George Hinge


Herodotus’ image of the Scythians

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The Scythians, a nomadic tribe of Iranian origin, dominated the steppes of Eastern Europe in antiquity. To the ancient Greeks, colonising the shores of the Black Sea, the Scythian was the prototype of the primitive, Northern Barbarian, at the same time the noble savage and an imminent threat to urbanised civilisation.

As a research fellow of the Danish Research Founda­tion’s Centre for Black Sea Studies, I studied the conflict between construction and reality in Herodotus Boook 4. It was my aim to describe how the Scythian and Greek ethnicities are constructed on the basis of an underlying ideological dichotomy, and how this construction is related to reality. Furthermore, I investigated what is included under the Greek concept of Scythian and on what basis.

The Scythians play an important role in Greek literature (from Aristeas, 7th cent. B.C. until Dio Chrysostom, c. 100 A.D.) and science (i.a. in the Hippocratic work Airs, Waters and Places). However, the most important literary source to the Scythian culture is Herodotus Book 4. I studies how Herodotus describes the Scythians as the typical contrast to Greek civilisation and how this image infuates the construction of the Greeks themselves.

Some elements of the Herodotean image of the Scythians occur in later Ethnographic descriptions of the Celtic and the Germanic tribes. Therefore, the reality of the image has been questioned. Hartog, an important representative of the so-called ”Liar School”, shows how the Scythian ethnography of Herodotus may be analysed as a coherent narrative, and by virtue of that it is not proper historiography (though, Hartog balanced enough to say that this conclusion lies outsidde the scope of his investigation). It is, however, a typical pitfall of the constructionist approach: to overestimate construction as a concept and at the same time, paradoxically enough, to underestimate the essentiality and continuity of the cultural constructs. Germanic does not disappear as a linguistic category, just beacause the idea about Germanic identity is the product of the encounte of Germanic and Roman culture. The Scythian royla burials do not disappear either, just beacause they are integrated in the Scythian logos of Herodotus.

Another question is with which parameters the ancient authors identify this Scythian ethnicity. Herodotus and other sources refer to a Scythian people; however, we are probably not dealing with a people in the modern sense of that word, but with heterogeneous tribes. I have therefore investigated the role of language in Herodotean ethnography.

The project resulted in the following articles: