Stories of the East From Herodotus - Alfred J. Church

Of the Scythians and Other Nations

Concerning the Scythians and other nations that dwell in these parts there are some things worthy to be told.

All this country is in winter cold beyond measure. For eight months, indeed, the frost is such that a man can scarce bear it; and during this time if you pour water on the ground you cannot make mud; but if you light a fire you can make it. The sea is frozen, and the Scythians march across the ice and drive their waggons on it to that part of Asia which lieth over against them. The sea which they cross is the Cimmerian Bosphorus, being at the extremity of the Black Sea eastward. So is it for eight months of the year; and in the four that remain there is ofttimes frost. Nor is the winter such as is wont to be in other countries; for it raineth scarcely ever, but in summer it raineth continually. Also there is never heard thunder at this time, but in summer it is very grievous. The horses endure the cold, but the asses and the mules perish; but elsewhere asses and mules endure it, but horses if they stand still are mortified by frost. Perchance the cold is the cause why the oxen have not horns. To this agreeth what Homer saith in the "Wanderings of Ulysses"—

"Libya, where quickly grow the lambkin's horns."

For in lands where there is much heat horns ever grow quickly. As to the mules, in Elis also, though it is not over cold, mules are never born. But the people of Elis say that this is by reason of a curse.

As to the feathers, whereof the Scythians affirm the air in the regions beyond them to be full, so that no man may pass through them, or even see them, the truth seems to be this. In the upper country snow falleth continually, but in summer less than in winter. Now, whosoever hath seen snow close at hand when it is falling quickly knoweth it to be like to feathers. And it is easily to be believed that by reason of the cold the northern part of this land cannot be inhabited.

Of the customs of the Scythians the greater part are not to be praised; but one thing they order in a fashion more admirable than do any other men; and this thing is of all human affairs the most important. If an enemy invade their country he shall never escape from it, nor shall he ever be able to come up with them unless they will. For they have neither cities nor forts, but they carry about their houses with them, and they are all archers, shooting from horseback, and they live not by tillage, but by cattle, and their dwellings are on waggons. Hence it has come to pass that no man can conquer them, or even so much as come near to them. For this manner of life the land wherein they dwell is suitable, and their rivers also are a help; for the land is plain and grassy and well watered, and the rivers that flow through it are well-nigh equal in number to the canals that are in Egypt.

They worship five Gods; first Vesta, honouring her beyond all others, and next Zeus and Earth (and Earth they call the wife of Zeus), and in the third place Apollo, and the Heavenly Aphrodite, and Heracles, and Ares. These all the Scythians worship, and the Royal Scythians worship Poseidon. Images and altars and temples they make for Ares only.

They have but one manner of sacrificing. The beast is made to stand with its forefeet bound together. Then he that sacrificeth, standing behind the beast, pulleth the end of the rope wherewith it is bound, causing it to fall; and as it falleth, he calleth aloud the name of the god to whom he offereth the beast. Afterwards he putteth a noose round its neck, and in the noose a small stick, the which he twisteth, and so strangleth the beast. But he lighteth no fire, nor useth consecration, nor poureth out libation; but so soon as it is strangled busies himself with the boiling of it. Now there is no wood in the land of Scythia, for which cause they use this method for the boiling of the flesh. First they flay the beast, and after strip off the flesh from the bones. This flesh they put into caldrons of the country, if they chance to have such; and these caldrons are like to the mixing bowls of the Arabs, but are larger by much; and under they burn the bones of the beast. But if they have no caldron, they put all the flesh of the beast into the paunch, and mixing with it water, burn the bones as before. The bones burn excellently well, and the paunch easily holds all the flesh when it has been stripped off. And when the flesh is boiled, the sacrificer takes of the entrails and of the flesh and casts them on the earth before him; and this is their manner of offering.

