Tattooed Scythian Warriors, Descendants of the Amazons? Part Three
(Part 1 and Part 2 ). The origin of the word Amazon may have come from the Iranian language. The work ha-mazan (phonetic pronunciation) meant warrior and the nomadic Scythians that migrated into the eastern European region are believed to have been Indo-Iranian tribes so the etymology of the word seems right. As the Scythian nomads moved across the area, described in Herodotus’ third story of their origin, a stratified society developed in which the farmers and herders (the earlier inhabitants) were lower status and the newer Scythian warrior class became the royal or ruling class.
However, unlike most societies that are absorbed by a warrior based culture, this one did not immediately or exclusively denigrate women to the lowest status. It seems that in their world there was a place for the warrior woman, a practice perhaps influenced by their female deities. Herodotus believed that the Samatians were the result of the merging of the Scythian and Amazon cultures. Whether this acceptance came from the merging of a society, such as the Amazonians that already had such practices, or it was inherent in the customs of the early nomads is not clear, but archaeological evidence shows that women both as warriors and as high status individuals existed in the Scythian society and similar cultures in the region of Pazyryk.
The Scythians buried their high status dead in mounds called kurgans or tumuli. The dead were laid out often as if asleep in a hollowed out log, facing the east. Grave goods included fine clothes, jewellery, food, cannabis, hand mirrors (also carried by the followers of Hathor), horse tack, bows, swords, shields, entire chariots and often other humans and horses. The horses were sacrificed by axe blow and then buried with the deceased. A later excavation, such as the one of the Pazyryk mummy known as the Ice Maiden excavated by Natalia Polosmak, has shown that at least in this instance the horses were older rather than younger stock suggesting a hint of practicality when killing the livestock. The bodies were mummified in a complex process involving the removal of internal organs, packing the body cavity with aromatic herbs and spices and then embalming the flesh with oils and resin. Some of the kurgans also filled with ground water and subsequently sealed the mummies in ice which further preserved all of the burial goods. The craftsmanship of the gold work, textiles, leather items and wood carving is exceptional and equally so for both male and female burials.
Royal Scythians were also tattooed and apparently those tattoos attested to their elite status. Their tattoos are almost modern in appearance and were created not by the most common ancient method of sewing dye soaked thread under the skin but instead by the puncture method. This technique allowed the artists to create stylized designs in the shapes of goats, horses, deer and leopards. A tattoo stencil (pattern used for creating the design) was actually found in one of the burials. The males and females wore the same designs and there is also evidence of more medicinal tattoos that as usual were only lines. Among the Scythians it is relatively easy to separate the therapeutic tattoos from the decorative because they had such advanced tattooing skills.
There are many very interesting Scythians and Pazyryk burials and it would take a book to describe them all, but some contained women, or men and women together, who were buried as warriors with bows, shields and swords as well as their horses. It is apparent that this society accepted the participation of women in warfare and allowed them the honours afforded to such a status and perhaps it is this very custom that earned these people the title of barbarian because the cultures that surrounded them found the very thought of women in such roles as unthinkable, even mythical. It has long been an accepted practice in anthropology to draw inferences about people and gender role within a society based on the way they are treated in death and there must have been some degree of equality within this society.
In Part Four , I will finish by describing how the role of women changed.
J. A. Salmonson, The Encyclopedia of Amazons (1991), ISBN 0385423667
F. G. Bergmann, Les Amazones dans l'histoire et dans la fable (1853)