Scythian religion


Scythian religion refers to the mythology, ritual practices and beliefs of the Scythian cultures, a collection of closely related ancient Iranian peoples who inhabited Central Asia and the Pontic–Caspian steppe in Eastern Europe throughout Classical Antiquity, spoke the Scythian language (itself a member of the Eastern Iranian language family), and which included the Alans, the Scythians proper, the Sarmatians, the Sindi, the Massagetae and the Saka. What little is known of the religion is drawn from the work of the 5th century Greek historian and ethnographer Herodotus. Scythian religion is assumed to have been related to the earlier Proto-Indo-Iranian religion, and to have influenced later Slavic, Hungarian and Turkic mythologies, as well as some contemporary Eastern Iranian and Ossetian traditions.

A collection of drawings of Scythian stelae of the 6th and 5th centuries BC.[1] Many of them depict warriors, apparently representing the deceased buried in the kurgan, holding a drinking horn in their right hand.

Archaeological contextEdit

The primary archaeological context of horse sacrifice are burials, notably chariot burials, but graves with horse remains reach from the Eneolithic well into historical times. Herodotus describes the execution of horses at the burial of a Scythian king, and Iron Age kurgan graves known to contain horses number in the hundreds.[citation needed]

The Scythians had some reverence for the stag, which is one of the most common motifs in their artwork, especially at funeral sites (see, for example, the Pazyryk burials).[2]


According to Herodotus, the Scythians worshipped a pantheon of seven gods and goddesses (heptad), which he equates with Greek divinities of Classical Antiquity following the interpretatio graeca. He mentions eight deities in particular, the eighth being worshipped by the Royal Scythians.

The structure of the Scythian pantheon was typically Indo-Iranian, being divided into three ranks:[3][4]

  1. In the first rank was the head of the pantheon:
    • Tapatī́ (hellenised as Ταβιτί, Tabití), the flaming one, who was the goddess of heat, fire and the hearth and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Hearth, Hestíā
  2. In the second rank were the binary opposites and the father and mother of the universe:
    • Api (Ἀπί), the Earth and Water Mother, equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaîa
    • Papaios (Παπαῖος), the Sky Father, equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Zeús
  3. The third and final rank was composed of four deities with specific characteristics
    • The "Scythian Hēraklês" (Ἡρακλῆς), whose Scythian name was Dargatavah, and was the forefather of the Scythian kings
    • The "Scythian Árēs" (Ἄρης), the god of war
    • Gaiϑāsūra (Γοιτόσῠρος, Goitósuros; Οἰτόσυρος, Oitósuros), who might have been associated with the Sun, and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek solar deity Apóllōn
    • Artimpasa (Ἀρτίμπασα) or Argimpasa (Ἀργίμπασα), a more complex deity who was a patron of fertility with power over sovereignty and the priestly force, and was equated by Herodotus with Aphrodítē Ouranía

An eighth Scythian deity mentioned by Herodotus was Thagimasádas (Θαγιμασάδας), whom he equated with the Greek god Poseidôn.

The pantheon was thus also a reflection of the Scythian cosmology, headed by the primeval fire which was the basic essence and the source of all creation, following which came the Earth-Mother and Sky-Father who created the gods, who were the four custodians of the four sides of the world regulating the universe. The world inhabited by humans existed between this celestial realm and the chthonic realm below the earth.[4]

Decorated tapestry with a seated goddess (Artimpasa[5]) and Scythian rider, Pazyryk Kurgan 5, Altai, Southern Russia c.241 BCE.[6]


The Scythian goddess Tapatī́'s[7] name, which was hellenised by Herodotus to Tabití (Ταβιτί), was related to the similar name of the Hindu goddess Tapatī and to verb related to the latter's name, तापयति tapayati ("burns"/"is hot"), as well as to Avestan 𐬙𐬁𐬞𐬀𐬌𐬌𐬈𐬌𐬙𐬌‎ tāpaiieiti, Latin tepeo and several other Indo-European terms for heat.[8]

Tapatī́, who was equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Hearth, Hestíā, was the most venerated of all Scythian deities, her high status being attested when she was called the "Queen of the Scythians" around 450 BCE by the king Idanthyrsus.[9][10] Tapatī́ was a primordial sovereign deity of fire similar to the Vedic Agni and the Greek Hestíā, therefore being connected to the common Iranian cult and concept of fire,[5] although she belonged to an older period in the development of Indo-Iranian religion compared to the other Iranian peoples and the Indo-Aryans, among whom she had been respectively replaced by the male fire-gods Ātar and Agni.[11] Due to being a deity representing an abstract notion of fire and divine bliss, Tapatī́ was rarely depicted in Scythian art, but was instead represented by the fireplace, which constituted the sacral centre of any community, from the family to the tribe. As a goddess of the Hearth, Tapatī́ was considered the goddess of the home, ensuring prosperity to a well-functioning household,[12] as well as the patron of society, the state and families who protected the family and the clan.[5]

As a symbol of supreme authority, Tapatī́ was assigned the superior position among the other gods through her role as the guardian of the king, due to which as well as her to link to the common Iranian cult of fire, she was connected to the importance of fire and of royal hearths in Iranian religions. The king's hearth was hence connected with Tapatī́, and was therefore an inviolable symbol of the prosperity of his people and a token of royal power. As the guardian of the royal hearth, Tapatī́ therefore ensured the well-being of the tribe - an oath by the royal hearths was considered the most sacred and breaking it was believed to cause the king's illness and was punished by death. The hestíai (ἑστῐ́αι) of Tapatī́ were likely the flaming gold objects which fell from the sky in the Scythian genealogical myth and of which the king was the trustee while Tapatī́ herself in turn was the protector of the king and the royal hearth, thus creating a strong bond between Tapatī́ and the Scythian king, who might have been seen as an intermediary between the goddess and the people,[4] and any offence to the royal hestíai was considered as affecting the whole tribe and had to be averted at any cost. Her characterisation as "the Queen of the Scythians" was thus possibly linked to the notion of the xᵛarənah, the Iranian divine bliss, or even to that of the fire which protects the king, the vahran.[5]


Api (Ἀπί), equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaîa. Api was the consort of Papaios, and their union reflected the Indo-Iranian tradition of the marriage between Heaven and Earth as the basis for the creation of the world. The birth of Dargatavah from the union of Api and Papaios thus represented the creation of the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms.[9]

As a primordial goddess who gave birth to the first inhabitants of the world, Api remained aloof from worldly affairs and did not interfere with them after the creation of the world and the establishment of the proper order. Api's name has been connected with the Avestan word for water, 𐬀𐬞𐬌 api, and was equated by Herodotus with the Greek Earth goddess Gaîa - reflecting her origins in the Iranian pantheon where the Earth as a life-giving principle is connected with the fertilising, nourishing and healing properties of water.[5]

The worship of Api by Scythian peoples in literature is attested in Strabo's mention that the Dérbikes worshipped "Mother Earth."[9]


Papaios (Παπαῖος), equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Zeús, was the Scythian equivalent of the Zoroastrian great god Ahura Mazdā and the consort of the Earth goddess Api.[9][13] From the union of Papaios with Api - which parallels the union between Ahura Mazda and the Earth goddess Ārmaiti in the Avesta - was created the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms in the form of their offspring, the deity Dargatavah, which reflected the Indo-Iranian tradition of the marriage between Heaven and Earth as the basis for the creation of the world.[9]

According to Origen, the Scythians considered Papaios to be a supreme god.[13] Darius I's statement in the Behistun Inscription that the Scythians did not worship Ahura Mazda thus had no basis and this declaration of his was a political one resulting from the hostilities between the Persian Empire and the Scythians.[9]


The Scythian god Dargatavah (meaning "whose might is far-reaching"[11]), who appears in the Scythian genealogical myth as the divine ancestor of the Scythians under the name of Targitáos (Ταργιτάος) or Skúthēs (Σκύθης) as a son of Papaios, was the same deity called "Scythian Hēraklês" by Herodotus, although he was the not same as the Greek hero Hēraklês. The birth of Dargatavah from the union of Api and Papaios represented the creation of the central sphere of the cosmos that lay between the celestial and chthonic realms.[9]

This "Scythian Hēraklês," the Scythian god Dargatavah was likely assimilated by the Greeks from the northern shores of the Black Sea with their hero Hēraklês, and the main feature of this deity identifying him with Hēraklês was the cattle he drives in the Scythian genealogical myth, although unlike the Greek Hēraklês who drove the cattle of Gēruṓn on foot, the Scythian "Hēraklês" drove a chariot pulled by mares. This cattle-driver aspect of Skúthēs/Dargatavah was likely derived from the motif of cattle-theft of Iranian mythology which is also reflected in the legend of Miϑra as a cattle-stealing god.[5][5]

Dargatavah was very closely associated with Papaios or confused with him in Scythian mythology, and the "Scythian Hēraklês" was sometimes replaced by Papaios in some versions of the Scythian genealogical myth, thus attributing the ancestry of the Scythians alternatively to Dargatavah or to Papaios directly.[13]

The Scythian genealogical mythEdit

Five variants of the Scythian genealogical myth have been retold by Greco-Roman authors:[4][5]

