girls dedicated themselves to athletics, public choirs and amorous liaisons. This phase is connected with the cult of Artemis, whose sanctuaries are not infrequently located on the border of Lakonia: in Limnai (at the frontier with Messenia), Karyai (at the frontier with Arkadia) and Epidauros Limera (on the east coast). Herodotos’ story about the young Scythian men’s encounter with the Amazons has a lot in common with the mythology, which supports the rite of passage of the young Spartan girls (young men raping dancing girls), and the goddess protecting this rite of passage, Artemis, is the prototype of all Amazons

According to Herodotos (Hdt. 4.8-10), the Pontic Greeks traced the Scythians back to Herakles, who, having come accidentally to the Black Sea region, met a sex-hungry monster, with whom he begot three sons: Agathyrsos, Gelonos and Skythes. The royal power was allotted to the youngest brother (once more), whereas the two older brothers had to leave the country. In Hartog’s mind, the derivation of the Scythians from Herakles is rather problematic, because it suggests a congeniality of Greeks and Scythians that is in conflict with the otherness demanded by the narrative. He takes refuge in the ambiguous nature of Herakles (he is wild and unrestrained) and considers it – paradoxically, I might add – hellenocentric to derive foreign races from a Greek ancestor. Yet, both the Pontic Greeks and Scythians accept this genealogy.

Interestingly, in Herodotos, three nations (or their royal houses) are traced back to the hero Herakles: the Scythians, the Lydians (Hdt. 1.7) and the Dorians (Hdt. 6.52, 7.204, 7.31). Being the ideal representative of the function of the warrior, Herakles is of course a natural founder of the royal houses of the warlike Scythians and Spartans. Yet Herakles also moves in the liminal sphere. The twelve labours are an enlargement of the ordeals that the initiand goes through and they are located on the desolate margin of civilisation. The Pontic Greek version of the myth of origin explicitly takes one of Herakles’ labours as its point of departure: the theft of the Geryonic oxen; Herakles follows a route on the edge of the world, along the river Okeanos, and he sleeps on the ground.

Herodotos states that the lineage of the Heraklids stemming from Herakles and a slave girl ruled Sardeis successively for twenty-two generations, or 550 years, until being overthrown by Kroisos’ ancestor Gyges. There exists a tradition that also derives the Mermnads, to which Kroisos belongs, from Herakles – what is more, from his liaison with Queen Omphale (Apollod., Bibl. 2.7.8). This is of course an attempt to make the Mermnad dynasty even more legitimate than its Heraklid predecessor (the tradition is therefore probably older than the fall of Kroisos). The significance of Herakles in the political discourse of Lydia is perhaps a mythical expression of the intimate contacts between Lydia and Sparta in the 7th century BC. The Cimmerian presence on the Lydian scene in the 7th century is also rather puzzling in this context..

Herodotos does not say what Herakles was doing in Lydia. After having stolen the Delphic tripod, Hermes sold him as a slave to the Lydian queen Omphale, who dressed him as a woman and kept him as her sex slave (Apollod., Bibl. 2.6.3), just like the monster in the Pontic Greek myth. Cross-dressing, slavery and sexual abuse are commonplaces in the rite of liminality. (So the transsexual Enarees are yet another example of Scythia’s liminal character.) In all probability, Herodotos was familiar with this myth, as it is alluded to not only in Trachinians (vv. 248-253) by his friend Sophokles (staged c. 435 BC), but also in Aischylos’ Agamemnon (vv. 1040-1) from c. 458 BC. The same tragedy tells the story about the end of Herakles’ earthly life, when he instructs his son Hyllos – the ancestor of the Dorian royal houses! – to burn him on a pyre so as to make him an immortal god, the ultimate initiation, of which all previous labours and troubles are nothing but the preparatory liminal phase.

On the other hand, the two myths of origin are contrasted in Herodotos. The Pontic Greek version, which pictures a full-scale liminal Scythia dominated by the warrior function alone, is an expression of Greek ideology, whereas the Scythian version is more balanced, as rather than presenting liminality as a condition, it only presents it as a ritual, and it includes all three functions.

