William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, XI
"From that day forward, I was a man without a heart, and I buried Samara's memory so deeply that ere long, it was as if she had never existed. I vowed that I would never let myself make the mistake of caring for another living being again. And I kept that vow, as if it were a kind of religion, for almost four centuries, until I met a certain Holy Man at a crossroads not far from here."
Darius paused and fingered the plain wooden pectoral cross that he wore. "The Ancient Immortal, in death, gave me back the humanity I had thrown away, and by his sacrifice showed me what real love is. But all these years, something has been missing, something I had forgotten so completely that I was not even aware of its absence. Until today, when I saw this…"
He got up suddenly and walked over to stand by the window, where he stood looking out across the river to the cathedral beyond. Duncan waited, silent, realizing what his friend needed most right now was not advice, but a listener. Darius had listened to him many times in the past; now he was glad to be able to return the favor. The Scot's thoughts turned suddenly to Debra Campbell, his own first love. Death and unfortunate circumstances had divided them forever, but at least he had her memory to cherish over the years, however bittersweet…
After a few minutes, the priest turned around. "I am sorry," he said with an attempt at a smile. "I don't mean to burden you…"
"You haven't," Duncan assured him quietly. He went to the massive wooden cabinet in the corner of the study and found the bottle of Scotch his friend kept there for his visits. He poured two glasses and handed one to Darius, who took it gratefully.
"I hate to think of her remains being handled by strangers," the priest said slowly, cradling the glass in both hands, but not drinking from it. "Her little bones being photographed, and labelled, and stuck into a cardboard box in a storage room somewhere, or even worse, put on display. She was so full of life, so courageous, Duncan! She deserved so much more than I was able to give her while she lived. She deserved at least to be remembered all these years, and yet I deliberately forgot her, pushed her out of my mind and heart. Now her resting place has been violated, and once again I can do nothing to help her."
"You can remember her now," Duncan answered. "And remember also you have those archaeologists to thank for it."
"I had not thought of it like that," Darius admitted. "If it were not for them, I might never have found her again. You are right, Duncan. At least now I can remember her."
"And maybe she doesn't have to stay in a storage room forever, or be put on display in a museum," Duncan added, with a significant look. "If you will let me borrow this article, I'll see what I can do. I have a few connections, and some of them owe me favors."
"I probably shouldn't ask…" Darius began, a worried look on his face.
"No, you shouldn't!" the Scot replied with a grin.
Darius nodded, then gave Duncan a rueful smile. "I just realized that we never got around to finishing our chess game."
"That's OK. I was losing anyway," Duncan chuckled. "This gives me another week to figure out how to get myself out of check." He stood up and tucked the magazine into his coat. "See you next week."
"Thank you, Duncan," the priest said as he walked his friend to the door.
"Anytime. Call me if you want to talk." Then he was gone.
Darius stood in the doorway for a second, reflecting on the strangeness and wonder of fate. Then he went back to the church to light a candle, and remember.
The object in the illustration at the beginning is the top half of a golden comb found at Solocha, on the Dnieper. Probably of Greek manufacture, and dated 4th century BCE, it depicts three fighting Scythians wearing scale armor. The original is in the Hermitage Museum.
The decorative bar is from the Celtic Web Art Page.
The Amazons or Oiorpata ("man-killers") described by the Greek historian Herodotus and other classical writers were once thought to be only a myth, but excavations of kurgan burials in Central Asia and Eastern Europe have turned up evidence that women warriors actually existed among the nomadic tribes of the steppes. Not only have women's graves been found which contained weapons just like the men's, but their skeletal remains indicate some of them actually died of wounds received in battle. In addition to being warriors, some of these women were priestesses as well, and were buried with altars and other cult-related objects, including amulets.
This story was inspired in part by an article published in the January-February 1997 issue of Archaeology Magazine, entitled "Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes" by Jeannine Kimball-Davis, describing finds made at Pokrovka on the Kazahk steppes. In my story, I anticipated a bit by having Darius find "an article" in the Spring of 1993, several years before the real article was published, but the excavations at Pokrovka were actually going on during this time. (A summary of the "real" article can be found here) The work continues at Pokrovka, and more information about it can be found at the Center for the Study of the Eurasian Nomads (CSEN) website, and in this report. Here you can find a map, photos of warrior-priestess graves, other graves, and their contents. An amulet found in one woman's grave contained a bronze arrow point, and another grave (male) contained a gold rosette. These inspired the amulets of Darius and Samara in the story.
The Pokrovka warrior-priestess burials are actually Sarmatian, not Saka, and date back to the 4th century BCE (Early Sarmatian Period) while the kurgan burial in my story occurs during the 1st century CE (Middle Sarmatian Period), so the burial practices and grave goods I describe differ in some respects from what was customary for that period and place. Women warriors did exist among the Saka—in the 4th century BCE Greek historian Ctesias wrote in his Persicha that Saka women fought alongside the men. While most of what I put into my story was based on historical or archaeological references, I fudged on some things, and made up some details where I deemed it necessary for the sake of the story. (For instance, I put my own spin on what Herodotus wrote about nomad marriage customs. I also chose to give Samara a Scythian funeral journey, just because I liked it. I took the view that Ahasuerus' tribe might have been somewhat "unique" simply because they had an old Immortal with an eclectic background for a leader).
