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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The Sauromatians were a people of fighting women

19 March, 2002 - 00:00

The father of history Herodotus wrote that the Sauromatians were a people living to the east of the Siversky Donets River. They would later extend their influence to the North Caucasus and the entire territory of today’s Ukraine. By then they were known as Sarmatians, thus standing next to the cradle of the Slavs.

The Ancient Greek historian claims that the Sauromatians were produced by a cross of the Scythians and Amazons. The latter are generally known to have been a female fighting community that lived without men. Many believe that it is just a romantic myth, yet it is an historical fact that the Amazons did exist. There are different sources pointing to their deeds, names, and Amazon settlements dating back into the mist of centuries. Henning opines that the Ancient Greek legend about the Amazons dates from before Homer. Greek sources have it that the Amazons first lived in the Transcaucasus and then appeared by the Sea of Azov, not far from the Scythians. A number of cities in Asia Minor (e.g., Ephesus, Smyrna, Mytilene, Sinope, etc.) were believed to have been founded by Amazons.

The warlike women more often than not pitched camp on the river Thermodontus, [on the south coast of the Pontus Euxinus, as the ancients called the Black Sea. According to Aeschylus, Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Pausanias, their main city was Thermoskyra, not far from Amysa and Amasia. After invading Attica and then being defeated by a punitive Greek expedition, they vanished from the area. At least visiting Greeks found no trace of them. The amount of such specific information cannot allow one to shrug the Amazons off as a myth. What causes doubt is primarily how they could have managed to exist after a generation without men. Answers are found in contemporary accounts. The Amazons would now and then receive men and stage orgiastic feasts, after which the men would be driven away or even killed. Some stories hold that they tried the trick on Jason and the Argonauts. Another question is what they did when begetting boys. Ancient authors claim they would either give them to a neighboring tribe or kill them. Third and last, how could such an unusual tribe have come to be?

Information about the militant Sauromatian women is corroborated by archaeological diggings unearthing burials with Sauromatian women clad in military attire. In fact, the very name, Sauromatians, originates from the Old Slavic svara, meaning warfare. The root, mat, is found in all Indo-European languages and its meaning is the same: mother or wife. Perhaps the original name was Sauromaty, or militant women, subsequently modified and simplified. Also, Svarga is the Indian Aryan for the heavenly domain of the warlike god Indra, akin to paradise, where Kshatriyas (warriors) were admitted after carrying out their duty. This means the Slavic god Svarog could be an Indra prototype.

The Sauromatian origin explains how this the Amazon-Scythian intermingling was produced. The Scythians discovered that some young daredevils were stealing their cattle and marauding their country. They tracked them down and killed several in battle. And were flabbergasted to see that the dead malefactors were girls. Their elders held counsel and ordered the young warriors to find and marry such girls at all costs. The reason is easy to guess. The Scythian held combat valor above all else. They must have assumed that the warlike girls would make their tribe even more valiant. They were right and also wrong in that, rather than giving the Scythian tribe a fresh impetus, such marriages started a new people, for the following reasons. After young Scythian warriors managed to establish contact with Amazons by any means possible; they proposed marriage, but the girls refused, saying they were used to freedom and that they preferred to hunt and to fight on their own; that being housewives and serving their husbands was not for them... The young men held counsel and then told them they were willing to live with them on an equal footing. And again the girls said no, because this was also not the Amazon way and they would lose face if they did.

Finally, it was decided that the Sauromatian girls would marry the Scythian men but would live separately, in a free land to the east of Scythia, beyond the Siversky Donets. From then on, writes Herodotus, the Sauromatian wives kept to their old way of life, hunting astride their horses with or without their men, taking the field and wearing the same clothes as men. In addition, it was a rule for every girl not to marry before she had killed a man from the enemy camp. Some, unable to oblige, would die of old age without getting married.

In BC 512, the Sauromatians were a numerically strong and powerful people. In an alliance with the Scythians and Greeks, they ruthlessly drove our Darius’s army of 700,000 when it attempted to conquer the Scythians. In BC 3, the Sarmatians dared lift their hand against their Scythian big brother, occupying the great plains north of the Black Sea and cutting Scythia’s north regions off from the Greek colonies with which the Scythians had been trading. Sarmatian forces reached the Danube and proceeded to plunder the outlying provinces of the Roman Empire. Their campaign ended in BC 1 when Roman Emperor Trajan dealt the Sarmatians a shattering blow. They fled to the northeast and settled as the rulers of Scythia, which now became Sarmatia. Part of the Scythians retreated north, to where the Baltic States are today, and part to the south, settling in the Crimea. It was thus the Sarmatians made their contribution in the formation of the Slavic ethnic group.

This selection, dating back centuries, resulted in the formation of the Ukrainian ethos; Ukrainian women are generally known to have a sharp tongue and wit. Where else but in Ukraine would a man and such a brave warrior like a Cossack be wary about returning home and facing his wife? (as in Hulak- Artemovsky’s opera A Cossack beyond the Danube, Karas ponders the grim consequences of his belated homecoming, after several days of carousing somewhere, picturing his wife Odarka pulling him by the forelock on his shaven head and telling him off). Or take the legendary Ukrainian woman Roksolana, destined to become concubine Roxelana or Haseki Hurrem, of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Incidentally, her name matches that of a major Sarmatian tribe. She had such an influence on the Ottoman ruler that he made her his most beloved wife, while she made a clever and formidable empress.

By Viktor YANOVYCH, historian and expert on culture, Kyiv