Ancient History

The Scythian Empire was the Dothraki Horde of Russia and the Ukraine

According to the "father of history", Herodotus, the Scythians were a blood-drinking, skin-wearing horde of horsemen that struck fear in the hearts of great nations from the Black Sea to central Asia. Unfortunately, Herodotus is also known as the "father of lies." Now that archaeology is starting to back up some of his claims, we're getting a picture of the Scythians that's equal parts screaming Dothraki horde and the makers of golden jewelry worthy of the Lannisters.

Horselords of the Ukraine

Before the Huns brought the Roman empire to its knees, the Scythians were the scourge of the plains north of the Mediterranean. They fought off the unstoppable Persian army in 513 B.C.E., and two hundred years later, they clashed with Alexander the Great. And we have the authority of Herodotus, the world's very first historian, who claimed to have visited Scythian territory in his journeys, where he described lurid scenes of blood-drinking and worse. He also described a particular habit of smoking hemp by burning it in a small tent. So you know, the Scythians knew how to chill, too.

When the Scythians rode to war, they did so in elaborate armor — and so did their horses. They terrorized Greece from the north, and some scholars believe that they were the source of the centaur myth. So it was probably pretty easy for Herodotus to convince his fellow Greeks that the Scythians were prone to wearing the skins of their enemies. What's true and what's false has always been a question when it comes to the works of Herodotus.

The discovery of a hemp-smoking tent exactly like those that Herodotus described could lend some more weight to his other claims. But everything else found in the ancient tombs that dot Eastern Europe suggests that, bloodthirsty or not, the Scythians were a complex culture, and capable of stunning works of art.

Scythians shooting with the Scythian bow

A Golden Treasure

The Scythians weren't much for permanent cities, and they didn't have a written language. That means that their tombs are pretty much all we've got left of them. As it turns out, you can learn a lot about somebody by poking around in their grave.

For one thing, we know now that the Scythians were talented tattoo artists. That's because in the 1940s, a tomb at Pazyryk was discovered with five heavily tattooed individuals inside, their skin kept intact thanks to the permafrost. Now here's where it gets gruesome. Preservation methods being what they were, the archaeologists did what they could — they cut away a part of the tattooed skin, and removed the head of one of the warriors for further study. Now you can go see that skin at the British Museum. (But sure, the Scythians are the barbarians.)

Besides those particularly gruesome finds, that expedition and others have uncovered a stunning collection of golden jewelry, often depicting ferocious animals mid-attack. These would have pre-dated any Greek contact as well, so there's no chance that they would have been accumulated by trade or plunder. It's clear that the Scythians were a political force to be reckoned with, and not just a band of roving horselords. It's got us thinking about if the Dothraki should be shown with lots of golden bling as well.

After the Scythians Came Attila

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Written by Reuben Westmaas October 11, 2017