  1. Herodotus's recorded two variants of the myth, and according to his first version, the first man born in hitherto desert Scythia was named Targitáos and was the son of Zeús and a daughter of the river Borysthenes. Targitáos in turn had three sons, named Lipóxaïs (Λιπόξαϊς), Arpoxáïs (Ἀρποξάϊς), and Koláxaïs (Κολάξαϊς), who each ruled a different part of the kingdom. One day four gold objects - a plough, a yoke, a battle-axe, a drinking cup - fell from the sky, and each brother in turn tried to pick the gold, but when Lipóxaïs and Arpoxáïs tried, it burst in flames, while the flames were extinguished when Koláxaïs tried. Koláxaïs thus became the guardian of this sacred gold (which was likely the hestiai of Tapatī́), and the other brothers decided that he should become the high king and king of the Royal Scythians while they would rule different branches of the Scythians.
  2. According to the second version of the myth recorded by Herodotus, Hēraklês arrived in deserted Scythia with Gēruṓn's cattle. After his mares disappeared during his sleep, he searched for them until he arrived at a land called transl. grc – transl. Hulaía (Ancient Greek: Ὑλαία, Latin: Hylaia), that is the Woodland, and in a cave found a half-maiden, half-viper being who later revealed to him that she was the mistress of this country, and that she had kept Hēraklês' horses which she agreed to return only if he had sexual intercourse with her. After three sons - Agáthursos (Ἀγάθυρσος), Gelōnós (Γελωνός), Skúthēs (Skúthēs) - were born of their union, she returned his freedom to Hēraklês. Before Hēraklês left Scythia, the serpent maiden asked him what should be done once the boys had reached adulthood, and he told her that they should be each tasked with stringing a bow and putting on a girdle in the correct way. When the time for the test had arrived, only the youngest of the sons, named Skúthēs, was able to correctly complete it, and he thus became the ancestor of the Scythians and their first king, with all subsequent Scythian kings claiming descent from him.
  3. A third variant of the myth, recorded by Gaius Valerius Flaccus, described the Scythians as descendants of Colaxes, who was himself a son of Iūpiter with a half-serpent nymph named Hora.
  4. The fourth variant of the myth, recorded by Diodorus Siculus, calls Skúthēs the first Scythian and the first king, and describes him as a son of Zeús and an earth-born viper-limbed maiden
  5. The fifth version of the myth, recorded in the Tabula Albana, recorded that after Hēraklês had defeated the river-god Aráxēs, he fathered two sons with his daughter Ékhidna, who were named Agáthursos and Skúthēs, who became the ancestors of the Scythians.

The "Hēraklês" of Herodotus's second version and from the Tabula Albana's version of the genealogical myth is not the Greek hero Hēraklês, but the same Scythian god as the one who appears in the other recorded variants of the genealogical myth under the name of Targitáos or Skúthēs as a son of Papaios, and was likely assimilated by the Greeks from the northern shores of the Black Sea with the Greek Hēraklês. The mother's traits are consistent across the multiple versions of the genealogical myth and include her being the daughter of either a river-god or of the Earth and dwelling in a cave, as well as her being half-woman and half-snake[5]

The Scythian genealogical myth has been tentatively connected to the legend of Aphrodítē Apátouros and the Giants as recorded by Strabo, according to which she had been attacked by Giants and called on Hēraklês for help. After concealing Hēraklês, the goddess, under guise of introducing the Giants one by one, treacherously handed them to Hēraklês, who killed them. Aphrodítē Apátouros was the same goddess as the Snake-Legged Goddess of the Scythian genealogical myth, and her reward to "Hēraklês" for defeating the Giants was her love.[14]

The Scythian genealogical myth exhibits clear textual and narrative parallels with the Persian story of Θraētaona and his three sons - Salm, Tur, and Iraj - from the Šāhnāme,[9] and thus ascribes the origin of the Scythians to the Sky Father Papaios, either directly or through his son, and to the Snake-Legged Goddess affiliated to Artimpasa,[5] and represented the threefold division of the universe into the Heavens, the Earth, and the Underworld, as well as the division of Scythian society into the warrior, priest, and agriculturalist classes.[9]

The names of Dargatavah's sons in the first version of the genealogical myth - Lipóxaïs, Arpoxáïs, and Koláxaïs - contain the Old Iranian term xšaya meaning ruler:[9][11]

  • Lipóxaïs, from Scythian *Ripaxšaya "king of the soil"
  • Arpoxáïs, from Scythian *Arpaxšaya "king of the battle"
  • Koláxaïs, from Scythian *Kuraxšaya "young king"

Each of the sons of Dargatavah were forebearers of tribes constituting the Scythian people:[11]

  • Lipóxaïs was the ancestor of the Aukhátai (Αὐχάται, from Scythian *Auxyatah "the sedentary ones")
  • Arpoxáïs was the ancestor of the Katíaroí (Κατίαροί, from Scythian *Katiara "the warlike") and the Tráspies (Τράσπιες, from Scythian *Trāspya "horse-keeper")
  • Koláxaïs was the ancestor of the Paralátai (Παραλάται, from Scythian *Paradata "first created") or Royal Scythians.

The first version of the genealogical myth recounted by Herodotus therefore also explains the division of Scythia into three kingdoms of which the king of the Royal Scythians was the High King, which is a structure also recorded in Herodotus's account of the Scythian campaign of the Persian king Darius I, where Idanthyrsus was the Scythian high king while Scopasis and Taxacis were sub-kings.[4]

The sons of Dargatavah according to the second version of the genealogical myth were each also ancestors of tribes belonging to the Scythian cultures:[15]

  • Agáthursos (from Scythian Haxāθrᵃušᵃ, meaning "prospering the friend" or "prospering the socius"[16]) was the ancestor of the Agáthursoi
  • Gelōnós was the ancestor of the Gelōnoí
  • Skúthēs was the ancestor of the Scythians proper


The Sindo-Maeotian form of Dargatavah was named Sanérges (Σανέργες). Reflecting the role of Dargatavah in the Scythian genealogical legend, Sanérges was considered the partner of the goddess Aphrodítē Apatoura, who was a local iteration of the Snake-Legged Goddess. Like Dargatavah, Sanérges was also assimilated with Hēraklês.[14]


Dargatavah is the same figure who appears in Scythian art as the masculine figure facing Artimpasa in her depictions as a seated goddess (see below). These scenes depicted the marriage of Dargatavah with Artimpasa, but also represented the granting of a promise of afterlife and future resurrection to Dargatavah, and, by extension, collectively to his descendants, the Scythians.[5]

Dargatavah' role in these scenes also consisted of representing a deified mortal who was identified with him, the Scythian king, who thus was given apotheosis by identifying him with his divine ancestor. Thus, the scene of the masculine figure facing the seated Artimpasa represented both the goddess's granting of royal power to the king, but also, through the identification with Dargatavah, the father of the first Scythian king, the giving of supreme legitimacy to the authority of the royal descendants of Artimpasa in her role as the divine spouse of the Scythian kings.[5]

A representation of Dargatavah as investing a king is a scene from a silver rhyton discovered in the Karagodeouashkh kurgan, depicting two bearded adult mounted horsemen. One of the horsemen holds a rhyton in his right hand and a sceptre in his left hand, while the other horseman has the right hand raised in a gesture of salutation. This scene represented the investiture of a king by a god, and has its parallels in the Iranian world in the Sasanid reliefs of Naqsh-e Rostam and Bishapur depicting the investitures of Ardashir I and of Bahram I by Ahura Mazda. Although the identity of the figure holding the rhyton has been suggested to be Papaios, it most likely represented Dargatavah. In the scene on the rhyton, Dargatavah, in his role as the first king and divine ancestor of the Scythians acts as a custodian of the power and the victories of his descendants, and the rhyton he holds represents a communion between the king and the god, paralleling the communion with Artimpasa in the scenes with the seated goddess. The topmost and bottommost parts of the rhyton are decorated with floral patterns, representing the connection between Tartigaos and Artimpasa.[13]

Scythian "Árēs"Edit

The Scythian "Árēs" (Ἄρης), that is the Scythian war god equated by Herodotus with the Greek god Árēs, corresponded to the Iranian deity Vərəθraγna (𐬬𐬆𐬭𐬆𐬚𐬭𐬀𐬖𐬥𐬀), and might possibly have been an offspring of Tapatī́.[9] The Scythian Ares was also a god of kingship, and the use of horses and of the blood and right arms of prisoners in his cult was a symbolic devotion of the swifness of horses and the strength of men to this god who had similar powers.[17]

The Scythian and Sarmatian "Árēs" was represented by a sword planted upwards at the top of a tall altar made of brushwood. This, as well as the practice of throwing the right arms of prisoners sacrificed to him in the sky, suggests that the Scythian "Árēs" had a celestial nature,[18] that is the practice of throwing these sacrificed arms in the air indicate that the Scythian "Ares" was associated to the gods of the sky and wind (Vāiiu and Vāta), and more especially the wind, since the wind-god Vāiiu (𐬬𐬀𐬌𐬌𐬎 was the first incarnation of Vərəθraγna and a special carrier of xᵛarənah.[17]