But to Ares they offer sacrifice after another manner. In each district of the land, at the chief place of it, there is a temple of Ares; and the temple is of this fashion. Faggots of brushwood are piled together in a heap, whereof the breadth is three furlongs, and the length three furlongs, but the height not so much. On this there is made a platform that is foursquare, and steep on every side save one only; but by this one a man may climb on the top. And on this they pile year by year one hundred and fifty waggon loads of brushwood, for the rains cause it to sink. In the midst of this platform is a sword of iron, made after an ancient fashion; and this sword is the image of Ares. And year by year they offer to this sword sheep and horses; and of the men whom they take captive in battle they choose one out of every hundred and sacrifice them, but after a different manner to the sacrificing of the beasts. "They pour wine on the heads of the men, and slay them over a great vessel, and then taking the blood on to the platform, pour it over the sword that serveth for an image. This they do with the blood, but as to the dead bodies they cut from them the right shoulders down to the hand and throw them into the air. Afterwards they slay the other victims, and so depart.

Swine they use never in sacrifice; nay, they will not so much as keep this beast in their country.

Concerning war they have these customs. The first man that a Scythian slays in battle he drinks of his blood; and he takes the heads of all he slays and carries them to the King. If he carry the head, then hath he a share of all the booty whatsoever may be taken, but if he carry it not, he hath no share. He flays the head in this manner. He makes a cut round about it above the ears, and shakes the skull out of the scalp. The scalp he cleanses with the bone of an ox, and when he has softened it with his hand, useth it for a napkin. The Scythians hang these scalps upon their bridles and make much account of them; for he that hath most napkins of this sort is reckoned to be the bravest of his company. Some sew the scalps together for cloaks, and others make covers of them for their quivers. Now the skin of a man is very white and of a beautiful lustre beyond all other skins. With the skulls they deal in this fashion, but not with all, but with the skulls of these only whom being alive they have most abhorred. The upper part, having been cut off above the eyebrows, they cover with a covering of leather, and use it for a drinking cup. And if a man be poor, this sufficeth him; but if he be rich, he addeth within a lining of gold. If a man have a quarrel with a kinsman, and overcome in a trial before the King, he dealeth with his skull in this fashion. And if he entertain strangers that are men of note, he will hand to them these cups, and tell how they were skulls of kinsmen that had a feud with him and were vanquished before the King.

Once in every year the chief man in each district mixeth a great bowl of wine; and all the Scythians that have slain an enemy in battle drink of it; but they who have not done this taste not of the wine, but sit apart as men that are disgraced. Such as have slain very many enemies have two cups instead of one, and drink from both.

Among the Scythians are many soothsayers, who use divination by bundles of rods which they loose, putting each wand by itself, and so prophesying. If the King of the Scythians fall sick, he sendeth for three soothsayers that are of the best repute. These use divination after the manner aforesaid; and for the most part they say that such and such a man hath sworn falsely by the King's hearth, naming this or that citizen. (It is the custom of the Scythians to swear by the King's hearth when they would take a very great oath.) Then certain men lay hold on the man who is accused of having sworn falsely, and the soothsayers affirm that he has sworn falsely by the King's hearth. But the man is very vehement in denying that he hath done any such thing. Whereupon the King sendeth for other soothsayers, twice as many in number as the former. If these, when they have used divination, find the man guilty of having sworn falsely, then they cut off his head forthwith, and the former soothsayers divide his possessions among themselves; but if the second company of soothsayers acquit him, then the King sendeth for others, and for others again. And if the greater part acquit him, then the former soothsayers must die. The manner of slaying them is this. They fill a waggon with brushwood, and yoke oxen to it; and they bind the soothsayers hand and foot, and put gags in their mouths, and so cast them into the midst of the brushwood. Then they set fire under the wood, and cause the oxen to run, frightening them. Ofttimes the oxen are consumed with the soothsayers, but sometimes, if the pole chance to be burnt through, they are singed only, and so escape. If the King cause a man to be put to death, he slayeth all his male children also, but the female he suffereth to live.

The Scythians make oaths in this manner. They pour wine into a great bowl of earthenware, and after mingle with the wine the blood of them that swear the oath, making a scratch on their bodies with an awl or cutting them with a knife. Then they dip into the bowl a scimitar and arrows and a battle-axe and a javelin, and they say many prayers over it; and after this they that make the covenant drink of the bowls, and their chief followers also.

