The Warrior Priests of the Goddess of Love

An ancient legend says that Targitaus, a supernatural being who dwelled in the Black Sea domain, has three sons. Together, the three brothers ruled the land until four golden implements fell from the sky. The implements were a plow, a yoke, a battle-ax and a drinking cup. Suddenly, the four implements began to blaze. Out of the three brothers, it was Colaxais, the youngest brother, who was the only one able to pick up the burning objects. Thus, Colaxais became the first sole ruler of the Scythian kingdom. The culture of the Scythians, a group of ancient tribes of nomadic warriors who lived in what is now southern Siberia, flourished from around 900 BC to around 200 BC.

Scythian comb.jpg
Scythian comb

Diodorus gives us another version of the origin of the Scythians by claiming that “Born in that land from the conjugal union of Zeus and a snake-legged goddess was a son Scyth, who gave the people the name Scythian.” Somewhat similar to Diodorus’ version of the origin of the Scythians, an epigraphic version of the origin of the Scythians said that Heracles would unite with Echidna. This union produced two offsprings – Agathyrsus and Scythes, who became the progenitors of Scythians.

File:8. Akinak (dagger) bural mound Arzhan (VIII.-VII. B.C.) Tuva.JPG
Akinak (dagger) burial mound Arzhan (8th – 7th century BC.) 

The Scythians were famous for their tribal custom. Scythian warriors cut off the heads of slain enemies and made leather-bound drinking cups from their enemies’ skulls. Prolonged and demonstrative grieving followed after the death of every tribesman. At the death of a king, all Scythian tribes joined in a show of grief that lasted for fourty days. After the king was buried with the best of all his weapons and possessions, the funeral party would strangle one of his concubines, his messenger, his cook, as well as his best horses and place all the bodies by him before the grave was covered with 60-feet high mound.

The objects the Scythians buried with their dead are generally small and light, such as  drinking flasks and wooden bowls. Thick floor coverings were sheepskins and felt rugs have all been found in Scythian tombs. As they were nomadic, the Scythians also had no temples or religious images. However, they have shamans to deal with the world of spirits and gave advice to the kings and chiefs. This efficiency also showed in their pantheon of gods and goddesses. According to Herodotus, the Scythians worshiped a smaller number of gods compared to the Greeks. He gives us the names of the deities while comparing them to the gods and goddesses that were more familiar to himself. The Scythian deities according to Herodotus included two unamed gods roughly equal to Herakles, and Ares, Tabiti (equivalent of Hestia), who was considered to be the queen of the Scythians. Papaios (Zeus) and his spouse Api (Gaia), Goitosyt (Apollo) and Agrimpasa (Aphrodithe-Urania, or “Heavenly Aphrodite”). At the end, Herodotus mentions that although these seven gods are worshiped by all Scythian tribes, royal Scythians also also make sacrificial offerings to Tagimasadas (Poseidon). Altogether, the royal scythians worshipped eight deities. The most honoured of the Scythian shamans came from high ranking familes. They are the Enarees, the shamanpriests of Argimpasa.

Gorytos and sword sheath, Azov Museum.jpg
Copies of Gorytos and sword sheath excavated from a 4th century BC Scythian king burial in the Azov

A clue to the functions of the Enarees can be found in other priests of goddesses considered to be an “equivalent” of Aphrodite. Goddesses with similar qualities to Aphrodite-Urania are mentioned among the deities of the huns and Komans. Aphrodite was also among the gods worshiped by huns in the Caucasus. A fragment called her priests “sorcerers, magicians and fortune tellers of Aphrodite”. According to Giovanni da Pian del Carpine (c. 1185 – 1252), who was the Christian ambassador to the court of Mongols, the Komans and Mongols are “giving themselves up to fortune-telling”, “sorcery” and “magic”. the Komans name the deity Kam.