According to Tadeusz Sulimirski, this form of worship continued among the descendants of the Scythians, the Alans, through to the 4th century CE;[19] this tradition may be reflected in Jordanes' assertion that Attila was able to assert his authority over the Scythians through his possession of a particular blade, referred to as the "Sword of Mars."[20]


The Scythian god Gaiϑāsūra, whose name was hellenised to Goitósuros (Γοιτόσῠρος) or Oitósuros (Οἰτόσυρος) by Herodotus, might have been a solar deity, due to which Herodotus equated him with the Greek god Apóllōn.[4]

The Scythian name Gaiϑāsūra is comparable to Vedic Sanskrit Gavyuti-sura (गव्युतिसुर) and Avestan Gaoyaoitiš-sūrō (𐬔𐬀𐬫𐬀𐬊𐬌𐬙𐬌𐬱𐬯𐬏𐬭𐬋), and is an epithet of Miϑra as the "Lord of Cattle-Land," a deity of cattle culture widely worshipped by the common people in Scythian society.[21] The first term composing this name, gaiϑā, meaning "herd" and "possessions," is a cognate of Avestan 𐬔𐬀𐬫𐬀𐬊𐬌𐬙𐬌𐬱 gaoyaoitiš "cow pasture" and reflects the nature of Apóllōn Goitosyros as a Hellenization of the Iranian deity Miϑra Vouru-gayaoitiš (𐬬𐬊𐬎𐬭𐬎𐬔𐬀𐬫𐬀𐬊𐬌𐬙𐬌𐬱‎); the second element sūra, meaning "strong" and "mighty," is the same as the Avestan element sūra "mighty" from the name of the goddess Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā, and is connected to the Scythians' association of Gaiϑāsūra with the goddess Artimpasa, who had absorbed many of the traits of Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā.[22][23]

Depictions of a solar god with a radiate head and riding a carriage pulled by two or four horses on numerous pieces of art found in Scythian burials from the 3rd century BCE and later might have been representations of Gaiϑāsūra.[5]


The Karagodeuashkh kurgan headdress
Detail of the Karagodeuashkh kurgan headdress, with the bottom row depicting Artimpasa or her chief priestess in the center surrounded the Divine Twins and her attendants[5]

Artimpasa (Ἀρτίμπασα), more commonly known as Argimpasa (Ἀργίμπασα) due to a scribal corruption, was equated by Herodotus with the Greek goddess Aphrodítē Ouranía. Artimpasa was an androgynous goddess of warfare, sovereignty, priestly force, fecundity, vegetation and fertility and was the Scythian variant of the Iranian goddess Arti (𐬀𐬭𐬙𐬌‎), a patron of fertility and marriage and a guardian of laws, and from whom the first element of Artimpasa's name was derived.[9][5]

The cult of Artimpasa was performed by the Anarya, who were powerful transvestite priests from the most noble families affiliated to an orgiastic cult of the goddess.[5]

There were outside influences on Artimpasa, such as from the fellow Iranian goddess Anāhita, whose closeness to Aṣ̌i/Arti enabled the merging of her traits into Artimpasa. Anāhita's triple name, Arəduuī Sūrā Anāhitā, meaning "The Humid, Strong, and Immaculate" respectively represented the three functions of fecundity, sovereignty, and priestly force, which were also functions present in Artimpasa, as were also Anāhita's functions as an ancient fertility goddess influenced by the Assyro-Babylonian Ištar-ʿštrt, her later orgiastic rites, and her roles as a warrior and victory-granting goddess. The cult of Artimpasa had transformed into one of the divine patron of the royal dynasty by the 4th century BCE, reflecting the absorption of Anāhita's role as a divine patroness of the king and a giver of royal power by Artimpasa, as well as the influence on Artimpasa of the role of the Levantine Great Goddesses as grantors of divine power to the king. These warrior aspects of Artimpasa would later allow for her identification with the Greek goddess Athēnâ in the Bosporan Kingdom.[5]

Other influences on Artimpasa include that of the Great Mother goddess Bendis of the Thracian neighbours of the Scythians, who like Artimpasa was a mistress of animals and a power-giver. The presence of these similarities between Artimpasa and however suggests that these aspects of Artimpasa had an indigenously Scythian/Balkan element and were not fully results of the undermentioned influence of ancient West Asian cults.[5]

These ancient West Asian cults who influenced Artimpasa were those of ʿštrt-Ištar-Aphrodítē during the long-period of Scythian presence in the Levant in the 7th century BCE, especially in the latter's form worshipped at Askálōn of an androgynous vegetation-fertility goddess, her ability to change men into women and women into men, and her affiliation with a semi-human goddess subordinate with her in the form of ʿtrʿth for ʿštrt and the Snake-Legged Goddess for Artimpasa.[5] Artimpasa henceforth preserved many traits inherited from ʿštrt.[14] Reflecting influence from Levantine cults in which the Great Goddess was often accompanied by a minor semi-bestial goddess, the Snake-Legged Goddess, who was also the Scythian foremother, was affiliated to Artimpasa. This affiliation was so close that the images of the two goddesses would almost merge, but nevertheless remained distinct from each other. This distinction is more clear in how Artimpasa was assigned the role of the king's sexual partner (see below) and the divine power of the kings who granted royal power, but was not considered the foremother of the people, and in how neither the Bosporan kings of Sarmatian ancestry nor the Greco-Roman authors' records assigned Aphrodítē or Artimpasa as the Scythians' ancestor.[5]

The assimilation of these traits thus meant that the Greeks on the northern shores of the Black Sea identified Artimpasa with their own goddess Aphrodítē Ouranía and the Scythians themselves assimilated Aphrodítē Ouranía with Artimpasa. Due to this association, multiple depictions of Greek-style and Greek-made Aphrodítē and Érōs have been found in the tombs of Scythian nobles.[5]


The winged ArtimpasaEdit

Artimpasa was also a pótnia thērôn, as was depicted as such on a mirror from the Kelermes kurgan, whose circle was divided into eight equal segments portraying demons, animals, and semi-bestial men, and was dominated by the goddess, winged, and holding two panthers in her spread hands. This imagery might have been influenced directly and indirectly (via the intermediary of orientalizing Greek art from Ionia) by the Levantine depictions of Inana-Ištar, who was portrayed as winged as symbol of her being a celestial and warrior goddess, and was also represented as a pótnia thērôn holding animals in both her hands or surrounded by animals, and whose warrior nature was shown in her representations as a Mistress of Animals holding weapons.[5]

A Sarmatian phalera decorated with an image of a winged Aphrodítē with her head decorated with leaves, and holding a small round object in one hand and a rosette in the other hand was found in the Yanchorak treasure from the 2nd to 1st centuries BCE. This phalera was part of a horse harness and the Sarmatians who copied a Greek representation of Aphrodítē associated her image with their own goddess. These representations also characterise Artimpasa as a pótnia híppon alongside her status as a pótnia thērôn.[5]

Another winged depiction of Artimpasa shows her as a winged goddess flanked by deer from a plate found in the Alexandropol'skiy kurgan alongside a sceptre head shaped like the Snake-Legged Goddess affiliated to Artimpasa. A possibly winged representation of Artimpasa was on a damaged bronze cart beam decoration from Krasnoye Znamya. That this portrayal of the goddess showed her within a radiate circle, implying she was also a solar goddess. Artimpasa role as a pótnia híppon and the nature of the horse as both solar and chthonic furthermore implied that Artimpasa, although a celestial goddess, was also a killer and earth deity.[5]

The seated ArtimpasaEdit

Another Scythian art motif depicting Artimpasa portrays her as a seated goddess who wears a calathus with a veil above it and holds a mirror while a young man wearing Scythian clothing and drinking from a rhyton stands in front of her. Although this composition has sometimes been identified as a representation of Tapatī́, the mirror the goddess holds is more fitting of Artimpasa's role as a goddess of fertility and sexuality and a patroness of the Anarya soothsayers due to the mirror being a symbol of feminine principle, eroticism and fertility which played an important role in the wedding rites of Iranian peoples, as well as a magical object used for prophecy and shamanic rites (the Sarmatians buried their priestesses with mirrors). One pendant from the Kul-Oba kurgan depicts Artimpasa in the centre, with a spherical vessel to her right and an alter or incense burner to her left, representing the consecration by fire (which holds an important place in the marital rites of Iranian peoples) of the communion between the goddess and humanity.[5]

A more complex form of the seated Artimpasa motif is found on a 4th-century BCE headgear gold band from Sakhnova, where the seated Artimpasa holds a mirror and a round vessel, with a bearded Scythian with a gōrutós hanging on his belt and holding a rhyton in one hand and a sceptre in the other hand kneels in front of her. To their right are a musician and two "cup-bearers," and to their left is a youth with a fan and two Scythians drinking from the same rhyton (interpreted as "sworn brothers"), and two sacrificers of a ram. This scene is a representation of a sacred feast where the kneeling man, a worshipper or young god, is uniting with the goddess by drinking a holy beverage. This feast is comparable to the orgiastic festival of Sákaia which was celebrated in Pontus in honour of Anāhita and was defined as a "Scythian feast" by Hesychius of Alexandria.[5]: 114 [24]