Horse-Archers of the Steppes
Horse-riding was believed to have been developed on the Central Asian steppes around the middle of the 2nd millenium BCE, and gave the nomadic peoples of this region a military advantage that enabled them to overrun and defeat more sedentary, agrarian societies. Their primary weapon was a powerful compound reflex bow, and for that reason, the ancients referred to them as "horse-archers" The history of these nomads is one of multiple waves of migrations over many centuries moving westward across the steppes and into Europe—Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Saka, and Huns are some of the names we know them by. Most (except for the Huns, who were a Turkic people) were of Indo-European stock, spoke Iranian languages, and were related to each other and to the ancient Medes, Persians, and Parthians of the Middle East. They all had similar lifestyles, religion, dress, and methods of warfare.
What we know of them comes from ancient historians such as Herodotus, Ctesias, Strabo, and Ammianus Marcellinus, and from archaeological finds. Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE, gives many details about their customs and lists the names of their tribes and their locations, but refers to them generally as Scythians, and says they lived both in Europe and Asia. He goes on to say that the Achaemenid Persians refer to all Scythians as Sacae (Saka). Modern historians use the term Saka to mean the Scythian tribes who lived east of the Caspian Sea and and in what is now Turkmenistan. The late V. I. Abayev, an actual descendant of the Saka, defines the word Saka as "stag", and certainly the stag was a frequently-used motif in the nomads' animal-style art, along with wild felines. Massagetae, another name mentioned by ancient authors, is thought to be a collective term for a large group of Saka tribes, and historian Burchard Brentjes interprets it to mean "Great Horde of the Saka". (Queen Tomyris of the Massagetae is said to have defeated Cyrus I of Persia in 530 BCE. After the battle, she found his dead body on the battlefield, and shoved his head into a bucket of blood in revenge for the death of her son).
The Saka were driven out of their lands in the 2nd century BCE by the Yueh Chih. Some of them moved into Northern India and founded kingdoms there. Others moved southwest into the northeastern part of Persia and founded the Parthian Empire. Still others may have been absorbed into the Sarmatian tribes of the Central Asian steppes. Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus claimed that the Saka tribes collectively known as the Massagetae were same as the Sarmatian peoples he knew as the Halani (Alans), who were living northeast of the Black Sea in the 4th century CE, and says that they had absorbed other tribes along the way there. (Ammianus also tells us that the Alans, like the Scythians in Herodotus' Histories worshipped a sword stuck into the ground).The Southern Ural steppes lie just to the northwest of the lands where Herodotus said the Massagetae once lived, so it could be possible that some of the Saka may have moved there. Some archaeologists believe that nomadic tribes regularly migrated between the Amu Darya/Syr Darya region and the Southern Ural steppes, changing their grazing lands with the seasons.
For the purposes of my story, I have imagined a fictional tribe of Saka, perhaps a remnant of the Massagetae or the tribes who went to Parthia, who had as their leader an Immortal called Ahasuerus the Parthian. The tribe lived on the Southern Ural steppes during the summer and migrated southeast to the Amu Darya region for the winter. They would probably have been regarded as Sarmatians by the first century CE when my story takes place, but Ahasuerus, because of his origins in Achaemenid Persia, would have called them by the old Persian name and in deference to him, so do I. And one day in 70 CE, he and his Saka warband happened to stumble across a group of Buddhist monks travelling north along the Amu Darya, among them a pre-Immortal named Darius…
Ahasuerus the Parthian
Darius' first teacher is listed in the Watcher CD, but his origins are not explained. I have taken the liberty of providing him with a background and personality. In the Old Testament there is a famous King Ahasuerus who took to wife a beautiful Israelite named Esther. Hearing of a plot against the Israelites, she saved her people by appearing univited in the King's presence to plead for them, although this action could have easily meant her death. Ahasuerus is thought by Biblical scholars to have been Xerxes I, son of Darius the Great, both of the Achaemenid Dynasty of Persia. Xerxes (Old Persian, Khshayarshah, meaning "hero among kings") came to the throne at age 35 and ruled from 486-465 BC. He and his eldest son Darius were murdered at the instigation of Artabanus, the commander of the palace guard, and a younger son, Artaxerxes, followed him on the throne. It seemed plausible to me that if Xerxes I were an Immortal, he could have ended up in Parthia after his First Death, since Parthia was part of the Persian Empire, and might have used his "other" name Ahasuerus. Parthia would also have been a perfect place for him to come into contact with the nomadic Saka tribes who frequently attacked along its borders. As for his personality, Herodotus' Histories gives the impression that Xerxes I was arrogant, headstrong, temperamental, and governed by passion. He could be generous, affable and good-humored one minute and cruel and unreasonable the next. He often had people killed on a whim, and he seems to have been self-centered to the extreme, and cared little for the feelings of others, even members of his own family. One story Herodotus tells about him says that he tried to seduce his brother's wife, and being unsuccessful, he then arranged a marriage between his son Darius and his brother's daughter, hoping to get close to the girl's mother. After the wedding, he became attracted to the daughter-in-law, and had an affair with her. His wife found out, blamed the girl's mother, and had her horribly mutilated. Xerxes' brother tried to flee to Bactria to start a revolt, but Xerxes had him killed before he got there. My characterization of Xerxes/Ahasuerus assumes that while he might have grown more subtle over the centuries, his selfishness, arrogance, cruelty, and volatile temper would continue to manifest themselves. As a powerful mortal ruler, he no doubt considered himself superior to lesser men, and I figured this sense of superiority and need to control others would carry over into his life as an Immortal.
