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In stead of preface(eng) Scythian tattoos.

In stead of preface

No matter if he practice of tattooing among the Eurasian prehistoric nomads can be proved by ancient artifacts or not, many aspects of it will still remain obscure. This is mainly due to the fact that the nomadic tribes of Scythian times had no written language of their own.  In order to further investigate the question of tattooing among the Eurasian prehistoric nomads, it is necessary to further explain the concept “Scythians”. According to various written sources of classical antiquity, ex. Herodotos, Scythians were almost all nomadic tribes originating from the steppes and forest-steppes around the river Dnepr and eastwards. Modern research has narrowed down the geographical distinction of the Scythians, but bearing in mind that the different nomadic tribes had a similar culture, social hierarchy, and conception of the world, it is sufficient to distinguish Scythians as principally Persian-lingual European tribes employing dug-out burial mounds. All of these tribes practiced tattooing for the same purposes, with the same magical rituals and cult significances.

However, it is important to make a distinction between two different groups of nomadic tribes - the nomads of the European steppes known from Greco-roman sources as Scythians and Sarmatians are not identical with the historic Asian nomadic tribes known as “Suki”, “Massaget”  and “Alan”. This distinction is made here, because despite cultural similarities and a largely shared culture, the Asian and the European nomadic tribes experienced absolutely different cultural influences. Scythians and Sarmatians were influenced by Greco-roman, Tracian and the Near East cultures, while Sacki, Massaget and Alan were influenced by Persian, Chinese, and Siberian cultures. The influences from their neighbors aided the nomadic tribes in their development. The isolation of the Asian nomads living together with neighboring nomadic tribes in the mountains of Altai, has been the most important condition for the preservation of the art of tattooing without any essential influences from the outer world during the actual period. Luckily, this region has also provided us with substantial records of tattooing in the Scythian era in the form of preserved bodies, heavily tattooed with local patterns and designs. We must however bear in mind that the ethnic term “suk”, or more precisely “sugh” is a name used by the nomadic tribes themselves in the Scythian era, but for convenience we will use the reasonable and general term Scythians.

List of points for investigation of the question of tattooing among the Scythians:

1. Facts on the Scythian tattoos

2. Reasons for tattooing and discussion of reasons

3. Further aspects of practise of tattooing

4. Conclusion

1. Facts on the Scythian tattoos
Due to the lack of records, we do not know very much about ancient Scythian tattoos. At present there are only three known Scythian mummies (two males, one female) with well preserved tattoos, and the scarce written sources of the Classic Antiquity can only give us a few hints of a few aspects of tattooing among the Scythians.

2. Reasons for tattooing and discussion of reasons
Historians cannot provide us with information on weather the Scythian tattoos were reserved for the upper class or not, but they can prove that tattooing held a distinct significance. Ancient Greco-roman authors like Herodotus, Pliny, Ammian, Martsellin and Pompony Mela tell that the nomads cut and burnt themselves, as well as applied pictures on themselves, to show that they did not care about pain, thus elevating themselves to nobility. In this context, tattoos were a symbol of heroism and spiritual strength, and we can therefore make the conclusion that tattooing at least was practiced among warriors and nobility. Unfortunately, we do not know anything about the practice of tattooing among the Sarmatians. If we had known more about Sarmatian tattoos, we would probably also have known more about the tattoos of the female mummy – the Sarmatians were matriarchal, and the legendary Amazons were probably Sarmatians. The tattoos of the mummies found in the Altai-region of Siberia have a slightly different significance, as only warriors and chiefs wore them. The explanation for these circumstances can divide into three parts:

1 Origins of the local Pazyryk group
The origins of this group are semi-legendary, but it can be proved that certain tattoo-practicing groups were present from around 800 BC to 400 AD. From an anthropological point of view, it is interesting to note that all male mummies show European features, while the female mummies show Mongolian features, which leads to the following conclusions:

It is that the above-mentioned conditions are due to dynastic marriages between Scythian chiefs and local tribes.
It is also possible that the entire group of Pazyryka tribes was not a homogeneous tribe, but a military group of men arriving in this area either intentionally or randomly.