A similar artistic motif is that of a horseman facing Artimpasa. One depiction of this scene is from a famous Saka carpet from one of the Pazyryk kurgans in Siberia representing the seated Artimpasa with her right hand raised to her head and her left hand holding a blossoming branch, with a horseman facing her. Another representation of this scene is found on a 1st-century BCE to 1st-century CE relief from Chayka in which a horseman holding a bow approaches a standing woman who holds a round object (which might be a mirror, a spherical vessel or a fruit), with an altar between them.[5]

Another possible Siberian representation of Artimpasa can be found on two belt buckles depicting two dismounted horsemen, one of whom is holding the horses while the other lays in the lap of a goddess whose torso emerges from the earth and whose hair is interwoven with the branches of a tree above her head. This scene might depict the Scythian ritual sleep on the Earth and could be related to the relation between Artimpasa and the divine twins.[5]

The bezel of the signet ring of the Scythian king Skula was decorated with the image of Artimpasa seated on a throne and holding a mirror in her right hand and a sceptre in her left hand, with Skuleō (Σκυλεω) engraved near the figure of the goddess, and on whose band was inscribed in Greek Κέλεοε Ἄργοταν πὰρ ὲναι ("Tell to be with Argotas!").[5]


These scenes have been interpreted as depicting the adoration or communion of Artimpasa and a god or a mortal, and more specifically as the granting of divine benediction to a king, or an investiture, or a sacred marriage. The rhyta and the spherical vessels like the one depicted in the Sakhnova band were used for drinking sacred beverages consumed in religious rituals. The spherical vessels specifically were widely used in the rituals of Iranian peoples, and large numbers of them have been found in Scythian sites, and their ornamentation typically consisting of vegetal and solar imagery as well as their depiction in Scythian art where they are held or being offered to a goddess associate them with Artimpasa.[5]

These depictions represent the male figure, who is often a standing youth of smaller stature than the goddess, as subordinate to Artimpasa, who remains seated. This artistic composition reflects a divine marriage of the goddess with a younger god, similar to the union of Kubeleya and Áttis or of Aphrodítē and Ádōnis, or a deified mortal identified with a god or a hero, likely the Scythian forefather Dargatavah. These scenes represent this younger god receiving grace endowed by the goddess upon him after the communion. In some variants of this scene, the male partner of the goddess is bearded and is more imposing on horseback, which, if not simply a local artistic variation, reflected the increasing prominence of a warrior god in this ritual.[5]

The image of the seated Artimpasa on the signet ring of Skula who held a mirror and a sceptre represented communion with the goddess as guaranteeing sovereignty in Scythian religion. The image of the Artimpasa on the ring was therefore a representation of her as a granter of sovereignty, with the ring having been inherated from generation to generation of the Scythian royal dynasty as a token of royal power, and Argotas was probably a former Scythian king from whom his descendant Skula inherited this ring. The ring did not feature any image of the male partner of the goddess because the kings were themselves considered to be these partners, with the Scythian royal investiture having been considered both a communion between man and the goddess as well as a marital union which elevated the king to the status of spouse of the goddess and granted him power through sexual intercourse with the goddess. This was also a reflection of Levantine influence on Artimpasa, since Mesopotamian equivalents of Aphrodítē Ouranía were sometimes represented together with the king in scenes represented sacred marriages, and the stability of royal power in Paphos was believed to be derived from intimate relations between the Aphrodítē, with whom the queen of Paphos was identified, and the king, who claimed descent from Aphrodítē's lover Kinúras.[5]

These scenes however had multiple interpretations, and the communion with the goddess might have also represented blessing of the worshipper with an promise of afterlife and future resurrection through communion with the goddess, as well as an endowment of the king with royal power, reflecting Artimpasa's role as a giver of power and victory, which also explains why all the variants of the scene of the seated goddess and a male partner were found in the tombs of Scythian nobility.[5]


Artimpasa was known under the name of Astára (Ἀστάρα) by the Sindo-Maeotians,[13] a name which was derived from that of ʿštrt.[14] Like Artimpasa, Astára's paraedrus a male deity who was a local form of Dargatavah and was identified with Hēraklês, named Sanérges,[14] and depictions of Astára with a horseman facing her have also been found in the Kuban region inhabited by these peoples:[5]

A 4th century BCE rhyton from the Merdzhany kurgan was decorated with a representation of the seated goddess holding a spherical vessel, with a seven-branched leafless tree (a Tree of Life possibly characterising this scene as a marriage ceremony) on one side of her throne, and a pole with a horse skull (symbolising the importance of horses and horse sacrifice in this goddess's cult) on it on the other side, while mounted god with a rhyton approaches her - the scene represents this Sindo-Maeotian goddess and a local male deity in communion, possibly of marital nature. This scene is also parallel to the scenes of Artimpasa with a male partner, and the presence of the Tree of Life as well as the goddess's link to horses reflect her similarity with Artimpasa, and thus indicate close links between the Scythian and Sindo-Maeotian worship of the fertility and vegetation goddess.[5]

A relief from the 4th century BCE Trekhbratniy kurgan depicted a small charioteer drawing the horses of a carriage with a naḯskos-shaped coach in which is seated a woman who stretches her hand towards a young beardless horseman who has a gōrutós hanging on his left hip while another gōrutós hands from a pole near the naḯskos. The gōrutós hanging on the pole might be linked to the Massagétai custom described by Herodotus whereby a man desiring to have sexual intercourse with a woman would hang his gōrutós in front of her wagon before proceeding to the act; the hanging gōrutós in the Trekhbratniy kurgan relief might thus have been a symbol of sexual union or marriage, and its location near the carriage as well as the handclasp of the woman and the horseman might therefore hint that the scene showed a sacred marriage ceremony. This scene represented the apotheosis of a deceased noblewoman who participated in the worship of the Sindo-Maeotian goddess before her death, with her receiving the status of the goddess depicted in similar scenes alongside the hero after her death. The scene might alternatively have represented the Sindo-Maeotian equivalent of Artimpasa with the hero.[5]

The goddess and the divine twinsEdit

One gold plate which decorated a priestess's headdress which was discovered in the 4th-3rd century BCE Karagodeuashkh kurgan depicting a Sindo-Maeotian form of Artimpasa is divided into three registers corresponding to the division of the universe into three levels of Scythian cosmology:[5]

  1. the upper one depicts a woman dressed in a Greek khitṓn and himátion and holding a cornucopia
  2. the middle one depicts a person wearing a khitṓn and riding in a chariot carried by two horses
  3. the lower one depicts two rows of characters all dressed in Scythian dress, with a woman wearing a complex headgear decorated by a triangular plate and seated in a priestly position dominating the scene, while two beardless youths site by her side on the same bench as her: the youth to the goddess' left holds a round vessel, and the youth to her right has a gōrutós on his hip and is either handing a rhyton to the goddess or receiving it from her. In the background, two beardless persons wearing a hood are standing.

The woman in the upper level of the plate was identified an Iranian deity representing xᵛarənah, that is divine bliss, and assimilated with Túkhē, and the charioteer in the middle section has been identified with Gaiϑāsūra.[5]

The three divisions of the Karagodeuashkh plate have also been interpreted as representing the same goddess respectively reigning the world from heaven, driving the sun-chariot in the middle, and accepting the veneration of humans and blessing them in the lower section. The identification of the goddess with the Scytho-Maeotian Aphrodítē, that is Artimpasa, is supported by the use of motifs of griffins flanking a thumiatḗrion, ova, and female masks and boukrā́nia - all symbols of Aphrodítē Ouranía who was identified with Artimpasa - being respectively used as separations below the three sections of the plate. This identification was further supported by the cornucopia - which was a symbol of fertility and fortune identified with the Iranian xᵛarənah - held by the goddess in the first section; the affiliation of Artimpasa with the chariot-riding Iranian goddess Anāhita; and the presence of gold pendants in the shape of doves and gorgóneia, both symbols of Aphrodítē Ouranía, as decorations of the Karagodeuashkh plate and of the headgear which it was part of.[5]

The third division's scene has been interpreted as depicting either the worship of the Scytho-Maeotian ʿštrt-Anāhita (that is, Artimpasa) or the goddess granting power to the youth with the rhyton. Although the youth with the rhyton was visually similar to that of the male figure of the seated Artimpasa compositions, he differed from the latter in that both youths in the Karagodeuashh plate were represented as equals and seated on the same bench as the goddess, which signaled their divine nature - however the twin gods' smaller statures compared to the goddess, who dominated the scene, implied they were of an inferior rank to her in the mythical hierarchy and were in the rank of divine heroes. This scene therefore represented the Indo-European triad of the Great Goddess with the divine twins, itself related to the connection between the pre-Zoroastrian Anāhita and the Nahaithya twins, ultimately derived from the Indo-European theme of the divine twins as the companions of the Mother Goddess who flanked her symbol of the Tree of Life. Thus, the scene on the Karagodeuashkh plate also represented a Scythian form of the cult of the divine twins.[5]

The divine nature of all the other beings represented on the Karagodeuashkh plate implied that the two hooded figures in the background of the scene could not have been eunuch priests and therefore might have instead represented mythological attendants of Artimpasa of unclear significance in the scene.[5]

