The ancient ScythiansThe ancient Scythians

Unless you’re a comic book fan series (and Netflix movie) The old guardyou may never have heard of the Scythians before, but chances are you’ve seen some aspect of their influence throughout the long years of human history.

It is considered that originate from ancient Iran around 900 BC, spreading from Central Asia to present-day Ukraine and parts of Russia. They were a formidable force in this part of the world for nearly a thousand years.

Although archaeologists and anthropologists recognize skits as a specific group, researchers have identified at least two dozen tribes that share aspects of Scythian culture and are sometimes labeled as such. As nomadic groups spread over a wide area, the ancient Scythian tribes were ethnically diverse but had some key similarities, particularly in their preferred weapons, use of horses, and art forms. Here’s what we know about them.

The Scythians had a fearsome reputation

(Credit: Sammy33/Shutterstock)

The Greeks were no weakling when it came to battle, but even they were shaken by them. The great Herodotus writes about them in detail in his Stories, and thank God he did, because they left no written records of their own. Herodotus notes that “no one who attacks [the Scythians] they can escape and no one can catch them if they wish not to be found.”

As nomads, they had no real cities to besiege – Herodotus believed that this made them a particularly difficult people to attack and subdue. This also made them very desirable fighters for your side, and history records that ancient Scythian mercenaries were sometimes employed by Greek city-states.

They are also known to worship certain Greek gods, especially Ares, the god of war, and will sacrifice to Ares some of the men they capture in battle. They were literally bloodthirsty. “The Scythian drinks the blood of the first man he has struck down,” notes Herodotus, whose writings also go into some detail about the ways in which Scythian warriors would repurpose the bodies of their enemies—including turning their skulls into drinking cups. Cheers!

Read more: 5 cultures of ferocious wars

Horses were a big deal to them

Reconstruction of Scythian horse clothing and harness. (Credit: Cholpan/Shutterstock)

What made the Scythians so great was not just the fact that they were great fighters, but that they were great warriors on horseback. If this sounds familiar Game of Thrones fans, there’s a good reason: the real-life ancient tribes of the Scythian regions inspired the invented Dothraki masters of horses.

Although they could and did bloody charge through their enemies in hand-to-hand situations, as cavalry, they were an absolute terror. Their hit and run tactics on infantry and fixed positions was devastating.

Read more: Ancient DNA illuminates horse history in America

But horses were more than combat vehicles for them, they were an essential part of their nomadic lifestyle, providing maximum mobility. They kept huge herds of horses, and the animals themselves were a symbol of both status and wealth.

Horses are depicted regularly in surviving Scythian art and were considered essential to journey to the afterlife: Scythian graves often included the bodies of several horses (fully equipped for battle) that had been sacrificed and placed with the body of their master. As terrible as this fate was for the noble horses, such discoveries brought wealth information for these ancient warriors.

The ancient Scythians were unbeatable archers

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Until the advent of personal firearms, the bow (and arrow) was the most lethal long-range weapon a warrior could wield, especially on horseback. And no ancient cavalry could handle bows like the Scythians.

Their weapon of choice was early composite bow, built not just from one long piece of wood, but from multiple components, including wood, horn, and sinew, held together by a form of glue. What’s more, they were curved bowswhich were shorter and lighter than traditional bows, but still incredibly powerful – exactly the kind of weapon you’d want if you were shooting from a galloping horse.

And they shot. The archaeological record—and the bodies of their enemies—is full of Scythians arrows. One of the most effective aspects of their battle tactics was an ability to unleash veritable storms of arrows against opposing forces.

In this effort, Scythian archers were aided by a key accessory: a bow/quiver combination known as gorytos, which floated on its feet and could hold hundreds of arrows. As if that wasn’t enough, the Scythians were known to poison their arrows – just to show how deadly they were.

Read more: The Amazon Warrior Women of Ancient Scythia

Decorative art was important for the Scythians

Antique gold pectoral necklace depicting Scythian life. (Credit: Andreas Wolochow/Shutterstock)

While their savage fighting earned them a reputation for being bloodthirsty barbariansin fact, the Scythians were very sophisticated and experienced when it came to decorative arts. For centuries, treasure hunters and archaeologists alike have been impressed by the richness and detail of the Scythian artifacts, especially jewelry, decorated weapons and armor, etc. The Scythians also liked decorative outerwear. Excavations of burial mounds have revealed preserved garments that show evidence of embroidery, appliqué and other techniques.

Read more: Prehistoric traders tricked rich people with fake amber jewelry

Scythian metalwork is also varied and sophisticated, including many works of iron, silver and bronze. But Scythian objects made in gold have always been particularly desirable, especially in Russia. The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is home to perhaps the largest and most valuable collection of Scythian objects. But apparently this treasure was not enough for Russia. In May 2022, Russian forces occupying the city of Melitopol in Ukraine looted history museum, leaving with one of the largest collections of rare Scythian gold in the country. His current whereabouts are unknown.

Read more: Genetics reveal the movements of ancient Siberians

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