These theories can be questioned, but there are a few facts that make them plausible. First of all, we can hardly explain the origin of a European people in this area without either or both of the above-mentioned theories. This European people was related to European Scythians which belonged to the "andronians culture" and were surrounded by paleoasian tribes from the North, the finnish-pomorian tribes from the West, the prototurkish tribes from the South and the selkulpian tribes from the east. The same phenomena occurs in the Tarim area, where Kirbi discovered European mummies dating from the Bronze Age, but in this case there was not a long presence of European tribes, and they had no significant influence in this area.
Secondly, there are not enough finds of other female graves in the Altai-region to prove the any greater presence of European tribes and European women during the Pazyryk-era. DNA-analyzes of preserved mummies have however proved that there is a genetic connection between European mummies and neighboring tribes, which indicates extensive contacts and assimilation between local tribes and European tribes arriving in the area.  Finally, we can also point to the fact that the succession of the Tashtyk culture by the Pazyryk culture took a fairly long time. It is however possible that these assumptions are not true, and in time will be replaced by new theories, especially if China would give us a free entry to their burial mounds.

3. Further aspects of practice of tattooing
A last point in the discussion of the question of the Scythians is to properly investigate the actual motifs of the tattoos and their underlying meanings. The motifs of the Scythian tattoos consist of animal ornaments (unlike the art of the neighbouring tribes), and this kind of ornaments, where animals and parts of animals, sometimes “revived” by extra eyes, are used as decorative elements are common to all aspects of Scythian art. This kind of ornaments gives unique opportunities to produce intricate patterns of intertwined animals. Regarding the motifs of the tattoos, one can say that the central and common motifs of all the hitherto known mummies is a vulture wearing reindeer horns with small bird’s heads at the points.

The vulture motif can be explained by Scythian myths and the Hyperborean theory. According to this theory, the vultures watched over an enchanted mountain far away, where the wealth of the wise Hyperborean people was kept. At the same time, the vultures were seen as guardians and keepers of secrets and treasures, as well as guardians of the passage between this world and the other world. If we compare Indo-European and Indo-Persian myths, we become aware that the notion of the vulture as guardian and keeper is the key-motif for Pazyryk tattoos. The vulture motif has obviously also conveyed status – on all the preserved mummies, despite their anthropological background, as it is always placed on the most visible parts of the body like hands and shoulders, particularly on the female mummy. For example: the latest found mummy, “the red-haired warrior”, had the vulture as a central motif, “the ice lady” several vulture motifs, and “the old chief” also had some different versions of the vulture as central motifs of his tattoos.

In the Indo-European culture, the vulture was originally associated with the power of the sky, sun worship and fire-worship. In the Indo-Persian epics vultures as well as vulture-like creatures are mentioned, for example Senmurv-Simurg in the guise of a bird, and Rah-Ruh who acted as a protector and intermediary between the human world and the divine realms. Similar creatures are also found in southern Slavonic mythology, as the vulture-dog Semargla and the bird Strarah, and similar creatures can also be found in Turkish mythology. In Greek mythology, the vulture is associated with the cult of the sun, and vultures are often depicted as coaches steering Apollo’s chariot.  Greek myths reveal the symbolism of the vulture more clearly; the wings symbolize the power of the sky, the claws, like the tiger’s claws, symbolize the power over the earth. The eagle gradually replaced the vulture as intermediary between the Olympe and the Earth. Among Scythian tribes that were known to him by the tales and legends of local inhabitants, the Greek historian Herodotus mentions a legendary tribe, whose name he translates as “vulture watching over gold”. This tribe is believed to watch over a mysterious territory rich in gold. Although this mysterious territory sometimes has been identified with the Ural-mountains, it can also be identified with the Altai-region. Furthermore, there are also gold-deposits in the Altai-mountains. Herodotus also writes about a secret territory where all Scythian chiefs were buried.
Consequently, we have both legends and information on an Indo-European world-view, distinct Indo-European vulture-motifs, the names of certain Scythian tribes, and finally also records of Scythian chiefs and warriors being buried.