The tombs of the Kings are in the land of the Gerrhi. So soon as the King dies, they dig a grave, which is very great, and in shape foursquare. Then they embalm the dead body after their fashion, and covering it with wax, lay it in a waggon, and send it to the nation that is next to them. And this again sendeth it on to the next. And every man both of the royal tribe (from whom it cometh at the first) and of the other tribes to whom it is sent, doeth after this fashion. He cuts off a part of an ear, and crops his hair close, and cuts round about his arm, and wounds his forehead and his nose, and runs an arrow through his left hand. So they carry the dead body through the country, coming at last to the Gerrhi, where are the tombs of the Kings. Here they lay it on a mattress in the grave, fixing spears round about it, and putting beams over it for a roof, which they thatch with twigs of osier. In the space round about the tomb (and this is very great), they bury one of the King's concubines, having first strangled her: also they bury his cup-bearer, and his cook, and his groom, and his body-servant, and his messenger, and certain of his horses, and first-fruits of all his other possessions, and also cups of gold—for cups of silver and bronze they use not at all. After this they make over the grave a very great mound, striving with all their might to build it as high as may be.

When a year is passed they do after this fashion. They take the best of the King's servants, all of them being Scythians, and chosen for this office by the King, for they have no servants bought with money, and strangle fifty of them, and fifty also of the best of his horses, and fill their bodies with chaff. Then they fix stakes in the ground, setting pairs of them, and on each pair half a wheel put archwise. On these arches they fasten the horses, and on the backs of the horses they set the young men; and for each horse and its rider there are bit and bridle. Then they range the fifty riders in a circle round about the tomb and so leave them.

When a man of the people dies his kinsfolk lay him in a waggon, and take him about to the houses of all his friends. These all entertain the company at a banquet, wherein they serve the dead man with meat even as they serve the others. For forty days they carry about the dead body and afterwards bury it. And when the burial is finished, then they that have carried about the dead man, purify themselves after this fashion. They set three sticks in the earth inclined together; and on these they put cloth of wool as close together as may be, so making a tent. And in the tent they set a dish, and in the dish stones made red-hot, and they cast hempseed upon the stones. (Hemp groweth abundantly in this land of Scythia, and the people make garments of it that are very like to garments made of flax, so that a man must be skilful in such matters to distinguish them.) Then the Scythians creep under the tent; and the hempseed smoketh upon the stones, so that no bath could smoke more. The Scythians are delighted beyond measure, and shout for joy. This smoking serves them for a bath, for they never wash their bodies with water.

It is an abomination to the Scythians to use strange customs. This may be seen from what befell Anacharsis; for this man, having travelled over many lands, and shown great wisdom whithersoever he went, came to Cyzicus, that is by the Hellespont, as he sailed homewards. Here he saw the people keeping a feast to the Great Mother very splendidly; and he vowed to the goddess that he also would keep a feast to her if he came safely to his home. And having come, he performed his vow, but a certain Scythian saw him, and told the matter to King Saulius, who, when he saw how Anacharsis was behaving himself, shot him with an arrow, and slew him.

So soon as King Darius, having but barely escaped from the Scythians, was come to Sardis, he sent for the two men who had done him good service, to wit, Histićus of Miletus and Coës of Mitylene. And when they stood before him, he bade them ask a boon of him, each of them the thing that he most wished to possess. Then Histićus asked of the King that he would give him Myrcinus that belongeth to the Edonians, that he might build for himself a city; for he was King of Miletus. But Coës, being but a citizen, asked that he might be made King of Mitylene. And Darius granted them each his request.

