This Is #GangSteppe
I had been meaning to write of this occurrence for some time – as it’s quite a resonant one for various elements of our work, in perhaps unexpected ways.
Depicted is, as some of you could probably have guessed, the Massagetae Queen Tomyris, having beheaded the Persian Achaemenid would-be world-emperor Cyrus. A rather pointed rebuff of the latter’s unwelcome marriage proposal. Which is, itself, one of those major points of mythic resonancy with occurrences elsewhere in the Indo-Iranian sphere … as most prominently encountered via Devi Durga doing largely the same thing to the demon warlord Mahishasur (another would-be world-conqueror) following his indecent proposal in Her direction.
Now, the history of the Zoroastrian sphere’s relations with the Steppe is quite a violent one. At the insurgent inception of that faith, it found itself embroiled in warfare against the Turanians [and ‘Turan’ here does NOT mean ‘Turkish’ as the term has come to be identified with in modern usage; but rather, post-Andronovo Indo-Iranid Indo-European peoples of the area], who took a pretty dim view of the Zoroastrian’s religious “reforms” and fought back against their attempt to cast down The Gods. The Turanic sphere at that time was rather coterminous in various ways with what we would term the Scythian one in the West – and it is not coincidental that Herodotus made such a point of emphasizing the famed religious conservatism of these Indo-Iranic Steppe peoples; nor that they would therefore take such umbrage with the attempted undermining of the proper and traditional Indo-European faith by their southern neighbours. I do not intend to go into a lengthy digression upon Scythian / Saka etc. religion here – but it is also utterly uncoincidental tha we find these groups, in Hindu sources, often referred to as Shaivite worshippers, and in a range of then-contemporary materials as having prominent Goddess worship likewise.
Perhaps that is, in part, why the Persians had seemingly despised them so – precisely because they had kept alive the traditions of the Andronovo forebears; and were a living reminder of just how far, religiously speaking, the Zoroastrians had fallen. Something to be stubbed out as a constant uncomfortable reminder of what, actually, was true. Or, at the very least, a source of ancient animosity upon the basis of never-quite-forgotten age-old scars of civilizational conflict between the perhaps BMAC-ized nascent-Zoroastrian proto-Persians and the Steppe raiders of old.
This sets up a recurrent pattern in Persian empire-building of their imperial projects pushing out onto the Steppes in a sort of would-be mythic resonancy with the actions of their forebears – and ‘civilizing’ / ‘converting’ / ‘breaking’ the Indo-European Steppe peoples. Which has historically tended to be exactly that – a mythic resonancy, a mythic recurrency wherein the Zoroastrian-aligned Persians have found the Steppes to be the place where the wave of their dreams of globe-spanning conquest has broken and begun to roll back.
Cyrus is one of the first properly recorded occurrences of this, although I have also written extensively about Darius’ endeavours in this area as recounted in Herodotus’ Persian Wars – and the rather delicious encounters the latter emperor had had with the Scythian King Idanthyrsus.
Following the failure of the former’s attempted overtures of marriage to the Massagetae Queen Tomyris, Cyrus moved to try and take through force what he had been unsuccessful in claiming via word and (marriage) vow; commencing an invasion of the Massagetae’s lands out in modern-day Central Asia.
This did not go unchallenged, and upon becoming aware of this imperial expedition, Tomyris sent a messenger basically telling Cyrus to stop doing what he was doing and be content with ruling his own kingdom. Or Else. The ‘Or Else’ in question coming via his choice of either going to meet her forces in three days’ time head on – or refusing these terms and watching as she proceeded to invade his empire instead. In summation, it was an invitation to an honourable combat that she was extending. This caused some consternation within the Persian war-council, up until Croesus (yes, that Croesus, the famously fabulously wealthy once-king of Lydia) spoke up to offer his counsel. The previous consensus position had been to, in effect, call Tomyris’ bluff – and allow her to make ready to invade Persia, receive her army, and hope that defence in depth and the numbers and ramparts that could be brought to bear against the Steppe Winds might bleed her dry and enable a subsequent counter-assault back across the border in due course. But Croesus thought differently. And advised his lord with a far more aggressive approach – upon a decidedly misogynistic basis no less: “And besides what I have shown, it were a thing shameful and not to be borne that Cyrus the son of Cambyses should yield and give ground before a woman.” [Herodotus 1.207]
Now, to their arguable credit, the Persians were quite capable of being canny adversaries; and when facing the Massagetae they undertook to utilize their foeman’s own nature against them. Knowing that the Steppe peoples were both fond of plunder (as, to be sure, was just about every other army of the ancient world at the time) and a good party … but also were unfamiliar with alcoholic beverages, they laid a trap for the Massagetae.
