Cimmerians, Scythians and Sarmatians: the Iranian peoples of ancient Eurasia

Journey to discover the ancient Indo-European populations of warrior knights who occupied, during the Iron Age, the vast territory between Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the steppes of Central Asia

di Alfonso Piscitelli
article originally published on Heretics Mind
image: Viktor Vasnetsov, “Knight at the Crossroads”, 1878.

The populations that - before the invasion of the Goths - took turns in the Pontus area belonged to the Iranian stock: first the Cimmerians, then the Scythians, then the Sarmatians. Were irans of the wildest and most nomadic steppes.

The oldest to appear in were the Cimmerians, which struck the imagination of the Greeks. For Homer the Cimmerians lived "shrouded in mist and cloud" in the far north. Their sunless land was seen as a means of communicating with the world of the dead. Because of this Ulysses in the Odyssey goes to Cimmeria to practice the nekya, the summoning of the dead, making a blood sacrifice that draws the souls of the dead from the Erebus. The Roman cultural world curiously attributed to the Cimmerians a series of Italic localities, locating their headquarters in the Lake of Averno or Lucrino oa Cuma (according to an etymological reasoning that connected Cuma and Kymmeri): in all these cases the reference to the contiguity between the people of the Cimmerians and the World of the Dead was explicit. In fact, Lake Avernus was considered the gateway to Hades and Cuma was the seat of a famous Sibyl who lived suspended between the world of the living and the afterlife in order to pronounce her enigmatic vaticini.

Edmund Dulac, "The Dreamer of Dreams", 1915.

But this is myth. In the historical reality the Cimmerians were one ancient Indo-European population of the Caucasus. At one point pressed by the Scythians they moved west and south, spreading to the Near East, where they were eventually defeated by the Assyrians. The Assyrians themselves noticed that a family war was taking place between the Cimmerians and the Scythians since they both belonged to the steppe Iranians.

Of the Cimmerians the names of three kings: Teushpa, Tugdamme and Sandakshatra. Especially in the third name it should be noted the strong Indo-Iranian value (the Kshatrya in India were the members of the warrior caste). The Cimmerians gave the first name to Crimean peninsula in ancient times called Cimmeria.

After centuries it was Goethe to take up the Homeric image in his work "Italian trip", Identifying with the Cimmerians i peoples of the North immersed in the mists, as opposed to the bright Mediterranean. He is Cimmerian the barbarian Conan born from the imagination of the American writer of the twentieth century Robert E. Howard.

The second people to appear in the area north of the Black Sea due to an east-west shift were the Scythians. The Greeks considered them progeny of Heracles and the serpentine monster Echidna. Their historical origin also goes back to the Iranian family. The Scythians called themselves Scoloti (Skuta or Saka), named after King Skules. In the national name we recognize the Indo-European root * skeud: "throw", "pull" (compare with the English to shoot), a name appropriate to a people of archery and hunters.

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But, returning to the myth, three children were born from Heracles and Echidna and the hero subjected them to the test of drawing the bow. The third son won the test and became the first king of Scythia. Another myth tells that the first man born in Scythia was Targitao, son of Zeus and the Boristene river. He too had three children. One day three divine gifts descended from heaven: one cup, A 'double ax it's a plow. Also in this case the third son managed to take possession of the gifts and the kingdom. It is evident in these myths scheme of the Dumézilian Indo-European tripartition. The cup is a symbol of the priestly function and of divine science, the double ax refers to the warrior function and the plow to the fertility / wealth guaranteed by the third social function. The Cup of the Scythians is the predecessor of what in the Celtic-Germanic Middle Ages will be the Cup of Grail.

pazyryk-rug-196x203cm (5)
Carpet depicting Scythian knights.

Physically, the Scythians were typically European, as confirmed by the 2002 mitochondrial studies: strong the similarity with the current inhabitants of Eastern Europe (with the spread of haplogroup R1a1-M17). According to a 2009 genetic study, Scythians had blue or green eyes, fair skin and hair. The sovereigns were chosen on the basis of eugenic criteria, so the exhumed bodies of the kings were permanently 1,80 m high, markedly higher than the average of the clan.

Coming from the area between the Caspian Sea and the Altai Mountains near Siberia, the Scythians settled in the vast area between the Don and the Danube in the XNUMXth century BC. From that area they drove out the Cimmerians who were previously stationed there. As the Scythians advanced, the Cimmerians fled.

An internal subdivision of the ethnic group attested by the Greeks was between the Scythians of the West, more devoted to agriculture, and those of the East, proud nomadic hunters. In their phase of expansionist fury the Scythians crossed over into the Middle East, subdued Assyrians and Medes, entered Palestine in 700 BC. The Middle Eastern empire of the Scythians lasted thirty years and manifested its excesses.

It tells Herodotus that the Scythians plundered the city of Ascalon in Syria; a bunch of them sacked the sanctuary of Aphrodite Urania. The Divinity indignant for the insult punished the looters and their descendants with a "female disease": it made them powerless and androgynous: their children went to form the class of androgynous diviners of the Enarei. Pushed back to the north by a coalition of Medes and Babylonians, the Scythians suffered the Persian invasion of Darius I. Meanwhile, the Sarmatians advanced from the east and pushed the Scythians to move further west. The Scythian Kingdom was definitively extinguished by the Goths in the XNUMXnd century AD.

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The Scythian art was transmitted in the Ukrainian area to the successive Slavic populations: an art made of lively decorations with scenes of animals in movement: the cervo, in particular. The element of the horns - symbol of fecundity and regeneration - was the subject of myriads of representations. The Scythians believed that the deer also led men to the afterlife. The depictions of the birds of prey they left traces in the subsequent art of the Goths and Franks.

