You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘steppe’ tag.

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I keep thinking about the great steppes of Central Asia and the magnificent scary hordes which would pour out of the grasslands into Western civilization.  Because I am more familiar with Greco-Roman history and the history of Late Antiquity, I tend to conceptualize these nomads as Scyths, Huns, Avars, the magnificently named Khanate of the Golden Horde, Bulgars, or, above all the Mongols (to name a few).  Yet all the way on the other side of Asia the great steppe ran up against the civilization of China.  On the Eastern edge of the steppe the great Empires of China had a whole different set of nomadic hordes to contend with: Donghu, Yuezhi, Sogdians, Hepthalites,  and, uh, above all the Mongols (to name a few).

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If you read a macro history of China, these guys continuously crash in from the western wastelands and mess everything up on a clockwork basis like giant ants at a picnic that spans the millenia. Isn’t history something?

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One of the greatest Nomadic confederations of the East was the confederation of the Xiongnu which stretched through Siberia, Inner and Outer Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang during the era of the warring states and then the Han dynasty (from around the 3rd century BC to the late 1st Century AD).  These tribes had complex relationships with the civilization of China, sometimes bitterly warring with the Empire and other times allied to the Han and intermarrying with everyone from the emperor’s family on downwards.  That’s an artist’s recreation of them right above this paragraph.  They certainly look very splendid and prepossessing in the illustration, but the truth is we know very little about them.  Scholars are still debating whether they were Huns, Iranians, Turkik, Proto-Mongols, Yeniseians, or what.  My guess is that they were a lot of things depending on the time and place.  Historians (and politicians!) get too bogged down by chasing ethnic identities.  But the fact remains that we don’t really know their language or culture…even though they had a long tangled 500 year history with a culture that loves to write everything down and keep it around forever.

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All of which is a long macro-introduction to a beautiful historical artifact from 2200 years ago. Here is the golden crown of a Xiongnu chanyu (tribe/clan leader) which was smithed sometime during the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).  It features a golden hawk on top of an ornate golden skullcap.  The central elements are encompassed by a braided golden coil with different grassland beasts interspersed.  I would love to tell you all about it…but, like so many other artworks, it must speak for itself. It does seem to betray more than a whiff of the transcendent shamanistic culture which is still such a part of the Siberia, Mongolia, and the Taiga (if you go back far enough, this animal-themed animism informs much of the early civilization of China itself).  It is certainly extremely splendid.  I could look at it for a long time.

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It is International Cat Day!  I should probably feature my beloved pets Sepia & Sumi, but, although I love them with all of my heart and never tire of their astonishing antics and loving personalities, I am not very good at photographing them (in real life, Sumi is the cutest person in the world, but in photos she always just looks like a squiggling black blob with scary needle teeth).

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Scary?

So, until I master cat photography, cat bios of my two little friends will have to wait, and today’s post whisks us off instead to the great inclement steppelands of Mongolia and Central Asia.  Here in the endless desolation is the habitat of nature’s grumpiest-looking cat, the irascible yet magnificent Pallas’ cat (Otocolobus manul).  Pallas’ cats are almost the same size as housecats, however because they are lower to the ground and have incredibly long two-layer coats, they look like comically puffed-up owlcats.  The cats live in steppes, deserts, mountains, and scrub forest from Afghanistan through the Hindu Kush and Pakistan up into Russia, Mongolia, and Inner Mongolia (China).  They are solitary predators living on whatever birds, invertebrates, lizards, rodents, and other small mammals they can catch in their range. Pallas’ cats give birth to litters of 2-6 kittens and they live up to eleven years in captivity.

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Like all cats, Pallas’ cats are astonishingly adept predators, but the barrenness of their range, climate change, and habitat loss makes life chancy for even the most gifted hunters.  Additionally,  humankind has long overexploited the cats for their astonishingly warm fur.  The outer fur and the dense inner fur form an airtight insulation around the cats which keep the tiny creatures toasty even in the godforsaken peaks of the Hindu Kush or in Gobi desert winters.  Portions of the cats are also used by worthless dumbasses for ineffectual traditional medicine.  As you might gather, the species are not exactly doing great, but their range is so large and SO inhospitable that humans haven’t pushed them to the edge of extinction yet.