An essential difference between the Scythic vulture and all other vultures, is that the Scythian vulture of the Pazyryska tattoos is depicted as a reindeer with a bird’s beak and sometimes also wings. This allows us to claim that the tattoos of the Pazyryska tribes not only had a mystical meaning, but also bore a totemic significance – the word for reindeer is the base for the word “suk”, or more exactly “sugh”; the name that the nomadic tribes described themselves by, which also explains the origin of the Russian words “soha” (the horns) and “sohatyi” (horn-shaped). This theory is proved by Scythian (this word is of Greek origin, and was originally pronounced as “scythoi”) legends as well as large amounts of reindeer- and moose-motifs in scythian art. Horses have also been found in Pazyryk burial mounds equipped with headgears that could make them into “an imitation” of a mythic reindeer that was associated with the sun in many Indo-European cultures.

The ram is another significant motif of the Scythian tattoos. The ram was important for the stock farming, and its mythological meaning symbol of abundance, as a source of life and fertility. In Persian culture, the ram was for example adopted as a totem (personification of a god) for Ahemenids and a symbol of “farna” , i.e. for a divine halo and royal power. Alexander the great conquered Persia and hence won himself a “horn”, and he was therefore depicted on coins wearing a horn. Mongolic tribes who had gotten to know Alexander the Great through coins of the Middle East and legends also called him “Alexander with two horns”. From the above-mentioned facts, we can draw the conclusion that the ram motif of the Pazyryk tattoos intimated that the wearer belonged to the royal family, as well as the ram could be the symbol of a patriarch.

The two latest found mummies feature a great variety of motifs, but the first mummy had quite a lot of motifs. Aside from vulture and ram, feline beasts of prey and a fish were depicted on the body of the chief. We cannot reveal the original meanings of the motifs, but an interesting coincidence can be pointed out; the feline beasts of prey, with as well as without wings, also occupy a place in later Scythian art showing similarities to the art of Hakassian and Hunnu (Ordoss) peoples. Therefore we can gather more information from that art to answer the question of the original meaning of the motifs. In that particular art, lions and tigers without wings guard graves, while winged tigers guard the entrance to the underworld. We can also find the fish motif among the Hun tribes, particularly on carpets, and from this we can draw the conclusion that there is a succession of the motifs all the way from the Pazyryk era, nevertheless bearing in mind that the motifs did not originate from the Pazyryk tribes, but came as a result of Pazyryk tribes interacting with neighboring tribes like avtohtonian tribes and nomads of Turkish origin. The question of the identification of the motifs is serious and complicated due to the lack of written sources, but at the same time there are some data from Chinese written records speaking of tribes in the early Pazyryk era as well as the tribes called “di” (red-haired nomads thus differing from other nomads). We do also have information on later Pazyryk and early tashtykian eras from Chinese sources, speaking of a tribe called “uedji” founding the wealth of Kushanian. This tribe seems to have migrated eastwards from Middle Asia and southern Siberia. It is also possible that some of the tribes fighting Usun and Suk left traces behind in the art of the mountain-nomads dwelling in Altai during the Tashtyk era.    


Aspects of tattooing
Thus we do not have much material, and we cannot for sure claim that all theories are correct, but at least we can summarize the main aspects of tattooing among the Pazyryk nomadic tribes:
Totemistic motifs (reindeer's and reindeer-like vultures) were used as symbols of tribal identification.
Tattooing marked the rank and social affiliation, ex. warriors and chiefs. The tattoos of the female mummy, the so-called “ice lady” are important, and does  probably either indicate a dynastic marriage or that the woman received her tattoos because she belonged to a royal family.
There is a religious and mystical aspect of the practicing of tattooing, i.e. the tattoos could act as signs of heroism and nobility, as well as symbols of fertility and abundance.
There is also a medical aspect of tattooing, where tattooing is used in conjunction with acupuncture, ex. the tattoos on the back of the male mummy called “the old chief”

Closing words
As a conclusion, one can say that the vulture of the Pazyryska has successfully fulfilled its duty to protect the secrets of the Scythians for more than a thousand years, and still protects graves and old knowledge from the uninitiated. It is however possible that further investigations will contribute to unveil the answers to the question of the nomadic European- Asian tribes, and explain their bravery and bold warrior-cults, and make us understand all this in the old, genuine senses. That is all that can be said at the moment.


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