About this time there came to Sardis two Pćonians, who sought to have the pre-eminence among their countrymen. They brought with them their sister, who was a very fair woman and of great stature. And it came to pass one day when the King sat on his throne before the city, that having arrayed their sister in the richest garments that they had, they sent her to draw water for them. So she went, bearing a pitcher on her head, and leading a horse on one arm, and spinning flax as she walked. And the King took note of her as she passed by his throne, for it was not the custom of the Persians, nor of the Lydians, nor of any of the dwellers in Asia, to do after this fashion. And he bade certain of his guards follow her, and see what she would do with the horse. So the guards followed her, and when the woman came to the river, first she gave water to the horse, and afterwards filled the pitcher, and so came back by the way that she had gone, bearing the pitcher upon her head, and leading the horse on her arm, and all the while she span the flax. And King Darius marvelled much at the things that were told to him, and at what he himself had seen. Therefore he commanded the woman to be brought before him; and when the woman came, her brothers came also, for they had been watching the matter near at hand. Then the King asked them, "Of what nation is this woman?" And the young men answered, "We are men of Pćonia, and she is our sister." Whereupon the King said, "Where is the land of Pćonia? and on what errand are you come to Sardis?" The young man answered, "Pćonia is by the river of Strymon, not far from the Hellespont, and our beginning was from the city of Troy, and now we are come to yield ourselves to thee." And Darius asked them, saying, "Do all the women work as this your sister whom I saw?" And the young men answered with all eagerness that it was so; for indeed the whole thing had been done for this end.

Now King Darius had left behind him, when he returned to Asia, a great army of men, eighty thousand in all, with Megabazus for their captain. It was this Megabazus to whom Darius gave great honour by a certain thing which he said of him. For when the King was about to eat pomegranates, and had opened the first, his brother Artabanus said to him, "What is it, O King, that thou wouldst have in such plenty as there are seeds in this pomegranate?" And Darius said, "I had sooner have as many men like unto Megabazus as there are seeds in this pomegranate than be lord of the land of Greece." This man himself said a thing which will never be forgotten by the people of the Hellespont. Being in Byzantium, he was told by the men of the city that the building of Chalcedon was by seventeen years earlier than the building of Byzantium. Which when he heard, he said, "Surely they that built Chalcedon were blind men; for had they not been blind. they had not chosen the worse place for their building, when they might have chosen the better."

When therefore Darius had heard these things concerning the men of Pćonia, he wrote letters to Megabazus, bidding him remove the Pćonians from their own land, and bring them all before him, men and women and children. Straightway a horseman rode with all speed to the Hellespont, and having crossed it, gave the letter to Megabazus, who, having got guides from the Thracians, prepared to make war against the Pćonians.

Now, so soon as the Pćonians heard that the Persians were marching against them, they gathered their host together, and went down to the sea coast, thinking that the Persians would seek to enter their country by that way, and stood ready to meet their enemies. But when this came to the knowledge of the Persians, they took guides, and marching through the upper country before the Pćonians were aware, came down upon their cities, of which, seeing that they found them empty, they easily got possession. And when the Pćonians heard that their cities were taken they were scattered, every man going to his own home, and so gave themselves up to the Persians. Thus were these men with their wives and children taken by force from their native country and led away into Asia.

Nevertheless, Megabazus subdued not all the Pćonians, for, not to speak of others, those that dwelt in the lake Prasias were not conquered by him. He sought indeed to conquer them, but he could not accomplish it. The manner in which they live in the lake is this. In the middle of the water there stand tall piles, and upon these are built platforms, to which there is a narrow access from the land by one bridge only. Now the piles that are under the platforms were planted in the beginning by the whole commonwealth; but afterwards they plant them for themselves according to their law. A man driveth in three stakes (which they bring down from Mount Orbelus) for every wife that he taketh in marriage; and they take all of them many wives. Their manner of living is this. Every man hath a hut of his own upon one of the platforms, and a trap-door into the lake below. Their young children they tie by the foot with a string, fearing lest they should roll into the water. To their horses and their beasts of burden they give fish for food. Of fishes indeed the multitude is so great that a man may open the trap-door and let down a basket into the lake by a rope, and leaving it there for no long time, take it up again filled with fishes. Of fishes there are two kinds, which they call the praprax and the tilo.

Megabazus also subdued the Thracians, concerning whom there are certain things worthy to be told. The Trausi have also this custom. When a child is born, its kinsfolk sit round about it, and lament for all the evils that it must endure now that it is born into the world, recounting all the troubles of human life. But a dead man they bury with much laughter and joy, for they say that he hath been delivered from all manner of unhappiness and is now in great joy and felicity.

