For as many discussions as there are on the putative Proto-Indo-European people/s, there are comparatively few discussions on the religion of the Scythians and how it relates to it. Not helping matters is what little I find usually tends to be non-subtly tainted by nationalism and subsequent biases*, which makes a sincere analysis even harder. This is a shame, because not only is what we know of Scythian mythology quite interesting, but could offer several insights to the evolution and development of Indo-European religious beliefs, and in particular of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.
*Therefore, I advise you to take most sources here with at least a little pinch of salt.
Historical Definitions And Context
The term “Scythian” is typically applied to a group of Iranian peoples occupying western Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Even historically this term was somewhat loose as Greek and Roman sources would latter make it a synonym for “barbarian” and apply it to Slavic and Germanic peoples as well, but similar terms in other cultures such as the Persian Saka, Assyrian Aškuz and Chinese Sai (and derivatives henceforth) seem to legitimately imply that this term is derived from a common designation to these particular people. Herodotos claims that the Scythians called themselves Skolotoi; the reconstructed name is *Skudat, from Proto-Indo-European *skeud, “archer” (Lendering 2017, Szemerényi 1980). Archaeological finds certainly do indicate that there was at least a consistent cultural complex in the region.
The Scythian home range overlays that of the earlier Yamna culture, usually assumed to be the Proto-Indo-Europeans. While the Scythians underwent several cultural and technological innovations of their own, helped further by their own establishment of extensive trade connections and interactions with surrounding peoples, they do bear several characteristics that make them rather similar to the earliest Proto-Indo-Europeans:
- A nomadic lifestyle relying heavily on livestock
- The use of kurgans
- Gender egalitarianism (Anthony 2007)
- Tripartite social structure
For these reasons they offer a strong insight to the social and environmental pressures and factors that shaped early Indo-European cultures. And, in turn, the highly-speculated-upon Proto-Indo-European religion may have rather conservative reflexes on Scythian beliefs and deities.
Being Iranian speakers, the Scythians have been suggested to approach a model for the proto-Indo-Iranian religion (Boyce 1982, West 2007). However, while they might have shared some theonyms and practises with Zoroastrianism and Vedic religions to the exclusion of other Indo-Europeans, I think that there is a large gulf in terms of overall cultural environment, and that they also interacted with other Indo-European speakers such as ancient Slavs, Greeks, Thracians, Celts, Germanic peoples and Tocharians (as well as non-Indo-European peoples like Turkic speakers, Mongolians, Uralic speakers and various peoples in the Caucasus) enough to mitigate a specific Indo-Iranian religious format in favour of a “generic” Indo-European model, which was probably similar to the Proto-Indo-European one. Herodotos also describes the Scythians as distrustful of foreign customs, increasing the likelihood they they might have retained more archaic aspects to their culture and religion.
Several known aspects of Scythian religion are similar to other Indo-European religions:
- They used an intoxicating drink in religious rituals, reminiscent of the Zoroastrian haoma (in fact, Persian sources outright call one of the Scythian tribes “haoma drinkers”), Indian soma and wine in greco-roman Dionysian mysteries, though the substance concerned appears to have been derived from marijuana.
- The relevance of the horse in ritual use mirrors that of Thracians and even Hellenic Greeks.
- Herodotus describes a propensity for aniconism aside from towards the “Scythian Ares”, cited sometimes as a predecessor for the Zoroastrian tendency towards it (Boyce 1982), though this has since been at least partly refuted with the discovery of multiple deity figurines in kurgans (Bessonova 1983).
- Most curious are the Enarei, a class of male priests that assumed female identities; depending on how this is interpreted, its either a third gender much like the modern hijra or a practise of assuming a feminine identity as means of ritual power as seen in the Norse seidr and Freyr priesthood.
- The use of skull cups is well attested by various sources, though they appear to differ from the Hindu-Buddhist usage, being made from enemies slain in battle.
By far the most important sources on Scythian religion are Herodotos’ Histories and Darius I’s Behistun inscriptions. both of which making clear statements on the practises of the Scythians, both the details mentioned above as well as the concise pantheon they venerated. While neither are perfect — Herodotos is not called “the father of lies” for nothing, and likely Hellenicised the Scythian theonyms he mentions, while Darius I is obviously biased against the Scythians — they do offer a relatively consistent picture, only mildly contradicted so far in archaeological findings. Another source frequently used to speculate on Scythian beliefs are the Nart sagas, which are even the basis of the modern Ossetian religion Uatsdin/Assianism, which aims at Scythian reconstructionism. They are undoubtedly useful, and the pantheon depicted in them will be examined in this article, but there are a few caveats:
- They are also relevant to non-Indo-European peoples in the Caucasus and may reveal significant influences from them (Colarusso 2002)
- Their written form has been compiled very recently in the 19th century, and influences from Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Islam are rather evident.
- They lack some of the known cultural attributes of the Scythians, like a more egalitarian mindset.
Several Antiquity authors like Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy, Stephanus of Byzantium and Priscus also describe religious customs in the Scythian region or allude to their deities.
An interesting discussion to be had is what were the Scythian words for “god”. In Old Iranian, daeva was probably the term utilised (descendent from the *dyḗus/*dyeus/*dyew/*deiwos root; see Papaios below), which became replaced by ahura or yazata in Zoroastrianism as the daevas become demonic figures. It is even possible that the process of demonising the daevas come from Zoroastrian conflicts with the Scythians and their gods (Boyce 1982). Other words for “god” in Iranian religions include terms derived from the root *bʰagás and khuda; in modern Ossetian religious vocabulary most terms for “god”/”deity”/”saint” come from the latter.
According to Herodotos, the ruler of the Scythian pantheon was a goddess that he equated with Hestia. This deity, which Herodotos claims is the most venerated of the Scythian gods beyond all others and is the pantheon’s queen, is named Tabiti.
Tabiti is Herodotos’ Hellenisation of a name most likely related to the Hindu Tapati (see also verb tapayati, “is hot/burns”), Avestan tapaiti (“is warm”), Latin tepeo (“I am warm/glow”) and several other Indo-European words likely from the root *top/*tep (“to be hot”) (West 2007, Cheung 2007). All these words denote heat and fire, with Tapati in particular being a daughter of the sun god Surya. Therefore, it seems likely that Tabiti was a fire goddess, further justified with the discovery of kurgan pictures of women associated with flames or the sun disc (sometimes as a mirror), likely depictions of her as these portraits are often sitting in thrones (Takho-Godi 1980).
