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Religious Interactions between Olbia and

Scythia
A. S. RUSYAYEVA
THE PURPOSE OF THIS CHAPTER is not the complete reconstruction of
religious interactions between the Greeks of Olbia and the population
of Scythia. Its aim, rather, is an overview of its key aspects (in so far as
current knowledge permits) as embodied in interpretations of different
sources from the late archaic and classical periods. On that basis, we may
proceed to consider in more detail the various issues of this complex and
neglected topic.
Throughout we must be cautious about comparisons. Religious inter-
actions between Greeks and non-Greeks in the Cimmerian Bosporus
have been studied more intensively than in Olbia and its environs, from
different perspectives and with different methodologies.
1
However, we
cannot extrapolate from one to the other, for the situation in Olbia makes
comparisons uncertain. Unlike the Bosporus, the territory of Olbia and
its environs was not permanently settled or visited by various non-Greek
peoples, such as might permit complex religious interactions. Also in con-
trast with the Bosporus (and even in the fourth century BC at the height
of Pontic Scythia), Olbia did not furnish the Scythian elite with large
quantities of fine classical metalware, decorated with scenes from Greek
and Scythian mythology; in the Bosporus that metalware was a principal
catalyst in the formation of the world-view specific to Scythian culture,
while it was also a basis for the whole ideas of Greek–Scythian syn-
cretism, both in art and in religious belief. M. I. Rostovtzeff long since
observed that ‘in the hands of Greek artists an iconic Iranian religion
(sc. of the Scythians) was populated with the images of gods composed
by Greek artists and undoubtedly accepted by Scythian believers’.
2
His
1
Yemets 2002, 26–165 surveys the literature.
2
Rostovtzeff 1922, 108.
Proceedings of the British Academy 142, 93–102. © The British Academy 2007.
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94 A. S. Rusyayeva
views and the general tendency to make much of the ‘gold’ of Scythia,
with its rich tumuli, have had an enormous influence on the subsequent
development of conceptions of Greco-Scythian religious syncretism. It is
held that in the process of the mutual influences of the two religious or
mythological systems of the north Pontic Greeks, on the one hand, and
of the Scythian nomads, on the other, there arose specific cults and cult
practices.
3
But where is Olbia here? In all this general discussion, founded on
hypothetical extrapolations and intensive debates about Greco-Scythian
religious interactions (especially in the Bosporus), Olbia has not been
accorded close attention and remains in essence substantially neglected.
Nevertheless, it is possible in various ways to review some of our knowl-
edge with a broad perspective. And the first point to be stressed is that
almost all our data come from a period earlier than that in which the
aforementioned metalware was produced, which further obstructs extra-
polation and comparison. Meanwhile, we must be clear that ‘Scythia’ was
reckoned by the Olbiopolitans (as by other Greeks, notably Herodotus)
not as a single state but as a vast geographical area, within which lived not
only a range of non-Greek peoples, but also the Greeks themselves. In the
seventh to fifth centuries BC agriculturalist and pastoralist peoples of the
wooded steppe were especially important, for with them the Greeks of
Berezan and Olbia, above all, established unhindered, close contacts.
4
Subsequently, the nomads who had come from the east, having seized the
steppe expanses of what is now Ukraine (specifically the central part of
pastoralist Scythia) made their greatest impact here in the later fifth and
fourth centuries.
However, these and other non-Greeks were at quite a different stage
of development (politically, socially, economically, and culturally) from
the Greeks, not least in the development of their religion. Accordingly
when trade relations were established, from colonization onwards, there
was no sudden surge, from either side, for the assumption of the others’
cults or the rites associated with them. So much is readily explicable: each
people, of course, was committed to its traditional practices, especially in
matters of religion. In that regard, we must observe Herodotus’ statement
that the Scythians energetically avoid foreign usages, and especially those
3
See in detail Grakov 1950, 7–18; Artamonov 1961, 57–87; Blavatskiy 1964, 26–35; Rayevskiy
1977; 1980, 49–71; 1985; Bessonova 1983, 10–24, 37–55; Lelekov & Rayevskiy 1988, 215–26;
Shaub 1998, 67–74; 1999, 207–23.
4
See in detail Rusyayeva 1999, 84–97.
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of the Greeks (Hdt. 4.76). That was very probably the Greeks’ general
perception. Meanwhile, the ‘invisible’ Scythian gods (who lacked an
anthropomorphic form) were distinctly unlike the humanized and ideal-
ized Greek images of gods. This and the Scythian lack of myths (as far as
we know) constituted a principal obstacle to syncretism or osmosis.