The Karagodeuashkh plate thus depicted a communion of Artimpasa with a pair of heroes which therefore represented concepts of eternal life and resurrection and divine legitimation of royal power.[5]


Thagimasádas (Θαγιμασάδας) was a god worshipped only by the tribe of the Royal Scythians.[4] The element -μασάδας of the god's name is derived from the Iranian term mazdā, which is also found in the name of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazdā; the element θαγι- might have been a cognate of the Avestan word θβāṣ̌a (𐬚𐬡𐬁𐬴𐬀, meaning "firmament"), and the Vedic Sanskrit term tvakṣ- (त्वक्ष्) or takṣ- (तक्ष्), meaning 'to create by putting into motion'.[25]

Herodotus identified Thagimasádas with the Greek god Poseidôn because both Thagimasádas and Poseidôn were horse-tamer deities,[4] and also because Thagimasádas was a fashioner of the sky and hence was connected to sky-waters and thunderbolts just like the Greek Poseidôn.[25]

Other deitiesEdit

The Snake-Legged GoddessEdit

The Snake-Legged Goddess (top)

The Scythian "Snake-Legged Goddess," so called because several representations of her, often crafted by Greek artisans for the Scythian market, depict her as a goddess with snake-shaped legs or tendrils as legs, although other depictions represent her as winged, with griffin heads growing below her waist, or holding a severed head, was associated to the life-giving principle, as attested by her posture where her hands and legs were spread wide, which constituted a "birth-giving attitude." This complex imagery thus reflected the combination of human motherhood, vegetation and animal life within the Snake-Legged Goddess. Some images of Snake-Legged Goddess were discovered in burials, thus assigning both a chthonic and vegetal symbolism to this goddess, which follows the motif of vegetal deities possessing chthonic features.[5]

Several representations are known of the "Snake-Legged Goddess," often crafted by Greek artisans for the Scythian market, most of them depicting her as a goddess with snake-shaped legs or tendrils as legs, and some depicting her as winged, with griffin heads growing below her waist or holding a severed head, with many of them having been found discovered in burials, thus assigning both a chthonic and vegetal symbolism to the goddess, which follows the motif of vegetal deities possessing chthonic features.[5]

appears in all variations of the Scythian genealogical myth as the Scythian fore-mother who sires the ancestor and first king of the Scythians with Dargatavah. Her traits, consistent across the multiple versions of the genealogical myth, include her being the daughter of either a river-god or of the Earth and dwelling in a cave, as well as her being half-woman and half-snake. Diodorus Siculus's description of this goddess in his retelling of the genealogical myth as an "anguiped earth-born maiden" implies that that she was a daughter of Api, likely through a river-god, and therefore was both chthonic and connected to water, but was however not identical with Api herself and instead belonged to a younger generation of deities of "lower status" who were more actively involved in human life. The role of the Snake-Legged Goddess role as the foremother of the Scythians had been very firmly established in Scythian religion before the contacts with Mediterranean religions which influenced the cult of Artimpasa to whom the Snake-Legged Goddess was affiliated[5]

Due to the influence of Levantine religions on the religion of the Scythians during their presence in the Near East, the Snake-Legged Goddess also bore a resemblance to the Levantine goddess ʿtrʿth-Derketṑ in several aspects, including their monstrous bodies, fertility and vegetation symbolism, legends about their love affairs, and their respective affiliations and near-identification to Artimpasa and Aphrodítē Ouranía. Although the Snake-Legged Goddess was very closely identified to Artimpasa to the point of bordering on identification, the two goddesses were nevertheless distinct. Another influence might have been the Greco-Colchian goddess Leukothéa, whose mythology as a woman who was turned into a goddess after throwing herself into the sea due to a curse from Hera connects her to Derketṑ-ʿtrʿth, and whose sanctuary at Vani had columns crowned with female protomes emerging from acanthus leaves similar to those of the Snake-Legged Goddess.[5]

Reflecting influence from Levantine cults in which the Great Goddess was often accompanied by a minor semi-bestial goddess, the Snake-Legged Goddess, who was also the Scythian foremother, was affiliated to Artimpasa. This affiliation was so close that the images of the two goddesses would almost merge, but nevertheless remained distinct from each other. This distinctiveness is more clear in how Artimpasa was assigned the role of the king's sexual partner and the divine power of the kings who granted royal power, but was not considered the foremother of the people, and in how neither the Bosporan kings of Sarmatian ancestry nor the Greco-Roman authors' records assigned Aphrodítē or Artimpasa as the Scythians' ancestor.[5]

The shape of these representations is similar to that of the Tree of Life connecting the upper and lower spheres of the Universe as well as symbolising supreme life-giving power, and therefore merging with the image of the fertility goddess, and was additionally linked to the Iranian creation myth of the Simorğ bird resting on the Saēna Tree.[5] The snakes and griffins as well as, and representations of the Snake-Legged Goddess alongside predatory feline animals also characterised her as a pótnia thērôn in addition to being a vegetation goddess of the Tree of Life. The snakes also connected the Snake-Legged Goddess to the Greek Medusa, and Greek-manufactured representations of Medusa, especially in the form of pendants found in the tombs of Scythian nobles, were very popular in Scythia due to her association with the Snake-Legged Goddess. Possible depictions of the goddess as a pótnia thērôn in the form of Medusa have also been found in Scythian art, with a damaged rhyton from the Kelermes kurgan depicting her as a winged running deity with small wings on non-serpentiform legs and flanked by griffins on both sides, and a gold plate from the Shakhan kurgan being decorated with the image of winged deity holding two animals.[5]

The chthonic nature of the Snake-Legged Goddess also explained why her depictions were placed in Scythian tombs, and her status as the fore-mother of the Scythians associated her with the cult of the ancestors - the Snake-Legged Goddess, being the controller of the life cycle, was also a granter of eternal life for the deceased.[5]

The depictions of the Snake-Legged Goddess holding a severed head which represented the sacrificial offering of a man hanging on the Tree of Life, were another example of Levantine influence, since severed human heads appeared in Levantine goddess cults in which the life-granting goddess demanded death, and re-enacted the death of her partner, whom she loved, emasculated, and killed. The Snake-Legged Goddess therefore also had a blood-thirsty aspect, and there is attestation of human sacrifices to local goddesses accompanied by the exposure of the victims' severed heads on the northern Black Sea coast; one such head placed on an altar close to a representation of a vegetation goddess was discovered in the Sarmatian town of Ilutarum. The Scythian practice of severing the heads of all enemies they killed in battle and bringing them to their kings in exchange of war booty, the depictions of warriors near or holding decapitated heads in Scythian art, as well as the pendants shaped like satyr heads found in the same structures as the representations of the Snake-Legged Goddess and of Artimpasa might have been connected with this aspect of the Snake-Legged Goddess.[5]

In addition to her connection with the Tree of Life, the Snake-Legged Goddess's image was used in shamanic rites due to her affiliation with Artimpasa, with one of the sceptres from the Alexandropol'skiy kurgan having been found decorated with a depiction of her, and the other sceptre heads being furnished with bells or decorated with schematic trees with birds sitting on them.[5]

Moreover, depictions of the Snake-Legged Goddess on Scythian horse harness decorations imply that she was also a patroness of horses, which might be connected with the love affair between Dargatavah and the goddess beginning after she had kept his mares in the genealogical myth.[5]

The Snake-Legged Goddess outside of ScythiaEdit
The Kuban RegionEdit

Depictions of the Snake-Legged Goddess were also found in the Sindo-Maeotian areas on the Asian side of the Bosporus, and her representations in her tendril-legged form became more predominant in the first centuries CE and appeared in Bosporan Greek cities, where they became a common design on sarcophagi, as well as in graves in Chersonesus.[5]

The Kingdom of the BosporusEdit

A possible Sindo-Maeotian variant of the Snake-Legged Goddess appears in the Kingdom of the Bosporus under the name of Aphrodítē Apátouros (Ancient Greek: Αφροδίτη Ἀπάτουρος).[14] The goddess's epithet Apátouros was derived from a name in a Sindian dialect of Scythian meaning "mighty water" or "quick water" composed of the terms ap-, meaning "water," and tura-, meaning "quick" or "mighty." The cult of this goddess was of indigenous Sindo-Maeotian origin and was adopted by the Greeks, who syncretised her with their own Aphrodítē Ouranía, when they colonised the Taman peninsula.[14]

Since the ancient Greeks did not understand the meaning of the epithet Apátouros, Strábōn attempted to explain it as being derived from the Greek word ἀπάτη, meaning "treachery," through a retelling of a legend about this goddess, according to which she had been attacked by Giants and called on Hēraklês for help. After concealing Hēraklês, the goddess, under guise of introducing the Giants one by one, treacherously handed them to Hēraklês, who killed them.[14]

This legend of Aphrodítē Apátouros and the Giants and the Scythian genealogical were part of the same narrative. According to this hypothesis, Aphrodítē Apátouros's reward to Hēraklês for defeating the Giants would have been her love.[14]