That the Scythians had a goddess as the head of their pantheon could reflect their more egalitarian society, though it should be noted that a female ruling deity does not always correlate to a society fairer to women (case in point, Amaterasu). Of particular interest is that she is stated to be above Papaios, the putative sky father analogue, in the divine hierarchy, which could have some revealing implications for the Proto-Indo-European divine hierarchy.
Besides an association with fire, the precise nature of Herodotos’ equation of Tabiti with Hestia is unclear. It seems likely that she was an hearth goddess; not only would it fit her status as a ruling deity, as even Hestia and her Roman counterpart Vesta enjoyed political relevance due to the status of the hearth as the symbolic center, but the hearth goddess is speculated to be a Proto-Indo-European figure, as this archetype occurs in most Indo-European cultures, from the Irish Brighid to the Baltic Gabija.
In both Indian religions and Zoroastrianism the hearth/fire goddess was replaced by a male god, Agni/Atar respectively, with Tapati being delegated to a minor deity in Hinduism. This extended to some extent to Slavic religion, where the fire god is the male Svarožič. and to the modern Ossetian religion, where the hearth god Safa is also male; both likely owe this development to Zoroastrian influence. However, both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism retain fire goddess relics, like the ritual fire needing to be tended by the wife of the sacrificer in the former and Zoroaster being poetically described as born from flames in the latter. This suggests that the male fire god was a late development in Indo-Iranian religions, perhaps even evolving independently twice, and adds to the cultural gulf between the Scythian religion and these.
Because Tabiti was not only a fire goddess and a ruling deity but some of her putative depictions are associated with the sun disc, the question of whereas she was a sun goddess is rather relevant. The original Proto-Indo-European solar deity appears to have been female, as evidenced not only by a large number of sun goddesses in various Indo-European mythologies but also sun goddess myths in mythologies with male sun gods (Snow 2002). Indo-Iranian mythologies bear male sun gods, with even the modern Ossetian word for sun (xur) being masculine; as with the fire deities, however, traces of a female solar deity can be found in Hinduism, with one of Surya’s daughters bearing his own name in the Rigveda, his mother Aditi being frequently regarded as a sun goddess and Surya ultimately being a female deity in Buddhist Mount Meru cosmology. In the Nart Sagas the female figure Satanya is associated with the sun, implying sun goddess relics here as well, but the figure as a whole is an earth deity and discussed under Api below.
The sun is conversely usually dismissed as a lower deity in most literature examining the speculative Proto-Indo-European mythology, but kurgans bearing solar discs painted in ochre (aptly called “sun graves”) are known from various early Indo-European cultures such as the Afanasievo and Andronovo (Baumer 2012), suggesting that the sun was important to the afterlife beliefs of these people. Perhaps a continuation of these beliefs is seen in the Scythians’ own kurgans, where Tabiti’s depictions ended up, though other goddesses are also present. Assuming she is a reflex of the Proto-Indo-European sun goddess, this depicts a continuation of her worship as a dominant deity in these cultures. Perhaps worthy of note is the dominance of the sun goddess in Hittite religion, a relatively early diverging branch of the Indo-Europeans, where she is the monarchical deity as well as the goddess of the underworld.
Of course, a problem occurs in that most hearth goddess figures in Indo-European mythologies are not solar in nature, there usually being a strong distinction even when both deities are female such as Saulė and Gabija in Baltic mythology. Likewise, Tabiti’s name is not cognate to most words for sun (including sun itself) in Indo-European languages, from the root *sóh₂wl̥/*seh2ul.
That said, overlap does occur: for instance, Agni occurs in the place of Surya periodically in the Vedas or the latter is an aspect or form of the former, Brighid’s traits overlap strongly with those of Sulis/Grian and the Pythagorean “central fire” beliefs (overtly compared to Hestia and her symbolic status as the center) might be stealth heliocentrism. Likewise, Indo-European mythologies where the sun is male see the frequent overlap between popular male deities and the sun, such as notably Helios’ equations with Apollo and Zeus or the Indo-Iranian equations of Surya/Hvare and Mithra. Finally, Tapati herself is the sun’s daughter in Hindu belief.
Therefore, a variety of possibilities can be presented:
- Tabiti was originally a hearth goddess equated with the sun as her relevance increased
- “Tabiti” is the sun theonym in Scythian beliefs, having displaced the *sóh₂wl̥/*seh2ul derived one in Scythian language, with xur latter imported from Avestan or derived Iranian languages
- “Tabiti” is just one of the many names the Scythians used for this goddess, with perhaps the predecessor for xur either being a variation unrecorded by Herodotos or just used in her capacity as the sun and say not as the hearth or other forms of her worship
Relevant to this discussion is also the god Oitosyros. As I will explain soon enough, I don’t think he has a solar character, but maybe further discoveries might disprove that assumption.
Another possible area of interest is any potential equations between Tabiti and the putative dawn goddess *h₂éwsōs. Personally, I think Argimpasa is a more likely reflex of the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess, though a syncretism between the two deities is possible.
Herodotos claims Tabiti rules over oaths, with broken oaths being punished by death. The role of the solar deity as the oath deity in Indo-European mythologies is ubiquitous, from the explicit role of Helios, Sulis and Surya as oath witnesses to Germanic and Zoroastrian practises of swearing oaths before the sun. However, in Zoroastrianism and Hinduism the fire god Atar/Agni also serves as an oath witness, as do ruling deities in all Indo-European pantheons. More conclusive is Tabiti’s association with marriage, as marriage tends to be associated with the sun deity in Indo-European myths, due to the “marriage drama” myth involving the sun or dawn goddess and the divine twins (Snow 2002); even in mythologies where the sun is male retain this association with marriage, as seen with Helios and Surya. Hittite kings are known to have ritualistically married the sun goddess, and this has occasionally been proposed for Scythian rulers as well due to Idanthyrsos’ insistence on recognising Tabiti as the queen of all Scythians as well as a possible kurgan depiction of a marriage between her and a man (Rayevskiy 1977).
