Mycenae and Scythia

“According to the account which the Scythians themselves give,” reported the fifth-century Greek historian Herodotus, “they are the youngest of all nations.”1 It was the great disturbances and movements of people of the eighth and seventh centuries before the present era that brought these nomadic tribes from the depths of Asia to the doorstep of the civilized nations of the ancients East—Assyria, Egypt and Greece. Formerly the Scythians dwelt east of the Araxus2—their first settlements in southern Russia date to the end of the eighth century, about the time also that the Assyrians clashed with them in the vicinity of Lake Urmia.3 In the course of the decades that followed the Scythians attained the peak of their power, menacing Egypt and helping to bring about the downfall of Assyria. Later the powerful Chaldean and Persian empires succeeded to confine them to the steppes north of the Caucasus.

The appearance of the Scythians on the scene of the ancient East coincides in revised scheme with the final years of the Mycenaean civilization; the accepted timetable, however, needs to place their arrival fully five centuries after the last of the Mycenae citadels had been abandoned.

The tombs of the Scythian kings in the Crimea were built in a way “surprisingly reminiscent of Mycenaean constructions,”4 the burial chamber consisting of “enormous blocks of dressed stone set to overlap each other so as to meet in the center in an impressive vault.”5 To explain the use by the Scythians of the corbelled vault of the type common in the Mycenaean period, it was suggested that there must have been a continuing tradition going back to Mycenaean times, despite the lack of even a single exemplar between the twelfth and seventh centuries. “I have no doubt,” wrote the historian Rostovzeff, “although we possess no examples, that the corbelled vault was continuously employed in Thrace, and in Greece and in Asia Minor as well, from the Mycenaean period onwards. . .”6 We, on the contrary, must begin to have doubts about a scheme which needs to postulate a five hundred year tradition of work in stone for which not a thread of evidence exists. Stone constructions of the type, had they existed, would have survived.

Gregory Borovka in his Scythian Art writes of “the striking circumstance that the Scytho-Siberian animal style exhibits an inexplicable but far-reaching affinity with the Minoan-Mycenaean. Nearly all its motives recur in Minoan-Mycenaean art.”7

Solomon Reinach, long ago, called attention to certain striking resemblances between Scythian and Minoan-Mycenaean art.8 For instance, the design of animal bodies in ” ‘flying gallop” in which the animal is represented as stretched out with its forelegs extended in a line with the body and its hind legs thrown back accordingly, is at once characteristic of Minoan-Mycenaean art and foreign to that of all other ancient and modern peoples; it recurs only in Scythia, Siberia and the Far East.”

Another example of great similarity in style is in “the Siberian gold and bronze plaques depicting scenes of fighting animals.” Borovka supplies his description with illustrations. “How often are the animals depicted with the body so twisted that the forequarters are turned downwards, while the hind quarters are turned upwards? Can the agonized writhings of a wounded beast or fury of his assailant be more simply rendered?”9

”Other motives of the [Scythian] animal style, too, reappear in Minoan and Mycenaean art. We may cite the animals with hanging legs and those which are curled almost into a circle. Conversely, the standard motif of the Minoan-Mycenaean lion, often represented in the Aegean with reverted head, reappears again in Scythian and Siberian art.”

The similarity first observed by Reinach and elaborated upon by Borovka is very unusual. But what appeared to them most surprising was the fact that two such similar art styles should be separated not only by a vast geographical distance, but also by an enormous gulf in time.

”How are we to explain this far-reaching kinship in aim between the two artistic schools? It remains, on the face of it, a riddle. Immediate relations between Minoan-Mycenaean and Scytho-Siberian civilizations are unthinkable; the two are too widely separated in space and time. An interval of some 500 years separates them. . . Still, the kinship between the two provinces of art remains striking and typical of both of them.”10



  1. Herodotus, The Histories, Bk. IV, ch. 5.

  2. The Araxus may be either the Oxus, which flows through today’s Afghanistan, or the Volga.

  3. In the reign of Sargon II (-722 to -705). T. T. Rice, The Scythians (London, 1975), p. 44.

  4. E. g., Altan Oba “The Golden Barrow”) and Tsarskij Kurgan (“Royal Barrow”). See Rice, The Scythians; E. H. Minns (Scythian and Greeks, Cambridge, 1913, p. 194) also considered the plan of the tombs to be of Mycenaean derivation.

  5. Rice, The Scythians, p. 96.

  6. M. Rostovzeff, Iranians and Greeks in South Russia (Oxford, 1922) p. 78. Similar “Mycenaean type” constructions of the Scythians were found in Bulgaria (at Lozengrad), and in Asia Minor (Pontus. Caria and Lycia)—Ibid., p. 77. R. Durn in Jahrhefte der k. Arch. Instituts zu Wien, X (1907), p. 230.

  7. (London 1928), p. 53.

  8. S. Reinach, “La représentation du galop dans l’art ancient et moderne” in Revue archéologique, 3e série, tome XXXVIII (1901) fig. 144 bis “Lion au galop sur une rondelle en bois mycénienne.” p. 38: “Il a déjà été question d’une rondelle de bois mycénienne, découverte en Egypte, sur laquelle est figuré un lion bondissant, l’arrière-train soulevé avec une telle violence que les rattes de derrière vinnent toucher le front (fig. 58). Nous reproduisons ici cette figure (fig. 144 bis) pour la rapprocher d’une plaque d’or sibérienne représentant un cheval attaqué par un tigre. Cheval et tigre offrent également ce singullier motif des membres postérieurs rejetés vers le dos et l’enclosure (fig. 114).”

  9. Borovka, Scythian Art, pp. 53-54.

  10. Borovka, Scythian Art, p. 54 Similar observations were made by Minns (Scythian and Greeks, p. 260), who termed a Scythian depiction of a deer with its head turned around “a Mycenaean survival.” He also compared an ibex on a casket from Enkomi, Cyprus to similar Scythian depictions.