Southern CrimeaEdit

The Taurian Parthenos, the goddess to whom, according to Herodotus, the Tauri sacrificed ship-wrecked men and Greeks captured in sea-raids and exposed their heads on a pole, might have been another form of the Snake-Legged Goddess worshipped by non-Scythians.[5]


Thracian interpretations of the Scythian Snake-Legged Goddess appear in the Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari as caryatids with feminine bodies wearing calathi hats and khitṓns with pleats shaped like floral volutes which have an acanthus between them. Their disproportionally large raised hands, which either hold the volutes or are raised to appear as supporting the entablure, are similar to the goddess with her hands raised to her face depicted on a series of Thracian votive plaques. Above the caryatids, a wall painting depicts a goddess holding a crown and reaching out to an approaching horseman. The overall scene represents a Thracian nobleman's posthumous heroisation and depicts the same elements of the Great Goddess-minor goddess complex found in the relation between Artimpasa and the Snake-Legged Goddess.[5]

A Thracian equivalent of the Snake-Legged Goddess might also appear in the series of horse bridle plaques from Letnitsa. One of the plaques depicts a seated male figure (an ancestral hero and likely Thracian equivalent of the "Scythian Heracles") with a female figure (the Thracian Great Goddess) straddling him from above, both of them explicitly engaging in sexual intercourse, and symbolising the king's acquirement of royal power through intercourse with the Great Goddess similarly to the Scythian king's obtaining of royal power through his union with Artimpasa. Behind the Great Goddess is another woman, holding a vessel in one hand and in the other one a branch which obscures the view of the hero; this figure is a vegetation goddess with an ectatic aspect, which is symbolised by the vessel she holds, which contains a sacred beverage, and whose connection to the Great Goddess is analogous to that of the Snake-Legged Goddess with Artimpasa.[5]

Several Thracian stelae and votive plaques have also been discovered depicting a horseman facing a standing or seated Great Goddess while a tree with a coiling snake stands between them, attesting of the similarity of the Thracian and Scythian conceptions of the Great Goddess and the affiliation to her of a snake goddess who was considered the foremother of the people.[5]

The Goddess with Raised HandsEdit

Multiple headgear pendants from three kurgans respectively found in Mastyuginskiy, Tolstaya Mogila, and Lyubimovskiy have been discovered which represent a goddess with large hands raised in a praying gestures and sitting on the protomes of two lions in profile. The posture of this goddess depicts an imagery which originated in either Luristan or the Caucasus, and has been interpreted as an act of prayer towards a solar or celestian deity. The depiction of this goddess from the Tolstaya Mogila kurgan shows her half-nude, with uncovered breasts and wearing only a cross-belt above the skirt. The nudity of the Goddess with Raised Hands connect hers with the Snake-Legged Goddess, who is often depicted in topless dress, and with Artimpasa.[5]

A later Bosporan goddess in the same praying gesture is depicted with leaf-shaped or branch-shaped hands. Like the earlier goddess with raised hands, this goddess sits on two lions or on a throne flanked by lions. The leaf-shaped hands of this goddess as well as the wild animals on her sides connect her with the tendril-legged form of the Snake-Legged Goddess, and therefore to Artimpasa.[5]

The Divine TwinsEdit

The mytheme of the Divine twins, which appears across several Indo-European religions in the form of the Ancient Greek Dióskouroi, the Vedic Aśvin and the twins from the Dacian tablets - these divine twins had in earlier Indo-European mythology been horses before later evolving into horsemen such as the Aśvin and the English Hengest and Horsa, who had horse-names. In Indo-European mythology, the divine twins were companions of the Mother-Goddess who flanked her symbol of the Tree of Life, especially in depictions of them as two horses or horsemen who stand symmetrically near a goddess or a tree.[5]

In pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religion, Nahaithya, the Iranian declension of the divine twins, were connected with Anāhita and were her companions. The cult of the divine twins existed among the Scythians, with Loukianós recording the veneration of two twin deities in a Scythian temple whom he identified with the Greek Oréstēs and Puládēs. Their duality represented the contrast of death against fertility and resurrection, and were related to royalty and warrior society, which thus made them companions of Artimpasa, as depicted in the Karagodeuashkh plate.[5]

Depictions of the divine twins among Scythian peoples included some Sarmatian royal brands depicting the theme of the two horsemen standing symmetrically near a tree, a small figure from a Scythian burial at Krasny Mayak depicting two men embracing one another, as well as two Greek-made bronze figurines from Scythian Neápolis depicting the Greek Dióskouroi who were identified by the Scythians with the divine twins, together with a terracotta sculpture in the shape of a goddess's head were discovered in an ash altar near a wall of a temple where was worshipped a fertility goddess to whom was associated images of rams.[5]

The divine twins' position in Scythian religion was inferior to that of the gods, likely belonging to the rank of heroes, and might possibly have been the same as the two brothers and first Scythian kings born of Dargatavah and the Snake-Legged Goddess in the genealogical myth. The Scythian divine twins, who were most likely the origin of the twin heroes who appear in the Ossetian Nart saga, are another reflection of the Indo-European mytheme of the divine twins as the progenitors of royal dynasties, also found in the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, the English Hengest and Horsa, and the Greek Dióskouroi as the originators of the dual-monarchy of Sparta.[5]

The Solar HorsemanEdit

Among the Scythians and the Sindo-Maeotians was present the cult of a solar god depicted as a mounted deified ancestor. This deity was believed to be a fighter against evil, and was popular from the late first millennium BCE to the first centuries of the Common Era on the Black Sea coast, Central Asia and Transcaucasia, and appeared in India following the migrations of the Saka there.[13]

The Mounted God of the BosporusEdit

By the 1st centuries CE in the Bosporus, the chariot-riding Scythian solar god Gaiϑāsūra had been syncretised with the horse-riding Persian god Miϑra, imported from the southern and eastern shores of the Pontus Euxinus, to become the Theós Húpsistos (Ancient Greek: Θεός Ὕψιστος‎, meaning "Most High God") of the Bosporus. This Theós Húpsistos, who was depicted as a horseman, enjoyed wide popularity and was raised to the status of divine patron of the royal dynasty.[13]

The Theós Húpsistos was known in Tanais as Pharnoûkhos (Φαρνοῦχος) derived from Old Iranian farna-, which reflects his nature as a grace- and power-giving solar god.[13]

A stele from 104 CE which commemorates the celebration of the Day of Tanais depicts the Theós Húpsistos as a mounted horseman dressed in Sarmatian costume and holding a rhyton in his right hand, with a blazing altar in front of him and a tree behind the altar. This scene is consistent with the depictions of the horsemen facing Artimpasa in Scythian art, and represents the communion of the Theós Húpsistos with the Bosporan Aphrodítē Ouranía evolved from Artimpasa, and is represented by the tree (similarly to Artimpasa, the Bosporan Aphrodítē Ouranía was sometimes represented with tree-shaped limbs or head, with her palm shaped like large leaves on stele, and her head shaped like a tree top and her hands shaped like branches on a stamp), while the alter sanctifies the ceremony.[13]

The Bosporan thíasoiEdit

The cult of the Theós Húpsistos in Tanais was performed by thíasoi (θίασοι), which were state-recognised all-male collegia of which all the free men of the city were members, including both the rank-and-file citizens and the aristocracy of Tanais. These worshippers' associations belonged to the same institution and organised the whole citizenry of Tanais into distinct groups which each had a very strict hierarchy, and around half of their memberships was ethnically Greek while the other half was ethnically Iranian.[13]

These thasioi originated in the Iranian institution of male societies [de], that is male societies of young warriors, which were present among both the Persians and the Scythians. These male societies had been Hellenised when they were incorporated into the social structure of the Bosporan Kingdom.[13]

The typical functions of these Iranian male societies, such as the worship of Miϑra, the performing of ecstatic cults involving the consumption of haoma, and fire worship were reflected in the syncretised Bosporan cult of the Theós Húpsistos, such as the depoction of the deity holding of a rhyton and facing a blazing altar on the Day of Tanais commemoration stele; fire worship was also present among the Bosporan thiasṓtēs in the form of the fire cult's presence among the funerary rituals of the inhabitants of Tanais. The cult of the dead of the male societies was visible in the numerous stelae the Bosporan thiasṓtēs built in commemoration of their dead members. Iranian male societies also maintained justice and punished law-breakers - reflected in the thíasoi officials being among the Bosporan synods' leading magistrates -, and were closely connected to royal power, hence the close connection of the thasioi and their Theós Húpsistos with the Bosporan royal family and its cults. And, like the Iranian male societies, the Bosporan thíasoi were divided into age classes, and required initiations so members could join an ideal community of alive and deceased warriors.[13]


In the 19th century, Russian folklorist Alexander Afanasyev and French philologist Frédéric-Guillaume Bergmann (fr) mentioned a Scythian deity of the Sun by the name of Svalius.[26][27][28]



Scythian religion was largely aniconic, and the Scythians did not make statues of their deities for worship, with the one notable exception being the war-god, the Scythian "Árēs". Nevertheless, the Scythians did make smaller scale images of certain of their deities for use as decorations, although Tapatī́, Papaios and Api seem to have never been represented in any anthropomorphised form.[4]

