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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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The Scythians were a barbarous nomadic tribe of Indo-Germanic origin living in the region between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea. The Greek colonists who settled on the northern shores of the Black Sea in the 7th cent. b.c. found the South Russian steppe in their possession. Their name ‘Scythians’ is first found in Hesiod (Strabo, VII. iii. 7, 8), while Herodotus (iv. 1-82, 97-142) gives a great deal of information regarding the people, although the fact that the Greeks soon came to extend the name ‘Scythian’ to all the nations to the north and north-east of the Black Sea makes some of the statements of Greek writers regarding them questionable.

The Scythians proper were a purely nomadic race living on the South Russian steppe the usual life of nomads, moving from place to place as the needs of their flocks demanded. Herodotus (iv. 46, 114, 121) tells us that the men rode on horseback while the women were conveyed in wagons drawn by oxen. They lived on boiled flesh, mares’ milk, and cheese. Like most barbarians, they existed in a condition of filth, never washing themselves, and the women daubed themselves with paste containing the dust of fragrant woods and removing it the second day (iv. 75). Hippocrates (ed. Littré, ii. 72) informs us that they were not a very hardy race, suffering greatly from dysentery and rheumatism, and being soft and flabby in body.

The cruelty of the whole race and the despotism of their kings were notorious in the ancient world. When the king put a man to death all the male relations of the unfortunate victim were slain as well, for fear of blood revenge. When engaged in battle, the Scythian warrior drank the blood of the first of the foe he slew, using the skull as a drinking cup. No one was allowed to share in the booty who did not bring the head of a foeman to the king. The scalps of those slain in battle were tanned and hung on the bridle of the warrior (Herod. iv. 64 f.). The eyes of those taken captive and held as slaves were put out. The kings were invested with absolute despotic powers. On their death a vast multitude of slaves and even free-born servants were slain and buried in great funeral mounds along with horses and vessels of gold and silver.

The Scythians first come into history in connexion with their invasion of Asia and particularly of Media in the 7th cent. b.c. At this time there took place one of those great movements among the uncivilized peoples of the north which the Germans call a Völkerwanderung. Pressed on by Asiatic tribes, the Scythians seem to have driven the Cimmerians into Asia Minor and invaded Media. Herodotus speaks (i. 103-105) of a great victory of the Scythians over Cyaxares and the Medes which compelled the latter to raise the siege of Nineveh. Thereafter the victorious hordes overran all Asia, plundering at will for thirty years, from 634-604 b.c., till the Medes again under Cyaxares destroyed most of them after making them drunk at a banquet (i. 106). He also tells (i. 105) of king Psammetichus, who died 611 b.c., buying off these northern invaders who had come as far south as Philistia. The panic of these invading hordes reached Palestine, and several times the land seems to have been threatened and actually overrun with marauding bands. The reports of warriors fighting on horseback with bow and arrows, and drinking the blood of the slain, were fitted to appeal to the imagination of the Hebrew prophets, who thought of the messengers of God’s wrath on a sinful nation. Jeremiah’s description of ‘the evil coming from the north’ (1:13, 4:6, 5:15ff., 6:1) and of the mighty nation of riders and bowmen, as well as Zephaniah’s picture of the Day of the Lord, was probably suggested by the Scythian invasion and the terror it inspired. The memory of this invasion was perpetuated in the name Scythopolis, which was given to the old town Beth-shean (Σκύθων πόλις, Judith 3:10; cf. Σκυθωπολεῖται, 2 Maccabees 12:30), which was probably taken, and, as Pliny (Historia Naturalis (Pliny) v. 16) and G. Syncellus (Chronographia, ed. P. J. Goar, Venice, 1729, p. 171) state, rebuilt by the remnant of the Scythians who remained after the main body was bought off by the king of Egypt.

To the Jews the name ‘Scythian’ became synonymous with ‘barbarian.’ Just as terrors which are only partially known assume gigantic proportions, so these Scythians, by their rapid descent on Palestine, their unwonted appearance, their savage cruelty, and their short sojourn, impressed the imagination. They became the symbol of savagery, inhumanity, barbarity, treachery, cruelty, and perhaps under the names Gog and Magog (q.v. [Note: .v. quod vide, which see.] ) became types of the evil world-powers opposed to the Kingdom of God. Thus Josephus (Ant. I. vi. 1) identifies Gog and Magog of Ezekiel 38, 39 with the Scythians. When the apostle Paul is speaking of the absolute way in which the gospel of Christ abolishes all racial distinctions, he mentions in the list ‘Greek and Jew … barbarian, Scythian’ (Colossians 3:11), where undoubtedly ‘Scythian’ is referred to as being universally regarded as the lowest in the scale of humanity, the most savage of barbarians-‘Scythae barbaris barbariores’ (Bengal) (cf. J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians2, 1879, p. 216). Even Scythians, the Apostle maintains, can be renewed unto the knowledge of Jesus Christ and become one in Him along with members of other races. Justin Martyr, the apologist (Dial. 28), in extolling Christianity, refers to its having room for Scythians and Persians, the ferocity of the former and the licentiousness of the latter being notorious, while the pseudo-Lucian (Philopatris, 17) satirizes Christianity for suggesting that Scythians should have any place in heaven. The opponents of Christianity, such as Celsus and the pseudo-Lucian, could not understand a religion which had a place for those so low in the scale of humanity as the Scythians. The Apostle, on the other hand, gloried in a religion which could redeem and elevate the most degraded.

Literature.-Herodotus, iv. 1-82, 97-142; Hippocrates, de Aëre, aquis et locis, xvii.-xxii., ed. P. M. E. Littré, 10 vols., Paris, 1839-61, ii. 66-82; J. C. Zeuss, Die Deutschen und die Nachbarstämme, 1837; K. Neumann, Die Hellenen im Skythenlande, 1855; G. Grote, History of Greece, 10 vols., new ed., 1888; H. Ewald, Geschichte des Volkes Israel, iii.3 [1866] 742-748; J. B. Lightfoot, Colossians2, 1879, p. 216; articles ‘Scythian’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) and Encyclopaedia Biblica , and article ‘Scythia’ in Encyclopaedia Britannica 9.

W. F. Boyd.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Scythian'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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