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For a long time, the Prospect Park Zoo had a pair of Pallas’ cats named Nicholas and Alexandra.  Nicholas looked pretty sweet–like a big furry gray marshmallow, but Alexandra looked like she ate the devil-cat from “Pet Semetary” for breakfast.  She liked to sit in her rocky enclosure and stare through the thick glass at the tamarin enclosure across the corridor.  If zoogoers got in her sightline, she would put her ears back (and they were tiny ears to begin with), and hurl herself at the glass hissing and clawing.  The effect was sort of like being attacked by Yul Brenner’s demonic disembodied head (if it were fat and covered with fur).   I once saw her clambering on the high granite boulders in her habitat and poor Nicholas jumped up to see what she was doing.  She hurled him off the 10 foot tall rocks (onto some other sharper, lower rocks) with nary a qualm, like a kid tossing his schoolbag on the floor.  Her casual ease with ultra-violence was chilling. For a while there was a video online which featured a solemn cat-loving child asking a Brooklyn zookeeper if Pallas’ cats could be kept as pets and the young zookeeper got a scared look and said “That, um, would be a really bad idea.”

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Apparently Pallas’ cats have trouble reproducing in captivity for some reason, but I have always hoped that Alexandra clawed a hole in causality and had kittens. Also, on International Cat Day I like to hold Sepia in my lap as she purrs happily (in my 98 degree bedroom) and imagine the wild Pallas’ cats leaping magestically through the high mountain peaks of the jagged mountains of Central Asia.  May it ever be so and may cats of all sorts ever flourish.

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The Sarmatians were a confederation of warlike steppe nomads who flourished on the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the 5th century BC and the 4th century AD (the Pontic-Caspian steppe stretches from the northern shores of the Black Sea to the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea). Archaeologists believe the Sarmatians were an Iranian people who worshipped gods of fire–a cosmology somewhat akin to that of the ancient Persian Zoroastrians.

An artist's reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

An artist’s reconstruction of what late Sarmatian Warriors might have looked like

Perhaps you will notice that I have given Sarmatian culture a somewhat loose date range of about a thousand years, and placed them in a vague—but vast–geographic region approximately the size of North America’s Great Plains. This is because the Sarmatians are indeed mysterious. What is known about them comes from unreliable historical accounts from classical antiquity or from excavations of their kurgans (burial chambers covered with earthen mounds).

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Sarmatian Kurgan 4th century BC, Fillipovka, South Urals, Russia.

Though built around an ancient Persian kernel, Sarmatian culture seems to have picked up elements from the diverse societies around the Pontic Caspian steppe. Sarmatian artifacts recovered from excavations betray influences from Scythian, Hellenistic, Roman, Siberian, and even Chinese sources. It is quite possible that the Sarmatians did not just pick up ideas from these cultures but assimilated people from them as well. Historians and archaeologists have been arguing about whether the Sarmatians were even a distinct culture at all, or whether it was many different peoples with different histories (hence the use of the word “confederation” in the original description up there at the top). What seems certain is that they were fierce horse-warriors. Some of them raided and traded whereas others settled down and picked up agriculture. Their ways of life endured—as did their political hegemony—until the great upheavals and migrations of the 4th century when they were wiped out/dispersed/intermingled by Ostragoth and Hun hordes.

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

Sarmatian Diadem found in the burial mound at Khoklach

I am going to leave the ins-and-outs of defining culture to anthropologists and instead show you a magnificent Sarmatian artifact which directly illustrates the remarkable syncretism of their world. Here is a Sarmatian diadem which was discovered at the Khokhlach kurgan (which was excavated near the modern town of Novocherkassk). The crown is a principle treasure of the Hermitage Museum–which does not lack for great treasures–but some of the details of its modern provenance have seemingly been muddled by the upheavals of modern Russian history (which seems appropriate).

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The golden headdress presents magnificent deer and ibex gathering around a central tree of life. A Hellenic-looking head carved of semi-precious stone has been incorporated as a centerpiece. The piece is studded with pearls and cabochons of amber and garnet. Ornate golden leaves hang down from it as pendants.