The only god to which Scythians built sanctuaries was the war-god, the Scythian "Árēs," to whom a high place was made out of a pile of brushwood, of which the three sides were upright and vertical and the fourth side formed a slope on which worshippers could walk to the top of the high place, which was itself a square-shaped platform on which the god himself was ritually represented in the form of a sword placed pointing upward. The square shape of the platform might have formed a representation of Scythian religion's conceptualisation of the universe as being four-sided while the sword-idol might have been a cosmic axis which united the human and divine worlds.[29][18][4] This tall brushwood high place was a representation of the world mountain.[17] These brushwood high places could be found throughout all regions inhabited by the Scythians, and every year more brushwood was added to the high place to maintain its structure.[4]

The Sarmatians similarly represented their "Árēs" in the form of a sword planted upright.[29][18]

A holy site of the Scythians was Exampaîos, that is the "Holy Ways," located between the Dniepr and the southern Bug rivers, where was located a large bronze cauldron which Herodotus described as "six fingers breadth in thickness" and which could contain the volume of six hundred amphorae. According to Scythian legend, this cauldron was made when the king Ariantas ordered every one of his subjects to bring him a single arrowhead so he could know the exact number of his subjects. The great bronze cauldron at Exampaeus was made out of the heap of arrowheads which accumulated from this census. This cauldron located at the "Holy Ways" was believed to be the centre of the world, and the legend of the arrowheads reflected that all Scythians had collective ownership of it.


The priest-kingEdit

The king of the Royal Scythians performed the duties of a priest during the pan-Scythian rituals which involved the hestíai of Tapatī́. Among Indo-Iranian peoples, the king had a charisma which took the physical form of gold, held to be a royal metal, and therefore the king displayed his visible extraordinary powers by controlling the gold hestíai of Tapatī́.[4]

The AnaryaEdit

The Anarya (meaning "unmanly,"[30] and rendered by Greek writers as Ἐνάρεες Enárees[31][32] and Ἀναριεῖς Anarieîs,[33]) were a section of the Scythian clergy composed of tranvestite priests.[30]

The Anarya were affiliated to an orgiastic cult of Artimpasa in her form strongly influenced by Near Eastern fertility goddesses, and the rites of the Anarya thus combined both indigenous Scythians religious practices of a shamanistic nature, as well as ones imported from Levantine religions. The Anarya also acted as seers and performed a particular form of divination which, unlike the methods of traditional Scythian soothsayers, used linden bark.[5] The Anarya were especially consulted when the king of the Scythians was ill,[34] which was itself believed by the Scythians to be caused by a false oath being sworn upon the king's hearth,[35] and the Scythians believed these prophetic abilities of the Anarya to have been granted to them by the goddess Artimpasa.[5]

The Scythians also ascribed the androgyny of the Anarya to a "female disease" causing sexual impotency, itself resulting from a curse by the goddess Artimpasa to the perpetrators of the sack of the temple of the goddess ʿštrt (whom the Scythians identified with Artimpasa) in Askálōn and their descendants during the Scythian presence in the Levant in the 7th century BCE; the transvestite androgyny of the Anarya was thus also typical of the cult of the Levantine celestial ʿštrt. The Anarya being enunchs who belonged to the most powerful Scythian aristocracy and wore women's clothing as well performed women's jobs and spoke like women, according to indigenous Scythian shamanic traditions they were considered "transformed" shamans who changed their sex, signaled them as being the most powerful shamans, due to which they inspired fear and were thus accordingly given special respect in Scythian society.[5]

Like all ancient priesthoods, the Anarya differentiated themselves from ordinary mortals through their dress, behaviour, and secred rituals. Therefore, in addition to their transvestism, the Anarya might also have worn additional regalia, such as drums used in shamanic rituals and antlered headdresses similar to those found in Saka horse burials and those worn in more recent times by Siberian shamans. Sceptres capped with ornate pole tops, which have been discovered throughout the steppe from Mongolia to the Great Hungarian Plains were also used by the Anarya as symbols of authority: these pole tops often included rattles, and the oldest of these date from the 8th century BCE, are from Tuva and the Minusinsk Basin, and are topped by a stag or ibex standing with its feet together as if perched on a rocky eminence. The more recent pole tops are more elaborate in design, such as one found in the Akexandropol kurgan, which is in the shape of a goddess with her hands on her hips, and another one from the same kurgan in the shape of a griffin in a frame from which two bells hang, and a third from that same kurgan which splits into three branches each topped by a bird of prey holding a bell in its beak. The rattling and tinkling of the sceptres' bells invited the audience to the impending rites.[4]

Given the hereditary nature of the Anarya and the belief that the curse of ʿštrt affected the looters of her shrine at Askálōn as well as their descendants, their transvestite transformation likely happened late in their lives.[5]


Renewal of the high placeEdit

The Scythians would annually bring more brushwood to the high place of the Scythian "Árēs" to maintain its structure. This ceremony also symbolised a recommitment and created a consciousness of the continuity of worship at the high place, and was also a reaffirmation of tribal identity.[4]

Sacrifices to the war-godEdit

Every year, the Scythians held a ceremony to honour their "Árēs" during which they sacrificed cattle, horses and every hundredth prisoner of war to him. Libations of wine were poured over the prisoners who were to be sacrificed, following which their throats were cut over a vessel to catch their blood. This vessel was carried to the top of the brushwood high place of the god and the prisoners' blood was poured as libations on the sword functioning as the god's idol, and their right arms were severed and thrown into the sky and left wherever they fell.[29][18] The use of horses and of the blood and right arms of prisoners in the cult of the Scythian "Árēs" was a symbolic devotion of the swifness of horses and the strength of men to this god of kingship who had similar powers, and the tall brushwood altar on which the blood was offered to the god was a representation of the world mountain.[17]

No priests were required for the sacrifices to the Scythian "Árēs."[4]

Communal drinkingEdit

The Scythians held an annual ceremony where everyone who had killed at least one enemy was acknowledged by being allowed to drink from a communal bowl of wine in front of the assembled company, although it is unknown whether or not this festivity was performed at the same time as the yearly sacrifices to the Scythian "Árēs."[4]

Animal sacrificeEdit

According to Herodotus, animal sacrifices among the Scythians to all gods except to "Árēs" was carried out by tying a rope around the front legs of the sacrificial animal, then the offerer of the sacrifice standing behind the animal and pulling the rope to throw the animal forward, and strangling it to death using a rope tied around the animal's neck and tightened using a stick. The sacrificed animal was then cut up, its flesh was boiled in a cauldron, or, for those who did not have a cauldron, in the animal's own skin, while the bones were added to the fire on which the animal's flesh was cooked so they could be consumed following the approved ritual. Once the meat was cooked, the person who initiated the sacrifice would throw some of cooked meat and entrails into the ground as an offering for the god.[29]

The cult to Thagimasádas might have involved horse sacrifice.[29]

Animals sacrificed to "Árēs" were horses, sheep, and goats.[29]

Human sacrificeEdit

The Scythian Árēs was also propitiated using human sacrifice, which involved cutting the throat of one man out of every hundred prisoners and pouring his blood on the sword-idol of the god, and then cutting the sacrificed man's right arm and throwing it into the air and leaving it wherever it fell.[29][29][18]


Royal customsEdit

The royal divine marriageEdit

The signet ring of the Scythian king Skula, whose bezel was decorated with the image of a woman seated on a throne and holding a mirror in her right hand and a sceptre in her left hand, with Skuleō (Σκυλεω) engraved near the figure of the goddess, and on whose band was inscribed in Greek Κέλεοε Ἄργοταν πὰρ ὲναι ("Tell to be with Argotas!"), represented communion with Artimpasa as guaranteeing sovereignty in Scythian religion. The image of the Artimpasa on the ring was therefore a representation of her as a granter of sovereignty, with the ring having been inherated from generation to generation of the Scythian royal dynasty as a token of royal power, and Argotas was probably a former Scythian king from whom his descendant Skula inherited this ring. The ring did not feature any image of the male partner of the goddess because the kings were themselves considered to be these partners, with the Scythian royal investiture having been considered both a communion between man and the goddess as well as a marital union which elevated the king to the status of spouse of the goddess and granted him power through sexual intercourse with the goddess. This was also a reflection of Levantine influence on Artimpasa, since Mesopotamian equivalents of Aphrodítē Ouranía were sometimes represented together with the king in scenes represented sacred marriages, and the stability of royal power in Paphos was believed to be derived from intimate relations between the Aphrodítē, with whom the queen of Paphos was identified, and the king, who claimed descent from Aphrodítē's lover Kinúras.[5]

A similar rite of the marriage between the king and the great goddess existed among the Scythians' Thracian neighbours.[5]

The ritual sleepEdit

The ritual sleep during was a ceremony during which a substitute ritual king would ceremonially sleep in an open air field along with the gold hestíai for a single night, possibly as a symbolical ritual impregnation of the earth. This substitute king would receive as much land as he could ride around in one day: this land belonged to the real king and was given to the substitute king to complete his symbolic identification with the real king, following which he would be allowed to live for one year until he would be sacrificed when the time for the next ritual sleep festival would arrive[5] and a successor of the ritual king was chosen. This ceremony also represented the death and rebirth of the Scythian king and was conducted at the "Holy Ways," where the great bronze cauldron representing the centre of the world was located.[4]