Tribal rites

The fact that Herodotos’ description of Scythian culture fits into the scheme of Greek ideology does not rule out the fact that its basic lines are true, i.e., have a real existence in Scythian culture outside of Greek discourse. The Scythians were after all nomads (and the Sarmatian women were occasionally horse warriors). Even if Herodotos and his informants are influenced by Greek ideology in their conception of Scythian myths and customs, I am convinced that they try to tell what they believe to be the truth.

Roussel is definitely on firm ground when criticising the tradition that sees in the phylai initially autonomous and ethnically heterogeneous tribes that immigrated together into southern Greece and eventually merged into one Doric nation. However, this does not mean that one has to exclude any reconstruction of a previous stage in which the three phylai had another function. In fairness, Roussel ought to explain why the Dorian poleis choose exactly those three phylai out of the blue. Roussel’s followers argue that before the 8th century BC, there was no overall feeling of unity that would enable the establishment of identical institutions such as the phylai, and the small-scale Doric-speaking communities could support only rather primitive societal structures in their proto-home and even after migrating into the Peloponnese ca. 1100-1000 BC. However, this does not rule out the possibility that they had a complex ideology of kinship relations (to appreciate the invalidity of that argument, one just has to consider the Australian Aboriginals, whose intricate kinship patterns rule all social interactions). As a matter of fact, the notion of a face-to-face society may in fact support the existence of kinship groups in earlier times already.

Peter Funke uses the concept of “segmentary society” to account for the development of the Dorian phylai. A segmentary society is characterised by equality among its disparate units. Even though it lacks a central authority, it shows a high level of integration and solidarity, which is thought to warrant the independence of each unit. The Dark Ages were indeed segmentary, as is reflected in the innumerable kings and peoples mentioned in Homer’s narrative. The concept of the phyle (or better its pre-polis predecessor) is a natural measure against the anarchy of a world without a centralised government. In Classical times, Sparta was of course a polis, but it is noteworthy that the city was not yet synoecised properly and had no city wall; it still consisted of five distinct villages (Thuc. 1.10). If we are allowed to believe the testimony of Plato (Leg. 6, 778d-779a) and the stylised apophthegms (Ps.-Plut., Apophth.Lac. 210e, 212e, 215d, 217d, 221e, 228e; Gnomologium Vaticanum 69), the Spartans considered it womanish to hide behind city walls. Apparently, they adhered to (and were described in the terms of) an ideology of nomadism.

It is intelligible that people organised themselves in co-dependent kinship groups in a period when the state structure was still rather weak. As Nagy points out, it is not the phylai themselves that are old tribes: while in Classical times they were subdivisions of the polis that regulated the political rights and obligations of the citizen, in prehistoric times they were subdivisions of the tribe that ensured a stability between its individual members and legitimised rights to land and obligations for the common good of the tribe.

The Scythians may have been organised in pretty much the same way. After all, the concepts of kinship and descent generally play an important role in nomadic societies. As their peculiar economy is characterised by an inherent mobility and constant instability, rights to pasture and social and military obligations are distributed within the kinship system. A popular word in this context is ‘clan’, which, however, is not always defined particularly well. It is also occasionally used to designate the genē of Herodotos’ myth of origin. A ‘clan’ may be defined as a group that claims descent from a common, usually mythical (and most likely fictitious) ancestor. The kinship groups are in other words natural substitutes for the organised and centralised state, and they become even more important when the society is expanding and migrating, which was the case for both the Scythians and the early Dorians.

The phylai are comparable to the political parties of modern society in the sense that they distribute the power of the individuals in the framework of ideology (whether it is tripartite or orientated along a left-right axis). In principle, they also transgress social and geographical borders. The essential difference is of course that modern political parties are not (or are not supposed to be) hereditary, but that is more a matter of different phrasing. The tribal concept of shared blood is without doubt a social construct (like the political programmes of modern parties). When new individuals or communities are admitted into the tribal society, a lineage is constructed (or re-constructed in the eyes of the constructers themselves), which attribute to them the appropriate position in the common order. The Greeks deriving the Scythians from Herakles is a beautiful example of this strategy.

