Face to Face with My Ancestors (The Scythians in the British Museum)

I went to see the Scythian exhibition in the British Museum on Friday night and I came face to face with a Scythian warrior from over 2000 years ago.

Was this what my great-grandfather 50 times removed looked like?


Scythians

The Scythians were a nomadic people who lived by grazing cattle and horses on the vast steppes of Southern Siberia and just north of the Black Sea between 900 and 200 BC. I (stupidly) assumed that everybody knew them; it turns out that they are so unknown, at least in England, that the British Museum felt it necessary to compile a beginner’s guide to them.

Scythian rider

They are all mounted archers who carry their homes along with them and derive their sustenance not from cultivated fields but from their herds.

Herodotus, The Histories, IV.46

The Scythians are famous for having developed the art of horse riding and horse archery to previously unknown levels of sophistication and for being fearsome warriors. They lived in yurts and whenever their pastures were exhausted, they packed up and moved on; they didn’t own much and what they owned was small, light and portable. They had no writing (as far as we know) although I imagine that perhaps they cut runes into sticks as other nomadic people later did.

Hungarian text in runic script, 1501 (By Lajos Cser, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Herodotus

Herodotus dedicated the first half of Book IV of The Histories to the description of the Scythians: their lands and customs, and the unsuccessful Persian attack on their territory by Darius.

“Persians, unless you turn into birds and fly up into the sky, or mice and descend underground, or frogs and hop into the lakes, you will be shot by these arrows and never return home.”

Scythian message to Darius, Herodotus: The Histories, IV.132

Hungarians

Of course, I’m not in fact a descendant of the Scythians – if they have any, nobody knows who they are. They disappeared from history some 2000 years ago – that would be a full thousand years before my people appeared.

The Scythian gold stag of Zöldhalompuszta, Hungarian National Museum

But the art and lifestyle of the Scythians were the same as that of my very distant ancestors. Hungarian tradition links – wrongly – our people to the Huns and before them, to the Scythians. In reality, there’s absolutely nothing that connects the three nations apart from their place of origin and their lifestyle. Of the three, the Scythians were the most sophisticated (for all that they were the first, chronologically) and the Huns are the most well-known. The Hungarians only have one claim to fame: that unlike the Scythians and the Huns, we’re still here.

It was the weirdest of sensations coming face to face with a past, familiar to the point of banal through stories and pictures, in the form of genuine artefacts. Even though it was a past that, strictly speaking, had nothing to do with me. Nothing, that is, apart from the fact that this is the closest I’ll ever come to seeing what my ancestors might have been like.

Because the Hungarians, a loose association of seven nomadic, horse-riding tribes, who originated somewhere in the steppes of Siberia or around the Ural Mountains – the scholars are still debating this – eventually turned up in the steppes north of the Black Sea. Those same steppes that used to be inhabited by the Scythians, the same steppes Darius attempted to invade. But we know almost nothing about them, not even if they were Caucasian or Asian in their looks.

Hungarian horse archer, wall fresco in Aquileia, Italy via Wikipedia [public domain]
A handful of folk tales and legends are still told in Hungary linking the nation to the Huns; poets on occasion referred to our ‘Scythian blood’ as late as the early 20th century. Until the 19th century people believed that this relationship was genuine; nowadays we know it’s but a legend. A legend that formed our identity. This is why I’m familiar with the Scythians and the Huns: they are ancient Hungarian history by proxy. The Hungarians arrived in the Carpathian Basin in 895 AD. That’s when genuine Hungarian history began – prior to that all is conjecture. The date makes Hungary one of the oldest continuously existing nation states in Europe but the actual origin of its people remains shrouded in complete mystery. Even our language is the language of an outsider: unlike almost the whole of Europe and a large part of Asia, we do not speak an Indo-European language.

The Legend of the Wondrous Stag

The two brothers were about to turn home when suddenly a stag appeared in front of them. But what a stag it was! Never was seen the like of it before. His fur was white like snow, his eyes bright like diamonds, his two antlers of many points intertwined…

They followed the wondrous stag with their hundred warriors. Through ditches and bushes, uphill and downhill, from thick woods to the clearings, from field to grove. They hunted it from dawn to dusk but could never reach it. Whenever they were on the point of taking it, the beautiful animal sprinted away and in a sloppy wet marsh disappeared from their sight forever.

Ferenc Móra: The Legend of the Wondrous Stag

I simply don’t know who my ancestors were and where they came from. But on Friday night in the British Museum I walked with them in spirit and saw again, worked in gold, the wondrous stag from the tales of my childhood: the stag that led the twin brothers Hunor and Magyar (mythical ancestors of the Huns and the Hungarians, respectively) to find a new homeland in the west. It was quite moving, really.

Scythian gold stag with its antlers intertwined
The Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia exhibition in the British Museum is running from 14 September 2017 to 14 January 2018. 
(Mr Anglo-Saxonist, who had never heard of the Scythians before and therefore only went along to accompany me, backs me up in saying that it's a wonderful exhibition well worth seeing.)

6 thoughts on “Face to Face with My Ancestors (The Scythians in the British Museum)

    1. Thank you. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be boring for people (because who cares about the origins of Hungarians, I mean, really) but I thought what the heck, it’s my blog and this is what I thought when I came out of the exhibition! 🙂

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