Stags in particular were sacrificed to her. Deer figurines are an abundant presence in Scythian art, clearly attesting to the animal’s symbolic importance. The deer is an atypical solar symbol among Indo-European cultures, which typically prefer horses as the steeds of the sun, but not unheard off: the Hittite sun goddess was also associated with deer sacrifices. This is appears to be indeed an original Proto-Indo-European feature, as cultures as early as the Andronovo have evidence of deer sacrifice and worship, possibly influence by northern Eurasian cultures (Jacobson 1993).
Second to Tabiti in the divine hierarchy are a pair of gods, Papaios (sometimes also rendered Papaeus; this is a Hellenised rendering of the name, after all) and Api. The former is equated to the Greek god Zeus, and appears to have been secondary in importance to Tabiti, as Idanthyrsos claims he and her are the only gods he serves. In particular, the Scythians seem to have conceived of him as a divine ancestor as he sired (with “the daughter of the river Borysthenes”) the hero and possible deity Targitaos, who latter sired the ancestors of the Scythians.
Depictions of this deity are rare, but figurines flanked by griffins or birds of prey seem to be a depiction of him. This clearly marks him as a sky god, and combined with the identification with Zeus and his divine ancestor status it seems extremely likely that he is the Scythian reflex of the Proto-Indo-European *Dyḗus Ph2tḗr, the fabled sky father, which has reflexes in virtually all Indo-European languages. The name itself is rather odd compared to other reflexes, however; its possible that the *dyḗus/*dyeus/*dyew/*deiwos root remains in the last syllable, as it sometimes has been suggested for the Thracian ruling god Sabazios, but it is more likely a calque. Potential etymologies include the Proto-Indo-European root *peh₃, “to protect” (Vasmer 1993), or a Turkic loanword (several sources cite papay as a Chuvash term for grandfather, but I haven’t found it on Chuvash dictionaries so there’s an ocean of salt on this).
*Dyḗus Ph2tḗr is typically assumed to the the original patriarchal deity of the Indo-Europeans, based both on the prominence of his character archetype but also because the root *dyḗus/*dyeus/*dyew/*deiwos tends to become the generic word for deity in these languages (i.e. Latin deus, Indian deva, Welsh duw, et cetera). However, only in Greco-Roman mythologies (and perhaps Zoroastrianism and Lusitanian mythology, if you consider Ahura Mazda and Reue respectively to be his reflexes there) is he the dominant god, with most of his reflexes either being distant, unimportant figures (i.e. Indian Dyauṣ Pitṛ), secondary deities (i.e. Norse Týr) or outright absent as a god (i.e. Celtic mythologies).
This has usually been considered multiple, independent losses of relevance, but the fact that Zeus was secondary to Poseidon in the Mycenaean pantheon (Chadwick 1976) and that the Rigveda and Hittite texts already depicted their *Dyḗus reflexes as unimportant in the former or non-existent in the latter sends some massive red flags in regards to this interpretation. More likely, we are trying to fit a square in a round peg when it comes to depicting the sky father as an ancient patriarch displaced by other gods, when the process was at best non-linear.
Based on Papaios position on the Scythian pantheon, a more likely explanation is that the sky father was worshipped as a divine ancestor and might have even enjoyed some cultural relevance, but was not the ruler of the cosmos. This situation is not underhead off: in Mesopotamian mythologies, the sky god An/Anu is the ancestor of all gods but generally irrelevant in worship, while the Canaanite El became essentially only a generic term for deity until Yahweh came along (van der Toom 1999). In Zoroastrianism, modern Ossetian religion and Greek philosophy there is a tendency to depict the *Dyḗus reflexes as abstract cosmical deities; I doubt this is what we see in ancient Scythian religion, where Papaios appears as yet another god, but the role as a cosmical progenitor may be emphasised with his union with Api.
Herodotos’ choice to equate Papaios with Zeus and Api with Gaia is definitely interesting:
- In most Indo-European religions, the sky father is not a consort to the earth mother, instead being paired off with an “equivalent” female deity (i.e. Diwo/Diwija in the Mycenaean pantheon and latter Zeus/Hera or Zeus/Dione in Greek religion, Tiwaz and his female analogue in early Germanic peoples, et cetera), but it does occur in the Rigveda, where Dyauṣ Pitṛ and Pṛthvī Mātā are consorts, and perhaps also in Thracian religion, as the Greek character Semele is probably derived from the Thracian Zemele, their earth personification. Perhaps this sky father/earth mother pair was in fact original to the Proto-Indo-European religion, but lost as the *Dyḗus reflexes shifted from personifications of the sky to societal or abstract gods.
- Likewise, Herodotos could have equated Papaios with Ouranos, the Greek personification of the sky and more typically paired off with Gaia in Greek theogonies, but instead he chose a direct equation with Zeus. This could imply that while Papaios was associated with the sky his role as a societal god was more relevant. Or he didn’t think of that.
That said, Darius I makes the claim that the Scythians were impious towards Ahura Mazda. While this is most likely a very vitriolic accusation, it could also imply that there were some differences between how Scythians worshipped Papaios from the role Ahura Mazda plays in Zoroastrianism, to the point that there is no direct analogy.
In the modern Ossetian Uatsdin/Assianism religion, Xucaw is the universal creator god, the embodiment of the sky and the universal animating essence, residing in every being. His name being derived from the Persian Khuda (originally a synonym for Ahura Mazda), the Zoroastrian influences are pretty unmistakable. However, an interesting aspect of his character is a lack of agency as a character: being essentially a cosmic force, in the Nart sagas he basically does not show up — if you do not count the fact that basically everyone has bits of him inside them — with other deities being the actors in these stories. This is more or less the opposite of Zoroastrian mythologies, where Ahura Mazda is more likely to be the subject of a myth than the various deities under him, barring some exceptions like its eschatology, where various yazatas do participate.
Perhaps this may echo Papaios’ role as a deus otiosus within Scythian beliefs, and thus add another layer to the discussion on the original role of *Dyḗus Ph2tḗr among the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
Api is listed with Papaios as secondary to Tabiti. She is equated by Herodotos to Gaia. The theonym Apatouros (also rendered Apaturia) is recorded by various later authors such as Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy and Stephanus of Byzantium referring to a deity or mode of worship in the Scythian region, but this name has also been linked to Argimpasa because of its syncretism with Aphrodite Ourania by these authors. Either there was a significant degree of syncretism between these goddesses in later stages of Scythian history, or Herodotos might have missed several nuances on this character.