Nevertheless, our sources seem to suggest that, in the foundation and for-
mation of the settlements on Berezan and at Olbia, the Greeks deliber-
ately produced a kind of cult propaganda for their own deities and heroes
in order to establish rights over the land on which they had settled and
over the lands around, together with the non-Greeks who dwelt in them.
Heracles and Achilles were the key mythical figures in this regard,
connected especially with the region of Olbia.
Herodotus’ second origin story of the Scythians gives particular
insight into Olbian ideological strategies (Hdt. 4.8–10). This story has
been interpreted in very many ways. Specialists in Scythian studies focus
particularly upon its implications for Scythian ideology, wherein Heracles
is identified with Targitaos.
5
However, many classical scholars consider
the story to be Greek in origin.
6
Comparative analysis of the story with
other accounts of Heracles’ tenth labour (variously situated in the world
of archaic colonization, complete with archaeology and epigraphy) leads
to the conclusion that it was created in the earliest phase of Ionian colon-
ization in the lower Bug region in the seventh century BC. Heracles was
made a divine colonizer and civilizer of the three peoples of the area and
even the progenitor of their eponymous ancestors.
In broad terms, the story is to be located within a larger set of myths,
which were notably popular among Greek colonists, linked especially
with Heracles’ tenth labour. This story is profoundly symbolic, embracing
in generalized terms symbols of the Scythian land and its ethnic markers:
these range from the symbolic meaning of the bow to the common ances-
tor, Scythes. And here too we find striking expression of the outlook of
the colonists of the lower Bug, who encountered at first three principal
peoples—the Agathyrsi, the Geloni, and the Scythians.
The story of Heracles’ encounter with Echidna (a local snake-woman,
dwelling in Hylaea on the lower Dnieper, who bore the hero three sons
and eponyms) is a developed mythological narrative. Here we find a clear
reflection of the process by which the myth extended: it reflects initial
empirical knowledge of the natural conditions of the region and the
RELIGIOUS INTERACTIONS BETWEEN OLBIA AND SCYTHIA 95
5
See Dovatur et al. 1982; Rayevskiy 1985, 17–19; Bessonova 1983, 10–24.
6
Rusyayeva 1990, 49–53, 1991a; 1992, 8–13; Koshelenko 1999, 149–50.
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96 A. S. Rusyayeva
various ethnic groupings which inhabited the lands known to the Greek
settlers. Most important, however, is the essential opposition of Greeks
and non-Greeks as represented by the two central figures, Heracles and
Echidna. For Echidna, while mistress of her land and a mother, is never-
theless inferior to the representative of Greek culture and not only in mat-
ters of appearance. For she herself decides nothing: she merely follows
Heracles’ advice and instructions.
At the same time, the two figures also constitute two different aspects
of ancient Greek religion, the chthonic and the Olympian. For, while
Echidna is a cave-dwelling creature, Heracles is a great hero and the off-
spring of Zeus. Thanks to the sun-chariot of Helios which Heracles used
to complete some of his labours, he rises to the deities of the world above.
A similar force resides also in the bow which Apollo gave him.
Meanwhile, wisdom forms a substantial part of the story. The hero is not
only a man of action but also the dispenser of wise advice as to what
should be done to bring about the future history of this land: the ruler
must be the cleverest, the most adept and strong, that is in essence
Heracles’ counterpart. Even the bow which Heracles left in the cave to
test his sons carries a special symbolism, not only of prosperity and wis-
dom but even of life itself.
7
Moreover, the story also reflects a positive
relationship with the non-Greeks through the conclusion of the sacred
marriage between the Greek hero and the local snake-woman, which
could serve as an archetype for mixed marriages between Greeks and
Scythians (at least at elite level) and also a closer interaction more
generally between their separate deities and figures.
The colonists of the lower Bug knew very well the structure of
mythology and theogony with the whole gamut of the supernatural,
presided over by the Olympian deities under the authority of Zeus. His
rule can be inferred from the story of Targitaos, founder of the Scoloti
(Hdt. 4.5), as well as through Heracles and his three eponymous sons: evi-
dently, at the beginning of Greek settlement in the region, Zeus consti-
tuted a cosmic force as ruler and father of all peoples and gods all over
the world, including Scythia. Such a conception of Zeus can only have
facilitated the peaceful coexistence (if not the unification) of the Greeks
and local confederations of the whole area.
According to a single inscription around the middle of the sixth cen-
tury BC (known as the ‘priest’s letter’), the Greeks built three shrines on
7
See in detail Rusyayeva 1992, 8–13.
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the lower Dnieper, for the Mother of the Gods, for Heracles, and for
Borysthenes; the altars here were destroyed, while one of the priests was
apparently suffering from food shortage.
