Now before we begin, we consider it of some importance to set out a few ‘preliminary considerations’ – sketch out how these things have been generally thought about previously, and why we are departing on a rather different trajectory with our own quest for this most scintillatingly shrouded of Sword-Gods.
This shall also serve as something of a handy primer for some of my more general observations (and infuriated castigations) of the ‘state of the field’ when it comes to endeavouring to piece together the Steppe-Iranic-sphere religion(s) of the time of Herodotus and beyond.
When it comes to the Scythians, we barely even do not know that which we do not know. Instead, we are left chasing ‘glimpses’ – often barely even that – cobbled together through the realms of comparative Indo-European theology, some archaeology, and above all … the works of Herodotus (and, to a lesser extent, certain other, later commentators).
Herodotus’ works are fascinating and frustrating in almost equal measure on these subjects. He mentions an array of Scythian Gods – but only the barest of details. Sometimes we get direct ‘Interpretatio Graeca’ equivalencies – and we are left wondering what ‘anchors’ the interrelationship. How reliable our interlocutor’s perception may have been, and if so – upon what? We have considered, as applies Thagimasidas how there actually *is* a sensible linkage to Poseidon (and, for that matter, to Varuna), via horses and kingship. We have also considered frequently the manner in which Scythian Tabiti is a very excellent correlate for our (Hindu) Great Goddess – and how this helps to unlock a ‘broader’ and ‘deepa’ perspective upon Hestia.
Yet for a certain other Deity we are left scrambling. This is Scythian Ares.
Or, we should say – the ‘so-called’ ‘Scythian Ares’.
For even though this is evidently a Scythian figure … the identification as an ‘Ares’ is a matter of some considerable debate. Which is partially due to the somewhat ‘vexed’ situation of Ares in the Hellenic sphere as relates to the broader Indo-European one … at least if one believes Beekes et co. Which we most definitely do not, so we shall move quite directly along then.
Effectively, the major ways to try and ‘unlock’ Scythian deifics have been to approach things either ‘laterally’ or ‘vertically’ … and often with rather limited reference pools.
By ‘vertically’, we mean in terms of Time. It is quite natural, in its way, to look to the descendants of the Scythians for a glimpse in at the beliefs of their forebears – and so it is almost impossible, in discussion of this nature, to avoid the imminent mention of the Nart Sagas.
That is as it should be. For even though the tales as they have come down to us have evidently undergone ‘evolution’ in various fashions (partially as a necessity for their survival in amidst turbulent and Islamicized times; partially because folk-traditions inevitably change somewhat over two and a half millennia; and partially, because the versions that we have were collected so ‘late’ in proceedings), there are still eminently familiar Indo-European ‘foundational’ elements to be found therein. In amidst an array of other elements that *may* turn out to be likewise … or to be introduced from other sources. However we must remember that when we are dealing in the realms of the Narts – it is one specific regional cluster, and so it may prove complex to extrapolate too heavily to attempt to encompass the *entire* Scythian sphere (or spectrum) all up. A remark, I am sure, of most general application considering the latter’s size and temporal scope.
As applies this ‘Vertical’ approach in particular, there is a prominent effort in Vasily Ivanovich Abaev’s ‘Tales of the Narts’ to link ‘Scythian Ares’ to the figure of Batraz and what he terms “the heathen cults of the Scythians” [we should thank S.B. for his recommendation drawing this to our attention]. Such a linkage is not impossible. However considering the typological understanding for the much-later-attested Batraz as seeming to express the Indo-European Striker/Thunderer deific complex … this sits to us rather curiously. We would surmise that either something has ‘shifted’ in the interim – or the ‘shift’ is one conjured from academia’s own occasionally rather fraught post-facto analysis and nothing more.