Unlike the sky father, the earth mother does not have a consistent Proto-Indo-European reconstruction in literature; although the earth is personified in almost all Indo-European religions, the vast majority of words are not etymologically linked (though the root *dʰéǵʰōm is particularly promising) and the general consensus appears to be that, due to their nomadic lifestyle, Indo-European peoples adopted the land goddesses or personified the lands they conquered, abandoning old ones. In this mindset, continuity between the earth goddess archetype does not exist beyond some basic characteristic like being female and associated with fertility. It ties closely into the 19th century mindset that Proto-Indo-Europeans were patriarchal, and archaeological findings on the Yamna and other early cultures counter this, implying a much more nuanced perspective on their social reality.
Some authors have recently noted that *dʰéǵʰōm derived words occur as an earth goddess theonym even in traditions where it was abandoned later on, such as in the Rigveda’s kṣám in dyā́vākṣā́mā (“heaven and earth”) (West 2007), so the notion that there wasn’t an earth goddess archetype grows especially dubious. The fact remains that these words fall out of use at a higher rate than *dyḗus/*dyeus/*dyew/*deiwos derived ones remains to be addressed, however.
Api indeed most likely cannot be traced to *dʰéǵʰōm, with a more likely predecessor being the root *h₂ep, “water” (Vasmer 1984). The latter seems odd (provided Herodotos isn’t mistaken, of course) but it does fit with the Apatouros theonym, as this deity is associated with water. In Indian and Zoroastrian mythologies Apam Napat holds the waters of the firmament; this is usually a male deity, but the Zoroastrian goddess Anahita is occasionally also seen in this role. Another likely etymology is a Turkic loanword for “mother”, from the root *aba/*apa (Zgusta 1953); should this be the case, a potential Turkic origin name for Papaios as well could reveal some interesting aspects to this divine pair.
As noted before, the earth mother/sky father pairing is atypical in Indo-European mythologies but it does occur in both the early dated Rigveda and probably in the faith of the Thracians, suggesting that it was probably an original feature of the religion and one that stuck in the regions close to the Indo-European homeland respectively. Of note is that Papaios sired Targitaos with “the daughter of the river Borysthenes”; this could be standard divine infidelity, but given the possible etymology of Api’s name and Apatouros’ connection with water its possible that this figure and Api are one and the same; in this case, either Herodotos missed on some nuance on Scythian religion, or “daughter of the river Borysthenes” is an euphemism or poetic name for Api. As we will later see, Targitaos is likely a reflex of the storm god *Perkwunos, some of his reflexes being sons of either the earth (i.e. Thor) or the sky (i.e. Hercules) and most likely therefore originally of both. It is likely that one can see them both as the divine progenitors of the pantheon, and perhaps existence.
Several kurgan female figurines with phytomorphic (plant-like) or serpent feet have been suggested to be depictions of Api. This certainly adds to her probably chthonic character, but makes the syncretism of Apatouros and Aphrodite Ourania rather baffling. It seems that Api and Argimpasa underwent increasing syncretism, perhaps facilitated by the aforementioned notion of the aforementioned firmament waters and/or because both would have been oracular deities (in both Greek, Irish and Slavic myth, for instance, the earth is strongly associated with oracular powers and oaths, probably because she is literally everywhere and sees everything). Their depictions are notably harder to tell apart than those that possibly depict Tabiti (Takho-Godi 1980).
The earth in most Indo-European religions is associated with fertility and motherhood, but also bears a more primeval, monstrous power. The best example is Gaia’s status in greco-roman mythology as the mother of monsters and occasional enemy of the Olympian gods. Among the Aesti the earth goddess was portrayed by a ferocious boar. And most chaos serpents in Indo-European myths have chthonic origins. The monstrous characteristics of Api’s possible depictions certainly bring this to mind, and Apatouros is painted as an ambivalent, sinister entity by the writers describing her. The Scythians, who were not shy about depicting the predatory aspects of the natural world in their art, likely would have seen her as a double-edged sword…but one worth worshipping, considering that she was one of their favoured gods.
In Ossetian mythology Satanaya (also known as Setenaya, Setenay and other variations) is the mother earth and the progenitor of several heroes in the Nart sagas, as well as the protagonist of at least two stories herself, where she is cast as a demigod. As with most deities in the Nart Sagas its difficult to say if she is indeed a reflection of Scythian beliefs, especially as she owes a lot of her character to the Chechen-Ingush deity Sela-Sata, and definitely appears to be a much more benevolent character than the monstrous depictions of Api. Should she be, of interest as her descent from Uastyrdzhi, a possible *Perkwunos reflex, implying a reversal of their original relationship, her association with water in the “Lady Satanaya’s Blossom” episode, and with the sun in “Why the Sun Passes At The Horizon At Sunset”, implying some syncretism with Tabiti.
The remaining Scythian deities occur in a third category after Tabiti, Papaios and Api according to Herodotos, implying a complex hierarchy. Among these is a god he equated with the Greek Aphrodite Ourania, which he names Argimpasa (also rendered Artimpasa). This god is possibly also recorded by various other authors under the name Apatouros/Apaturia; although this theonym is etymologically linked to Api and has chthonic characters, it is also equated with Aphrodite and in particular her heavenly aspect as well, making it likely that a significant degree of syncretism between Api and Argimpasa occurred.
Although Argimpasa is ranked as lesser in the divine hierarchy by Herodotos, he does describe her as ruling a particular class of Scythian clerics, the Enarei (also rendered Enaree). Assuming Apatouros is her, she is foremostly described by later authors, and characteristics of her worship appear to have remained as recently as the expansion of the Huns. For this extensive covering and apparently prominence, Argimpasa is by far the most widely discussed of all Scythian deities in literature, the etymology of her name and cult characteristics in particular being rather relevant to understanding the religious reality of the Scythians.
Due to her equation with Aphrodite Ourania as well as ruling over the Enarei priests, Argimpasa is assumed to be a heavenly deity associated with oracular powers. The latter attribute in particular has been taken by some authors as meaning that most if not all goddess figurines found in kurgans that are not Tabiti depictions belong to her (Takho-Godi 1980), but we can at least confidently assume that various figurines depicting winged women are in fact meant to be her (Hasanov 2014). Female figures flanked by panthers may also depict her, for reasons we will soon discuss (Hasanov 2014). As mentioned previously, figurines attributed to Argimpasa and Api are harder to distinguish than those attributed to Tabiti.
