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Herodotus about Massagetae

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Painting of Queen Tomyris by Belinda Morris
Painting of Queen Tomyris by Belinda Morris

Scythians and Sarmatians were not the only warrior nomads of Iranian origin described by Herodotus. To the east of them, in the territory of modern Kazakhstan, there were supposed to be the lands of the Massagetae people. They had in common with the Scythians not only their origins and way of life, but both peoples were also famous for defeating the Persians. Before King Darius I suffered defeat at the hands of the Scythians, the founder of the Achaemenid empire, Cyrus II, was allegedly killed by the Massagetae. The queen of this people, named Tomyris, is said to have kept the severed head of the Persian monarch in a sack filled with blood, justifying this by saying that it saturates the blood of those who were not saturated with blood.

However, a different version regarding the end of Cyrus’s life is given by Xenophon, who told us that the ruler of Persia died peacefully of natural causes. Let us return, however, to Herodotus and his description of the customs of the Massagetae, which, as you can easily guess, were peculiar, to put it mildly, not only from today’s point of view, but also could arouse at least disgust among the ancient Greeks:

Now, for their customs: each man marries a wife, but the wives are common to all. The Greeks say this is a Scythian custom; it is not so, but a custom of the Massagetae. There, when a man desires a woman, he hangs his quiver before her waggon, and has intercourse with her, none hindering. Though they set no certain term to life, yet when a man is very old all his kin meet together and kill him, with beasts of the flock besides, then boil the flesh and feast on it. This is held to be the happiest death; when a man dies of sickness they do not eat him, but bury him in the earth, and lament that he would not live to be killed. They never sow; their fare is their live-stock and the fish which they have in abundance from the Araxes. Their drink is milk. The sun is the only god whom they worship; to him they sacrifice horses; the reason of it is that he is the swiftest of the gods and therefore they give him the swiftest of mortal things.

Herodotus, The Histories, I.216

Author: Tomasz Gontarz (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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