Koumiss (kumiss, comos, kumys, qimiz) is an alcoholic drink made from fermented mare's milk by the nomadic tribes of the steppes. It is still made in parts of Russia, Turkey, and Asia today. Full of vitamins, minerals, and healthful bacteria, it is supposed to improve the digestion and benefit the nervous system. More importantly for the steppe tribes of old, it provided valuable nutrients otherwise lacking in their mostly meat and milk diets.
The fermenting agent for the sour milk drink is lactobacillis, although some modern recipes use yeasts and call for additional sugar. Agitation or churning of the fermenting milk is very important in the making of koumiss, as it is for buttermilk. The nomads made koumiss in skin bags which were hung by the doors of the tents so that people going in and out would shake the bag in passing through. There are also descriptions of the bags being beaten with sticks. Koumiss-making paraphernalia such as specially designed beaters and vessels have been found in the kurgan graves of Sarmatian and Saka priestesses, so the making of koumiss seems to have had ritual importance. Ceremonies which involve the sprinkling of mare's milk and koumiss as libation offerings were practiced by many nomadic cultures.
Opinions about the taste of koumiss vary. It is described as acrid, acidic, and vinegar-like, but the general consensus is that once you get used to it, it is very good, and good for you. William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar (like Darius!) was sent by the Pope on a mission to the Mongols in 1253, and his first taste of koumiss was quite a shock to his system: "…On swallowing it I broke out in a sweat all over from alarm and surprise, since I had never drunk it before…" By the time he left for home, he was quite fond of it and relates: "But for all that I found it very palatable, as indeed it is." He spoke of its intoxicating qualities and its ability to provoke urine. He also describes a type of clear, refined koumiss (called "black" comos or caracomos, as opposed to the white kind which still had milk solids suspended in it). Caracomos was made for the consumption of the nobility, had a higher alcohol content, and was sweet rather than sour in taste.
For more information and recipes for koumiss, try these links:
The word is derived from the Greek "cataphractoi", meaning "covered over". This form of "shock" cavalry, in which horse and rider both wore scale armor that covered most of their bodies, originated in the Near East, and was also known and used by the steppe nomads. The Parthians, in particular, used cataphracts to defend their empire from the ravages of other nomads and in their struggles against the Roman Empire. Ahasuerus, being from Parthia, would have been quite familiar with cataphracts, and it seemed likely that he would have a heavy cavalry unit in his own warband. Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Halani (Alans) using such heavy cavalry in the 4th century against the Romans at Adrianople. The Romans soon developed their own armored cavalry after finding out firsthand while fighting the Parthians and Alans how effective it could be.
Brentjes, Burchard. Arms of the Sakas. Varanasi, India: Rishi Publications, 1996.
Cernenko, E. V. The Scythians--700-300 B.C. (Men-at-Arms Series, 137). London: Osprey, 1983.
Davis-Kimball, Jeannine. "Warrior Women of the Eurasian Steppes", Archaeology, Jan.-Feb. 1997, pp.44-48.
Herodotus. The Histories. New edition, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. London; New York: Penguin, 1996.
Nomads of the Eurasian Steppes in the Early Iron Age. Edited by Jeannine Davis-Kimball, Vladimir A. Bashilov, and Leonid T. Yablonski. Berkeley: Zinat Press, 1995.
Phillips, E. D. The Royal Hordes: Nomad Peoples of the Steppes. London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.
Rolle, Renate. The World of the Scythians. London: Batsford, 1989.
Rubruck, William, Friar. The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck: His Journey to the Court of the Great Khan Mongke 1254-1255. Translated by Peter Jackson. London: Hakluyt Society, 1990.
Sulimerski, Tadeusz. The Sarmatians. New York: Praeger, 1970.
Wilcox, Peter. Parthians and Sassanid Persians. (Men-at-Arms Series, 175). London: Osprey, 1986.
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(This page last updated 02/28/2002)