These aspects of her character have made many authors consider her a Scythian interpretation of the Near-Eastern goddess Ishtar/Inanna/Astarte among other names (Bessonova 1983). She is known as the Queen of Heaven, she rules over a class of non-binary priests (the gala, kalû, kurgarrû, and assinnu), she is famously depicted as either winged, flanked by beasts or both and most importantly she is assumed to be the ultimate origin of the Greek Aphrodite. Certainly at least the visual iconography was appropriated from Near-Eastern Ishtar depictions, and another Iranian deity, the Zoroastrian Anahita, was significantly syncretised with her, so there is precedent for Argimpasa to be at least partly influenced by Astarte.
However, some authors have instead expressed that the similarities to Inanna are overstated and that Argimpasa may more comfortably sit among Central Asian shamanic motifs (Hasanov 2014). Key aspects of this interpretation are the Enarei’s divinatory practises, which are more similar to those seen in Cimmerian, Turkic, Mongolian and Uralic peoples than even other practises seen among the Scythians (reliance on linden-tree bark over willow wands, for instance, the latter used by what Herodotos calls “soothsayers”) and the etymology of Argimpasa’s name: *ar is a root common to shamanic terms in these languages, *kim/*gim is a root associated for various words for “fire”, “rainbow” and “whip” and “pasa” resembles the Turkic root *bas/*pas, “head”. In essence, “Argimpasa” means “shaman’s head” or “head of whip users”, and is probably a polysemous word related to various shamanic activities (Hasanov 2014).
Of course, we run into problems with this interpretation as well. For one thing, the name can also be rendered as Artimpasa, making less of a case for the second syllable being derived from *kim/*gim but making a stronger case for the first component, art, to be derived from the Indo-European root *h2r-to, the predecessor to Ossetian art among various other words relating to order or fire (Dumézil 1983). This need not be fully contradictory: this root became the word or in Pashto, implying it can lose the “t”, though given that Scythian is ancestral to Ossetian this is unlikely. Another issue is that Hasanov 2014 focuses on putative Turkic influences on the ancient Scythians, even calling the Cimmerians a Turkic culture, which is an example as to why you must be very careful when researching these things. That said, in the absence of a better explanation for the last two components of Argimpasa’s name, as well as legitimacy in regards to the Enarei’s practises and information regarding Scythian deity depictions and attestations, its value cannot be understated.
As you’ll notice, neither hypothesis focuses on Argimpasa as an Indo-European deity, positing an external origin as either a Near-Eastern or Central Asian deity. It’s only natural that the Scythian pantheon would eventually have incorporated deities from neighbouring regions, and in some ways Argimpasa feels like the least Indo-European of the known Scythian deities. However, I do think that a potential Proto-Indo-European origin cannot be disregarded, especially if the first component of her name does in fact derive from an Indo-European root.
As mentioned before, has provided the origin for many words associated with cosmic and/or moral order in Indo-European cultures. Most notable are the Hindu Ṛta and the Avestan Arta, the former the principle of the universe’s function and the latter the ultimate moral truth; neither are easily defined in simple terms. This root has also given rise to Iranian words for fire, such as Pashto or or Ossetian art, probably because fire is particularly important in Zoroastrianism as a symbol of truth. It doesn’t seem that Argimpasa was significantly equated with Tabiti, but the oracular aspects of her character are easily explained if she is connected to truth as a concept.
In the Rigveda the goddess responsible for the upholding of Ṛta is Ushas, the personified dawn. As a sky deity and likely connected to daylight, Argimpasa may very well be the Scythian reflex of the Proto-Indo-European dawn goddess *H₂éwsōs, whose reflexes are ubiquitous in Indo-European mythologies and paint the most accurate picture of an important Proto-Indo-European deity. While the hypothesis that Aphrodite is a reflex of *H₂éwsōs has since been discarded (Cyrino 2010 among various others), she is agreed to have replaced Eos as the love deity among the Greeks as evidenced by the myth where the former curses the latter with lust, and love goddess characteristics are assumed to be present in *H₂éwsōs (Matasovič 2009 among others). The Indo-European dawn goddess is also an ambivalent figure associated with decay and death due to the dawn marking each day closer to a person’s death (see Rigveda 1.92.10, or the Greek myth of Eos and Tithonos), which may further explain the syncretism with Api and the sinister characteristics of Apatouros.
If this is the case, though, Artimpasa is definitely not connected etymologically to *H₂éwsōs. As Tabiti also does not share an etymological link with other Indo-European sun gods, one has to wonder if this was a shared nominal replacement for these light goddesses in Scythian culture and language. It is possible that in at least her case her role as an oracular deity came to dominate that of the personification of the dawn; combined with the notion of firmament waters, this further explains the syncretism with Api, a deity whose domains are on the surface the complete opposite.
Because Argimpasa is syncretised with Aphrodite, may at least have incorporated elements from Ishtar and may be a reflex of *H₂éwsōs, it is possible that she was a love deity. Aphrodite Ourania is typically described as spiritual love over carnal one, but this distinction was rather blurred across Greek history, and certainly did not prevent equation with Astarte, who is a deity associated with passion and war. The continuous emphasis on the Ourania epithet among Antiquity writers certainly at least do confirm Argimpasa’s oracular role and association with the heavens, and the Enarei imply an association with sexual freedom.
Some of these aspects may explain the nature of Frigg/Freya in Germanic mythologies, who was similarly a war and love goddess associated with magic, with no clear analogues in neighbouring cultures.
Among the various third category gods of the Scythians, Herodotos describes a Scythian analogue to Hercules. He does not name this god, but a possible name occurs earlier, in his description of the origin of the Scythians. Here, he claims that the Scythians are descendents of the three sons of Targitaos (also rendered Targitaios, among others), a son of Zeus and “the daughter of the river Borysthenes”. In general, Herodotos prefers to use Greek theonyms, but it is possible that he specifically addressed Targitaos due to the inescapable context, much as he clarified the Greek/Scythian equivalencies.