Occasionally, one encounters attempts to ‘square the circle’ on that front – persons arguing that somehow Mars or Ares was, in fact, a Striker/Thunderer deific and therefore there via implication ought be no contradiction. We disagree. We believe that there is ample evidence to suggest an independent Indo-European War Deific, not contingent upon the (yes, also strongly bellicose) Striker/Thunderer figure. It is a similar problem to that eye-roll-inducing specter of the perceived ‘One Thunder(er) Limit’ we seem to keep encountering – wherein simply because Jupiter (for instance) is prominently associated with Thunder … this therefore means that another prominently-associated-with-Thunder deific from another Indo-European pantheonic expression must also therefore be Jupiter. You see this viz. Thor, Indra, etc. – and never mind that Odin is literally Þundr (‘Thunderer’), Rudra even also wielding a Vajra, per RV II 33 3, etc.
In short: the Indo-Europeans had *several* Gods that could be called upon for War. Just as our forebears right back to the Urheimat likewise had *several* Gods Who could utilize the Thunder.
The situation of highly resonant conceptry between Skanda / Kartikeya with the Nordic Heimdall should appear to point toward a ‘Charger / Skewerer’ figure as being an archaic Indo-European understanding. However, it is another (yet also, admittedly, associated – via familial point of reference) Indo-European typology to which we strongly suspect this ‘Scythian Ares’ may have once adhered. More on that in Part II.
One clear weakness of the ‘post-facto’ and ‘Vertical’ approach with its overweening focus upon folktales is that it can, by definition, not make adequate use of comparative ritual analysis (or ‘ritual praxeology’ ?) – as we do not have access to the relevant structures of the concordant ‘living religion’ to draw from. Folktales, and a certain level of folk-customs are all that we have left in that specific sphere. Which can certainly be informative – but are nevertheless missing some rather important ingredients for true ‘comparative analysis’. We are comparing a distant memory to a distant glimpse of an as-yet-then-still-living flame. And assuming that these two after-images are concordant precisely because of that seeming-simulacra as to a result.
Except since the Scythian religion is long since dead and gone … where might we turn in order to engage in just such a comparative ritualine analysis? Is there anywhere in the present-day we might seek to draw from? Well, as a matter of fact, there is … and we shall come to that in just a moment. And by ‘in the present day’, I in fact mean not only in the present, as we shall shortly soon see.
By ‘laterally’, we mean efforts to interrelate Scythian figures to either the ‘West’ sphere that is the Hellenic (i.e. Interpretatio Graeca – often building directly from Herodotus’ statements) or to a ‘West’ sphere that is the Iranic … except with the rather unfortunate corollary that almost invariably this tends to mean the *Zoroastrian* Iranic specifically (or inferentially). Which is understandable in some ways – it’s the most significant Iranic religious corpus that we actually *have* to hand ‘in its own words’ … yet also rather bemusing, as we also *know* that the Zoroastrians had pointedly defined themselves *against* the post-Andronovo ‘Daevic-worshipping’ Indo-Iranic religious orthodoxy, and so therefore can be demonstrated to have ‘chopped and changed’ their religion relative to what went before in various areas.
More to the point – we also know from the Zoroastrians’ own perspectives upon the ‘Turanians’ and other ‘barbaric’ inhabitants of the Steppes and other such ‘fringe’ environs … that these non-Zoroastrian, and implicitly ‘Scythian-sphere’ Iranics were frequently very religiously conservative. Hence the antipathy between various of those groups and the nascent Zoroastrian faith which had sought to upend the entire thing in the first place.
This doesn’t, of course, mean that the Zoroastrian sphere is useless as an indicator-provider toward ‘unlocking’ the Scythian religious complex. Quite the opposite – literally. We can tell rather a lot precisely around those things the Zoroastrians saw fit to overtly condemn their neighbours to the north for still believing in. And yes, later eras of Zoroastrian belief also found themselves having to ‘re-incorporate’ simulacra of previous Indo-Iranic elements that they had not managed to more comprehensively suppress in earnest (good examples being the demonization of Indra … being followed later by the incorporation of a ‘sanitized’ Verethragna; and the begrudging admission of Anahita, despite the dire warning as to Her ‘Daevic’ cults still being in operation).