The Scythians did not isolate themselves from the rest of the world like the “savage barbarians” they have often been depicted to be. As the eastern bands of Scythians  inhabited the Altai range in Central Asia, the Scythian shamans appear to have practiced much in a similar way as Altaic shamans which still survives today. Accounts by Herodotus, Hippocrates and Ovid seem to be based on their own observations. According to Herodotus, the Scythians who pillaged the temple of Aphrodite  at Ascelon, and all their descendants after them, were afflicted by the goddess with the “female” sickness, and so those who visit Scythian territory would see those men dressing and acting as women, whom the Scythians call Enarees.

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Bronze helmet, Scythians, 7-5 century BC.

Herodotus also mentions some of their religious practices which included divinations. “They bring great bundles of wands, which they lay on the ground and unfasten, and utter their divinations as they lay the rods down one by one; and while still speaking, they gather up the rods once more and place them together again”. This manner of divination is hereditary among the Enarees.

File:Vas d'or amb representació d'escites, kurgan de Kul-Oba, segona meitat del segle IV aC.JPG
Golden vase with representation of Scythians, kurgan of Kul-Oba, second half of the 4th century BC. Exhibited in the exhibition Ermitage. Treasures of Russian archeology at the MARQ.
The golden vase of the Kul-Oba kurgan is one of the greatest exponents of the Scythian-Greek style and narrates, perhaps, a historical episode transmitted by Herodotus.
This golden vase, whose function could be ritual, is a clear example of the Scythian-Greek decorative style. Located in the Kul-Oba kurgan, next to the body of a possible priestess, it dates from around the second half of the 4th century BC.
The main decoration, in relief, is arranged on a frieze where several personages appear, between whom it emphasizes a escita that tightens the cord of its arc. This image reminds us of the episode that describes Herodotus about the origin of the Scythians, according to which Scythia, the youngest son of Heracles, becomes king of Scythia after passing a test: tightening the bow of sleep father, which could not be achieved by his older brothers, also represented in the vessel, and who were wounded in the feet and jaw when attempted.
It is not a scene of everyday life but, perhaps, an epic or mythological narrative reflected, probably, by a Greek craftsman as the figures are represented with great realism.

It is not difficult to imagine how braided bark could work as a divining tool. If engaged in dreamwork in a trance state, the pressure of consecrated bark upon one’s fingers in various ways could incubate those images envisioned while in shamanic trance. Even in modern practices elemental attributions have been applied to the fingers – thumb for Spirit, index finger for Water, third finger for Fire, fourth finger for Earth, and fifth finger for Air. 

The Greek physician Hippocrates apparently examined some of the Enarees himself and gave us this opinion, “there are many eunuchs among the Scythians, who perform female work and speak like women.” Although he noted that the Enarees attributed their “condition” to a deity, he was of the opinion that it was “from continued exercise on horseback they are seized with chronic defluxions in their joints owing to their legs always hanging down below their horses; they afterwards become lame and stiff at the hip-joint…” as this discomfort continued, they self-treated by opening the vein behind either ear and sleep when the blood flows. As this was a dangerous remedy, some of them would awake later and others would die. However, Hippocrates explained, it appears that the semen is altered by this treatment, for there are veins behind the ears which, if cut, induce impotence” and, in their shame, they put on female attire and “reproach themselves for effeminacy”.

Men Riding on Horses

Hippocrates’ opinion was built upon the ancient view of the effect of the humors upon the body. However, the Enarees did have some medical devices of their own. The Roman poet Ovid, who was exiled to the borders of the Scythian steppe in the first century BC, hinted that they drank mare’s urine, a substance so high in estrogens that it is still widely used for hormone replacement therapy. Although Ovid was not a historian, this could easily have circulated as a folklore from those engaged in trade between Roman provinces and travelling merchants. 

Despite Hippocrates’ opinion on the impact of frequent horseback riding upon male genitalia and vitality, it would be a mistake to presume that Enarees could not have continued to engage in warfare. DNA testing and bioarcheological analysis of Scythian gravesites determined that a third of the Scythian women were buried with war weapons and their skeletons show injuries of impacts from war in the same way as the men.   If women fought, the Enarees could also have fought as well as the women.

Photo of a Person Riding a Horse

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