Targitaos has not been etymologically examined significantly in literature, but it is similar to various theonyms derived from the root *(s)tenh₂ (“thunder”) such as Hittite Tarhunt, Armenian Torks, Celtic Taranis, Latin Tonans and of course Norse Thor. This appears to have been an alternate name of *Perkwunos, the Proto-Indo-European storm god predecessor to not only these but also Indo-Iranian Indra, Roman Mars, Lithuanian Perkūnas, Slavic Perun and countless others, including Hercules himself (Polomé 1983).
Further evidence for Targitaos being a reflex of *Perkwunos is his parents being Papaios and possibly Api. Most *Perkwunos reflexes are children of either the sky father (i.e. Hercules), the earth mother (i.e. Thor) or both (i.e. Indra), this being either a symptom of the god’s popularity among Proto-Indo-Europeans as a cultural hero or because as a god of storms and defender of social order he represents the axis mundi. Most of the Indo-European storm gods are associated with the oak tree, and thus perhaps the world tree seen in some of these mythologies.
In many descendent cultures, *Perkwunos is fused with *Dyḗus Ph2tḗr, a natural consequence of a shared association with the sky, their relevance as male gods of order and the thunderer’s closer and more approachable status compared to the distant sky father. In the greco-roman world Zeus/Jupiter took the thunderer aspects from Hercules and Mars while in various other Indo-European religions the thunderer god became dominant while the sky father became less relevant,. The fact that both deities remain distinct and in the speculated roles for the Proto-Indo-European pantheon further stresses how the Scythian religion is “conservative” by Indo-European standards.
In modern Ossetian religion, the deity Uastyrdzhi enjoys a prominent position. He is typically simply considered the local analogue of Saint George (which, note, was strongly influenced by various *Perkwunos reflexes anyways, as his dragon slaying myth attests), but he has various *Perkwunos direct reflex characteristics such as an association with the color red, the bull as a sacred animal and the role of a fertility, masculine deity. These characteristics are absent in Saint George, which lends credence that they have an older origin in the local religious traditions.
An interesting aspect of his veneration is that he is reserved for men, with women traditionally not allowed to speak his name; this seems at odds with the more egalitarian society of the Scythians and predecessor cultures and quite possibly a more recent development, though it could have been a ritualistic inversion of the cult of the “Scythian Ares”, which may have had women worshippers (Hugh 1911).
Uacilla, an Ossetian deity equated with Saint Elijah, may offer another possible descendent deity, being associated with the weather and fertility.
An enigmatic character in Herodotos recounting is the Scythian analogue to Poseidon, Thagimasidas. This deity is on the third divine ranking, but was worshipped only by the Royal Scythians. This suggests that this god was relatively low on the divine hierarchy, yet was the patron of a wealthy class and likely enjoyed prestige henceforth.
The equation of Thagimasidas to Poseidon is very problematic when it comes to understanding his character. While Poseidon is typically considered the god of the sea, he originally began as a Mycenaean chthonic deity (Chadwick 1976), and even in Hellenic times he was also considered a god of horses and of royalty. It’s hard to know if Poseidon was descended from a Proto-Indo-European god in the first place (van der Toom 1999), let alone if Herodotos has in mind the marine aspect of his character or any other.
Complicating matters further is that the Nart Sagas feature a water god, Donbettyr. This god is probably etymologically connected to the Don River (Donbettyr more or less means “Don deity”), though he also embodies other water bodies. Of note is that his daughters are relevant as brides to the heroes of the Sagas, which may bring to mind the “daughter of the Borysthenes” mentioned previously. Assuming this isn’t a poetic name, it could imply a role in the creation of the cosmos as Api’s father, hence the relevance of Thagimasidas in Scythian culture. Donbettyr and his naiad-like daughters also cause Nart Saga male heroes to give birth to children of their own (as in, these men get impregnated by water deity magic and produce “red hot” toddlers); if this has anything to do with the Enarei practises (and thus syncretism with Apatouros?) is anyone’s guess.
Indeed, the Don river was likely originally personified as a goddess in Proto-Indo-European religion (Mallory 2006), and I find it more likely that Donbettyr was simply a reflex of this personified river, which became male in Ossetian mythology. A connection to Thagimasidas can’t be fully denied, but for the moment being it appears to not be there.
Thagimasidas’ etymology is of little help either. No consistent explanation has been offered in literature, meaning we can’t connect him to potential counterparts in other mythologies, if they exist. It certainly is not connected to Poseidon, nor to the speculated Proto-Indo-European water deity *H2epom Nepōts, putative predecessor to Latin Neptune, Indo-Iranian Apam-Napat (the firmament waters we already discussed), Germanic Nerthus/Njord among others.
For the moment being, I consider the hypothesis that Thagimasidas was equated to Poseidon due to his role as a horse deity. This would explain his popularity among the Royal Scythians in more practical term, being the patron of cavalry, and his relative lack of popularity compared to the sun/hearth, sky, earth, dawn and thunder deities. Thagimasidas was thus likely a war or commerce god, bringing conquest or gold with a clack of hooves. Horses are associated with aquatic movement and in particular underground rivers in northern Europe (Chadwick 1976, van der Toom 1999), but they don’t appear to be so in most of the Indo-European world aside maybe from the Celtic Kelpies.
Rather, in his role as a god of royalty, commerce and cavalry, I suggest a link to the speculated Proto-Indo-European god *Xáryomēn, the god of societal law. This deity might also have reflexes in the Celtic Érimón/Ariomanus and Indo-Iranian Mithra.
In the third category is also ranked a good equated to Apollo, Oitosyros (also rendered Goitosyros and similar derivations). This is the sole unambiguous reference to this god in Herodotos’ Histories, making his role just as hard to discern as Thagimasidas’, though at least the etymology of this name has been more widely discussed in literature.
Apollo has a massive array of functions in Greek religion, which have rendered him “the Greek god par excellence” (van der Toom 1999). Naturally, he is among the most common god Greeks equated foreign gods with, for likely a massive variety of reasons. Probably the most notable examples are Celtic gods like Belenus, Lugus, Alaunus and Grannus, likely equated to him due to associations with healing and oracular power, the Egyptian god Resheph who resembles Apollo in his capacity as a plague-bearer and Iranian Mithra due to his status as a god of truth.