A Persian encampment was set up, lavishly appointed and defended only by a token garrison to give the appearance of being a legitimate target. This was, predictably, attacked and sacked by the Massagetae under the leadership of Tomyris’ son Spargapises, with the aforementioned skeleton resistance slaughtered. And, again predictably, the Massagetae then proceeded to enjoy the spoils of war which they imagined they had won through valour or opportunity rather than through Cyrus’ and Croesus’ cunning design.
The Massagetae, as I have aforementioned, were unfamiliar with alcoholic beverages of the sort frequently enjoyed by more southerly peoples and apparently instead had a preference for cannabinoids consumed in milk. We can also probably presume, upon the basis of archaeological evidence unearthed proximate to their country or in relation to their relatives, that they would also have smoked cannabis and consumed psilocybin-bearing mushrooms … but alcohol, it would seem, was not their cup of tea. A feature plausibly shared with their European-side Scythian cousins, per Herodotus’ remarks upon the subject. And which I have previously suggested may render the alcoholic imbibing of various Indo-European cultures to be a later development and potential distortion from what had gone before. But I digress.
The point is that this unfamiliarity with alcoholic intoxication was to count significantly against the Massagetae. For it lead to them becoming drunk, and passing out in direct consequence. Only to wake up with quite the sense of regret, as they found themselves to have been surrounded and overpowered as they slept; and to be significantly less capable combatants upon waking up heavily hung-over.
Tomyris’ son Spargapises was amongst those taken prisoner by this ingenious Perisan plot; a situation which caused some consternation for his great mother. To quote her words as given in Herodotus upon the subject: “Bloodthirsty Cyrus, be not uplifted by this that you have done; it is no matter for pride if the fruit of the vine — that fruit whereof you Persians drink even to madness, so that the wine passing into your bodies makes evil words to rise in a flood to your lips — has served you as a drug to master my son withal, by guile and not in fair fight. Now therefore take this word of good counsel from me: give me back my son and depart unpunished from this country; it is enough that you have done despite to a third part of the host of the Massagetae. But if you will not do this, then I swear by the sun, the lord of the Massagetae, that for all you are so insatiate of blood, I will give you your fill thereof.” [Herodotus 1 212] It is interesting to note that the Swearing by the Sun – a broadly known Indo-European custom – is in radiant evidence here (and the Solar orientation of the Massagetae religion is earlier attested likewise in Herodotus with the observation of their offering up a Horse in sacrifice thereto: the ‘swiftest of animals’ quality that mandates this form of tribute being a direct resonancy with that we have found within the Vedas as applies the Asvamedha Rite and Lord Varuna).
The luckless Spargapises, however, had in the mean-time come-to; and upon realising his circumstances he petitioned his captor, Cyrus himself, for freedom. Cyrus, perhaps anticipating that he might use Spargapises as some form of bargaining-tool or envoy with his mother, ordered his bonds severed. And was then most surprised to find that Spargapises sought to free himself from bondage in a far more final and far more powerful sense. Ashamed at having been duped and thence getting himself and most of his command captured or otherwise subdued through death, Spargapises killed himself upon the spot. Evidently, for the Steppe man, freedom was such a paramount that the freedom of death was preferable to the weight of dishonour or shackles of civility under a foreign lord in life.
In Tomyris and her countrymen there was aroused the state of utmost fury – and it is for good reason that Herodotus asserts the conflict which then ensued to be the fiercest warfare waged by any men that were not Greeks. It was fought by the Massagetae with the ethos of, as we would say in more modern times “to the last man, the last bullet”. When they had exhausted all ranged ammunitions completely, they closed to fight first with their spears and thence with their daggers. A grievous toll was wrought, and finally Cyrus himself was slain by Massagetae hands – along with the majority of the Perisan army that had taken to the field with him in this, the Massagetae’s own home soil.
At the conclusion of the battle, Tomyris had Cyrus’ body decapitated and immersed the severed head in a skin that had been filled with human blood. To quote Herodotus’ iteration of her words to the now-subjugated opponent: “I live and have conquered thee in fight, and yet by thee am I ruined, for thou tookest my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give thee thy fill of blood.” [variant translation: “quenched thy thirst for blood”]