The tripartite structure may be considered fundamentally incompatible with nomadic life, and the plough fallen from heaven may seem a bit out of place for a people whose existence depends on cattle. Yet pastoral nomadism is in general intimately connected both economically and ideologically with neighbouring sedentary agriculturalists. As a matter of fact, specialised nomadism seems to have arisen as a response to organised agriculture, and the two economies have contributed to the each other’s gradual development. If we are to trust the testimony of the classical authors (Hdt. 4.17-20, Hippoc., Aer. 20.1), a minority of the Scythians did in fact practice agriculture – for instance, the tribes in the forest steppe zone. No matter what their original ethnic status, they were obviously considered part of the Scythian world in the 5th century BC, and the agricultural way of life also had a place in Scythian ideology, even if it was held in low esteem.


The genē of Herodotos’ Scythian myth of origin are neither tribes nor castes – the two most popular suggestions made by the scholars – but rather kinship groups like the Dorian phylai, i.e., a subdivision of the people that traverses both the regional and social axes. The adult male population forms undisclosed societies, confirmed, it is thought, by old ties of blood and conceived in terms of the tripartite ideology. Admission to them is ruled by a ritualised initiation cycle, including, as is the rule both in modern ethnographic parallels and in the Spartan agōgē, a period of liminality, during which the youth live a savage life in the bush and are expected to murder their first man. Herodotos describes two festivals that celebrate this phase of liminality and the subsequent inclusion into the ranks of the adult males, respectively.

The ritual and mythological analogies between Scythian and Spartan culture are not due to an interpolation of Greek categories into a Scythian context. To some extent, they are the result of the formulation of Scythian customs and beliefs in a Greek discourse. Being a Greek and writing in Greek for a Greek audience, Herodotos could not help Hellenising the people he described. Furthermore, the Scythians may very well have adopted elements of Greek discourse into their own ideology. The Greeks and the Scythians constructed their identities in direct response to each other. The role of Herakles is one example, and the tales of Anacharsis and Skyles illustrate the Scythian response (or rather the Greek conception of it) to their encounter with Greek civilisation, which eventually leads to the construction of a nomadic identity sharing certain elements with the Spartan culture that was the natural representative of “Old Greece” in the 5th century discourse. The convergent representations of the Spartan and Scythian myths and rites point to similar ideological constructions both externally, in relation to the average Greek observer, and internally, in the societal structure reflected by the ancient historians and the mythological traditions. The tribal stereotypy is a consequence of the Scythians and Spartans occupying similar roles as the typical, and topical, contrast to the normal urbanised settled life of the mainstream Greek, but at the same time, it is also a real parallelism originating in the Scythians’ and Greeks’ common heritage and in the Scythian nomads’ and the prehistoric Dorians’ comparable ways of life.

I have accepted the framework of Dumézil’s tripartite structure for both the Scythian and the Spartan mythologies and rituals. I must however emphasise that this does not mean that we are necessarily dealing with a common heritage, in the sense that the Indo-European proto-culture had three phylai, the admission to which was organised in terms of the three functions. On the other hand, I do not adhere to the agnostic school, which prohibits any attempt to reconstruct an Indo-European ideology. The common origin of the Indo-European languages is an undeniable fact, and language is not only about vocabulary and grammar, but also about formulating the world. In the Indo-European grammar of thought, the tripartite structure was but a brick, which eventually led to analogous structures in similar daughter cultures. The Greeks and the Scythians have inherited and developed an analogous mythic-ideological grammar. The Scythian myths and rites in the Histories of Herodotos originate from Scythian sources, but the actual realisation of the single myth has been formulated on the basis of the syntax of Greek mythology.