Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Religious Customs of Scythia

Previously in Herodotus

54. This is that which has to do with these rivers; and after these there is a fifth river besides, called Panticapes. This also flows both from the North and from a lake, and in the space between this river and the Borysthenes dwell the agricultural Scythians: it runs out into the region of Hylaia, and having passed by this it mingles with the Borysthenes.

55. Sixth comes the river Hypakyris, which starts from a lake, and flowing through the midst of the nomad Scythians runs out into the sea by the city of Carkinitis, skirting on its right bank the region of Hylaia and the so-called racecourse of Achilles.

56. Seventh is the Gerros, which parts off from the Borysthenes near about that part of the country where the Borysthenes ceases to be known,—it parts off, I say, in this region and has the same name which this region itself has, namely Gerros; and as it flows to the sea it borders the country of the nomad and that of the Royal Scythians, and runs out into the Hypakyris.

57. The eighth is the river Tanaïs, which starts in its flow at first from a large lake, and runs out into a still larger lake called Maiotis, which is the boundary between the Royal Scythians and the Sauromatai. Into this Tanaïs falls another river, whose name is Hyrgis.

58. So many are the rivers of note with which the Scythians are provided: and for cattle the grass which comes up in the land of Scythia is the most productive of bile of any grass which we know; and that this is so you may judge when you open the bodies of the cattle.

59. Thus abundant supply have they of that which is most important; and as for the rest their customs are as follows. The gods whom they propitiate by worship are these only:—Hestia most of all, then Zeus and the Earth, supposing that Earth is the wife of Zeus, and after these Apollo, and Aphrodite Urania, and Heracles, and Ares. Of these all the Scythians have the worship established, and the so-called Royal Scythians sacrifice also to Poseidon. Now Hestia is called in Scythian Tabiti, and Zeus, being most rightly named in my opinion, is called Papaios, and Earth Api, and Apollo Oitosyros, and Aphrodite Urania is called Argimpasa, and Poseidon Thagimasidas. It is not their custom however to make images, altars or temples to any except Ares, but to him it is their custom to make them.

60. They have all the same manner of sacrifice established for all their religious rites equally, and it is thus performed:—the victim stands with its fore-feet tied, and the sacrificing priest stands behind the victim, and by pulling the end of the cord he throws the beast down; and as the victim falls, he calls upon the god to whom he is sacrificing, and then at once throws a noose round its neck, and putting a small stick into it he turns it round and so strangles the animal, without either lighting a fire or making any first offering from the victim or pouring any libation over it: and when he has strangled it and flayed off the skin, he proceeds to boil it.

61. Now as the land of Scythia is exceedingly ill wooded, this contrivance has been invented for the boiling of the flesh:—having flayed the victims, they strip the flesh off the bones and then put it into caldrons, if they happen to have any, of native make, which very much resemble Lesbian mixing-bowls except that they are much larger,—into these they put the flesh and boil it by lighting under it the bones of the victim: if however thy have not at hand the caldron, they put all the flesh into the stomachs of the victims and adding water they light the bones under them; and these blaze up beautifully, and the stomachs easily hold the flesh when it has been stripped off the bones: thus an ox is made to boil itself, and the other kinds of victims each boil themselves also. Then when the flesh is boiled, the sacrificer takes a first offering of the flesh and of the vital organs and casts it in front of him. And they sacrifice various kinds of cattle, but especially horses.

62. To the others of the gods they sacrifice thus and these kinds of beasts, but to Ares as follows:—In each district of the several governments they have a temple of Ares set up in this way:—bundles of brushwood are heaped up for about three furlongs in length and in breadth, but less in height; and on the top of this there is a level square made, and three of the sides rise sheer but by the remaining one side the pile may be ascended. Every year they pile on a hundred and fifty wagon-loads of brushwood, for it is constantly settling down by reason of the weather. Upon this pile of which I speak each people has an ancient iron sword set up, and this is the sacred symbol of Ares. To this sword they bring yearly offerings of cattle and of horses; and they have the following sacrifice in addition, beyond what they make to the other gods, that is to say, of all the enemies whom they take captive in war they sacrifice one man in every hundred, not in the same manner as they sacrifice cattle, but in a different manner: for they first pour wine over their heads, and after that they cut the throats of the men, so that the blood runs into a bowl; and then they carry this up to the top of the pile of brushwood and pour the blood over the sword. This, I say, they carry up; and meanwhile below by the side of the temple they are doing thus:—they cut off all the right arms of the slaughtered men with the hands and throw them up into the air, and then when they have finished offering the other victims, they go away; and the arm lies wheresoever it has chanced to fall, and the corpse apart from it.

- Herodotus, Book IV

More Information: from the New Yorker Magazine, Herodotus's Book.

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