8
However, the Olbiopolitans’
religious actions here were designed probably not to proselytize among
Scythians, but for the ritual defence of the community’s boundaries at a
time when pastoralist Scythians were based primarily in the north
Caucasian foreland and around Kuban.
9
The negative and hostile attitude of Scythians towards Greek deities
in the sixth and fifth centuries is confirmed not only by the destruction of
these altars in Hylaea, but also in the story of Scythian Anacharsis and
the cult of the Mother of the Gods at much the same time in much the
same area (Hdt. 4.76). For Herodotus’ vignette about this wise man tells
how he was returning from Greece to Scythia when he saw the festival of
the Great Mother at Cyzicus. It made such an impression on him that,
once home, he made offerings to her and conducted her worship in the
Greek fashion. In consequence he was killed by his brother. A no less bru-
tal tale is also told of the Scythian King Scyles c.475–450. Scyles married
an Olbiopolitan woman, adopted a Greek lifestyle, and sacrificed to the
gods in the Greek manner. He adopted the cult of Dionysus-Bacchus and
was initiated into his dancing rites in Olbia (Hdt. 4.78–80).
These historical vignettes in Herodotus’ Histories confirm as clearly as
possible that in the early period of Greco-Scythian relations, the Greeks
did not prevent Scythians from adopting and worshipping the Greek
gods. On the contrary, it was the Scythians themselves who took punitive
measures against those Scythians who adopted foreign practices (Hdt.
4.80). Further, it was only in the later fourth century—and then from the
Bosporus, not from Olbia—that gold and silver artefacts flowed into
steppe Scythia with depictions very often of various Greek gods and
heroes (including Heracles), so that it was probably then that the Scythian
elite (at least) became familiar with and accepted anthropomorphic
images from Greek mythology. However, this is all very late in Scythian
history, so that we should hesitate to make great inferences from this lux-
ury metalware about the Scythian adoption of Greek cults or syncretism.
All the more so since these luxury items were current only among the elite
and not the population in general. Therefore, Rayevskiy is probably right
to argue that the images of Achilles and Heracles found in Scythia are
RELIGIOUS INTERACTIONS BETWEEN OLBIA AND SCYTHIA 97
8
Rusyayeva & Yu. G. Vinogradov 1991.
9
Murzin 1984, 11–47, 99–100.
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98 A. S. Rusyayeva
not evidence of Greek cult adopted by the Scythians, or of religious
syncretism.
10
Meanwhile, the story of Heracles and Echidna did not inspire a local
cult of the hero at Olbia similar to that of Achilles, who was the great pro-
tector of the community by the Roman imperial period, with the title
Pontarches. We have only the image of Heracles drawing his bow (com-
plete with his lion’s skin) on rare silver coins minted in Olbia c.450–425
with the legend EMINAKO. These coins have sparked lively discussion.
One interpretation takes the coins to show the dependence of Olbia upon
the Scythians; on this view, iconography shows a key scene from the
Heracles origin story, with the hero showing how his bow is to be drawn,
while Eminakos is taken to be a Scythian king.
11
Another interpretation
takes the image of Heracles to be purely Greek, showing the hero with his
usual attributes, while Eminakos is an Olbian.
12
From time to time some scholars argue that idiosyncrasies of the cult
of Achilles at Olbia emerge from the amalgamation of his Greek identity
with a local divinity, variously regarded as Cimmerian, Thracian, or
Scythian.
13
However, such arguments neglect the fact that his earliest cult
sites in the north-west Black Sea (including Olbia), both in the colonial
and the pre-colonial periods, were in a region where there were no resi-
dent local peoples. Sometimes it is also suggested that Achilles was some-
how identified with a snake worshipped by Scythians: this snake (it is
claimed) and not Heracles was associated with the mythical snake-
woman of Hylaea and, consequently, was the father of the three
eponyms, or was her brother.
14
We do have some indirect evidence that in the early period Olbia’s
Greeks propagandized the cult of Apollo among the local population.
Quite explicit in this regard are the myths which refer to Apollo’s links
with the northern edge of the world, including the Hyperborean gifts to
the god’s cult on Delos and the peaceful Apolline arrow linked with
another figure of the north, Abaris (Hdt. 4.32–6). Moreover, it is well
known that the first ‘coined’ money here (in the form of an arrowhead)
was also the particular votive in the cult of Apollo the Healer at Olbia
10
Rayevskiy 1980, 67–71.
11
Karyshkovskiy 1960, 179–82; 1984, 78–89; Rayevskiy 1977, 168–71; Yu. G. Vinogradov 1989,
93–4.
