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The Scythians, the wild horse-mounted warriors of the Steppes, sometimes ride onto these pages and off again, back into the billowing mists of Central Asian history. Their name straddles myth and reality: the Scyths were there at the fall of the tower of Babel. They were the children of Echidna and Hercules. They lived in a swath of land somewhere from Romania to Korea in a swath of time from 800 BC to 300AD. They were Europeans with pale skin and blue eyes or Asians with dark slanted eyes. They were fighters, shamans, traders, slavers, and peerless artisans. To Greeks they were the opposite of Greeks. To the Chinese they were the opposite of Chinese.
But really who were the Scythians? Well we don’t exactly know. We have some partial answers to some of these questions, but “Scythian” was a word that was used in classical antiquity the same way we use “Gothic” today (indeed–the last Scythians, who played such a role in the histories written by Byzantine historians from the 2nd through the 5th centuries AD were literally Goths). The word denoted an outlander from the steppes—an ideal of living rather than an ethnicity. Upon the Steppes, in the land the Greeks called Scythia, there were indeed pastoral tribes of equestrian herdsmen (who sometimes turned to war and plunder when circumstances were unusually bad or unusually good) but since they did not write it is difficult to untangle their history. This society was made up of confederated tribes–which tended to specialize at different tasks (herdsmen, ploughmen, smiths, etc.). However above the other tribes were the warrior elites, the royal Scyths, who according to Herodotus, regarded the other tribes as little more than slaves. These closely allied elites were formidable warriors. Without stirrup or saddle they rode horses to battle: even while mounted bareback they fought with composite bows laminated together from horn, hood, and sinew.
The ruling Scythian warriors, or Royal Dahae, were inhumed in spectacular kurgans along with great hordes of treasure. Much of what we know about the Scythians comes from these archaeological finds (and the rest mostly comes from Herodotus who was probably making a lot of it up). A kurgan consisted of a great mound of earth over a central tomb constructed of sacred larchwood. Animal or human sacrifices were draped over the outside of the tomb. Inside the warrior elite lay in state with hordes of treasure. Some of the most spectacular treasures known come from Scythian graves (which definitely deserve their own posting) and consist of golden statues depicting sacred creatures like lions, antlered reindeer, and gryphons. Kurgan tombs of the Scythian warrior elite contained weapons, armour, sumptuous clothing (woven of silk, gold, and hemp) and bowls of coriander seeds and cannabis–which was used in purification rituals and shamanistic rites.
Although the Ancient Greeks might have looked down on the Scythians, numerous modern groups have claimed to be their direct descendants. Among the peoples who have claimed or currently claim Scythian blood and heritage are the Ossetians, Pashtuns, Jats, Parthians, Poles, Picts, Gaels, Hungarians, Serbs, Croats, Scots, Slavs, Anglo-Saxons, and sundry Germans. Like all such ancestral claims, many of these are disputed by scholars, nationalists, rivals and so forth (although Slavic people most certainly have Scythian ties). Being American, I am inclined to think that anybody who wants to claim a particular ethnicity or heritage is welcome to do so, but perhaps that is my mixed Scythian blood talking!
Hooray! This week Ferrebeekeeeper officially celebrates small herbivorous ground mammals! There are several reasons for this adorable theme, but chief among them are the week’s two prominent holidays: 1) Groundhog Day is on February 2nd, 2011; and 2) the first day of the Chinese year of the rabbit takes place on February 3rd, 2011. Also I hope an endearing parade of little bewhiskered faces will help you forget your cabin fever and stay warm as this oppressive winter rages on.
Since humankind does not hibernate, I thought I would start the week with a non-hibernating lagomorph which, though not actually a farmer, is renowned for its haymaking abilities. This animal, the pika, is a close cousin to the rabbit (which will itself be amply celebrated on Thursday. Additionally, a world famous cartoon character, the Pikachu, may or may not be a pika.
Pikas are small densely furred animals of the family Ochotonidae which is part of the lagomorph order. Lagomorphs most likely split from rodentlike forbears as far back as the Cretaceous–so the lepus and pikas both have an ancient heritage. Pikas are generally diurnal or crepuscular and they eat grasses, sedges, moss, and lichen. Most pikas are alpine animals, living on the mountain skree at or above the tree line (although a few burrowing species have moved down the mountains to the great central Asian steppes). The 30 or so species of pikas are divided between Asia, North America, and Europe. Most Pikas live together in family groups (with the exception of North American Pikas which are maverick loners). Additionally, in Europe and Asia, pikas frequently share their burrows with nesting snowfinches.
Since pikas do not hibernate and they live on resource starved mountaintops, the animals harvest grasses in the summer and create little hay stacks so that their harvest will dry and be preserved. Once these grasses dry out, Pikas store they hay in their burrows in order to provide both food and shelter during the brutal mountain winters. Unfortunately, the pikas are greedy. They attempt to steal grass from their neighbor’s haystacks while simultaneously defending their own. The ensuing fights are a major cause of pika mortality because the distracted combatants are easy prey for high altitude predators like hawks and ferrets.
Even though Pikas have apparently been around for more than 65 million years, they get scant respect. Both Google auto-populate and my spell checker refuse to acknowledge the creatures and keep pushing me towards “pica”, an eating disease characterized by the consumption of non-food substances such as dirt or paper, or “Pikachu,” the mascot of the Pokemon children’s brand. This latter entity is a fictional yellow magical creature captured and made to fight as a gladiator by cruel Japanese anime children. The Pikachu is capable of some sort of electrical attack. Pikachu may or may not have been based off of either the animal pika or a Japanese portmanteau combining the words for ‘spark’ and the noise a mouse makes. The Pikachu’s cartoon features provide no help in assessing whether it is a pika or not, since the character looks eerily similar to a pika but doesn’t present any definitive trait (and possesses a most un pika-like tail to boot). Although Pokemon’s star is mercifully beginning to set, the brand ruled childrens’ entertainment completely during the late 90’s. Pikachu was ranked as the second best person of the year by Time magazine Asia edition in 1999 (finishing just below the not-quite out of the closet Ricky Martin, but ahead of Mini-me and J.K. Rowling).