George Hinge


Scythian nomadism

by George Hinge



The Scythians are considered the typical nomads in all classical literature. They have no cities, but are, in Herodotus' words, pheréoikoi (like the snails in Hesiod). In Hartog's celebrated monograph Le miroir d'Herodote (1980, Engl. 1988), the concept of nomadism is the key to an analysis of the 4th book: The reason of the Scythian excursus is the North Pontic expedition of king Darius, which is meant as a foreplay of the great disasters in Greece in 490 and 480. The most powerful weapons of the Scythians are indeed the nature of the land - emphasised by the rather tedious excursus on the immense rivers of Scythia - and the nomadic life itself, which is pictured in the work of Herodotus as a means of strategy rather than a condition of life.

On two locations, Herodotus stresses the fact that the Scythians don't have any fortified cities (4.46.3, .127.2), but were nomads. However, he varies this simple statement somewhat in the geographical excursus (4.17-20), in which he distinguishes Plough Scythians, Agricultural Scythians, Nomad Scythians, and Royal Scythians. Those categories show different geographic distribution: The farer we come away from Herodotus' point of departure at Olbia, the more primitive the Scythians become (from an agriculturalist point of view of course) - and the less Hellenised they become, too. If Herodotus were writing only a fictitious novel, as it has been suggested, this variation would have been meaningless. Probably, Herodotus is polemising against Hecataeus, who appears to have collected all North Pontic tribes under one heading.

In the forest steppe zone between Dnepr and Don, archaeologists have excavated numerous fortifications and settlements, and they seem to have depended largely on crops. As archaeology cannot of course determine ethnicity, which is after all a matter of linguistically framed construction, it is impossible to say if those fortifications were in fact inhabited by Scythians. Some researchers claim that only the grass steppe in the south was the home of Iranian-speaking Scythians, and that another population, perhaps Proto-Slavs, inhabited the northern forest steppe. Others focus on the unity of the culture in both areas. A probable scenario is that mounted nomads of Iranian origin settled amongst an agricultural population in the forest steppe zone, and that the two populations formed a cultural and economic symbiosis, which must be called Scythian.

When Idanthyrsus in his response to Darius states that the Scythians have no cities and no cultivated earth, it is not perfectly in accordance with reality. And, as we have seen, Herodotus is to some degree aware of this reality. The exclusive nomadism is, as Hartog remarks, a consequence of Darius's attack - an ad-hoc-strategy rather than a way of life. It is, however, also depicted as an ideology, as a general program for the genuine Scythian. A similar disdain for the concept of the city is attributed to the Germanic Tencteri by Tacitus (Hist. 4.64). Both Herodotus and Tacitus demonstrate - probably independently - a good sense of psychology: The absence of urbanised civilisation, which is a lack of cultural maturity in the ethnocentric approach (e.g. in Aristotle), is considered a positive choice in the eyes of the "primitives" themselves. They have no lords but the gods.

According to the speech of Idanthyrsus, Hestia is the god queen among the Scythians. It is at first paradoxical that the hearth should be of such moment in a race, which is notoriously nomadic. Hermes, the god of the uncultivated earth, is, on the other hand, totally absent of the Scythian pantheon. Hartog is making a point of the fact that the most solemn oath is sworn by the hearth of the kings (4.68.1). There were, in other words, no individual hearths among the Scythians, but only the royal hearth, by the virtue of which the Scythians may be considered citizens, as though they were belonged to one city. The question is if the word astós used in the context of the oath must imply the etymological notion of ásty, i.e. the "physical city". If Herodotus' wanted to stress such point, I suspect it would have been more to his taste to utter the paradox of nomads becoming citizens explicitly. The hearth is not only important among the Ossetians - the alleged descendants of the Scythians - a cult of the hearth is also detected archaeologically in the northern forest steppes: In the excavated settlements the ashes seem all to have been poured in one heap, under which altars are often found.

Idanthyrsus claims that the Scythians have no cities or cultivated, for the loss of which they would fear and they have therefore no reason for involving in a fight. The only solid thing they possess is the graves of the forefathers. The royal burials are situated, according to Herodotus, in an area called Gerrhi. Even though it is in the uttermost north (in fact 40 days up Dnepr, cf. 4.53.4), it is not described as particularly mysterious. The fact that we have not been able to establish the location with any certainty is a problem without any bearing to the narrative of Herodotus itself. Nothing in the text allows the assumption that it is mere fairytale, and the rituals described do seem to agree accurately with the testimony of archaeology and ethnography (e.g. in the modern Ossetian rituals). The so-called Kurgan graves are scattered all over the Scythian cultural sphere, and all these sites have probable been considered the centre of the territory of the local Scythian community. Herodotus's focusing on the distant Gerri alone (in the sepulchral chapters, not in Idanthyrsus's speech!) may be the result of an ethnographic and narratological stereotypy, i.e. Hartog's concept of the "excluded middle".

What is nomadism after all? It is not travelling around without any destination, as in the case of the Scythians avoiding Darius's army. Nomadism is normally a regular alternation of dwelling according to the season. The nomadic population depends typically on more or less domesticated cattle, and often such nomads are in an intimate economic symbiosis with sedentary farmers. The mounted Scythian warrior could of course not stand alone. He might have considered himself the only true Scythian - as in the speech of Idanthyrsus - but this ideological simplification covers a social complexity and specialisation comparable to the urban civilisation.

Herodotus does in fact offer an honest description of the ethnography of Scythia, as it was known to him. The division of the Scythians into agriculturalists and pastoralists is in accordance with both the archaeological evidence of the Forest Steppe and Grass Steppe respectively and the anthropological concept of agricultural and nomadic economies as co-dependent. Traditionally, the sedentary agriculturalist divides the world into an urbanised, cultivated centre and a wild, empty periphery; in Herodotus' narrative, the settled core of Scythia is surrounded by an uninhabited desert, which is strangely enough (but in accordance with archaeology) filled with royal tombs. The Scythian identity of the exclusive nomad is the result of the very meeting with Greek urbanised civilisation. The contempt towards the sedentary lifestyle in the speech of king Idanthyrsus isn't just a literary stereotypy, but most likely part of the ideology of the non-urban peoples themselves. The notion of the menacing nomad warrior, which is an inherent part of the agriculturalist ideology, is present in Herodotus too and probably not all unrealistic.