Carlo Bossoli, “Tomb of Mithridates”, a kurgan near Kerch.

Typical of the Scythians were the Kurgan: burial mounds dating back to the highest Indo-European prehistory. The chieftains were buried in the Kurgan together with jewels and furnishings, with great pomp. But the stable residences were more for the dead than for the living: in fact they did not have structured cities, preferring the nomadic life.

The lifestyle was nomadic and polygamous, but the Scythians were also decidedly xenophobic: they punished with death those who became Hellenized in their customs. How warrior initiation each Scythian had to drink the blood of the first slain enemy. At the end of each battle the warrior would bring the king at least one severed head, to earn the right to share the booty. Those who did not have it were dismissed with contempt. They also practiced the scalp and skinning of the enemy, skins and hair becoming ornaments.

Sascha Schneider, "The Shaman", 1901.

Apart from this profound barbarism, one sees in the cults of the Scythians a resemblance to those of the civilized Persians in their pre-Zoroastrian phase: the cult of fire, the cult of Mithras, shamanism, the use of intoxicating drinks during rituals, the sacrifice of horses, the oath at the sovereign's hearth. Typical elements of the Aryo-Iranian culture and others more generally Indo-European (the sacrifice of the horse is a ritual cornerstone of India and Rome).

Some scholars emphasize the fundamental importance of cult of a Great Goddess with a female and serpentine body. This cult would also explain the myth of the origin of the Scythians from Erakle and the serpent monster Echidna. But only to the God of War did the Scythians erect a temple.

Herodotus attests to the Scythians an extraordinary fascination for their, metal of magical value: gold was the foundation of power, it was a bridge between the human and the divine. The king was the keeper of the sacred gold. Another fundamental element in the life of these barbarians was - for obvious considerations - the horse: companion in life and in the afterlife. From its milk they obtained a particular drink: the kumys.

"Scythians at the Tomb of Ovid", c. 1640.

Close to the twilight of the Tsarist empire and the Bolshevik revolution, a Revival of the Scythian myth. The fierce Scythian barbarian of the East was interpreted as a free and indomitable figure opposed to the sedentary Westernized bourgeois. Of the Scythian he made himself the archetype of the profound Russian identity. The "Scythian suite" by Sergej Sergeevich Prokofiev dates back to 1914.

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The third population of the Iranian-Indo-European family to alternate in the vast region west of the Caucasus on the Black Sea was that of Sarmatians. They were divided into four great tribes, the most important of which was that of the Orange. The original movement of the Alans was also from East to West: from the regions of the southern Urals (where they clashed with Bactrians and Parthians), the Sarmatians projected towards southern European Russia, putting an end to the dominion of the Scythians over the region.

The Romans perceived them mainly as large horse breeders. With the Empire the Sarmatians had periodic relations of peace and war: siding with the Dacians at the time of Trajan they suffered a clear defeat at the moment of the maximum expansion of Rome. But it was the collapse of the city that exposed the Sarmatians to the movements of peoples from the North and the East: they were dominated first by the Goths and then by the Huns.

But consistent groups of Alans were incorporated into the empire and played in his favor. Marcus Aurelius already employed the excellent Alani knights in Britain. In the battle of Pollenzo the Sarmatian knights faced the Visigoths in the ranks of the troops of the exhausted Empire. As a reward for these services, the Alans got to settle in some centers in Northern Italy on the Tanaro creating Sarmatorium.

Vasnetsov Viktor, “Battle between Scythians and Slavs”, 1881.

The warrior value of the Sarmatians was entirely concentrated on Cavalleria: they were divided into light knights (archers on horseback) and cataphract knights: the heavy cavalry equipped with armor formed by metal scales and a long impact lance. Some historians and Pius Filippani-Ronconi himself see in the cataphract cavalry of the Alani-Sarmatians even the logistical premise for what will be the feudal cavalry of Medieval Europe.

Shortly after the Rus' Varangians, the Sarmatians also converted to Orthodox Christianity. They suffered the shock wave of the Mongols and became a tributary people. Then they had to undergo Turkish and generally Islamic expansionism: they assimilated some traits of those cultures, but kept the Orthodox faith firm. Curiously, the Sarmatians still exist and were a delight to the ears of Georges Dumezil: are the Ossetians of the two northern and southern republics.

Viktor Vasnetsov, “Knight at the Crossroads”, 1878.


  • Classic sources:
    Cassius Dio Cocceiano, Roman history, book LI
    Herodotus, The stories, book IV
    Homer, Odyssey, Postal Code. X and XI.
    Pliny, Naturalis Historia, book III
    Strabo, Geography, book V
  • Modern Sources:
    Italian Encyclopedia Treccani, The Sarmatians, available online
    Georges Dumezil, Stories of the Scythians, Milan, Rizzoli, 1980
    Villar F., The Indo-Europeans and the origins of Europe, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1997

6 comments on “Cimmerians, Scythians and Sarmatians: the Iranian peoples of ancient Eurasia"

  1. Hello,
    Great site!
    Malheureusement, je ne peux pas lire l'italien. Pourriez-vous m'aider à trouver une image des Cimmériens (en bonne resolution et disponible gratuitoment). J'aurais besoin de avoir pour mon film documentaire sur les peuples de Russie.


    1. Hello there!

      If you cannot find good images of the Cimmerians, you could look for the Scythian ones, for they were the ancestors of the first. There are lots of findings from their ancient burials, as well. And if you want to read the articles on this site in your own language you should use the special form in the footer of the page (“TRANSLATE IN YOUR LANGUAGE”)… look for it!


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