Victorian writers have historically stressed these syncretisms as indicating that these gods, particular the Celtic ones, were solar in nature, but ancient Greeks and Romans rarely equated sun gods with Apollo. Instead, they were considered analogous to Apollo due to their cultic relevance as healing and oracular deities, not cosmological power; gods whose solar functions were inescapable were instead equated with Helios/Sol, or in some cases with Zeus (i.e. Amun-Ra). In Celtic cultures the sun was in fact more likely female (Snow 2002), and as I have discussed above with Tabiti so was probably the case in Scythian religion.
Still, I can’t help but notice the similarity of Oitosyros’ last name component and the name Cyrus, the Greek rendition of Persian Khorvash, “like the sun”. Herodotos’ renditions are after all Hellenised, and likely the original name approached something akin to *Gaēθahwarshaeta. That said, this isn’t the only possibility; the last component has also been suggested to possibly be Avestan sūra, “rich”, so the name would be something similar to *Gaēθasūra instead (Vasmer 1923).
The gaēθa component in either reconstruction means “animal” in Avestan, so *Gaēθahwarshaeta would be “beastial sun” and *Gaēθasūra “giver of animals”. This foremostly hints at a deity either associated with the hunt or with livestock or perhaps both. Deities associated with shepherds are more commonly syncretised with Hermes by the Greeks, but Apollo probably did begin as a livestock protecting deity in Anatolia (van der Toom 1999) and did retain livestock associated traits as Apollo Karneios.
Another likely option, however, is that Oitosyros was equated to Apollo due to associations with archery. In this role, he would have been a patron of the hunt, a male equivalent to Artemis (who is noticeably described as one of the Amazons’ patron gods but entirely absent in accounts of the Scythians). Of course, a hunting function and a livestock guarding function are not mutually exclusive, especially if the *Gaēθasūra etymology is to be considered.
Curiously, there is such a character in modern Ossetian folklore: Apsat (also known as Avsati or Æfsati), the god of the forests and of the hunt. The names of this god appear to be Abkhaz loanwords and its likely that the god has since acquired several traits from non-Indo-European deities from the Caucasus, but otherwise this appears to be a good bet for at least part of Oitosyros’ character. Fælværa, the “lord of sheep”, is a pastoral god that protects livestock from wolves, likewise perhaps being another descendent deity.
As a deity of the wilds and livestock, Oitosyros appears to be a reflex of *Páxusōn, the shepherder god from various livestock, hunting and psychopomp deities in Indo-European mythologies have arisen, from Indian Pūṣan to Celtic Cernunnos. In Greece his reflex is Pan, which was originally an aspect of Hermes, meaning that Hermes is indeed one of his reflexes, taking the social functions while Pan took the wild ones. So yes, Herodotos could have indeed equated Oitosyros with Hermes, and probably didn’t because by his time Hermes had become mostly a psychopomp and esoteric deity. Hermes himself has been equated to Lugus and Mithra, so Greeks and Romans as a whole had no issues in equating a foreign deity to either of these closely overlapping gods.
Should Oitosyros have solar characters, it worth looking into the Slavic god Dazhbog. Unlike the Celtic gods, Dazhbog is downright equated with Helios, making a solar role for him very likely; this is strengthened by his association with the theonym Xors, widely agreed to be Persian in origin much as Ossetian xur (Leeming 2005). “Dazhbog” translates as “giving god” (*dati, “to give”, and bog, which is the standard Slavic suffix for “god” and comes from Persian baga, “wealth/share”), which is reminiscent of one of the options for Oitosyros’ etymology.
As the sun is personified as a goddess in Slavic mythology and folklore, Dazhbog appears to be rather out of place, and was probably a relatively recent arrival to the Slavic pantheon. Oitosyros might offer a possible origin for this god, as a solar god associated with hunting and fertility, and eventually wealth as Dazhbog.
That Scythian religion could have had two solar deities much as Slavic religion did is certainly a point of interest:
- The female aspect of the sun, Tabiti, remained as the queen of the gods, while the male aspect became associated with fertility and the wilds.
- It’s entirely possible even that Oitosyros isn’t even a solar god but actually a lunar one, since the Slavic theonym Xors is also used for the moon god (Mathieu-Colas 2017). The original theonym for the moon god in Indo-European religion is *mḗh₁n̥s, which is obviously not ancestral to Oitosyros; in this case, part of his name would be derived from the sun root *sóh₂wl̥/*seh2ul. This has precedent in many other cultures; for example, in Aztec tona is applied to both the sun and moon, as is Egyptian Aten (Redford 1984).
An important part of Apollo’s worship in Greece is his winter residence in Hyperborea, a northern Arctic land associated with the land of the Scythians, which supposedly exported gifts to the god to Delos. Gryphons, a symbol that essentially exemplified Scythian art and possibly religious beliefs, guarded his treasures there. Its difficult to say if this references the worship of Oitosyros, but it would be rather symbolic of how strong the syncretism of these two deities had become in Antiquity.
Finally we have a god that Herodotos equated with Ares. As with “Hercules” he does not offer an indigenous name directly, but unlike Targitaos we don’t have a clear possible name in his Histories.
What he does offer, however, is a detailed description on how his worship differs from that of other Scythian gods: a complex wood temple with an iron sword — his symbol — as a centerpiece, as well as being the only Scythian god to have statues and icons representing him. Archaeological findings of deity figurines in kurgans render the latter aspect questionable, but we do know the described construction type and worship was performed by the Alans (Sulimirski 1985). It’s possible also that the Huns adopted this god from the Alans or may have blasphemed against him as means to demoralise them, given Attila’s “Sword of Mars” (Geary 1994). Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Claudius Ptolemy and Stephanus of Byzantium all describe the worship of “Ares” in the Scythian region.
This is in spite of him being in the third category of deities according to Herodotos. We can surmise then that the “Scythian Ares” was lower in the divine hierarchy but extremely important to warriors on at least a ritual context. Perhaps also he was considered more “approachable” to worshippers than more distant deities like Papaios and Api.
Without a name to peg this god to a putative Proto-Indo-European context, examining him is entirely reliant on the clues his worship provides. There appears to be no direct analogue in any other Indo-European culture, indicating that this deity was either an unique Scythian invention or a holdover lost in other descendant cultures. Given that a warrior caste is speculated to have existed for Proto-Indo-European culture, it makes sense that there was originally a god overseeing it, posteriorly lost as descendent cultures either saw fit to promote other gods to a war god position or lost the need for one altogether.