Willow stick divinationEdit

Traditional Scythian soothsayers used willow withies for divination.[5] This method of divination involved placing a bundle of willow sticks on the ground, untying it, and laying out the individual sticks.[4]

Linden bark divinationEdit

A particular form of divination which was performed by the Anarya used linden bark;[5] the Anarya performed this form of divination by splitting the linden bark and twining the strands among open fingers.[34]

The Anarya were especially consulted when the king of the Scythians was ill,[34] which was itself believed by the Scythians to be caused by a false oath being sworn upon the king's hearth.[35] Once the Anarya had identified the suspect who had sworn the false oath, the said suspect would claim to be innocent. If the Anarya maintained the accusation, six more soothsayers were consulted, and if they upheld the original accusation, the suspect was executed by being beheaded. If the additional soothsayers declared the suspect was innocent, the process of consulting more soothsayers was repeated, and if the larger number of soothsayers still declared the suspect to be innocent, the initial accusers were executed by being put into a wagon filled with brushwood which was set on fire, and their sons were all killed.[4]


The motifs of Scythian cultures' Animal style art reflected the cosmological notion of the ever-present struggle of life which was held to be the essence of being. These motifs consisted of stags (sometimes substituted by elks, moose, and rams), depicted as noble beasts in repose whose legs are tucked underneath its body, and which represented Tree of Life which sustained the world which was always in tension. The other components of these motifs were snow leopard-like felines and birds of prey, which were represented competing with each other for the herbivores, thus creating an interlocking style of tension. These compositions featuring predator and prey were present throughout the Scythian cultures, from the Pontic Steppe to the Altai Mountains.[4]

The Golden Pectoral from Tovsta Mohyla.
In the upper frieze: Scythians tending to their domesticated animals
In the lower frieze: griffins, lions, and cheetahs attacking horses, deer, and pigs

In the western regions, under Greek influence, the art of the Pontic Scythians underwent an evolution, with the majestic stags being replaced by docile deer or horses or rams, the felines' designs changing from snow leopard-like into images of lions, and the birds of prey becoming winged griffins, although the central theme of the struggle between predator and prey remained the same. This Greek-influenced Scythian animal art is visible in the lower frieze of the Golden Pectoral from Tovsta Mohyla, where two griffins attack a horse in its centre, while the rest of the frieze depicts lions and cheetahs attacking stags and pigs. The upper frieze instead represents humans interacting with their domesticated animals to counterpose the harmony of the human world with the conflict of the supernatural realm, as well as to equate the humans with the predators with respect to their relationship with the productive power of the earth.[4]

In the eastern regions, the predator-prey motif could be found depicted on the Saka saddle covers from the Pazyryk kurgans and leather flasks, as well as tattooeed on the bodies of the deceased buried in the kurgans.[4]

Funerary customsEdit

The rich furnishings of Scythian tombs demonstrate that Scythians devoted significant resources to ensuring the proper burial of their members, especially of nobles. This attested that the afterlife was extremely important in Scythian religion.[5]

Sarmatians buried their priestesses with mirrors, which were symbols of feminine principle, eroticism and fertility that played an important role in the wedding rites of Iranian peoples, and were believed to be magical objects used for prophecy and shamanic rites.[5] The Sarmatian citizens of the city of Tanais were buried along with weapons as well as with pieces of chalk and realgar which functioned as symbols of fire, while their graves were accompanied by burial constructions shaped as circular stone fences. These, along with horse harnesses being present in pit graves, as well as the burial of horses in tumuli, attested of the importance of the solar and fire cults in Sarmatian funerary rites.[13]

Due to increasing Scythian and Sarmatian cultural influence in Panticapaeum, the deceased were often depicted as mounted horsemen on murals in their funerary vaults and tombstones at the same time as the horseman became a recurring motif in Late Scythian and Sarmatian art in the first centuries of the Common Era.[13]


The Massagétai custom of eating the men of their tribe who had grown old might have reflected among Scythian peoples the presence of age classes, which were a distinguishing aspect of Iranian male societies.[13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ redrawn from B. A. Rybakov, Язычество древней Руси ("Paganism of Ancient Rus", 1987, fig. 7).
  2. ^ Loehr, Max. "The Stag Image in Scythia and the Far East." Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America 9 (1955): 63-76.
  3. ^ Macaulay (1904:314). Cf. also Rolle (1980:128–129); Hort (1827:188–190).
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v Cunliffe 2019, p. 265–290.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh bi bj bk bl bm bn bo bp bq br bs bt bu bv bw Ustinova 1999, p. 67-128.
  6. ^ Atwood, Christopher P.; Andreeva, Petya (2018). "Camp and audience scenes in late iron age rock drawings from Khawtsgait, Mongolia". Archaeological Research in Asia. 15: 101–109. doi:10.1016/j.ara.2017.11.004.
  7. ^ West, Martin Litchfield (2007). Indo-European Poetry and Myth. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 267. ISBN 978-0-199-28075-9.
  8. ^ Cheung, Johnny (2007). Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 378–379. ISBN 978-9-004-15496-4.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Safaee 2020.
  10. ^ MacLeod, Sharon (Dec 7, 2013). The Divine Feminine in Ancient Europe: Goddesses, Sacred Women and the Origins of Western Culture. McFarland. p. 116–128. ISBN 9781476613925.- Retrieved 2018-12-17
  11. ^ a b c d Harmatta, János (1996). "10.4.1. The Scythians". In Hermann, Joachim; de Laet, Sigfried (eds.). History of Humanity. Vol. 3. UNESCO. p. 181-182. ISBN 978-9-231-02812-0.
  12. ^ Auset, Brandi (2009). The Goddess Guide: Exploring the Attributes and Correspondences of the Divine Feminine. Llewellyn Publications. p. 72. ISBN 9780738715513.- Retrieved 2018-12-17
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Ustinova 1999, p. 255-283.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i Ustinova 1999, p. 29-66.
  15. ^ Olbrycht, Marek Jan (2000). "Remarks on the Presence of Iranian Peoples in Europe and Their Asiatic Relations". Collectanea Celto-Asiatica Cracoviensia. Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka. pp. 101–104. ISBN 978-8-371-88337-8.
  16. ^ Schwartz, Martin; Manaster Ramer, Alexis (2019). "Some Interlinguistic Iranian Conundrums" (PDF). In Hintze, Almut; Durkin, Desmond; Naumann, Claudius (eds.). A Thousand Judgements: Festschrift for Maria Macuch. Harrassowitz Verlag. ISBN 978-3-447-11094-5.
  17. ^ a b c d Campbell 1969, p. 204.
  18. ^ a b c d e Campbell 1969, p. 73.
  19. ^ Sulimirski (1985:158–159).
  20. ^ Geary (1994:63).
  21. ^ Campbell 1969, p. 150.
  22. ^ Schmitt, Rüdiger. "SCYTHIAN LANGUAGE". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 22 October 2021. *gaiϑā- “herd, possessions” and *sūra- “strong, mighty” (in the theonym Goitó-syros)
  23. ^ Herzfeld, Ernst (1947). Zoroaster and His World. Vol. 2. Princeton University Press. p. 516.
  24. ^ Hesychius of Alexandria. "Γλῶσσαι/Σ". Lexicon.
  25. ^ a b Campbell 1969, p. 150-151.
  26. ^ Bergmann, Frederic Guillaume. Les Scythes. Halle: W. H. Schmidt. 1858. pp. 37 and 178-179.
  27. ^ Афанасьев, А.Н. Поэтические воззрения славян на природу: Опыт сравнительного изучения славянских преданий и верований в связи с мифическими сказаниями других родственных народов. Том 1. Moskva: Izd. K. Soldatenkova 1865. p. 81. (In Russian) [1]
  28. ^ Афанасьев, А.Н. Боги-суть предки наши. Moskva: 2009. pp. 285-286. ISBN 978-5-386-00999-1 (In Russian)
  29. ^ a b c d e f g h Jacobson 1995, p. 52-64.
  30. ^ a b Ivantchik, Askold (25 April 2018). "SCYTHIANS". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Retrieved 23 October 2021. referred to by Herodotus as enareës (ἐνάρεες; 1.105.4; 4.67.2), and more accurately by Pseudo-Hippocrates (Aër. 22) as anarieis (ἀναριεῖς, from the Iranian *anarya-, “unmanly”)
  31. ^ Herodotus. "105". Ἱστορίαι [The History]. Vol. 1.
  32. ^ Herodotus. "67". Ἱστορίαι [The History]. Vol. 4.
  33. ^ Pseudo-Hippocrates. "22". Περί Αέρων, Υδάτων, Τόπων [On Airs, Waters and Places] (in Ancient Greek).
  34. ^ a b c Phillips, E. D. (1972). "The Scythian Domination in Western Asia: Its Record in History, Scripture and Archaeology". World Archaeology. 4 (2): 129–138. doi:10.1080/00438243.1972.9979527. JSTOR 123971. Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  35. ^ a b Ustinova 1999, p. 69.


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