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The diadem is exquisite, but at first glimpse it seems to exist outside of human culture—like it came from some strange fantasy realm. Only by carefully studying its individual components does it suddenly take on a coherent historical identity of its own. I wish we knew more about the Sarmatians from written sources, but I feel we know a great deal about them, just by looking at this beautiful blended crown.

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.

They don't really look super friendly, but maybe it's just a bad likeness.

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.

Kurgan tombs from the Altai Mountains which stretch across Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and China

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!

Scythian Shield emblem (end of the 7th century B.C. Northern Caucasus from the
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Thanks MS Paint!

To celebrate the spooky season, we have been recounting the various fates of the brood of monsters descended from Echidna. While doing so, one aspect of the story has become glaringly apparent:  more than half of the family of monsters was defeated by Hercules. Cerberus, Ladon, Orthrus, the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, the great Caucasian Eagle…the demigod bested them all as he bludgeoned and ripped his shining path through the world.  (I haven’t told the tale of Orthrus, the two headed dog who was best friend to the three-headed monster Geryon:  suffice to say, during his tenth labor, Hercules killed the poor pooch.)  One would expect a devoted mother to be enraged and thirst for vengeance.  However there is a story about Hercules and Echidna meeting, and it seems the mother of monsters desired something very different from revenge.  I’ll turn the storytelling over to Herodotus.  It is worth remembering that while people call Herodotus “the father of history”, historians call him “the father of lies”.  He tells a great many thrilling stories but he probably made them up while he was binge drinking in his library…. Anyway, here is the passage from Book IV of the Histories of Herodotus (translated by George Rawlinson):

Hercules came from thence into the region now called Scythia, and, being overtaken by storm and frost, drew his lion’s skin about him, and fell fast asleep. While he slept, his mares, which he had loosed from his chariot to graze, by some wonderful chance disappeared. On waking, he went in quest of them, and, after wandering over the whole country, came at last to the district called “the Woodland,” where he found in a cave a strange being, between a maiden and a serpent, whose form from the waist upwards was like that of a woman, while all below was like a snake. He looked at her wonderingly; but nevertheless inquired, whether she had chanced to see his strayed mares anywhere. She answered him, “Yes, and they were now in her keeping; but never would she consent to give them back, unless he took her for his mistress.” So Hercules, to get his mares back, agreed; but afterwards she put him off and delayed restoring the mares, since she wished to keep him with her as long as possible. He, on the other hand, was only anxious to secure them and to get away. At last, when she gave them up, she said to him, “When thy mares strayed hither, it was I who saved them for thee: now thou hast paid their salvage; for lo! I bear in my womb three sons of thine. Tell me therefore when thy sons grow up, what must I do with them? Wouldst thou wish that I should settle them here in this land, whereof I am mistress, or shall I send them to thee?” Thus questioned, they say, Hercules answered, “When the lads have grown to manhood, do thus, and assuredly thou wilt not err. Watch them, and when thou seest one of them bend this bow as I now bend it, and gird himself with this girdle thus, choose him to remain in the land. Those who fail in the trial, send away. Thus wilt thou at once please thyself and obey me.”

Two of Echidna’s human children by Hercules proved to be disappointments and were sent away, but Skythes, the youngest son was indeed capable of wielding Hercules’ bow.  Skythes stayed in the land, became its king, and fathered the race of the Scythians, a (real) tribe of people whom the ancient Greeks regarded as being descended from union of the the greatest Greek hero and a primordial monster!  People who are familiar with the Scythians will be yelling and punching the air right now (because Scythians are just completely awesome), however, to quickly summarize; the fearsome Scythians were nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.  They were renowned for their formidable prowess at mounted warfare and for being general badasses. Roman historians described the Goths as Scythians.  The Scottish even called themselves Scythians!  in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, an open letter to the pope, the elite aristocrats of Scotland claim Scythia as their former homeland.  It goes without saying they were binge-drinking in a library when they wrote that puppy.

Scythian Warriors on the steppes (Painting by Angus McBride)

Speaking of puppies, tomorrow, we wrap up this series with everyone’s favorite child of Echidna…

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