Uncovering the Past: the Scythians, the Yarmukians and the Sun Priestess!

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As some Pagans attempt to revive ancient or indigenous religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some of the new(er) finds making waves in archaeological circles.

Was Herodotus right about the Scythians?
Herodotus, often referred to as “The Father of History,” was a 5th century Greek historian. His findings were published in a series of narrative books called The Histories. Although he was the first to collect and present information systematically, Herodotus included whatever was told to him without verification. This is the reason why modern academics often take Herodotus’ accounts of foreign lands, peoples, and customs with a large grain of salt.

Yet Herodotus has often been proven correct, even on his more fanciful tales. As it appears, he was also right about the legendary Scythians and their ritual use of drugs. In The Histories, He wrote,“The Scythians, as I said, take some of this hemp-seed, and, creeping under the felt coverings, throw it upon the red-hot stones; immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapour as no Grecian vapour-bath can exceed; the Scyths, delighted, shout for joy.”

[Credit: Dbachmann. Lic. CC via Wikimedia]

[Credit: Dbachmann. Lic. CC via Wikimedia]

Historians mostly considered this account another one of Herodotus’ propaganda tales, which he tended to include in order to paint non-Greeks as barbarians. Then in 2013, archaeologists found an intact Scythian funeral mound. The find was so important because the Scythians, who were Eurasian nomads, left no cities or settlements behind, and most grave mounds were looted before archaeologists could excavate them.

In this mound they found 2,400 year old golden grave goods weighing in at seven pounds. There were two bucket-shaped gold vessels, three gold cups, several rings, and a gold bracelet. The find was so well preserved that archaeologists notice a black residue in the two gold buckets. That residue was recently tested and came back positive for opium and cannabis. Anton Gass, an archaeologist at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, says it appears the opium was ingested as a liquid while the user also breathed in cannabis burning in the other small bucket. Using both of these drugs at the same time could certainly cause shouts of joy.

If Herodotus is to be believed regarding religion, the Scythians worshipped the gods  Papaeus, his wife Tellus Apia, Apollo Oetosyrus, Celestial Venus Artimpasa, and Neptune Thamimasadas. Their chief deity was the goddess Tabiti, who Herodotus likened to Vesta. However, they also gave special honor to Mars. Herodotus said that they don’t use any images, altars, or temples in their worship, but do make sacrificial offerings.

“The manner of their sacrifices is everywhere and in every case the same; the victim stands with its two fore-feet bound together by a cord, and the person who is about to offer, taking his station behind the victim, gives the rope a pull, and thereby throws the animal down; as it falls he invokes the god to whom he is offering; after which he puts a noose round the animal’s neck, and, inserting a small stick, twists it round, and so strangles him. No fire is lighted, there is no consecration, and no pouring out of drink-offerings; but directly that the beast is strangled the sacrificer flays him, and then sets to work to boil the flesh.” – Herodotus, The Histories.

For those attempting to revive the religions of the Slavic, Siberian, and Eurasian Steppes, Herodotus can be a wealth of knowledge, as long as the sections relied upon have been verified in some way by modern historians and archeaologists. You can now add ritual use of entheogens to the fact-checked column for Scythians.

Did a single Goddess unite ancient Israel?
Archaeologists believed that, around 7,000 years ago, two different peoples lived in the area which is now modern day Israel – the Yarmukians and the Jericho 9. The original theory was that Jericho 9 supplanted the Yarmukians after the older culture declined. Then, archaeologists thought that the two cultures existed at the same time period, but in different areas. The Yarmukians living in the north and Jericho 9 living in the south.

Now a figure of a Goddess is throwing that theory into doubt, too. The statue, which appears to be of a fertility goddess, was found in south-central Israel. It is of a full-figured Goddess with a large chest and wide hips. This type of figure has been commonly found in the north, where the Yarmukians were thought to live. This new figurine, and two others just like it, were discovered in the south, Jericho 9 territory. In addition, they are clearly Yarmukian in style.

Yarmukian, Shaar Hagolan Mother Goddess clay figurine [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

Yarmukian, Shaar Hagolan Mother Goddess clay figurine [Photo via Wikimedia Commons]

So what does this new find mean? It could suggest that the Yarmukians and Jericho 9 were the same culture with a unified religion, and that this shared religion was focused on a Goddess. As reported by Haaretz, “The most important question [remaining] is whether the figures were made in the south or brought from the north. The archaeologists are now planning to conduct chemical tests of the statue to determine the source of the clay – whether it is from the north or south of Israel.”

The life of a sun-worshiping priestess
A new way of analyzing remains is shedding light into what life was like for a Sun Priestess who lived 3,400 years ago in northern Europe. The Egtved Girl, originally found in a Danish village in 1921, is having her teeth, fingernails, hair, and clothes studied for chemical isotopes. Those isotopes already found now tell a story that vastly different from what most people commonly believed that life was like back then.

"Egtvedpigen" / Public Domain

“Egtvedpigen” / Public Domain

It’s often portrayed both in media and popular culture that, while most Bronze age people lived and died within miles of where they were born, men ranged further than women. Archaeologists, however, are finding the exact opposite. Men often stayed put while women traveled much further afield during their lives.

In the case of the Sun Priestess, researchers believe that she was born in the Black Forest of present day Germany. She trained to become a priestess of a Sun God and, shortly after, was married to a Danish tribal chieftain. She traveled back and forth between Denmark and the Black Forest to visit her family and gave birth to a girl. Sometime before her 18th birthday, she and the child died, and they were buried together, where she was found in 1921.

This is the first time scientists have used this method of analyzing chemical isotopes to reconstruct the life history of a single person. This new study backs up genetic and linguistic evidence that women moved around during the Bronze Age while men stayed put.