12
Rusyayeva 1979, 141–2; 1992, 124–6; Anokhin 1989, 15–16; Kryzhitskiy et al. 1999, 152–3.
13
For literature, see Rusyayeva 1990, 49–61; Yemets 2002, 64–9.
14
Cf. in detail Rusyayeva 1990, 49; Okhotnikov & Ostroverkhov 1993, 80, 91–2; Zakharova and
Moleva 1999, 45–54.
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and in the west Pontic cities.
15
Its use in areas inhabited by peoples who
had arrows as a matter of course can hardly be a matter of chance.
T. M. Kuznetsova, after studying all the bronze mirrors found across
Eurasia, came to the interesting conclusion that a specific type of pan-
shaped mirror of the sixth century BC was introduced in the Black Sea
region by the agency of two centres of Apolline cult (Delphi and Didyma)
at the time of Greek colonization.
16
On her view, discoveries of these mir-
rors show not so much trade routes from Olbia to the north (to the Volga
region, the Urals, etc.), but ‘sacred routes’ to the lands of the Argippei
and Issedones of Herodotus’ Histories (Hdt. 4.24–5), routes by which the
cults of Apollo and Dionysus spread north into the country of the
mythical Hyperboreans. However, there is no evidence for this whole
conception, save for the animal figures which appear on the handles of
mirrors (lions and rams), which are linked with the rituals and meaning
of the cults of those gods in Greek shrines, perhaps located in these
distant parts of the inhabited world.
With regard to the possible penetration of the cult of Apollo from
Olbia to the peoples of the wooded steppe, there is an important (and iso-
lated) graffito on a red-figure kylix made early in the fifth century, which
was found in a Scythian tumulus near the village of Zhurovka (Figure
12). It reads: ‘shared (cup) of Delphinios and Healer’.
17
Of particular
interest in this inscription is the fact that both forms of Apollo appear
linked closely together, which is particularly characteristic of Apolline
religion in Olbia.
18
However, we can only speculate on the manner in
which this vessel came to be deposited in the tumulus at a great distance
from Olbia and whether the graffito was scratched upon it in a local con-
text around Zhurovka. We cannot exclude the possibility, for example,
that representatives of non-Greek peoples of the wooded steppe had
RELIGIOUS INTERACTIONS BETWEEN OLBIA AND SCYTHIA 99
15
Rusyayeva 1992, 31 with further bibliography.
16
Kuznetsova 1991, 66–91, 96–7.
17
See further Onayko 1966, 61, no. 164, pl. 8; Yu. G. Vinogradov & Rusyayeva 1980, 31.
18
Rusyayeva 1992, 29–55.
Figure 12. Graffito from Zhurovka, mentioning Delphinios and Healer (Ietros).
Drawing A. S. Rusyayeva.
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100 A. S. Rusyayeva
spent time in Olbia, while the colonists made marriages with women of
local elites in Scythia. For example, the man buried at Zhurovka may have
lived in Olbia and adopted the cult of Apollo in its two forms.
Evidently the introduction of the cult of Apollo Boreas at Olbia was
also linked with the travels of its citizens to the northern edge of the
world. The earliest extant dedication to this deity is a Clazomenian
amphora of the mid-sixth century, inscribed on its lip, which was found
in the Western Temenos at Olbia where the temple of Apollo the Healer
was situated (Figure 13).
19
On Yu. G. Vinogradov’s interpretation of the
fragmentary inscription, a certain Anaperres, son of Anacharsis, a
Scolotian, dedicated to Apollo Boreas ‘paternal honey’. And Vinogradov
further contends that the dedicator was the son of the famous
Anacharsis, the Scythian wise man, who had given his son a Greek name
and an education in Greek letters.
20
Be that as it may, we cannot take this
discovery as firm textual evidence that a son of Anacharsis dedicated an
amphora of honey in an Olbian temple of Apollo. We have here a hypoth-
esis. However, in so far as Greeks obtained the honey of bees from the
wooded steppe, we may find some indirect confirmation of the suggestion
that Anacharsis belonged to the agriculturalist Scythians, while those
scholars who perceive Scoloti in the first of Herodotus’ origin stories
(Hdt. 4.5–7) may also find some encouragement in the graffito.
In this regard we must also be aware of more than forty flat stone
dishes from the archaic necropolis of Olbia, which were found in the most
wealthy female burials; they seem originally to have been oval or lentoid
in shape.