Other Thracians have this custom. Each man hath many wives. And when a man dies there is a great contest among these wives, their friends also taking one side or the other, as to who it was that was most loved of her husband. And she to whom this honour is adjudged, receiving great praise both from men and women, is slain upon the tomb by her nearest kinsman.

Some Thracians sell their children, and buy their wives for great sums of money. To be marked on the body showeth that a man is of honourable station, but not to be marked that he is of the meaner sort. To do nothing is the most honourable thing, but to till the ground the most dishonourable; nor is there anything more glorious than to live by war and plunder.

The Macedonians also submitted themselves to King Darius, giving earth and water.

In those days Aryandes, who was governor of Egypt under Darius, sent an army and a fleet against certain Greek cities which lie to the westward of Egypt, to wit, Cyrene and Barca. (This Aryandes afterwards was put to death by the King, as seeking to get the dominion for himself; for he had coined money, and this money was silver of such purity that there is no other silver like unto it.) Now Cyrene was built by certain men that went out from the country of the Lacedćmonians, one Battus being its founder; and in the fourth generation from Battus there was strife in the royal house; and certain princes going forth from Cyrene built the city of Barca, the Libyans who dwelt in those parts helping them. After this there was trouble again in the cities, Arcesilaüs, King of Cyrene, was driven out for his tyranny by the citizens; and coming back by the help of the Samians executed vengeance upon his enemies with great cruelty. This Arcesilaüs afterwards dwelt in Barca, for he had married the daughter of the King; and the people of Barca, being stirred up by certain exiles from Cyrene, slew him. Now while he dwelt at Barca, Pheretime, his mother, was regent at Cyrene; and when she knew that her son was dead, she fled to Egypt, to Aryandes the governor, and entreated him that he would help her to get vengeance for her son; and she said that the man had been slain because he favoured the Persians. And Aryandes hearkened to her words, and sent, as hath been said, an army and a fleet against the cities. Cyrene indeed suffered no harm, but Barca fared otherwise.

When the Persians were come to the city, they sent a herald demanding that there should be given up to them all that were guilty in the matter of the death of Arcesilaüs. But the people would not hearken to him, for indeed they were all guilty. Whereupon the Persians laid siege to the city; and this they did for nine months, digging mines under the earth, and making attacks upon the city with great violence. As for the mines, indeed, these a certain worker in brass discovered by help of a brazen shield. This he carried about through the city, smiting it upon the ground; and for the most part it was dumb; but where the Persians were digging their mines there it rang, Then the people of Barca dug a mine of their own, and slew the Persians. But when much time had been spent, and many had been slain on both sides, Amasis, who was captain of the host, devised this device, thinking to take the people of Barca by craft, for force availed nothing. He caused his men to dig by night a broad trench, whereon he laid light planks, and on the planks he put a covering of earth, making it even with the ground on either side. And when it was day he called the men of Barca to a parley; and they gladly hearkening to him, a covenant was made between them. "The men of Barca shall pay a fitting sum as tribute to the King, and the Persians shall not harm the men of Barca." This covenant they confirmed by an oath, which they swore standing upon the planks; and the oath was this, "So long as this earth whereon we stand shall abide, so long shall our covenant endure." Then the men of Barca set open their gates and suffered any of the Persians that would to enter their city. But the Persians brake down the planks that had been laid over the trench, and so held themselves free, for the earth whereon they stood when they swore the oath did not abide.

Then Pheretime executed vengeance on all that had been most guilty in the matter of her son. Nor did she herself come to a good end; for, having returned to Egypt, she died miserably, being eaten of worms; for indeed the Gods have sore displeasure against men when they execute vengeance cruelly.

As for the Persians they came not back to Egypt unharmed, for the Libyans beset them, and cut off all stragglers and such as dropped behind in the march.

So King Darius extended his borders on all sides. But how he made war upon the land of Greece shall be told hereafter.

The End.