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Herodotus’ description of preparation of Scythian burial

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Illustration of the Scythian funeral by Alexander Deruchenko
Illustration of the Scythian funeral by Alexander Deruchenko

I have already written about the Scythian invasion of the Middle East in the 7th century BCE. Let’s stay on the topic of the Scythians, because when it comes to ancient history, I must admit that they are the people that fascinate me the most. The Scythians were famous for their customs, which were usually seen as extremely barbaric by the Hellenes. It was no different in the case of the preparation of the Scythian royal burial, the description of which was left to us by perhaps the most famous of the ancient historians, Herodotus.

(…) they bury one of the king’s concubines, whom they first strangle, then the butler, the cook, the groom, the servant, the king’s messenger and the horses, and also the first fruits of all other wealth and golden cups; they do not use silver and bronze for this purpose. After completing these activities, everyone builds a large mound, competing with each other and trying to make it as big as possible

(…) After removing the insides, they clean the abdominal cavities, fill them with chaff and sew them up. Then they place half of the rim of the cart bell, with the curve downwards, on two poles, and the other half on two others, and many of these half-rims are fastened in this way. Then they push thick pieces of wood through the bodies of the horses, up to the neck, and place them on half-hoops, so that the front half-hoops support the horses’ shoulders, the rear half-hoops support the belly near the thighs, and both pairs of legs hang in the air. Finally, they put bridles and bridles on the horses, pull the reins forward and tie them to the pegs. And they put each of the fifty strangled youths on a horse, doing so by impaling each corpse on a straight pole running along the spine to the neck; and whatever is sticking out of this pole at the bottom, they stick into the hole of another pole, which drills the horse. Having placed these kinds of horsemen around the grave, they depart. This is how they bury kings.

I could leave you with this source text alone, describing the creation of this macabre funeral composition, but at the end I will include a poem by Halina Poświatowska “the Scythians were merciful”:

the Scythians were merciful
when the king died
they strangled his favorite concubine with a ribbon
and her dead body
they threw it on the stake
her hair got mixed up
with the ashes of his hands
her tiny teeth
with the ashes of his mouth
and when the heat darkened
they collected warm ash
and they buried everything
in a spacious box
carved with grass and flowers
where the wind lived

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

Own translations of sources from Polish.

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