21
Their function remains unclear. However, their association
with a range of cult objects (especially mirrors, sacral vessels, and terra-
cotta statuettes of different Greek deities), possibly indicating a link
between the deceased and a priestly stratum, shows that these stone
dishes may have been used in particular rituals. Be that as it may, it is
19
Yu. G. Vinogradov & Rusyayeva 2001, 136–7, pl.1.16.3.
20
Yu. G. Vinogradov & Rusyayeva 2001, 141 n.14; Rusyayeva 2001, 86.
21
Skudnova 1988.
Figure 13. Dedication to Apollo on amphora from Clazomenae. Drawing A. S.
Rusyayeva.
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interesting to observe that dishes of the same type were used at the same
time in the burial ritual of the elite or of rich female burials in the wooded
steppe of Scythia, as too were similar dishes on the broad territory inhab-
ited by nomads, including Saurometae and Sacae.
22
Both in Olbia and in
the wooded steppe some of these dishes bear traces of ochre and sulphur,
which has been taken to show them to be tables for domestic purposes,
perhaps used for female adornment. But that kind of interpretation does
not fit well with the relative rarity of these objects, nor with their form
and material. It seems more likely that they had a ritual purpose, perhaps
linked with the cult of fertility, child-bearing, and ritual cleansing.
This burial practice common to the women of the Olbian elite and of
the wooded steppe may be indicative. A specific connection is to be found
here by a broad and intensive study of the objects and related evidence.
However, for the time being, we can say on a priori grounds that there
existed between Olbia (as earlier Berezan) and the inhabitants of the
wooded steppe a relationship which extended well beyond trade alone.
23
The transfer of a burial element, embodied in the stone dishes, may have
come about through the colonists’ marriages to daughters of the elite of
the wooded steppe, who (by virtue of their nobility and wealth) retained
a special position among the women of Olbia. Further, to judge from the
other elements of these burials at Olbia, these women from the wooded
steppe were sufficiently influenced by their husbands and new context in
the city to take up Greek deities, in particular Demeter and the Mother
of the Gods, as well as something of a Greek religious outlook. No doubt
in the enclosed family circle the process of Hellenization proceeded
quickly. Accordingly, when these women from the wooded steppe died
out, so too did the practice of depositing stone dishes in burials.
In addition, Herodotus offers a famous account of the wooden city of
Gelonos, with its celebration of Greek-style religion, including a regular
festival for Dionysus. The Hellenic practices are explained as the result of
Greek settlement in the interior from emporia of the south, so that the
language of the Geloni is a mixture of Greek and the Scythian language
of the Budini among whom the Greeks came to settle (4.108). In my view,
this process of settlement can be dated to around 600–550 BC, when the
Greeks tried to establish a more extensive trade with the local population
or simply to make new lives amongst them. Under the impact of some
extraordinary circumstances (e.g. raids by nomads) Greeks had not only
RELIGIOUS INTERACTIONS BETWEEN OLBIA AND SCYTHIA 101
22
See further Bessonova 1991, 92–3; Rusyayeva 1992, 178–9.
23
See further Rusyayeva 1999, 84–97.
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102 A. S. Rusyayeva
to abandon their emporia but also to move to more secure locations. In
the ancient literary tradition, this is a unique indication of the preserva-
tion of various elements of Greek culture and religion in the midst of
non-Greeks. However, despite the fact that some archaeologists insist on
the identification of Gelonos with the site at Bel’sk,
24
there is a lack of
substantial and convincing evidence for the view. Be that as it may, at
Bel’sk and at other sites of the wooded steppe of Scythia, there have been
found many and various remains linked with ritual and sacred activity.
Remnants of clay altars, sacral pits, archaic handmade figurines, and a
range of votive offerings find parallels in the sanctuaries of Greek deities
of the region of Olbia.
25
Such parallels serve, without question, to
connect the two areas and to show the interactions of the two societies in
religion.
In conclusion, our evidence shows, especially, Greek religious influ-
ence from Olbia upon the religious world of the non-Greeks. The solar
associations of Apollo, together with his other roles (especially as an
archer), were clearly suited to the outlooks of the Scythians, who could
identify him with deities of their own. However, while we can make such
an observation a priori, we must be clear that the great part of the
Scythian population (as also the Thracian) stayed true to their own tra-
ditional cults and beliefs in their own lands. In so far as an interest arose
among them in the deities of the Greek world, that interest was centred
among the local elites. By contrast, in the absence of plausible evidence,
there was no acceptance by the citizens of Olbia of any features at all of
the religious practices and beliefs of the agriculturalist or nomadic
Scythians, apart perhaps from the burials of women who had been
brought from the north.
24
Shramko 1987.
25
See further Rusyayeva 1999, 93–6 with bibliography.
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