As the Greek Ares also has no other close equivalent in Indo-European cultures to the point of being considered Pre-Greek instead (Beekes 2009), it’s only tempting to consider the option where the “Scythian Ares” really is Ares, and either the Scythians adopted the god from the Greeks or vice-versa. Possible evidence for this are the Amazons: their consistent depiction as devotees of Ares and unambiguous association with the Scythians has made some researchers posit that they were inspired by women devotees of the “Scythian Ares” (Hugh 1911). Ares is definitely one of the oldest Greek gods, being present in Mycenaean inscriptions, so there was more than enough time for this kind of exchange to occur.
Ares has been equated to Mars in Roman religion, but the two gods have a rather distinct character pre-syncretism, the former being also a fertility and possible weather deity while the latter embodying warfare. Barring a now discredited (Mallory 2006) suggestion of both gods sharing the same etymology, Mars has been abundantly understood as a reflex of the storm god *Perkwunos (Polomé 1983), while Ares is evidently not; the *Perkwunos reflex here is Hercules, with Zeus taking the storm deity aspects. To most Greeks Ares was a ferocious but dimwitted embodiment of the passionate aspects of war, but was glorified in Sparta as a heroic deity. It seems likely that the bloodlust associated with the common Greek Ares was also present in the worship of the Scythian deity, but it remains to be seen whereas he had the heroic aspects of the Spartan Ares.
Scythians are abundantly described as taking ritualistic drinks analogous to those seen in other Indo-European cultures as noted above, used among various other things to increase combat stamina and sexual potency. As this drink is personified as the deity Soma/Haoma in Hinduism and Zoroastrianism respectively, one wonders if the “Scythian Ares” is a personification of this drink as well. Marijuana was apparently the choice ingredient in the Scythian variety of this drink, so the idea that the “Scythian Ares” is a personified weed is endlessly amusing.
In the Nart sagas we see a variety of other deities, including Tutyr the “lord of wolves”, the Hephaestus-like smithing god Kurdalægon, Saubarag the god of darkness, the river deity Huyændon Ældar, Barastyr the psychopomp, Aminon the gatekeeper of the underworld, the river goddess and hero mother Dzerassae and the smallpox god Alardy.
Some of these deities may have Proto-Indo-European ancestry. Smiths, psychopomps and lords of the underworld are all present across Indo-European mythologies, though none have a Proto-Indo-European reconstructed name because their names have varying etymologies; Huyændon Ældar’s name is essentially the Ossetian translation of *H2epom Nepōts (“lord/uncle of the waters”); and Dzerassae resembles the Celtic Danu and the Vedic Danu in terms of function and etymology, being possibly the Scythian reflex of the personification of the Danube river (*Dānu/*Dʰen); it has even been suggested that Celtic Danu may be a Scythian loanword (Koch 2006).
An embodiment of evil is harder to pin down in earlier Proto-Indo-European religion; although adversaries to the gods are abundant from the Greek Typhon to the Zoroastrian Ahriman, they generally are groups of deities rather than specific figures. Tutyr and Saubarag are therefore more likely concepts adopted from the Zoroastrian Ahriman.
As previously repeated, significant influences from non-Indo-European cultures in the Caucasus region must also be considered.
Proto-Indo-European pantheon comparisons
With the above said, we have this layout:
- Tabiti/Safa: *Sóh₂wl̥/*Seh2ul (unrelated etymology)
- Papaios/Xucaw: *Dyḗus Ph2tḗr (possibly unrelated etymology)
- Api/Satanaya: *Dʰéǵʰōm (unrelated etymology)
- Targitaos/Uastyrdzhi/Uacilla: *Perkwunos (through alternate name *(s)tenh₂ in the case of the former, unrelated etymology in the latter)
- Argimpasa: ?H₂éwsōs (unrelated etymology)
- Thagimasidas: ?*Xáryomēn (possibly unrelated etymology)
- “Scythian Ares”: ???
- Oitosyros/Apsat/Fælværa: *Páxusōn (unrelated etymology)
- Dzerassae: *Dānu/*Dʰen
- Huyændon Ældar: *H2epom Nepōts
- Kurdalægon: smith god (no conclusive etymology)
- Barastyr: psychopomp god (no conclusive etymology)
- Aminon: underworld god (no conclusive etymology)
- Donbettyr: Either *Dānu/*Dʰen or *H2epom Nepōts (unrelated etymology)
- Tutyr: no conclusive Proto-Indo-European ancestor
- Saubarag: no conclusive Proto-Indo-European ancestor
- Alardy: no conclusive Proto-Indo-European ancestor
In general, we notice several reflexes of Proto-Indo-European deities and a scheme that closely approaches the speculated model, albeit differing in the sun/fire goddess rather than the sky father being the ruling deity in at least the pre-Nart Sagas records.
A number of deities may be original, likely post-Zoroastrian acquisitions in the case of those recorded in the Nart Sagas. The “Scythian Ares” and Argimpasa may either be unique Scythian creations, acquired from other cultures or Proto-Indo-European-descended deities.
An overwhelming majority of deities have names unrelated to Proto-Indo-European theonyms, suggesting that name-changing occurred regularly across Scythian history while the actual characters remained more or less intact. This continued into Ossetian mythology, where descendent deities have names unrelated to Scythian counterparts. The exception appears to be river deities, which have more consistent names.
Scythian mythology is rarely discussed when it comes to reconstructing the religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. As I hopefully demonstrated, this is rather unfortunate, especially since Proto-Indo-European reconstructionism often relies on assumptions based on peoples with vastly different lifestyles and cultures. The Scythians, by contrast, demonstrate a degree of conservatism barring the deity names, and could be useful in further understanding how Indo-European religions evolved.
Aside from a few concepts like the “firmament waters”, Scythian mythology as recorded by pre-Nart Sagas sources is not specifically Indo-Iranian in nature as far as I can see. Several deities bear influences on other Indo-European cultures such as the Slavs, Celts, Germanic and Thracian peoples and possibly even Greeks while some religious concepts and practises might be considered pan-Indo-European.
That said, a degree of uniqueness can be ascribed to Scythian religion, like many of their theonyms and possibly deities like the “Scythian Ares”, which have no unambiguous analogue elsewhere in the Indo-European world.
Hopefully further archaeological finds will elaborate upon these musings.
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