Personally, I contend that a large contributor to the problem is that many of the people actively engaged in the study of the Scythian sphere are trained ‘Iranic’ scholars – and the way one trains for this is via immersion in the textual and civilizational corpus that we have to hand. Which means the aforementioned Zoroastrian(-ish) span running from the Achaemenids on through to the Sassanids and then some. And that means that – well, ‘we see what we have been trained to see’. This then conditions the next generation of scholars who are looking into matters Scythian, because all the previous work is written from such a perspective … and on and on it goes. I digress.
One tangible exemplar for just how ‘peculiar’ things can get as the fairly directly attributable result of over-emphasis upon Zoroastrian Iranic source-material is provided for us via the figure of Indra. Whom I mention precisely because it is bizarrely contended in some quarters that because there is no dragon-slaying Indra in the Zoroastrian corpus … that this therefore means the figure of Indra in the Vedas is a non-Indo-European incorporation. Which is clearly incorrect. And not least because the Zoroastrians *did* have an Indra – in amidst their lists of ‘Daevic’ demons, as aforementioned (which, interestingly enough, would therefore imply that the Eastern Scythian neighbours the Zoroastrians were insurgent *against* … did, themselves, have an Indra, and even by such a name). All of this means that we are on very shaky ground when it comes to analysis that is built significantly from such ‘shifted’ source-material. Even if, to be fair and sure, Zoroastrian understandings *can* assist with unpacking *later* Scythian-sphere religious developments – such as those found amidst the Sogdians of the mid-1st millennium A.D..
One might, at this point, be tempted to throw up hands as to the endeavour entirely. When it comes to the Iranic sphere – we seem to find ourselves significantly stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. We either have the ‘vertical’ continuance that is so demonstrably speciated and incomplete due to the passages of time and conversion … or we have the ‘lateral’ approach that runs into the inherent difficulties plaguing what is actually there to see in amidst both academic and primary source material dealing with the rest of the (‘civilized’) historical Iranic sphere itself. Wherein much of the *actual* ‘proper’ Scythian belief should seem fairly directly cognate with those elements either irrevocably ‘changed’ – or even just simply outright ‘suppressed’ – by the people doing the telling for us (I here *mostly* mean the Zoroastrian-ish writers … ).
However, there’s one further sphere that has been considerably neglected when it comes to endeavouring to understand the Scythian mythos and religion – and that’s that *other* notoriously conservative Indo-Iranian religious complex … the Vedic religion, and its ensuing Hindu continuance.
We contend that the best approach for finally ‘unlocking’ the mystery as to Scythian Ares is exactly this manner of ‘lateralistic’ approach. One which draws together not only the comparative mythology and some measure as to its theology – but *also* the comparative *ritual* understandings that might also be addeuced from incorporating insights drawn from this Vedic (and, to be sure, in terms of era – post-Vedic) sphere.
Although at the same time, we must observe that the diffusion of Indo-European peoples – even amidst the Indo-Iranic sphere specifically – was quite an archaic one. And that means that even where observably coterminous practices are entailed … particular elements may have ‘shifted’ in the interim. Or, in this particular case, we suspect, have been independently ‘developed’ down slightly differing trajectories. That nevertheless have produced congruent – indeed, arguably rather ‘convergent’ – outcomes.
This becomes particularly pertinent when we consider the major focal-point for Scythian Ares – the Sword. Which, after all, is a relative latecomer to the panoply of weaponry of the Indo-European field.
We are therefore left looking not only for Swords directly – but also, so to speak, ‘Swords Inferentially’ … Prospective Swords, Swords-In-Potentia. And, yes, actually-occurrent Swords – albeit of perhaps unexpected hue and tincture.
You’ll see what I mean soon enough.